Most theorize that a full transition from packaged goods into digital sales is years away -- but in the PC video game space, unit sales by download have passed brick-and-mortar retail, according to estimations from U.S. analysis firm NPD Group.
In the first six months of 2010, 11.2 million PC games were purchased in the U.S. as full digital downloads versus 8.2 million physical units, says the NPD. Earlier this summer, the U.S. sales tracking firm said that during 2009, digital sales had just about reached parity with physical sales -- the total for last year is 21.3 million digital purchases alongside 23.5 million physical unit buys.
That doesn't mean that digital downloads are making more money, however. According to the NPD, games sold at physical retail have a greater marketshare by dollar revenues: 57 percent versus digital's 43 percent, because of a higher average selling price at retail.
And overall, PC software both digital and physical revenues are down 21 percent alongside a 14 percent drop in unit sales for the period year over year.
Notably, however, the NPD's analysis only provides a partial look at the PC digital space. Its statistics largely capture only sales of full games, and not the subscription or microtransaction revenue that often follows a software purchase in persistent titles, nor does it include revenue from virtual money or goods purchased on social networking platforms.
In addition, the tracking firm appears to lack agreements with the majority of digital retailers. This means that the figures cited are extrapolated from third-party tracking. The firm attempts to divine PC game purchase habits from surveys, using anywhere from 8,000 to 180,000 individuals on the NPD online consumer panel, depending on which of its methods it chooses.
"One major finding from this latest report is that the 'big got bigger' in the first half of 2010, with both Steam and Big Fish capturing a bigger share of full-game PC games digital download sales than they did last year," says NPD analyst Anita Frazier.
In its analysis of the digital sales landscape, the NPD says it divided retailers into two "segments"-- Casual Digital Retailers, which offer "smaller, easily accessible" games that tend to rely on trial-based or ad-supported business models; and "Frontline Digital Retailers", the sort that offer full downloads of the same kinds of PC games that are available on retail shelves.
By these metrics, Steamgames.com is the number one "frontline digital retailer" as of June 2010, based the amount of survey respondents who purchased a PC game or game elements after visiting its website. Direct2Drive is second, followed by EA.com, WorldofWarcraft.com and Blizzard.com.
Bigfishgames.com leads "casual digital retailers" during the same period, followed by Gamehouse.com and iWin.com; EA's Pogo.com is fourth, and Wildtangent.com is fifth.
"The overall decline of PC games when combining sales via both digital downloads and physical retail sales is impacted by the expansion of social network gaming as well as the continued expansion of free game options," says Frazier.