CC BY 2.0 (cropped) via Flickr user J_CMac


The stories on numbers about things that happened last year will stop eventually, honest. Just not today.

Earlier this week, gaming research firm SuperData released its survey of the digital free-to-play games market, a handy companion to NPD’s retail-based report from yesterday. Both highlight gaming trends from December 2013 and the year as a whole.

But you could be forgiven for thinking they’re talking about two completely different industries. And the general sales trends suggest that the two market segments are heading in opposite directions.

In the U.S. alone, SuperData says, the free-to-play digital games market increased 45 percent between 2012 and 2013, to $2.9 billion last year. Mobile, split out separately, also increased 29 percent, from $2.4 to $3.1 billion in sales. Meanwhile, retail software sales in the U.S. (which NPD estimates represents half of the market) dropped 11 percent in 2013, from $7.09 billion to $6.34 billion.

Free-to-play and boxed retail are very different business models, but a look at the top-grossing/selling games from each report suggests that old free-to-play games may soon outpace their newer paid brethren.

Consider: Per NPD, the top-selling retail games in the U.S. in 2013 were a parade of sequels, like Grand Theft Auto V, Call of Duty: Ghosts, and Madden NFL 25. Meanwhile, the worldwide* top-grossing PC titles in SuperData’s report include CrossFire (first released in 2007), League of Legends (2009) and Dungeon Fighter Online (2005).

Over the years, these titles may have received even more updates, big and small, than the long-running series in the retail list. But they’ve done so and maintained strong revenue — about $3 billion among the 10 of them — without requiring players to shell out $60 per year for a new disc.

Gamers will be quick to tell you that some games just work better without downloadable content and microtransactions, and many are happy to shell out that $60 every year if they get a complete, self-contained experience. But the forking of the industry here suggests that by not departing from the traditional retail model, or at least experimenting more with free-to-play, the console guys may be leaving money on the table.

* This is an important distinction between the two data sources, because PC gaming hotbeds like China and South Korea have a strong influence on SuperData’s stats.


The problem with gaming retail data is that we have no data for direct download services such as Steam, Gamersgate, Origin, and GOG. Valve recently announces that Steam has over 75 million active accounts. That is a huge share of the pie, and an enormous industry blind spot (as there is no data for steam sales). Also, anecdotally, I know many gamers (myself included) who buy almost exclusively through digital now, and our numbers are not being heard. For as big as LoL and World of Tanks is, Steam is a order of magnitude greater. 


Forgive me if I'm missing something, but it seems a segment of the gaming space is missing here.

You have "free to play" games, you have boxed retail games. But what about digital retail games? NPD doesn't count those. It doesn't seem like SuperData does either.

It'd be interesting to see f2p vs all retail games, not just the ones sold on plastic discs. It looks like Superdata is tracking DLC, but if I bought GTA digitally on my PS3, that's not getting counted anywhere in these numbers, is it?

Eric Johnson
Eric Johnson

@peter.smith NPD includes console, handheld & PC games bought in retail stores in the U.S., while that SuperData chart covers free-to-play digital games. What is missing is non-free-to-play digital titles, which is what I think you mean by "digital retail"? I didn't break it out in the article, but in the embedded image from SuperData, you'll see DLC for non-F2P console and PC games increased by 10 and 11 percent year over year, respectively. Neither report covered the initial (digital) sale of those non-F2P titles, however.


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