The NPD Group estimates that over the first six months of 2010, digital unit sales of PC games actually managed to surpass sales of boxed retail copies.
For a market that's been pronounced dead more times than I can count, PC gaming is doing a remarkably good job of hanging on for dear life. It's declining in the face of consoles and it's changing shape in the face of an increasingly connected society, but it just won't seem to go away. The ease and convenience of digital distribution is a big part of that, so it's not terribly surprising that unit sales of games in digital format have apparently pulled past those of boxed releases.
Over the first six months of 2010, the NPD estimates that digital sales in the U.S. hit 11.2 million units, versus 8.2 million unit sales at retail. Steam led the way, to nobody's surprise, with the remainder of the core market divided up between Direct2Drive, WorldofWarcraft.com and Blizzard.com. Big Fish Games brought home the trophy for the casual market.
"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," said NPD analyst Anita Frazier.
Overall, however, unit sales of PC games for the first half of the year were down 14 percent, while revenues dipped 21 percent. "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," Frazier added.
It's worth bearing in mind that the figures for digital sales are only estimates based on "weighted and projected" consumer surveys conducted by the NPD. Both Steam and Blizzard told GamesIndustry that they did not provide sales data to the NPD, while digital distributors Impulse and GamersGate have said in the past that the analyst's estimates "don't tend to have much reflection on reality." And although digital unit sales may in fact be ahead of retail, it's a safe bet that the popularity of Steam sales and cheap digital-only games mean that actual revenues still have a long way to go.