Digital distribution is continuing to grow in leaps and bounds, with NPD numbers showing that "full game digital downloads" in 2009 were almost on par with regular retail purchases.
That the future is digital has never really been in doubt. What has been debated is how long it would take for digital distribution to achieve something close to equal footing with retail as a distribution channel. Services like Steam and Direct2Drive have huge followings but the general feeling seemed to be that, in the foreseeable future at least, retail would remain king.
But the NPD Group's "PC Games Digital Downloads: Analyst Report" for 2009 suggests that things may be happening more quickly than anyone expected. Over the course of the past calendar year, the number of games purchased via digital download almost matched those purchased at retail, 21.3 million "full game digital downloads" versus 23.5 million physical units purchased at retail.
The report divided digital game sellers into two groups: "Frontline digital retailers," which focus on mainstream titles that are also sold at retail, and "Casual digital retailers," which lean more toward "smaller, easily accessible games" that often make use of trial periods or advertiser-based models. Based on unit percentage share, the top five digital sellers in each category are as follows:
Top 5 Frontline Digital Retailers
Top 5 Casual Digital Retailers
The natural assumption is that the continued growth of the casual market would drive the increase in digital sales, but the NPD said that frontline retailers actually increased their share of the market "at the expense of the Casual Digital Retailers." Casual retailers are being hit by the increasing number of free casual games available through social networks like Facebook, according to the report, because their typical customers are far more likely to be attracted to offerings like FarmVille or Mafia Wars than core gamers.
"The popularity of social network gaming increased from Q3'09 to Q4'09 as 4.8 million more people played games on a social network in the U.S.," said NPD analyst Anita Frazier. "This demonstrates how consumers can now experience casual types of games through myriad vehicles, broadening the competitive landscape."
It's no great secret that I prefer physical copies of games to digital. I like boxes and manuals and discs and something I can put on a shelf and gaze at lovingly in the months and years to come. A lot of other people apparently feel the same way. But the times, they are a-changin', and not even I can deny that 2017 may very well get here a lot quicker than anyone expected.