There was a time not so long ago when we knew definitively which games sold the most copies. If you wanted to know how many people bought Splinter Cell vs. Kingdom Hearts in the fall of 2002, the numbers were right there (opens in new tab), provided by a market research company called NPD, which gets its sales data directly from retail stores. Mathematical magic!
20 years later we’re still comparing games to each other, but now we live in the age of gaming services, where the biggest games are free to play and sales numbers don’t tell the whole story. We no longer measure the health of a game in millions of dollars, but in how many millions of people play it.
It’s also much harder to track exact player numbers than sales figures. There is no NPD report that tracks active users in free games.
There are some websites that claim to know (opens in new tab) how many people play each game, but their methods of estimating the number of players are either ambiguous or completely unknown. (One of them, PlayerCounter, challenges naysayers on its website: “We’re not perfect, but our team is doing the best they can at tracking. … If you can program the algometer better, step up. Go one day in our place, before throwing shade.”) For the most part, we rely on the game publishers themselves to tell us how many players they have, and the way they do it is inconsistent and confusing.
How to lie with statistics
“Over 30 million players,” Sea of Thieves touted in a recent E3 trailer (opens in new tab). “Join 10 million players,” says a Naraka Bladepoint trailer (opens in new tab) from the same event. This is almost exclusively the language publishers use to describe how popular their game is. You’d be forgiven for thinking that 30 million people play Sea of Thieves regularly, but what developer Rare is actually saying is that over the lifetime of Sea of Thieves, 30 million accounts have played the game over a period of time sometime.
Such is the power of lifetime player numbers: a big number that sounds impressive in a marketing piece. What are fans supposed to do with this information and what does it even mean? How often does someone have to play to count towards those 30 million? Does Rare count my friend who downloaded Sea of Thieves with Game Pass and played for 14 minutes before uninstalling? If I’m considering playing Sea of Thieves and want to know if there are still many people playing it right nowRare’s official stats aren’t very helpful.
Among every gaming platform, there’s only one that shares raw concurrent player data: Steam. User tracking is a prerequisite for publishing on Steam that even the biggest publishers can’t get around. The official Steam Stats page shares a live list of the 100 most played games right now. Third party sites such as Steam Charts (opens in new tab) use the freely available Steam API to compile the data into historical graphs. Checking the Sea of Thieves page, I see that its community has risen and fallen over the years with normal fluctuations, and it still attracts a healthy 17,000 daily concurrent players on Steam – just 0.5% of the stated total of 30 million, but still there are still many pirates robbery.
At some point in the craze for service games, we started treating games like stocks. But any Wall Street analyst or economist would tell you that it’s actually quite normal for the numbers to go up and down. No game in the history of Steam has continuously added players since launch. If you want to twist the truth, you could say that CS:GO, arguably the most played game on Steam for the past decade, has “dropped dramatically” from its peak of 1.3 million in 2020 to a paltry 586,000 average players this year month.
Steam stats are a great way to see a snapshot of what PC gamers are currently interested in, but they can paint a misleading picture. When New World was released, the servers were crowded as tens of thousands had to queue to play. A week after launch, New World made headlines when it peaked at over 900,000 concurrent players (opens in new tab)the highlight of every new game in 2021.
After many failures and setbacks in games we have success. I’m proud of the team for their persistence. View failures as useful obstacles that stimulate learning. Whatever your goals are, don’t give up, no matter how hard it gets. @playnewworld (1/2) https://t.co/LK0VUdCSS9October 1, 2021
Even Amazon itself touts these numbers, with Jeff Bezos celebrating its popularity on Twitter (opens in new tab) three days after launch. But the disproportionately large number of people waiting to play the game inflated New World’s concurrency figure because an unusual number of people kept the game open for hours just to get in. And as those artificially high numbers understandably dropped, players were quick to point to that data as proof that bugs and other supposed issues were affecting the New World.
So to summarize: from Steam itself we get a stream of public data that is constant but incomplete and masquerading as an accurate picture of the overall state of the game. And from the developers we usually get data based on proprietary definitions that cannot be accepted outright.
When we get real, useful numbers from a company, it’s usually because it wants to share good news or is legally required to share bad news. In April, Activision revealed to investors that while Call of Duty overall attracts more than 100 million users each month, it actually lost 50 million users in 2021. (opens in new tab). Last year, Riot (which is 100% owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent) proudly announced that Valorant, its PC-exclusive FPS, had 14 million monthly active players.
We’ve also seen these honest (albeit boastful) user disclosures disappear over time. At the peak of Fortnite’s popularity in 2018, Epic shared that it reached over 78 million players in one month (opens in new tab). At some point after that, Epic stopped being specific and started sharing player stages throughout life (opens in new tab) like everyone else.
Why the secrecy?
I feel like companies are worried about their competitors for the same reasons websites like this don’t have live pageview counters for all readers to see. The narrative of whether or not your game is popular is extremely important to keeping players interested, and developers probably don’t want their own data used against them. Competitors tell a powerful story when you have a strong launch, but they’re also a compelling factual weapon that fans use to make claims or “prove” that a game is dying. The same numbers, once advertised at launch, become the watermark by which your game will always be measured.
We’ve seen an explosion in this reactive behavior on social media, with fans empowered by data and primed to push something, presenting Steam Charts numbers out of context to loudly proclaim “dead game.” Remember when Apex Legends, one of the biggest games around, supposedly died in 2020? Elden Ring, a game you can complete, apparently “lost 90% of its concurrent players” in May.
A more common bad habit is the recent practice of presenting live player count as a leaderboard. If I were Turtle Rock Studios and I was reading this article about how Left 4 Dead 2 had more Steam players than Back 4 Blood over a period of time (ignoring that the latter is on three additional platforms not counted by Steam), I would I’m quite annoyed.
Not surprisingly, companies, especially publicly traded ones, only release data when it tells a favorable story, but the ambiguity only makes it easier for anyone to manipulate the data until it fits a narrative. Before skill-based matchmaking was standard in shooters, we used to scroll through server browsers and see exactly how many players were online. For years, even the Call of Duty games told us how many people were playing individual modes so we knew which ones would take longer to queue for. Information was so readily available that it was considered mundane.
If other platforms were as alert to player metrics as Steam is, comparing B4B and L4D2’s Steam numbers would look silly from the get-go. Blown up key figures in the tens of millions also probably don’t help set realistic expectations for how big the player base needs to be to succeed.
We would all do well to stop treating gaming as a popularity contest. We shouldn’t need numbers and graphics to confirm our positive feelings about a game we already like. After all, it doesn’t take millions (or even hundreds of thousands) to support a great multiplayer game. Take it from someone whose most played game of 2022, Hunt: Showdown, is being played by an average of “only” 12,000 people at any given time.