Survey Says Core Gamers Recently Declined — Should We Be Worried?

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Ultima VII /

I was browsing Good Old Games’ catalog the other day and noticed they’ve put up the entire Ultima saga, all re-wrapped and verified to run on modern operating systems, from Windows XP through Windows 7. Madness! (In a crazy-good way.)

I mean everything, too, from Richard Garriott’s first three excursions in Sosaria (pre-Britannia) on the Apple II back in 1981 to the landmark Ultima Underworld duology to Ultima IX: Ascension, the controversial series closer. GOG’s even giving away both of the underappreciated “Worlds of Adventure” Ultima spinoffs — Savage Empire and Martian Dreams — for free.

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I just bought a copy (my fourth or fifth, over the years) of Ultima VII The Complete Edition, and sure enough, it’s all there (well, save for the trinkets and cloth maps), including stuff that wasn’t, like insider design docs with hand-scrawled notes, maps sketches and a how-to “conversation stylebook.”

It’s saying something that a game like last November’s Skyrim — spiritually descended from the Ultima series in terms of its gonzo world-building — sold something like 10 million copies before year’s end. I don’t have current sales figures, but the PC version has been in the top 10 most-played games on Steam (Steam is required to play the PC version) since launch. I’m pretty sure sales of all the games in the Ultima series combined can’t touch Skyrim‘s numbers, to say nothing of the rest of The Elder Scrolls franchise (which began, interestingly enough, the same year Ultima VIII: Pagan came out).

Sprawling open-world epics where you square off against the computer for dozens if not hundreds of hours on end are far from dead, in other words, to say nothing of all the other “core”-profile games making waves recently, from Diablo III to Guild Wars 2.

So I wouldn’t worry too much about this new NPD Group report circulating, which says the total number of gamers in the U.S. is down, or that within that total, the so-called “core gaming” demographic shrank.

Core gamers account for the lion’s share of game industry sales, and they’re hardly an endangered species. Even NPD calls the core-gaming decline-within-the-overall-decline “slight,” and attributes it to the extra-long life cycle of the current consoles and the rise of smartphones and tablets.

“It’s the revenue contribution of the Core Gamer segment that continues to outpace all other segments, and remains vital to the future of the industry,” says NPD analyst Anita Frazier.

That makes sense for the same reason you see movie ticket sales trending down (though only a bit) since the turn of the century, but overall ticket revenue increasing as fewer moviegoers pay more to keep industry profits rising.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II for the Xbox 360 or PS3 runs anywhere from $60 to $80 and ships on a physical disc, where a game like Call of Duty: Zombies HD costs just $5 on the iPad and you can download it by tapping a button. You’ll find more games on Apple’s App Store at this point than all the games released for every game system since games went electronic. Combine “cheap” (or flat-out free) with “gazillions of choices” and put that on devices people are as likely to have on their person as car keys, purses or wallets, and it’s no wonder there’s some core gaming demographic bleed showing up in surveys.

If anything, the question we ought to be asking is “Why isn’t there more?”

According to the report, “Gamer Segmentation 2012: The New Faces of Gamers,” NPD estimates the total number of people that play games in the U.S. is 211.5 million, or about two-thirds of the population, and that’s down by 12 million compared to 2011, or a 5% decline.

NPD broke people into six demographic groups, including “Core Gamers,” “Family + Kid Gamers,” “Light PC Gamers” and “Avid PC Gamers,” of which only “Mobile Gamers” and “Digital Gamers” saw year-on-year increases. Mobile Gamers now rule the roost, says NPD, slightly ahead of Core Gamers, who topped the survey in 2011. Interestingly, the steepest decline was in Family + Kid Gamers, dropping by 17.4 million (I assume NPD means kid-safe games played as a family, which would make sense if that figure roughly correlates with the Wii’s rise in popularity and subsequent decline).

Across all physical game sales (new or used), general gamers say they spent $48 on average, and $16 on average for digital games (PCs, consoles, portables combined). By contrast, core gamers reported spending $65 on average — more than any of the other five segments. And of the 14% of total gamers buying downloadable content — up three points from 2011 — core and digital gamers lead the way, accounting for roughly a quarter each of that figure.

I’m assuming economics drives most of this. Almost no one impulse-buys a $60 game they’re going to play for dozens of hours, but I’ve impulse-bought several $0.99 ones on my smartphone — games I maybe play two or three times a year total. That’s part of the industry’s love affair with $0.99 gaming: consumers reaching into e-wallets for stuff they might only play a few times.

I’m not sure any of this tells us much about where the industry’s headed. Something like Angry Birds that goes for $0.99, for all its publicity and growth, has made a fraction of what a game like Call of Duty: Black Ops or Skyrim can rake in. Rovio reported 2011 revenue of $106.3 million total (and a third of that from merchandising and licensing), where Bethesda had done something like $450 million in sales with Skyrim by the 48-hours-after-launch mark alone.

So maybe the percentiles for the kinds of gamers like me who play stuff like Assassin’s Creed, BioShock and Dark Souls are slightly off. But we’re still the big spenders — the “vital” future of the industry, and that’s good enough for me.

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