Not so long ago, we definitely knew which games had sold the most copies. If you wanted to know how many people bought Splinter Cell vs. Kingdom Hearts in Fall 2002, the numbers were right there (opens in new tab), provided by a market research company called NPD, which pulls its sales data directly from retail stores. Math Magic!
20 years later we still compare games, but we now live in the age of service games, where the biggest games are free to play and the sales numbers don’t tell the whole story. We no longer measure a game’s health in millions of dollars, but in how many millions of people play it.
Except that it’s a lot harder to track down accurate player counts than sales data. There is no NPD report tracking active users in free-to-play games.
There are some websites that claim to know (opens in new tab) how many people play each game, but their methods of estimating player counts are either ambiguous or completely unknown. (One of them, PlayerCounter, challenges the naysayers on its website: “We’re not perfect, but our team does our best in tracking. … If you can program the algo better, perform. Go into ours a day before.” shoes cast shadows.”) For the most part, we rely on the game makers themselves to tell us how many players they have, and the way they go about this 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 trailer for Naraka Bladepoint (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 for any given period of time ever.
That’s the power of lifetime player count: 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 many times does someone have to play to count towards that 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 thinking about playing Sea of Thieves and want to know if there are still many people playing it at the momentRare’s official stats aren’t much help.
Among all gaming platforms, there is only one that shares raw data of concurrent players: Steam. User tracking is a prerequisite to publishing on Steam that even the biggest publishers cannot avoid. Steam’s official stats page shares a live list of the top 100 most played games right now. Third-party websites such as Steam Charts (opens in new tab) Use Steam’s freely available API to compile the data into historical charts. Looking at the Sea of Thieves page, I can see that the community has risen and fallen over the years with normal fluctuations and is still attracting a healthy 17,000 daily concurrent players on Steam – just 0.5% of the stated figure 30 million in total, but still plenty of pirate junk.
At some point in the service game craze, we started treating games like stocks. But any Wall Street analyst or economist would tell you that it’s actually normal for the numbers to go up and down. No game in Steam’s history has consistently added players since its launch. If you wanted to twist the truth, you could say that CS:GO, quite possibly the most played game on Steam over the past decade, has “dropped dramatically” from its 2020 peak of 1.3 million to a meager 586,000 average players this month .
Steam stats are a great way to get a snapshot what PC gamers are currently interested in, but they can paint a misleading picture. When New World 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 pinnacle of every new game in 2021.
After many failures and setbacks in gaming, we have a success. So proud of the team for persistence. Think of setbacks as helpful obstacles that drive learning forward. Whatever your goals, don’t give up no matter how hard it gets. @playnewworld (1/2) https://t.co/LK0VUdCSS9October 1, 2021
Even Amazon itself touted these numbers, with Jeff Bezos celebrating his popularity on twitter (opens in new tab) three days after launch. But the disproportionate number of people waiting to play the game increased New World’s concurrent access, because an unusual number of people kept the game open for hours just to log in. And when those artificially high numbers understandably tumbled, players were quick to point to this data as evidence that bugs and other perceived issues were plaguing New World.
To recap, from Steam itself we receive a stream of public data that is constant but incomplete, masquerading as an accurate picture of a game’s overall health. And from developers we usually get data based on proprietary definitions that cannot be taken at face value.
When we get real, useful numbers from a company, it’s usually because they want to share good news or are legally required to share bad news. In April, Activision announced to investors that while Call of Duty as a whole attracts over 100 million users each month, it actually lost 50 million users over the course of 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 fizzle out over time. At the peak of Fortnite’s popularity in 2018, Epic announced that it reached over 78 million players in a single month (opens in new tab). Sometime after that, Epic stopped being specific and started sharing Lifetime Player Milestones (opens in new tab) like everyone else.
Why the secrecy?
I feel like companies are being wary of their competitors for the same reasons sites like this don’t have live pageview counters for all readers to see. The narrative of whether or not your game is popular is hugely important to keeping players engaged, and developers probably don’t want their own data used against them. Concurrents tell a strong story when you get off to a strong start, but they’re also a compelling factual weapon that fanbases use to make claims or “prove” a game is dying. The same numbers that were once touted at launch become the watermark by which your game is always measured.
We’ve seen an explosion of this reactive behavior on social media, when fans, empowered by data and primed to dive in, present Steam chart numbers out of context to loudly announce a “dead game.” Remember when Apex Legends, one of the greatest games ever, reportedly 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 counts as a leaderboard. If I were at Turtle Rock Studios reading this article about how Left 4 Dead 2 had more Steam players than Back 4 Blood for a period of time (ignoring that the latter runs on three additional platforms not counted by Steam ), I would be pretty upset.
It’s not surprising that companies, especially public ones, only release data when they tell a positive story, but ambiguity only makes it easier for anyone to manipulate data until it fits into a narrative. Before skill-based matchmaking was a standard in shooters, we would scroll server browsers and see exactly how many players were online. For years, even Call of Duty games would tell us how many people were playing each mode so we would know which ones would take longer to queue for. The information was so accessible that it was considered banal.
If other platforms were as accommodating as Steam when it comes to player metrics, comparing B4B and L4D2 Steam numbers would have seemed silly to begin with. Inflated milestone numbers in the tens of millions also probably don’t help set realistic expectations about how large a player base needs to be to be successful.
We would all do well to stop treating gaming like a popularity contest. We shouldn’t need numbers and graphics to validate our positive feelings about a game we already like. After all, it doesn’t take millions (or even hundreds of thousands) to keep a great multiplayer game alive. Take it from someone whose most-played game of 2022, Hunt: Showdown, is played by an average of “only” 12,000 people at any given time.