Fishing in the big pond

You know what time it is? It’s statistics time! Oh yes, it’s business time! Look what I’ve prepared for you:

Popularity of various gaming platforms by units sold

Because of the console wars, the various manufacturers started to publish data about the units sold on a regular basis. Somewhat weird. There is competition in other industries as well but finding actual data on units shipped for cellphones or cars is much more difficult then in the games industry.

Anyway, I took a few minutes to grab some of the numbers and visualize them to better understand what’s going on. The idea is to try to answer the question “How many people can I hope to reach if I choose a specific platform”. So here are some of the findings:

First of all, it’s really funny how the 3 console manufacturers are bragging and competing against each other by comparing how many units they have sold. If you compare their numbers to the amount of Internet-enabled personal computers, the audience for consoles is tiny and the differences between them turn out to be quite insignificant. That’s why one guy can code some simple Flash game in a week or two and reach millions of people without any budget while doing the same on a console takes a fortune, years of work and a huge, talented team.

But obviously, it’s never that simple. See, although there are much less consoles out there, 100% of the people who own a console want to play games on it. If you own a PC, it you CAN play a game on it but you might not be interested in games at all. So somewhere in the huge 900 Million bar for PCs there is a significantly smaller bar of the actual people who you can hope to reach at all when you publish a game. Here is where the problems begin because it is very difficult to define the border between a “potential gamer” and “will never play games at all”.

And there are other considerations still. For example, the huge 900 Million bar will shrink significantly if you filter out the computers that don’t have the specs to run.. say Crisis. All those factors together might shrink the 900 Million bar to a dimension somewhat comparable to the consoles. That’s what some people refer to when they say the PC Platform was dead.

My point is that the strategy to develop games on different platforms needs to be different. Think of reaching users as of fishing. By selecting a platform you choose a pond and the various ponds have different characteristics so the fishing strategy is different. If you go for consoles, your pond is quite small when compared to the personal computers but all the fish in this pond are quite homogeneous when compared to the PC. So by using a bait tailor-made for that specific species of fish, you can hope to reach a high percentage of that small population. In fact, you MUST reach a high percentage because there are not too many fish in that little pond. That’s why it is rather smart to go for a conservative product. After all, this is why people bought the Console in the first place and this is the kind of experience they are looking for. The only exceptions may be the Wii and the DS because they were actually bought by many people with a slightly different kind of experience in mind.

If you go for the PC, going conservative and spec-heavy (read: Crysis or Bioshock) is actually a bad idea because you automatically LIMIT your huge pond to just a small sub-species of fish, which is comparable to the amount fish in the console ponds. It might turn out to go fine but with that kind of bait, you will reach comparable results in the console pond where you don’t have problems with DRM or Compatibility issues. The successful strategy in the personal computer pond is to use the pond’s size to your advantage. You need to understand what kind of fish there are in that huge 900 Million bar and to develop baits for as many of them as possible. This is actually what casual games and flash games are doing right now and they reach a HUGE audience. No wonder the fishermen of the console pond are starting to turn their heads.

The problem with the personal computer strategy is that we don’t quite know what kind of people there are in that huge pond. We don’t who they are, what they would like to play (they don’t know either) and how to reach them. For me, this is where the cutting-edge game design happens. Not where we do yet another Peggle but where we try to develop diffrent kinds of game-like experiences for all those crazy mutant fish in that huge 900 Million Pond. I believe this is healthy for the whole industry because by discovering different kinds of fish as a potential audience for games will result in a more adult, diversified game climate. My upcoming game Illucinated will try just that: it is a very different bait I would like to test in the 900 Million pond to see what kind of fish bites. I posted some of the pictures from Illucinated on Flickr and it seems to work because here is one of the comments I got:

Great location.
I don’t play games but I’d love to see this one.

I love when a plan works.

But going back to the Statistics, there are still some nice details. Look how much more popular the portable consoles are when compared to the stationary ones. Isn’t it strange how the stationary are nevertheless considered more significant? Of course, it might be different at the end of the life-cycle. The PS2 is much more successful then the GBA.

Also funny how the iPhone is considered such an exciting platform. While the end-of-life-cycle estimates put him somewhere where the X-Box 360 and PSP are right now, the only number of the actual units shipped I found are laughably small. It is even worse if you consider that the iPhone pond is much less game-oriented then the console ponds. So you can’t even hope to reach ALL of the 6 Million that already have one. It might get interesting in the future but right now, it’s severely overrated.

Finally, the statistics are not very good. I’m especially unhappy with the numbers for personal computers. They are from Adobe and I seriously doubt their numbers. For example, they say the penetration for the Flash Player 9 is at 96,5% in Europe. I don’t believe it as I had actually know a bunch of people who had problems with not having Flash Player 9 installed. From personal experiences, I would say it is at 50% at best. There is some serious fault in their methodology. On the other hand, it is also ambiguous what they mean with PCs. Does that include Macs? Because the actual number of people having access to the Internet is way higher. According to some sources as high as 1230 Million.

I would also like to develop that statistic further. Maybe even start to break down the fish populations in each pond. So if you have some interesting numbers that could be relevant, please tell me!

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

2 responses to “Fishing in the big pond”

  1. Donbot

    Some comments on your interesting post:

    1. You say “All those factors together might shrink the 900 Million bar to a dimension somewhat comparable to the consoles. That’s what some people refer to when they say the PC Platform was dead”. In my mind the small number is not the main reason for this statement. It’s mainly two things: The first point is the huge problem with piracy that you have on the PC that not only kills PC sells but leads some publishers to not release their games on the PC in the first place to not hurt their console sales.
    The second point is the huge diversity of the PC base. By this i not only mean the huge spectrum of pc hardware that you find and have to support, but the large differences between players (and therefore higher costs for the marketing).

    2. The reason most console games are rather conservative in their design is mostly the associated development costs and the risk of not getting your money back with a more “risky” design/implementation. But there are some smaller/more experimental games on consoles (braid, pixeljunk, last guy) that obviously have a lot lower development cost than your average AAA title and can THEREFORE allow themselves a more experimental design. So the risk in your game design normally is anti proportional to the development costs (and therefore proportional to the financial risk).
    On the consoles you have the additional risk of not getting on the platform in the first place (because the platform-holder doesn’t like your design/game) and the license costs that you have to pay (in advance).
    In my mind its the same on the PC platform, too. Titles with high development costs are normally quite conservative in their design as well (otherwise you simply would net get money for developing the title). So i don’t see a major difference between different platforms here.


  2. Krystian Majewski

    Thanks for your feedback Julien. Concerning the two points you've raised:

    1. Yes, you are right. I did some oversimplification there. But I've also mentioned the DRM problem you pointed out.
    However, I disagree that the diversity is a problem for marketing. The channels of reaching the players of conservative titles are basically the same (gamings sites, magazines, etc.) so from a marketing point of view, there is little difference. In fact, I would even go so far and suspect that most console players also have a PC and vice versa. So the diversity is not a reason why the PC is pronounced dead.

    2. What I did in my article is to think exactly the other way around: why do you have such high development costs in the first place? Well because if somebody paid half a thousand dollars for a PS3 (and three times that much for a descent HDTV), they want to see a game that makes their eyeballs explode.
    Or to be more down to earth: players who bought a console did so because the games that were already out for that console were appealing to them. Those players will want to play more games with similar themes, level of quality and amount of content then they are used to. That's why bringing out Wii Sports on a XBox 360 would be a bad idea (controller issues aside).

    The titles you've mentioned are the downloadable Titles for the X-Box. Yes they are popular but they are also much cheaper so they can get away with more crazy ideas because the "standart" is not well established yet. However, rarely anybody will buy a X-Box because of Braid. And even though those games do differ from the AAA Titles, they are still somewhat conservative. I mean even Braid is at its core a jump & run and you can enjoy it as such without having to understand its intellectual undertone. I believe Penny Arcade made a post about this specific topic just recently.

    It is true that AAA PC Titles are often quite conservative. In such cases they are simply addressing the same crowd a console game would, maybe even going for a cross-platform release. However, here the similarity breaks down. The most successful X-Box 360 game is Halo 3 – not only a conservative shooter but even the second sequel of one! The most successful PC game is Sims – a quite unique and original concept. So my point is: what little people realize is that to be successful on the PC, you need to explore the full spectrum of the audience in your huge 900 Million bar. If it means making flash games (and it probably does) – so be it.


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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