Modern Warfare 2 and Digital Distribution

Modern Warfare 2: 68,026 peak players

In case you somehow missed it, this week saw the release of Modern Warfare 2, a game that has comprehensively smashed every existing release day sales record, and looks set to become one of the best selling titles of all time.

Leaving aside certain issues that came to light in the days and weeks preceding the game’s release, the game’s PC release was marked by a frustrating and peculiar disparity between the release date of the retail and digitally distributed editions of the game. For its retail release, MW2 has been fully integrated with Steamworks, meaning that in order to install and play the game, it is first necessary to install Steam and associate your copy of MW2 with your Steam account, something that worked well on the game’s release date of Nov. 10.

However, copies of MW2 which were purchased directly through Steam (i.e. weren’t ordered from a retail store either in the highstreet or online) failed to unlock on this date, and indeed did not do so until very late on the night of the 11th. The reason for this remains somewhat unclear, but is suspected to be a concession to a retail channel which is greatly afeared that digital distribution will steal all their business.

This hugely frustrated many who ordered the game through Steam unaware of this delay, but it does allow an interesting insight into the strength of digital distribution on PC today.

Steam, as well as every digital retailer known to man, has always been exceptionally reticent to release sales figures for any of the titles sold through their service. However, the Steam website has a stats page which lists the number of people currently playing a particular game, as well as the peak number for the course of the day. The staggered release of the retail and digital editions of MW2, combined with the game’s dependency on Steam, meant that for the first two days this figure represented only the total number of players of the retail edition of the game, whilst today these have also been added to the number of people who purchased the title through Steam.

Whilst I’m afraid I failed to obtain a screenshot at the time, the peak number of players over the course of the day, as observed towards the end of the evening of the 11th, but before the release of the Steam edition was about 33,000. As evidenced in the screenshot above, the corresponding maximum a day later was 68,000; implying that perhaps as many as 50% of all MW2 sales were digital.

Is this figure at all scientific or conclusive? Of course not. But at the same time, it does at least provide a ballpark figure – one which for me at least, proved shockingly high, and perhaps indicative of the rate at which digital distribution is increasing in importance to PC gamers.

It’s interesting to compare this figure to the number of simultaneous players on the XBox 360 edition of the game, which is considerably higher.

Ars Technica have the only well written review that I’ve seen from a PC gamer. I’d recommend reading it.

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