The numbers game

[This post also published as a letter in the Guardian, Wednesday 31st March 2010] I have nothing against games or the games industry but I can’t abide commentators playing fast and loose with box office statistics to reinforce an otherwise valid point – that games are big, getting bigger and and are a crucial part of the creative economy.  Yesterday’s Guardian Media story on how the games sector is celebrating their Darling tax breaks is a case in point.  Citing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s opening week’s sales of $500m “dwarfing the opening weeks of blockbuster movies such as The Dark Knight ($203.8m) and Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince ($394m)” and the games sales to date of over $1bn, the piece makes the routine but erroneous implication that big games outsell big movies.

In fact this comparison is extremely misleading – today theatrical revenues of movies typically account for less than one-fifth of total earnings and a movie like The Dark Knight (whose theatrical revenues actually stand now at over $1bn) can be expected to gross in excess of $3bn over its lifetime in distribution.  Titanic’s total revenues passed $3.2bn ten years ago in 1999 when its global box office was $1.8bn)

Although focussing on blockbusters such as Titanic or Call of Duty can be misleading it remains the case that theatrical box office, while still the best predictor of overall revenue rank for films, is now a minor part of the overall picture, whereas retail sales of games is by far the largest part of total revenues.  Time then, perhaps, for media journalists to use a more meaningful comparison than the current apples and oranges approach.

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