The Difference Between "Shipped" And "Sold" Is Less Relevant Than You Think
Every time a developer or publisher announces that it sold a certain number of copies of a game, it’s very likely that there will be a bored journalist somewhere (especially during a week end) that will think it worthy to write a whole article to specify that it’s not “sold” copies, but just “shipped”. This is, of course, nothing in comparison to what fanboys do on forums, as we all know that fanboys love to play marketing instead of playing games, and will argue endlessly about the comparative success of platforms, accessories and games based on the difference between shipped and sold units.
For the few that don’t know what I’m talking about, “shipped” refers to the units that the publisher delivers to retailers (marketing people refer to it as “Sell-in”), while “sold” is commonly (but not exactly properly) used in gaming discourse to indicate what’s defined in marketing as “Sell-through”, or the number of units that retailers sell to actual customers.
When developers or publishers release data on the sales of their products, nine times (or more) out of ten they are talking about shipped unis, or sell-in.
While the most venomous between us often insinuate that publishers do so to try and augment the perception of success of their products, the real reasons are much more simple and relatively innocent.
First of all developers and publishers have normally no way to know with 100% steel-clad accuracy how many copies sold through the retail chain and reached customers. Many retailers and all the small private shops simply don’t send accurate and timely feedback back to the publisher on how many units were sold and how many are left on the shelves. They have no reason to, so they don’t. It’s impossible to poll the sales of every retailer and shop out there, from Gamestop to your family-owned friendly neighborhood shop.
The most accurate data they get comes from market research companies like NPD, but even that kind of data, as nearly accurate as it may be, is not made of rock-hard numbers. It’s a statistic based on polling only a percentage of retailers and shops and it does have a margin of error. You can add to that the fact that many publishers are publicly traded companies and it’s a very risky legal business for them to give less than precise performance figures.
Publishers release numbers on shipped units simply because that’s the only rock-solid number they have.
There’s a second reason, which is even more determining: publishers release data only on shipped units because as far as they are concerned that’s basically the only relevant number.
When a publisher delivers it’s product to a retailer, the retailer pays the publisher for the product. That’s it. The publisher got it’s revenue, and whether the game/console/accessory finds a home or gets to rot on a shelf, it doesn’t matter. The money is in the bag.
When someone tells you that “shipped” copies of a game aren’t “sold”, he’s falling into the realm of sophistry, as his argument is fallacious at best. The publisher delivers a product to a retailer, and the retailer pays the publisher for that product. That’s for all intents and purposes the very definition of a sale. The fact that the retailer will in turn sell that product again is irrelevant.
In the end, unless you’re for some obscure reason interested in knowing how much Gamestop profits from a certain game, shipped figures are what matters the most, as the revenue they generate is what will (at least partly) be reinvested into creating the future games you’ll play. The revenue for the sale by retailers to customers goes to the retailers themselves, and isn’t reinvested (aside from some rare cases like Valve, that owns a retail structure) in development.
If you want to know how many people are actually playing a game, though luck. Considering the rampart preowned games market and the difficulty of tracking digital distribution it’s basically impossible to have any real data on that, unless the game requires a subscription or constant internet connection.
The only 100% real, steel-clad and reasonably easy to track number we have is that of shipped copies, it tends to be the most relevant one anyway, and that’s why that’s the one we’re given.