Does non-linearity actually sell games better? - Try Evidence
  • Home / Blog / Does non-linearity actually sell games better?
You can read this article in 13 minutes

Does non-linearity actually sell games better?

Competition in the industry is thickening. In 2019, 30,000 (!) games were available on the Steam platform, and already over 34,000 in January 2020. About 10,000 new productions debut on Steam each year, which makes for 180 a week. Even if a significant part of the releases are somewhere around the “shovelware” type, they altogether create a powerful cloud of stronger or weaker competition against new titles. Therefore, in such a strongly competitive industry with relatively low barriers to entry, it seems crucial for developers and publishers to identify the factors most closely corelated with the market success potential of the game.

At Try Evidence, we tackled non-linearity, which is one factor that is frequently discussed in the industry. We proposed an original definition of this ambiguous concept, examined the sales of selected linear and non-linear games and – most importantly – checked whether there is a relationship between the linearity / non-linearity of the game and its sales figures.

Non-linearity in games – what does that even mean?

There is no one-size-fits-all definition of non-linearity in games; one that would capture all aspects of this multidimensional concept. The dictionary of gry-online.pl assumes that the linearity of the game is defined by the necessity to take actions in the sequence provided by the creators; failure at any of the stages prevents the further transition in the game. Thus, non-linearity would mean, primarily, that the player does not have to act in the order envisaged by the creators, and failure in the implementation of certain tasks would not block progress. This would have been a sufficient explanation of the concept of non-linearity, were it not for the fact that in this approach, almost all strategy games, some simulators and sports games (and others) not necessarily intuitively associated as non-linear by players, creators and publishers, should be considered non-linear.

At Try Evidence we are convinced that, according to most players, non-linearity is related not so much to the freedom to take further actions in the game, but rather to the structure of the plot, the multiplicity of its branches, and, above all, the variety of story endings depending on the choices made by the player. The linearity dilemmas are most often and mainly considered in games where the plot is precisely designed and has specific endings.

Therefore, for the purposes of the presented below analyses, we believe that non-linear games are: RPG, action RPG, adventure and adventure action games, in which the player can make decisions affecting not only the current course of the game, but also changing the ending of the game.

We recognize the industry’s perception that virtually any video game is non-linear. We also realise that it is quite a challenge to classify sandboxes like GTA, Red Dead Redemption 2, or stealth games like Hitman or Thief, where almost every playthrough can be slightly different. We are also aware that in theory one can say that there is no such thing as a non-linear video game at all – after all, everything in games is programmed (determined). By adopting our working definition, we leave these considerations unresolved, so as not to fall into philosophical dilemmas that can only be matched by the still-unsettled considerations about the existence of free will. After all, for hundreds of years a fraction of scientists believe that human are free to make any and all choices (freedom), and others that those choices are completely determined by independent factors (determinism) – an infinite cause-and-effect chain that defines literally everything. So: the question whether a human (also a player) has free will at all remains without an unequivocal answer both in science and in gaming.

In order to avoid getting stuck in a similar dilemma, we accept a kind of compromise, also present in philosophy: what is in fact most important, is what the player feels. Even though players are always subject to causal laws (game code, programmers’ and writers’ plans), they may feel free to think they could act differently and thus change the world (within the games). In such a compromise, non-linearity and determinism are not contradictory: players do experience the “thrill of free will” in a completely programmed world. This is what happens in games according to our definition of non-linear: games where the player can make decisions that affect not only the actual flow of the game, but also changes the ending of the game.

Our list – which games and why?

Analysis conditions

For the analysis we considered games released on Steam after April 2015, up until the titles which in January 2020 have been on the market for at least a quarter. We divided them into four groups: the best linear / non-linear (Metascore> 85) and the weakest linear / non-linear (Metascore <60). If the game was initially released in Early Access, we omitted the Early Access data, and we assumed that version 1.0 of the game was released on Steam as the release date. We obtained sales data from SteamSpy, and ratings from Metacritic.com.

Non-linear games

This category includes RPG, action RPG, adventure games (including adventure action games), where the player can make decisions affecting not only the current course of the game, but also changing the ending of the game.

Best (Metascore >80)

  1. Grand Theft Auto V
  2. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
  3. Divnity 2: Original Sin
  4. Red Dead Redemption 2
  5. Undertale
  6. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
  7. Resident Evil 2
  8. DUSK
  9. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
  10. Monster Hunter: World

Weakest (Metascore <60)

  1. Vambrace: Cold Soulv
  2. Fade to Silence
  3. Dynasty Warriors 9
  4. The Technomancer
  5. Bohemian Killing
  6. Metal Gear Survive
  7. Grimshade
  8. Shadwen
  9. Back in 1995
  10. Those Who Remain

Linear games

RPG, action RPG, adventure games (including action adventure), not fitting our definitione – so primarily those where the player can simply not care about making decisions which influence the ending of the game.

Best (Metascore >85)

  1. Okami HD
  2. Disco Elysium
  3. Bayonetta
  4. Dark Souls III
  5. Devil May Cry 5
  6. Rez Infinite
  7. What Remains of Edith Finch
  8. Ori and the Will of the Wisps
  9. Cuphead
  10. Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition

Weakest (Metascore <60)

  1. Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3
  2. Subject 13
  3. Cross of the Dutchman
  4. Tartarus
  5. Empathy: Path of Whispers
  6. Cornerstone: The Song of Tyrim
  7. Memoranda
  8. Scrap Garden
  9. Armikrog
  10. Orangeblood

Analysed games in general – sales , average price, average meta

The lowest rating in our list was 48 Those Who Remain, and the highest was 96 Grand Theft Auto V; the average rating – the median – is 74.

The highest sales in the first quarter were recorded in Monster Hunter: World – nearly 5.5 million. copies. The lowest, recorded sales were achieved ex aequo by Back in 1995, Bohemian Killing, Empathy: Path of Whispers, Memoranda, and Scrap Garden. In the first 6 months of its existence on the market Monster Hunter: World also saw the highest sales numbers in the study (over 8 million users), and Back in 1995 was on the opposite end of the spectrum. The median of sales for the entire list is 78.5 thousand copies for the first quarter and 87 thou. Copies for the first 6 months of the game’s availability on the market. Of course, we are aware of the fact that some games in the list sold many times better outside of Steam (e.g. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, GTA V), but for technical methodological reasons we had to adopt only sales that are verifiable on SteamSpy.

The lowest recorded price of any game in the study within the first quarter post-release was $ 8.61, and $ 59.99 the highest. Overall, games sold for on average $ 23.59 in the first quarter and $ 23.20 in the first half of the year.

Non-linear games – sales numbers?

The lowest score of non-linera games in the sample was 48 – Those Who Remain, the highest was 96 for GTA V . The top 7 games with a Metascore of above 90 in our list oare: GTA V, Red Dead Redemption 2, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Divnity 2: Original Sin, Undertale, Resident Evil 2 and MGS V: The Phantom Pain (listed from the highest score descending).

The highest sales number of non-linear games in the first quarter of sales we recorded with Monster Hunter: World. The lowest sales were recorded for both Back in 1995 and Bohemian Killing equally. The median number for non-linear game sales is 142,5k copies for the first quarter of sales and 156,5k copies for the first six months of the games’; being on the market. What is interesting is that the lowest rated game in the sample (Those Who Remain), actually achieved pretty good sales figures. Nearly 100k players placed the game on the 11th place (out of 20) for non-linear games within its first quarter post release.

The lowest recorded non-linear game price within the first quarter post release was $9,99 USD, and $59,99 USD the highest. On average games sold for just over $41 USD in the first quarter, and almost $40 USD in the first six months post release.

Linear games – sales numbers?

The lowest linear games rating was 57 (for ex aequo: Armikrog and Orangeblood), the highest rating was 92 (Okami HD); the average was identical to non-linear games and equaled to 73,5. Linear games with a Metascore of over 90 are: Okami HD, Disco Elysium and Bayonetta (in order of a decreasing score).

The highest sales figure for the first quarter of sales were achieved by Devil May Cry 5. The lowest sales were recorded by equally Empathy: Path of Whispers, Memoranda and Scrap Garden. The median of linear game sales was 40,5k copies within the first quarter, and 84.5 k within the first 6 months. Which amount to almost a half of what non-linear games achieved sales-wise.

The lowest recorded price for a linear game within the first quarter of its sales was $8,61 USD and the highest was $59,10 USD. In general, linear games sold for on average around $19 USD for both the first quarter and the first 6 months of sales.

Does non-linearity actually sell games?

Linear games sold, on average, in much lower numbers than non-linear games, but we did not observe a statistical linear relationship in this range. That is, there was no obvious, straightforward relationship between the linearity / non-linearity of the game and the sales volume (not seen in Steam sales, anyway).

There was no relationship between linearity / non-linearity alone and sales, neither for good games (i.e. Metascore> 85) nor for weak games (i.e. Metascore <60).

So it can be said with certainty that non-linearity by itself does not sell the game. Non-linearity in itself has nothing to do with either high or low sales. However, Metascore certainly has a significant impact on sales results. The correlation between game ratings and sales is evident and strong.

In our game sample the Metascore alone accounted for an average of 25% of the sales volatility of each game on Steam. This is a lot, although the remaining 75% of the variability is explained by other components of marketing and the game itself (with linearity or non-linearity not being significant).

The approximate mathematical models (regression analysis) of our games sample showed that each additional Metascore point increases the sales potential of the game in the first quarter by tens of thousands of copies. Similar (slightly lower) results were obtained in analyzes ten years ago by John Sacranie in a study conducted at Illinois Wesleyan University; this may prove the relative universality of our model.

On average: games with a Metascore above 55 have the chance to sell at least a dozen thousand pieces (regardless of the genre, type of game, setting, etc.). Below the Meta 55, the probability of any sensible sales figures of the game decreases dramatically. Metascore of over 60, while providing the game with marketing support, gives little opportunities to sell over 100k pieces on Steam – but still there are SOME. With ratings of over 90, one can actually dream of selling over a million units in the first quarter.

When we additionally introduced the linearity / non-linearity of the game to the model (to check what its real “strength” on sales is), it turned out that

Metascore together with the linearity / non-linearity accounted for less than 30% of the sales variability of each of the analyzed games.

Even better than in simple correlations, you can see how insignificant the linearity / non-linearity of the game is in the context of its sales (on Steam, in the first quarter of its existence on the market).

Excluding Metascore and (non)linearity – what is associated with game sales figures?

Since Metascore along with linearity / non-linearity explain “only” 30% of sales volatility, what factors explain the remaining 70%? For developers and publishers it may sound like a cliché, but given the importance of other factors, it is worth recalling them.

Different authors consider different factors of sales success to be key. We believe that an almost full set of possible factors was presented in 2010 study by Henri Lindgren, a longtime producer at Nitro Games and now CEO of Lightneer, a mobile game company. He distinguished variables such as:

  • price
  • developer,
  • genre,
  • graphics (and audio),
  • possibility to play the demo,
  • rating (which we described above),
  • popularity and experiences with the previous installments of the series (if applicable),
  • posts and opinions of players on forums,
  • re-playability value,
  • rating ESRB/PEGI
  • advertisements and all promotional materials,
  • friends’ recommendations (WOMM),
  • theme / setting,
  • publisher – their efficiency and reputation

We present the factors in alphabetical order, because there is no clear data showing which of them is more or less important for the final sale figures of the game. Lindgren also wrote that the industry belief in the extreme importance of media assessments for sales is a myth (which in the context of our analyses above is indeed debatable). In addition, he cited the results of the EEDAR research, which showed that the marketing budget affects the sales of the game three times more than the media ratings.

In addition, a very important factor – indicated by some authors, and indeed extremely important from our marketing experience – is the so-called time to market or shooting at the right time with the release.

In turn, the latest suggestions indicate that the most important factors for the game’s success are:

  • genre
  • platform relevant to the genre / setting / mechanics
  • style and „vibe”
  • replayability value

It is not difficult to notice that – within the remaining 70% volatility of game sales from our model – there are many factors affecting sales. Every gaming marketer certainly knows it.

One thing we think is almost certain is that the non-linearity of the game is not a key factor in its market success. So is it therefore worth investing considerable resources into it?

Want to cite this article? Do it in an elegant way:

Dębek, M., & Kulpa, K. (2021). Does non-linearity actually sell games better? Retrieved from https://tryevidence.com/blog/does-non-linearity-actually-sell-games-better/