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DFC:  Left 4 Dead  Demonstrates Potential Of Online Distribution
DFC: Left 4 Dead Demonstrates Potential Of Online Distribution Exclusive
June 22, 2009 | By Chris Remo

June 22, 2009 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

A new study by analysis firm DFC Intelligence in conjunction with social media company GamerDNA has extensively compared Left 4 Dead user activity habits across PC and Xbox 360 -- and finds Valve's strategy of combining promotions and free updates may extend a game's shelf life dramatically.

Results of the study were released in the latest edition of the DFC Dossier publication and made available to Gamasutra, and are based on the activity of over 180,000 PC and Xbox 360 gamers via Steam, Xbox Live, and Xfire from the time of the game's release until May.

Based on data crunched by DFC, Left 4 Dead appears to have had more activity on the Steam-managed PC version than on the Xbox 360 version in the early days, but within a few weeks the two platforms roughly matched and saw a slight ongoing decline in activity until February. For that period of time, on average, PC saw only about 2 percent more daily usage than Xbox 360.

From that point, however, the two platforms diverged increasingly significantly. In mid-February, Valve held a 50 percent-off sale on the game -- as explained by Gabe Newell earlier this year in revenue, rather than user activity, terms -- at which point PC activity spiked and then leveled out, while Xbox 360 activity continued to decline.

PC activity from then until late May then averaged out at an impressive 63 percent higher than Xbox 360 activity.

The release of the Survival Pack content spiked both platforms, but while Xbox 360 levels returned to normal again after about two weeks, PC levels skyrocketed to unprecedented levels when Valve held a free-to-play weekend through Steam, "[resulting] in a significant long-term increase in usage that meant the PC version ended up with significantly more overall usage than the Xbox 360 version."

DFC's main takeaway from the study is that the flexible, quickly-adaptable nature of online distribution services like Steam allow for developers to use a broad variety of promotions and incentives to keep their game communities fresh; individual promotions like the Survival Pack had a positive effect on both platforms, but it was the one-two punch of that DLC plus the followup free weekend through Steam that had the most meaningful impact on the game at any point on either platform.

"Steam is rapidly becoming a marketing vehicle where promotions run on Steam can significantly increase product sales and usage," the report reads. "The numbers for Left 4 Dead clearly bear this out."

DFC says it plans to continue tracking Left 4 Dead activity going forward. Depending on how far into the future the firm takes its study, it may be particularly interesting to see how the game fares as the much-debated Left 4 Dead 2 is released.

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steve roger
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I just can't imagine Xbox Live! ever being as nimble as Steam.

Chris Cesarano
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Offering free play and reduced prices increases the number of people regularly playing a game? NO WAY!

It is also in my experience that good PC releases are fewer and farther between than console games. I'd imagine one of the reasons of the decline is simply that other things came out.

This is a relatively pointless study that ultimately proves nothing.

Joshua Sterns
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This study isn't completely useless. It illustrates how awesome Steam is in comparison to Xbox Live's Marketplace.

Chris Remo
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You don't see the value in finding empirical data to get conclusive evidence not only of the existence of a trend but also its degree, rather than simply saying "Well this probably works!!!"?

Marc Merrill
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Good article Chris.

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The 50% of sale and the free to play promotion were only on Steam. Xbox Live had no way of competing with those things, so of course during those times the PC is going to see different trends than Xbox Live. If Xbox Live was to offer L4D 50% off and free to play just like Steam then the trends shown probably would have spiked even more than they did with Steam. So all this says is that Xbox Live marketplace should allow some select xbox360 games (multiplayer?) to be bought and fully downloadable so the same types of promotions could be run over the service. PSN offers some full games like Socom: Confrontation and could run such promotions if they wished.

Chris Melby
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Interesting, I figured the PC would do better overall, but I had thought the console would have been at least closer to the the PC version at launch.

Seth Anderson
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I think a few people are missing the point here. This is not about PC vs. Xbox. This is not simply about free stuff equating to more sales. This is about retail vs. digital. Both platforms have these forms of distribution. The point here is that the digital form of distribution is far more nimble than retail can ever be. And "here's the dataz."

Paopao Saul
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I agree with Seth, the message of this article (and you can already infer from the title) is that digital distribution helps prolong interest in a game, in this case L4D. We already know about this, e.g. where would WoW now be if it wasn't for the frequent updates to it? Though, this the first time I've seen empirical data about this. Very informative article.

Adam Sims
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For those who missed it or don't read graphs regularly. One of the most interesting things on the graph is the indication of a sustained playerbase *after* the free release.

Peter Dwyer
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But haven't valve messed this successful model up with the release of L4D2?

To me this shows valve attemting to take their games in a new direction, where they release rapid EA style sequels which are nothing more than feature tweaked versions of the previous years games. Even though this strategy is failing miserably for EA, as the number of people updating each year falls.

It's gettin' mighty confusing out there in them hills.

Joseph Cook
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This notion that Valve has "messed" up anything so far is absurd considering that we're only roughly halfway between the releast of L4D1 and L4D2. Much can happen in the meantime, especially after the SDK + 3rd party add-on support are integrated this week.

Adam Sims
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Re: Peter Dwyer

I don't see how you can reasonably link the development of L4D2 with any massive change in direction for steam. The players response to L4D2 seems to be hysterical at best.

Adam Sims
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Forgot to mention, I intentionally directed my comment towards steam since this article was about digital distribution.