One-third of US gamers have bought virtual items and most will spend more on this content in 2011
Most people associate virtual goods with social games such as FarmVille and CityVille. After all, it was game developer Zynga’s uncanny ability to sell virtual items within those and other titles that helped grow social gaming into a billion-dollar industry.
Two years after FarmVille became an overnight sensation, virtual goods marketplaces are thriving in other forms of gaming. In fact, a July study from Visa-owned payment specialist PlaySpan and research firm VGMarket showed that median virtual goods payments grew more rapidly in massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), free-to-play games, and console and PC games with online play than in social games.
Social games, which initially drove this trend, have stalled in 2011, at least from the standpoint of median spending on virtual goods. PlaySpan and VGMarket estimated that median spending in player-to-player transactions dropped to $20 in July 2011 from $50 a year earlier, and to $20 in third-party transactions from $30 in 2010.
Although these drops are significant, they do not necessarily indicate that overall virtual goods spending is declining. eMarketer estimates that US virtual goods spending in social games will grow to $792 million in 2012, from $653 million in 2011.
Further, Inside Network estimated that total US virtual goods spending will reach $2.1 billion in 2011, from $1.1 billion in 2009. This includes transactions in social, casual, console and mobile games, plus social networks and applications. Similarly, Javelin Strategy & Research estimates that US virtual goods revenues will reach $2.4 billion in 2012.
Among gamers surveyed by PlaySpan and VGMarket, 51% said they had used real money to buy virtual currency, items or content in connected console games in the past year. By comparison, only 31% had done the same in social network games.
Nearly a third of gamers who participated in the PlaySpan/VGMarket study said they had used real money to purchase virtual content, whether from another player or a third-party site. This figure is considerably higher than other industry estimates, which have tended to put the percentage of gamers who buy virtual goods in the single digits. Moreover, 72% of respondents said they would spend at least as much on virtual goods in 2011 as in 2010.
It should be noted that this survey’s pool was 72% male, with an average age of 25.3. Given that the demographics of social and casual gamers tend to favor females and older players, it is possible that this study is less an indication of a sea change in buying habits than a reflection of how a specific segment of the gamer population approaches virtual goods.