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Digital gamers nearing hard-core gamers in playing time

So-called core gamers spend 18 hours per week playing video games, while those who primarily download digital titles spend 16 hours per week gaming, according to NPD analysts.

Digital game playing is on the rise.
Digital game playing is on the rise. Apple

People who primarily download their games digitally are quickly becoming a key segment in the video games industry, a new study by The NPD Group has found.

Heavy gamers--or what NPD refers to as "core" gamers, who primarily play video games on consoles like the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3--spend 18 hours per week playing video games. Digital gamers--that is, those who primarily download games as opposed to purchasing physical copies--aren't far behind, spending 16 hours per week playing games, according to NPD. Moreover, the research firm said that the core segment bought an average of 5.4 games over the last three months, trailing digital gamers, who bought 5.9 games over the same period.

NPD, which also provides monthly sales data for the gaming industry, recent acknowledged the importance of digital gaming. The company said in March that it plans to include digital games revenue in its monthly industry sales reports, rather than follow its former quarterly release schedule. NPD analyst Anita Frazier said in an interview with at the time that by not including digital content in sales numbers, NPD is leaving out 40 percent of all sales each month.

EA corporate communications executive Tiffany Steckler took it a step further earlier this year, saying that leaving digital content out of NPD reports is like "measuring music sales and ignoring something called iTunes."

That was made apparent last September when NPD announced that digital game downloads of PC games outstripped sales at retail. According to the research firm, during the first six months of 2011, 11.2 million digital PC games were downloaded, easily besting the 8.2 million titles bought in-store.

Even GameStop, which has historically relied upon physical game sales, is acknowledging the importance of digital content. In April, the company said that it sees its digital sales growing "at a 50 percent compound annual growth rate" over the next several years.

Though there are several reasons digital gaming has grown in popularity as of late, the sheer number of places people can access games nowadays is integral to its growth, NPD says. As the research firm points out, digital content can now be accessed on everything "from consoles and portables to smartphones, digital music players to PCs."

"The name of the game in 2011 seems to be choice," Frazier said in a statement today. "Gamers are increasingly branching out to methods of play other than those that the industry has traditionally expected them to use. Fueled by the growth of smartphones and new tablet devices, mobile gaming continues to accelerate, and what a game is and what it means to be a gamer is evolving, reflecting the rapid nature of change within the industry."

Mobile gaming's growth has been due to the increasingly popularity of smartphones and tablets that support application stores.

Apple's App Store, for example, has been a strong contributor to the growth of digital games. As of this writing, five out of the top six paid apps in Apple's marketplace are video games, led by Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing. Other titles, like Angry Birds, have proven extremely popular across handsets and tablets, as well.

Clarification, 11:20 a.m. PT: This story was updated to clarify what The NPD Group refers to as "core" and "digital" gamers. The organization says core gamers are "very engaged across all systems, especially consoles," while digital gamers are "engaged in a variety of gaming, from PC to mobile, console to portable, online and offline."