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Ask GR Anything: What are the best-selling games ever?

Ask GR Anything is a weekly Q&A column that answers questions submitted by readers (as well as questions we're particularly curious about ourselves). Got a burning question about games or the industry? Ask us in the comments below and you may just get it answered!

Figuring out what single video game sold the most copies over the course of history is a complicated process, thanks mostly to overzealous marketing that spins any achievement as a “biggest ever.” Marketing departments have tossed stats in our faces for years in an effort to convince us that whatever game is big at the time is actually the biggest of all time. After all, “Black Ops Sells Quite a Few” isn’t quite as eye-grabbing of a story as “Black Ops is the Biggest Entertainment Product in History,” even if they have to qualify that quite a bit later on.

Above: Marketers tend to spin facts in their favor, so go ahead and think of them as a shadowy cabal of rich old men

Frequently, when marketers crown their owngames “the biggest,” they focus only on sales in North America and/or the UK. That conveniently ignores that there are about 6.5 billion people out there who don’t reside in either, and that those people buy games, too. Granted, not at the same rate, but gaming is a worldwide hobby.

Lack of accounting for worldwide sales isn’t the only thing that’s made this question so much more complicated over the years, which is probably why few people try to figure it out. The rise of the free-to-play business model complicates things a great deal, too. Games like Farmville and Maple Story have hundreds of millions of players, but estimates indicate that only three to five percent of social/F2P gamers actually pay.

But even then, none can escape the wrath of the Angry Birds. Rovio’s smash-hit physics game has been “downloaded” well over half a billion times. But why did we put “downloaded” in quotes? Because nobody seems to know exactly what that means. A huge portion of those are demo downloads, not actual purchases, but Rovio’s won’t say what the actual sales are. No doubt they’re huge, but until they’re willing to comment, we’ll never know for sure.

Think that’s impressive? Well, that’s nothing. Pac-Man had one hell of a heyday in the arcades (and laundromats, movie theaters, roller rinks and pretty much anywhere else you can imagine putting an arcade cabinet.) The little yellow guy has gobbled up 10 billion quarters worldwide over the course of his 25-year career. And that blows Angry Birds out of the water, even if every last one of those 500 million downloads were paid for (which they weren’t). Now you know why Namco keeps trying to bring Pac-Man back.

Above: It just keeps eating and it never stops. IT NEVER STOPS

Space Invaders is also considered a contender for high-grossing arcade game, raking in about 2 billion in quarters in just four years. It didn’t stick around as long as Pac-Man to continue making money over the ensuing decades, though.

 However, while those numbers are interesting to compare with the mobile market, they don’t mean anything when stacked up against home console game purchases. Paying $50-$60 on a console or PC game should fall under a completely different category.

The highest-selling, non-bundled, full-price game with sales information currently available appears to be Mario Kart Wii, with over 28 million sales, with New Super Mario Brothers following up with an impressive showing on the Nintendo DS, with 27 million. However, those come with the caveat you might have noticed above: “with sales information currently available.” Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops almost certainly holds the crown when unknown digital sales are factored in.

When it comes to pure income, things are a bit more clear-cut. Black Ops is a clear winner in pure earnings, since its expansion packs and DLC have proved insanely popular. The game earned Activision $1 billion in just six days, and has since gone on to sell millions of additional copies (25 million by Aug. 2011) and loads of DLC. What the final amount is, though, Activision isn’t saying.

Above: But you can bet it's a lot

World of Warcraft is no slouch, either. The game has been running for seven years, three of which boasted more than 10 million subscribers at $15 per month. Not to mention the countless millions gleaned from sales of the core game and three expansion packs. Blizzard has also recently implemented a system for selling virtual items, like vanity pets and flashy mounts, which are reportedly very popular and go for $10-$25. Both games are published by Activision. So yeah, they have lots of money.

Submit your own questions in the comments (or Tweet them to @sciencegroen) and we may tackle them for a future Ask GR Anything.

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32 comments

  • revrock - December 30, 2011 3:01 p.m.

    Are game designers, producers, and developers huge fanboys or do they enjoy the competition's products?
  • theStig - December 30, 2011 6:20 a.m.

    How does a pokeball work? Or how much money does it take to get listened cars in games like Forza or Gran Turismo
  • NightCrawler_358 - December 30, 2011 2:07 p.m.

    Yes! I want the Pokemon answer too! And what does a pokeball look like on the inside? Why would a virtual Pokemon god accept itself to be trapped inside a 10 year-old's pocket!? It's gotta be cozy in there.
  • Lurkero - December 30, 2011 6:08 a.m.

    QUESTION Why don't all games let players fully configure the button (controller) layout? Is the programming involved in button configuration limited or too complicated for some games and not others? I'm mostly confused about why some games let the player have layout A, B, and C while others might let the player change individual inputs.
  • pr0tostar - December 30, 2011 4:51 a.m.

    Pokemon Red. Cause what child of the 90's wasn't obssessed with Charizard?
  • lazzerbury - December 30, 2011 3:07 a.m.

    OOOMMMGGG @twitsreview1
  • lazer59882 - December 30, 2011 1:23 a.m.

    myst? anybody?
  • ArbokDaKobra - December 29, 2011 11:50 p.m.

    What is/are the most expensive to create and develop games ever made, and why does it cost so much to make them, where does that money go in the process?
  • P4Pritesh - December 29, 2011 11:05 p.m.

    My question is - " If am interested in gaming animations and want to be a part of Ubisoft or Capcom or EA or even 2K games, where to go ? And what should be my qualifications ? "
  • quincytheodore - December 29, 2011 10:07 p.m.

    Nice article, I see GR has this 2012 resolutions. Do "What are the most costly video games?" or put them by the ratio of production cost and sells number to determine which is more lucrative.
  • winner2 - December 29, 2011 6:31 p.m.

    That is a SH*T-ton of money...
  • Japanaman - December 29, 2011 5:01 p.m.

    How does a game like Guitar Hero 3 earn money? Bands sell their songs on iTunes for $1.29 each. With DLC, the songs cost $1.99. GH: Warriors of Rock features 90 songs for $60 which is now $20. At $60 each song costs $.67 per song, but there's no way that's right because that doesn't pay the people who made the game or pay for the right to use certain celebrities in the game, or the right to use Gibson Guitars. I mean, how much money goes where? There's no way anybody gets 10% of sales or something like a sports figure does or an inventor.
  • D0CCON - December 29, 2011 6:54 p.m.

    Guitar Hero 3 earned it because it sold a ton of copies at full price when the music game genre was at its peak. The reasons you listed are why most other music games don't make money.
  • scsmith1 - December 29, 2011 3:18 p.m.

    Here's something I've always wondered: WHY is it that the original Crysis from 2007 requires such a powerful computer to run? What's it doing under the hood that brings weaker systems to their knees?
  • talleyXIV - December 29, 2011 2:52 p.m.

    If you go by revenue, it is actually Guitar Hero 3, I know quite weird. However that does include the guitar which was like what $100? However if you count launch games that came with the console, it is Tetris. Sold 35,000,000 copies with the Gameboy.
  • NightCrawler_358 - December 30, 2011 10:47 p.m.

    Well with games bundled with systems, Wii Sports has technically sold about 76.8 million copies, but if you ask me Wii Sports is just a tech demo.
  • SolarPoweredShitMachine - December 29, 2011 2:14 p.m.

    I'd like to see an article on sequels. As in, how profitable are they, how many is "too many" and the time/money spent on new engines. For example, a lot of people get annoyed at Activision churning out Call of Duty and (in the past) Guitar Hero games, yet fighting games such as Marvel vs Capcom and Street Fighter can release pretty much the same game two or three times without such criticism (though given the number of Megaman games, it could be a Capcom problem). And while people are getting annoyed at some sequels, others desperately want games like Half-life 3. Plus, now we have easily accessable dlc which can add content to games, so should devs work on dlc or a sequel? Should sports games release (possibly paid for) roster packs to update the previous game to the modern teams/whatever instead of releasing a new game? Or maybe I'm just overthinking things...
  • tendollarlameo - December 29, 2011 1:52 p.m.

    What are some LGBT characters in video games they have been portrayed in a positive light and NOT used for marketing(like the lesbian kisses in Fear Effect 2 and that really shitty Matrix game.)
  • bitchassafriBLAMamericANTISTA - December 29, 2011 9:14 a.m.

    how does video game a.i. work? also what is up with this recaptcha!

Showing 1-20 of 32 comments

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