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
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
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
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.