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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

  • EwoksTasteLikeChicken - December 28, 2011 4:28 p.m.

    Nintendo, since they've been around the longest. However, of recent years, the Xbox probably is the biggest seller.
  • TURbo - December 28, 2011 5:20 p.m.

    Black Ops didn't made 1 billion in six days. Black Ops made $650 million in 5 days, 1 billion in 42 days, and sold 18 million DLC map packs up to September 2011 according to Activision's reports.
  • kiing8kong6 - December 28, 2011 6:06 p.m.

    Is this true gamesradar?!?!
  • Andrew Groen - December 29, 2011 8:39 a.m.

    It IS! Can you believe it? We intentionally lied to make Activision look better so we could make up for this: http://www.gamesradar.com/ask-gr-anything-how-much-does-bobby-kotick-earn/ Thanks for pointing that out. I either got mixed up with all the information I was trying to corral into this column or I was reading a bad source that got it wrong too. I'll try to get that fixed ASAP, but GR is on vacation this week so it might take a little while. Thanks for pointing that out, and for the extra info on DLC packs. I had been looking for some indication of DLC sales, but you beat me to it TURbo.
  • TURbo - December 29, 2011 10:25 a.m.

    No problem. While people consider Infinity Ward better than Treyarch for their COD games, Treyarch has always out monetized Infinity Ward with more ports at launch, and more DLC packs to sell. To the same Activision report, MW2 sold 11.5 million DLC packs up to September 2011.
  • TURbo - December 29, 2011 10:34 a.m.

    There is a lot of articles to weed out when it comes to finding new sales information for any large blockbuster selling game.
  • Japanaman - December 28, 2011 7:44 p.m.

    What? No mention of Solitare or Tetris? Solitare is on almost every computer in existence. And Tetris is on almost every console, computer, and cell phone in existence.
  • Sinosaur - December 28, 2011 10:08 p.m.

    I don't think I've ever bought Solitaire. That's like when Wii Sports was one of the best selling games because you couldn't buy a new issue of the console without getting it. As for Tetris... there are enough versions of it out there that it's probably impossible to tell what the overall sales for Tetris are.
  • Andrew Groen - December 29, 2011 8:21 a.m.

    I actually had mentioned Solitaire, and I believe Tetris too originally, but those sentences didn't make it past editing. I've got a strict word count, so sometimes Mikel has to take out the axe and cut some stuff.
  • RedHarlow - December 28, 2011 10:52 p.m.

    How much money do voice actors with major parts in a big-budget game get paid, and how to much people who voice minor/background characters get paid?
  • Andrew Groen - December 29, 2011 8:32 a.m.

    Most companies aren't willing to talk about that sort of thing. They're very secretive like that. This question has come up before though so maybe I'll try to get in touch with Nolan North's agent or something. :-)
  • cgriff63 - December 28, 2011 11:50 p.m.

    I bet most of those who bought mario kart wii and new super mario bros were families whose wii is currently in a basement collecting dust. what a waste.
  • bitchassafriBLAMamericANTISTA - December 29, 2011 9:14 a.m.

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

Showing 1-20 of 32 comments

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