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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.