Most games that sell at least a million copies make some sort of an announcement to celebrate. This helps the game sell more copies as it makes more people see it as a worthwhile game. It’s a significant psychological milestone. Some big franchises can depend on always selling many millions, but for an indie studio it could be a huge success. But what sets these best sellers apart from other games?
For this study I tracked down every game I could that had claimed to sell at least a million copies among all platforms it released on, and how many. I added the data from my 25 Years of Games project, namely the (first) release date, the metascore (when available), the genres, the main story and completionist time, the ESRB rating, and any ESRB content descriptors.
I found games to include by grabbing everything from wikipedia lists like List of best-selling PlayStation 4 video games, and doing general google searches for best selling lists of other systems that don’t have such lists (as long as there were good sources), then I searched the Games subreddit for “million” for more recent multiplatform games, and finally I looked through lists of games for any titles that I thought could possibly have a big enough following to sell a million copies and looked through their wiki pages for sales numbers. I also looked through many pages at the Video Game Sales Wiki, being careful to check sources.
This ended up being 1,306 games starting from all the way back in 1979. There are many more million-sellers out there, but sometimes numbers are not announced even when a game has clearly sold more than 1 million copies. There is a recent trend of huge franchises not announcing sales numbers, such as Call of Duty and Madden NFL. I didn’t want to use estimates so I could not include them. There are also likely many games released on 3 or more platforms that sold just over one million total but were never reported as such.
Another issue is that the numbers released have become less detailed over time. Some earlier games reported numbers down to the thousands place, while now it is more common to only see the hundred-thousands place, or just “one million”.
Arcade games, one-game systems, and mobile games were not included.
Games released for multiple systems (52% of the total) were combined into one entry. Sometimes this led to “are these different versions distinct enough to be separate entries?” issues that I just had to do my best with. I used data for the first release of a game, even if its remake many years later sold more copies.
Million-Sellers by Year
So what was the first game that was released on interchangeable media to sell a million copies? It appears to be Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack on the Intellivsion, released in 1979 with about 1,939,000 copies sold. However, according to the Wikipedia page for Space Invaders there is a book by Brett Weiss that claims Space Invaders was the first. Space Invaders wasn’t released until 1980 on the Atari 2600, though. It is possible that Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack took longer to sell one million copies even though it released first, but we will likely never know, and for the purposes of this study I am only considering the release date, even if it took many years for a game to cross the million-seller threshold.
There’s a big climb in the late 90s as video games become more and more mainstream, but starting from 2013 the number declines. This is partly due to publishers releasing fewer sales numbers, and partly because newer games have had less time to rack up sales. But even with those factors, it still seems like too much of a drop to me and I don’t know how the reason why there aren’t more million-sellers in the last few years.
This is the average number of copies sold among million-sellers, please note that many of these games took several years to sell as many copies as they have and that this is only by initial release rate. Can you guess what game that has sold over 200 million copies is responsible for the spike in 2009?
The 2013 dip isn’t noticeable here. Likely caused by fewer games selling more copies.
Million-Sellers and Metascores
Metascores, obtained from a mixture of Gamerankings and Metacritic, are sparse before the year 2000, so their average will be less accurate. If you really want all of the details check out my metascore project.
We generally assume that games that sell well are of high quality and enjoyed by the people that play them, and this seems to pan out in the numbers. Million-sellers have consistently outscored the overall average, though the margin has shrunk over time.
Million-Sellers and Genre
Million-Sellers are more likely to be Action, Racing/Driving, or Role-Playing games, but the differences are never very large. For more on why just these genres are being recorded and for more details, check out the genres portion of the 25 years of games project.
The next genre charts will have different Y-axis scales, so please keep them in mind. I also have data going farther back for the genre of million-sellers, which was used for the overall graph above, but I have started the line graphs at where my “all games” data starts.
While million-sellers are more likely to have Action as a genre, there have been years where it was less relatively successful.
While Adventure games have seen a renaissance in the ’10s, ever fewer sell a million copies. For some Adventure games it was unclear what combination of individual chapters and whole-series packs make up reported sales numbers, so I could not include them.
Very few Compilations reach the million-seller mark, with many years having none at all.
There have never been many Educational games, but it has seen a few million-sellers. The first to do so was Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Also in this genre are Art Academy, Mario Paint, Wii Fit, and Ring Fit Adventure. Carmen is the only one not exclusive to a Nintendo system.
Fewer and fewer puzzle games burn up the charts as time goes by, but Clubhouse Games managed to in 2020.
Racing/Driving games have become less common in general over time, both among million-sellers and in general.
A way to add depth to a game is to add some Role-Playing mechanics, and publishers have been keen to do so as so many sell above average.
The most eclectic genre doesn’t seem to have much impact on sales.
Many Sports games don’t get their sales numbers released anymore, otherwise I would expect it to be more prominent among million-sellers, even as fewer Sports games are made.
For the last few generations Strategy / Tactics games have had a smaller proportion of million-sellers.
Million-Sellers and Game Lengths
More information about what these times mean and how the data was acquired is available in the game lengths page of my 25 years of games project.
While games have become longer over time, million-sellers have always been longer than most other games. This has been especially true for completion times in the last decade. The most successful games tend to have bigger budgets and can include more content, but people may also be biased towards longer games, looking to get as much time out of their dollar as possible.
Million-Sellers and ESRB Ratings
Not all million-sellers have ESRB ratings because many were from before the ESRB existed, or computer games that never got one, but it was a requirement to be included in my 25 years of games project. For a more direct comparison the stacked bar chart only includes million-sellers with ESRB ratings, while the line chart includes those without one. There are a few million-sellers with the Everyone 10+ rating before it existed because of games getting later releases after it had been introduced, and I recorded games by the first release date. More on ESRB ratings here.
No million-seller has had an Early Childhood or Adults Only rating, so they are not included.
Million-sellers are just a bit less likely to be rated Everyone, Everyone 10+, or Teen, but more likely to be rated Mature.
Million-Sellers and ESRB Ratings Descriptors
I’ll be breaking the descriptors down by category, and please be aware that the Y-axis will be vary significantly. An exhaustive survey of every ESRB descriptor can be found here.
An odd mixed bag with substances. Tobacco is less common in million-sellers, while drugs are more common, and alcohol portrayal depends on if it’s a reference or someone is seen drinking it.
Different types of violence are overall pretty similar, with a few exceptions. Fantasy Violence is much more common in million-sellers, while Intense Violence is rarer.
A bit more Comic Mischief in the most popular games, but not much more.
A few rare and short lived descriptors have never been seen on a million-selling game.
I would have expected all of these to be significantly more common in million-sellers, since licensing music and hiring voice actors costs money, and overall not many games have either. The best sellers sure like using the worst of the swear words, though.
Interesting that Nudity has such a disparity compared to Partial Nudity. Only a few descriptors here have a significant difference.
About 39 of the million-sellers were exclusive to Japan (I didn’t exhaustively check regions), all the way up to a couple 3DS games. I believe the only European exclusive was Dancing Stage Party Edition.
One 3DO game may have sold a million copies even before it became a pack-in: Gex, although this number is somewhat disputed. I could also only find evidence of a single Sega Saturn game selling a million copies: Virtua Fighter.
The million-sellers with the lowest metascores are Game Party and Game Party 2 for the Wii, with a 22.6 and 31.9 respectively.
To receive a Metacritic metascore a game has to have at least 4 reviews. Occasionally even million-sellers don’t reach this threshold. These are mostly exclusively for PC: Satisfactory, Stickfight: The Game, Just Survive, The Legend of Sword and Fairy 5, and Garry’s Mod are some examples. But only a few non-PC games from after 2000 have managed it: Zumba Fitness for the Wii, English Training for the DS (Japan and Europe only), and Dancing Stage Party Edition (Europe only).
GameRankings.com Archived Score Browser and Metacritic for metascores
HowLongToBeat.com for game lengths
ESRB.org for ESRB ratings and rating descriptions
MobyGames.com for genres and some miscellaneous information
Xbox Addict for some information about regionality