- From the early days of arcades, video games have grown into a multibillion-dollar industry.
- The most popular video games, like “Tetris” and “Minecraft,” have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.
- Looking at the changes in game sales over time reflects the rise and fall of popular genres and major shifts in the mainstream audience.
Starting from the humble days of “Pong” and “Space Invaders,” video games have grown into a multibillion-dollar industry, with single games garnering hundreds of millions of sales.
As the audience for video games has grown there have been major shifts in the mainstream market; only a few large publishers and popular franchises have earned permanent footholds in the list of best-sellers.
A video game industry analyst from the NPD Group released a list of the top-selling game of each year dating back to 1995, including physical and digital copies. While some games like “Tetris” and “Minecraft” have each sold more than 100 million copies over time, the year-by-year list reflects the changing interests of gamers as time has progressed.
1995 — “Mortal Kombat III”
The original “Mortal Kombat” games were originally arcade hits, boosted by the game’s penchant for gratuitous violence and the early use of motion-capture technology. The colourful characters of “Mortal Kombat 3” are played by live actors and players can fight and tear one another apart in a variety of ways. The violence gave the game plenty of critics, but it also led to plenty of extra attention.
1996 — “Super Mario 64” (Nintendo 64)
As a launch title, “Super Mario 64” kicked off multiple years of dominance for the Nintendo 64 console. The game takes full advantage of the console’s 64-bit processor, creating explorable 3D environments that were unmatched at the time. “Super Mario 64” established many of the gameplay mechanics that still define 3D platformers today and remains a fan-favourite on YouTube and Twitch.
1997 — “Mario Kart 64” (Nintendo 64)
This may not come as a surprise, but “Mario Kart” is one of the Nintendo’s best-selling series – across all consoles. “Mario Kart 64” introduced four-player split-screen multiplayer alongside memorable race tracks, and bumping music, making it a must-buy on the Nintendo 64.
1998 — “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” (Nintendo 64)
Many consider “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” one of the best games of all time. “Ocarina of Time” brought the series to life in 3D for the first time, letting players explore a massive world filled with dozens of memorable characters. The game set a new standard for engaging 3D gameplay with its intricate puzzles and weapon-based combat.
1999 — “Donkey Kong 64” (Nintendo 64)
Another 3D platformer from Nintendo, “Donkey Kong 64” expanded on the strengths of Mario 64 with larger stages and more playable characters. The game also shipped with the Nintendo 64 expansion pak, a memory upgrade that helped the console deliver better frame rates and graphic textures for “Donkey Kong 64” and later N64 titles.
2000 — “Pokémon Stadium” (Nintendo 64)
“Pokémon Stadium” isn’t particularly impressive as a standalone game, but it arrived at an ideal time to take advantage of the global Pokémon phenomenon. The game’s main selling point was the transfer pak, an accessory that allowed players who owned “Pokémon Red” and “Pokémon Blue” on the Game Boy to transfer their Pokémon to the Nintendo 64 and see them in full 3D for the first time.
While the 3D models and animations weren’t exactly impressive, the connectivity with the popular handheld games made it a sound investment for anyone who was invested in the franchise.
2001 — “Madden NFL 2002” (PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox, PC, Game Boy Colour, Nintendo 64, Game Boy Advance)
“Madden NFL 2002” was available on essentially every video game platform when it was released and had the benefit of being a launch title for Microsoft’s first Xbox. While the experience varied between the different consoles, Electronic Arts built “Madden” into a definitive franchise among sports games.
2002 — “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” (PlayStation 2)
Following the critically acclaimed and massively popular “Grand Theft Auto 3,” the arrival of “Vice City” solidified the series as one of the most important in video games. “Vice City” builds on the satisfying open-world gameplay of “GTA3” and cleverly plays on the tropes of 1980s Miami portrayed in movies like “Scarface” and TV’s “Miami Vice.”
2003 — “Madden NFL 2004” (PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox, PC, Game Boy Advance)
Like previous “Madden” games, “Madden NFL 2004” benefitted from being on as many platforms as possible. “2004” remains infamous among fans of the series because of its cover star, Michael Vick. Vick was one of the NFL’s most promising young stars at the time and was given a 95/100 speed rating in the game. The 2004 version of Vick is considered one of the best players ever in a “Madden” game and changed the way EA handled running quarterbacks in future games.
2004 — “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” (PlayStation 2)
“Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” was one of the most expansive games on the PlayStation 2, creating a huge faux version of California. “San Andreas” allowed for more personalisation than prior “GTA” games, letting players personalise their character’s appearance and manage their weight and stamina with meals and exercise. The trademark gunplay, driving, and organised-crime missions that define the series returned with new upgrades as well.
2005 — “Madden NFL 06” (PlayStation 2, Xbox, Xbox 360, GameCube, PC, Windows Mobile, PlayStation Portable, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, Mobile phone)
Somehow “Madden NFL 06” managed to make its way to even more consoles, moving to the next-generation Xbox 360 and the portable Nintendo DS for the first time. However, the differences between the console versions became more pronounced, with the 360 version of the game missing multiple game modes and features. This game also introduced the unpopular QB-vision feature, creating large disparities between the game’s quarterbacks.
2006 — “Madden NFL 07” (PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox, Xbox 360, GameCube, Nintendo Wii, PC, PlayStation Portable, Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo DS)
Despite developing “Madden NFL 07” for the newest consoles at the time – the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3, and the Nintendo Wii – Electronic Arts refused to stop releasing the game for older consoles as well. The dedication to continue spreading the game across all platforms ultimately paid off, but 2006 was the last year “Madden” topped the sales charts.
2007 — “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” (PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox, Xbox 360, Wii, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X)
The “Guitar Hero” franchise helped lead a boom in music games, but before 2007 the series was exclusive to the PlayStation 2, limiting the game’s reach. “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” was the first in the series to launch across all platforms, including PC and macOS, giving many the chance to play for the first time.
Though “Guitar Hero” can be played with a standard controller, the guitar controller became synonymous with the game. “Guitar Hero III” included a wireless guitar controller for the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3, and the Nintendo Wii, a big upgrade from the wired controllers that came with the previous PlayStation 2 games.
2008 — “Rock Band” (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation 2)
Developed by the same company as Guitar Hero, “Rock Band” expanded the gameplay offerings to include drum tracks, vocals, and separate bass lines. The new ways to play also meant the inclusion of a new drum-set controller and a microphone for singing. Now supporting four band members at once and an upgradeable song list via downloadable content, “Rock Band” was a logical step up from “Guitar Hero,” and fans welcomed the new series.
2009 — “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC)
“Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” is considered one of the best first-person-shooting games ever, and it represented a turning point for the long-running “Call of Duty” series. Its follow-up, “Modern Warfare 2,” continued the game’s storyline and made common-sense improvements to the game’s mechanics.
The game garnered some controversy because of a story mission called “No Russian,” which has the player take part in a terrorist attack in a Russian airport, providing the option to kill civilians.
2010 — “Call of Duty: Black Ops” (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, PC, Nintendo DS, macOS)
The success of “Modern Warfare” created a diehard fan base for the “Call of Duty” games and left Activision looking for ways to keep the series from going stale with yearly releases. The publisher settled on using different development teams to keep up with release schedule and establish different series within the franchise.
“Black Ops” is developed by Treyarch, which started working on the “Call of Duty” franchise with 2008’s “World at War.” “Black Ops” is set during the 1960s, sending players on secret CIA missions set at different points during the decade.
2011 — “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, PC, MacOS)
Like the previous two “Modern Warfare” games, “Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3″ was developed by Infinity Ward. The game enjoyed the biggest launch of any video game to date and received a warm reception from its fans.”Modern Warfare 3” is the best-selling “Call of Duty” game to date, with more than 25 million copies sold since release.
2012 — “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC)
“Call of Duty: Black Ops II” broke the sales record set by “Modern Warfare 3” the previous year with more than $US500 million in sales on its first day of release and more than 7 million copies sold within the first month.
2013 — “Grand Theft Auto V” (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
Beyond being the best-selling game of 2013, Grand Theft Auto V is now one of the best-selling games of all time, with more than 100 million copies sold. The game features three playable characters and returns to the faux California of “San Andreas.” “Grand Theft Auto V” was also the first game in the series to feature online multiplayer, adding to its longevity.
“Grand Theft Auto V” launched on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2013 and was updated for the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 the following year.
2014 — “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
A year after “Call of Duty: Ghosts” disappointed in terms of sales and fan reception, “Advanced Warfare” arrived with a major sci-fi twist for the series. Rather than the standard soldiers typically portrayed in “Call of Duty,” “Advanced Warfare” outfits players with an exoskeleton that allows them to perform otherwise impossible feats like hovering through the air or turning invisible for a short time.
The game also brought in Hollywood actors to play roles in the game’s story; Kevin Spacey plays the game’s primary antagonist, Jonathan Irons.
2015 — “Call of Duty: Black Ops III” (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
Despite being the best-selling game of the year once again, “Black Ops III” failed to reach the sales markers set by its predecessors and reflected a slightly dwindling interest in the franchise. While the game wasn’t particularly flawed, fans and critics alike suggested that the “Call of Duty” formula had grown stale over the years.
2016 — “Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare” (Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC)
“Infinite Warfare” was an even bigger departure from the older “Call of Duty” games, fully diving into a future sci-fi premise. Despite remaining the best-selling game for the third consecutive year, the game performed well below Activision’s expectations.
2017 — “Call of Duty: WWII” (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC)
Following the disappointment of “Infinite Warfare,” “Call of Duty” returned to its World War II roots for the first time since 2006’s “Call of Duty 3.” The game received a warmer reception and managed to earn more than a billion dollars within three months of its release. However, the sales don’t compare to the series’ most popular games, “Modern Warfare 3” and “Black Ops.”
2018 — “Red Dead Redemption 2” (Xbox One, PlayStation 4)
The makers of “Grand Theft Auto” reclaimed the No. 1 best-seller crown with “Red Dead Redemption 2,” an open-world cowboy saga that spent more than seven years in development. Rockstar Games used the time to masterfully render America’s western frontier and create a life-like environment that far exceeded that of any other open-world game to date.
“Call of Duty: Black Ops 4” was nearly the best-selling game of 2018, but because the NPD Group doesn’t track PC sales, it ultimately finished behind “Red Dead Redemption 2.”
The race to the best-seller position in Software was very close. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 digital sales on PC are not currently tracked by The NPD Group and made all the difference to the rankings.
— Mat Piscatella (@MatPiscatella) January 22, 2019
2019 — “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC)
2019 isn’t quite over yet but “Call of Duty” is once again the year’s best-selling game to date. There’s a slim chance that “Pokémon” or “Star Wars” could surpass “Modern Warfare” by the end of December, but history suggests that Activision’s military shooter will continue its reign over the best-seller charts into the next decade.