Do The Best Games Always Make the Most Money?

Sales have never been a measure of quality, certainly not in the world of video games. While precious gems may sell far more than old grey rocks, there are often gems in the gaming world which are overlooked and unfortunately forgotten about. Those weathered grey rocks exist in the gaming world too, however, and sometimes those are the games which make more money than their well developed and often well received counterparts.

Shooting and driving make money. That shouldn’t be a revelation; there’s no disputing that the most popular games are generally the ones that sit your character behind the wheel or put a gun in his hand – or both, in some cases. Call of Duty covers the shooting that everyone laps up – it’s the current champion of game sales, breaking records with each subsequent release, while Gran Turismo, Need for Speed and even Mario Kart are extremely popular in the racing genre.

Grand Theft Auto combines both of these – there’s driving, shooting and a whole lot more. Perhaps, then, that’s why as a series it sits amongst the best-selling of all time, after countless Mario and Pokémon games alongside a plethora of pack-in titles such as Wii Fit, Wii Sports and even Tetris. It’s very hard to tell just exactly why games sell. Is it word of mouth? Reviews? Advertising? Brand recognition? Who knows, but could there be a direct link to quality?


Black Ops II was the best selling game of 2012, as per usual for Call of Duty.

Call of Duty has reached a point where it can sell by name only. The home console releases are definitely not bad games either – each title is critically acclaimed and the multiplayer is often praised as the best online gaming experience, for a good reason too – there are millions of people playing online in Call of Duty right this moment.

This goes further than sales – Call of Duty is a sustained game experience.

It’s certainly not innovation that keeps Call of Duty sitting on the throne however – recent entries into the series have seen fewer upgrades, with each entry being less of a revelation and more of a refinement. But to work out why Call of Duty is so popular, we have to look back at what kick started it all – what got the Call of Duty name into the mouth of gamers across the planet?

That revolution, that innovation lies with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare; releasing just a year or two after a new hardware generation had began, when the traction on these new consoles had really picked up, it revamped the tired World War shooter genre with a modern skin and a robust multiplayer mode, which got a lot of attention from gamers and press alike.

Out with the old and in with the new – that’s how you make money.

Well, it isn’t really.

It’s something but not quite the entire reasoning behind good sales. We can see from looking Call of Duty that what sells games is being able to produce something with mass market appeal that people want to play. And after that, it’s all about keeping the brand. Super Mario Bros. did it, with a very popular start and a revolution with Super Mario 64’s 3D world, which still managed to keep the immensely popular Mario character for a sense of familiarity unrivalled in any other game franchise.

Perhaps the best games don’t always make the most money, but Call of Duty 4 was certainly one of the most acclaimed at the time and while further instalments may not have quite lived up to Modern Warfare in some people’s eyes, the brand could – and still does – stand tall with its name in bright shining lights.

So, no, the best games don’t always sell – I think we’ve established that – but the best brands do. And that’s the reason games rake in money – it’s not dependant on the quality of the game. Right?

[drop]Then there are the oddities: Rayman Origins should have sold a lot of copies, even if Rayman never had the same firm grip on the platforming genre as his rival Mario. But it didn’t even chart in its first month of release, despite it being an excellent game which blended impeccable animation with fun, frantic platforming gameplay. Perhaps it was a step too far back to basics, subverting the 3D style of Rayman 2 and 3 in order to take things back to the series’ roots?

PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, too, should have sold well. It had the same appeal as the ever-popular Super Smash Brothers (which currently sits in the top 40 best-selling games ever), with a mash-up fighting game involving everyone’s favourite Sony characters. And it was a great game. We can attribute this one to brand confusion though, with mature characters such as Kratos steering children away and the colourful, childish visual style perhaps preventing adults from taking it seriously.

Both of these games were 9/10s in my books but didn’t sell well enough at all. Even the metacritic ratings, alongside my own reviews of Rayman Origins and PlayStation All-Stars were high, so that shows that reviews and scores don’t really sell games – people may glance at them after deciding whether they’re interested or not, but the branding has to be good enough to sell them the idea of the game in the first place.

There are also the bad games that do make a lot of money. Despite being poorly developed and badly received, the Call of Duty Vita game – Black Ops: Declassified – has still managed to sell over 630,000 units. That’s about two and a half times as much as Unit 13 – which was actually a decent shooter – has sold. And that released seven months earlier.

You can thank the branding for that. The good game didn’t sell very well, but the poor one did since no-one is talking about the Unit series but you can be sure that almost everyone who plays games has at one point uttered the words “Call of Duty”.

Unfortunately, sales do affect developers. Poor sales can mean closure, as was the case for the Unit 13 developer, Zipper Interactive. Good sales can, however, mean more money spent by the publishers, allowing developers to make more games. It’s a real shame to lose developers such as Zipper and potential good games in the process, but it’s happening everywhere. Sales might not be everything but they can certainly have drastic effects.

How do you compare sales – and quality – across platforms, then? You wouldn’t put Angry Birds – which has over a billion total downloads – on par with big console releases, would you? No, budgets and prices have to be taken into account; often games can be successful even though it may seem they haven’t sold well, such as Rayman Origins, which was obviously low-cost and Ubisoft were therefore happy with the seemingly poor sales, commissioning a sequel for release this year.

[drop2]And it’s not just the games themselves that come into it when sales are involved – Angry Birds has an empire of toys and even a film on the way; many games extend beyond their own virtual world. Why? It’s all about expanding the brand and the popular birds are squawking away in their gargantuan pile of cash. That’s something to be marvelled.

Good games (and bad games) don’t always sell, then, but good brands with the right amount of innovation, character appeal and, of course, advertising usually thrive in a consumer environment. There’s something to be learned from that and game publishers should take note. There’s a reason that Nintendo, Sony and at times Microsoft stick with their core exclusive franchises: Zelda sells; LittleBigPlanet sells; Halo sells.

We’ve cracked it: familiarity has to be the thing that sells!

And then – bang – that theory is shot down too by the other oddities – the games that should have no chance but still managed to sell extremely well. There are the games with no brand recognition at first – how did Mario and Zelda originally sell? How were people convinced by Metal Gear Solid or Assassin’s Creed? Not to mention Rayman and PlayStation All-Stars – why didn’t those games sell, despite the brand familiarity?

There are times when sales do reflect the quality of the game rather than how recognisable the brand is, however, although more often than not it’s simple coincidence. Take E.T. and Pac Man on the Atari 2600, for example: despite both games being part of well-known franchises, the games sold extremely poorly due to their low quality.

This led to the video game crash of 1983 and the burial of millions of copies of these games and Atari consoles in a landfill in New Mexico. Even though the brands were well known, the games sold a lot less than Atari had predicted they would; this wasn’t just a simple case of the games being poorly developed, but an over-calculation of the brand on Atari’s part.

More recent games have also sold poorly due to their quality, including the Xbox 360 title Bomberman: Act Zero; the terrible reboot only sold 40,000 copies (those poor, poor people) due to its low quality.

And now we’re back where we started. We know it isn’t the quality that always sells, we know that it isn’t always the brand factor (though that often works) and we can be confident that reviews don’t change a high percentage of people’s minds.

So, could it really just be whatever is in right now that sells?

Could it just be whatever is cool – whatever has that mass market appeal, that celebrity endorsement or that mainstream media coverage – that makes the most money?

It certainly seems that way – though there’s really no way to gauge how much money a game will bring the publisher. In fact, it’s a combination of all of these things – innovation, quality, brand recognition, advertising and, of course, how appealing something seems are all a percentage of what makes a sale.


A game shop, where people typically part with their cash for video games.

Take Sid for example. He lives with his parents and he’s in his late teenage years. He has a cat named Chris, which is a bit weird, but more importantly he loves all things to do with games, particularly the awesome ShootDrive series (his wall is lined with posters featuring the main character, Captain John McCraig) and he’s played every game in the series to death (even those awful mobile spin-offs) so he’s a bit bored.

Sid wants to buy a new game – ShootDrive 3 – since he loved the first two, but doesn’t know if it’ll live up to the high standards that ShootDrive 2: Wheelin’ and Gunnin’ set. So he visits his favourite website – and reads the review. 7/10. That’s decent, but what’s this DriveShoot game they’re talking about? It looks completely different from anything else Sid has ever seen, so he reads the review. Shame he and his friends haven’t seen it advertised because it looks like a great game, he reckons.

Sid knows that ShootDrive 3 is going to be good, then; while it might not reach the high standards set by its predecessor, the advert he saw during Coronation Street was pretty cool. He hasn’t heard much else about that DriveShoot game, though, other than the review (9/10, may I add) he read. So, he goes to the shop and buys ShootDrive 3 since all his friends are getting it too. He comes home and plays the game, a bit disappointed but content with the familiarity.

That’s a highly hypothetical scenario of how games make a sale: people are going to buy the established brand, much like they do with Call of Duty, rather than a new (but perhaps better) IP, although other factors do play a part in the process.

Now, that’s how games sell.

Well actually there isn’t really a specific reason why games sell. I think we’ve established (okay, we’ve definitely established) that quality and money making aren’t quite on the same wavelength; they cross over at points but there’s no set in stone algorithm – we can’t use x=(y/10) where x is sales and y is an arbitrary number assigned by a host of reviewers to work out how many copies of a game will fly off the shelves; quality will never be a way of measuring sales.

Do the best games sell the most copies then? Sometimes.



  1. Rayman deserver way more sales than it got. It’s one of the best platformers of all time and going back to the 2D basics was the best descission they could have made.
    Hopefully Legends performs well when it finally comes out.

  2. I think you’ve covered this pretty well, it all comes down to marketing and the way that each game is pushed. Relatively new IP needs to use familiar marketing if it wants to take hold of the FIFA or CoD crowd, the main example that jumps to mind is the stylistic Assassins Creed ads that (along with the originals being decent games) have pushed the titles out to the masses as counterparts to the yearly FIFA and CoD releases.

    Call of Duty hit the nail on the head though with their ability to keep players engaged in multiplayer, unfortunately helping to cement the unfortunate “rule” publishers seem to have that no multiplayer = bad game this generation.

    Whether the addictiveness of CoD is deliberate though or they fell on the formula by chance is anyone’s guess:

    • I should also say that games are simply mimicking older media timelines in regards to good games passing many people by. Largely I’d guess it’s just another sign of how big the industry has grown.

  3. Do the best games always sell? Well let’s look at Sony exclusives, quality some of the best out there but do they sell no, firstly their marketing sucks, I mean word of mouth don’t work anymore, leave the ps1/2 era & catch up!

    Secondly the £39.99 is a too hefty price’ most people wait for second hand price drop

    • I don’t think £39.99 affects it – people still spent £45+ on CoD while many other games don’t get a look-in. It all just depends, really.

  4. Great article, really interesting, especially the story about Sid and most significantly that link to the sales table. Nintendo’s dominance is absolutely astounding, I knew that they have always been successful but to have published the top 15 selling games is incredible. Pokemon, wow, I was in my school years during its hayday and was always aware of it, though never clocked that it was such a massive seller. And Duck Hunt, 26 million sales in the US, crazy stuff! That list is full of surprises, definitely worth a browse.

    • There are a lot of interesting things going on in that list it seems. I’d be interested to see the figures normalised for platform sales: it may be more informative to see which games sold most relative to the sales of the consoles they are playable on. Nintendo’s dominance in console and handheld sales will certainly account for their massive numbers, and technically something like MW3 would be number 9 in the chart for combined platform performance.

  5. Here’s a few more reasons.
    Rayman – might be excellent at what it does but it’s just a 2D platformer.
    Playstation All Stars – might be excellent at what it does but it’s still just a Smash Brothers Clone.

    I cut my teeth as a kid playing platformers and fighting games. Mario, Alex Kid, Leander (Psygnosis – remember that one?) millions and billions of em. of the generations. Fighters I played double dragon, final fight, target renegade. with a buddy co-op etc.
    I admit that Rayman and PS All Stars have advanced their respective genres they still seem more of the same.
    This gen (for many people) is the first time they’ve been able to play shooters online so they have really taken off.
    I played doom, quake, last triad, duke nukem etc. back in the day but to play shooters like Battlefield 3 now with today’s infrastructure of online and level of immersion is incredible.
    If I’m bored and in bed, I’d probably play a platformer/fighting game on my phone. But because my free time is limited. I’d probably play something with shiny 3D graphics online where I can take on teams of other people with my friends.

    So I probably could’ve summarised that whole wall of text as personal preference and where I am in my gaming life … but you get the picture (and my thought processes :)

    • I bought PS All Stars before December and I kinda regret it. It was rather disappointing. Its not because that its a Smash Bros Clone (its not even entirely comparable to it) but its a fighting game…. Arcade, Online and grr some other mode. To me that just wasn’t enough. I’m way to spoilt with Tekken and even anime fighters. Its odd that it didn’t sell well though, I guess it lacked interest or maybe it just didn’t impress Its fun with others but it gets so dull.

  6. The problem is that people are afraid to go out of their comfort zones. The people that buy FIFA and COD every year are reluctant to delve into anything else. Whether this is due to other games not being as popular or if it is down to the actual gameplay is anyones guess, but it seems to almost be a routine now for people to just buy COD every year. I thought Black Ops II was great, but I just can’t even begin to understand why people would pay hundreds of pounds for a console merely to play 2 games.

    I know that people are free to enjoy what they want, but it’s saddening when you KNOW that there are other games and experiences out there on the market that the majority of these people would enjoy. It seems that they cast a blind eye to them though and don’t even acknowledge them. The marketing seems to be ignored by this demographic, and even when great games have demos on the store, they get ignored by them. I don’t know how you could go about getting these people who stick to the COD/FIFA combo – who are obviously interested in gaming, no matter how ‘casual’ – to delve into other titles. Obviously people would say that they would need to be made more mainstream, but that only happens through marketing, which doesn’t seem to have worked for some titles so far.

    I think I went off on a tangent there, and it’s only loosely related to the initial article. But you still get my point.

    • One thing I didn’t note is the genre of games too, and the fact that multiplayer is core to most of these people (something Boiler mentioned above).

      This plays a huge part, but regardless, there must be a way to hook this part of the audience in to other games, genres and experiences.

    • I think this Fifa/Cod thing is just a completely different group of gamers, not casual nor core.. just something else. Personally I just find the whole thing odd.

  7. Really great article. I personally think games sell (big franchises at the moment that is) because in the past they’ve found a gap in the market and exploited it perfectly and then gone on to become the standard for that new market. Call of Duty with it’s modern and MP focused approach. Assassins Creed, Mario, GTA, MGS…they’ve all set the standard for their genre.
    But the best games don’t sell the most. Rayman being a prime example

    • Elder Scrolls has been impressive too bet when they get the sixth one out soon, theres going to be so much hype. People need there RPG fix and Elder Scrolls fits perfectly. I would’ve like to see more like it but. First Person view and some great back story to boot.

  8. I’m holding out for ShootDrive: City Stories…..

  9. What is the best game is subject to opinion. Personally, i think COD is just an average FPS and before you lot rip my nuts off, i also feel that way about BF and just don’t like FPSes. However, COD is an anomly as in theory, it should be doing poorly due to little being changed every year. It’s not the case and i have to admit, Activison had a surefire way of making cash once a year. But that’s just COD.

    A game can get 10/10, get released on a solid gold disc for £20 and not sell millions due to a number of factors. Marketing, not enough stock, getting overshadowed by another game etc.. But poor games can sell loads. Such as NFS:The Run as i think that recieved an average rating from TSA and went on to become successful.

    It is always a disappointment when something new and is generally thought to be excellent by a majority of reviewers fails to do well. Such as Rayman. That was a unique game and in theory, should have had no trouble selling at all. But due to it’s release date on the PS3 it failed. Had they released it on the Vita, they would have had a better chance of selling a lot of copies due to it being best suited for it.

    Ultimatly, it comes down to the power of the franchise. Rockstar just has to say “GTA” and everyone will wipe out their wallets whilst waiting for more information. Acti just shows a teaser and everyone preorders COD. Etc.. So it is hard for new IPs that recieve glowing reviews to do well. I think Dishonoured was a rare example where a brand new IP that recieved good reviews actually sold amount of copies that Bethesda predicted it would.

    In fact, i’m still surprised that TGC was bankrupt when they released that game that i won’t mention due to Al’s unholy love of it and tendecy to get overexcited when the name is mentioned. ;) Had it bombed, they would have been fecked.

    • I have to disagree with the fact that COD changes little per year. Black Ops II introduced a whole lot of changes, more so than many franchises do actually, yet people overlook that. Whether it’s a good game or not is a matter of opinion, but it sure did try to change things up a bit. Plus, with COD they can’t implement ground breaking changes each year, as that would that break the general mould of the game, which is something people don’t want to happen. You add vehicles, it becomes BF. Stuff like that limits what they can and can’t do. Considering their situation, I think they change quite a bit each year – but I will admit, only Black Ops II has pushed the envelope on the amount of changes that can be made. One thing COD should add though, is a cover system similar to Killzone 2’s single player. Surely a cover system like that couldn’t be too hard to add.

      I kind of went off topic there, but meh. Agree with the rest of your points though.

    • Wouldn’t bother commenting on whether or not Cod is the same thing each year to be honest.

  10. Lovely article~ <3

Comments are now closed for this post.