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Big hits vs. big hits: A cross-generational software sales analysis Exclusive
Big hits vs. big hits: A cross-generational software sales analysis
February 26, 2013 | By Matt Matthews

February 26, 2013 | By Matt Matthews
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

With Nintendo's Wii U already on the market and Sony promising its new PlayStation 4 before the end of the year, the industry is in the midst of yet another console generation shift.

Cross-generational games are already on the market, like Assassin's Creed III for the Wii U, and more like Blizzard's Diablo III for both PlayStation 3 and 4 are on the way.

All of the churn got me thinking about what was different in this generation and last, specifically in the software world.

So I contacted Liam Callahan at the NPD Group and asked if he could put together a list of the top 10 console games in each of the past two generations. The results showed how the top publishers and franchises have changed in just the past 12 years.

Let's look at the first chart, which lists the top-selling software released for the Sony PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox, and Nintendo GameCube. Cross-platform games have had their results combined for the purposes of this list, and the list is ranked by units, not by revenue.

Look at all those Grand Theft Auto and Madden games! It's a reminder of how dominant those franchises were during the early- and mid-2000s. Electronic Arts was clearly a dominant publisher during this period with five titles in the top 10, four of them Madden NFL games and one of them a Need for Speed.

There are also two console exclusive titles in the top 10, both Halo titles developed by Bungie and published by Microsoft for its original Xbox. That's quite an achievement for a system whose productive life was a mere four years long, from November 2001 to November 2005. Of course, some of those units may have been sold for the successor console, the Xbox 360, which can run both of these games from the original Xbox discs.

Also, I think it's important to see that the top four titles are all games that were rated M by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), meaning that they are ostensibly intended for consumers at least 17 years old. Outside of those four titles and the original Halo, every other game in the top 10 is from Electronic Arts and rated E by the ESRB, meaning they are for general audiences.

Based on data from a variety of sources throughout the years, I've put up my estimates for how many units have been sold for each game. The bottom titles are probably in the range of 2 million units while the top title, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is just under 10 million units across the two platforms from last generation.

Now, take a look at the chart for the consoles whose generation is nearing its end.

If Grand Theft Auto and Madden NFL defined the previous generation, at least in terms of mass sales, then I think we can safely say that Call of Duty and Nintendo games largely defined the generation now ending. Moreover, instead of Rockstar and Electronic Arts being the top-selling publishers, they've been replaced with Activision and Nintendo.

This chart hammers home just how bifurcated the market has become, even in the console space. While four of the top five titles are cross-platform Call of Duty titles, four of the top 10 are single-platform titles released by Nintendo for its own Wii.

Think about what that means. On the one hand you have two HD platforms, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, that largely play host to M-rated combat titles which are defined by their cutting-edge graphics and online multiplayer. On the other you have E-rated games by Nintendo that focus on family-and-friends local multiplayer and cartoon-style graphics.

Perhaps just as important, those Call of Duty shooters are renewed every year, while Nintendo's titles are released infrequently but sell modestly over a very long period of time. (Nintendo's word for these types of games is evergreen.)

Also take time to appreciate the difference in scale between those two charts. Just comparing the top title on each list, Call of Duty: Black Ops has moved nearly 70 per cent more units than did Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in the previous generation. In fact, if we were to slip San Andreas into the newer list, it would only come in seventh.

Or, to draw another easy comparison, I am fairly confident that total sales of the top ten titles on the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube comes in under 50 million units. For the newer list, the figure is well over 100 million units, and just the top four are enough to get over 50 million.

By the way, have you noticed what's missing? I was very surprised to see that not a single music game from the Guitar Hero era made either of these lists. Although I don't have access to a full breakout of figures, I think the explanation could be quite simple: its sales were split between the generations in just the right way to guarantee that it didn't break into either of the top 10 lists.

There is also the issue of digital sales, which are not reflected in either of these charts. Six of the titles in the first chart are available for current consoles in purely digital form. All five of the Call of Duty titles are available digitally, as is Grand Theft Auto IV, on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Since, for example, Call of Duty: Black Ops II is now available as a full download on the PlayStation 3, has it sold enough units to bump up its rank on the chart above? Unlikely, but who's to say as the months wear on? Or the digital pricing becomes aggressive enough to rival or beat retail?

And that points to the limited long-term utility of charts like the ones above. While most console software continues to flow through retail stores, that's becoming less and less important with each passing day. With the Wii U now offering full-game downloads on the day a software title launches, and with the PlayStation 4 likely to follow a similar route later this year, charts like the ones you see above will simply cease to exist or, at best, cease to be relevant.

And with Sony now promising game streaming through its Gaikai service, it's even possible that future console owners will simply have subscriptions to libraries of software. In the face of such a shift, the idea of a sales chart showing millions of units will be to our future selves what rotary phones are to us now: artifacts of another time, quaint in their simplicity.

[Thank you to Liam Callahan with the NPD Group for his assistance with the rankings in this column. Also, thank you to my good friends at NeoGAF, including Celine and many others behind the scenes.]

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Adam Rebika
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Digital sales REALLY need to be charted. Especially since the publisher and the developper usually get a larger cut on digital sales than on the revenue on digital sales than on retail (well, not sure how it works / will work for consoles, but for Steam I'm pretty confident it's the case), that's a good chunk of the revenue we're not aware of.

Tim Borquez
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Yeah, I know that developers end up with under 10 bucks per retail game. Steam only takes around 30%.

Brendan Bennett
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The counter-argument to this is that some things have been fairly-well nailed down from generation to generation. Gran Turismo is a prime example, usually sitting somewhere around 10 million units per game. I can't speak for the Need for Speed series, but that seems to be chugging along as usual at a few million per title I guess.

Another point would be that the GTA games seem to have settled in at the mid-high 7-figure mark, which, considering the difference in titles from the fantastic, well-known SA to the distant cousin Red Dead Redemption is pretty remarkable. Releasing 3 times as many full GTA games on the 6th gen probably helped push those sales up a few million too, but on the other hand I don't have good numbers for the GTA4 Episodes; what sort of sales do they count as?

I think the more important metric is going to be market penetration; how well the games does against other games on a ganeration of consoles. The PS3/360 market is only 3/4 the size of the PS2/XBOX/GC market at around 150 million, and as such we're seeing games like Call of Duty and the top few Wii games breaking 10% of the install base. Actually, at the time of release most (or even all) of the top 10 you posted would have broken 10% of the install base at the time (I'm putting the Wii in a different group to the PS3/360).

With regards to EA going from one of the top publishers to off this top 10 list, and Rockstar only appearing on the edge, there doesn't seem to be a huge, unknown reason for this all things considered.

Phillip Birmingham
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Wii Play is kind of an outlier -- I wonder how many people bought it because it was seen as a freebie when you bought a second remote.

Bob Johnson
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Previous gen chart doesn't add up.

Where is GT3? Where is SSB:Melee? Google says they sold over 6 and 4 million units in North America and US respectively.

And Google says Madden 2k4 sold closer to 4 million units here.

Also Guitar Hero 3 brought in the most revenue of any game this generation. $870 million in the US according to Gamasutra as of 2011. Was average selling price really that far over $100? $100 average selling price would put it at 8.7 million units sold.

Joe Zachery
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Ya i have seen some numbers that put a few Nintendo made Gamecube games in that top 10. So I'm not sure how they came up with their chart.

Adam Bishop
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According to Polyphony, Gran Turismo 3 shipped 7.1 million units in North America and Gran Turismo 4 shipped 3.3 million. (

I don't know how these NPD numbers could be considered accurate when they're missing a game that should have been #2 on that list (and it could be worse if they're missing big hits other than Gran Turismo).

Dave Long
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Well said - odd figures are odd. I find it _very_ hard to believe that the 7th best-selling game last gen, cross-platform, only shipped 2.5 million units, even though we're only restricting to the US.

Titi Naburu
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I think that comparing sales of whole franchises would be more interesting.