Super SalesS

If you look at the game sales database on VGChartz.com, you’ll notice a few interesting things:

  • Nintendo published all ten of the all-time top-selling console games
  • 22 of the top 25 all-time best-sellers are for Nintendo consoles and handhelds
  • The top-selling non-Nintendo game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, comes in at #16
  • It is very unlikely Wii Sports (81 million) and Super Mario Bros. (40 million) will ever be unseated as the #1 and #2 sellers

This seems like it would make for a powerful, marketable narrative for Nintendo, doesn’t it?

Of course, most of us know this sort of data is deceptive. VGchartz is one of the more comprehensive game sales data providers, but it is far from complete. It doesn’t do a very thorough job of tracking PC game sales, for one thing; and it doesn’t include mobile sales. Earlier this year, Angry Birds hit 1.7 billion downloads. No console title will ever reach even 100 million, let alone a billion.

This got me to thinking: why is the video game industry seemingly alone in the entertainment world for keeping sales — the truest gauge of popularity — so secret?

Take, for example, music sales. For decades, Billboard, the RIAA and other companies have carefully tracked song and album purchases and airplay to provide record companies and entertainment media. If an album sells 500,000 copies (in the U.S.), it is certified Gold. A million copies makes a record go Platinum. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a similar system for games, instead of the dubious “Game of the Year” distinction some titles receive in reprints? (Who declares GOTY, anyway? The publisher? IGN? Your mom?)

Likewise, we have box office receipts available every Sunday to see how the public responded to films, and these numbers can influence other moviegoers. A lousy opening weekend is usually a death sentence, as casual audiences will avoid a bomb; conversely, a surprise hit can gain a lot of momentum in subsequent weeks. TV, of course, has the Nielsen ratings, which literally make or break most programs.

So why not games?

I can guess at the reasons:

Games aren’t quite as “static” as other media. Take Super Mario Bros., for example. Do we consider its sales only for the NES and Famicom? Or, should we include its digital re-releases for Wii, Wii U and 3DS Virtual Console? What about the Game Boy Advance e-Reader version? And what about remakes — do the Super Mario Bros. Deluxe and the Super Mario All-Stars editions stand alone, or are they too included in the total lifetime sales tally? (And don’t even try to wrap your head around the same problem with Pokemon…)

By the same token, how do we account for multiplatform titles? Can you imagine trying to determine the precise total sales for all versions, all editions, and all platforms of a game like Street Fighter II? Where do arcade numbers fall into this?

Game companies are notoriously secretive. This is mostly for competitive reasons, I figure. We do get many sales figures from investor reports, but privately-held publishers never have to share their sales with anyone. Nintendo, a public company, usually doesn’t disclose its digital downloads numbers. I’m not really sure why they don’t, but then again Nintendo rarely explains anything and operates under its own set of rules and logic.

I suppose that by opening the curtain behind sales totals continuously after a game’s release date, a publisher runs the risk of giving its competitors an idea as to what concepts are successful… but that would be obvious anyway, wouldn’t it?

Games have a longer shelf life than other media. A good comparison is books; a book can stay on the New York Times best-seller list for months, and sales for high-demand and classic titles will remain steady for many years. Most other media are more ephemeral than this. Movies have a limited theatrical run, and after an initial spike of DVD / Blu-ray sales upon home release, sales typically fall off and never really recover. Music trends change weekly. TV shows are here one day, cancelled the next. But video games last as long as their consoles / operating systems are supported, and then some. With the ongoing shift to digital, services like Steam and GOG can keep a game’s sales going indefinitely, even at very small margins.

These are the best excuses I can come up with. I think ultimately the biggest reason we don’t have games that go “Gold” or “Platinum” or something similar, though, is the fact that game publishers (and hardware makers) just don’t play nice. They would all have to agree upon a universal certification system, agree to pay for it, and agree that doing so would benefit their bottom line.

That’s about as likely to happen as a Wii U title being the best seller of the next generation.