In Part 1 of this series I discussed outlier bestsellers that didn’t fit a simple category: simulators, sandbox games, and kart racers. In Part 2 I focused in on the Nintendo dynasty and their staggering history of massively selling, massively fun games. Here in Part 3 I’ll look at a final trend in all-time bestsellers—the rise of the hard-core blockbuster. Two legendary series do most of the work here: Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty.
We’ll start with shooters. The Call of Duty franchise can boast four games that have sold over twenty million copies, with Modern Warfare 2 selling over 22 million copies, Black Ops II selling 25.2 million, Black Ops selling 26.2 million, and Modern Warfare 3 selling 26.5 million units. Three more CoD games sold between 15 and 19 million: World at War, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and Ghosts. The only other shooter to make it on the list is Battlefield 3 with 20 million sales. You will notice that the oldest of these games, CoD 4: Modern Warfare, was released in 2007.
Hardcore titles reaching huge markets is a 21st century phenomenon. 1997’s phenomenal GoldenEye 007 for N64 barely topped 8 million (a year after Pokémon Red, Green, and Blue sold 23.64 million). Call of Duty has benefitted from video gaming’s increasing prominence in the general cultural consciousness. As gaming becomes something that nearly everyone does in one way or another, not only can Wii Sports sell 82 million copies and Minecraft 54 million, but less all-inclusive games can also reach tens of millions of eager gamers—and support AAA production quality. Part of the appeal of these games is that they really bundle two or three great modes in one package—a (usually) compelling solo or co-op campaign mode, robust online multiplayer, and often some sort of third special ops mode. Plus zombies, of course. In this way, while CoD doesn’t reach the same wide fanbase of, say, Wii Sports, it does reach people there just for the multiplayer, those mainly interested in the campaign, and those drawn by the great one-two punch of both styles. Within the shooter genre, then, CoD does a great job offering a wide range of experiences that helps maximize its appeal. And the state-of-the-art graphics also help pull in gamers who just want to be wowed.
While modern shooters portray warfare in disturbing detail, Grand Theft Auto has always earned its money by bringing outrageous violence and carnage home to America’s city streets. And as the games get bigger, so do the audiences. Where 2002’s GTA: Vice City sold 20 million copies, 2004’s GTA: San Andreas sold 27.5 million, 2008’s GTA IV sold 25 million, and 2013’s GTA V sold 34 million, making it one of only three non-Nintendo games (along with Tetris and Minecraft) to make the all-time top ten (at #6). The controversial amoral possibilities of the game bring a certain audience to begin with, people who want to enjoy trying things in a game that the vast, vast majority of us would not actually want to do in real life, like steal a plane from a military base and abandon it to parachute to the top of a mountain, or go on a violent rampage against mimes, hipsters, or whoever happens to be nearby.
Target Australia’s decision to not sell the game because of its depictions of violence against women demonstrates how sometimes the shock value can remove audiences from the equation. But overall, I suspect that the huge media attention generated by the series’ controversial violence and distasteful possibilities like sleeping with a prostitute then killing her to get your money back has, thus far, probably brought more gamers to GTA than it’s driven away, by giving the series free publicity. How many of you had heard of the shock mass-murder-oriented title Hatred before Steam briefly considered refusing to sell it? Thus was GTA born, as well.
Hatred will never become the juggernaut that is GTA, though. For one thing, the gameplay is almost certain to be less well designed—Rockstar’s GTA game mechanics get better with each iteration. And at least as important, GTA’s worlds keep getting bigger and better. GTA V’s Los Santos is the most amazing game world I have ever visited, an enormous playground with something cool to try by land, sea, and air around every corner. I’m not much for killing prostitutes in games—when I play a game with a karma system, my first playthrough is almost always some version of the good guy route. But there’s so much to do in GTA V that not wanting to go out of my way to do psychopathic things still leaves many times more to do than most other games out there.
Part of the reason GTA V sold more than its predecessors is because as the games get bigger, they start pulling in gamers like me who weren’t drawn to the shock value of GTA III and other titles, but want a really fun place to play. I may like Red Dead Redemption better because of the kind of gamer I am…but GTA boasts four all-time bestsellers because so many different kinds of gamers find something there to love, in ever-progressing AAA high definition.
GTA offers games that, like Call of Duty, couldn’t crack a list like this until the 21st century when the gaming audience had gotten big enough for divisive games to still have huge audiences. But that’s the century we’re in, and the franchise shows no sign of slowing down. Nintendo isn’t going away—family friendly titles that you can play for 30 minutes or 60 hours will always have a place in video gaming, and no one does it better than them. But there are other giants on the horizon now, and they each have their own spot in the ever-widening gaming landscape. And gaming is better for it.