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Quantity vs. Quality: Do Sales Reflect the Quality of a Game?

by William Schwartz


“If a product sells a large number of copies, does that make it better than its competitors?” This age old question is one of the biggest arguments of a game’s merits and is used by everyone from forum posters to high profile industry producers. But does it really hold that much weight? In the film industry, the Academy often ignore box office and DVD sales when voting for the nominees each year. In fact, many blockbusters are cast aside when film analysts and scholars tend to refer to films that have progressed the medium forward. Are games any different?

In 1998, Valve released a little title known as Half-Life. As of 2008, the title has sold approximately ten million copies and took nearly ten years to achieve. Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has sold over twenty million copies in a fifth of the time frame. Both of these games share the same review score on Metacritic (not that this is a good basis for judging a game’s quality), so what accounts for the drastic difference in sales? Part of it could be related to the fact that Call of Duty is multiplatform while the original Half Life title is a PC exclusive (not counting the not very popular Dreamcast and PS2 ports), or it could be that Call of Duty has been more highly marketed. Either way, only one of these titles has made it into the books as one of the most innovative and inspiring games to date. Not that Call of Duty is a bad franchise or unworthy of being remembered, but considering the fact that Half Life is the topic of some prestigious college lectures, do Call of Duty’s greater sales make it better than Half Life?

The same can be said about games like Braid and Super Mario Bros. Wii. ‘Mario’ is one of the most successful franchises in the entire industry, and the Wii iteration of the Super Mario Bros. series has gone on to sell nearly twenty two million copies to date. Despite not being too terribly different from its previous iterations in gameplay, level design, and narrative (though these are arguable) it has received more than decent review scores and massive international sales. But another side scrolling platformer, Braid, is almost the exact opposite in that it is more highly reviewed but not quite as financially successful. Braid utilized the not as popularly used time manipulation mechanic to change how gamers could play platformers along with its unique art style. Despite being one of the most successful games on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008, it has not made as many salesas ‘Mario.’ Braid may not have sold as many units, but it is regarded as an enormously innovative title.

Games like ‘Mario’ and Call of Duty are enormously successful for a wide number of reasons. ‘Mario’ has been around for decades with its wonderfully fun yet basic, easy to learn gameplay that can be played by anyone at any age. Call of Duty may not have been around as long but in reality, it’s mechanic is also fairly easy to learn. At one time these games were considered hard core games but now they are core games for a more casual audience. Both of these franchises (and other popular franchises like them) have in fact evolved in certain ways over the years but their core mechanics have remained fairly the same. There is nothing wrong with this, but they are successful, in part, due to their simplistic and quick to learn gameplay mechanics. Even Eric Hirshberg of Activision believes that Call of Duty‘s success comes from this idea (0:40):

Modern Warfare 3 on Jimmy Fallon

“New people” being the casual audience. The casual audience is always bigger than the core audience which is why casual games like Wii Sports has sold nearly seventy seven million copies since its release. Games like Call of Duty are fun and have that intense, over the top action that’s common in many core games these days while its mechanic is easy to learn and doesn’t require hours and hours of time to learn how to play and progress in (like RPGs), so the casual audience can play a game that has plenty of guns and explosions and not have to sacrifice time dedicated to the rest of their daily schedules. This doesn’t mean that casual gamers are unable to learn more in depth games, they simply don’t have the time or the interest that the core audience does. Nor does this argument mean games like Call of Duty, Wii Sports, or Super Mario Bros. aren’t good games or lack any sort of skill. I’ve seen players run through ‘Mario’ in ways that make my jaw drop. But these games have a large audience of both casual and core gamers due to their attraction to a wide variety of gamers, along with aggressive marketing, word of mouth, and the simple fact that some people buy certain games just because they want to play it with their friends in their living rooms and online.

Just because a game sells a massive number of copies doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good game though. I mean, look at Zumba Fitness (Wii)…..enough said. Really, do I need to say anymore on that? Even the universally panned Duker Nukem Forever made a profit. It transfers over into other mediums as well. Just because the Jonas Brothers, Lady Gaga, Kesha, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, (I think you get the point) are popular doesn’t make them more talented than any band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or any trained classical musician. It just means they are popular. Twilight is a massive phenomenon, but don’t tell me Bella and Edward are better characters in a better story than The Lord of the Rings (which is also popular). They’re a fad. Some super popular musicians, films, novels and even games can last a long time, but many of them fall in a matter of a few years or so. Just look at Guitar Hero, it may have fallen due to being over annualized by Activision (something many people fear is happening to the Call of Duty franchise), but it’s a genre that doesn’t receive the attention as it once did. Besides, when a game sells millions of units, the charts don’t note how many of those games were traded in, returned, or sat on someone’s shelf after being played once.

Lately, this argument has been used quite a bit in relation to the Battlefield 3 versus Modern Warfare 3 war. Many people from industry heads to forum fanboys have used the “quantity equals quality” argument over and over again whenever one of these games is mentioned. Go ahead and look at any Call of Duty or Battlefield article on this website (shameless self plug) and I guarantee ninety percent of those articles include a comment that references this topic. I’m glad that the developers don’t particularly care about this “war,” but EA and Activision do. I don’t want this giant pissing contest between publishers to become a golden shower for the consumer audience, I want each developer to make the best possible game they can so that I can come back three years from now and enjoy them as much as I did on day one. I don’t believe Call of Duty and ‘Mario’ are bad games nor are Battlefield, Half Life, or Braid “better” per se. They are ALL very different games despite the fact that some of them fall into the same genre. But, their popularity doesn’t mean that they are any better or worse than any other game in their genre, they simply just know how to reach a wider audience.

- This article was updated on:February 21st, 2018

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