They sold a million

As young gamers back in the eighties and nineties we knew which games were worthy of our pocket money because they received critical acclaim from reviewers, and the same titles would ride high in the charts week in, week out. What we weren’t privy to were the sales volume figures from which these charts were compiled. For all we knew Sensible Soccer could have climbed to the summit by selling merely 100 copies in a given week if the competition happened to have been sub par; it was all relative. 

In the UK up until March 1996 (when Chart-Track took over the reigns), the software, music and video charts were compiled by Gallup (and endorsed by ELSPA) through polling up to 150 of the most prolific high street retailers. They’d send a weekly form to the likes of John Menzies (who later became WH Smith), Woolworth’s, Boots and a number of smaller CTN (Confectionery, Tobacco, and News) outlets, who would list the top 50 best sellers for the period along with the sales figures, broken equally into budget and full price releases.

Some charts were supplied by independent retailers like MicroByte or HMV. This example is from CU Amiga.

Before the budget game phenomenon found its feet, the chart was a top 30 rather than two sets of 25. At this juncture, the decision was taken to split them because budget titles sold in much higher volumes, and over an extended period of time, thereby skewing the results. Budget games in the Speccy days could cost as little as £1.99 so could be considered an impulse buy you’d pick up when you nipped into the newsagents to grab the daily paper. It just wasn’t a fair fight to pit one against the other when developers of full price releases relied as heavily on the charts to nurture awareness of their catalogue of games.

The summary results of this raw data were distributed to the magazines who would publish them each month showing a rise or fall in rank since the previous line up. Though to drill down to the precise number of units sold you’d have to subscribe to the industry insider’s publication, Computer Trade Weekly. Thousands of publishers, developers, retailers, distributors, critics and so on certainly did so, yet strangely the statistics remain thin on the ground today.

Instead, to determine how well a game sold we generally have to rely on information presented in interviews with the developers, either published in magazines at the time or retrospectively. These figures of course would be prone to inherent biases (pride, exaggeration etc.), or inaccuracies imbued by faulty memory or lack of access to the company’s finances.

Part of the problem was, the people most likely to have a handle on the sales figures – back room staff such as distribution and sales managers, accountants etc. – were the least likely to be profiled in magazines, or later online. Information might trickle down to the coders, artists and musicians, but it would often be vague hearsay. The ‘suits’ in the early days were reticent to even credit the developers for their craft, let alone invite them into the inner circle to share key performance indicators. Quite bizarre – even without the benefit of hindsight – given that they’d be more invested in establishing the fruits of their labour than anyone.

Another factor was the common separation between developers and publishers who would often operate as mutually dependent, yet entirely independent entities. The developers could deliver a game’s code to the publisher and have little involvement from that point onwards. Sales results would be communicated between the upper echelons of each organisation, and treated as a closely guarded secret unless you happened to have a million seller on your hands. Then it would be a wasted PR opportunity if you didn’t emblazon the fact across the box of the budget or compilation re-release, or boast about it in the promotional material for your subsequent games. Incidentally, the inherent claim vaunted by Ocean’s ‘They Sold a Million’ series (there were three collections in all) was pure, unadulterated marketing spiel.

What we also have to keep in mind is that Amiga games sold in minuscule quantities compared to the major Japanese console franchises, so shouting the figures from the roof tops wouldn’t be advisable. It would project the message that the Amiga is an inferior gaming platform, and in the twilight years approaching Commodore’s collapse, convince people to prematurely jump ship.

In 1996 some games were selling so poorly that embarrassingly the revenues wouldn’t have even covered the development costs. Ironically they may still have entered the charts because so many leading developers had already switched their focus towards the PC or Playstation so were no longer in the race.

Finally, for a while the Gallup charts were sponsored by McVitie’s, manufacturers of Penguin biscuits. This explains why Aquatic Games and Robocod were in pole position for 97 weeks in a row, and were awarded the trophy for the ‘Chocolatiest Games in the World’!

Nevertheless, with the advent of the Amiga’s cult status, a number of sales figures have been coaxed out of their stones like the proverbially bashful blood. Below you’ll find a selection of these in ascending order, along with any critical caveats and several entries from rival platforms for the sake of perspective.

So for the first time in the history of the known and unknown Megaverse we will discover which were the bestestest selling Amiga games of all time, ever-ever-ever… ever. *

* subject to available data (wriggle, weasel, wriggle etc.)

Game Platform Copies sold Caveats/notes Sourceages
The Entrepreneur Atari, C64 2 Peter Molyneux’s first game Venture Beat
The Saddam Hussein Game Amiga 3   Microsoft
Crazy Cars 3 Amiga, Atari ST 6   World of Stuart
Hilt 2 Amiga 10 taken from interview with Mark Sheeky Amiga PD
Hellcat Ace Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, PC Booter 50 Sid Meier’s first game Introduction to Game Development
Toado Amiga 180 taken from interview with Jim Wills Amiga PD
XTR Amiga 250 figures for February 1996 provided by Alex Amsel, Silltunna Software Lead Programmer comp.sys.amiga.games
Boppin’ Amiga 284   Wikia
Atomino Amiga, Atari ST, DOS, C64 317 over two week period in January 1996 according to Mike Clarke comp.sys.amiga.games
World Darts Amiga 1,000 estimated figure from developers (Pickford Bros) Zee-3 Digital Publishing
Inherit the Earth Amiga 2500 German CD version figures for period from November 1995 – March 1996 provided by Sven Tegethoff comp.sys.amiga.games
Worms: Director’s Cut Amiga 5,000   Dream 17
Alien Breed 3D 2 Amiga 5,000   Weyland-Yutani Corporation
Alien Breed 3D Amiga 15,000 figure provided by Lauri Ahon Very Computer
Touch Typist Amiga 15,000   Sector Software
Menace Amiga 20,000   The Complete History of DMA Design by Mike Dailly
Softporn Adventure Apple II, Atari 8-bit, DOS 25,000   The Adventure Gamer
Turrican Amiga 30,000 as reported in Amiga Joker magazine Turrican SETA
Worms Amiga 35,000 figure up until March 1996 provided by Martyn Brown comp.sys.amiga.games
Blood Money Amiga 40,000   The Complete History of DMA Design by Mike Dailly
Dungeon Master Atari ST 40,000 copies sold in year of release alone Wikipedia
Cannon Fodder 2 Amiga 45,000 over two days Amiga Format issue 68, February 1995
Shadow of the Beast Amiga 50,000   Derek dela Fuente interviews Paul Howarth for TVG (08.11.2005)
Phantasie Commodore 64, Apple II, DOS, Atari 8-bit, Atari ST, Amiga, MSX 50,000 figure for North America Keith Ferrell (December 1987). ‘The Commodore Games That Live On And On’. Compute’s Gazette. Pages 18-22.
Lawnmower Simulator II Amiga 50,000 copies sold in first week Illogicopedia
Lemmings Amiga 55,000 first day sales figure, 15m sold across all platforms The Complete History of DMA Design by Mike Dailly
Donkey Kong Arcade 65,000 Japanese sales figure Arcade Mania: The Turbo-charged World of Japan’s Game Centers by Brian Ashcraft (2008)
Sensible World of Soccer Amiga 70,000   Amiga Format issue 68, February 1995
Shovel Knight Steam 75,000 article by David D’Angelo Gameasutra
Mystery House Apple II 80,000 world’s first graphical adventure game Adventureland
Alien Breed Amiga 80,000 figure provided by Imran Ghory, professional software developer Quora
Abuse DOS, Win32, Mac OS, AIX, SGI Irix, Amiga, Linux 80,000   DOS Games Archive
Cannon Fodder Amiga 100,000   Amiga Format issue 66, December 1994
Airbus 320 Amiga, Atari ST, MS DOS 100,000   The Thalion Source
Hillsfar Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, IBM, Mac 100,000   History of SSI Games
Secret of the Silver Blades Amiga, Atari ST?, Commodore 64, IBM, Mac 100,000   History of SSI Games
Champions of Krynn Amiga, Apple II, Commodore 64, IBM 125,000   History of SSI Games
The Games Creator Atari ST 130,000 90,000 of which resulted from Atari bundling it with the ST for a year Triumph Over Challenges
Curse of the Azure Bonds Amiga, Apple II, Apple IIGS, Atari ST, Commodore 64, IBM, Mac 150,000   History of SSI Games
Space Quest DOS, Macintosh, Apple II, Apple IIGS, Amiga Atari ST 200,000   Wikipedia
Pool of Radiance Amiga, Apple II, Commodore 64, IBM, Mac, Atari, Atari ST, Apple IIGS 250,000   History of SSI Games
Leisure Suit Larry PC DOS, Apple II, Amiga, Atari ST, Apple IIGS, Apple Macintosh, Tandy Color Computer 3 250,000 copies sold in first year Mental Floss
Duke Nukem 64 N64 290,000 North American sales Retro Gaming Australia
ZORK I: The Great Underground Empire everything! 380,000   Gaming After 40
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Apple II, Macintosh, Commodore 64, CP/M, DOS, Amiga, Atari 8-bit and Atari ST 400,000   Open Culture
WordZap Windows 800,000 originally an Amiga game converted for Microsoft Entertainment Pack III, sales figure for 8 year period Classic WordZap Home Page
Adventure for Atari Atari 2600 1,000,000 first graphical action/adventure game, first gaming easter egg Complex Media Inc.
Street Fighter II SNES 2,880,000 data provided by Steven ‘Dreamking23’ Chavez Event Hubs
Roller Coaster Tycoon Windows 14,000,000 taken from interview with Alister Brimble Arcade Attack
Super Mario Bros NES 40,240,000 global total as of 2nd July 2016 VG Chartz

7 thoughts on “They sold a million

  • August 8, 2016 at 10:19 pm
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    Wow dreamkatcha! A great article (as usual). I sure puts into context what constituted a "hit" game back in the day.

  • August 10, 2016 at 4:30 pm
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    Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

    True, and when you look at it that way it makes me very grateful that anyone bothered coding for our obscure, little platform at all. It must seem like chasing chump change now to some of the devs who have since moved on to working with the PS4, Xbox and so on.

  • August 12, 2016 at 9:07 am
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    You are a man among men sir. I've looked all over for sales totals…the few you've managed to pry out of hiding are remarkable.

  • August 12, 2016 at 4:02 pm
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    Thanking you. I did get a warning letter from Google at one point – they asked me to give it a rest because their search engine was tired and needed to recuperate. 😉

    I really wanted to be able to put a figure on the Three Stooges release since that was the game that sparked this data hunting exercise. No luck at all – I even asked Cinemaware, but either the contact form malfunctioned or they don't want to talk to me. Either way… boooo, hisss!

  • November 17, 2016 at 4:32 am
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    Wait 40,240,000 million for Super Mario. The makers must be Billionarres then minus the cut losses from other games by the same brand.

  • November 17, 2016 at 4:38 am
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    The lesser successes in the Nintendo systems department minus the Wii which was a sleeper hit and games that didn't do as well might have took away a bit of billionarre status from the brand along with the billionarre maker sadly passing away so we wouldn't know who the money has gone to now and what if it wasn't Nintendo it means the new system is a start again from the ground up project by them with no billionarres budget if thats the case.

  • November 18, 2016 at 5:02 am
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    What it boils down to is the deal you sign with the developer or publisher you align yourself with. Very often the real talent behind these games got a raw deal, but went ahead anyway because they needed that leg up into prominence.

    Some were manipulated through naivety, learnt from their mistakes and went on to call the shots once the industry recognised their cash cow potential.

    Still, it's always going to be a symbiotic relationship you can't escape.

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