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At 20 Million Copies Sold, Skyrim Is in the Top 20 Bestselling Games of All Time

3 minute read

This is technically last week’s news — last Thursday’s to be precise: Skyrim has sold 20 million copies since it launched in November 2011.

That figure was buried in a press release about Bethesda’s upcoming The Elder Scrolls Online, so mentioned almost offhand, but I noticed a few sites picking it up this morning, and I understand why. While something as mainstream-obvious as Grand Theft Auto V already has Skyrim by some 9 million copies, Skyrim is a roleplaying game. Make that a deeply traditional roleplaying game: the apotheosis of computer-automated realizations of the sort of thing Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were thinking about back in the early 1970s.

I’m not asking anyone to genuflect at the altar of D&D, or even saying Skyrim‘s one of the greats (for me, because of the kinds of things Skyrim has to do to be the kind of game it was, given technological limitations in 2011, its greatness inexorably diminishes — just as Oblivion‘s and Morrowind‘s and Daggerfall‘s and Arena‘s did — with time and hindsight). I’m just noting that it seems counterintuitive, after years of treatises on the death of single player gaming, the death of extremely long form gaming and the stagnation of so-called Western fantasy gaming, that a game like Skyrim exists a decade into the 21st century, much less ranks in the top 20 bestselling games, across all platforms, of all time.

Bear in mind that 20 million copies comprises all the subsequent compilation editions, and a certain number of buyers (myself included) are probably double-dipping, but consider that by comparison, Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. 3 sold 18 million copies, while Super Mario World grabbed just a tick more at 20.6 million. None of the Halos are in that list, nor any of the Gears of Wars. Not a single Zelda game’s ever come close, and the top-selling installment in Sony’s bestselling PlayStation 2-exclusive franchise, Gran Turismo 3 (and remember that the PS2 is the bestselling game console in history), couldn’t crack 15 million copies. Even on the PC, granting that the revenue model for a lower-selling game, copy-wise, like World of Warcraft, is another matter, The Sims 2 is merely a sales tie — there’s nothing better-selling.

I still haven’t “finished” Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Between all the false starts and character rejiggering, the marathon play sessions that started out with the best of intentions but fizzled around the post-Dark Brotherhood quest-line business or the cosmic chitchat atop the Throat of the World, I’ve probably played more than most. But I have yet to feel that finish line ribbon snap across my chest. Maybe I never will. That’s what I love about games like Skyrim, and that’s why I’ll keep returning to them, story problems, gameplay drudgery and all.

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Write to Matt Peckham at matt.peckham@time.com