Noah Falstein on Insult Swordfighting
Grip: The Biology of Compulsion

Top Ten Role-playing Game Franchises

D20 One of the most successful videogame formats of all time is the computer role-playing game (cRPG). The basis of all such games is a progression structure which functions as a reward schedule (providing a steady supply of the “reward protein” dopamine, and the promise of future reward), which as discussed previously is one of the key reasons why people play videogames.

The idea of a reward schedule is simple enough: the promise of reward creates activity in the pursuit of that reward. First formulated in something close to the modern scientific models by B.F. Skinner's experiments on rats from the 1930s onwards, the videogames industry has long known about this aspect of behaviour and utilised it to make games more addictive to players who enjoy the core activities of the game being offered. The success of MMORPGs, such as World of Warcraft, can be directly linked to the use of reward schedules as the primary motivator for continued play, although of course other factors (such as imagined community) also apply.  

The top ten cRPG franchises also include two of the top ten videogame franchises of any kind, which reiterates the importance of this genre to the videogames industry. For each of the top franchises, the total franchise sales are provided (the number of copies of all games in that franchise that have been sold), as well as the high watermark sales (the most number of copies a single title in that franchise has sold across all SKUs), as well as the ranking in popularity among gamers based upon the recent DGD2 survey. (See below for notes on the composition of this survey).

In traditional style, the top ten is presented in reverse order. Some sales figures and estimated, and corrections are welcomed in the comments.



10. The Elder Scrolls

  • 7.5 million franchise sales
  • 4 million high watermark sales (Morrowind)
  • Ranked #7 franchise by gamers, #7 franchise by male gamers, #5 franchise by female gamers

 The Elder Scrolls  represents the most successful first person cRPG franchise of all time, and it weighs in at number ten in the list. The highest sales so far are for the third title, Morrowind, but it is expected that the fourth game, Oblivion, may eventually surpass this, both titles benefiting from being distributed on consoles, having previously been solely on PC. Not counting “dungeon hacks”, The Elder Scrolls is also the most successful Western RPG franchise. It is well established within the industry that there is a clear distinction between those RPGs developed in the US and Europe, and those developed in Japan.

Characteristic of the Western RPG is a dark or mature theme, an open world, non-linear plot elements, and consequentialist choices. It is also usual for the player to be granted an exceptional degree of choice in how they develop their character. The Elder Scrolls has always embodied this aspect, as typified by the vision statement for the franchise which is based upon “being who you want, and doing what you want”. This sums up in a nutshell the basic idea behind the Western RPG, and its appeal to gamers is shown by its high placing in the survey rankings – especially among female players.

Built on the success of the diverse ways players can approach the play of these games, the fanbase for The Elder Scrolls is extremely diverse. According to Rhianna Pratchett, her father (acclaimed fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett) plays Oblivion just to mess around with the forge mechanics, rarely if ever bothering with combat, and this kind of unusual approach to play is not uncommon among fans of the franchise.


Tigerex 9. Monster Hunter

  • 8.1 million franchise sales
  • 3 million high watermark sales (Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G)
  • Ranked #132 franchise by gamers, #115 franchise by male gamers

Capcom have long been searching for a cRPG franchise, recognising the commercial potential in the form, but it wasn't until 2004 that they finally had a contender. Essentially a “dungeon hack” with fantasy dinosaurs, Monster Hunter allows players to be a melee or a ranged character, and hunt down and slay monsters, making new equipment from the remains of those monsters.

Although it can be played offline, it is designed (in a manner similar to Phantasy Star Online) to be played online with teams of up to three other monster hunters teaming up to take down the more powerful foes. It is principally popular in Japan, where most of the unit sales have been racked up, which explains its poor ranking in the survey data (which primarily included Western gamers).


Kingdom hearts.cover_l 8. Kingdom Hearts

  • 11 million franchise sales
  • 5.6 million high watermark sales (Kingdom Hearts)
  • Ranked #69 franchise by gamers, #97 franchise by male gamers, #17 franchise by female gamers

The most powerful force behind sales in any medium is the strength of a brand, and like it or hate it, the Disney brand is incredibly strong. In 2002, masters of the cRPG genre Squaresoft co-operated with Disney to make Kingdom Hearts, a hugely successful title that has gone on to produce an equally successful sequel.

Square (now Square Enix) use a well-established formula for making their Japanese-style cRPGs, and Kingdom Hearts deploys the same basic approach. Games in the Japanese role-playing game tradition (which Square embodies) tend to blend bright and dark elements in their story setting, have linear storylines, use parties consisting usually of fixed members, have relatively static progression structures (players work to power up their characters, but have few choices therein) and provide a completely different set of role-playing mechanics in each game in a franchise. This is in contrast with Western RPGs which tend to implement a specific RPG mechanic system (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons) which remains essentially the same across multiple titles in a franchise.


Worldofwarcraft 7. World of Warcraft

  • At least 17.8 million franchise sales
  • 11.5 million maximum concurrent subscriber base 
  • Ranked #2 franchise by gamers, #3 franchise by male gamers, #2 franchise by female gamers

What need be said about this hugely successful title? World of Warcraft currently rules the world of massively multiplayer games (at least outside of Korea!) with 11.5 monthly subscribers. It is difficult to calculate unit sales because a different distribution method has been used in each geographic territory, but the figure must approach (and perhaps exceed) 20 million units. The estimate given is based on confirmed unit sales.

The model copied by World of Warcraft is that of the LP MUD or DikuMUD, both of which were adaptations of Dungeons & Dragons (with some modification) to multiplayer text worlds. Blizzard simply added a beautifully rendered visual world, created a new set of mechanics (in a class and level form, just like D&D), and used their pre-existing fanbase to kickstart what was to become a market leader in MMORPGs. Nonetheless, this is not the top MMORPG franchise in this countdown.

The game is hugely popular with gamers, ranking at number 2 overall. Part of the success of this style of game is that on top of the compelling reward structure, the online community offers a sense of belonging. Studies show that rates of depression are higher among MMO players (likely a cause of play, not an effect), and that players of MMOs tend to be quite introverted – the online world offers a shy person an opportunity to explore socialising behind the helpful disguise of an avatar. Psychologists suggest that while MMORPGs don't provide the emotional support of a real community, they still serve to expose players to a wide variety of worldviews which can represent genuine social benefits.

Psychological studies not withstanding, players of World of Warcraft love the game, but it is becoming clear that this form of play is not reaching out to a new audience (as once suggested) but simply capitalising on the existing audience for videogames. Since it is well established that the MMO space can only support a certain volume of players, companies looking for a gap in the market would not be advised to target the MMO space without a strong license to create immediate appeal.


Diablo2 6. Diablo

  • 18.5 million franchise sales
  • 4 million high watermark sales (Diablo II)
  • Ranked #16 franchise by gamers, #16 franchise by male gamers, #38 franchise by female gamers

It's hard to know if Diablo has actually sold more units than World of Warcraft (the latter has certainly made more money), but both of Blizzard's mega-branded RPG titles have sold more than any other cRPG made in the West. All of the top five cRPG franchises were made in South East Asia. The 18.5 million franchise sale figure is provided in a press release by Blizzard with an asterisk by it, as if there was some explanatory note, but the Blizzard webside never explains what this means. Given that the highest selling title in this franchise has sold 4 million units, and that there are only two titles and two add on packs, the 18.5 million figure must presumably include something other than computer games.

The Diablo games are classic “dungeon hacks”, in which the player fights monsters in the pursuit of new and better treasure. Although there are levelling mechanics, it is the detailed and varied treasure tables which provide the primary reward structure in the Diablo games, and players will often spend considerable time searching for just the right item to complete their kit. The franchise is clearly popular among gamers, although principally male gamers.


Castelvania -symphony night E 5. Castlevania

  • 20 million franchise sales
  • Unknown high watermark sales
  • Ranked #92 franchise by gamers, #82 franchise by male gamers

Originally a platform game with combat, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest added considerable RPG mechanics to the game mechanics, including character levelling and collectible equipment, and later iterations such as Symphony of the Night have solidified the move towards the RPG format. Although not everyone would consider the Castlevania franchise to fit into the cRPG pattern, there are sufficient RPG-elements that it has been included in this countdown.

The only successful franchise to have wed RPG mechanics to a platform control scheme, this is also the most successful RPG-like game to be viewed from a side-on perspective the ideal perspective for platform play although MapleStory represents a possible objection to this claim (it was difficult to find a way to incorporate data from MMOs that are "free to play plus microtransactions", and thus they have been omitted). It's not clear what the highest sales figures set by any individual title might be, and the high franchise sales are as much a product of the number of titles (more than twenty so far) as anything else. Nonetheless, it is characteristic of a strong franchise that it is able to support multiple sequels, and Castlevania is one of Konami's finest.


Lineage2 4. Lineage

  • 43 million franchise sales
  • 3 million maximum concurrent subscriber base
  • Ranked #165 franchise by gamers, #187 franchise by male gamers, #65 franchise by female gamers

Although not a major title in the West, Lineage and its sequel Lineage II are hugely popular in the Korean market, which experienced unprecedented demand for MMORPGs having acquired the internet infrastructure practically overnight. Using isometric overhead graphics (similar to Diablo II), the game mechanics are classic “dungeon hack” in nature, drawing heavily from both NetHack (a decendent of Rogue, the original “dungeon hack”) and Dungeons & Dragons.


Dragon_Quest_VIII_Journey_of_the_Cursed_King 3. Dragon Quest

  • 47 million franchise sales
  • 4.44 high watermark sales (Dragon Quest VIII)
  • Ranked #165 franchise by gamers, #150 franchise by male gamers

Like Lineage, Dragon Quest has not really made much of an impact outside of its home market, but in Japan this is one of the premier cRPG franchises. Enix, the company behind it, was thus a natural choice of partner for Square, the other major cRPG publisher in Japan, hence the merger in 2003, creating the world's largest producer of cRPG titles.

Featuring a party system, and very stat-heavy combat, Dragon Quest is unique in that it draws more heavily from Wizardry than from than from other sources (although Ultima and Dungeons & Dragons remain inescapable influences). It is the simplicity of its gameplay which has contributed both to its phenomenal success in Japan, and its difficulty selling in the West, where RPG players are often far more demanding in their play needs.


Final_Fantasy_VII_PC_Cover 2. Final Fantasy

  • 86 million franchise sales
  • 9.8 million high watermark sales (Final Fantasy VII)
  • Ranked #1 franchise by gamers, #1 franchise by male gamers, #1 franchise by female gamers

The fifth highest selling videogame franchise of any kind, Final Fantasy is one of the most important videogame brands of all time. Not only did it sell more than 8 million units almost ten years before a first person shooter was able to clear this watermark, and on a fraction of the marketing spend, but it has sold more than twice as many units as the most successful FPS franchise (Call of Duty, 35 million).

One of the key reasons for the success of this brand is its capacity for reinvention. While Western franchises build a single world within which all content is based, Final Fantasy has only a few common elements between individual titles (and these are mostly cosmetic) promising instead a new and inventive setting and original game mechanics with each successive title.

The prominent role that the art designer has in the franchise's history also points to a very different approach: just two artists, Yoshitaka Amano (I-VI) and Tetsuya Nomura (VII-X) have been responsible for almost all of the art direction in the series, and Amano-san has produced the logo designs for every major game in the franchise. This attention to artistic presentation is undoubtedly a component in the franchise's success.

In common with all Japanese RPGs, control schemes are simple while menu screens are complicated. This shows the major difference between the players of action-oriented titles such as FPS games and the players of cRPGs – the latter are more cerebral players, who want to think about what to do, rather than throwing themselves into a “tunnel of challenges”. Many RPG players do not have the reflexes to handle action games, and thus the turn-based or time-sliced approach to combat offered by Final Fantasy and other cRPG titles has additional audience reach (this is likely the reason why only one of the top ten cRPG franchises uses first person controls, which Japanese players and many casual players struggle with).

The common elements of the game mechanics throughout the franchise include the summoning of monsters as special attacks in combat, the “limit break” which allows for massive damage in response to an attack which causes high damage, and status effects (an established staple of all cRPG designs). Progress mechanics have become more complex in recent titles, with an increasing element of choice replacing the classic Japanese system of linear levelling.

This franchise was the top rated in our recent survey, by both male and female players. The appeal to female players has added significantly to the success of the franchise – not only through the additional sales this has allowed, but also because the kinds of problems that are eliminated when creating a gender-inclusive game tend to increase the appeal for male players as well, a factor The Sims also leveraged to its benefit.


Pokemon 1. Pokémon

  • 186 million franchise sales
  • 20.68 million high watermark sales (Pokémon Red, Blue and Green)
  • Ranked #54 franchise by gamers, #60 franchise by male gamers, #38 franchise by female gamers

Finally, we come to the crown jewel of all cRPGs franchises: Pokémon. The second highest selling franchise of all time (after Mario, with 201 million franchise sales) the series has achieved this in substantially fewer titles than Nintendo's other big-hitting brand. Since the appeal of the Pokémon franchise remains strong (the last major title still pulled in around 15 million unit sales), it may soon overtake Mario's crown.

Although not highly rated in the recent survey, this may reflect the fact that the core fanbase for Pokémon is with younger players, who were not a large part of the sample. Don't make the mistake of thinking that this is a game only for kids, though – hardcore players may be embarrassed to admit it in public, but a great number of cRPG fans have spent many hundreds of guilty hours levelling up their Pokémon.

With its incredibly simple representation for battle, Pokémon shows that substance in the mechanics and progression structures are far more important than visual flair in this genre. The main games in the franchise use a party system whereby the player captures monsters (known as Pokémon – a Romanised contraction of the Japanese “pocket monster”) who they then train and level up. With hundreds of different Pokémon in each game, players can express themselves through their choice of monsters, and many players get sucked into the process of powering up their different Pokémon and searching for optimal combinations of powers to make ultimate teams.

Like Final Fantasy, art design is a huge component of the franchise's success, and the cute design of the monsters (by Creatures Inc., a Japanese toy company that is a one-third owner of the brand) facilitated the brand's successful transition to other media such as television and film, further driving the phenomenal success of the franchise.

Another aspect behind the success of the game is that beyond the levelling of the monsters lies another large-scale reward schedule: collecting the monsters. “Got to catch 'em all” is the catchphrase that has been used to encourage this style of play, and designing the games over multiple SKUs such that players encourage their friends to buy a different version (or even buy a second version for themselves) undoubtedly adds to the truly impressive sales figures. A dynamite collision of two addictive reward schedules – levelling and collection – plus all the community benefits that come with trading, have combined to make this the number one cRPG franchise.


Honourable Mentions

Two additional franchises deserve an honourable mention:


Baldur's gate Honourable mention: Baldur's Gate

  • 5 million franchise sales
  • 2 million high watermark sales (Baldur's Gate II)
  • Ranked #14 franchise by gamers, #14 franchise by male gamers, #17 franchise by female gamers

Still a highly regarded Western RPG franchise, Baldur's Gate would be in the number 10 position if Castlevania were excluded from consideration. The high placing of the franchise among both male and female gamers shows its enduring appeal.


Fate Honourable mention: Fate

  • 4 million franchise sales
  • 4 high watermark sales (Fate)
  • Ranked #297 by gamers

Wild Tangent's “Casual RPG” has largely escaped noticed by gamers, but it has sold in phenomenal numbers to the casual market. Offering a stripped-down “dungeon hack”, and a choice of companion animal, this brand may continue to grow in strength over the coming years.


Life Sims

One final point of comparison may prove interesting. The “life sim” genre, pioneered by The Sims, also uses reward schedules as the basis for progress mechanics. Put aside the absence of combat, and one can make a case that these games are very similar in form to the classic cRPG – continued play produces progress, it's just that in these games the core play is non-violent, and appeals very strongly to a female audience while still attracting considerable numbers of male players. What's interesting about this is how highly ranked the life sim franchises would have been had we included them in the countdown:


Acww_big_cover Animal Crossing (would have been #7)

  • 15 million franchise sales
  • 9.53 high watermark sales (Animal Crossing: Wild World)
  • Ranked #132 franchise by gamers, #187 franchise by male gamers, #38 franchise by female gamers


Nintendogs_cover_large Nintendogs (would have been #5)

  • 21.67 million franchise sales
  • 21.67 million high watermark sales (all Nintendogs titles)
  • Unranked by gamers.


The sims The Sims (would have been #2)

  • 100 million franchise sales
  • 16 million (shipped) high watermark (The Sims)
  • Ranked #44 franchise by gamers, #115 franchise by male gamers, #4 franchise by female gamers


The DGD2 Gamer Rankings

The recent DGD2 survey covered 1,040 gamers, consisting of 50% hardcore players, 40% casual players, and 10% of respondents who didn't know whether to consider themselves hardcore or casual.

Rankings provided are based on number of individuals who mentioned one of the games in the franchise as a favourite game in the survey. Each participant in this study named three favourite game titles. You will notice that some of the ranking numbers recur – this is because equal number of mentions produces a tie at that rank, and for the lower rankings this includes dozens of different games at each rank.

The sample contained only 15% female players, less than a proportionate share of the marketplace (female players in general constitute 25% of console market, 40% of total market, although 46% of the Wii market and 54% of the DS market). The geographical distribution was focussed primarily on the US (55%) and Europe (33%), with Australasia (5%) receiving approximately proportional representation, but Japan and South East Asia were under-represented in the sample (2%).

The use of cover illustrations and other promotional artworks in this article should not be construed as an infringement of copyright as such images are employed under the doctrine of fair use, and the copyright associated with each image remains vested with its legal owner.


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"Monster Hunter allows players to be a melee or a ranged character, and hunt down and slay monsters, making new equipment from the remains of those monsters."

Crazy. I pretty much designed the same game for a student game design competition in 2003, only in a Celtic setting, with town-building mechanics supplementing the hunting part.

Wouldn't have sold very many units, with our talents.

Monster Hunter is an example of criminally bad game design (camera controls are ATROCIOUS, gameplay is repetitive ad nauseam).

This is yet another proof that the Japanese have weird taste.

Jedeman: *grins* I haven't seen the game up close myself, but I suspect the issue here is that in the West gamers have more highly developed control skills (case in point, the prevalence of "twin sticks" control schemes, which the Japanese generally speaking find too complex) while in Japan the gamers have more highly developed mathematical skills (hence the greater influx of statistical RPGs).

Chances are the poor camera controls in Monster Hunter relate to the Japanese gamer's issues with twin sticks, but this is not to say that the Japanese players don't have weird tastes too. :)

Thanks for commenting!

"This is yet another proof that the Japanese have weird taste."

I think this entire list is proof that the world in general has weird taste. Or, as I like to call it, no taste.

I think it's a little unfair to Lineage to say that it's a Dungeon Hack. Lineage has a lot of high-level PvP and group PvP goals that are unique to this type of MMO, and it's these large-scale scale social dynamics that really powered its long-term success.

Sirc: what, you don't like Pokemon? >:) I have to say, I have played a lot of RPGs in my time, but I've never racked up more hours than I did playing Pokemon. Deviously addictive little game...

Perhaps your trouble is that you only like things that are obscure. :D I'll bet you're one of those people that likes something up until the point that everyone else does, and then hates them once they're popular. :p

Daniel: thanks for this clarification! I confess to having no direct experience of Lineage, and it seems I missed the contribution that the PvP has made to its success.

Thanks for the comments!

"what, you don't like Pokemon? >:)"

Oh, yeah, sure, they're nice games. Not nice enough to deserve the top spot of RPGs they currently hold, but what can ya do. Also, is it just me, or have the later iterations failed to live up to the original Red and Blue? Maybe I'm just not as young anymore :(

"I have to say, I have played a lot of RPGs in my time, but I've never racked up more hours than I did playing Pokemon. Deviously addictive little game..."

Actually, I was also quite addicted to Red and Blue back in the day :)
I even bought both versions and two game boys and caught all 150 (something I would never be stupid enough to waste my time doing today).
Like I said, the later ones haven't really hooked me in that same way. I'll even go as far as saying they feel somewhat empty and uninspired.

"Perhaps your trouble is that you only like things that are obscure. :D"

Haha, well kind of, not really :)
I think the best RPG franchises are Shin Megami Tensei and Star Ocean. So not that obscure (you may disagree), but certainly not popular enough to make it into the top ten.

"I'll bet you're one of those people that likes something up until the point that everyone else does, and then hates them once they're popular. :p"

I'd like to think I hate Final Fantasy because it used to be good and now they've ruined it, rather than because it became more popular :D

Sirc: "Also, is it just me, or have the later iterations failed to live up to the original Red and Blue? Maybe I'm just not as young anymore :("

I do know exactly what you mean! I wasn't exactly young when I played Red and Blue, so I think perhaps it's just that the format had maximal impact when it was first devised. No matter what bells and whistles they add now, it can't top that first experience.

I wish I had the time to play Shin Megami Tensei and Star Ocean... But I get terrible addicted to RPGs so my wife limits the number I can play each year - outside of the context of work, at least. :)

Best wishes!

Hahaha, marriage sounds like such a terrible thing. Suddenly you're not even free to play whatever you want! I think I'll pass on that :)

You say that now... :p

Honestly, it's a good thing my wife protects me from cRPGs. I have too much to do to get sucked into that kind of hole too often...

It's just a choice of which hole to get sucked into though, surely? :-D

It's a shame these sorts of lists are about sales (or marketing), but it is tricksy to come up with another meaningful metric that a majority can agree to...

Neil: personally, I think it's a good thing that this list is about sales. Most such lists are completely meaningless, being just an expression of the tastes of individuals (or small groups of individuals). This list says something coherent about what has worked in the RPG space. I yearn for such tangible attitudes to the games space within the videogames industry, which mostly seems to be tied up in its own subjective naiveté.

Or maybe I'm just feeling cynical today. :p

I guess my point was that it doesn't (only) capture an accurate snapshot of what was good, but what was well marketed.

If we included all grey market sales as well it would be much more interesting, and probably a little more accurate as to what was "popular".

I agree most lists are pointless though. :-)

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