An Examination of Skyrim’s Massive Success

Core gamers often like to think that success or failure in this industry in dependent upon us, but that is by no means true. Comparatively, we probably hold more influence than any other group of video game consumers, but for a game to achieve massive levels of success it has to be embraced by more than just core gamers. This isn’t to say games can’t be targeted only at core gamers and still succeed, but to reach that next level of success a game really has to appeal to a much wider audience.

For instance, no one would argue that Dark Souls has become a phenomenon, but its very hardcore design and high level of challenge means its appeal is mostly limited to core gamers. So while 2+ million in sales for the original game is an undisputed success, it never has any hope of reaching the numbers of games like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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While a properly budgeted game designed first and foremost for the hardcore audience, like Dark Souls, can certainly be a success in that 2-5 million units sold range, the unfortunate truth is that most AAA publishers aren’t content with that level of success. This often results in games that try to appeal to a wider audience, often streamlining and simplifying games to a point where they just aren’t as good. One of the most egregious examples of this is Dragon Age II, which paled in comparison to the original Dragon Age: Origins in terms of depth, complexity, freedom, and most importantly, quality. Interestingly though, Dragon Age II didn’t reach anywhere near the level of success of its predecessor, which will hopefully discourage this direction by other developers.

If we look at the most successful games in terms of sales, there aren’t a whole lot of surprises. Mario Kart Wii, with over 30 million units sold, is a game that appeals to just about everyone and was available on one of the best selling home consoles of all time. The Grand Theft Auto series is one that has long been a favorite of the infrequent game players that purchase only a handful of games per year, which is probably the most populous group of video games consumers.

These gamers don’t play a lot of games, but when they do they take them quite seriously. Call of Duty is also a series that is popular with this group, resulting in huge numbers each and every year. Another huge seller is The Sims series, which is insanely popular with the very casual game playing crowd. Other hugely successful games that obviously appeal to a wide range of players are Minecraft, many Mario platformers, and the “Wii” line of games that includes games such as Wii Sports and Wii Fit.

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Among games that have sold over 20 million units, one immediately jumps out as a bolt from the blue; The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s no surprise that Skyrim is popular among serious game enthusiasts, as both Oblivion and Morrowind were, but to see it achieve such a massive degree of mainstream success is shocking. Skyrim may not be the most complex role playing game ever created, or even the most complex Elder Scrolls game for that matter, but it’s still a pretty hardcore fantasy RPG with a vast open world and hundreds of hours of content.

So, how did a nerdy fantasy role playing game about dragons, magic, and monsters appeal to a wide enough array of people to sell over 20 million copies? Let’s take a closer look.

To get a better idea for how Skyrim was so successful, we have to first look at previous games in the series. The first two being Arena and Daggerfall, which were very much niche PC titles that didn’t gain much traction beyond the hardcore PC RPG crowd of the ’90s. Morrowind was really the first title in the series to gain recognition among the wider gaming community. This was obviously due to the fact that Morrowind was the first Elder Scrolls game released on consoles, hitting the original Xbox at a time when there weren’t a whole lot of great games available on the system. While Morrowind definitely brought the series to new levels of success, it was nothing compared to what Oblivion would achieve.

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Oblivion was far and away the most successful game in the series prior to Skyrim, and this was largely the result of perfect timing. When Oblivion released for Xbox 360 and PC in March of 2006, it was the first real “next gen” game available. With the Xbox 360 finally becoming widely available after the initial launch shortage, new owners were itching for something to play, and just on a visual level Oblivion looked better than any other 360 game available by leaps and bounds. That, combined with absolutely glowing reviews across the board was enough to convince a large number of early adopters to give the game a shot. When the game released on the Playstation 3 later in the year, the strong buzz from the other versions gave it a huge boost on that system as well.

Due to Oblivion’s unique launch circumstances, Bethesda endeared themselves with a large number of gamers who would otherwise maybe not even try a fantasy RPG to begin with. These gamers were eager to play the next great Bethesda game, so Fallout 3 was also a huge success. Fallout 3 had an additional advantage in crossover potential because it resembled a first person shooter, a genre that had become the most popular among the wider gaming audience by that time. Anyone that has played Fallout 3 will tell you that it’s not really a shooter, but that surface similarity was enough to get more people that may not typically play an RPG to try it out, thus creating more Bethesda fans.

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So, that brings us to Skyrim, a game that went far beyond the success of Oblivion and Fallout 3 into a realm usually reserved for Mario, GTA, and Call of Duty. Skyrim was obviously helped by the wave of interest that came in the wake of Oblivion and Fallout 3, but other factors helped it go far beyond that point. One of the biggest boosts to Skyrim’s success was likely Game of Thrones. The first season aired on HBO just months before Skryim launched, and its massive critical success combined with its huge cultural impact probably sparked interest in the fantasy setting. Game of Thrones made swords, dragons, and medieval fantasy insanely popular at the absolute perfect time for Skyrim to capitalize on it.

Skyrim also really benefited from the smart decisions Bethesda made in making the game more accessible without sacrificing too much of the depth. By removing the character classes, the beginning of the game was less daunting to newcomers and the dynamic skill progression gave everyone more freedom in terms of character development. Let’s also not forget that Bethesda games are unlike anything else available, and that feeling of freedom and losing oneself in a world is something that more than just hardcore game enthusiasts can appreciate.

The fact of the matter is, Bethesda made the most visually impressive and open ended game they had ever released at a time when there were simply an absurd number of consoles in homes around the world. So many developers and publishers think nonstop action and games streamlined to hell are the key to winning over the less hardcore crowd, but Skyrim proved that gamers can appreciate the freedom of simply inhabiting a realistic world.

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With Skyrim showing that mainstream success doesn’t have to come at the expense of freedom and depth, what does this mean for the future of the industry? Whether or not you like Skyrim, there’s really no arguing its success will have a positive effect on the greater gaming industry. Skyrim is a game with hundreds of hours of content, no microtransactions or payed cheats, DLC that is priced right and offers dozens of hours of content, and developer sanctioned modding tools that result in hundreds more hours of great community made content. A game that does all this and also happens to be one of the most successful games of all time can only ever be a positive influence on the industry.

If we look at some upcoming games, we can already see Skyrim’s influence. After the strong negative reaction to Dragon Age II, mostly centered around the dumbed down mechanics and lack of freedom with a shockingly small game world, Bioware seems to be taking direct cues from Skyrim for their next title. Dragon Age Inquisition is said to be open world, is hundreds of times the size of Dragon Age II, and is bringing back some of the more complex elements from the original.

Additionally, if you pay attention to some of the comments coming from lead designer Eiji Aonuma, the unannounced Wii U Zelda game would also seem to be going in a more Skyrim-like direction. Aonuma has made statements about the lack of freedom recent Zelda games have offered, and has also discussed rethinking the idea of doing dungeons in a specific order. For the record, Skyrim was one of the most popular western developed games of the past generation in Japan, as well.

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Now, it’s certainly possible that Skyrim’s success can’t be replicated and it’s just one of those unquantifiable phenomenons that won’t be repeated, though even if that is true I’d much prefer more games try to borrow ideas from Skyrim than Call of Duty. If the next five years are filled with “Skyrim clones” just as last generation was filled with “COD clones,” and the generation before that with “GTA Clones,” there could certainly be worse things to happen to this industry. However things go, it’s still fascinating and incredibly encouraging that a game like Skyrim is among the most commercially successful video games of all time.

  • Ryan Cartmel

    This is a great analysis and fun read. :)

    “no microtransactions or payed cheats, DLC that is priced right and offers dozens of hours of content,”

    Money quote right there.

    “no microtransactions or payed cheats, DLC that is priced right and offers dozens of hours of content,”

    Repeated for emphasis. ;)

  • PNutty

    Oblivion was far and away the most successful game in the series prior to Skyrim.

    So true, I didn’t fall in love with the series until I actually played Oblivion all the way through. It was only after that when I practically feel in love with the Elder Scrolls franchise.

  • Keez

    Great read.