Forget Microsoft's Bill Gates, Sony's Nobuyuki Idei, or Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata. The most powerful person in the video game industry isn't a CEO — he's a plumber.
A mustachioed, Italian, red-shirt-and-overalls-clad plumber, to be precise. His name is Mario, and he's the hero of the best-selling franchise in the gaming world, and one of a dozen characters who have consistently proved their marketability and staying power. Over the past 25 years, Mario-themed games have sold more than 185 million copies worldwide.
Created in 1981 by Nintendo's legendary video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario was initially only known as "Jumpman," the nondescript hero of arcade hit Donkey Kong. But before the American release of the game, the character was re-christened in honor of Mario Segale, landlord of a warehouse owned by Nintendo America, to whom he reportedly bore a physical similarity.
Mario got his big break four years later when, the Nintendo Entertainment System was launched. It quickly became one of the most successful game consoles in history, and Mario —star of Super Mario Brothers, which came bundled with many of those consoles — was assured his place in history. To date, he's starred in or made guest appearances in more than 140 games.
Nintendo didn't run out of steam after it unleashed its hero plumber on the world: Several other of the worlds' best-selling game franchises were created by the 116-year-old company, including Donkey Kong (which has sold nearly 48 million games outside of the Mario titles) and The Legend of Zelda (about 47 million). The monster-collecting Pokemon craze of the late 1990s started as a series of titles for the company's Game Boy portable system and eventually sold in excess of 106 million units.
Not all of the best-selling franchises are so familiar. Outside of Asia, few gamers have ever heard of NCSoft's Lineage franchise, but the medieval fantasy games have sold a combined 43 million copies. These Internet-based — those in the know call them massively multiplayer online role playing games, or MMORPGs — have become hugely popular. Lineage currently boasts 1.5 million paid subscribers, according to MMOGchart.com.
Currently, the most popular online game, Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft, boasts more than 6.5 million users. And while it hasn't been around as long as Lineage, or sold as many copies, the franchise is a strong one: Including traditional PC titles like Warcraft I, II and III, the franchise has sold over 19 million copies worldwide.
Sometimes, courting controversy can help a franchise become a best seller. Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto titles have become infamous for their violence, drugs and sex-heavy content. But older gamers love the action, sense of humor and open-ended story lines; they continue to buy the games in droves. To date, the series has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide.
Together, the 17 franchises on our best seller list account for more than 867 million games sold worldwide over the last 25 years — enough that if you stacked them on top of each other, it would make a tower 13,683 miles high. That's enough to give you Pac-Man fever.