Before I actually start spooling out some history, I feel I should take a moment to explain where all of this history is coming from. My research has focused on acquiring primary sources. This mostly consists of newspaper and magazine articles, trade publications, and interviews. Some of these interviews have been conducted by me personally with executives involved in the industry, while others are drawn from the Internet or excerpts in books and magazines. I have interviewed around two dozen people myself and am still actively collecting more. When interviews conducted by others are added into the mix, I am drawing from several hundred accounts of the video game industry. Interviews are one of the less reliable primary sources due both to memory fading over the passage of time and to interview subjects having their own biases and agendas (sometimes even just subconsciously), but they represent some of the best “insider info” currently available due to the difficulty of accessing corporate archival material.
Ideally, my work would be based almost exclusively on internal company documents and personal papers, but except in a few rare cases where documents have appeared online or as illustrations in books, these materials are not available to me. This is partially due to an inability to travel to where these documents are located, but is largely due to a lack of availability. Because the video game as a commercial product is only around forty years old, most of the major players are still alive and active in the industry, so there have been few donations to academic institutions as of yet. Stanford, the Computer History Museum, The Strong Museum, and a few other institutions are beginning to acquire important collections, but there is still a long way to go. In time, wider access to such collections will probably completely alter what we think we know about the industry, but for now recollections and published sources will have to do.
I would also like to use this post to make a brief comment about sales figures. Sales figures are naturally a useful tool for ascertaining commercial success and are therefore of great interest for a business history such as this. If this were a blog about the music or movie industries, finding such figures would be a relatively straightforward process, as there has been reliable and transparent sales tracking in those industries for decades. Unfortunately, the video game industry is not so lucky. There is no single source that compiles worldwide sales data with any degree of accuracy. VGChartz is the only one that even appears to try at all, but the organization does not directly track retail data for the most part, so their estimates are usually unreliable. In the United States, the NPD group has tracked sales in the video game industry since at least the early 1980s, but few figures were recorded in public sources until the late 1990s, and now the NPD has stopped reporting specific sales figures at all. Furthermore, while the company has a sound methodology for estimating retail sales, they are still estimates. Japan has more reliable sales reporting through Media Create, but again these are reliable estimates rather than actual sales figures.
So where does that leave this blog? I will report sales figures for games and systems whenever I can, but I will make it clear where these figures came from (publisher press release, interview, retail tracking agency, analyst estimate, etc.) As these numbers come from various sources and many of them will be estimates, they will not be accurate enough to assume an absolute sales ranking or chart with precision the growth and contraction of the industry over time, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. It will, however, give a general idea of how the industry was doing at any given time and which games, genres, and hardware systems were particularly popular.
Well, I hope this post helps to explain where my info will be coming from and how reliable it will be. For my next post, I will probably take a moment to pin down the definition of “video game” and how it has changed over time before diving into the history of the earliest computer games in the 1950s.