Barbie Fashion Designer
Image: Mattel Media

Mary Kenney is a senior writer at Insomniac and the author of the book "Gamer Girls: 25 Women Who Built The Video Game Industry".

In October this year, she took to Twitter to share a surprising statistic about Barbie: Fashion Designer, a dress-up game that Digital Domain released in 1996 for Windows and Macintosh computers, claiming that it actually outpaced Doom in its first year of sales.

Her point was to show that there's always been an audience of women wanting to play games, but inevitably after she posted this, she was hit with a wave of naysayers and "Well actually"'s that deliberately missed the point that she was trying to make.

In a piece published yesterday for Harpers Bazaar, Kenney again repeated this claim, in an article that celebrated the legacy of Fashion Designer. Though this time, she backed it up with more evidence, pointing to a Wall Street Journal article from October 1998 where the author Evan Gahr claims:

"The interactive game, in which girls select Barbie's clothes, proved an overnight success, selling more than 500,000 copies by the end of the year (1996)."

According to a 1995 issue of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, written by the reporter Leslie Gornstein, Doom only managed to shift 140,000 copies in the same time period, with ID Software level designer Sandy Petersen later blaming piracy for its initial low sales in a 2002 feature in ComputerAndVideoGames.

During our research, we found a slightly more conservative estimate of Barbie: Fashion Designer's first-year sales from the LA Times, based on point-of-sale data from the market researcher PC Data; these put it at a more modest 351,945 copies sold by the end of 1996. As you can see, though, Kenney's point still stands; it still managed to outpace the iconic FPS with its first-year sales.

Something remarkable about this achievement, in our eyes, is that a child was actually responsible for cooking up the original idea for Barbie Fashion Designer. In fact, she's credited twice on Moby Games as a co-creator of the concept and a consultant.

E.J. Rifkin was the daughter of Andy Rifkin, someone who had previously been responsible for working on Sega Channel as Time Warner's technology lead.

Andy Rifkin told Time Extension about the development of the game earlier this year:

"The idea was that my daughter wanted to make clothes for Barbie on the computer. So I invented this product, I developed it with her, and I took it to Mattel to sell it to them. And they looked at me like I was crazy, but the president was willing to take a chance on it.

"I think one of the things with Mattel is, at that point, is they knew the girl’s software market was underserved and even the young boys were too, with like the Hot Wheels brands. So they decided to take a flier and see where we could go. We were autonomous at [Mattel Media] and nobody really made us fit into the Mattel structure for toys, so they gave us a lot of freedom to create new things.

"As a result, we did really well. I think we were like $400 million dollars in two years or three years. We were serving market spaces where there was no product. Nobody could make good stuff for girls. Nobody could make stuff for young boys. So we wound up doing really well with it."

If you are unfamiliar with Barbie: Fashion Designer, it's a piece of gaming software for computers that basically allows you to style Barbie in different clothes or outfits, before modelling them on a 3D runway. Unlike Hi-Tech Expressions' 1991 game for NES, there were no sentient tennis rackets or aggressive ball pits to fight, with the company instead developing the brief based on what kids actually wanted a Barbie game to be.

Did you ever play Barbie Fashion Designer growing up? Let us know in the comments!

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