Barbie Fashion Designer
Image: Mattel Media

In October of this year, Mary Kenney, the author of the book "Gamer Girls: 25 Women Who Built The Video Game Industry", took to Twitter to share a surprising statistic about Barbie: Fashion Designer, the Barbie dress-up game that Digital Domain released in 1996 for Windows and Macintosh computers.

In her tweet, she claimed the piece of software outpaced Doom in its first year of sales, which inevitably drew a wave of skepticism from a certain audience of gamers online.

In a new piece, published this week on Harpers Bazaar's website, Kenney shared her source for this claim, pointing to a Wall Street Journal article from October 1998 where the author Evan Gahr states:

"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)."

In comparison, Leslie Gornstein for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram stated in 1995 that Doom only managed to shift 140,000 copies in the same period of time, with ID Software level designer Sandy Petersen later blaming piracy for its initial low sales in feature for ComputerAndVideoGames.

During our research, we found a slightly more conservative estimate of Barbie: Fashion Designer's first-year sales from the LA Times, which is based on information from the market researcher PC Data. This put Fashion Designer's at a more modest 351,945 copies sold by the end of 1996, but, as you can see, Kenney's point still stands no matter where you look.

Something even more remarkable about this achievement — in our eyes, at least — is that a child was actually responsible for creating the original idea for Barbie Fashion Designer. E.J. Rifkin was the daughter of Andy Rifkin, the future senior vice president of Mattel Media at the time. She's credited twice on Moby Games for this project, as both the co-creator of the concept and as a consultant.

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 essentially a piece of software for computers that allows you to style Barbie in different clothes, before modelling your outfits on a 3D runway. Unlike Hi-Tech Expressions' 1991 game for NES, there was no angry sports equipment to battle with this time around, with Mattel Media instead developing a 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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