What makes a game great? Well, everyone will have different titles they class as being some of the most popular games. However, if we put subjectivity to the side, there are some common traits among popular games online. But, before we can highlight these, we need to find some common ground, and, to do this, we need some data.
Did you know that global gaming revenue topped $159 billion in 2020? This clearly benefits the industry as a whole, but the most popular games have taken a good chunk of that pie. In 2019, 1,121 mobile games saw annual consumer spend top $5 million. In 2017, there were only 959 mobile games that managed that.
What this tells us is that gaming is becoming more popular and, in turn, more games are becoming mainstream hits. The questions, therefore, are: how, why, and in which genres?
The gamut of great games out there is vast. However, looking at some stats, we can see that games within the following genres have dominated the industry:
These games put you in the driving seat and require you to complete a series of missions or compete against other players to come out on top. This genre is particularly popular because it gets the adrenaline pumping and demands tactical thinking at the same time.
Looking through the most popular games available at the moment, the leading first-person shooters regularly attract upwards of 100 million players and, in some cases, 500 million to 1 billion. Among the top 1000 most popular games on mobile, this genre accounted for 11% of all downloads this year. The Battle Royale sub-genre, in particular, exploded taking 3% of all downloads alone!
Arcade games were originally housed in coin-operated machines. Today, you can play arcade games online. From new creations to remakes of classics, there are plenty of options. These types of games are evergreen because they are fast paced, easy to pick up, and they challenge our reaction speed.
The runner and racing sub-genres have been mobile staples since the start and account for 10% of all mobile game downloads today while arcade games as a whole take 18%.
The rise of mobile phones has seen this genre explode. While its market share is very limited on desktop devices, 30% of all the mobile gaming apps downloaded are classed as hypercasual.
These games usually have a single mechanic like tap or swipe and are extremely easy to pick up. They are perfect while commuting because they can usually be played with one hand and the simple mechanics means that developers can showcase the whole gameplay effectively through playable ads to tempt more gamers.
The biggest puzzle and match 3 games are enjoyed by millions of players every day. Looking at mobile downloads alone, this genre accounts for 15% of all app downloads. The appeal of these popular free games is also down to their diversity.
Today, there are thousands of puzzle games, and each one has a unique theme or dynamic. In fact, modern match 3 games are more like classic video games than simple puzzlers, with elaborate metagames and numerous extra features. The fundamental appeal, though, is because these games challenge our brain while still being fun.
This genre has tons of fans because it taps into our innate need to collect and hoard things. These games are living, breathing entities that offer an ever-changing set of playing conditions and things to collect. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) in recent years have taken this genre to new heights, in part, because they connect people and often have them cooperate with one another.
When you combine this with constant action, complex worlds, slick graphics, and endless strategic considerations, it’s easy to see why the top MMORPGs attract over 100 million users with ease and are classed as some of the most popular games out there.
Digital pets, imaginary businesses, virtual families - this genre is perfect for those who just want to dip into another life for a bit. This is the reason why some of the biggest simulation games have tens of millions of active players on a daily basis. Other top titles also regularly surpass the 1 million mark, as people log in to their virtual worlds and enjoy a form of escapism.
Looking at mobile downloads, simulation games have an 11% market share! The act of building a second life and being social online allows people to live out their fantasies. The universal appeal of that makes this genre a good starting point for anyone.
There are other popular gaming genres, but the ones listed above are dominant in the industry. Additionally, they can provide some insights into why some games remain so popular. Again, personal preference will often dictate what players gravitate to. However, some of the main reasons popular games gain momentum are:
Popular games are easy to pick up. They have perfectly designed learning curves, so you can quickly understand the task at hand and then work to complete it. Once you master this, the dynamics change, and you have to master something else that’s just within the bounds of your skillset. This constant progression keeps players engaged - however, the important point is that it’s also easy for someone to start the journey.
Almost every modern hit has some type of social element to it. The obvious examples are MMORPGs and simulations. These games put you in the middle of a virtual world where you can actively work alongside, or challenge, real people.
However, beyond these games, even casual games have started introducing clan features where you can join groups of fellow players. This can allow you to share and receive resources, access clan-based events, and unlock special clan chests with more rewards.
One of the main things that unites the most popular games online and the top classic titles is how they try to give players a sense of progression. Popular games are designed to have small goals to give you a sense of accomplishment constantly. Creating a dynamic where incremental achievements matter (rather than just a major end goal) means that there’s always something to strive for. Thus, you’re more likely to continue playing.
Look and feel can make games instantly appealing. Although developers can’t get away with having fancy graphics but poor gameplay, aesthetics matter, even in popular free games.
While some AAA developers use technology to create breathtaking photorealistic worlds, even casual games that use simple graphics can distinguish themselves from the competition depending on how well they use the visuals and transitions to underline the theme. At the end of the day, the best games just have that little something special when it comes to visual effect.
The final reason popular games continue to flourish is because they can evolve and grow. Even if it’s a fixed-scenario game, the developers can add new levels or features over time through DLCs (downloadable content). Because modern games can be updated online, players don’t have to keep buying physical discs to continue their adventure. Instead, they can download the latest content and the story goes on.
If it’s a non-fixed-scenario game, e.g. an MMORPG, the dynamics change naturally. As new players enter the game and different worlds open up, the number of possible situations can be almost infinite. This constant state of flux makes online games extremely dynamic and, therefore, constantly engaging.
There are many reasons games become popular. However, the final point we want to reiterate is accessibility. If you can’t play what you want, when you want, it’s frustrating. Of course, some games aren’t suitable for certain devices. However, with technology being what it is, developers almost always have options when it comes to cross-platform compatibility.
Therefore, you’ll find that the most popular games around can often be enjoyed on all devices - PCs, Macs, mobiles, and, in some instances, consoles. Again, there will be some restrictions and limitations. Sometimes, they’ll be ports and might not have all the features. But, if you want to enjoy popular games online, you should be able to access them in a way that suits you.
Now, if you want to get started and try out some popular free games via your desktop or mobile device, check out our top offerings!