The World Is Our Campus

The Arcadia Quill

The World Is Our Campus

The Arcadia Quill

The World Is Our Campus

The Arcadia Quill

Why Popular Games are Short-Lived


During the COVID-19 pandemic, “Among Us” by Innersloth quickly became the most popular digital game in terms of monthly active players with 500 million active users during Nov. 2020. Yet, its popularity faded quickly, with its monthly active player count dropping to 120 million in 2021 and it losing about 7.5% of monthly active players throughout 2022.

Innersloth’s 2018 social deduction games benefitted from the increase of time players got during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The story of rapid success followed by quick decline is not unique to just “Among Us”. Take “Fall Guys” by Mediatonic for example; it became the most popular game on Steam, a video game platform by Valve Corporation, during Aug. 2020 and attracted over 1.5 million players during its first day of release. In just a few months, however, the game has lost 91% of its average daily players according to Ampere Analysis.

Popular games like “Among Us” and “Fall Guys” are naturally short-lived because their game design focuses on virality, not vitality. And to become viral, these games aim for three factors: simplicity of gameplay, distinct visual appeal, and multiplayer capability.

When examining the core gameplay of popular games, they tend to be immediately understandable. “Among Us” is a social deduction game where players need to discuss and deduct who is the murderer, not unlike classic party games such as Mafia. “Fall Guys” is a 60-player game show to see who can make it to the end of each stage. “Wordle” by Josh Wardle is another example of simplicity in gameplay design, where the goal is just to guess a five-lettered word in six attempts. Because of the simple design of these games, they are readily understandable and accessible for everyone.

Another feature of these games are their often cartoonish or stylized art styles which immediately grab attention and help them stand out against other games. “Among Us” and “Fall Guys” both feature characters that are simple, colorful, and distinctly shaped. The silhouette of the characters are immediately recognizable at first glance. This is no coincidence, and this need for iconic character designs has long been identified by giants in the video game industry such as Valve in its 2008 Gamefest presentation. To put it simply, the distinct visuals of popular games help the player identify objectives during gameplay, improve the general readability of the screen, and create an iconic brand image.

Lastly, the multiplayer nature of these games makes them more addictive compared to single player games since players are deriving enjoyment from not only what is happening in-game, but also the social interactions they’ll have with friends. This aspect of social connection was especially needed during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, where a survey has found that 60% of respondents stated they were playing more multiplayer games because they provided a way to connect with others.

Mediatonic’s Fall Guys was popular during quarantine for its multiple multiplayer options.

While these aspects of game design are important to achieve quick success, this strategy of short-lived popularity raises an important question: What extends the lifespan of a game? In my experience, there are three factors that extend the experience of games: replayability, unpredictability, and community engagement.

The sacrifice popular games have to make with  simple game mechanics is less depth in gameplay once players become experienced. Consequently, there is less replayability for these games. Once you meet and find strategies to counter all the monsters in “Lethal Company” by Zeekerss, for example, there’s less excitement in the game because players have already experienced all the adrenaline rushing moments of panic and surprise. If the players no longer feel excited playing the game, there will be a natural decline in its popularity. The average player statistics for “Lethal Company” reflects this trend quite well. Despite the explosive growth of the game in Dec. 2023 with player count increasing by 176.84%, the game declined from Jan. 2024 onwards, with average players returning to the pre-boom levels. The daily player count of the game also reflects this downward trend, with the count declining from 199,509 players on Dec. 17, 2023 to just 33,648 players on Mar. 14, 2024. These statistics follow closely with the game’s update history, as its last major update was on Jan. 8, 2024.

Mojang’s Minecraft gives players a freedom to pick how they play the game by offering a variety of mechanics. (Michael Hum)

For players to remain interested in a game continuously, they must feel that there are more content and strategies in that game to explore. Thus, some degree of unpredictability is essential to keep a game fun. Some titles such as “Minecraft” by Mojang Studios and “No Man’s Sky” by Hello Games create unpredictability by randomly generating new worlds for players to explore each time a new playthrough is started. Because of their procedurally generated worlds, players have to experiment with new items and new strategies each playthrough and to some extent, relearn the game. This process of continuous learning helps maintain player interest in a game and their enjoyment of it.

Procedural generation isn’t the only way to create unpredictable and memorable experiences for the player, however. In the post-apocalyptic game “Fallout: New Vegas” by Obsidian Entertainment, for example, the game is able to maintain interest for players using unmarked quests, hidden interactions with characters, and out of the way locations that will likely take players multiple playthroughs to fully discover. In one unmarked quest, the player could retrieve the body of a soldier who has been killed by raiders after meeting his grieving wife. In another unmarked quest, the player could set up a trade deal between local vendors and the New California Republic (NCR) to improve the quality of food for soldiers. These comparatively small problems not only makes the location interesting to freely explore, but also helps in building the world for the player as it reveals the NCR’s weaknesses in the Mojave (e.g. logistical problems, conflict with raiders, inadequate care for soldiers).

Obsidian’s game Fallout: New Vegas gives players various branched outcomes based on your allied faction and stats.

Moreover, as players judge the strengths and weaknesses of the different factions in the game through these unmarked but insightful quests, they are challenged to reevaluate the factions of the Mojave they had aligned themselves with throughout the game. Depending on the player’s choice of faction, there are four main options for the future of the Mojave with countless more endings for minor characters. This freedom to alter the narrative of the game complements hidden elements such as the unmarked quests and locations mentioned previously, and gives players even more incentive to fully explore the game world through repeated playthroughs.

Perhaps the most effective way to extend a game’s lifespan is by encouraging the creativity of fans. Some of the longest running game series have survived for so long because of the abundance of derivative works created for them. For example, “Touhou Project”, a Japanese bullet hell (game genre where players trying to dodge large amounts of projectiles on the screen) video game series created by independent game developer ZUN in 1997, appeared in the Guinness World Records as the “the most prolific fan-based shooter series” ever created. While the games themselves are challenging but fun, ZUN’s active encouragement of fan works for his games have led to countless pieces of fan art on platforms such as Pixiv, fan games that range from platformers with bullet hell elements to restaurant simulators, and even unofficial animated series that adapt the story of the games or showcase the characters in slice-of-life stories. This abundance of user generated content is what has maintained the series popularity more than 20 years since its initial release.

Ultimately, the different strategies used to achieve virality or vitality means that the lifespan of games are dependent on the aim of the creators. Popular games that appeal to a wide audience are likely to be short-lived because their design philosophy focuses on simplicity and encourages players to just jump in and have fun. Games that incorporate more complex mechanics or hidden content are likely to have a longer lifespan of interest since players constantly have new things to explore. But, so long as games remain fun, they will last and inspire others to create.


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