What Makes Video Games Popular?

That’s right, what do the “Top Dogs” have that the others don’t? Do lustrous graphics and high profile story plots earn games their player allegiance? Is it massive marketing budgets or a long-standing franchise installment? In this article we’ll examine what makes the popular games popular and whether or not the secret is in the code.

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular PC games in the past five years. World of Warcraft had a peak of approximately 12 million subscribers in its heyday. That’s 12 million people that not only purchased at least the base game (prior to expansions) and paid a monthly fee to keep an active account. League of Legends can keep 5 million concurrent players online at once, with over 12 million logins per day. Its player base clocks over 1 billion gameplay hours per month. Over 10 million people have purchased a legitimate copy of Minecraft so far.

“Could it be the compelling story?”


Do these games have amazing graphics? Actually, if you really think about it, they have some of the worst graphics in the industry. Could it be the compelling story? Wait… Minecraft doesn’t have a story. I don’t think. And League of Legends has a half-page article explaining a champion’s lore and some sorry attempts at creating a fantasy world through news articles, etc. I think it’s safe to say that Riot Games isn’t really focusing on the story of their game. WoW… kind of has a story, but compared to its RTS predecessors and books in the franchise, it’s pretty much a joke.

Okay, so marketing, it has to be that. Well, I don’t think Mojang hired Billy Mays to sell Minecraft, and Riot Games cares more about advertising for other companies through eSports than they do for their own product, so I don’t think you can attribute their sales to marketing either. Blizzard/Activision does a fair amount of advertising, but I’m pretty sure their executives leave a trail of “Benjamins” wherever they walk as well, so that might as well be a moot point.

Yet, all of these games have a seemingly fanatical player-base that would sooner dodge their taxes than cease their commitment to the games they love. So, why are these games so popular? Well, considering that these games have more players than 30% of the world’s countries have people, we need to start thinking on a national scale. Nations can speak the same language, they can have people of the same heritage, and they can wear the same clothes. But as soon as you put an imaginary border around that space, something magical happens. There’s some phenomenon produced by that large community that we can all recognize, but can only attribute to some all-binding subconscious that those people share.

“You cannot spawn a game with a preconceived culture,

you have to create the space…”



It’s called culture. Every country has cultural differences, slight though they may be, they are all noticeable. These games all have cyber-populations of an average sized nation – so, logically, the same rules must apply. It just so happens they do. But in the case of a video game, which comes first – the populace or the capacity? Well, let me bring the chicken or the egg proposition to a close. All animals evolved from single-celled organisms – organisms that replicated asexually to create what became the chicken’s ancestors. The chicken then proceeded to lay that egg. Why is this relevant? Because one cannot expect to grow a game of 12 million users without first having the creative intendment for a game to develop a cultural adaptation.  You cannot spawn a game with a preconceived culture, you have to create the space for enough players to create it on their own.

Everyone remembers the “Gear Score” mod in WoW that caused a giant elitist uproar. How did that happen? Because Blizzard developed the game with an embedded LUA script to support user-generated mods. The same script that created a more useable UI that transformed the inherently broken and impossible-to-navigate one Blizzard launched the product with. This led to the inevitable demonization of “clicking” your action bars. Raids are so damn time consuming and tedious that they led to huge scheduling and time investment requirements for a Guild, which results in compromising social lives and established the connotations that WoW players bear today. And the damage meters – the ultimate raiding competition tool. World of Logs and the “Server Firsts,” arena rating, the gear grind… the list goes on.

“We witness an always-changing ‘meta game’ where

concrete strategies quickly become outdated…”


League of Legends inspires sentimental attachment to champions. There are so many of them and their skins change their personality so much that people get genuinely attached to them. When Riot makes significant changes to them, people change their attitudes on an emotional level, with the “nerf Irelia,” the not-so-stealthy Evelynn, and Brazil’s undying embrace of Mordekaiser. We witness an always-changing “meta game” where concrete strategies quickly become outdated and innovative ones become the norm. With an eSports initiative that leads to the idolization of professional teams and their players, what would seem like very odd behaviors to an outsider, are well-known and encouraged within LoL’s community.

Minecraft – the lord of game mods. This game would be a one-dimensional and boring survival game without the behemoth contributions its players have made. With the eye-burning 8-bit visuals of the default texture pack and completely absent plot or advanced tutorials, not to mention a non-existent advertising campaign, the players have truly embraced this title and made it what it is – a work of art. It’s almost like the game’s engine was just heartedly given to creative gamers to do with what they will. This game embodies culture. Virtually everything is user-generated, forcing players to interact and work together to build the game they all want to play.

“We’ve reached the rise of internet culture, with memes, games,

and discussion websites spearheading the transition.” 


Even games like Call of Duty build cultural characteristics around nasty game lobby interactions, 360-no-scope-headshots, almost comical “dubstep” montages, sniper clans, and the whole bucket of alternate reality that comes with. Skyrim gives players the freedom to choose, with absurdly random and recurring arrow-in-the-knee lines and over-the-top “Fus-rod-dah” shouts.

We’ve reached the rise of internet culture, with memes, games, and discussion websites spearheading the transition.

So to all the EA developers and terrible movie game knock-offs, the best things are made by accident and are out of your control. Give your players the freedom to decide what to do with your product, and they’ll bring a culture not even the heftiest advertising budgets could affect. Give us a piece of art, and we’ll help you paint its legacy.

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