Playing Video Games

Most-Played Games of 2022 Include These Classics

NPD has released its list of the ten most-played games of 2022 so far, and it's mostly games from before the year even started. Why aren't gamers moving on to newer titles?
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Every year, hundreds of new video games are released on Steam, home consoles, and mobile devices. There are so many games that there’s no way for anyone to play them all. Even if you’re the most dedicated, hardcore gamer around, there are only so many hours in the day you can dedicate to playing video games. Only a few become some of the most-played games ever.

However, new games these days aren’t just competing with their contemporaries for your time. They’re competing with games that came out a decade ago or more.

PlayStation 5

According to a recent report from the NPD group, seven of the ten most-played games of 2022 so far weren’t even released this year. Games like Skyrim, Minecraft, The Sims 4, and Grand Theft Auto V continue topping the charts years after their initial release windows. Why is it that these aging games continue to hold players’ attention? Are games getting worse, or are gamers just unwilling to try new things?

Today, we’re going to talk about what gives a game a long shelf life. Let’s break down the top most-played games from this list and see what makes them so enduringly popular, even a decade or more after their release. 

The List

First, let’s look at the ten games on NPD’s list. They are Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto V, The Sims 4, Fornite, Among Us, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Call of Duty: Warzone, Madden NFL 22, Call of Duty: Vanguard, and NBA 2K22. 

Established Userbase

One thing all the games on the list have in common–even the ones from this year–is that they currently enjoy massive install bases. The three games released this year that topped the chart, Madden NFL 22, Call of Duty: Vanguard, and NBA 2K22, are all entires in extremely popular long-running franchises, so calling them “new” is a stretch.

Notably, NPD’s data is tracking how much time players are spending on games, not how many units those games have moved. Minecraft is the only non-sequel game on the list that costs money, and it’s bolstered by being available on virtually every platform on the planet for less than $20 on most consoles. The other two non-sequels, Among Us and Fortnite, are free-to-play games that enjoy massive popularity among children. Given that kids are the players with the highest volume of free time to burn on video games, it makes sense that games they like would top the most-played list.

Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto V are two of the best-selling games of all time, and they’re still as popular now as they’ve ever been. Naturally, a broad userbase leads to more playtime. But what is it about these particular games that keep players coming back?

Easy to Run

Most of the games on this list are easier to run on older hardware. Players who lack significant capital can download Fortnite or GTA V’s multiplayer component and jump in right away, even on an older laptop with a cheap graphics card. Likewise, players who are hesitant to upgrade their aging consoles face no pressure to switch from their favorite mainstay games.

These older games look fine. Most of them are stylized and cartoonish, like Fortnite and Minecraft. Even Animal Crossing, which is a Nintendo Switch exclusive, is a highly stylized game. 

Many of these games also have mobile versions that run just fine on smartphones. Fortnite and Minecraft are essentially cheating here, as you can play them on basically anything with a screen. 

Community Is Key

There’s another notable feature that every one of these games includes: they’re all multiplayer games built around established gaming communities. All ten of them allow you to play with your friends, and most of them are explicitly built around multiplayer gameplay. Even the games that can be enjoyed solo–The Sims, Animal Crossing, Minecraft–are all about communities. In those examples, the community can be controlled by the computer if you don’t connect to the internet, but they’re still inherently social games.

Arguably, one could say that Grand Theft Auto V is the outlier here. Its single-player campaign is a complete, and excellent, experience. Its storyline doesn’t necessarily revolve around themes of community or social interaction, though it does make some biting observations regarding Western civilization. However, players aren’t engaging with the game’s single-player campaign with nearly the same playtime as its multiplayer sandbox. 

These games share multiplayer functionality, and many have community-based themes. Is that all it takes for a game to be enduringly popular? Not quite. Let’s dig deeper. The ten games on the list can be broken down into three categories: multiplayer arenas, social simulators, and sports games. 

Multiplayer Arenas

Call of Duty, Fortnite, and Grand Theft Auto V are all popular games due to their competitive multiplayer environments. Players engage with them for hundreds of hours because they want to master the mechanics and become adept at winning in complex matches that rely mostly on player skill. High production values, skill-testing matches, and replayability all make these games highly satisfying to master.

It’s also easy to get started. In each case, these games offer free access to their multiplayer components that anyone can download and wade into right away. All you need to play these games is a console (or a phone, or a PC) and an internet connection. Once you’ve got that, you’re in.

These games keep players coming back because every match is different. Whether you’re matched against the same players or playing on the same map, the open, sandbox nature of multiplayer arenas makes each encounter play out completely differently. That’s more variety than you can expect from a single-player experience, and it makes these games endlessly entertaining. If you’re gaming on a budget, it’s hard to beat something free that offers bottomless replayability. 

Social Simulators

The social simulators–Animal Crossing, Among Us, and The Sims 4–allow players to live in a virtual world and make friends without leaving their homes. The Sims and Animal Crossing allow players to immerse themselves in fictional worlds and make friends with the denizens they find there. They both involve interior design as a primary gameplay mechanic and encourage players to get to know the NPCs in their respective settings.

Among Us is more of a social deception simulator, in truth, but it’s much more social than arena games like Call of Duty. It’s essentially a carbon copy of the game Werewolf, wherein a group tries to survive as an impostor quietly cuts them down, one by one. If you’re ever seen the horror classic The Thing, it’s like that, but with jellybeans instead of humans. Also, children love it. Go figure.

These games remain enduringly popular due to their ability to bring people together and function as social interactions without anyone needing to leave the comfort of their homes. These games all saw massive spikes in popularity throughout the lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 as people sought ways to hang out with their friends without leaving home.

Sports Games

The last category is evergreen but populated only by new titles. Sports games like Madden and NBA 2K release new entries every year, updating rosters as rookies enter their respective leagues and veterans retire. These are largely incremental updates, with gameplay mechanics barely shifting between each release. 

Still, they remain stubbornly popular because people love football and basketball. Sports fans don’t want to just watch their favorite teams in the real world; they also want to bring their fantasy teams to life. What if these players were on the same team, or what if this smaller team from an underserved market made it to the Super Bowl? Questions like these propel fans to log hundreds of hours of playtime with sports titles.

And, once again, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of multiplayer matches. What’s a sporting league without competition, after all? Many players like to compete with their friends in virtual sports clubs for bragging rights and prizes. The never-ending quest for the glory of honest competition will keep games like Madden and NBA 2K atop these charts for the foreseeable future. 

Can Anything Break Through?

This doesn’t mean the games industry is becoming stagnant, or that players have stopped branching out with their interests. Instead, it just means that kids with cell phones and old laptops are some of the most active gamers. Plenty of single-player titles have sold really well this year, like the stellar Elden Ring or the sprawling Horizon: Forbidden West. Players just don’t log the same hours with these finite experiences as they do with neverending games like Minecraft or Animal Crossing.

This might sound like an oversimplification, but, in short, you can beat Elden Ring. Sure, you could spend hours perfecting your build and fine-tuning your approach, but you’ll eventually see everything the game has to offer. However, the same can’t be said for any of the games on NPD’s most-played list. These are open-ended titles that have no “Game Over” screen. Does that make them better than single-player titles? No, it just means that they’re good at getting people to boot them up and say “just one more game…”