Which Video Game Genre Makes the Most Money?

Analyzing best-selling games data over half a decade in order to identify the most profitable video game genres, and tracing the path the industry is heading towards

It is hardly a secret that video games top the revenue charts when it comes to mass media entertainment. In fact, according to a 2020 Year in Review report by market researcher SuperData (now a subdivision of Nielsen), the video game industry was valued at a mammoth $139.9 billion, more than double the combined value of both the music industry and movie industry, which were valued at $19.1 billion and $41.7 billion respectively during the same time period. However, video games come in a lot of shapes and forms, and not all forms are equally profitable.

Variety is the spice of life, and in the case of video games, the spice comes in the form of a diverse assortment of video game genres. Whether you prefer adrenaline-fueled action gameplay that tests your reflexes, mentally engaging puzzles that test your ingenuity, or even emotionally charged narrative experiences that tug at your heart, there’s a distinct unique of video games out there for you to enjoy. However, when it comes to mass market appeal and commercial potential, not all game genres are created equal. An analysis of best-selling video game lists over the past five-year period (2018-2022) reveals several fascinating trends, including the best-selling video game genres in recent years, and the publishers which are raking in the most revenue. Read on If you’re curious to find out what is the most profitable video game genre.

Note: All the video games sales data used in this analysis is based on leading industry-tracking firm NPD Group’s annual list of the Top 20 Best-Selling Games of the Year over a five year period (2018-2022). The data is based on Physical and Full Game Digital sales from the Nintendo eShop, PlayStation, Steam, and Xbox platforms for publishers in the Digital Leader Panel.

Action RPGs are Cannibalizing Action-Adventure Games and RPGs

A staple genre of AAA gaming, Action-Adventure is slowly but surely being cannibalized by the increasing popularity and proliferation of Action RPGs on the sales charts. However, a closer look at the data reveals that this trend is not necessarily the result of dwindling consumer interest, but rather due to several established action adventure franchises making the transition to Action RPG in recent times. Examples include the newer Assassin’s Creed Games including Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.

The same is true for the RPGs as well. A stalwart genre since the early days of PC gaming, the traditional RPG is barely found in the best-selling games lists anymore. The only representation the genre has had is a solitary spot each in 2018, 2019, 2021, and 2022. However, after Gamefreak’s Pokemon series completes its ongoing transition to Action RPG, the RPG genre might also end up losing its only reliable contender for best-selling lists in the near future.

The growing popularity of the Action RPG also threatens to affect other popular genres such as the First Person Shooter (FPS) as well, as genre incumbents like Far Cry 6 also look set to pivot to more Action RPG-style gameplay mechanics in future installments.

Action RPG vs Action-Adventure vs RPG best selling games.

Sports Simulation Games Are the Most Consistent Performers

In sharp contrast to the virtual tug-of-war going on between Action RPG, Action Adventure, and FPS genres, Sports Simulation games have shown a remarkable level of resiliency in terms of consistently meeting commercial targets and being an ever-present fixture of the best-selling game lists. The publisher duopoly of EA and Take 2 Interactive dominates the genre with powerhouse titles including FIFA, Madden, and the NBA 2K series.

As a whole, the Sports Simulation genre has proven to be a reliable money maker, with very little variance in its worst showing with 3 list spots in 2018, and best showing with 5 list spots in 2022.

Live service/Always Online Games Are No Longer as Commercially Viable

If the genre’s performance on the best-selling lists is anything to go by, the once sizable momentum behind Always Online multiplayer shooters may well have petered out entirely. Only two such games make the list over the past five years – Anthem and Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, both in 2019. No game in the genre has made the best-selling list since then, and with the high-profile failure of Bethesda’s Redfall earlier in 2023, this is one trend that is seemingly set to hold strong in the near future.

Fighting Games Feature Regularly but It’s Slim Pickings

Fighting games feature consistently on the best-selling games list across the years, however, the genre is dominated by two incumbent franchises – WB Games’ Mortal Kombat 11 features on the list three years in a row from 2019-2021, while Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros Ultimate does even better to make the list every single year from 2019-2022. Besides these two genre behemoths, Bandai Namco’s Dragon Ball FighterZ is the one other fighting game that manages to make the list in 2018.

FPS Games Not as Dominant as They Once Were

No longer the dominant force in the industry it was not too long ago, the FPS genre still continues to feature prominently in best-selling lists across the years but is highly dependent on the release cycles of a couple of key franchises, namely Activision’s Call of Duty series and EA’s Battlefield series. The only new IP in the FPS genre to crack the best-selling list is the zombie shooter Back 4 Blood in 2021.

Sequels Rule the Roost

Perhaps not the biggest of surprises given the dominance of sequels at the movie box office, it is still a bit jarring to acknowledge the extent to which sequels, remakes, and reboots dominate the gaming landscape as well. In fact, out of the 80 distinct titles that have featured on the best-selling list over the past five years, a whopping 85% are direct sequels or reboots/remakes of an existing video game IP. Only a meager 15% of the games that made the list represented the inception of a brand new video game IP at the time of release, further reinforcing the importance of brand recognition in the video game industry. With only three new titles making the list in the most recent year of 2022, there are no indications of this trend changing anytime soon – any video game property based on new IP definitely has its work cut out in a commercial sense when competing with established franchises.

New IPs vs Established Franchises on the best-selling game lists

Nintendo Dominates the Best-Selling List, While Other Publishers Battle for Second

Despite a number of big-name AAA publishers vying for the runners-up spot, Nintendo wholly dominates the best-selling charts, placing a whopping 26 times over the past five years. This can be attributed to Nintendo’s vast and varied catalog of games across different genres, including Platform, Racing, Fighting, Action-RPG, and Action-Adventure. Another contributing factor to Nintendo’s dominance is the sheer longevity of some of its most popular titles such as Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart 8, both of which managed to secure a spot on the list each of the past five years.

In a distant second is EA, which managed to place 14 times on the best-selling list over the past five years thanks to its extensive portfolio of Sports Simulation games including the incredibly lucrative FIFA and Madden series of games. Breathing on EA’s neck is Sony, with 13 best-selling spots over the past five years. Sony’s claim to fame and third on the best-sellers list is its fantastic library of critically and commercially acclaimed first party Action-Adventure titles such as God of War, its sequel God of War: Ragnarok, The Last of Us Part II, and Ghosts of Tsushima.

Best-Selling games by Publisher

Projecting the Future of Best-Selling Game Genres

We’re only about halfway through the 2023 video game release calendar, but certain patterns are emerging already based on the commercial successes (or lack thereof) of several high-profile launches so far in 2023. According to the latest Year-to-Date data for the end of June from NPD (now rebranded as Circana Group), Action RPGs and Action-Adventure games resume their strong performances on the best-selling games list thanks to the runaway successes of flagship titles such as Elden Ring, Hogwarts Legacy, Dead Island 2 and Star Wars: Jedi Survivor, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom respectively. The data also highlights the remarkable commercial consistency of the Sports Simulation genre once again, with FIFA 23, Madden NFL 23, MLB The Show 23, and NBA 2K23 all securing a spot on the list already. Mario Kart 8 continues to demonstrate its unparalleled staying power by making the list for the sixth year in a row.

The inconsistency of the FPS genre is laid bare with only one title on the best-selling list for 2023 so far, although that is likely to change with the release of the next iteration of Call of Duty later this year. On the flip side, the Survival Horror genre seems to be undergoing a bit of a mini-revival within the context of being a commercially mainstream video game property. This can largely be attributed to a slew of prominent remakes of older classics such as Capcom’s Resident Evil 4 Remake and EA’s Dead Space Remake thus far in 2023.

Reference –
NPD's Best-selling games (2018-2022) classified by genre.
NPD’s Best Selling Games (2018-2022) Classified by Genre

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