Video Game Genres by Year: 1980-2016

Video games have been a hobby since childhood so it’s fun to look back at the history of video games. I found a cool dataset that includes all video games with sales of 100,000 or more from 1980-2016. It’s necessarily incomplete since it was scraped from an existing website; this is especially true for the early days of gaming (e.g, it has only 98 Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) games out of the library of ~716). It also misses a lot of the download-only market for PC and has no mobile games. Nonetheless, it’s still an interesting snapshot of video game history. For my part, I’m interested in tracking the popularity of video game genres from 1980-2016. That is, the type of game (e.g., platformer, shooter, role-playing). Starting out, I’d presume that platformers (e.g., Super Mario) would have been most popular back in the NES and Super Nintendo / Sega Genesis era (the halcyon, nostalgia-ridden days of my youth). But let’s see what turns up!

First thing to note is that there is really not nearly as much data here prior to ~1995 (shortly after the Playstation 1 comes out). I ran a simple stacked bar chart first to look at this.

ggplot(newdata, aes(x = Year2, fill = Genre)) +
  geom_bar(position = "stack") +
  scale_fill_ptol() +
  scale_x_continuous(limits = c(1980,2016), breaks = seq(1980, 2016, 5)) +
  labs(x = "", y = "") +
  ggtitle("Video Games by Year and Genre: 1980-2016")

The problem with this chart is that I can’t make any sense of how popular different genres are because of the large differences in counts. Thus, it makes more sense to look at proportions. I decided to go with a stacked density plot this time, and I’m pleased with the result.

ggplot(newdata, aes(x = Year2, group = Genre, fill = Genre)) +
  geom_density(adjust=1.5, position="fill") +
  scale_fill_ptol() +
  scale_x_continuous(limits = c(1980,2016), breaks = seq(1980, 2016, 5)) +
  scale_y_continuous(limits = c(0,1), breaks = seq(0,1,.10)) +
  labs(x = "", y = "") +
  ggtitle("Video Games by Year and Genre: 1980-2016")

To interpret the results, it might help to know the broad eras of video game consoles:

  • (1976–1983): Atari 2600
  • (1983–1987): NES.
  • (1987–1993): SNES/Genesis.
  • (1993–1998): PS1/N64/Saturn.
  • (1998–2005): Dreamcast/PS2/Gamecube/Xbox.
  • (2005–2012): PS3/360/Wii.
  • (2012-Present): PS4/XB1/WiiU.

First, remember that these are only the games that sold more than 100,000 copies, so it’s more an index of popularity than actual games published. With this in mind, a few interesting trends emerge.

  • Action games are most popular in the Atari era (e.g., Frogger), and have picked up again substantially in the present-day era of console gaming.
  • Adventure games have slowly increased in popularity over time.
  • Fighting games hit their peak in the early 90s. Games like Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and King of Fighters are popular here.
  • As expected, platformers are huge during the NES and early SNES era. The popularity of Super Mario Bros. spawned a lot of clones.
  • The big spike and then decline of puzzle games is probably an artifact of the data. Puzzle games are probably even more popular now with mobile phones, but those games aren’t included in the dataset. I expect these games were much easier to program, back in the day, which accounts for the early spike (e.g., Tetris).
  • Racing games get popular in the 1995-2005 era. The popularity of game series like Mario Kart spring to mind here.
  • Roleplaying games don’t emerge as top sellers until the NES era, and stay pretty steady after that. I expected to see spike of roleplaying games in the PS1 era, considered by many to be the golden age of JRPGs. But probably doesn’t get picked up in this dataset because many of them are cult classics, and did not sell a lot in the US.
  • Strategy games don’t emerge as top sellers until the SNES era, but remain pretty steady after that.

Overall, very cool data and fun to look through. As usual, data and code available on the blog’s OSF site.

One reply on “Video Game Genres by Year: 1980-2016”

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