The pandemic has impacted all of us, including the game industry. Sure, many publishers are reporting record engagement and increased revenues as players flock to games for entertainment and distraction. But what about the people who make these games?
Over the past couple of months, I’ve talked to some of the studios, creators, and software makers about how COVID-19 has changed they way they work. Of course, this has meant adjusting to a new normal of people working remotely. Companies used to offices and immediate access to colleagues are now getting used to video conferences and turning personal spaces into working ones.
This changes the way games are made, and it can make the process more difficult.
Development never ends
Chris Wilson is the studio head for Grinding Gear Games, the developer behind the hit free-to-play action role-playing game Path of Exile. It’s a long-lived title that has become popular thanks to a steady stream of constant updates. It keeps offering new content, so its players are rarely bored.
“One of the big attributes of Path of Exile that’s been successful is that there’s a reliable release schedule,” Wilson told GamesBeat. “We release every 13 weeks. One of the reasons why we get a lot of players at those releases is because the community just knows when — there’s a cadence to it. They know when to come back. They’re excited about it. It’s easy to drop back in. We want to keep that cadence. We don’t want to say, no, we’re delaying stuff for months.”
Not only is Grinding Gear always working on new stuff for Path of Exile, but the studio is also developing Path of Exile 2. It’s plate isn’t just full, it’s spilling over. And now it has to work on these projects with a new reality: people working from home.
“The concept of people working from home was something we really didn’t want to have to accept, but for health reasons of course, we have to put our staff’s health first, so we started to get things set up so that people could,” Wilson told GamesBeat. “And that setup time was important, because rather rapidly, as soon as New Zealand got its first case of community transmission in March, the government announced, you have two days to be working from home and everyone is in total lockdown.”
This is a tough situation for a studio used to close collaboration and outputting new content on a regular basis. Working from home can be good or bad, but it always different. And that uncertainty can be stressful.
“An artist working on Path of Exile 2 assets is going to work at his desk making assets all day just like he was before, which is great,” Wilson continued. “But all of the upper management is scrambling to keep people working efficiently from home, with our existing release schedule of updates. We have a management deficit for the sequel at the moment, which won’t affect its quality of course, because we’ll make sure to do the management as we can. It’s just going to affect its release time. We’re going to be in a situation where assets are ready earlier than we need them, because we’re behind on getting them integrated into the game and functioning correctly and so on. I do expect that the pandemic will probably have a bit of an impact on our release schedule for the sequel, but honestly it was up in the air anyway. It’s an ambitious project. We’ve said we’ll release it when it’s ready.”
Warframe developer Digital Extremes is in a similar situation. Warframe is another free-to-play game that receives constant updates. Rebecca Ford is its live ops director and one of the most visible members of the staff to the game’s community. She’s also the voice of the Lotus, who serves as an in-game guide for players. She does a ton of work for Warframe, and the pandemic has now changed the way she does that work, both in big and small ways.
“I miss having coffee on the go,” Ford told GamesBeat. “I miss having instant access to food I don’t have to buy. I miss our catered lunches. I miss just walking in and being fed. Woe is me! I said, unironically. I have to make my own lunch. This is insane. I have not had to make my own lunch in nine years, just for the record.”
Now that Warframe’s staff is working from home, employees are more dependent on communication tools like Slack to be efficient.
“We’ve been integrated in Slack so heavily for the past five years, I’d say, that it’s not too big of a change in communicating on Slack with my team,” Ford continued. “It’s just I don’t have any other option. I kind of regret how much I relied on Slack before when I could have just talked to people side by side, but now it’s like, you have no choice, it’s only Slack.”
Different platforms, different problems
And depending on what platform you’re developing for, you can discover some unique problems. Patrick O’Luanaigh is the CEO of nDreams, the studio behind the upcoming Oculus exclusive Phantom: Covert Ops, a stealth-based game that has you piloting a kayak.
“We’re a VR developer, so everyone had to take all of our equipment home,” O’Luanaigh told GamesBeat. “You can’t log into a VR headset remotely at the office, because you can’t put it on. You have to have your powerful PC to do your development and test on a VR headset at home. We had to get everyone’s headsets and hardware and PCs and monitors home with them, which isn’t quite the same in terms of more traditional development. But things like dev kits have had to go back to people’s houses. We had to get permission from the hardware manufacturers to take headsets home and all sorts of stuff. That was a bit of a pain initially.”
Phantom: Covert Ops releases on June 25. O’Luanaigh notes that it can be easier working on the post-production part of game when everyone is at home.
“We’ve found that for a game in the later stages, everyone knows what you need to do. You have your bugs to fix. Everyone’s got their task.”
Pre-production, however, can be more fluid. People are creating concepts and building the foundations of a game. That can take more iteration and collaboration, which can be difficult when your staff is all working apart from each other.
Joel Burgess is the studio director at Capy, the developer behind the mobile hit Grindstone, a puzzle game that debuted alongside the Apple Arcade subscription service. Capy is based in Ontario, Canada, and Burgess has been helping the government there support gaming studios during the pandemic.
“I got thrown in very quickly when the pandemic started, into this committee for the minister of tourism, heritage, and culture for Ontario,” Burgess told GamesBeat. “We’re doing a whole bunch of meetings and subcommittees and all this stuff every week to make recommendations on how the government can support companies through COVID. I would say 90% of these meetings and subcommittee stuff is making sure that there’s financial health for studios.”
The committee is especially important for indie developers.
“A lot of those smaller studios, having somebody who started the game pull out and now they’re not going to get a milestone payment, that can bankrupt them,” said Burgess . “The damage to the Toronto indie scene could be catastrophic, if suddenly a bunch of people who had been able to make it because of government assistance, if they can’t because those programs are bogged down in red tape or something.”
As for Capy itself, Burgess is glad that Grindstone became a known quantity before the pandemic hit.
“I wouldn’t say that the pandemic has been good for us. I think it’s more a matter of, from a damage mitigation perspective, I’m happy that we have a product on a platform like Apple Arcade that’s doing well,” Burgess notes. “Grindstone is out. We know what it is. We know what we like about it. We read what critics and fans say about the game and can respond to that. Which means the team has something to work on that’s really clear.”
But as O’Luanaigh from nDreams talked about earlier, stay-at-home work becomes more difficult for games early in the development process.
“We had other stuff going on in the studio that I can’t talk about, because it’s newer and earlier and still secret,” said Burgess. “That stuff has been much more of a challenge, because those early stage projects have uncertainty in them already, and when we’re in this situation where people have anxiety about their lives and the world, and then you mix that with project anxiety, because everyone has a different version of this game in their head, that compounds.”
Capy is a small studio with just 25 people. This presents Burgess with an additional challenge: protecting his employees’ mental health.
“If I were still at Ubisoft, for example, there’s an apparatus there with HR and management relationships and all of that, to check in on people. When you’re in a small indie studio, you rely a lot more on organic personal connections to check on people, because you’re friends,” Burgess explained. “I’m concerned about it. People on the team with whom I’m close, I can get a sense that, say, this is a rough week for them. But we’re just small enough that we don’t have more formal systems for checking in on people, and we’re just big enough that you can’t rely on it being five people who know each other super well.”
Staying connected while stuck at home
Apps like Slack and Zoom have become a regular part of many gaming companies’ lives. Some are even using programs designed for less practical reasons to help make work more efficient. Benjy Boxer is the cofounder of Parsec, software that makes it possible for people to use cloud gaming to play and stream with each other. But Parsec also has tools for screen-sharing and accessing other computers remotely.
“You can use it as an indie game developer to log into your workstation at the office,” Boxer told GamesBeat. “But there are larger companies that are saying, hey, we really need this so that our game developers can connect to their workstations from outside the office.”
But people are still using Parsec for its main intention, which helps people play games together.
“That hasn’t really changed,” Boxer continued. We’re seeing a very significant increase in that usage, to be frank, but the way that people use Parsec is to play games with their friends. They invite their friends to join their PC and they play together. I believe what is happening is — from the consumer side of things, if you’re interested in that, people need a social connection. They’re using Parsec and games for that social connection, because we’re all isolated and feeling lonely. At least I am. Parsec is a great product to continue to connect to those who you want to be connected to. That’s what’s driving a lot of the consumer usage right now. People need that social connection, and then they want an escape through games.”
Matias Rodriguez is the vice president of Technology Gaming Studio at Globant, an IT and software development company. We asked him about a logistical problem facing developers. Many of them have dev kits for the next-gen systems, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. You need those to do a lot of work on games for those upcoming systems, but you can’t exactly move them around to different people’s homes. Is this going to have a big impact on the creation of PlayStation 5 and Series X titles?
“No, there is actually a workaround,” Rodriguez told GamesBeat. “We’re working remotely with them, so there is a workaround. The problem is that for some of the work, like optimization work, even with the best remote solution, it’s not possible. At some point — it doesn’t affect some things, because you can buffer them, but at some point it will require having those devices. I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft and Sony are having discussions about that. Now, next-gen, as you can imagine, you also have the complexity of manufacturing. There’s not a lot of stock. Logistics are more complicated. That makes things more sticky. It’s not necessarily a full hold on production, but it’s definitely something — it doesn’t have the velocity or productivity of Steam, something like that.”
So far, Microsoft and Sony are still committed to releasing their new consoles later this year. But we don’t know exactly what impact the pandemic will have on the games coming to these systems. Considering the long development period for many games, we could be seeing the fallout of this situation for years to come.
But it isn’t all bad news.
“A positive is that a lot of companies are now seeing that they can have more time to develop,” Rodriguez continued. “That could translate into teams having less crunch time and other things that, toward the end of the game, could be more problematic. Now, if because of the pandemic, you earn four or five months of delays because it doesn’t make sense to release a huge title under these conditions, then you end up with more buffer, more time. Again, that’s on the production side. On the consumption side, for a lot of people, they’re discovering games. That’s something very interesting we saw the other day.”
And once the pandemic is over, can we expect companies adopt more lenient work-from-home policies?
“The honest answer is we have to talk to all the employees,” nDream’s O’Luanaigh told GamesBeat. “We have to see how they feel. People don’t really feel safe yet coming back to the office, and we certainly wouldn’t force anybody back until they felt comfortable. We’re going to wait and see how it pans out. But I’ll be very surprised if we don’t have more flexibility than we did before. I suspect that there will be more working from home.”
Right now, many parts of America are attempting to reopen. This could result in another wave of COVID-19 cases. And even if it doesn’t, the pandemic will have a lasting impact on how the gaming industry operates. Working from home may become more common for companies that once depended on the office environment.
Like most of the country, gaming wasn’t ready for the pandemic. But developers have done what they can to adapt, working hard to offer entertainment to millions of people looking for fun during a dark time.