One Year Later: How the Pandemic Has Affected the Video Game Industry

We spoke directly to developers about what worked, what didn't, and what changed forever.

One year ago, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be an international pandemic. While governments around the globe scrambled to deal with the life-threatening virus, or in many cases fail to deal with it, businesses that could work from home pushed their employees to abruptly convert their living spaces into home offices. This included studios and companies in the video game industry, which also started hearing the increased chatter about infected cases making their way west and began to wonder what they should do as well.

“I was checking the Toronto Health website every day,” Drinkbox Co-Founder Graham Smith explained. “First it was one case a day, then two, then six, so we started planning in February for a scenario where everyone goes home to keep them safe.”

Kris Piotrowski, Creative Director at Capybara Games, added “I was being pessimistic and thinking [it would last] like two months. They’re saying it’s going to be four weeks, but I thought it would be more than that.” He paused. “It turned out to be a lot more than that.”

Over the past few months, Fanbyte spoke to multiple developers, studios, and publishers on the subject of developing video games in a quarantine world where the idea of coming to the office every day to work collaboratively with your deskmate suddenly became unfathomable. Some found very little interruption in their work, some found pretty major disruptions, and many expect that the ripple effect of COVID-19 will be felt on the gaming industry for years to come.

(Several sources spoke with us on the condition of anonymity and wished to stress that these are extraordinary times that do not necessarily reflect business as usual.)

The Day-Two Problem

Without exception, every respondent reported that they had zero issue sending people home to continue work, whether or not they were electing to self-quarantine. For the health of employees and colleagues, every studio and publisher we spoke with seemed to take an entirely proactive stance on letting their developers do their jobs somewhere other than the standard office.

In no instance with companies we spoke to was there hesitation from the top about whether to close down the offices and let people go home to work through the pandemic. It was a day-one solution without any question of testing possibly dangerous alternatives or trying to push through it.

“What was tougher was the day-two problem,” one developer working on a AAA game described. “I was driving around the city, leaving workstations at everyone’s front doors, running back to my car, and texting them from my car to come to the door, then waiting to see them actually do it because I was told not to let the workstations out of my sight.”

The logistics of equipping a team to work on games at home became a small nightmare for developers trying to hit the shifting ground running. Not every studio had an army of laptops ready to go home with the employees. Not every employee was ready to just unplug massive desktops with expensive components and carry them across town while walking home or taking the train.

At home, some didn’t have the space to set up places to work with much larger computers than they usually have or owned pets with destructive tendencies. There were security concerns, networking issues, trials in setting up shared drives for everyone, figuring out how to use Zoom or Google Meetings or Teams, all presenting unique challenges a yard beyond just sending an entire studio home and picking up the next day as if nothing changed.

One developer who had been actively working on their game’s multiplayer just a few days before found themselves with little to do while they waited for IT, who were also working from home, to clear security on their laptop and mail it out. They took a walk in a park nearby their now-empty workplace to find three other colleagues who had the same idea because they were also similarly bored. After a few minutes of small talk, one wondered aloud “If we’re all here, is anyone actually working on the game?”

Turns out, no one was, or would be for at least a week while everything got sorted out.

“I would say, in those first few weeks, we were maybe at 50-60% efficiency,” admitted Greg John, General Manager at Armature Studio. “But over time, we fixed things, we got things working, we figured out best practices.” John continued, “Honestly, some teams were more efficient from home, because they no longer had the stress of a commute to get to work, which meant we made up that time pretty easily.”

Communication is Key

One of the biggest roadblocks was how things developers took totally for granted, like the benefits of having many fans in one location, had no simple or easy alternative during a pandemic. It is one thing to have all your employees work from home, it’s another to lose all your playtesting thanks to the cancellation of every gaming event worldwide.

Events like PAX, E3, Day of the Devs, and other similar trade shows to get your game in actual hands were fairly key for a lot of developers. They allowed the people making the games to see how players reacted to specific design decisions and give off-the-cuff feedback in person to the tune of hundreds if not thousands of players. After PAX East, which bordered the beginning of the pandemic in the west in February 2020, that source of useful information and feedback was cut off.

“Playtesting has been a big issue,” explained Christopher Chancey, CEO of ManaVoid Entertainment, a Montreal-based indie developer. “We usually like to have sessions in-studio where we can actually look at the player’s facial expressions in order to know if they’re enjoying a specific sequence, feel frustrated, sad, angry, excited, etc. It’s really hard to do online, plus there are security concerns having to send a build online to a potential playtester. We tried using third-party programs like [game-streaming app] Parsec to playtest our games, but the experience isn’t always optimal and the results are then tainted.”

Chancey goes on to add that events are a great place to meet investors, financiers, publishers, and make the kind of face-to-face impressions and pitches that aren’t easily done through email or video chats. Replacing them with online events, which capture audience attention for hours instead of days, makes a poor substitute for developers who depend on the former cadence to make a splash with both potential buyers and potential investors.

In lieu of traditional events, some organizers are switching to online shows that livestream to worldwide attendees. This overcomes a barrier for many, allowing panelists and guests around the world to attend, but has its own downsides. Chancey also points out that he spends the entire day on his computer and finds it mentally taxing to take the weekend to continue to sit there, suggesting that in-person events had previously offered a change of pace. These streams also don’t present the important opportunity to demo their games directly to players, which makes them feel like a half-measure to some developers.

Drinkbox’s Smith found a silver lining to the dark cloud early on. The Canadian government gave the studio money to demo its games at various events, which Drinkbox used to full effect for their games in previous years, but was going to waste in 2020. Smith leveled with the grantmakers as soon as things kicked off in March: there’s most likely not going to be any trade shows, so let them repurpose that money for the studio to make the game better instead of holding out hope for the resurgence of shows, since Drinkbox argued their team would likely not be vaccinated until near the end of 2021. The government agreed.

Difficulty communicating has also put a strain on developers’ ability to talk to partners. Several of the biggest quality assurance, or QA, firms in the industry are housed in office buildings in hubs across the world. When it became unfeasible to gather a lot of people in secure offices, working from home presented its own challenges. One reason that developers preferred working with established QA companies is because they could be guaranteed security for their projects. Leaks from QA happen, but they’re rare, partially because of internal security.

With QA now spread to exponentially more locations, developers and publishers are taking more risks uploading builds for contracted QA to work on. For QA, work-from-home has benefits, but the downsides include more security checks and difficulty sending feedback. It has led to problems with getting games through the queue, leading to slowdown in workflow in an already-strained pipeline.

Easy to Continue, Hard to Start

Several studios we spoke to had projects in the works meant for new consoles launching in 2020, roughly nine months after the pandemic began. As everyone got sent home, the issue of limited numbers of development kits suddenly became a major concern for developers who needed the kits to work on games for then-unreleased hardware. These boxes are usually IP-locked so that the platform holders can be sure they are only being used in the workplaces of the developers that own them. This is for a number of reasons, including security, but it presented a potential headache for the diaspora of developers that needed their teams to have the same level of access.

Several developers expressed worry about contacting Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo to solve these issues, however most said the worries turned out to be unfounded.

“Honestly, the first-party companies have been great,” John said, praising how fast they all reacted. “Sony usually has this entire process for whitelisting IPs for their specific devkits. In this case, we just called them up, gave them the information, and we were back at it almost immediately.”

Another developer remarked that they didn’t expect the platform holders or publishers to be so understanding. “I thought the people who had, you know, financial interests in our game being developed were going to expect it to happen no matter what. Wasn’t the case. Everyone realized that we don’t control reality.”

For developers continuing projects, the lost time is not easily made up, but most have reported they eventually got back on their feet with the timeline differing depending on things like studio size. For many others, though, the pandemic has given them pause on the idea of starting entirely new games while their ability to work in collaboration is still indefinite.

“It’s likely a whole lot more difficult to start a new project,” Piotrowski noted. Capybara Games had largely been iterating on the wildly successful Grindstone, a puzzle game that was released a few months before the pandemic began, which Piotrowski describes as “one of our dodged bullets.”

He added, “There’s a lot of open questions for us about doing all that conceptual and prototyping work in a remote setting.”

This gave way to an unexpected conundrum for a number of developers: use this time to continue iterating on their games almost as a service or start something new and risk a disastrous pre-production phase that pushes their calendars deeper regardless? Of course, there’s no hard and steadfast rule here, and some studios feel better prepared to start a new project than others. The pandemic adds a question mark where there wasn’t one before, leaving developers who were once sure of their footing now questioning their next step.

David vs. the Goliath

We spoke to developers across the spectrum of size and budget. Some have worked through the pandemic without so much as a blip in their schedule, others have faced massive delays and really, really do not want to talk about it. The stories they tell paint a picture, however, of the ways in which game development has been affected by COVID and how much the scale of the project matters. Quite a bit, it turns out.

While 2020 still saw a number of big video game releases, some of the developers who shipped those projects caution that these were games likely to come out that year regardless. The pandemic made the final sprint more arduous, but for the most part, a lot of the work had already been completed. In the coming year, there is far less confidence in being able to trip forward onto the finish line.

One developer we spoke with described an utterly manic setup where they had to remote takeover into a superior’s desktop to do the work they were tasked with, which could only be done during certain hours of the day, every day. They were told it was a security concern, specifically citing what happened with Capcom and CD Projekt Red’s ransomware hacks as their company’s biggest fear. This new structure delayed their game out of 2021 and they expressed apprehension about giving any year beyond that publicly.

Quarantine across the industry varies highly on location. Individual countries, even neighboring ones, handled the pandemic differently and a developer in New Zealand has a very different situation than one in Texas. In some older companies, not everyone was prepared to go home and start working immediately, as a Japanese company that asked not to be named did not have work-issued laptops for all their developers for nearly two months because there simply were not enough, never mind the difficulty getting them all onto the company network.

Shortages of webcams and microphones made meetings chaotic with one early solution being described as “a hellish circle of FaceTime.”

Smaller developers, most of whom would traditionally be described as “Indie” studios, seem to have been comparatively well-prepared for this change. The majority are continuing apace a year into the pandemic and have shifted their calendars by a few months, at worst. In fact, it’s been a boon for several — the more lithe and flexible studios are finding a sudden influx of talent from bigger development houses are available and want to work somewhere less bureaucratic. Individual developers are reasoning that, as long as they have to work from home anyway, why not also move away from expensive cities and help build up promising studios in the process?

It has been far from an easy year to peg down a release date, but indie studios targeting 2021 by and large report that they’re still on track for release this year, while the pandemic affects almost every single aspect of development for larger projects. One publisher intimated that they essentially lost a year off their schedule that will be hard, if not impossible, to ever really get back.

A Cost that Can’t Be Measured

More than time and efficiency, countless studios reported that the real cost of quarantine has been on employees’ mental health. Even in the best case scenario, the isolation brought new challenges for everyone’s mental health when working from home, which employers are now paying more attention to.

Several studios we talked to are trying to arrange more social events over Zoom or Discord for their employees or providing gift cards for food and grocery deliveries. One publisher added teleconferencing with online therapists as a free addition to their health insurance plan for everyone with the option to use work hours for sessions.

Companies are also trying to facilitate employees socializing more, “a replacement for meeting for drinks after work” as some said. Weekly trivia, happy hours, or even just optional post-work meetings without anyone from management present so employees can talk privately and freely, there’s a wide variety of attempts to ease the burden a little bit, according to the studio heads.

“There’s no cure for loneliness,” a veteran marketer working for a large publisher remarked. “I can go to every Happy Hour or team-building exercise they have, but it doesn’t change the fact that I was doing one thing for a decade and now I’m just not.”

They added, “A Christmas party on Discord isn’t a replacement for seeing people.”

The burden of working from home isn’t evenly spread or focused solely on isolation, according to a number of developers we talked to. Most studio heads mentioned that sharing a domestic office life with kids, most of whom need guidance to navigate their own school-from-home workdays, gives parents a unique hardship when trying to work to develop games. There hasn’t been a good solution for this across the board beyond simply giving parents the time to take off to take care of their kids.

Different studios have been trying to handle childcare differently, with some moving entirely to flex time as a possible solution and others trying to schedule completely different shifts. For some studios, parents having closer proximity to their kids has made things easier for them, both emotionally and in terms of saving time for not having to leave work to pick kids up from school or for emergencies. The lack of consistent policies both for work and for governments unable to decide whether children should be going to school has caused a number of headaches for parents in this industry and across many industries.

“Whether dealing with children at home, health challenges, or other struggles, managers need to understand the average output of each worker and adjust their workload and timelines accordingly,” responded Renee Gittins, Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association, when asked what employers need to do in the midst of a pandemic for their developers.

Gittins pointed out that, according to an IGDA COVID-19 survey, 56% of respondents reported an increase in distractions affecting their work. That same survey also asked developers to rate their mental health while remote working on a scale of 1 (“Terrible”) to 5 (“Great”), wherein 57% of respondents rated themselves at 3 or below.

Most every studio head we spoke to agreed that employee welfare needs to be a top priority, but thoughts on how exactly to prioritize it seemed to differ greatly. One developer argued that the pandemic had landed upon them out of nowhere, but a year later, it is difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

“If I had to pick any silver lining of all this,” Piotrowski offered, “it would be that at least now we’re looking at mental health in the industry and taking it seriously. The rest is obviously not good, but we’re finally looking at things we need to look at.”

The New Normal

After a year working from home, there might be that aforementioned light at the end of the tunnel for many. While vaccination rates differ worldwide, it’s moving at a brisk pace in a number of locations and most people we spoke to who want vaccinations should be getting them by the end of this year. That means that the time until potential normalcy for a lot of studios is measured in months, not years — but the key word there is “potential.” Not everyone wants to return to 2019, not when it has been proven that work-from-home can work for people who want it.

While some developers we spoke with are eager to return to the office, well over half endorsed either a hybrid system where people only come in when they need to or an entirely remote position in perpetuity. It also gives developers significant leeway for where they can live, theoretically mitigating a lot of the burnout common to the profession.

A lot of the smaller studios are actually on board with this plan, but larger developers and publishers are still hoping to feel it out and cross that bridge when they get there. One publisher warned that it’s a bit too early to start thinking about what the new normal looks like until there’s actually a world they know is safe.

That same publisher also expressed the belief that the repercussions of COVID on the games industry might be felt for years. While the video game industry ended up handling it better than most, many are referring to a large chunk of time over the last year as lost. Over the last year, a number of publishers have learned to keep release dates closer to their chest, and those that were optimistic about timing often discovered that wishful thinking didn’t make it so.

“The truth is, players aren’t going to get every video game we — we, as in every developer — want to put out this year,” a designer said, whose game was publicly delayed between speaking to us and publishing this article. “That sucks, but it’s the truth. We don’t want to put out a mess, we want to put out the best games we can, and we’re moving at three-quarters speed on average days and way less on bad days.”

Several developers specifically mentioned CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 as an example of COVID affecting a game’s polishing phase and one developer revealed that they were almost in the same situation until the publisher granted them extra time specifically because of how maligned the CDPR title was. Some developers had their entire 2020 launch plans delayed to 2021 to release alongside PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X versions, which were originally planned to be released a year after the last generation ones.

In short: assume things will come out at least a year later than you once expected them. The traditional wisdom about how long video games take to make, which was already kind of magical and not well understood by the gaming community, has been thrown out the window for at least a little while longer. Developers are hoping that players will understand.

“With such difficulties, it should be understood that pre-pandemic deadlines may not be met, and the mental and physical health of workers should not be sacrificed to meet them,” cautioned Gittins.

The story of COVID’s effect on the games industry does not end with everyone being vaccinated. It doesn’t end with every currently announced game releasing, nor with new projects getting announced. It’s entirely possible the echoes of the pandemic will be felt for the remainder of the console generation or even longer.

While the software industry was able to handle the pandemic better than most, it does not emerge without scars, and the process of learning to walk again will take far longer than most think.