the pandemic has impacted all of us, including the gaming industry. Of course, many publishers are reporting record engagement and increased revenue as players flock to games for entertainment and entertainment. But what about the people who make these games?
In the past two months, I have talked to some studios, creators and software manufacturers about how COVID-19 has changed the way they work. Of course, this meant adapting to a new normal for people working at a distance. Companies accustomed to offices and immediate access to their colleagues are now getting used to videoconferencing and transforming personal spaces into workspaces.
It changes the way games are created and can make the process more difficult.
Development never stops
Chris Wilson is the studio manager for Grinding games, the developer behind the free-to-play action role-playing game Path of Exile. It’s a long-standing title that has become popular thanks to a constant stream of constant updates. He continues to offer new content, so his players rarely get bored.
“One of the great attributes of a successful Path of Exile is that there is a reliable release schedule,” Wilson told GamesBeat. “We go out every 13 weeks. One of the reasons we get a lot of players out there is because the community knows when – there is a pace. They know when to come back. They are delighted. It is easy to come back. We want to keep this pace. We don’t want to say no, we delay things for months. “
But not only is Grinding Gear always working on new things for Path of Exile, but the studio is also developing Path of Exile 2. Its plate is not only full, it overflows. And now he has to work on these projects with a new reality: the people who work 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 the health of our staff first, so we started to put the things in place so people can, “said Wilson to GamesBeat. “And that setup time was important, because pretty quickly, as soon as New Zealand received its first case of community transmission in March, the government announced that you have two days to work from home and that everyone is totally blocked. “
This is a difficult situation for a studio used to close the collaboration and regularly produce new content. Working from home can be good or bad, but it’s always different. And this uncertainty can be stressful.
“An artist working on the assets of Path of Exile 2 will be working at his desk creating assets all day long as he was before, which is great,” said Wilson. “But all of the senior executives are working hard to get people to work efficiently from home, with our update schedule. We have a management deficit for the moment for the moment, which will not affect its quality of course, because we will make sure to do the management as we can. It will just affect his exit time. We are going to be in a situation where resources are ready sooner than we need them, because we are late in integrating them into the game and working properly, etc. I expect the pandemic will likely have a little impact on our release schedule for the future, but honestly, it was in the air anyway. It’s an ambitious project. We said we would publish it when it was ready. “
Warframe Developer Digital Extremes is in a similar situation. Warframe is another free game that receives constant updates. Rebecca Ford is its director of live operations and one of the most visible staff in the gaming community. She is also the voice of the Lotus, who guides the game for players. She does a ton of work for Warframe, and the pandemic has now changed the way she does this work, both big and small.
“I miss having coffee on the road,” Ford told GamesBeat. “I miss having instant access to food that I don’t have to buy. I miss my catered lunches. I just miss going in and being fed. Woe to me!” I said, ironically. “I have to make my own lunch. It’s crazy. I haven’t had to make my own lunch in nine years, just for the record.”
Now that Warframe staff are working from home, employees are more dependent on communication tools like Slack to be effective.
“We have been integrated into Slack so strongly over the past five years, I would say, that it is not a big change in communication on Slack with my team,” said Ford. “It’s just that I have no other option. I kind of regret how much I was relying on Slack before when I could have talked to people side by side, but now it’s like, you don’t have no choice, it’s only Slack. “
Different platforms, different problems
And depending on the platform for which you are developing, you may discover unique problems. Patrick O’Luanaigh is the CEO of nDreams, the studio behind the next Oculus exclusive Phantom: Covert Ops, a stealth game that lets you pilot a kayak.
“We are a VR developer, so everyone had to bring all of our equipment home,” O’Luanaigh told GamesBeat. “You can’t remotely connect to a VR headset at the office because you can’t put it on. You need to have your powerful PC to do your development and test on a VR headset at home. We had to bring the headsets back, everyone’s hardware and PCs and monitors with them, which is not quite the same in terms of more traditional development. But things like development kits have had to go back to people. had to get permission from the hardware manufacturers to bring the helmets home and all kinds of things. It was a bit of a pain at first. “
Phantom: Covert Ops will be released on June 25. O’Luanaigh notes that it can be easier to work on the post-production part of the game when everyone is at home.
“We found that for a game in the later stages, everyone knows what you need to do. You have your bugs to fix. Everyone has their job.”
However, pre-production may be more fluid. People create concepts and lay the groundwork for a game. This may require more iteration and collaboration, which can be difficult when your staff all work separately 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 helped the government support game studios during the pandemic.
“I got involved very quickly when the pandemic started, on this committee for the Ontario Minister of Tourism, Heritage and Culture,” Burgess told GamesBeat. “We have a lot of meetings and subcommittees every week and all that sort of thing to make recommendations on how the government can support businesses through COVID. I would say that 90% of these meetings and subcommittee meetings guarantee the financial health of the studios.
The committee is especially important for independent developers.
“Many of these small studios, having someone who started the game and now they won’t get any milestone payments, can bankrupt them,” said Burgess. “The damage to the Toronto indie scene could be catastrophic, if suddenly a group of people who had been able to do it with government help, if they couldn’t because these programs were mired in bureaucracy or something . “
As for Capy himself, Burgess is glad that Grindstone had become a known quantity before the pandemic.
“I wouldn’t say that the pandemic was good for us. I think it’s more about harm reduction, I’m glad we have a product on a platform like Apple Arcade that is doing well, ”notes Burgess. “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 it. Which means the team has something to work on that is really clear. “
But as O’Luanaigh of nDreams mentioned earlier, working at home becomes more difficult for games early in the development process.
“We had other things going on in the studio that I can’t talk about, because it’s newer and earlier and still under wraps,” said Burgess. “This stuff has been much more difficult, because these projects at the beginning already have uncertainty, and when we are in this situation where people have anxiety about their life and the world, and then you mix that with the anxiety of the project because everyone has a different version of this game in their head, it is made up. ”
Capy is a small studio with only 25 people. This poses an additional challenge for Burgess: protecting the mental health of its employees.
“If I was still at Ubisoft, for example, there is a device with HR and management relationships and all that, to check people. When you’re in a small independent studio, you rely a lot more on organic personal connections to check people out, because you’re friends, “said Burgess. “I’m worried. The members of the team I’m close to, I feel like, say, the week is tough for them. But we’re just small enough not to have more formal systems of control people, and we’re just big enough that you can’t count on the fact that these are five people who know each other very well. “
Stay connected while staying at home
Apps like Slack and Zoom have become an integral part of the lives of many game companies. Some even use programs designed for less practical reasons to make work more efficient. Benjy Boxer is the co-founder of Parsec, software that lets people use cloud games to play and stream together. But Parsec also has tools for screen sharing and remote access to other computers.
“You can use it as a freelance game developer to connect to your desktop workstation,” Boxer told GamesBeat. “But there are bigger companies that say, hey, we really need it so our game developers can connect to their desktops from outside the office.”
But people still use Parsec for its main purpose, which helps people to play games together.
“It hasn’t really changed,” said Boxer. We are seeing a very large increase in this usage, to be frank, but the way people use Parsec is to play games with their friends. They invite their friends to join their PC and they play together. I think what’s going on is – on the consumer side, if you’re interested, people need a social connection. They use Parsec and games for this social connection, because we are all isolated and we feel alone. At least I am. Parsec is a great product for continuing to connect with those you want to be connected to. This is what currently drives much of the consumer usage. People need this social connection, then they want an escape through games. “
Matias Rodriguez is the vice president of Technology Gaming Studio at Globant, a computer and software development company. I asked him about a logistics problem encountered by the developers. Many of them have development kits for next generation systems, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. You need them to do a lot of work on the games for these upcoming systems, but you can’t exactly move them around in different people’s homes. Is this going to have a big impact on creating PlayStation 5 and Series X titles?
“No, there is actually a workaround,” Rodriguez told GamesBeat. “We work remotely with them, so there is a workaround. The problem is that for part of the work, such as optimization work, even with the best remote solution, this is not possible. At some point – it doesn’t affect some things, because you can buffer them, but at some point you will need these devices. I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft and Sony have discussions about this. Now, new generation, as you can imagine, you also have the complexity of manufacturing. There is not much stock. Logistics is more complicated. It makes things more sticky. It’s not necessarily a total take on production, but it’s certainly something – it doesn’t have the speed or productivity of Steam, something like that. “
So far, Microsoft and Sony are still determined to release their new consoles later this year. But we don’t know exactly what impact the pandemic will have on the games that arrive on these systems. Given the long development period of many games, we could see the fallout from this situation for years to come.
But this is not all bad news.
“A positive point is that many companies are now seeing that they may have more time to develop,” continued Rodriguez. “It could mean teams with less crisis time and other things which, towards the end of the match, could be more problematic. Now, if because of the pandemic, you gain 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, it’s on the production side. On the consumption side, for many people, they discover games. There is something very interesting that we saw the other day. “
And once the pandemic is over, can we expect companies to adopt more lenient home work policies?
“The honest answer is that we have to talk to all employees,” ODrLuanaigh of nDream told GamesBeat. “We have to see how they feel. People don’t really feel safe and don’t come back to the office, and we certainly wouldn’t force anyone to come back before they feel comfortable. We will wait and see how it goes. But I’ll be very surprised if we don’t have more flexibility than before. I suspect there will be more homework. “
Currently, many parts of America are trying to reopen. This could lead to a new wave of COVID-19 cases. And even if it doesn’t, the pandemic will have a lasting impact on the functioning of the gaming industry. Homework may become more common for businesses that once depended on the office environment.
Like most countries, the game was not ready for the pandemic. But the developers did what they could to adapt, working hard to provide entertainment to millions of people looking for fun during a dark time.