Since the pandemic began, the video games industry has been booming. Last year was a bumper year, with most of the world’s population forced inside by lockdowns and looking for safe ways to have fun and socialise, and new games consoles such as PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S launching in November. UK consumers spent more on games last year than ever before; Roblox, a gaming platform popular with children and teens, saw an 85% uptick in players and shares in the company recently rose 60%, increasing its value to $47bn. Last year’s games were great, too, from lockdown saviour Animal Crossing: New Horizons to the provocative horror game The Last of Us II and the knockabout multiplayer caper Fall Guys.
But 2021, so far, is depressingly devoid of exciting gaming experiences. Since new PlayStation and Xbox consoles were launched last November, there has been almost nothing new to play on them – and due to supply issues, many thousands of people still haven’t been able to even buy one. Usually March is when the first big games of the year start to appear, but this time there’s been very little.
There would usually be at least some firm release dates to look forward to, but those too are thin on the ground. Game development is a collaborative process that takes years and is extremely sensitive to disruption, so the effects of the pandemic are only just starting to be seen. A lot of the games we were looking forward to are going to be significantly delayed. Will 2021 be the worst year for games in recent memory?
Most games that did especially well in 2020 would have been finished (or nearly so) before the pandemic hit. Popular live games such as Fortnite and Roblox have been worked on for years, with teams of developers updating and supporting them. Animal Crossing arrived just before the global lockdowns began, and The Last of Us Part 2 was slightly delayed, but was still released in June.
By contrast, many games that were due to be released in 2021 would have been in mid-development last year, and will have been significantly impacted by lockdowns, home-working, staff absences and other logistical headaches. Games that would have launched now – perhaps some of the more enticing PlayStation 5 exclusives, such as Horizon: Forbidden West – won’t be released until later this year at the earliest.
Working from home has been tricky for a lot of developers, says Steve Pritchard, vice-president of production at the UK studio Splash Damage. “Our services and IT teams have been pushed to the limit in an effort to provide the best working environments for everyone,” he says. “Certainly, the transfer of the huge volumes of data back and forth is a big concern.”
There are some parts of a game that simply can’t be made with creators confined to their houses – particularly performance capture, the process by which actors give game characters life. “The games industry is often noted for its flexibility and resilience, and we’ve seen a lot of that in studios adapting to survive the pandemic,” says Mel Phillips of new narrative studio Silver Rain Games. “That said, we’ve taken hits in the live-action and production side of the industry. I’ve seen many close friends lose work. It’s been particularly hard for actors, recording studios, live services and events.”
Even when development on a game is mostly finished, it must go through quality assurance and certification before it appears on consoles, a process that usually takes several months – and now takes even longer, because the QA teams that test games aren’t working in huge office shifts. You only need to look at last year’s Cyberpunk 2077, which was delayed from March into December and then eventually released in a pretty appalling state on consoles, to see what effect this disruption might have.
Things are a little different for indie studios, which don’t have hundreds of employees to coordinate and are often used to working from different parts of the world. With so many big games delayed or in limbo, 2021 could be a year for indie games to enjoy the spotlight. But these teams have had their own problems to deal with, says game development consultant Jon Cartwright.
“Access to development kits could well have presented a problem,” he explains. “At larger studios there’s probably enough to go round, but at indie studios there’s likely the bare minimum. I know of one indie team where two coders out of five had development kits at home to work on during lockdown. None of the designers, artists, or animators had access to development kits. They all survived, the game shipped, but it wasn’t ideal.”
Ultimately, the lack of face-to-face contact between artists, coders, musicians, designers and others has been felt. “We have 70 staff and a vast majority have come on since lockdown,” says Tom Hegarty of the London-based developer Roll7. “We’ve got staff who we’ve never met face-to-face … The difficult thing is that you don’t get to have those after work chats, over a coffee or a beer, where you’re able to just talk about other things.”
Pritchard agreed that it’s the culture of game studios that have suffered the most. “The technical problems, while significant, have actually been the easier ones to solve. It’s the social connections, the casual conversations, those five-minute chats at a desk that are now scheduled calls, that have been a far larger hurdle for us. The simple parts of our job have been made far more troublesome and problematic without that face-to-face connection.”
The cancellation in 2020 of major video game events such as E3, the Tokyo Game Show and Gamescom (which all became digital-only) will also have had a dramatic effect on studios and development. The buzz around these major celebrations of games and video game culture is difficult to replicate with online events, and the value of having a game shown on the convention floor, especially for smaller studios, is an incalculable publicity loss. These big shows are also where a lot of publishing deals are brokered, and where developers present their projects to a huge number of potential partners. Excitement can quickly build around promising demos on the show floor – without these opportunities, innovative projects may be overlooked. As games can take two or three years to develop, the ramifications for the industry may last well into the decade.
But there are interesting games to look for in 2021. Some, such as the horror blockbuster Resident Evil Village and the art-deco assassination game Deathloop, are due out soon enough that they’re unlikely to be delayed. But others pencilled in for later in the year – such as Halo Infinite, Far Cry 6 and Horizon Forbidden West - may yet be pushed back further as the pandemic drags on. Perhaps 2021 is be a good year to catch up on your gaming backlogs.