COVID-19 will inevitably affect game development in many more ways than just delays.

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bigsocrates

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Edited By bigsocrates  Online

The Covid epidemic has affected the lives of almost everybody in the world at this point. Obviously the most affected are those who have died or become very ill, and their loved ones. I've personally lost a family member and know others who have as well. There have also been people who have been deeply economically affected, including losing jobs and businesses, or suffered other hardships like not being able to see their families. We all know about the chip shortages etc...

There's been a lot of talk about how COVID has caused game delays and why this year will have fewer releases than last, and that seems likely to be true, but I think even the games that are coming out have been deeply affected by the pandemic. This isn't true of all of them, of course, and it comes with the giant potentially post-swallowing asterisk that a lot of this is based on supposition and deduction rather than any kind of hard evidence or interviews (though some interviews have at least hinted at some of this stuff) but I think it's worth talking about because I think that the ways it seems to have shaped some recent games and will continue to shape games for some time shows the ways that outside events can influence art.

The most obvious way that I think Covid has impacted game design is with cut features, or overall scope, and lack of polish. This seems more or less inevitable given how it has disrupted the workflows of a lot of companies. Some games are just getting delayed, but others seem to be either mixing delays with cutbacks in feature sets, or pushing things out with reduced scope or quality. That's not to say that every game that has come out recently has been bad, or anything like that, but I do feel like you can see the seams more. This is not surprising at all. Polish and adding features are often the last parts of game development, meaning they are less likely to have been mostly completed back before Covid hit, and are also the least modular. Every part of game development can be collaborative, of course, but something like a game's soundtrack can be done more easily with a small team, at least if you're not using a large number of musicians who need to be together for a physical recording session. Things that affect the entire game, like QA or additional features that require testing and changes to level designs to accommodate, likely are harder to coordinate and involve pushing out large data builds, which is tougher when everything is online and the Internet is already taxed. They're also often seen as somewhat disposable, at least so long as you can pass cert. I think that this lack of polish and feature cutting is inevitable, and something we've all likely noticed. Would Cyberpunk still have been a mess without Covid? Seems likely. Would it have been as much of a mess? I doubt it. Games like Outriders similarly would probably have fewer issues, and a bit more polish applied.

Delays and a general lack of polish are pretty obvious results of anything that disrupts work patterns, but I think there are some slightly less obvious affects too. I think some games may be more, for lack of a better word, modular, because it's a logical work flow response to not being able to get the whole team together and having issues moving data between subteams. What I mean by that is that I'd bet we'll see fewer open worlds in the coming years and more games that are either linear or something like Outriders where you have distinct levels that can be moved between but don't connect to one another. This kind of design makes sense because you can have smaller teams work on each level and then stitch them all together at the end, rather than having to create one giant open world. Of course open worlds aren't made all at once by a giant team either, but if there are issues it's harder to isolate and fix them, or just cut areas for time or quality, than when a game has more distinct chunks. And I think that's been my experience with more recent game releases. It's possible that Outriders was conceived of as a series of distinct levels from the outset, since it was apparently based on Diablo, but I'd imagine the chunks may have been larger and flowed together better instead of having over a dozen distinct locations, some of which seem like they might have been intended to be connected but weren't. I also think the design may have had fewer corridors and more open subareas (like Diablo does) under other conditions, but that's impossible to know.

Finally I'm sure that Covid will influence the themes and designs of many games in innumerable ways. From certain genres becoming more popular to artists wanting to channel their experiences into their work, I am sure we will be seeing the impact of this thing for many years to come. I imagine we'll see more games about isolation and also about connection as people both express what they've been through and imagine other worlds for escapist purposes. Certain genres will rise (Animal Crossing clones must be incoming at some point given that game's astronomical sales) and others will fall (couch co-op games must have taken a hit, though they'll probably rebound.) We really haven't seen many explicit references to the pandemic in games yet, or at least the games I've played, but I'm sure those are coming too. Will we see as many games about virology and epidemiology as we do about war? Of course not, for many reasons, but I'd be surprised if we don't see any.

I don't think any of this amounts to any kind of revelation, but as we get deeper into the Covid games era I think it's interesting to watch for signs on how development has been disrupted and how games have adapted in terms of design to the various aspects of our new reality. If there's a Division 3 will it be about a pandemic? If it is I imagine it can't be pushed into the background the way it was in the first couple games. Will my prediction of more modular games prove true or will developers figure out how to keep making open worlds? Will we see a bunch of smaller games from major publishers try to fill the void of the release schedule, and maybe see some big developers return to their roots with smaller projects?

It's not just going to be delays. Something this big hits every part of almost every industry. I think it will be interesting to observe the ways in which the pandemic influences game development and to try to see whether the adaptations the industry puts into effect are all negative or have some positive elements, such as cutting down on game bloat or encouraging experimentation and smaller projects.

P.S. Obviously I'm not saying that Covid will be a net good thing, and of course not saying that game development is even in the top 100 ways it has most significantly affected the world and people's lives. That should go without saying, but I'm saying it.

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yyninja

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#1  Edited By yyninja

I think the indie scene will thrive in this era as most of their development is done remotely.

However the AAA scene is already severely impacted. The video card shortage is making it harder for devs to create cutting edge graphics. Motion capture is a time consuming process with everyone following social distancing protocols. And having large team sizes makes it difficult to collaborate online.

The PS5 and XBox Series X is looking like a bust thus far as there won't be many AAA games released anytime soon to justify buying the new consoles right now. I'm predicting a lot more remasters and re-releases in the upcoming years.

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ALLTheDinos

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I think another point of impact is that (anecdotally) it seems like the urge to create has really been blunted or gutted by the pandemic. There will always be a lot of great ideas, especially in the indie scene, but it really feels like a lot of creators have absorbed an enormous mental toll that will greatly affect their work. On a small, personal scale, I thought a year ago that I would be able to use the time to write more D&D stuff, plan a new TTRPG setting for family and friends, and generally do a lot more writing on this site. I’ve done very little of that, and everything I have done has been a struggle to finish. I don’t know how game creators do it, but I am extremely grateful they get anything done these days.

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senorsucks2suck

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I think once the dust has settled we are going to find that the exodus and transfer of talent was not in the normal or traditional manners. People probably got sick and tired of working. We all are locked into this loop since March 2020 when you shuffle from device to device. I’m sure a lot of people that were just phoning it in for work pre-covid were extra uninspired. People were probably exploiting their work from home opportunity. Some had to care for loved ones. Some had to relocate. Some had enough. So to fill vacancies you have to do a zoom call and you can’t really gauge someone’s skill set that well so you hire under qualified. You hire over qualified. Training is not existent. People can’t quit because they can’t guarantee anything so they stay put.

It blew my mind when I learned that movies aren’t made in the order of the movie. I’m sure games are the same way. Games like Deathloop may have their entire ‘way forward’ still not fleshed out. Dan in level design holds all the keys and he left to go become a farmer because who wants to program all day. Useless traditional meetings have somehow become even more useless zoom meetings that your entire staff resents you for because you only give 1 hour notices.

The fallout for this is even more troubling because who wants to release a next gen game when theres only a couple of million systems in the wild. Meanwhile those in the wild are being stockpiled probably 1 for every 3 console actually sold. It’s how you get Microsoft bullying Outriders and The Show into day 1 gamepass. It’s a guarantee. Wario64 feels like the most inside or inside jobs and retailers need to sort their stuff out independently and sale through physical in store only or something because I’m going to reach a point where I just don’t participate anymore and find another hobby when I already hate screens as is. Except to post the screed or 2.

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Shindig

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Crunch from the comfort of your own home.

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Topcyclist

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#5  Edited By Topcyclist

@shindig: Yeah, I think people don't understand how easy it is to label home workers lazy oh I mean "there's a lack of productivity" from home workers get. Most companies are forcing workers back home, suspecting if they're not on their pc 24/7 their not using the bathroom, but talking to friends and going on vacation. People working on games are working constantly and being gently hinted at working past their clock out time since they're home anyway. It's depressing to learn they go to sleep at their bed to wake up in 5 hours to work from sunrise to sunset then go back to sleep cause the sun's down and they haven't seen the sun since the 1 day they get off on the weekend. Yeah, Saturday we need you in for some crunch. Then gamers scream that their games are buggy fairly but annoyingly knowing execs are lining their pockets rushing games out during this pandemic. Add to that, most games will get delayed, so there will be a drought of AAA games, a great chance to capitalize, with smaller games rushed, and the only ones making goty like productions being lucky. I see the same in other industries similar to creatives like gaming, such as animation. Gamers are at least more in the know on game development and understanding. You can see the skeleton on screen and anyone can pick up RPG maker or a creation tool game to understand the workload. Crafting in games even. But in animation, many don't know how to draw to animation levels or haven't practiced it. They are going wild thinking animation should stay at the levels of demon slayer or something even if they are getting animators working from home, on digital pads they're not used to, without much of the same drawing environment, getting paid pennies. They have to work quickly to even eat and do it only from pure love and respect. Then get death threats cause Attack on Titan didn't have a character pose the way they wanted in scene 5 episode 32 or something. Then don't get me started on book releases. People already are threatening the Attack on titan creator over his ending not going the way they predicted. It's all a sad turn of events and depression rising from people not getting opportunities to vent and meet people in relaxed social situations hurts. People like to act like it doesn't matter cause most people are introverts but introverts have a mix of extrovert tendencies and we all crave some form of communication and bonding. Were social creatures. I could rant on but it's not fair. We're all gonna have to be respectful and know we're all going through this and understanding if we don't get everything the same as we like.

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Topcyclist

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@yyninja: Maybe people can make small personal games with tons of creative ideas. Fewer graphics from realism more art style.

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Topcyclist

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@senorsucks2suck: I like your point. I think many are afraid to leave their jobs and getting used by companies that know it. OVERTIME to fill exec pockets. Sure you're getting more money but I think most don't understand how much money isnt as important (once you paid all bills and have a steady income to survive and pay for emergencies etc) being with family and friends is. It's the reason many people say being a celebrity would be great then so many celebs are depressed. They have all the money but feel empty. Their family doesn't treat them quite the same etc. (not all the time of course.) Anyway yeah many have changed jobs drastically, lost inspiration, others gained it.

PS: Only about 20% of ps5 are in scalper's hands, most brought it normally so the media exaggerates it. Thou I still can't find one, this happens when PS2 came out and Wii so it is what it is. Plus the PS5 stuff looks just as nice on a decent pc or your old ps4 if you don't have it side by side and squint XD. Not as much of a rush for it when they play similar games if your not an fps hound. Thou if this was the leap from ps2 to ps3 in graphics being obviously better...then we'd be in trouble. this is more of the leap from ps3 to ps4, pretty particles and more but early ps4 looked like late ps3. Late ps5 will look like ps4 was trash.

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Gundato

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@topcyclist: Attack on Titan I think is closer to the GOT/Lost/Evangelion/any long running series levels of problematic where, unless it matches head canon, it is "wrong" and "disgraceful".

But yeah. I am actually really worried about E3 this year. Because as much as people (for reasons I do not understand in the slightest) disliked last year's "summer of E3", it spread things out. One "real" game and a bunch of "I dunno, someday?" was nice. Even if all those "real" games were more or less titles delayed from 2019. We are going to have keynotes of "Uhm... maybe '22 or '23?" and "Yo, here is an indie game. Remember Tunic?" and it is going to set the masses off. "Fucking game developers are lazy" and all that bullshit.

And that is just going to mean unprecedented crunch going in and an order of magnitude coming out when everyone is scrambling for a "shadow drop" in Q4.

Which, to bring it back around, is kind of true of covid in all industries and aspects of life. People who weren't raging shithead nazis were willing to acknowledge that "2020 was weird". But... it really wasn't anywhere near as weird as it "should" have been because everyone dug in to their war chest and rainy day funds and took advantage of stuff that was "mostly done". Now large parts of the world are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel (spoiler alert: its oncoming traffic) and expect everything to be just like 2019 again. Not realizing that pretty much everyone is hanging on by a thread and it is going to take some time to ramp back up to any form of "normal".

Which kind of gets to WFH in general. Many studies have pointed it out and are continuing to point it out but WFH is AMAZING for ticking off jira tickets. People are generally able to focus and they know exactly who to ping on slack when they need help. WFH is complete dogshit for making those tickets in the first place and having "creative" steering meetings for any moderately sized org.

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Topcyclist

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@gundato: Didn't really think of it that way. Never saw lost/GOT (or read books) etc. But I imagine from what you're saying, people get invested over the several years, gain headcanon, and bam ending. doesn't fit it. I think you are more resistant like I was when the production your watching is finished already like Evangelion where I wasn't waiting for the ending for several years and got it right away. Thou I listened to panning the stream and new watchers can fall into the disappointment when things don't have their head cannon satisfying way of concluding.

I guess I was speaking to the animation trobles thou. The animation is obviously affected by production issues that were almost unavoidable and people equate that to lazy workers and the need for death threats...which I don't like. I'm guessing it wasn't pandemic affected but future seasons of shows will be affected and people will not get why and do the usual threats and unsympathetic dropping of series, with the endgame hurting workers, advertising, and creatives. Games can be updated after the pandemic, art is much harder.

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Gundato

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@topcyclist: Some games get "updated". Most never do. Like, CDPR will update Cyberpunk (and there is a game that people totally suffered from losing out on the critical crunch time) until they have a trailer for their next witcher game and send out a few chairs. But Balan Wonderworld will not get a long tail of support. Hell, Obsidian is more or less built on a history of making AMAZING games that are 75% done and MAYBE get a fan patch to restore some cut content.

Not a lot of anime get the remasters simply because the "cost" of a given production is so much lower. But, like one of the other endless number of blog posts that seem to have popped up in these forums pointed out, Sony/ND are allegedly "remaking" a game that is less than a decade old (I think?). It is a safe bet at a time when companies need "wins" and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the studios in Japan are looking in to doing that with some of the back catalog.

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senorsucks2suck

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This age (2021-2023) will be remembered for the backwards compatible games that got breathed new life. Stubbs the Zombie gets greenlit because the rights owner’s lawyer says we can cut you a check for $2 million if you allow the game on BC. We can even get it ported to Switch and PS4 with minimal work. $2 million is the floor $20 million if we can get these special editions to move and the game becomes a meme. Just sign here. No you don’t have to do anything. Nope. You still retain rights. This is going to be the loop we are in for a couple of years. The God of Wars and Halos are going to be trash fires with no apparent reason for being next gen other than they can be. I don’t think a pro basketball team can practice via zoom and be good. Same goes for game development. I’m sure there’s edge cases like the AC franchise or that one game where nobody works on the same continent. But those were edge cases when getting a fax machine part didn’t require 6 weeks on back order to get.

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yyninja

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#12  Edited By yyninja

@topcyclist said:

@yyninja: Maybe people can make small personal games with tons of creative ideas. Fewer graphics from realism more art style.

Agreed, I think cutting edge graphics is starting to gather diminishing returns and I would also prefer developers focus more on innovative gameplay ideas and writing better stories. The problem is that many people have bought the latest consoles and video cards and want to play games that justifies those purchases.

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#13 sweep  Moderator

Bloomberg published a recent article on Sony's "obsession" with AAA games from pre-existing franchises rather than new IP or smaller studios. These decisions predate covid, but the pandemic certainly isn't going to have helped matters - everything feels fragile right now, and nobody is going to want to take risks on new IP when there's established formulae which will guarantee blockbuster sales.

Regarding the "crunch will get worse" discussion, this is going to sound weird but crunch from home is a double edged sword; for some it means the lines between "work" and "home" become blurred, and start to bleed together, until you get to the point where you can't differentiate between the two. That's mentally unhealthy and can make you feel like you're always at work. But for those that can maintain healthy boundaries, not having to be in the office/studio for overtime and/or weekend work makes a big difference. If you need to pick up your kids from school and take them home it's a lot easier afterwards if you're not having to drive back to the office. Similarly my weekend crunch is a lot more bearable without the commute, especially if I'm able to work in my pajamas and have the TV playing in the background. It still sucks giving up your Saturday mornings, but it's a far less miserable than being in the studio.

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drmadhatten

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I'm not sure if this contributes to the discussion, but Outriders just released a patch to try and address PC stability issues, and the situation with lost inventory just got worse. The developers stated they wanted to release the patch the following week, and yet here it was, on a Friday. It felt very much like a forced hand from somebody higher up to get a patch out that would encourage better press over the weekend, but without that QA testing, it worsened the climate.

It's difficult to know what to make of a situation like this. Because of COVID, it is such a culmination of several elements. Stress from releasing a game that was already delayed, on top of a demo that was also patched twice. Being separated from each other while also trying to manage a game with "always on" live servers. Working under the thumb of a publisher like Square Enix with a notorious history (see Hitman series). Not to mention it is a larger company, People Can Fly, with many employees to manage scattered across the country, or even the world? I don't know who makes up the staff...

But I have been waiting on the wings to purchase the game, but I have come to the conclusion that a release date for a game is no longer the actual release date. That when a company says they will release their game in April, it actually means May. Or June...(we'll see with Cyberpunk 2077). I can see why developers run for the hills when working for larger companies. They lead with bad ideas and draconian measures and then, if you are like Gearbox, you do not give bonuses to the ones who brought Borderlands 3 across the finish line.

I agree with what others said about remakes and reboots getting new life. It's a codebase that is familiar to all, so collaboration is a little easier, and if buy-in has already occurred, why reinvent the wheel? I for one know as a fact that four of my friends are holding their fingers over the pre-order button for Diablo II: Resurrected. Low-risk, high reward.

But I also agree with some of you that, pre-COVID, gaming wasn't exactly in the best spot anyway.

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whitegreyblack

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@sweep said:

crunch from home is a double edged sword; for some it means the lines between "work" and "home" become blurred, and start to bleed together, until you get to the point where you can't differentiate between the two.

As someone who's been self-employed working from a home office for nearly 20 years, I can attest that this is true. It then takes considerable ongoing effort to try to regain a life/work balance... and at some point you just realize that the line will always remain a bit blurry but that can be okay, too – if you are aware of it and draw the line when needed.