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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