Game sales are up, but production is down

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During the early days of self-quarantine at Larian Studios, the independent video game developer based in Ghent, Belgium, morale remained high. Designers and engineers, many of whom worked remotely (the company has 300 employees in five countries), were able to continue to do so, building levels and writing code from their homes.

“The very first week went very well,” said Swen Vincke, general manager of Larian, who creates popular role-playing games like Divinity: Original Sin and the upcoming Baldur’s Gate 3. “Everyone had all the information you need to work smoothly from home. ”

“We have started to see more stress on prospects in terms of communication,” said Vincke. “We spent all of our days just communicating – trying to solve problems, organize things, give direction.”

Video games may seem like the perfect business for this new reality, in which most of the world has asked citizens to isolate themselves in the hope of fighting the pandemic. Bored and restless at home, people take comfort in games.

“Gaming is one of those areas that people divert from other activities they would have done in a normal world,” said Mat Piscatella, analyst at N.P.D. Group, which monitors sales of video games. “Sales of games coming out are breaking franchise records.”

Yet video game developers, as well as the big companies behind the game consoles, have faced challenges in adapting to a world in which offices and factories are closed and designers have children who compete with each other. be careful at home. Behind the scenes, questions arise about how to deal with a crisis that could last for weeks or months – especially for those making games and game consoles they hoped to release this year.

Sony, the publisher of PlayStation consoles and dozens of video games, announced in early April that it would dilatory the highly anticipated The Last of Us: Part II from May 29 to an undetermined date. The developers of Naughty Dog, the studio behind the game, said the delay was due to the current challenges of printing, shipping and selling physical copies of video games. With factories closed, distribution pipelines disrupted, and GameStop retailer operating at reduced capacity, Sony feared that physical sales would decline.

Sony is not alone. Amazon delayed its New World multiplayer game from spring to August “in order to reach our quality bar as we work remotely for the foreseeable future.” the company said in a report. Square Enix publisher had to delay a big new update for his online game Final Fantasy XIV. Microsoft’s post-apocalyptic role-playing game Wasteland 3 was hit from May 19 to August 28, with its developers citing “these new logistical challenges” in their explanation.

Other large companies have found it easier to adapt. Ubisoft, the multinational publisher of games like Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed, has 17,000 employees in 55 studios who could be moved from project to project as different countries face lockdown orders.

“We have moved some of our quality assurance and testing work from India to China while our studio in Pune was shifted to working from home,” said Yves Guillemot, managing director of Ubisoft. “We also learned a lot from our studios in China, who had to deal with this first and shared their best practices and experiences with us.”

Forrest Dowling, president of Molasses Flood, an independent studio based in Boston, said he was still hoping to release his new multiplayer construction game, Drake Hollow, in June. Because the game is only digital, Mr. Dowling’s company has more flexibility. “We find it week after week,” he said.

But Mr. Dowling expressed concern about keeping his staff happy and productive in these extraordinary circumstances. He compared work during the pandemic to “tightening”: long extension periods, which are ubiquitous in the video game industry.

“I think it will exhaust people,” said Mr. Dowling. “From an energy point of view, it looks a lot like times when I ate.”

Canceled or delayed events also threw roadblocks on the way to press releases. Dowling planned to show Drake Hollow at the Game Developers Conference, an annual event in March in San Francisco, but it was canceled, which cost the game potential media coverage. Big game publishers are still scrambling to find replacement plans for E3, the video game convention being held in June, during which great new games are announced and showcased.

Josh Regan, a freelance game developer slated to release a strategy game called Warborn on June 12, said he had gotten nervous seeing delays in The Last of Us: Part II and other big games.

“I suspect it could mean more visibility for India, but I think the decline in disposable income is going to be a concern for everyone,” said Mr. Regan. “Suffice it to say that it is very strange to make games at a time like this.”

Regan, who is based in Bristol, England, added that he may have to delay the planned physical release of his game, only broadcasting it on digital platforms.

Another major logistical hurdle for video games in 2020 will be certification, a process required by the three major console manufacturers, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony. Before a developer can publish a game on Switch, Xbox or PlayStation, these companies want to make sure there are no revolutionary issues.

But these companies’ certification testers are now working remotely, raising questions about safety and productivity. Developers are concerned that with anything taking longer than usual, a delay may appear.

Geneviève St-Onge is the co-founder of Popagenda, a company that helps small developers release their games. Usually, she says, she recommends that her clients finish their games with a four to six week buffer for certification time. Since the start of the pandemic, she has told them to plan for eight to ten weeks.

“We are extremely careful now,” said Ms. St-Onge. “We don’t know what the turnaround time will be.”

The hardest economic impact of the pandemic, however, could be the release of new consoles from Sony and Microsoft, which have long planned to release the next PlayStation and Xbox this fall. Such events only happen every seven or eight years, with tremendous attention and, hopefully businesses, acclaimed.

Much of the 2020 video game release schedule was aligned with these launches, with companies like EA and Ubisoft planning video game releases alongside the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.

Microsoft and Sony have said their consoles are staying on track, but internally, they keep watching the clock.

“The new games are what really move the market forward,” said Mr. Piscatella of the N.P.D. Group. “If the consoles are delayed, it will have an impact on what we see on the market, no doubt.”

Yves Guillemot of Ubisoft said that Microsoft and Sony had “allowed our developers to continue to use their development kits” – proprietary hardware that helps game manufacturers develop games on consoles – “to continue to create our next generation console games, “even though company staff work remotely, although they have signaled a desire to delay these games if the consoles fail to reach their target.

“We don’t see a significant impact on our own timelines, but we are in touch with all of our partners and if there is a need to adapt in order to do what is best for them and for our players, we will, “said Mr. Guillemot. said.

If global quarantine measures continue throughout the summer, delays for many games this fall may be inevitable – except, perhaps, for those who come out every year, like Call of Duty, that Activision Released every fall since 2005, or the EA Madden football video game series, a perpetual version of August.

Two video game developers slated for this fall, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the media, said that so far they have chosen to narrow the range rather than delay their games. Due to the slowdown in productivity in their studios – and in outsourcing houses, especially in China and India – they plan to cut back on features, levels and quests in the hope of meeting their deadlines.

But some aspects of game development cannot be imitated from home, such as performance capture, an expensive process in which an actor stands on a sound stage and imitates the movements of the characters. These actions are filmed and translated into animations that can be used in the game.

“We have no solution for this,” said Vincke of Larian Studios, adding that he hoped to be able to return to the performance capture studio soon alongside heavy sanitation and social distancing policies. “We hope we end up organizing something.”

Dubbing is a more common concern in video game productions.

“We had a project in the pipeline,” said John Ricciardi, co-founder of 8-4 Ltd., a Tokyo-based localization company that translates scripts. “And two or three should start soon. The one in the middle is just on break. The others are delayed. “

Although dubbers can record from home, the sound can be inconsistent, said Ricciardi, especially if part of a game’s dialogue has already been recorded in the studio.

Vincke said Larian’s next project, the highly anticipated role-playing game Baldur’s Gate 3, is still on track for an “early access” beta this year. Larian’s internal estimates show that their teams are operating at 70 to 80% of their normal productivity, at least for now.

“Development continues,” said Vincke. “We’re just slowed down.”


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