COVID-19 has changed that. Like so many businesses, the games industry hasn’t been immune to this unprecedented event, and conferences, games, and consoles have all been affected.
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Developing From Home
For game developers, COVID-19 has created numerous issues. Countrywide lockdowns and social distancing measures have stopped companies from operating normally, fuelling discussions about how the industry functions now and in a post-COVID-19 world. These range from big, obvious questions, like what the future of big industry events like E3 may look like, to less public-facing issues like including how to protect the health of game developers.
Like many of us, though, the biggest change has been working from home. For every dev used to office life, the first step was establishing ‘business-as-usual’ from home; a particularly pertinent measure considering there is no timeline for the pandemic.
Developers at Riot, for example, had to launch the beta of their upcoming FTP FPS Valorant completely remotely, and finding a way to do that smoothly, as if they had all been in the office with systems running normally, required some changes. “Interestingly, the complexities we’re running into are the things we’ve normally taken for granted,” she continued. “For example, designers are used to huddling around a workspace — after a playtest — to give feedback and think about how they want to tweak things. On any given day, I see artists at each other’s desks providing feedback. That’s had to change. There are challenges, but the Valorant team feels supported — especially by Riot’s IT and security teams — to get things resolved as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
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In addition to the pre-launch development, the launch rollout of Valorant was also affected by self-quarantine. “We had live events planned for several influencers to start onboarding in advance of the beta,” Anna Donlon, Valorant executive producer, said. “We completely changed our approach and made them virtual instead of in-person. We’re also dependent on many teams and partners to help us launch Valorant.”
Bungie — whose main headquarters are located in Seattle, one the first US cities hit by COVID-19 — took steps to implement working from home strategies before many others in early February, such as supplying employees with developer-grade laptops, and play-testing using Google Stadia, to reduce some of the obvious headaches.
“Getting playtests at scale is a hard thing to do – a lot of bandwidth involved – so [Stadia] has been collaborating with us to set that up and that looks like it’s going to be a really amazing solution for us,” explained Bungie chief operating officer Patrick O’Kelley. “It’s not something we necessarily thought about initially but it looks like it’s going to be a great way for us to keep getting regular playtests and do it pretty easily.”
Like Riot and Bungie, Finnish studio Remedy (Control, Alan Wake), which employs 260 people from 25 countries, began remote working preparations in February. To recreate work environments at home Remedy has shipped its workers’ office chairs to employees, alongside other equipment to make the transition easier. But bandwidth and latency issues have become increasingly disruptive as internet providers struggle with more companies working remotely.
“When you go to a situation where 85% of your company is working remotely, that’s a very different thing,” Remedy’s Communications Director Thomas Puha said. “Remote desktopping to your work PC at the office, for example, works amazingly well, but it isn’t perfect. If your work PC is at home, you have nothing to remote desktop to at the office. You lose access to some network drives, and it’s on that PC that you deploy builds to consoles, too. Since game sizes are huge these days, transferring 30-60 gigabytes to test a build over an internal network is no problem. Downloading that outside of the office, however, that is a problem.”
The struggle for some studio employees to effectively communicate while working remotely has compounded technical issues even further. “We can’t play-test very well due to desktop streaming,” said one anonymous worker in the AAA development space. “Design discussions have taken a huge blow too. Everyone is in meetings all the time, so I can’t just go and find the right people to communicate with.”
For smaller development companies, like Frictional Games (SOMA, Amnesia: The Dark Descent), the switch has been more straightforward. “Remote working was always an option, and how most [employees] do work, at Frictional,” Frictional CEO Thomas Grip explained. “We have less than ten people using the office and most are not there every day. People miss the social contact and being able to talk face-to-face but, in terms of how people do their work or how the projects are run, there is no change.”
Combating COVID-19’s Hidden Health Challenges
Employee welfare has become an increasingly important discussion in the industry recently after reports of crunch from developers across multiple studios have been made public. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, these conversations about physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing have evolved.
“The biggest potential issues are if a lot of people at the company get ill or if any essential partners have issues doing their work,” Grip said. “These are things we can and are doing, preventive work for. We’re making sure everybody knows what safety measures to take to stay healthy, are hiring extra people, and are already talking to partners about potential workarounds.”
Remote working, coupled with school closures, means that workers with children have to juggle homeschooling with their jobs. For others, social distancing measures bring on feelings of isolation and loneliness, particularly for those who live alone. A review conducted by the medical journal The Lancet, which looked at the impact of social distancing on mental health, suggested that lengthy quarantine periods could lead to long-term negative psychological effects.
Mental health gaming charities have noticed a rise in visitor numbers since the pandemic began. Australian non-profit organization CheckPoint saw a 128% increase in website views between February 24 and April 13, and received numerous messages from studio HR departments requesting support for their workers as they transitioned to remote working.
“We’ve been working hard on creating mental health resources, which are specific to this COVID-19 lockdown period, on topics like how to prioritize self-care and wellbeing when you’re self-isolating and working from home,” CheckPoint Charity Manager Sarah Crowe said. “We’ve also noticed a lot of people have been utilizing our global mental health resources page, and our social media engagement has been rising as well.”
COVID-19’S various stressors can manifest themselves as physical ailments too. “Missing non-virtual human contact, everyday stress, the uncertainty of the future, and having my family and friends in Italy has caused headaches and stiff neck,” Feral Interactive developer Seb Cossu revealed. “My grandma and I had planned to spend our 30th and 90th birthdays together but, with the pandemic, we won’t have the chance.”
Prioritizing employee mental wellbeing, then, is at the forefront of many developers’ ongoing lockdown plans. Ubisoft, which employs almost 16,000 people, has allowed some workers to return home to work remotely and be closer to friends and family. For employees who can’t travel home, studios have implemented strategies to provide additional help.
Remedy has built an internal support infrastructure in attempts to support the mental wellbeing of its employees. “We have a lot of people who moved to Finland and don’t necessarily have a support network like most of us who lived here all of our lives,” Puha said. “So we definitely want to make sure everybody knows we’re here for them.”
That support infrastructure extends to every Remedy worker. Daily Slack updates let employees know what the company’s COVID-19 “task force” — a division composed of IT, Human Resources, and Internal Communications departments that deals with remote working issues — is dealing with. A hotline, opened through Remedy’s healthcare provider, allows workers to chat about any problems they’re facing. Other Slack channels, where employees can share images of meals and pets, or share tips about staying physically and mentally healthy, have been set up as well.
A healthy and happy workforce is also pivotal to Riot’s remote working strategy. “Rioters and their families are my foremost concern,” Donlon said. “I want the team healthy, both physically and mentally. Some of us have kids who we are now homeschooling, or high-risk loved ones that we need to provide care for, and then there’s the stress of the whole thing. We will be here to support them the whole way.”
Charities like CheckPoint are on hand to provide additional help 24/7. COVID-19 relevant mental health resources, alongside a list of global emergency hotlines, are available online for anyone who is struggling to cope.
“Knowing first and foremost that it’s okay that things feel different is crucial here,” Crowe said. “It’s really important to prioritize your mental health in general, just like your physical health, and note that you don’t need to be sick to be eligible for professional support. For a lot of people, the act of going to work can be a real highlight, and it’s important to remember that not all work interactions have to be work-related. If you need immediate mental health support, please contact a medical professional — there’s no stigma in looking after your wellbeing.”
It’s unclear how game development will change post-pandemic, but it is clear things will change. Remote working may become more prevalent, now that it’s proven to work. Game release delays, or an end to public release date announcements, might be more common as stressful crunch periods become a relic of the past. Whenever the global climate returns to some semblance of normality, it’s hoped that everyone — the games industry included — can learn from this unprecedented crisis.
“I think the world at large, governments and really all of us people should learn from this,” Puha said. “Once this is over and we go back to working in our office, we will be better prepared to fully work from home if we need to. But the plan is to be back in the office, whenever that will be.”
Check out IGN’s safety guide for COVID-19 here. For a list of global mental health resources, you can visit Checkpoint’s website.
Tom Power is a UK-based freelance journalist and lifelong gamer. Follow him on Twitter for the occasional nugget of wisdom between GIFs and terrible hot takes.