Trying to make sense of the current pandemic is, on the surface of it, impossible. Even with the curve starting to flatten, there is no end in sight to the ramifications. Conservative governments worldwide are resorting to the kinds of economic measures that would have made the most idealistic communist utopia look generous. Faith in the current structure of the global supply chain has been completely upended. Central banks are printing money on a scale that will completely upend the world’s idea of debt and debt ratios.
People’s lives and worlds have completely changed. But what’s new with COVID-19, even compared against World Wars, the Great Depression or the bubonic plagues, is how the whole world is experiencing this simultaneously. Rich countries, poor countries, Western countries, Eastern countries: everyone is being by the same invisible force all at once, with no end in sight.
The world is changing. And the only thing that might remain the same as it once was, the last bastion of what things were like, might be video games.
It’s not as if video games haven’t been impacted by the coronavirus, of course. The business of video games has already been radically affected, from shortages of consoles and physical games like Ring-Fit Adventure, delays in manufacturing and development, and the complete rework of inner processes. Some studios have continued largely unaffected - plenty of indie studios already rely on distributed or remote development - while others have gotten creative, like Riot Games’ virtualised solution for their broadcast control centre.
Services like Xbox Live, Steam, and the PlayStation Network are more popular than ever, and the amount of hours played per day has skyrocketed. I was in a tech briefing last week where one company mentioned that hours played has risen by a staggering 50 percent since the coronavirus hit, although there was a lack of detail around what the start date was.
Just in time for the release of Half-Life: Alyx, Valve's gargantuan platform has hit a new record. More than 20.3 million concurrent players were on the service early Monday morning, a record for the platform since it first launched in 2003.
But it’s not an uncommon figure to hear. According to StreamLabs, all streaming platforms have enjoyed a “significant increase” in concurrent viewers and hours watched, with Twitch breaking the 3 billion hours watched mark for the first time in a quarter.
In these uncharted, uncertain times, video games are one of the safest solaces. Not just mentally, but financially too. From a consumer level, video games have never been cheaper thanks to mature digital distribution platforms, constant competition among publishers, the rise of indie games often priced at cheaper levels, and the need to compete just to cut through all the online noise.
And throughout decades of derision, games have been a wholly social activity. The best singleplayer stories aren’t told in isolation: they’re the moments shared by people as everyone discovers all the ways we reached those moments, the decisions and actions along the way.
Mainstream media, finally, is starting to tweak to that reality. The amount of “games you can play in isolation” stories from traditional news outlets has skyrocketed, possibly because even the aging editors there recognise that Netflix and chill for six months straight isn’t sustainable. Even a rag like the Daily Telegraph has found themselves doing relatively straight video game coverage, with the majority of their audience deprived of their regular sources of misery.
Business is good for general developers too, big and small. Even a tiny indie like the digital adaptation Through the Ages had to apologise through an in-game update, because the studio’s infrastructure wasn’t equipped to deal with a 500 percent increase in their playerbase. Retailers are enjoying a massive boon right now, both brick-and-mortar stores like EB Games and online component retailers, particularly the latter as Australians scrambled to upgrade their home offices. A lot of that money hasn’t necessarily been in new CPUs, laptops or regular gaming gear, but it’s still been a net positive so the likes of AMD, Intel, Nvidia and other brands.
But more importantly than that: games haven’t really changed. Roach will still find his way onto rooftops in The Witcher 3 the same way he did when Australians openly coughed on the train, started drunk fights in the street, and were able to walk down the road without being questioned by police. Barrens chat will still be a figurative and literal toxic wasteland. Gaming tutorials on YouTube will still be topped and tailed by messages to like, subscribe, and hit that bell. Our interface with video games remains the same, picking up a controller, launching Steam, picking the Switch up off the table, opening the app store while taking a dump or lying on our side late at night.
Life in the video game world carries on, even if some of the announcement and media train surrounding it has been curtailed. Companies held livestreams or Directs beforehand as a way to disseminate news; now they do that more, swapping out preview events and briefings for private livestreams and beta branches on Steam. Publishers turned to influencers before as a primary source of promotion, and now that train has accelerated. Some were already well down this road, Bethesda, 2K and EA particularly.
The lack of larger conventions has made life harder for smaller studios to cut through the noise, because their shot at making an impression is affected by the noise and algorithms jamming up people’s inboxes and social feeds. But people will come up with creative alternatives. Demos, for instance, are making a comeback, especially this year as developers look for ways to reach audiences without the ability to make a face-to-face pitch.
E3's official cancellation has been expected for weeks, but the actual act of shifting a physical event to an online-only presence is still an enormous undertaking. It's one that's doable for large publishers like Sony and Microsoft, both of whom have run their own online and offline showcases at various points throughout the year. But for indie developers looking to secure deals with smaller publishers or the first-party platforms, E3's cancellation poses a greater problem: the prospect of a long, hard winter without funding, or even the opportunity to pitch.
But outside of those machinations, games is the last bastion of normality. You don’t feel the impact of that when reliving Kojima’s disconnected world in Death Stranding, or enjoying a brief bit of escapism as you work your way through Slay The Spire once more. Firing up a game through DOSBox has the same bugs today as it did three months ago. The experience and the memory remains the same. And as so many lives are irrevocably altered, whether it’s through unemployment or the removal of the little things like the cafe you used to visit shutting down or having second thoughts about touching a button on an elevator, the things that remain the same become all the more important.
The sources of comfort so many people turned to - sport, a bar or pub, fish and chips at the beach, an afternoon coffee - are gone. Nobody knows when they will return, what they will be like when they do, and whether people will flock to them anymore.
At least video games are still the same.