COVID-19: What’s Next for Video Game Studios?

As it gets closer to easing out of lockdown, the audiovisual industry is beginning to move beyond crisis management. Now what? We know there will be changes to the industry in the short and medium terms. But what about long term? How is the industry reacting to ― and anticipating ― these changes? What are the big questions that we need to ask ourselves moving forward, and who will answer them? This article is the fourth in a series about what’s next for Canada’s audiovisual and interactive sectors as they slowly emerges from the shutdowns put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19.

> Read the other articles in the series

Game studios have not been as hard hit as linear TVproduction companies because of how most games are produced with developers and designers working on computers. Many in gaming were already partially or fully working from home, so the transition to teleworking has been easier. 

The working-from-home challenge

Evan Jones, the owner and creative director of Stitch Media, has been working from home since 2012. It was still a challenge, though, as he and his wife had to add parenting and schooling their son to their professional responsibilities. Many of Jones’ staff experienced the same challenges, and he had to recognize there would be a dip in productivity. “There is nothing I can do but understand, accommodate, and adjust schedules,” he says. Stitch Media had to shift milestones and re-balance the amount of time put into work. “To some extent this is just what game development is ― assessing ‘is it good enough’ and knowing when to stop trying to make it better. But the pandemic has made this,” Jones adds.

Game development is a team effort. As such, working remotely presents challenges for studios trying to keep their team together. “There is a lot of advice out there for establishing a remote studio, but they don’t consider the added stress of a pandemic, so it is new territory for everyone,” says Tanya X. Short, the co-founder of Kitfox Games.

“There is a creative tax to the new reality. A lot of good ideas come from working together,” states Philip Barclay, the executive producer at Sabotage Studio. Brass Token Executive Producer Sapna Dayal, for her part, says that in the sheer size of digital files exchanged between members of a team lies an additional challenge to working from home, as most home internet connections aren't robust enough to manage them. This slows down production and may impact schedules.

Her company created an in-house motion capture studio since their current game, Chant, relies heavily on it. For the studio, it made more sense economically to have its own motion capture studio than to use someone else’s. They were just about to shoot before the pandemic hit. Though Brass Token is established in British Columbia and is now able to go back into production, the team is not sure when it will. They feel that it is more about the comfort level of those involved than government guidelines. Dayal says that they have been contacted for service work by companies in other jurisdictions that are already going back to work, but that Brass Token is influenced more by what their fellow Vancouver studios are doing.The consensus around returning to work, she says, seems to be “not any time soon.” 

“Quebec City is a very tightly knit indie community and we talk to each other a lot” advises Philip Barclay. The city’s studios swap tips about managing staff in this new reality.Experienced studios share insights with smaller ones, who often have a lot more junior staff. The challenge lies in managing workflow ― without micromanaging to the extent that you kill creativity. “You need a management structure that allows you to know what people are doing without being a control freak,” explains Barclay.

Taking time to shift the culture

For Dan Fill, the president of Dark Slope Studios, “COVID has let us take a step back and consider who we are and where we need to make change.” For example, in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests, Dark Slope leadership took a look at their office and realized that despite their staff being multicultural, they have no Black employees and their board has no women. Dark Slope is planning to implement changes in hiring practices as well as to explore content development to address these gaps.

More recently, the North American game sector has been shaken by a number of harassment claims, leading at least one Canadian major studio to restructure its leadership. [According to Tania X. Short, “game companies have been allowed to prioritize profits and efficiencies over the health of their employees. It has been slowly changing, but the silver lining to this pandemic is that the industry is collectively demanding that companies prioritize the health and wellness of their employees.” 

Miriam Verburg, the CEO of Bloom Digital Media, hopes that there will be a positive outcome. “Many bad actors are being called out. With people now at home, I think they feel it is safer to speak out. The sector is making money and they need their employees. The end result hopefully is more equity in how they conduct business.”

Managing the runway 

Many of the game developers interviewed for this article were grateful for the sectorial and federal assistance that helped them pay bills, particularly as service work dried up. A lot of game studios rely on service work to maintain cash flow while they work on their own intellectual properties. Stitch and Dark Slope both reported a collapse in service work and a concern about long term business development (more on this in the Nordicity study on the impact of COVID-19 on the interactive digital media sector.

“Stitch has been shielded from many market effects because of support from Ontario Creates and the Canada Media Fund. However, nothing has been financed yet for 2021,” Evan Jones says. Brass Token’s Sapna Dayal echoes his thoughts. “Finances are a huge challenge.  We were not eligible for many of the COVID emergency benefits because we are a pre-revenue company. The Canada Media Fund and Telefilm have been very supportive, and we’re grateful,” she states. 

Location-based entertainment (LBE) ― that is, VR games in VR arcades or theme parks ― make up a significant portion of Dark Slope’s business. Of course, that business has all but completely dried up during lockdown. “Dark Slope would have been completely wiped out if it hadn’t been for CMF funding and emergency support” advises Dan Fill. However, he remains optimistic that LBE will bounce back ― venues have already reopened in some U.S. jurisdictions. For Dark Slope, the focus is on safety.The company wants to ensure that funders don’t second-guess this business model. If funders do not support content now, there will be no content for LBE venues when they do re-open.

Still, Dark Slope isn’t putting all of its eggs in the LBE basket. Before the pandemic hit, the company had started exploring VR learning simulations. Two such projects turned out to be very timely. The first, developed in partnership with Ryerson University, teaches de-escalation tactics to police officers. The second offers training on respirators to nurses. Dark Slope says it is now shifting more developers into developing this branch of its business.

The marketing challenge

Selling indie games is already a challenge, with discoverability and price point being the biggest hurdles. “We are already climbing Mount Everest. COVID is adding just a few extra metres to that climb,” Evan Jones says.   Video game marketing and business development activities rely very heavily on in-person trade shows like the Game Development Conference (GDC), Nordic Games and Gamescom. Stitch attended the virtual versions that many put on, but the company did not find them as effective. Attendance was lower and there was no multiplier effect from audiences being attracted to neighbouring booths and flowing to the next one. 

Brass Token hasn’t attended virtual conferences, as they need to stretch every dollar they have. Instead, the studio has been focusing on meetings they can get on their own. 

Sabotage Studios was scheduled to reveal their upcoming game Sea of Stars at GDC. When it was cancelled, they were able to reschedule 90 percent of their meetings remotely with only a little chaos. They are also exploring new marketing channels that have developed in the meantime, such as presenting a trailer at Summer Games Fest, a new YouTube channel dedicated to the  promotion of games. Everyone agrees, however, that what is lost is the ability to meet new people and the random encounters that happen in hallways or social events. There are no technological solutions to the loss of serendipity.

Bloom Digital was set to launch their visual novel Later Daters at this year’s GDC, Gamescom and Pax West. After these events were cancelled, they hired a PR firm and ramped up their social media plan to reach consumers directly. They also used paid streamers for an influencer campaign. These new tactics raised the profile of the game, and its launch turned out to be more effective than that of their pre-COVID game, Long Story. It is not clear, though, whether the strategy yielded higher sales. “I expect that, moving forward, I’ll use both strategies. But I know I’ll never spend as much on events again,” Miriam Verburg states.

Sapna Dayal sees the current context as a time of opportunity for video game producers, as “people can only watch so much Netflix.”Philip Barclay thinks platforms are getting more aggressive in trying to grow their market shares, and will need content to do that. “It’s an opportunity for indie players. Deals are being made very fast.” 

As with television content, the market is looking for more feel-good content and story-rich gameplay rather than action-heavy games. According to Verburg, “the audience is growing and that will change what needs to be made. Families are not looking for super violent and long games.” She sees this as an opportunity for the kinds of story-based games that Bloom Digital produces. As a game designer Tanya X. Short has always been interested in “cosy” and co-op games.. These are game styles that are growing in popularity right now, according to her. Kitfox’s sales have been up since March, and Short feels that is because “people are looking for distracting and comforting, escapist games.”

Kelly Lynne Ashton
Trained as an entertainment lawyer, Kelly Lynne Ashton has been working in the Canadian film, television and digital media industries for over twenty-five years. She has worked as a business affairs executive in several Toronto television production and distribution companies, including Atlantis Films Limited and the Owl Group of Companies. Kelly Lynne then entered the world of digital media to act as Senior Producer at children’s web studio Big Orbit Inc. While at Big Orbit she also developed, managed and marketed the online youth research company Reactorz. She has also worked in government relations and media policy as Director of Policy at the Writers Guild of Canada. Kelly Lynne is currently bringing together the different strands of her career in the Canadian media industries - legal, business, marketing and research - and providing consulting services to clients in all areas of the industry including evaluation services for various funds, authoring research reports and programming industry conferences. Kelly Lynne obtained a Certificate in Leadership and Inclusion from Centennial College and now provides clients with diversity and inclusion consulting services.
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