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Small game development studios and freelancers are having a tough time coping with the pandemic, even though the video game industry hasn’t been hit as hard as other industries, according to a survey of 2,500 game developers by the Game Developers Conference.
Smaller game makers reported challenges such as canceled projects, delays in launching games, a small number of layoffs, quality of life issues, and other challenges, said GDC general manager Katie Stern in an interview with GamesBeat.
Asked how the pandemic affected them, 34% of game developers said they saw business decline, 37% said it was about the same, and 31% said they saw their business increase. Stern said that indie game developers and freelancers were vulnerable to these negative effects more so than those at larger game companies.
“It’s not entirely surprising for me to see the results of the commercial side doing very well,” Stern said. “The indies in general have been hurt during the pandemic. That’s our takeaway here.”
Some of that news is a little surprising, as much of the game industry appeared to have come off unscathed. It might be logical to assume that good growth for the big companies would trickle down to indies as well. Most major game companies have been hiring and reporting good quarterly results. U.S. game sales rose by 73% in April and 52% in May, compared to the same periods a year earlier, according to market researcher NPD. New game investment funds are appearing, and game startups continue to raise money during the pandemic. But Stern said that doesn’t tell the full story of the pandemic’s effect, and that’s what the survey was aimed at unearthing.
“We don’t typically do one in the summertime, but this felt like a pretty monumental moment in time for everybody to get a better sense of the impact, and it’s interesting to see these results,” Stern said.
The summer GDC event
The results come in advance of the upcoming all-digital GDC Summer, which takes place August 4 to August 6. Stern said that the pandemic has been so disruptive that the GDC felt like it was a good idea to do the special survey, compared to the usual one released each March.
Stern said that about 5,000 people have signed up to attend the summer GDC sessions, which will take place over three days rather than the usual five days in the spring. She said most of the sessions would be shorter, lasting maybe 20 minutes rather than the usual 30 minutes-to-one hour. No sessions will be longer than 45 minutes.
There are about 100 or so talks scheduled. Sponsors will have dedicated webpages where they can put their resources online, including prerecorded videos, white papers, and other materials. Attendees will be able to schedule video calls with other people.
Some of the most notable trends highlighted: Nearly half of the developers said they were working longer hours and were less productive than before the pandemic. COVID-19 has affected the business of a majority of game developers, with some seeing upticks even as others suffer significant business downturns.
While 8% of developers have been laid off or furloughed due to COVID-19, most have continued working. Twenty-six percent of respondents said that their household income has fallen due to the pandemic. Looking at a glass half full, the game industry is far better off than many other industries, such as tourism, hotels, restaurants, and airlines.
As businesses closed due to COVID-19, 70% of respondents said they switched to working from home, while 27% of all respondents reported that they had already worked from home before the pandemic.
“A third of our folks were already working from home. So most studios were pretty adept at making adjustments,” Stern said. “But it did not happen quickly or overnight, and some studios did better than others. There’s not a lot of people clamoring to get back to offices. Some said they have no plans to reopen offices.”
COVID-19 also had a tangible effect on the release schedule of games, with one in three developers (33%) reporting that their games were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Toll on quality of life, productivity, mental and emotional health
Poor communication, isolation, and lack of access to critical tools are some of the common challenges devs are dealing with right now. Nearly half of game makers feel working from home has lowered their productivity, and a third of developers said they’ve experienced a decrease in creativity while working from home. While productivity and creativity may have decreased for many developers, the amount of hours worked has increased for nearly half of the developer respondents.
Game makers say isolation, lack of communication, deteriorating work/life balance, and childcare demands are some of the most difficult parts of working from home. Despite these issues, only one out of 10 developers feel safe going back to work in an office right now.
The full survey, which includes more detail on the impact of the pandemic on the video game industry, can be downloaded for free.
The pandemic has changed a lot
Of those who took the survey, 20% were the only person at their companies, while 15% of companies had two to five people. Many of those respondents were likely freelance contractors, indie developers, or students. Seven percent of companies had more than 250 people, and 18% had more than 500 people. Only 8% of respondents said they had lost a job due to the pandemic; 92% had not.
About 32% said their business had decreased or greatly decreased, while 31% said it had increased or greatly increased. GDC hypothesized that the pandemic has meaningfully affected the business of a majority of game developers, with some seeing upticks even as others suffer significant business downturns.
The survey said 26% of people saw their household income decrease, while 12% said that it had increased. That suggests roughly a quarter of game makers have seen a drop in household income due to the pandemic, which continues to affect the world’s economies. That also means another family member may have lost work as a result.
“Clients aren’t willing to spend money. Projects have evaporated,” one respondent explained in the (optional) write-in portion of the question. “I am now unable to afford rent and may very well have to move back home with my parents in order to survive,” wrote another. “I can’t even afford groceries, but have been helped by friends just to get basic needs met.”
It was interesting to see the correlation between developers saying they had lost productivity (and maybe were working longer hours to compensate for that) with the delays of projects. Thirty-three percent said that their games had been delayed. Respondents said their companies were efficient about switching people to remote work. But one reason for the delay was that major events (like GDC or the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3) were canceled.
“We were hoping to show our new projects, but some major events were canceled, working from home slowed us down, and some work-for-hire projects were delayed or canceled,” one respondent wrote.
Some respondents said they’d suffered delays and other losses due to the pandemic affecting their partners, even if they themselves were able to continue on schedule. Another said that game console certifications for games had been delayed. Others noted that funding fell through. The most important challenge cited for working remotely was the challenge of communication. Some cited using tools such as Discord. Among the difficulties: recording voice actors from their homes using alternative recording gear compared to studios.
Productivity is declining
Those working at home with small children said they had lots of distractions. Some reported how it’s harder to learn new tools if you’re not sitting next to the person showing you how to use them.
“Good days are really good, bad days are really bad,” explained a respondent. “If there were fewer outside stressors, such as family healthcare, it would be significantly more productive.”
A third of devs feel they have experienced a decrease in creativity while working from home during the pandemic. Twenty-eight percent said their creativity had decreased, and 7% said it had greatly decreased. About 26% said it had increased or greatly increased.
When given the option to explain further, many wrote in to say that working remotely made it either much easier to focus, or much harder — especially for those with family at home. Seventy-three percent of respondents who have kids said they don’t have hired childcare and are splitting that responsibility with others in the home, while 18% said they’re handling childcare responsibilities all by themselves. Another 5% said they had hired childcare outside of the home, and 4% were paying for in-home childcare.
Sixty-four percent said they would modify the way they worked permanently, with most saying they planned to work from home for good.
“Our company will now allow artists to work from home, and use flex scheduling,” wrote one respondent. “We had to make some changes on our daily tasks to compensate not being at our office working physically together, but those have proven to increase our efficiency and productivity,” wrote another.
In terms of hours worked, 41% said they were working the same, 39% said they were working more than before, while 20% said they were working less. Working from home regularly was opening up more time for some people to work that had otherwise been devoted to tasks like commuting. Many more said they had trouble stopping work for the day or contributing as much as normal while dealing with the needs of children stuck at home.
Game makers say isolation, lack of communication, deteriorating work/life balance, and childcare demands are some of the most difficult parts of working from home.
“My whole family is living with me and sometimes it’s hard to focus on my tasks,” one survey-taker wrote. “Aside from the pressures of home life, not seeing people that work on the game in person has been tough,” said another. “The lack of a human connection and a physical tangible place to call work just makes you feel like an outsider.”
Another one said, “Any semblance of work-life balance I had pre-WFH has dissolved The fact that I can always be working is a huge issue for me. I usually forced myself to go other places (gym, shows, etc.) to not be overworked. Since those aren’t options for me anymore, I find it increasingly difficult to pull myself away from work.”
Collaboration hasn’t been easy while working from home.
“The most difficult part is problem-solving,” one game maker explained. “Not everyone can sit on Zoom all day. We typically would have brainstorming sessions in the office together that would help when we were stuck on an issue.”
Asked when they would feel safe enough to go back to the office, 11% said they would go today. Five percent said they would go when government leaders reopen businesses, and 9% said when company leaders reopen physical workspaces. But 24% said they would go back when there was a decline of of coronavirus cases in the area. Thirty-nine percent said they would go back when a proven coronavirus vaccine is released, and 12% said not in the foreseeable future. Two-thirds said their companies had a plan for reopening.
There were some questions the GDC did not ask, such as which percentage of people had COVID-19 and whether they had adequate healthcare. Stern said the group might do another survey around December.