The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the global economy in a manner of weeks, and even as some countries report promising, low infection statistics, it'll be a long time yet before many industries—game development included—have any shot at returning to what was "normal." In a new survey from Informa Tech, organizers of the Game Developers Conference, a few concerning trends leap out as results of a 70% shift to work-from-home: chief amongst them, delays and longer working hours are impacting a large number of workers.
While close to half of the survey's nearly 2,500 respondents say that the pandemic hasn't led to project delays, a third say it has. For some of the developers surveyed, the question doesn't apply because they're currently between projects, suggesting that COVID-19 related delays may be even more pronounced as a percentage of titles currently in production. Some respondents note that the delays are due in part not to internal difficulties stemming from the pandemic, but from those happening at partner companies.
One developer surveyed tells Informa that "certifications through Nintendo have been backed up due to their processes being adversely affected by the pandemic." Nintendo has been fairly guarded in its public statements about how COVID-19 has taken a toll on productivity, warning in May that it "may not be possible to provide game content on Nintendo platforms as planned" in the current fiscal year.
As for developers themselves, many who have made the switch to remote work in recent months are struggling with the adjustment. While the nature of development and demand for games has somewhat insulated workers from the mass layoffs and furloughs seen in other industries—less than 10% report layoffs, and 26% say their income has decreased—nearly half believe that the abrupt transition to work has lowered their productivity. A third of respondents say they've felt a decrease in their creativity, with poor communication, difficulty accessing tools, and childcare obligations named as common disruptions.
Also, for all the talk of increased consumer interest in gaming during the pandemic, not everyone is seeing benefits. About a third of developers surveyed say their business is about the same as before, while the rest are split between seeing gains and losses. Only 7% say they've seen great increases in business while 8% report great decreases.
Perhaps the most concerning trend of all in the survey is that 39% of developers polled say that they're working longer hours. "It's harder to establish limits when working from home," one anonymous developer says. "You feel you're at home so it's okay to do 2, 3, 4+ extra hours. The company also encourages (unpaid) crunch."
A majority of respondents to the survey say they expect to carry forward new practices after lockdown, and some of those (like flex scheduling, or permanent work-from-home arrangements for those who want them) may help lead to better overall conditions as the industry also adjusts to changes brought by next-gen hardware and cloud streaming technology. Still, we have little sense of when that'll be (and at the moment, a third of developers surveyed say their company has no plans for reopening).
While 2020 has seen its fair share of delays and other notable impacts on development, it's also worth remembering that even a detailed industry snapshot like this might only capture the tip of the iceberg. Microsoft's Head of Xbox Phil Spencer has repeatedly stressed that, at least in terms of game delays, titles planned for next year and beyond will likely be affected much more by COVID-19. We're over halfway through 2020, so that's fast becoming less of a forecast and more of a present reality to deal with.