"Like it or not, we live in interesting times," said junior U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1966. And for us, staring at the ongoing result of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, it's clear we're living in interesting times. We're only at the beginning, the shoreline receding before a tsunami hits. It may feel like longer, but we've only been in quarantine conditions for a short time. The NBA suspended its season only three weeks ago, which is about when the United States first started to grasp the virus as a collective.
It's been a period of upheaval, with many white-collar workers transitioning to work-from-home. That's the side that's hit developers in particular, who are now communicating remotely over Slack and Zoom, using VPNs to access the current builds of their games.
"Our IT team killed themselves to get us transitioned over to working from home, so we're still kind of feeling things out," said Elder Scrolls Online creative director Richard Lambert when I spoke to him a week ago. "I think it's probably safe to assume that there will be some delays, because obviously we're still learning the ropes and uncovering holes in how VPN or remote desktop work. But overall, I'm pretty pleased with how we've been moving and making progress."
Many entertainment sectors are at a standstill at the moment. Major films like Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984, No Time to Die, and F9 have been delayed, in some cases indefinitely, because there are no movie theaters open. Movie and television production has shut down completely. Marvel Comics and DC Comics are currently in a holding pattern with their weekly releases because many direct market stores are closed. My previous assumption was that video games would be spared this harsh result because developers could work from home and digital releases would be enough.
Today, it's clear that's not the case.
A few hours ago, Sony Interactive Entertainment announced that The Last of Us Part 2 and Iron Man VR have been indefinitely delayed. In the case of the former game, developer Naughty Dog confirmed this wasn't a production issue stemming from the transition to work-from-home. "The good news is, we’re nearly done with development of The Last of Us Part 2," said the studio in a message. "However, even with us finishing the game, we were faced with the reality that due to logistics beyond our control, we couldn’t launch The Last of Us Part 2 to our satisfaction."
A few days ago, Wasteland 3 from InXile Entertainment also moved from May to August 28th, citing "logistical challenges." "We’re in a great position with both Microsoft and Deep Silver supporting our desire to ensure the game launches in the best possible circumstances, and to add a few extra months to ensure this is a stellar product on day one," said InXile Entertainment studio head Brian Fargo.
Many of the biggest games of the year are going to be delayed. And not because they're not done, but because there are no store shelves to sell them from. GameStop has shuttered most of its 5,500 locations worldwide. Best Buy likewise closed all its retail stores, shifting to curbside pickup and delivery only. And while stores like Target or Costco can still sell video games, most people who are briefly leaving their homes are going out to buy food, toiletries, and cleaning supplies, not games.
Even beyond that, the previously listed closures means many Americans are out of a job. 6.6 million people filed for unemployment last week, up from 3.28 million in the previous week. People are worried about paying for rent and food; there's no disposable income to go around. This means those who are playing games are jumping into their backlogs, not looking for the new $60 hotness. Time spent gaming is up, but sales probably aren't.
While digital accounted for 85% of content spending in video games last year, that's counting all the revenue from subscriptions, microtransactions, and similar purchases. When it gets to pure physical to digital sales numbers, that's harder to parse. Look back at Ubisoft, for example: Assassin's Creed Odyssey saw that 45% of its sales were digital and 50% of Far Cry 5's sales were digital. Electronic Arts breaks out its numbers a bit better. For the third fiscal quarter that ended on December 31, 2019, packaged goods made $469 million in revenue, while full game downloads made $317 million, roughly a 60/40 split. Even with digital's strength, you can assume 40-50% of sales are coming from physical.
Major publishers can't ignore this for their biggest games. Like film distributors, they have to play chicken with the pandemic, trying to figure out roughly when it'll end and things return to normal. But we don't know when the coronavirus threat will subside, so companies have to take a wait and see approach. The Last of Us Part 2 has been delayed from its planned May 29 date, yet so far SIE is holding onto Ghost of Tsushima's June 26th spot. I'd expect that we'll hear of a delay for that game if things haven't improved in two weeks.
If there's a bright side, it's that the rest of the year was already a dead zone. After Ghost of Tsushima and Wasteland 3, the next largest releases are Marvel's Avengers and Cyberpunk 2077, both coming in September. Perhaps the pandemic's effects could still be felt that far in the future. We honestly don't know and that reporting is best left to experts. However, the latter half of 2020 was already empty, so what we're looking at is publishers just not announcing games planned for that time period. It's not a delay if they never announced it in the first place.
Certain games will sit in limbo, like the previously-delayed Watch Dogs: Legion. And given that there's no E3 this year and Gamescom 2020 could be canceled, there are no major events this year so far to announce new titles at. (Gamescom is exploring a digital side to the event.) Certain publishers will surely transition to Nintendo Direct-style digital events, but some will likely just wait it out.
The gaps left by triple-A titles will be filled. There are a host of independent and PC-centric games that don't rely on retail channels for most of their sales. Those games will continue unabated and actually gain a little breathing room now. For instance, Microsoft just announced a new video series highlighting games from the ID@Xbox program. Even better for some, those games will likely be cheaper than the $60 asking price of many games from major publishers. There's a small hope there.
But if you only play the biggest games each year—Madden, Call of Duty, FIFA—2020 could look like a graveyard for you. This is only the beginning of the delays or lack of major announcements. We're only just starting to see the full effect that this virus will have on our industry. This is the new normal, at least for the foreseeable future. And while the game industry is more resilient than some others because of its digital side, that doesn't mean we're not going to take a hit. These are interesting times, but they're also scary, worrisome ones as well. But as the most notable part of Kennedy's speech said, there's always a "ripple of hope."
Stay strong, folks. It'll be okay eventually.