6 ways the pandemic will change gaming forever

(Nintendo Photo)

Earlier this year, I started writing my predictions for the games industry in 2020. Like I do every year, I looked back and thought about the ways in which the trends of 2019 would likely influence the future of the industry. Most years, some of my predictions are right, and some don’t fully materialize. This year, though, we were only a month in before most of my reflections for 2020 became all but irrelevant.

FlowPlay CEO Derrick Morton. (FlowPlay Photo)

In many ways, the games industry has flourished in the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, logistical issues and the demands of workers juggling their day job and caring for, or schooling, their children at home have disrupted productivity.

Still, sales have been better than ever for many companies. People in quarantine around the world have turned to online and mobile games to fill empty hours. As of March my company FlowPlay had seen a more than a 20% increase in the average amount of time players were spending in our games. And sales are at an all-time high. Many game companies have reported similar growth in playing time and new users.

Now, as we near the year’s mid-way mark, it’s time to begin thinking about what business will look like in a recovering world. I believe a sleeping giant is waking. Here’s where I see it headed.

Prolonged social distancing will be the last nail in the coffin for the old way of gaming. If this pandemic has taught us anything about our society, it’s that human connection is king. The level of social engagement we have all been living without is driving a massive shift in how people socialize, spend time together and experience play.

Politicians are talking to their constituents and families are holding real funerals in games like Animal Crossing. Co-workers are using HouseParty to play trivia together. Groups of friends desperate to hang out are resuming their beloved poker nights via live video in my company’s newly launched Live Game Night.

Connected gaming — a growing category of games designed around virtual interactions between real people that build vibrant, genuine communities of friends, families and support systems — is gaining momentum in this new landscape. Games in this category are primed to steal a major share of the industry going forward. People are already using games in a totally new way to connect with others. In the coming months and beyond, we’re going to see a lot more innovation around connected games that incorporate new forms of chat, audio, live video and other interactive elements to give players the feeling of a truly connected experience.

Physical retail gaming and consoles were already struggling even before the pandemic. While Nintendo is likely to continue standing as the exception, this crisis, and the new demand for truly social experiences, will accelerate the demise of gaming as we’ve known it for the last couple decades.

HBO added a new video chat feature to its HBO Now and HBO GO apps, allowing subscribers to watch shows and movies “together” via a Google Chrome extension. The “virtual movie theater” technology is powered by Scener, a two-year-old Seattle startup that was incubated inside RealNetworks. (Scener Photo)

The revelation of a blue ocean. Businesses (particularly game developers) that are able to tap these new and changing social norms as an opportunity —i.e., providing meaningful human connection and entertainment in a dispersed, physically distant format — are standing before a rare blue ocean.

Lloyd Melnick’s blog, The Business of Social Games and Casino, touched on this recently, aptly pointing out that blue ocean is “all about turning non-customers into customers.” This is happening organically for games that are focused on connected, multiplayer experiences, such as Fortnite, League of Legends, and Pokémon Go. Outside of gaming, companies like Scener, which provides a virtual movie theater experience to watch streaming shows and movies together via video and chat, are reinventing products to meet new consumer demand.

Future work and spending funnel toward creation. Economic impacts of the pandemic and changes in the cost of doing business are also enabling opportunities. Some employees simply won’t return to the office, which may allow companies to reduce their real estate and office overhead. Advertising demand is declining, driving down costs for companies that are still looking to spend. Game companies now have the opportunity to re-examine their budgets and allocate money away from high-cost, low-performing line items and toward more creativity and innovation.

More intergenerational play. Families miss each other, and billions of people around the world are looking for ways to keep family ties strong. Grandparents want to play virtual board games with their children and grandchildren. Tweens are willing to take a break from Fortnite to engage with relatives on other digital platforms. With most travel and group gatherings limited for the foreseeable future, we’re going to see more and more interest in gameplay between generations — and new connected games that cater to this trend.

Faster, smoother experiences are around the corner. 5G is on the horizon, and we’re likely to see it come sooner than originally planned. The increasing demand for fast at-home connectivity for the millions of people working or attending school from home has prompted the federal government to shorten the runway for 5G deployment in many areas. A widespread 5G roll-out in the near term means bandwidth issues will no longer stand in the way of smooth, high-quality online and connected game experiences.

A new crunch time dynamic. In the games industry, where employee value is often measured by the willingness and ability to meet crunch time demands for development deadlines, productivity is now being viewed in a new light. So much so that some companies have already pledged to make changes to work-life balance expectations. Still, for many people not accustomed to working from home, and work computers taking up residence in the bedroom, the lines between work and life are blurring more than ever before.

Whether businesses begin bringing people back into the office, or continue to support remote work, the crunch time dynamic is finally shifting for good. Developers will be hard pressed to enforce crunch time when teams are working from home. At the same time, employees who continue to merge their home and work lives will need to be empowered to set fair and sustainable work-life boundaries.

Permanent change is underway in gaming, entertainment and social interaction. Game companies that have the vision and grit to leverage these changes to reach new customers and innovate will have a significant lead now and in our post-pandemic world.

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