Well, things are going pretty crazy right now, eh? In the UK, schools will be shut until further notice from Monday, and the government has told people to avoid pubs and restaurants, many of which have closed. Everyone who can work from home is already doing so. And the scary thing is that no one really knows how long this will all last. In the space of a couple of weeks, the coronavirus went from something seemingly far away to something that’s affecting everyone and everything around me.
It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that’s going to have a massive impact on the country – and the world – for decades to come. Huge numbers of businesses, particularly high-street shops, restaurants, pubs and travel companies, are likely to go under. Masses of people will suddenly be relying on handouts from the government to get by. And when the virus is finally brought under control, the world will be a very different place.
It’s all very scary stuff. There will no doubt be huge repercussions that no one has anticipated. In fact, it’s almost too big to think about. My brain is still trying to process the enormity of what is happening and the eventual consequences, and I’m frankly struggling. But although I’m having a hard time processing what impact the coronavirus will have on the world as a whole, I have a fair idea of how it will affect the games industry. In a way, thinking about this stuff is almost like a comfort blanket – by concentrating on an area I know a lot about, I can reassure myself with a few little scraps of (almost) certainty in a sea of unknowns.
So here’s what will (probably) happen.
Big games will be delayed – or at least their physical releases will
With manufacturing plants closing down for long periods, there will no doubt be an impact on the physical releases of AAA games. Someone has to make all those discs and boxes, after all. In fact, we’re already seeing this with the Final Fantasy VIII Remake – Square Enix has said that some people won’t receive the physical game at launch. We might see a trend for big releases throughout the year where the games are only available digitally at launch, or only a few physical copies make it in time for the release date.
But the games themselves might end up being pushed back if the coronavirus has an impact on the teams making them. The sudden switch to hundreds of game designers working from home is bound to cause some disruption, and that’s without the awful implication of team members getting sick. We’ve already had delays to some of the year’s big games, and some will probably be delayed further. Speaking of which…
The PS5 and Xbox Series X will be pushed to next year – or might be available in only tiny numbers
This is about the time when Sony and Microsoft will be ramping up manufacturing of their new consoles, but the coronavirus is having a massive impact on supply chains. It’s hard to see how these companies can produce sufficient numbers of consoles to launch at the end of the year. That means we could see one or both of them being delayed into 2021.
Then again, neither company will want to give an advantage to their competitor, and both will want to generate maximum buzz in the lead up to Christmas, so we could see a launch with relatively limited numbers of consoles to buy, meaning that most people who want one won’t be able to actually get their hands on a PS5 or Xbox Series X until 2021 anyway.
That said, you have to wonder how many people will have the disposable income to drop around half a grand on a piece of electronics after a year of huge job losses and economic meltdown. Perhaps we’ll see people sticking with the consoles they already own for much longer – especially as Microsoft is trumpeting the fact that their next-generation games will be playable on older machines.
It’s going to be a big year for indie games
One result of people being encouraged to stay home is that they’re turning to video games to pass the time. Steam recorded record player counts earlier this week, and Xbox Live and Nintendo Online have struggled under the weight of players. All these bored people will need something to play, and since the AAA game release schedule is so sparse in the first half of the year, indie games are likely to fill the gap.
Not only that, indie developers are less likely to be affected by having to work from home, since many teams, like Inkle and Moon Studios, work from home anyway, plus they don’t have physical game releases to worry about.
The switch to digital will speed up, and high-street game retailers might go under
This is fairly obvious – if people can’t get out to buy a game in the shops, then they’re going to buy digitally. No doubt there will also be an increase in games sales from online retailers, too, but we’re going to see some crazy figures for digital downloads. More than half of AAA game sales were already digital in Europe last year, and that figure will increase dramatically for 2020.
High street game retailers were already struggling, but being forced to shut for a good chunk of the year could finally finish them off. GameStop posted a $673 million loss last year – it’s very hard to see them carrying on for much longer if they can’t even keep their stores open. In the UK, GAME has rebounded a little in the recent past thanks to developing its Belong PC gaming arenas – yet now gathering in groups to play games suddenly seems a terrible idea. What a cruel blow of fortune just as they were starting to turn things around.
The digital E3 will work well, but everyone will complain that they miss the big event
In a way, E3 being forcibly cancelled this year is the best thing that could have happened for the event. People have been complaining that E3 is irrelevant for years, and now that it’s been taken away, we’re likely to see those same people complaining that they miss all the razzmatazz and hoo-hah of the show itself.
That said, I think a digital show will work well. I had to watch the entirety of the E3 press conferences for work last year, and they are awful. Frankly, they’re just painful to watch in places. But I expect we’ll see most publishers opting for Nintendo Direct style presentations this year, which will be a welcome change. There’s a chance we might see some companies giving press conferences to a small audience, but it seems unlikely that restrictions on large crowds will be lifted by June.
Perhaps as a result of all this, E3 2021 will end up sticking with the digital presentations and refocusing as more of a consumer show. Perhaps. Then again, the ESA – the trade body that runs E3 – is massively reliant on the income from its annual show, so who knows whether it will still be around next year, at least in the same form.
I think that’s about all the predictions my brain can cope with for now – how do you think the games industry will be affected this year?
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