Beyond the pandemic: Reflections on uncertainty and drastic change

The year 2020 marked a rude awakening for the world. All of us have had their lives change significantly, often unpleasantly, and sometimes dramatically. A year ago, I wrote a COVID-19 guide to help make some sense of it all. A year has passed, and recently the Dutch Game Garden released the results of the Games Monitor 2020 Update: Covid Impact.

Looking at the results of the monitor, I would like to weigh in with some thoughts on how to move forward as an industry. These are my reflections based on my personal experiences and the many conversations I’ve had with people over the past months. I welcome your comments and input on this – for now, here is one person’s take on an incredibly complex subject.

The beginning

For many people in the game industry, including myself, the coronavirus pandemic hit in full force when GDC was cancelled last-minute. This was unprecedented. Many wondered what the future would bring – not just for games, but for the world as we know it.
After the dust of the initial shock settled, and we were all (in varying degrees) working from home, life returned to sort of normal. New projects started up, running projects got delivered, and most game charts went up as people sought solace in video games during the worldwide lockdowns. Games turned out to be one of the few forms of meaningful entertainment that were still available from the comfort of our living rooms.
Now that a year has passed, and another round of physical events was cancelled, the question is: where to go next? Vaccines are on their way, but will we ever see the return of the jam-packed trade shows where thousands of people huddle together in sweaty hotel lobbies and crowded trade show floors? Will work-from-home be the new normal? What will happen to the game charts? Now is a good time to take stock, have a close look at the industry landscape, and figure out possible ways forward.

The virus

First, a small note about the virus: I am not a virologist, so I am not in a position to make predictions here. On the one hand, I am very hopeful that the vaccines will work their wonders, and that we can leave all of this behind in a couple of months. On the other hand, there are still many unknowns, and we might see new virus strains (Corona or otherwise) that may disrupt our world for the foreseeable future.

Whatever the case may be, in dealing with this it is useful to adopt a risk management mindset. With this degree of uncertainty, I prefer to be defensive and assume that there will be a resurgence at some point. Whether it will be mild or severe, and whether it will be incidental or recurring, I do not know. What I do know is that the collective fear is real, and we will feel the impact of that fear for years to come. That alone will shape the structure of society as we know it, and we can plan for it.

With that in mind I’ll have a look at some of the important topics that we will need to address in the game industry.

Remote work

As the lockdowns took effect and we started working from home, the immediate concern was productivity. However, the realization soon struck that the biggest loss was not productivity, but rather the social cohesion of teams. Without the little watercooler chats, the background noise of a normal day in the office, and Friday-afternoon drinks, something critical was lost: the feeling of being part of a small tribe building amazing things.

Additional long-term concerns popped up over time:

  • Collaborative creativity is much harder if you’re not in the same room as your team members. Without the buzz and energy of fellow creatives, it has proven harder to ignite the “spark” of inspiration and creativity. This goes for brainstorming, but also the serendipity of seeing something cool while you walk by a desk or the laughter of a playtest in the corner, hinting at good stuff happening.
  • Security of home offices is critical. People should not work on their personal devices, as security risks are more present on these machines. Furthermore, homes are not secured as tightly as offices.
  • Workplace requirements are quite strict at the office, and rightfully so. From proper desks and chairs, to sufficient space, good lighting, air quality and noise management – offices are designed to tackle all of that. While desks and chairs can be moved to homes, some people simply have nothing more than a kitchen counter (or bedside desk!) to work at. This is OK for a month or so, but for the long-term these working conditions need to be professionalized.
  • A significant pitfall turned out to be work-life balance. While the removal of commutes is a great improvement for many people, sometimes it takes a bit of travel to “turn off” your brain after a long day of work. If your work place is in the living room, or worse yet, your bedroom, it is much harder to differentiate between work and rest.
  • Hiring during a pandemic turned out to be both easier and harder: it has proven easier to find good candidates because the “talent pool” turned global with remote working. That said, it has also proven to be harder to select and retain the right candidates, as there is less bonding and integration with the company, its people and its culture.

Here to stay?

The switch to remote work triggered a city exodus in many places. The Netherlands saw a unique net emigration from the big cities towards the countryside. Apart from the fact that cities are not much fun when everything is locked down, this highlights a level of confidence that perhaps remote working is here to stay. But is it really?

My expectation is that as soon as city amenities open up again, these migration trends will return to previous numbers. Cities are actually quite nice to live in when they are running smoothly. Even if you work remotely, there’s much to be said for having that nice coffee place around the corner, like minded people all around you, and your preference of yoga classes a short walk away. For families, the suburbs are likely to remain the go-to areas because this is where other families and schools are. The countryside remains an attractive option for those who prioritize living in a more quiet environment. The good news is that remote working gives everyone more freedom to choose the location of their preference, unbounded by commuting times.

Now that we have had a taste of this freedom, it could make remote working an important perk for employees, and it may be enough of a perk to become a driving force for the future of organizations.

Way forward: Hybrid models

I believe the way forward with remote work is in providing freedom of choice to the workforce. Hybrid models – where some people work mostly at the office, and some people work mostly remote – are the most rational approach for the future:

  • It allows a bigger diversity in geographic location, providing the benefits of the broader talent pool when hiring.
  • It provides an important perk to team members who would otherwise have to endure a daily commute.
  • It creates an organization that is able to seamlessly move into a fully remote setup in the case of a future lockdown.
  • It creates a “best of both worlds” situation, where individual preferences, professional requirements and other circumstances can be taken into account to choose the perfect mix of on-site and online work.
  • It solves the problem of social isolation, as it facilitates social contact moments with colleagues.

This said, hybrid organizations are difficult to realize and important challenges will need to be tackled to go this route. Hybrid organizations will need to have a solid foundation of HR and management practices, they will need to be built on trust and collaboration, and they will need to have a strong company culture that can persist even when part of the workforce is remote. They need sufficient budget and the right mindset to make it work. If these obstacles are cleared, a hybrid model could be a big competitive advantage for companies. The Netherlands is well positioned to facilitate this model because of its small size and excellent infrastructure. Travel times from relatively remote areas would still be acceptable for a once-per-week commute.

Education, internships, and hiring

This was a rough year for students and teachers alike. Providing education in an online setting takes away the sense of connection and community that students crave and teachers thrive in. The content of the classes can be roughly the same, but exposure to fellow students and social dynamics is proving to be equally important.
Furthermore, although internships were still available, they were harder to facilitate and the overall experience for interns was set back compared to on-site internships.

Several studios dropped their internship positions when they realized they could not facilitate working at the office. In some cases, there was less work due to the early dip of the B2B marketplace, which caused a hiring freeze that also impacted internships.

When working remotely, onboarding and mentoring is more difficult. Interns and new employees were thrown into situations where everything was in flux, as most organizations were new to remote working. Learning on the job works well when your colleagues are an arm’s length away, but it’s easier to get stuck if you work remotely. This is especially the case when reaching out to ask for help is not something you are familiar with. This was exacerbated by the lack of a “studio map”, in other words, who to approach with questions.

Way forward: Experimentation and Internationalization

The good news is that we’re all in the same boat, and ideally this creates a mode of work where experimentation and learning from mistakes is the norm. Embracing that mode of work will not only encourage learning across the board, but also enables an organization that is flexible enough to respond rapidly to drastic changes in the environment. Key to this is to set up practices that encourage knowledge sharing. For example, at Paladin we have dedicated Slack channels for specific disciplines (for example #art) where knowledge sharing is commonplace. We also place emphasis on providing feedback and goal-setting, and even have “Kaizen” (continuous improvement) as a core value. We also host weekly “Round Table” sessions where everyone shares the latest developments, and host regular “AMA” Q&A sessions where anyone can ask the executive team any question. Time spent on these things is one of the best investments possible, as it mitigates some of the pains of remote working.

With remote work becoming more commonplace, there is an opportunity to work internationally. Companies and interns can now match across the globe without travel considerations. Paladin, for example, hired a game design intern from India who worked remotely, and this worked wonderfully well. The reverse is equally true, as any Dutch student or professional can now easily apply for a remote position at a company on the other side of the world. People who adopt this international and online mindset may find there are plenty of options for jobs and internships.

Startups and business development

For startups and B2B-oriented studios, the biggest impact of the pandemic came with the disappearance of trade shows. For those companies who were looking to raise funds – be it project funding or investments – networking and business development suddenly got a lot harder.

Although the game industry is a digital tribe, its backbone is still built on good old-fashioned face-to-face meetings. There is a reason GDC is packed with suits and devs: business deals are based on trust, and trust is most easily built when meeting in real life. Be it a jam-packed hotel lobby, an exclusive dinner or an open networking party, most connections in the game industry start with a drink in one hand and a business card in the other.

For roughly the first three months after the lockdown, deal flow screeched to a halt. Only after the dust settled it was clear that gamers kept gaming, publishers kept on publishing and developers kept on developing. At that point, at least for the entertainment sector, the RFPs and funding opportunities started popping up again.

For the serious games sector, it depended greatly on the market segment, as some sectors got hit harder than others (for example, travel and museum markets were greatly disrupted, while educational games gained in popularity). In general, a lot of business opportunities disappeared and developers found it a lot harder to generate new leads and close new deals. Let’s hope these markets recover soon.

Way forward: Go Big Online and Go Small Offline

Sadly, we’ll probably not see a massive physical event like Gamescom or GDC again soon. Cramming tens of thousands of people in a hall no longer has the appeal it used to have.

I believe the way forward for business development is by hosting smaller, more focused events, like trade missions and boutique shows. Having a dozen people visit a handful of pre-selected companies is feasible, even now with the pandemic still in full swing. Organizing a small 300 person event dedicated to a niche in games is not only safer but also potentially more desirable, because it is a better complement to the “go big” approach of online networking.
Trade shows have other use cases than business development – they are also critical for connecting with the press and players. Going small is not necessarily the best option for these use cases, and this is where online events could come into view. While online events are not ideal, they are getting better and better and I expect they will find specific needs to cater to.

The bigger online events could well cover the needs of businesses that need to reach a lot of people, while the smaller physical events could cover the needs of more targeted and deeper relationship building.
A combination such as this will most likely be needed until we’re comfortable standing sweaty-shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder in hotel lobbies again.

Conclusion

2020 has been a difficult year for many. On a personal level we have all suffered in one way or another from the pandemic, and some people greatly so. From health challenges to loss of friends and family, or simply the shock of a disrupted lifestyle and an uncertain future – the virus has gotten to us all.

In that regard, the game industry is in a relatively fortunate position. While the industry got a thorough shake-up, the games market held strong with more people playing games than ever during lockdowns. As we can see in China and other parts of the world where the lockdowns have ended, player behaviour will mostly return to pre-pandemic normals. But the temporary boost of playtime across the globe is something we can be grateful for.

After the initial shock in early 2020, the industry recovered fairly well. The challenges that remain can be tackled with an attitude of flexibility and experimentation.

So in summary, here are some practical ways forward beyond the pandemic:

  • For all activities (from hiring to business development and game production), consider moving parts to an online realm. Reducing your dependency on physical locations means you will have more mobility in the case of future shockwaves.
  • Consider an international approach for attracting talent and interns.
  • With an uncertain future, agility is key. Consider flexible office space rentals, a flexible workforce, and perhaps even flexible business models.
  • Most markets will hopefully go back to normal soon, but it may still be a good time to reconsider the market verticals and geographies you operate in. This is especially true for serious game developers, and those that depend on physical locations.
  • As trade shows may not be at full capacity any time soon, evaluate alternative methods of business development. How can you connect to potential partners without the big trade shows? Consider trade missions, smaller events, online networking, and of course video calls.
  • Nudge your organization to adopt a more online and global mindset. This could be an opportunity to solve key issues around hiring, scalability, business development and marketing.

I hope this all makes sense! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out.

One more thing: the Dutch Games Association aims to build a thriving game industry and ecosystem in The Netherlands. We are a non-profit association powered by member contributions and volunteers. If you’re in The Netherlands and not a member yet, please consider joining the association. By doing so, you actively contribute to the future of the Dutch game industry. The more we work together, the more we can achieve – and we need your support to make the good stuff happen.

Have a good one!

Derk de Geus
Dutch Games Association

A big thanks to Aryeh Loeb, Henriët Eilander, Christel van Grinsven, Fedor van Herpen and JP van Seventer for their proofreading and comments! Also a big thank you to DGG for the Games Monitor 2020 Update.