Lockdown takes games industry to a higher level

The key concern for the games industry is how to turn the current surge in interest into something more long-lasting

Multiplayer games have  proven a hit with players who want to connect with their friends

Multiplayer games have proven a hit with players who want to connect with their friends

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What did you do during the pandemic lockdown? It’s a tricky subject. While your Instagram feed may have been full of people enjoying their daily works, Zoom workouts and baking all the banana bread in Ireland, most of us were just trying to get on with things.

Some people had to continue to travel to work every day, others juggled working from home and family responsibilities. Those with children of school-going age had schoolwork to contend with, and others had cocooning parents to shop for and check in on from a socially-acceptable distance.

The shutdown has also had a serious impact on the economy, with companies closing their doors, unsure if they will reopen once all this disruption is finally at an end.

Yet there is one industry that has reaped the benefits of millions of people confined to their homes – the games industry.

In the weeks of lockdown gaming has become an outlet for millions of people all over the world. It has become the multipurpose gap-filler for us all, from satiating our appetite for competitive sports to connecting with friends.

Last month Sky Sports showed the semi-finals of the ePremier League Invitational Tournament, a charity event to raise funds for the NHS that featured players such as Trent Alexander-Arnold, Raheem Sterling and Wilfried Zaha competing in Fifa 20. Viewers who perhaps would never have tuned into esports suddenly found themselves watching competitive games, opening the door for a new interest in the sports.

Meanwhile, Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova took part in a Mario Tennis Aces esports tournament on Facebook Gaming in early May. It was part of the “Stay at Home Slam” on Nintendo Switch, and also featured Justin Bieber, Gigi Hadid, Seal, Steve Aoki, and NFL stars Ryan Tannehill and DeAndre Hopkins.

All this attention has had a positive impact for those involved in the industry. In the US video game sales hit their highest in a decade in March as shelter-in-place orders came into effect in a number of US states. That was repeated again in April as people continued to stay at home, looking for a distraction.

Wall Street estimates

At the beginning of May, games publisher EA said full-year adjusted revenue would be above Wall Street estimates as the Covid-19 pandemic led to a surge in the number of people playing games.

China’s Tencent, which publishes PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) Mobile and Honor of Kings saw growth of 31 per cent to 37.30 billion yuan in the first three months of the year.

A similar story was reported by Activision Blizzard, which makes the popular Call of Duty series. The company raised its revenue forecasts amid the pandemic bump in players. The company also released a free-to-play battle-royale extension Call of Duty: Warzone, which has hooked in more than 60 million players to date.

Offering free-to-play content is one way for games makers to increase user engagement with their big budget titles in the hopes that it will encourage people to spend real-life money in the game to pick up extra items, abilities, themes and so on.

People are spending longer in front of their games, which should mean more money spent. According to data analytics company Foxintelligence, April saw a 30 per cent jump in app and in-app purchases on mobile, with spending on video games also jumping.

That was also replicated in the Tencent results, with in-game spending on extras such as power-ups and object skins for PUBG Mobile alone surged to three times the amount seen in March 2019.

Multiplayer games have also proven a hit with players who want to connect with their friends. Nintendo has seen profit soar on the back of the Switch console, with Animal Crossing a particular favourite. The latest version of the game New Horizons shifted a record 13.4 million units in its first six weeks, and the company has sold 21 million Switch consoles in the past year – 1.5 million more than it expected. That has had a knock-on effect, with shortages preventing the company from taking full advantage of the demand.

The Nintendo situation highlights how fragile the current situation is for games companies. Companies need to be able to meet the demand from consumers and also plan on how to hang on to this new audience once the pandemic subsides and we can again socialise with family and friends.

Start-ups

If there is a higher interest in gaming that continues post-pandemic that could lead to a boost for employment in the sector – including in start-ups.

Ireland has a stake in this particular game. The games industry has been growing here in recent years – although not at the pace originally envisaged – with some notable start-ups making Ireland their base.

In late 2018, it hit a milestone. Games studio Digit, one of the largest developers located here, released the first AAA game developed in Ireland, Star Trek Fleet Command. The game followed Digit’s success with Kings of the Realm, which was a top grossing game in more than 50 countries.

Digit originally set up base in Ireland in 2012, with ambitious plans to scale the company and create big things.

In 2019, the company was acquired by LA-based games company Scopely for an undisclosed sum, and announced plans to keep growing its Irish office.

Ireland has also attracted other stars – multinationals Riot Games, EA and Activision all have operations here, along with homegrown success StoryToys.

It was that link that brought Vela Games, a rising star in Ireland’s games industry, to Dublin. Travis George, Lisa Newon George and Brian Kaiser set up the company in 2017, all veterans of the games industry with stints in Riot and EA. The company recently announced it had raised $3.1 million to make multiplayer games, led by London Venture Partners. That is in addition to €3 million it raised a year ago, when it won backing from Dermot Desmond’s IIU.

The company is focusing on “player first” games, and has big plans for its Dublin office.

These are the companies that could stand to benefit from a wider gaming audience.

Consoles

But where does gaming’s future lie? For console-makers Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, they are banking on consoles remaining a large part of the equation. Both Sony and Microsoft are planning new console launches this year, with the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X slated for later this year.

However, there is another element to it – creating a Netflix-style subscription service. That was one focus of last year’s E3 gaming conference.

The idea that you can pay a flat fee each month and gain access to thousands of games titles is one that has gained momentum in recent months, particularly as streaming services for music and TV have continued to grow.

The idea is an appealing one: play any game on any device, with no large downloads and no need to spend out hundreds on the latest games console. All you need is a screen and a controller; there is relatively little waiting around.

Apple has already got a head start on that one. The company offers Arcade for a flat fee every month – €5 – and for that you get full access to more than 100 games, ad-free, and with no in-app purchases to deal with. It’s all covered in the monthly arcade subscription.

You do have to download the game to your device, but that allows for off-line playing; you can also play across multiple Apple devices, from iPad and iPhone to Mac.

Google also has its finger in that particular pie. Stadia was launched in November 2019, offering users access to a library of cloud-based games that they can play instantly and without having to bother with updates and patches. Capable of streaming video games up to 4K resolution at 60 frames per second, the service can also be played on TVs with a 4K Chromecast.

Last month it was announced that EA would bring five of its top titles to the service, with Fifa, Madden NFL and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order all becoming part of the streaming service before the end of the year.

There will soon be more competition in the sector. Xbox is currently trialling a streaming service, dubbed Project xCloud, with more than 50 games available to play. It’s a limited trial for now, but the company already has a similar trial running for its console, bringing streaming games into the living room. Microsoft is covering all its bases, it seems.

There are some caveats. The need for an internet connection fast enough to cope with streaming a video game will rule out those in more rural areas. If you are dependent on mobile internet for gaming some heavy sessions could eat through your data allowance quickly.

Regardless of what the future looks like in terms of how we will be gaming, the key concern for the games industry is how it turns the current interest into something more long-lasting. That may be a more difficult task to master than luring customers in to start with.

GAMES TO PLAY

Fifa 20

Football may be making its way back – the Bundesliga has already kicked off in a weird, crowd-free setting, and La Liga is on its way back – but if you need the roar of the fans behind you, Fifa 20 will fill that gap. The games may be shorter and the physical exertion a little less than in real life but it’s probably about as close as you are going to get to what we had before Covid-19 made games a spectator-less sport.

No Man’s Sky

PS4, Steam, Xbox One

If you Google No Man’s Sky, one of the first results is “Is No Man’s Sky good now?” After a few hiccups the answer for most people is: yes, yes it is. Explore the universe, find unknown planets, survive the experience; there’s plenty to discover. You can even play it in VR.

Animal Crossing: Hidden Valley

Creating your own island paradise to escape from it all seems very appealing right now. Hunt for food, craft your own supplies, decorate your island… whatever you need to do to make it feel comfortable. And who knows who you will meet in the game – actors Brie Larson and Maisie Williams have been vocal about their love for the game, while Elijah Wood even dropped by a Twitter fan’s island to buy turnips. It’s all go.

Untitled Goose Game (Switch)

Sometimes you just want to cause a bit of chaos. Mess things up a bit without consequences, just because you can. The Untitled Goose Game gives you a list of things to do - trap a child in a phone booth, make a gardener’s life miserable, leave a trail of minor destruction in your wake – and you progress through the game as you tick each of them off the list. Stealth is key for many of the challenges, but sometimes you need to make some noise and cause a bit of a scene to get ahead. It’s almost a metaphor for life.

Mario Kart Tour

iOS, Android

Mario has to feature someplace in everyone’s gaming life. Mario Kart Tour is an easy way to get into things, offering all the fun of Mario’s racing series in a mobile app. You can race players worldwide in multiplayer modes, with up to seven other players, collecting power-ups, dodging obstacles and trying to come out on top.

Overcooked

Windows, PS4, Switch, Xbox One,

Too many cooks spoil the broth, or so the old saying goes. But in Overcooked it’s a case of the more cooks you have, the better. Designed to be a co-operative game, chefs must beat the clock to cook their dishes and serve customers. But with food to chop, cook, make sure it doesn’t go on fire and then plates to wash after, you’re going to need reinforcements. Sometimes your kitchen will be inconveniently shifted by the rolling sea; other times it will physically separate as you cook on the road between two semi trailers. It’s not logical, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s stressful, but there’s not an apocalypse or pandemic in sight. Yet.

Uncharted 4: Thief’s End

PS4

Uncharted is a great series of games, but Thief’s End is probably the best of the lot. Nathan Drake comes out of retirement for one last bash at adventure, this time with his brother Sam. There’s a bit of a slow start to things, but the game is beautifully designed and engaging enough to keep you pushing right through to the end.