By Nick Romano
March 19, 2020 at 11:52 AM EDT
Square Enix; Remedy Entertainment; Xbox

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, movie theaters shuttered, Hollywood delayed some of its biggest films indefinitely, numerous productions across movies and TV halted, and virtually every major pop culture event planned for the next couple months either shut down or picked a new date. One might imagine that videogames would be the least affected branch of the entertainment world. Self-isolating in front of the TV screen does pair well with quarantines. While the industry remains one of the few not completely stunted during these uncertain times, the coronavirus has indeed affected players, developers, and studios, both for better and worse. 

Cowen Inc., an independent bank and financial services company, stated "the obvious" in a March 16 report: "We expect videogame sector fundamentals to fare far better than the market average during the current COVID-related extraordinary measures, and during any possible resulting recession. As such, we think the sector is a (relatively) good place to weather market volatility."

Sure enough, videogame usage during peak hours is now up 75 percent since citizens were encouraged to participate in social distancing and self-isolation a week ago, according to a new Verizon report released Tuesday that analyzes data usage habits. That's compared to a 20 percent increase in web traffic and a 12 percent increase in video usage. The percentage of social media usage remained the same. "As more entertainment options are canceled in communities across the U.S., an increase in video traffic and online gaming is not surprising,” commented Kyle Malady, Verizon's chief technology officer. Though, he does expect these peak hour percentages to "fluctuate" from week to week.

One game that saw a significant spike in player activity, specifically online multiplayer activity, was Call of Duty: Warzone, the free-to-play battle royale spin-off to Call of Duty. Launched on PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One on March 10, Warzone drew in more than 15 million players online just three days later, per publisher Activision. This broke the previous 10 million three-day record set by last year's Apex Legends.

According to SteamDB, a third-party database, the online PC gaming marketplace Steam reached a record 20,313,451 concurrent users on Sunday. (A rep for Valve, the company behind Steam, could not be reached immediately to verify.)

The concern doesn't seem to be about player activity driving down. It's already been driving up. But with the constantly shifting landscape in response to the spread of coronavirus, gaming publishers and developers are trying to adapt in order to serve their player bases.

Final Fantasy VII, the highly anticipated remake from Square Enix, is set for release on April 10. But new precautions from Amazon could potentially hinder the launch plan. On March 13, Amazon announced "the decision to temporarily prioritize household staples, medical supplies, and other high-demand products coming into our fulfillment centers" to more quickly "receive, restock, and ship these products to customers." As a result, Square Enix notified fans on Wednesday that, "with the unforeseeable changes in the distribution and retail landscape which varies across countries, it is increasingly likely that some of you will not get hold of your copy of the game on the release date."

"We are monitoring the situation on a daily basis and working with our partners, retailers, and Square Enix teams across Europe and the Americas, to do everything we can to ensure as many of you as possible can play the game on April 10," a statement reads.

Nintendo users shared over social media that some have also received notifications from Amazon about shipments of physical copies of the upcoming Animal Crossing: New Horizons (out Friday) being delayed. (The game can also be purchased through the Nintendo Switch eShop.) Other big game titles coming out in the coming weeks include Bethesda's remake of DOOM Eternal (Friday), Capcom's remake of Resident Evil 3 (April 3), and Naughty Dog's The Last of Us Part II (May 29). A rep for Bethesda declined to comment for this story, but mentioned "the team is currently focused on the DOOM Eternal launch." A rep for Capcom, who's working closely with all its teams as they work from home, confirms the release of Resident Evil 3 remains the same at the moment. Multiple reps from Sony Interactive Entertainment (which is releasing The Last of Us Part II) did not respond to EW's requests for comment.

GameStop, however, announced plans to sell copies of DOOM Eternal early "as a safety precaution for our customers and associates" in light of social distancing guidelines. The game is now currently available to purchase through the store.

As of March 19, GameStop released a note to customers online confirming stores would remain open in order "to provide essential products to our customers that allows them to stay connected, and provide products that allows business and consumers to work remotely." A number of changes were implemented, including restricting store hours, only allowing 10 customers in a single store at the same time, maintaining "a 6-foot parameter between customers in checkout lines," temporarily suspending trade-in options, disabling interactive game stations, postponing events (including midnight launch activities), and providing front-door pick-up options for customers.

Meanwhile, developers are still working to maintain their games, including post-launch content. Some already took advanced steps to ensure their teams would be able to operate from remote locations. Remedy Entertainment is one of them.

The Finnish game developer behind Control, which first launched on Aug. 27, 2019, has been working on the next DLC (downloadable content) story line, "Foundation," which will be available to download from the Playstation 4 and Epic Games store on March 26, followed by an Xbox One launch on June 25.

"Starting a while ago, due to the global COVID-18 (novel coronavirus) outbreak, Remedy Entertainment set up a strike team to plan how we can effectively keep our operations going, maintain our business and our employee's safety as we transition into working remotely, and set up for everything that entails," a spokesperson said in a statement. "We have actively been preparing by upgrading our remote working capabilities and the required infrastructure during the past few weeks, as well as doing our utmost to make this as seamless as possible for our employees, so that they can focus on their work and safety. The majority of the studio has already transitioned into working remotely."

In a separate email conversation with EW, Remedy's communications director, Thomas Puha, writes how the strike team began preparations in February "to figure out how the entire company could work offsite."

"We had okay capabilities to do that anyway, but scaling up is a definitely challenge, but our team has done amazingly well," he writes. "It’s not like people can just take their computers and dev kits and go home and work and that’s it. There’s far more to it."

Puha continues, "There are some technical hurdles we are dealing with that I know other devs are too, but we are working on solutions for those. The lack of being able to go talk to people in person like you can in an office is something no video chat is going to solve though. Still, we’ve been surprised how well we’ve managed to maintain productivity as we transition to working in a completely distributed fashion. The 'Foundation' expansion was mostly done before our transition though, so it was easier for that project."

A spokesperson for Epic Games (the folks behind Fortnite) told EW over email, "We’ve taken proactive steps to protect the health and safety of our teams, their families, and partners, and have implemented work-from-home solutions that allow us to continue to be productive. As always, players should keep an eye on our social channels for any news on game updates."

Ubisoft and Rockstar Games also adopted "work-from-home policies," per respective statements. Making Assassin's Creed Odyssey available to play for free on PS4, Xbox One, and Windows (via Uplay) from March 19-22, Ubisoft is "adapting to new ways of working to ensure you can keep playing." Rockstar, which is planning "more events and activities" for Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption II online, affirms "confident we have a robust system in place for our teams to continue their work with a minimum disruption."

Mobile games, however, run into unique challenges. Niantic's Pokémon Go and Harry Potter-themed Wizards Unite operate through augmented reality software are designed for players who are out and about in the world and interacting with the game. Because of the coronavirus, certain steps were taken. Niantic canceled a series of community events, which were designed to bring multiple players in the same local areas to play together. The Abra Community Day and weekly raid hours were some of them.

The company is also encouraging players to stay inside by making the game more playable at home. As of Tuesday, Pokémon Go allowed for a one-time purchase bundle of 30 Incense (which draws Pokémon to your location) for 1 PokéCoin (the in-game currency). Incense was also made to last for an hour, among other perks. Developers of Wizards Unite took similar steps and continued to roll out the 2.11 version of the game on Thursday. When asked to comment, a rep for Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, which releases Wizards Unite, stated "everyone has been asked to work from home."

NetherRealm Studios, behind Mortal Kombat 11, canceled upcoming live-steamed events, including the live audience for the eSports competition Final Kombat 2020. But hit hardest have been gaming conferences and conventions.

Like most other pop culture events planned for the coming months, including South by Southwest film and music festival, CinemaCon, and DragonCon L.A., E3 2020 was shut down. Initially planned from June 9-11, the convention would have seen developers and gaming studios preview upcoming releases and deliver announcements in front of fans, press, and other members of the industry. Instead, organizers are now working with developers to explore "online experience" options that will likely see online presentations rolling out the latest updates. Specifics are still to be determined.

Before E3, the Game Developers Conference, planned for March, was also canceled. As a result, it seems Sony changed plans to reveal the technical specs for the upcoming new console system, Playstation 5, through an online presentation this week. "Unfortunately, we had to cancel the talk that we had planned for GDC," Jim Ryan, president and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment, said at the beginning of Wednesday's digital event. "But we do have some super exciting news about PS5."

With so much changing day to day, the big questions surround the planned releases of Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X, the two next-generation consoles announced for release sometime in the holiday 2020 season. Market research firm DFC Intelligence, as reported by Forbes, predicted a likely future in which coronavirus has "a major short-term impact on the delivery of both systems." A rep for Xbox didn't have anything to share when reached for comment. Multiple reps for Sony did not respond to requests for comment.

"There is a strong likelihood one or both systems will not make a 2020 launch. If the systems do launch, supply will likely be constrained and initial pricing could be higher than expected," a note from the firm reads. "Currently the economy is in an unprecedented state of uncertainty. Even if the situation clears up in a few weeks, the ability to manufacture and release a high-end new game system has already been severely impacted."

For the time being, it seems it is business as usual… albeit with a glitch here and there.

This article was updated with additional reporting on March 20, 2020. 

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