Travel restrictions, cancellations of onsite events and oversupply of online events have had a big effect on partner, publisher and investor meetings and relations. Young start-ups with no existing networks have suffered the most, while more experienced studios with their wide networks and solid track record have been better positioned due to their better connections to potential partners. From the point of view of publicity, not being able to meet the press is an issue for many developers. However, the problem is mutual, as also the press suffers from not having opportunities to meet developers.
Restrictions on physical meetups have complicated the Finnish game developer community’s best practice sharing and decreased introductions to partners and investors. Fortunately, some of these activities can take place via digital channels and digital meetings can compensate for the lack of physical meetups to a certain extent.
Uncertainty has delayed decision making in all business relations. Delays in deals and cancellations of projects have affected the financial stability of some developers. Especially work-for-hire companies are suffering from cancelled and fragmented projects. However, after the initial shock of COVID-19 in spring 2020, investors and publisher have become more active again and the deal flow is returning back to normal. Remote work also affects development. Although game development is relatively easily done remotely, new working methods are required in order to do development effectively. Especially the creative processes in the early stages of game development are more difficult than under normal circumstances and cause delays in development projects.
COVID-19 is, therefore, likely to hinder the launch of new companies and its long-term impacts on the Finnish start-up ecosystem will be addressed in our next study, to be published in 2023. However, in the short term its impact on a number of newly founded studios has been surprisingly small. In 2020 there were more bankruptcies or planned shutdowns of Finnish game developer studios (39) than ever before. For some studios, COVID-19 and its consequences have been just the final nail in the coffin. However, a majority of the studios that have shut down have been inactive for several years. Business Finland financial support and other public funding tools have been crucial for some game developers to survive, though the number of game studios applying for these funds has been relatively small.
Even though time is not spent traveling anymore, digital communication channels are flooded, while the ability to work and respond efficiently has not increased. Work from home, which companies have been practicing since March 2020, requires independence and good self-governance. Fortunately, in the game industry in general, and in Finland especially, company organizations are flat and employees are well trusted.
Managing and organizing development remotely presents new challenges. Many of the interviewed companies mentioned issues in communication on several levels, both between and inside teams. Starting new creative projects, setting up new business, and building up team spirit are especially challenging while working remotely. In addition to these, there are significant regulatory obstacles for cross-border remote work (e.g., taxation) which complicate remote work between countries.
Opinions about remote work vary a lot. Some of the developers were grateful for the opportunity to work from home and were able to concentrate and focus even better, while others would prefer working at the office. Depending on personal resiliency and situation in general, some of the developers were suffering from more fatigue and depression which was reducing their well-being and efficiency. Some of the developers experienced loneliness, and especially foreign employees were missing their families and relatives. Many companies were actively looking for solutions to enhance and support well-being and the mental health of their employees. Virtual coffee rooms and virtual after works with digital board games and offering a wider range of mental health services via occupational health care was a common practice in many companies. The crucial questions seem to be: How can we be happy making games at home? How fast and how well can we adjust to working from home? How do we nurture creativity under these circumstances?
In the end, many employees considered themselves privileged to be able to work in an industry that has been doing well compared to other industries.
COVID-19 has increased the number of players and time spent on games. However, it has also brought in new, not always easy to identify, users into user groups previously familiar to developers. It is worth noting that the increased number of players does not always correlate with increased income or resources. This is the case especially in F2P games. According to some reports, COVID-19 has also had a negative impact on the well-being of gamer communities and this has increased the workload of community managers.