No corner of life has gone untouched by the disruptive force of COVID-19, but in this time of social isolation, where many have been deprived of meaningful contact, games have absolutely thrived. But no one developing video games that ultimately came out in 2020 could have predicted how the year would play out, resulting in unexpected success stories (Among Us) and games having their developments completely disrupted (Halo Infinite).
I recently found myself on a call with Apple, where the company announced awards for various games and apps that'd seen success in 2020 on its platforms. Once the company revealed the winners, it split me off into a bunch of short interviews with the developers of Pokémon Go, Sneaky Sasquatch, Genshin Impact, and Legends of Runterra. Over and over, I found myself coming back to a single theme: What was it like to create a successful game in 2020? What were the unexpected consequences of working during a global pandemic?
Pokémon Go was a cultural phenomenon when it launched in 2016, and these days is cursed with only being extremely popular. But Pokémon Go's whole schtick was about leaving the house and moving around the world to collect and fight creatures—social experiences were in the game's DNA. In the past few years, those social gatherings have grown larger and larger, with developer Niantic throwing massive events where thousands come together to catch, trade, and battle. All of that went out the window with COVID-19.
"At the very beginning of COVID, before we realized this would be global and before we realized it'd be long term, we tried to go regional," said Pokémon Go senior product manager Matt Slemon.
It's hard to remember, but for a time, COVID-19 was not global. It started with one country or region locking down, while everyone else crossed their fingers and hoped it would somehow skip wherever they lived. As a result, Niantic started out by making changes to how Pokémon Go operated in early COVID-hit parts of the world, such as Italy and South Korea, making it so players could still engage with the game, even if they were now staying inside.
"It didn't take more than a week or two [for that to change]," said Slemon.
In March, the team announced a slew of changes, including the ability for movement inside a house or apartment to advance progress in the game. One big change that came later was remote raiding. In the past, raids involved lots of players getting together in the same space and fighting together. That was no longer possible in COVID-19, but it was key to the game.
"When we were developing that feature," said Slemon, "we went in and the problem I posed to my designers is 'let's design a version of this feature that we know after COVID is gone, we're still going to be proud to keep in the game."
As COVID-19 has continued to devastate some parts of the world, while other regions work towards recovery, the developer has waffled on the idea of returning to normalcy. In November, it announced rollback of some COVID-19 specific changes before the blowback prompted them to back off and keep everything at the status quo until at least June 2021.
"Our values still remain the same, though we do know that in the current circumstances, it's not appropriate to ask people to do certain things within those spheres," said Slemon.
Pokémon Go, at least, had the benefit of having been released years ago. One of the most challenging stretches of game development, one largely invisible to players, happens in the final months. It's where most of the bug testing, final balancing, and technology optimizations happen. Each element is important to the player experience, only noticed when it's off.
Legends of Runeterra, a card game spin-off for Riot Games' League of Legends, had a brief beta at the start of 2020, and was released on April 29. By that point, much of the world was in active lockdown. On the same day Legends of Runeterra was released, the United States passed 60,000 deaths, a total President Trump once mused would count on the high-end.
The Legends of Runeterra team started working from home in February, a moment when intense collaboration between the team was at its highest, and now it had to figure out how to ship a video game while also completely restructuring their team's working dynamic.
"Game designers, especially QA [quality assurance], they don't need to send emails to each other," said Legends of Runeterra executive producer Jeff Jew. "They just turn around and they talk about, 'Hey, I playtested this card. It's not really having the effect I want.' They can have that kind of pow wow. In the current age, you're having that problem—are you really going to say, 'Hey, can you hop on a call with me for this five second thing?'"
Think about the difference between texting a friend and calling a friend. One carries more weight than the other, right? And when you're around someone in person, you can get a sense of their body language. Is this someone who wants to be left alone right now?
"Because you can't do that, you're more willing to just slack the person," said Jew. "It means you're getting slacks all the time. There's no sense of, 'Hey, you can see me like working right now, my headphones are on?'"
On Jew's team, headphones are a universal sign for "don't bother me."
One solution the team came up with was to have group work calls where the actual point was to work on the call. There was no agenda, and you didn't have to talk. It was an attempt to simulate the group's "pit" at the office, when they were in close proximity to one another, and tried to erode the pressure associated with calling someone or scheduling a meeting.
They also started writing newsletters for different departments, because people didn't know what different teams were up to because there was suddenly less interaction. The studio also sent team members gift cards to order lunch at their desk on a call, to try and simulate the meal time playtest sessions that often happened at the studio. It's all been a mixed bag.
"It's not the same," laughed Jew multiple times, explaining the processes. It didn't sound fun.
"I think social features rose to the forefront for a lot of games, because, hey, you're just stuck here and you want to connect with someone, but you need a medium to do so."
The game did get out the door, however, and the team's focus shifted to players also experiencing the same issues at the team: stuck at home and without friends. It forced them to prioritize social features, such as the ability to play against friends in different regions of the world. Typically, players were dropped into region-specific servers that prevented this.
"I think social features rose to the forefront for a lot of games," said Jew, "because, hey, you're just stuck here and you want to connect with someone, but you need a medium to do so."
Both Pokémon Go and Legends of Runeterra are really meant to be played with other people, but Sneaky Sasquatch, dubbed by its own developers as a family friendly Grand Theft Auto but with a cute sasquatch, is a solo experience. It also technically launched in 2019 alongside the Apple Arcade service in September 2019. Sneaky Sasquatch still managed to snag Apple's "game of the year award" because of its many, many updates.
"We've added so much that I kind of forget everything we've put in there because we've just been building and we haven't really stopped," said co-creator Jesse Ringrose.
Sneaky Sasquatch was well-liked when it was released in 2019, but things spiked in 2020. Ringrose noticed something was up in that very familiar March and April period, when everything in the world started changing and people's day-to-day habits were upended.
"That's when all the emails started coming in from parents," said Ringrose. "And then it became apparent—this is a family game that people are playing to retain their sanity, this is their escapism, this is their outlet. This is how they're leading an outdoor lifestyle in doors."
In Sneaky Sasquatch, players do a lot of mundane activities in playful ways. They can go shopping, they can go fishing. And they can even get a job, and earn money to pay rent. (Ringrose told me a friend's daughter cried when they realized they had no rent money.)
How many times during COVID-19 have you longed to do something mundane again?
"You can buy a car and drive to the ski resort on the highway and then buy your ski pass ticket," said Ringrose. "And then you have to sit on the chairlift and you just wait and you just wait here and you swing back and forth. And that's just part of the experience. And that's something that you just wouldn't be able to get at that time. Stay inside, don't go do things."
These mundane things are extraordinary to children, but delightfully ordinary for adults.
Ringrose said the spring is when they started getting feedback from children about features they'd like to see, and it became clear families were playing. One way to spot kids: emojis.
"We know adults are playing," said Ringrose, "but they're not the ones that are in there like saying 'You should add pets like right now!'"
One request was a YouTube video from a father, recording his daughter on her birthday.
"She had her notebook and all the ideas and was like, 'Yeah, I would like a dog and you can have a dog house and do this,'" laughed Ringrose. "And then we emailed back and say, 'Oh yeah, you are going to be very happy.'"
Requests like this end up pushing different ideas up the priority list.
Just prior to hopping on a call with me, for example, Ringrose was poking around the Sneaky Sasquatch subreddit and noticed someone posted a Christmas tree with custom ornaments based on the characters in the game. Ringrose decided they now needed to make a Christmas update for the game. What'll it include? Who knows. But it had to happen.
"It feels like we can make a good impact just by doubling down," he said.
At the moment, Ringrose is working on adding a T-Rex and a "a bunch of Jurassic Park jokes" to the game for no reason in particular. It just feels like a fun thing to add to the game.
Pokémon Go, Legends of Runeterra, Sneaky Sasquatch—all three games made under different, difficult circumstances exasperated by consequences of COVID-19. What made my last conversation of the day unique was how much that didn't apply to those creators.
Genshin Impact, a Breath of the Wild-inspired anime action game with gacha mechanics, is one of 2020's biggest surprises. Nobody I know, at least, saw this one coming. It's likely to end up a year-end favorite for a lot of people, and it's possible to not spend a dime playing it.
It was also, for the most part, made without huge and disruptive impacts by COVID-19. Genshin Impact was largely developed in Shanghai, China by Chinese developer miHoYo.
"In Shanghai, China things are much better," said miHoYo president Forrest Liu. "So we [were] only locked for like less than one month. So everything goes well."
(The Genshin Impact developers were not speaking through a translator, and while their English was impressive, note that explains some of the awkwardness in their answers.)
But Shanghai was locked down for a time, and during that period, miHoYo was in a bind.
"A lot of our development team members," said VP of global publishing Wenyi Jin, "they [were] in their house, cannot work and all the equipment [was] not sufficient enough for them to do their jobs being home."
The team held conference calls while quarantine was ongoing, but in late March, the period when most of us started really grappling with COVID-19, miHoYo went back to the office.
At that point, Genshin Impact was behind schedule, but eventually, it wound up on track.
Like everyone else, the feedback miHoYo has received includes requests for more social features, because most of the world has not stomped out COVID-19 the way China has. The game now, at least, has challenges where multiple players can work together, but one thing the developers noticed was how players appreciated spending their time in a beautiful world.
"Traveling is impossible for a majority of people," said Jin, "and in Genshin Impact, you can see very beautiful views around the world. And we think it is also a good element for the games to provide it to our players."