Ndemic Games founder James Vaughan made Plague, Inc. in his bedroom as a hobby in 2011. He wasn't expecting the game to be a hit—nor was he expecting to live through a pandemic so reminiscent of it.
After the COVID-19 pandemic truly settled in early this year, the popularity of Plague, Inc. surged. The eight-year-old game was suddenly at the top of the Steam charts again, and featured in The New York Times.
"A lot of players are playing Plague Inc. because it helps them understand our current situation and gives them an element of control during a very scary and worrying time," Vaughan said over email. "The game is very effective at helping players understand the terrifying power of exponential growth and also shows some of the mechanisms that global governments have to stop a pandemic."
In Plague, Inc. the player engineers a virus and then watches it take over the world. The eventual goal is to wipe out humanity. It's a grim premise, but still a compelling strategy game. Alongside the movie Contagion, the game has become symbolic of the dour media diet of this pandemic—so much so that China banned it from its version of Apple's App Store in late February.
"It’s not clear to us if this removal is linked to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak that China is facing," Ndemic games said in a statement at the time. "However, Plague Inc.’s educational importance has been repeatedly recognised by organisations like the CDC and we are currently working with major global health organisations to determine how we can best support their efforts to contain and control COVID-19."
A month later, Ndemic Games donated $250,000 towards fighting COVID-19, and announced that it would be working on a new game mode where players are fighting against a virus rather than spreading it.
"When arranging our donations with the WHO and CEPI, we were repeatedly asked if we could make a game which let the player work to stop an outbreak," Ndemic wrote in a statement. "Therefore, as well as providing financial support, we are accelerating work on a new Plague Inc. game mode which lets players save the world from a deadly disease outbreak."
"A key change to the existing Plague Inc. gameplay will be that it is possible for people to recover from the disease on their own without requiring a cure," Vaughan said. The new game mode is in the early stages of development, but Vaughan was also able to say that it's being made with the support of some of the international organizations fighting to end the pandemic. "We are lucky to have the support of a huge number of experts from places like the WHO and the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) and we are seeking to incorporate as much of their input as possible into the game whilst still ensuring it is accessible to players."
As they ramp up development, Ndemic games is also facing the same challenges as companies over the world. Vaughan said that in February, Ndemic made the call to start working remotely. In a way, it's a little nostalgic for him.
"Plague Inc. was originally made entirely remotely (I had never met or spoken to the programmer I hired!)," he said. "So in some ways, you could say we are going back to our roots."