games / Columns

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide: Gaming After COVID-19

July 12, 2021 | Posted by Jed Shaffer

Before we begin …

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This week’s business.

Transitions are an unavoidable fact of life. Sometimes, you get a choice. Stay near home for college, or break out of your comfort zone and go somewhere else? Take the job that pays well but isn’t emotionally satisfying, or bet on yourself and chase your dream? Just last week, I celebrated my 18th wedding anniversary, which wouldn’t have happened had I not been willing to move across the country.

Sometimes, though, life shifts gears on you with no warning. A break-up or divorce, the death of a loved one, losing your job, you find a dead body while gardening which kicks off an international conspiracy full of assassins, sex, espionage, and coded message hidden in Clu Gulager movies. Um, maybe you should pretend you didn’t read that.

Never thought I’d be doing this again.

It’s been about a year and a half since this happened to the entire planet with COVID-19. Like the foul smell of wet The Cheat, it made all of our bottom 10 and made life miserable. In some places like South America and parts of Africa, “lingering” is a gross understatement. In other countries, though, humanity is starting to see daylight. As of the day I’m writing this, my state (Michigan) has lifted all restrictions, which comes only a couple weeks after a concert we were supposed to see last year got postponed again to 2022. THANKS, OBAMA.

The phrase “COVID changed our lives” has become more over-used than a Borat accent in 2006, but that doesn’t make it less true. Our day-to-day lives were up-ended in near-infinite ways, even within our homes. Gaming was among those things thrown for a loop. Whether you’re a gamer parent or a parent of gamers, the gamer(s) in your house had a year like none prior. Games held our hands through a long, dark year, even as they tried to figure out how to keep the industry from choking to a stop. And now, country by country, city by city, house by house, we’re emerging from our dark caves and back into a world not quite the same as the one we left behind.

A spinoff game of the original Final Fantasy? A new 2D Metroid? A GAME-AND-WATCH?!? How did time go backwards while I was in here?

Going back to the way things were, or even trying to find level again, will take time, no matter the speed with which people get vaccinated and public safety mandates are lifted. Gaming is no exception. Some aspects might revert to the way things were before. Some might be forever altered. How these affect you as a parent will be important to understand, even if we’re all stumbling into this new landscape together. Today, we’re going to look at a few facets of post-COVID gaming we’ll need to reckon with as parents, some you may not have considered.

Physical vs. digital media

Yup, this again. At least it’s a different angle.

I don’t know if you noticed but, for a while, it was hard to do anything outside your home apart from waving at that neighbor across the street you loathe, but you craved human contact, so fuck it. After trying to position themselves as an essential business because they sold keyboards and mice (I assume they’re buried under POP! figures and Naruto shirts, because I haven’t seen PC hardware in a GameStop in years), GameStop gave into common sense – and livid employees – and implemented curbside delivery in the hopes of keeping the money rolling in.

We don’t have to ask Cotton if it was a bold strategy, because the evidence is in, and it didn’t pay off.

I won’t try to doom-say the end of physical media. It’s hyperbolic, premature and, despite the all-digital brigade’s wishes, it isn’t what everyone wants. There will always be a demand for it (although I need names on who demanded this, so I can report them to the authorities), especially as the movement to preserve gaming history grows, even when companies try to make that difficult. But a ninety-one percent jump in digital sales can’t be ignored. All the digital storefronts had multiple sales running, and many gave away free games to keep the stir-crazy at bay. The convenience of a couple button presses and never having to get dressed to get your game is intoxicating.

You won’t even get up and buy your own games? What’s next, a remote-controlled lawn mower?

But all-digital has a downside: a singular storefront means a captive audience. If you’ve ever been to a sports venue and bought something, you know what I mean; the Little Caesar’s pizza that costs five bucks in a strip mall a block away from the stadium costs almost triple that inside the ballpark. Sony’s learning that taking advantage of that opportunity can come back on you, as they’re staring down the barrel of a class-action lawsuit. Convenience may be a powerful lure, but when the same game could be half or less as a physical disc, that luxury is a penalty.

And then there’s multi-platform games and digital currency. It get confusing what can be redeemed where. Let’s use Fortnite for our example. You can buy someone a digital store-specific gift card, and they can buy V-bucks for Fortnite. You can also buy them a Fortnite-branded gift card, but that’s only redeemable through the Epic Store, and only if you have an Epic account. If you downloaded Fortnite on a console and never made an Epic account, you have a “console” account, which doesn’t have access to the Epic storefront (and if you want customer service to help sort this all out, HA!, because Epic’s online help requires you TO SIGN IN WITH AN EPIC ACCOUNT). The snake is eating its own head, but the head is firmly up the snake’s ass. Most major games with in-game economies now sell virtual currency gift cards, but their design doesn’t always make that obvious to the untrained parental eye. Hell, I’m a gamer and even I have to look twice.

Why do you need to buy a shark? Don’t you steal cars?

And speaking of being online, let’s discuss

ISP’s and data use

During the lockdown, companies that were able to pivot to a work-from-home model did so, and a lot of them made a shocking-to-only-them discovery: offices are unnecessary and more hassle than they’re worth. There’s the elimination of overhead, and better productivity goes up when people are comfortable. Plus, Bill can’t waste time jaw-jacking with John for a half hour during business hours over how bad [insert local sports team] is doing this season if they aren’t in the same building.

But working from home means using your internet. These days, everything down to your curtains can use the internet. (You think I’m kidding on the curtains? Here.) Streaming service subscriptions exploded by 37% during the pandemic. Add in that every major studio and TV network launched their own streaming service now, and that’s a lot of data. Plus, there’s all the new gamers. And maybe where you live, schools are still online-only, so, one more log for the data bonfire. Data has become as crucial a resource to a house as water, and while it’s not a finite resource, access to it is.

In the USA in 2020, the average CPM for internet ranged from $47 to $69, depending on d/l speed. But the influx of WFH’ers, new gamers, and more streaming meant more people online per home competing for that bandwidth. You gotta bump up to the next highest level if you don’t want your Zoom meeting or round of Madden to look like a slide show. But “more speed=more money” is only part of the equation. The amount of data you use might is a trap. Many telecoms have data caps, and while most if not all of them suspended the caps during the pandemic, that altruism post-pandemic will last about as long as Augustus Gloop’s self-control in Willy Wonka’s factory. Many of the major telecoms here in the States have data caps, and the overage fees are a sandpaper dildo to the financial bunghole. If you don’t feel like clicking yet another link, here’s the most important takeaway; the first paragraph openly questions whether or not a terabyte a month is enough with all of today’s internet-dependent devices. Your wallet is going to be a reverse Pac-Man, barfing out every bit of money you put into it, and here’s the ISP to gobble it up.

Now that’s just unfair. Even Satan has standards.

And the number of ISP’s who don’t have data caps is shrinking, as the ones who don’t see how lucrative a cash-grab it is. Unless your government intervenes, or someone is visited by a talkative cricket, data use is gonna end up like flying on airlines; the companies in control are going to innovate in ways to nickel-and-dime us to death.

The console shortage

Remember when the pandemic started, and everybody lost their minds over toilet paper? It was THE thing to find in a grocery store, fought over and traded like cigarettes in prison. That lasted a few weeks until people came to their senses. But there were goods and services that the pandemic hurt, so many that it has its own Wiki page. I know musical artists with ten albums under their belt who don’t have this much detail on their Wiki page. Everything from flour to meat to aluminum cans to coin-based currency felt the squeeze.

The gaming industry was not immune, and it could not have come at a worse time. The inability to have workers in close quarters crippled, if not shut down, manufacturing facilities. That in turn led to component shortages, which turned the releases of the PlayStation 5 and the X-Box Series X/S into a game of finding your shadow in a darkened room. Thanks to shady scalpers armed with bots, even if you hear about a store getting some in stock, it’s only a few, and they’re gone before you can finish typing in the URL. Unless you’re GameStop, where they’ve now locked the ability to buy a console behind their Pro membership. Yes, GameStop, a company that has seen declining sales for years, is treating the opportunity to buy a video game console like the cover charge at a strip club.

Finally, an entity even Comcast can look down upon.

This isn’t going away anytime soon, as the pandemic is still a problem in the countries that are home to the manufacturing facilities. You and/or your kids, unless you’re lottery-lucky, are going to be stuck with PS4’s and X-BONE’s, maybe for a long time.

Well, assuming you have one already. If not, err, you have a problem.

But hey, it might not be so bad, because of our next topic.

Prolonging the inevitable

If you watched any of E3, first, know that support groups exist if you sat through Capcom’s “presentation”. And, while I haven’t checked in a few days, I believe the Guardians Of The Galaxy trailer is still going on.

All jokes aside, one of my biggest takeaways was something that seemed to fly under the radar: the now-last generation isn’t being sent to a farm upstate quite as fast as they’d like. There’s always a been run-out – the last game for the PS1 came out at the end of 2004 – but it usually comprises of roster-update sports games and minimal-effort shovelware.

And where there’s minimal-effort shovelware at the end of a console’s lifespan, there’s Ubisoft.

Not this time around. The majority of games Microsoft showed had the words “X-Box One” in the trailer. Even though Sony wasn’t there, they recently announced that God of War: Ragnarok and Horizon: Forbidden West, two titles meant to be PS5 headliners, would be coming to the PS4 too.

Many will say it’s just smart economics, and they couldn’t be more wrong; this is necessary economics. Consoles are loss-leaders; the money is in the games. But you can’t make money on games if there aren’t enough console owners. The aforementioned inability to keep shelves stocked with next-gen consoles has forced Sony and Microsoft to keep the spigot of AAA titles to the PS4 and X-Box One running longer than planned. When Wal-Mart’s website is getting a dozen consoles a week tops, it’s just not enough product getting into living rooms. How long will it last? Months for sure, maybe a year. It really depends on how fast they can get production ramped up, and new virus variants aren’t helping. That means more games for us who haven’t upgraded, even if our kids can’t stand that they don’t have the new machines.

Well. Maybe.

Developmental purgatory

This was the highlight of Bethesda’s portion of E3. It was also all they had.

Note that release date (and laugh at it, because there’s NO FUCKING WAY that date is written in stone, not after Cyberpunk 2077). Starfield was first trademarked in 2013. It was formally announced at 2018’s E3, where Todd Howard said it had been in active development for “two and a half, three years”, but had been in pre-production for five. I know it’s hard to take anything Todd says at face value, but today, we gotta play with house money, so stick with me. By the time this, ahem, “2022 release date” rolls around, it will have been in development for eight years. That’s not unheard of – The Last Guardian says hello – but that is a lot of calendars they burned through.

And you can bet COVID played a role in adding at least one, maybe two.

Go back to E3. Remember how underwhelming it was? Not bad, but just … okay? Remember Ubisoft’s presser, and how it lacked anything from their big franchises? No new Assassin’s Creed (DLC doesn’t count), nothing on the Prince Of Persia remake, no new Tom Clancy’s something something Rainbow sniper SEAL recon zzzzzzzz, sorry, where was I. Even Skull & Bones, which was announced back in 2017, has now been pushed back to 2023. Sony’s God of War: Ragnarok got pushed back. Nintendo’s progress on the new Zelda game is such that they won’t even say the subtitle, let alone hint at a release window. Capcom’s shelves are so empty, they closed their presentation on e-sports. And, in part, it’s thanks to COVID.

I’m convinced this will happen before Metroid Prime 4 does.

Moving dev teams to home changed how game development happened, slowing an already glacial process into one slower than tectonic plate movement. The steady flow of major titles we – adults and kids alike – may no longer be a reality they can keep up with if the individuals involved stay at home. Even if devs bring everybody back to the office, 2020 was more or less a gap year, and you don’t gain back lost time. Release calendars are going to be wonky for a while.

There’s one more area we need to discuss. We need to discuss you and your kids and how your relationship with gaming changed over 2020, and what that means for 2021 and beyond. But we’re gonna do that in the next edition of the podcast! Yeah, that’s right, I’m tying the column to the podcast. If you haven’t checked it out yet, now you have no excuse.

And in closing …

Yeah, I ended the column without a caption joke. And on a cheap plug, too. I’m shameless.

Next time around, the Gamer Parent’s Diary returns. Next time out, I spend seven days, an hour a day, playing Call Of Duty. This will be the first FPS game I’ve played since Quake on the Sega Saturn.

Pray for me.