GDC's annual State of the Industry survey highlights the impact of COVID-19

GDC's Kris Graft talks about some of the more notable data from this year's survey.

Last week, the Game Developers Conference released the results of its ninth annual State of the Game Industry report. It’s a survey of more than 3,000 industry professionals that highlights current and future business trends, as well as some more general insight into what developers are working on. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 features prominently in this year’s report, with 44% of respondents stating that the pandemic caused them to delay a project.

The transition to working from home has been a major adjustment for many developers, with 32% of respondents saying that their creativity and productivity has taken a hit. For some, it’s the new closeness that exists between work and home life that’s to blame. Others said that they miss the collaborative nature of an in-person office, or being someplace specifically build to get the creative juices flowing. 

While some respondents said that their studios were already working remote, or that there has been no perceptible change in their creative output, the overall majority felt that the pandemic has hampered their work in one way or another.

For Kris Graft, content marketing lead at GDC, one of the more surprising bits of insight to come out of the report is the fact that the PlayStation 5 is the console that most developers are interested in developing for. According to the data, 44% of developers responded this way, putting the PS5 ahead of the Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X/S, and VR. While this number is less than the 58% garnered by the PC, it’s the highest among dedicated gaming consoles.

“I speculate that this partly is a reflection of how Sony has carefully cultivated the PlayStation brand as one of clout and prestige, and that's recognized by players and game developers,” Graft told GameDaily. “That's pretty much a guess on my part, and even though I play more Xbox these days, it's reflective of my own personal impressions.”

Regarding the high interest in the PC, Graft said that it’s the flexibility and ubiquity of the platform that appeals to developers. It’s an historically accessible platform with a host of distribution options, making it an easy choice. It’s a far cry from the “walled garden” of consoles.

“Anyone can make a game for PC and sell and distribute games in a number of ways,” Graft explained. “Because of the freedom afforded on PC, there's also a lot of room for experimentation, whether we're talking about trying out unproven genres and designs, or new business models. That's always going to be attractive for creators.”

Notably, interest in VR and AR development dropped from 46% to 38% this year. The decline comes despite some high-profile success like Half-Life: Alyx. Graft attributes this to the limiting factors of consumer VR adoption, namely price and hardware requirements. 

“The mid-2010s really were the gold rush years for VR and today the challenges of the VR market have naturally rooted out everyone aside from VR's true believers,” he said. “I'm positive on VR in the long-term as hardware will continue to shrink in terms of size and price, and new experiences are crafted. But right now, you better know what you're doing if you're going to build a business around it.”

It’s worth noting that GDC’s survey went out before Sony announced its new PSVR platform, and the responses reflect this. Graft said it will be interesting to see if the headset can renew developer interest in VR tech.

Another topic covered by the survey is discoverability. As the democratization of game development continues the market has become overcrowded, making it hard for developers to get their products in front of consumer eyes. To combat this problem, many respondents said that they made “small investments” across a wide range of marketing channels, including social media promotion.

The effectiveness of this strategy remains questionable as most respondents said it was word of mouth that was the most useful marketing tool. Only 18% said a promotional spot in a digital storefront was as effective as they would like, and 15% said the social media strategy was worthwhile.

Most developers get into the industry to create and publish games, not market them. This is an area that Graft, who also serves as editor-in-chief of Gamasutra, said can hinder even the most talented studios. 

“It's possible that this is simply a time and/or expertise issue,” Graft explained. “A small team may not have the time to make a great game and manage a community, for example. And as much as this is a hot topic today, a lot of game developers may not even know where to begin when it comes to marketing and discoverability. It's a really difficult problem, which is why it's an issue we'll be talking about for years to come.”

Once a game is complete, developers need to decide how to distribute it. There are a number of digital storefronts to consider, including Steam, Epic Games Store, Humble, GoG, Itch, and more. For respondents, Steam was by far the most popular answer, with 21% stating that they made 100% of their revenue there. Interestingly, only 3% said that they made all their money on the Epic Games Store, further calling the company’s approach to digital distribution into question.

Upon launch in 2018, the Epic Games Store made waves with its 88/12 revenue split. It’s far more favorable to developers than Steam’s 70/30 cut, but Graft expects Steam’s ubiquitousness to allow Vale to retain its dominant position for the foreseeable future.

“Only 3% of developers said they thought 70/30 was justified, and it seems they're agreeable with a 10-15% revenue share instead,” Graft explained. “I really do wonder if Valve is going to reduce its share, but I kind of doubt it. Steam has such a huge user base and has become a near-essential piece of the PC gaming ecosystem, Valve can pretty much hang onto 30% as long as it wants.”

Gender was also a topic of the survey, and while men still make up the majority of the workforce, this year saw an increase in those who identify as women in the industry (21%). Further, this year’s survey introduced a non-binary gender option, which 3% of respondants chose.

“I'm happy to see women slowly but surely gaining ground from year to year in terms of demographics, and I was glad this year we included a non-binary option which accounted for 3% of our responses,” Graft said. “More voices from different backgrounds will only make video games more interesting.”

These numbers speak to a greater focus on diversity in the games industry, but there is still a great deal of work to be done on that front. According to the survey, 21% of respondents said that their studios have made inclusion and diversity a top priority, while 26% said they hadn’t.

In all, this year’s State of the Game Industry survey offers a fascinating look into how developers view the business. It’s insight that you typically won’t see elsewhere, a snapshot of how the people who make the games we love navigate the industry. You can view and download the report for free here.

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Editor-in-Chief

Sam, the Editor-in-Chief of GameDaily.biz, is a former freelance game reporter. He's been seen at IGN, PCGamesN, PCGamer, Unwinnable, and many more. When not writing about games, he is most likely taking care of his two dogs or pretending to know a lot about artisan coffee. Get in touch with Sam by emailing him at  sdesatoff@rektglobal.com or follow him on Twitter.