“These are unprecedented times we live in”. It’s a phrase we’ve all heard many times during these last six months, some might say it’s overused. It’s obvious that the world pandemic, i.e. COVID-19, has affected everyone in some form or another. According to recent data from some big market research groups one area that has benefited from the pandemic is gaming, more specifically online gaming. With the guidance of Jack Emmert, MMO veteran and CEO of Dimensional Ink Games, the Austin-based studio behind the popular DC Universe Online (DCUO), we looked at some of these findings. In a “fireside chat” format we tried to decipher if this data presented were “obvious conclusions” or if there were deeper meanings. Additionally, we talked about the pandemic’s effect on the gaming industry as a whole and DC Universe Online specifically.
Time Spent Gaming Has Increased
According to some of the research groups, NPD Group being one, cited in July of 2020 that time spent playing video games has increased during the pandemic, with 94% devoting more time to games. The question is whether this is obvious as to “why”? Jack tells us:
“Well, I think it's somewhat obvious and that it's an activity that you can do at your home. But I think the obvious part is that it's interactive media. Although I'd imagine streaming movies is probably also increased. But in the case of games, it presents a unique opportunity for people to do something other than just passively sit and absorb. A game requires input. And even more so, games nowadays, are often multiplayer. So even though we aren't going outside, we aren't traveling, we aren't going out to eat, or at least we weren't, that video games provided a way for people to stay connected in a way that a lot of other media cannot do.”
Invested Gaming on The Rise
The same July 2020 report by NPD Group also mentioned that “moderate gamers”, those that play between five and fifteen hours a week, make up 32% of the gaming community. This is a 2% increase in that bracket from 2018. While the “heavy players”, those that play more than 15 hours per week, make up 29%. This bracket saw an uptick increase of 6% since 2018. So, these two groups alone make up 61% of the gamers. We asked Jack how he thought DC Universe Online caters to this largest group of players, those being the moderate and heavy players?
“Well, with the heavy players, obviously, we're an MMO. And if you want to be the highest end player that you can be, there's a lot you need to do. There are a lot of skill points you have to acquire, a lot of gear you have to acquire, the toughest of raids. And that provides the opportunity for hardcore players. And mid core is players like me where they have time to be able to play a video game, but no time to grind to get to the best of everything. And something that we've done in DCUO is that we make all of our latest content such that anyone can play our latest content update. It's level-less, not unlike Elder Scrolls Online, which means that if you're a moderate player, you're not stuck playing things that were developed, you know, 10 years ago, you're playing stuff that is brand new, hot off the presses with our new game mechanics, new systems, new rewards, right away. And that's a real advantage. I think DCUO has over other animals.”
Let us not forget the fact that there's another 39% that are “casual players”, or maybe even “new players”. Before the pandemic, the DCUO team was improving the “new player experience” almost like they foresaw some of this influx of new players. We asked Jack how do you cater to the people that just want to jump in for less than five hours a week?
“Well, in those particular cases, that's again, having content freely available so that you can sample whatever the latest stuff is. You can see what the storylines are. And you don't get into the grind of playing the raids multiple times, you play to experience the story and find out what's going on and that you can capture pretty quickly with a small investment of time.”
Has The Pandemic Changed Time Spent in Gaming Temporarily?
The NPD report also states that time spent gaming, during the pandemic, is up. The report states that 35% of gamers say their current play time during the pandemic is higher than their play time from earlier in the year. We asked Jack if he thought this was an artificial number that would go down after a cure / vaccine are found:
“What we might be looking at is a significant shift in content consumption. What I mean by that is, once people spend a year playing video games more than they ever have had, it's hard for me to imagine that suddenly we're going to transition back to the way it was even with a vaccine because people are now accustomed to entertainment in a different fashion. Looking at, say movies, do I think movie theaters are instantly going to be as big as they were? Well, they were already shrinking with the rise of streaming, this probably is only going to hasten that decline. Because I don't imagine people are suddenly going to say, “Yeah, I want to go to the movie theaters, just like I did two years ago”. I think that'll be a very slow process. And ultimately, I can't see recovery being at 100% what it was before.”
Friends and Family Gaming
The NPD Group report also said in May that video games are one of the primary ways friends and family are staying connected through a difficult time. We asked Jack for his thoughts on why that is:
“Well, video games, there's not much setup, it's really easy. It isn't like a game of Monopoly, which has a two or three hour requirement. It's something that, depending upon the game, everybody can participate in. How many Switch games exist, where it's just as much fun seeing people, you know, your kids play and just gesticulate, and you have to do wild and crazy things with the controllers. It's fun watching people play in addition to participating yourself. So, I think that's why it's just so easy to dive right into a video game as a family”
On Unexpected Technology Needs
It begs that question that the pandemic has led to some people trying online gaming for their first time. We asked Jack if Dimensional Ink is finding that there's people out there that just don't have the hardware or the bandwidth to play DCUO properly and they're hearing about:
“No, actually we aren't, I think internet speeds have really penetrated pretty deeply, at least in the United States, Canada, and most of Western Europe. So that those issues that might have been earlier in my career, might have been present then, I haven't really seen recently or lately.”
Gaming Industry To See Growth and Revenue Boost
Another research group report, this time from Orbis Research, on the Global Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) Games Market was released in September. They said that MMOs from game companies like Daybreak Games (and Dimensional Ink Games) are slated to boost industry growth and revenue in the next five years. We asked Jack how he envisioned Dimensional Ink will contribute to this:“Well, I think with DCUO, in particular, we are constantly reinvesting in the game. We have with every update, we improve our elements, we add brand new game systems. And we are going through an exercise of a number of initiatives to make large scale improvements in the game. So that DCUO, which is just about to celebrate its 10th anniversary, this January, is going to be around for another 10 years. And so we’re focusing into taking and investing into DCUO to make it bigger and better. There's no reason why we have to sit back and say, “Oh, it's just going to decline over the years”. No, this year is proven that. So, if we make the game better, more people will play it. It's really that simple. And so that's one element. And sure you know, it's no secret we're working on another game, which I can't talk about. But I think that will also contribute to the growth in the future.”
Of DCUO’s Rise In Monthly Active Users
Dimensional Ink mentioned that their monthly active users are at its highest since 2017. This year alone this the game has nearly 70% more new users in Q2 of 2020 compared to the same time last year. The first thing readers bring up is whether this number is “new accounts” or is this “sustained accounts”. Jack laughed and expounded up those numbers:
“Those are people that got in and played our game for a significant period of time.”
Jack went on to add, “A lot of people don't even finish the download. They never go back to it.” He reiterated, “We're counting users.”
With a game like DCUO available on several platforms we wondered if Jack’s team was seeing more players, e.g. new players, on Xbox overall versus PC versus the Nintendo Switch:
“You know, that's, that's really interesting. I would say that the consoles, you know, I couldn't break it up off the top of my head, I couldn't break it up by platform. I do know that the new users were mostly console based in terms of the huge flood of them. Because there were a ton of new players coming in this year. And then, of course, re-activated players across all the platforms. That also we had a huge amount.”
We wondered out of all the platforms where the biggest community was. We assumed it was PC since the game originated on PC. Jack stated that the PlayStation has the biggest community.
Pandemic Effect on Backend Support
We wondered what effect this pandemic had on infrastructure as more people were jumping on to play online. Did Jack’s team have to plan for increased back end needs to respond to this influx of players:
“We were pretty smart. Our Ops team at Daybreak is outstanding and pretty seamlessly took care of that. I think from our point of view of the game itself, the very first thing we did was, well, what are some events we can start putting together for people? Because our big thing was how can we entertain our players? Because we know they're going to be coming to us. Because, man, it's stressful as hell out there. So how can we do double XP events or double this or anything, play with a dev, anything to get people's minds off the issues at hand, just give them some level of escapism. That was a focus almost immediately. As soon as we transitioned to work from home, we began we began putting stuff together.”
How Are New Players Responding?
We wondered how the new players, and the influx of players in general responding to DCUO. Are they embracing the free to play model, especially the “buy the episode, you want to play” type model?
“Good. In DCUO the latest episode is always free. And it's available to all levels. So, people can always get in and play the latest content, right now it's “Wonderverse”. And very shortly in November, people can jump in and play a brand-new episode, “Legion Of Super-Heroes”.”
Jack went on to conclude,
“And I would say, the old fogies, like me, that most players now pretty much are very accepting to the free to play model, and even anticipated for many of their games. Because obviously, all of mobile is free to play. And more and more PC console games are free to play. So, it's becoming much like my kids, everything is free to play that they do. It doesn't even occur to them, they play Fortnite! The whole idea of buying a full price box good is not part of their vocabulary. They know it exists. They think of that is something that grownups do. And so, I think with DCUO there isn't much resistance, people just dive right in and they're fine with it.”
We also wondered if people are enjoying the game that little, to no background, with the DC Universe in general. Jack mentions:
“Yeah, we have people that have a passing acquaintance. It's hard not to know who Batman or Superman is. But obviously, we go into pretty excruciating depth in the DC lore. There are, I would say the vast majority of our players are probably not DC fanatics. They watched Arrow or The Flash on TV. They've seen the movies, maybe they read a couple of comics. But for many of them this in-depth experience that they're getting, it's really in DCUO where their experiencing it.”
Projected Gamer Spending In 2020
Image credit: Newzoo Analytic Group
Moving onto the Newzoo Analytic Group’s report where they're projecting that the world’s 2.7 billion gamers will spend $159.3 billion in 2020. This is a growth over 9.3% and will continue to grow in the following years exceeding $200 billion at the end of 2023, which of course is three years from now. We asked Jack how a game studio like Dimensional Ink moves forward trying to capitalize on this:
“Some of it is, I try not to think about the money as much as think about the game and the player. I think every game has to have a reason why people play it. And that reason has to be kind of unique. And that remaining true to whatever that is, is vital. Because that's the competitive edge. There is no place to experience the DC Universe like DCUO, there just isn't. So that's what makes us special, and we cannot lose sight of that. And if we do that well, players will come. And if players enjoy the game, they will spend money. So make a really good game and make it that a game that people can fall in love with and live with. And that's kind of the way that I look at it. But it all starts with the “What is this game offering that's unique?””
Pandemic Effect on Development
Lastly, we were curious to know how the pandemic affected the development team overall. Jack reports:
“Well, you know, at first everybody loves working at home. And then some communication issues started sparking up. Because obviously, people aren't sitting near each other anymore, they're at home. But then also, after that, you know, we're attacking those issues by trying to make more regular meetings, making sure people turn on their cameras. It's a small thing, but important thing. The isolation that people were feeling, the need for people to take some mental health days, understanding that everyone's a little more stressed. And it isn't because of the work, it's because of, hey, look, we're all stuck inside. It's COVID. And that continues now. And it's understanding that as a manager, and letting people know that, that we get it and working with it and trying to accommodate it.
And, but also understand, I view us as an important factor in helping everyone get through it. If all of our players are suffering too, and if we can give them those moments of peace by logging in and fighting against Aries in Wonderverse. Hey, you know that that to me is what can get me through some pretty dark days is really knowing what we bring to the table to so many people 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
On A Parting Note
As we wrapped up Jack had a few game related things to let people know about:
“We've got the Legion of Super-Heroes coming up. We have our 10th anniversary coming in January. And we are scheming lots of fun, new content, some interesting stuff we just did. And if you check your email, I'm sure you got it. We just sent out a free character level increase. Because we do have Legion coming up and we wanted people to roll an alt, it was kind of like a thank you to all the people that have come in, played it over the past year. And say, why don't you come on in, we have this awesome new content Legion, which people been asking for that for years and years and years, and we're finally delivering it. So, come on aboard level your character up, join in on the Legion. And then the 10th anniversary, which the plans are well underway, people are working hard at it, I think people are really going to be excited. It's going to kick off a story throughout the year in a way that we've never done before.”
And regarding any talks on trying to get the, for example, Nintendo Switch to be cross play with some of the other platforms. Jack feels our pain:
“I beg and plead with every single platform person; I would love to have cross play with everything. And I can tell, I can't talk about specifics, I can tell you that we are committed to working towards that.”