How the weird year of 2020 has gamers craving social interaction

Hey everyone.

How is quarantine treating you?

2020 has been a rough year for all of us (I for one have channeled my cabin fever into the creation of giant pillow forts) and the gaming industry is no exception. If you noticed that releases were slowing down and games were being delayed at a higher rate than usual, you aren’t crazy. Many projects were massively derailed when development had to switch to primarily work from home.

And that happened just when demand for new games spiked. With all of us stuck at home, of course, we would be spending more time on our PCs and consoles. Sales, in general, went up even as new product releases went down.

We were also in the “lame duck” period of game releases, the end of one generation going into another. Major projects tend to be delayed around this time anyway because most of them want to take advantage of next-gen technology, but next-gen consoles won’t have established a solid market base yet.

Even as AAA titles have slowed down, indie titles have sped up. With indie developers stuck at home, they have more time to work on their projects, and a number of great indie titles have come out this year.

Yet, we still are looking into backlogs for hidden gems that we may have missed in years past, back when everything felt more normal.

Then there are changing programming standards, the release of new more powerful tech, the more mainstream adoption of 4k graphics and ray tracing. Everything has been shaken up a little bit.

All of this is to say, gaming is changing. Gaming is changing because we are changing and we are changing because this weird year is changing what we look for in a gaming experience.

Now I know a lot of you may be skeptical, so let’s look at an example. Among Us is currently one of the most-watched games on Twitch, competing with League of Legends for the top spot. It has catapulted lesser-known Twitch streamers to stardom. It has brought in celebrities and politicians to play with the regular run of YouTubers and streamers. It is a force to be reckoned with.

And it came out in 2018.

So why now?

Well, there’s a timeline. Among Us didn’t come out this year, but you know what did? The Henry Stickmin Collection. Henry Stickmin starred in a number of flash “choose your own adventure” games that made the rounds on Newgrounds way back in the day, and many online personalities had a tradition of playing each new one as it came out. The collection was the first major game in the series that people were asked to pay for, and it came out because flash is going the way of the dinosaur.

It just so happens that Innersloth made both Among Us and The Henry Stickmin Collection, which means Henry Stickmin’s release brought with it a bunch of advertisements for Innersloth’s past games, and bundle deals allowing consumers to pick them up cheap. Thus, a lot of these online personalities that were playing the new Henry Stickmin ended up with Among Us in their libraries.

Among Us was designed to be played on computers and tablets at parties with everyone sitting in a circle and pointing fingers at each other… and that just wasn’t super fun. But these personalities picked up Among Us and played it through voice chat and that extra level of anonymity made it a fantastic experience. Not only that, but it was an experience specifically centered on interacting with your friends in a social context, something that many of us are starved of right now. And since every Among Us game needs 10 people to play, it caused all of these online personalities to crossover with other online personalities, until you see things like, JackSepticEye playing with Disguised Toast, formerly of Hearthstone fame, playing with Jay from Jay and Silent Bob, and yes that’s something that actually happened.

But this isn’t about Among Us. This is about how the gaming landscape is changing because of the weird situation we are in, and Among Us is just one symptom. Let’s pull out a bit and look at a broader view.

These are the sales from the last week of October on Steam via SteamDB. Let’s take a look at some of the trends.

First of all, there are only two AAA releases on the list, The Outer Worlds which came out this year, and Grand Theft Auto V which came out five years ago. There’s a pre-order on there, Cyberpunk 2077 which is one of the most anticipated games of the year and is slated to come out next month, and what you might call one of the only AAA Early Access titles in Baldur’s Gate 3 which fell quite a few spots from last week.

Now let’s look at the other titles. At the top we have Phasmophobia, a brand new co-op early access ghost hunting title is number one and has held that space from the week before. Sure, it’s a horror game and that fits the Halloween atmosphere, but it’s also primarily a social experience that uses proximity chat as its primary mechanic.

Among Us comes in at number three, strong as ever, and Fall Guys which rose to popularity around the same time as Among Us is on there too, both indie titles with multiplayer as a focus. Hades is next, another indie title that came out this year but had been in Early Access for years, followed by Amnesia: Rebirth the sequel to, yet another, indie breakout horror hit with ties to online personalities and streamers. Who here remembers Markiplier’s infamous Tiny Box Tim?

SteamSpy goes a step further and tracks trending games per day, and once again we see games like Amnesia and Among Us make the list, but we also see games like In Silence another proximity mic based horror game with co-operation elements, and The Jackbox Party Pack 7, a series of party games specifically meant to be played across streaming platforms.

So what does this all mean?

Well, there has always been a certain degree of success tied to the popularity of a game on Twitch and YouTube that translates over to sales and playtime. However, it was common for major streamers to chase popular games and with game releases slowing up we are seeing a period of experimentation. Due to our current circumstances, a lot of this experimentation is being focused on multiplayer games, more so than usual. This isn’t just because streamers are craving social interaction, but their audiences are craving social interaction too, and thus content featuring social interaction is doing better than usual.

With the vacuum created by a slowdown in AAA releases, streamers have had more liberty to try new and experimental indie games, which has created this social-based multiplayer trend. The question now is, will this trend be picked up on by AAA developers.

Because that has always been the pattern. Spikes in trends like this made AAA developers latch on to the battle royale shooter, the auto-battler, heck if you go back far enough you can even blame this pattern for the very creation of the MOBA. Maybe that means that AAA developers will start looking into social experiences. Maybe more games will come out that make use of proximity mic. Maybe more games will make use of social elements, of actually talking to each other, as a central game mechanic rather than an afterthought. Maybe more games will be designed to have 4, 6, or even 10 people working together.

Or maybe we will see a trend toward the asymmetrical. Among Us and In Silence are both asymmetrical. The Jackbox Party Pack 7 has asymmetrical games. That could be the next big trend.

Regardless, major shifts in popularity like this don’t go unnoticed. Someone somewhere is going to see the success of games like Among Us and Phasmophobia and take notice, and in a few months, we are all going to be screaming through our mics on Twitch to the tune of a new AAA adaptation of these gameplay styles.

Or at least… we would be… if AAA development hasn’t slowed down due to the very pandemic that gave these games a chance to succeed. Maybe that just means that our trends will be set by the indiesphere for a bit. That’s not such a bad thing. There are a lot of great indie games out there, and anyone who wasn’t able to snatch up the limited stock of next-gen consoles will likely be playing them throughout November.

What do you think? Has the gaming landscape changed in recent times? Sound off in the comments.