Gaming in the time of the pandemic - Try Evidence
  • Home / Blog / Gaming in the time of the pandemic
You can read this article in 7 minutes

Gaming in the time of the pandemic

Among the thousands of games offered on Steam, there are at least a dozen titles about various viral outbreaks, pandemic, bioterrorism and other bio-threats. Are such games enjoying a surge in popularity today? Is there a specific type of games that’s exceptionally appealing to players stuck at their homes during the epidemic? We decided to find out.

Here’s what we did.

We made two hypotheses. Firstly, we assumed that last month’s outbreak of coronavirus and the looming prospect of living amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe would influence the interest in games on the subject.

However, we were not certain what impact it would be. On the one hand, we assumed that the sales of pandemic-themed (and similar) games may increase due to players’ willingness to familiarize with the subject or simulate the bleak future and prepare for the possible outcomes. On the other hand, we considered the reverse as equally possible, i.e. people not wanting to explore a subject that’s too real or disturbing. Perhaps when enjoying their free time in the privacy of their homes, they would rather seek to escape the dire reality?

Tom Clancy’s: The Division
Tom Clancy’s: The Division © Ubisoft Entertainment

Ultimately, we went with a two-tailed, non-directional hypothesis: the sales of pandemic-themed games since the outbreak of mass interest in coronavirus (see chart below), in our opinion, were significantly different from sales in the corresponding period of 2019.

The popularity of the term coronavirus over time. Week 3 = January 13 - 19. Source: Google Trends
The popularity of the term coronavirus over time. Week 3 = January 13 – 19. Source: Google Trends.

Secondly, we assumed that in the face of increasing social isolation, either compulsory or voluntary, the popularity of “community-based” games, especially multiplayer games, would increase. We assumed that the human tendency to live in groups, i.e. the evolutionarily conditioned need to be among others and seek a sense of security in contacts with peers, would be reflected in the purchasing behavior of players in the difficult periods of partial (or total) social isolation. In short, we assumed that players would be seeking to substitute traditional social interaction with virtual, in-game interactions with other people.

Secondly, we assumed that in the face of increasing social isolation, either compulsory or voluntary, the popularity of “community-based” games, especially multiplayer games, would increase. We assumed that the human tendency to live in groups, i.e. the evolutionarily conditioned need to be among others and seek a sense of security in contacts with peers, would be reflected in the purchasing behavior of players in the difficult periods of partial (or total) social isolation. In short, we assumed that players would be seeking to substitute traditional social interaction with virtual, in-game interactions with other people.

Where did the data come from?

We used freely available data provided by Steam Spy – a video game sales tracking tool offered as part of the largest digital PC game distribution platform. With over 60 million players from around the world active every month (33 million players a day), Steam sales revenue exceeds four billion dollars a year. The platform is the leading source of revenue for PC game publishers, and there is no viable distribution alternative today other than direct sales via developers’ own websites. The data provided by the Steam “spying” service – although flawed, as the engine uses complex statistical models rather than literal sales data – can still provide a reliable overview of the PC gaming market.

Which games were considered?

From dozens of video games various bio-threats, we picked seven that were launched over the past decade. If players were to look for games on a particular topic (and not just the latest or recently promoted), they would likely choose games that were rated well. That is why we only included games which received an average of at least 75% on the Metarcitic.com review aggregator. We basically decided to focus on decent-to-excellent titles, and picked (alphabetically):

  • A Plague Tale: Innocence
  • Pandemic: The Board Game
  • Plague Inc: Evolved
  • Resident Evil 2 / Biohazard RE: 2
  • Sunset Overdrive
  • Tom Clancy’s The Division
  • Unforeseen Incidents

While there were a few more titles related to the topic of interest, not all of them are available on Steam.

What games did we use for reference?

First, we compared the sales growth of all the games available on Steam with the sales of bio-threat games. Secondly, we focused on categories most unrelated to epidemic topics, i.e.

  • sports games (sports),
  • racing games (racing)
  • sailing (sailing),
  • fighting games (fighting)
  • strategy games (strategy)
  • team-based (this category was used to verify the second hypothesis about the tendency of people to balance social isolation with increased virtual interaction).
Plague Inc: Evolved © Ndemic Creations
Plague Inc: Evolved © Ndemic Creations

In total, our analyses covered several thousand games of varying quality, different levels of base sales and launch dates. The comparison included both indie and AAA games from the most renowned developers and publishers.

Does coronavirus help to sell bio-threat games?

Definitely not. It turns out that epidemic-themed games in the period from February 1 to March 13, 2020 sold 30% worse than in the corresponding period in 2019, when players did not even conceive of the Wuhan epidemic. Sales growth in the “times of the epidemic” was 6 percentage points lower than in the same period last year. At the beginning of 2020, there were on average around 30,000 fewer game sales per an epidemic-themed game than in 2019.

Average sales of games per title between February 1 - March 13 2019 and 2020. Source: Try Evidence's own study based on Steam Spy data.
Average sales of games per title between February 1 – March 13 2019 and 2020. Source: Try Evidence’s own study based on Steam Spy data.

Of course, there were titles that have recently done really well – Sunset Overdrive and Plague Inc. Evolved, but generally the period from February to March 2020 was not a good time for games on this subject.

Meanwhile, the average monthly sales of all games in February-March 2020 increased by 30% compared to the same period of 2019. The average sales growth for all titles was by 13 pp higher than a year ago.

Average monthly sales in game categories in february-march 2019 vs. 2020.
Average monthly sales in game categories in february-march 2019 vs. 2020.

Growth was recorded for all the analyzed thematic categories (even for niche nautical games) but not for bio-threat games. Importantly, the analysis only included highly-rated bio-threat titles. Had the other genres only included games with an average rating above 75%, the gap between the viral-themed games and the games would have probably been much larger.

Does coronavirus help to sell a a substitute of social life?

It does, if Steam Spy’s algorithms are accurate. Team-based games such as Peekaboo, H-Hour: World’s Elite or Blacklist Brigade recorded sales growth of several hundred percent in February and March 2020. A less impressive growth was observed for the leading multiplayer team-based games: Left 4 Dead, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege and Payday.

Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Siege
Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege © Ubisoft

A less impressive growth was observed for the leading multiplayer team-based games: Left 4 Dead, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege and Payday.

Average sales on Steam of games in particular categories comparing February 1 - March 13 2019 and 2020
Average sales on Steam of games in particular categories comparing February 1 – March 13 2019 and 2020

The average sales growth for this type of games increased compared to the same period of 2019 by 8 pp. On average, each game in the team-based category sold almost 90,000 units more than a year ago.

*

It seems that players are tired of coronavirus, epidemic, quarantine, state of emergency, etc. In the privacy of their homes, they not only want to rest physically, but also escape the dark, apocalyptic images and visions projected by the media.

The black death, which ravaged Europe in the 14th century (and, like SARS-CoV-2, was also brought to Europe from Asia), people sat at their homes and told each other raunchy and moralizing stories, vividly told in Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Our analyses clearly show that various team-based, sports and fighting games provide the best escape from the “plague”. What all these game categories share is a feeling of being with other people. Team games fulfill the need for contact and social belonging literally, while most sports and fighting games allow people to play online (or locally) and have fun together, at least in pairs. We don’t seem to want to reinforce our fears; we need social support and a sense of connection with other people.