Today's news that Japanese video game rating organisation CERO--that's the 'Computer Entertainment Rating Organization'--is closing temporarily in response the COVID-19 pandemic will likely have far longer lasting repercussions on the video games industry than recent cancellation of annual events such as E3 and GDC.
Japan's response to the coronavirus outbreak has been curiously low-key in comparison to other countries (retail stores have been open and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo were still going ahead as planned until their postponement towards the end of March), but the declaration of a state of emergency in Tokyo and other regions means businesses are to close for a month, starting Wednesday 8th April.
if you're not Nintendo or Sony or Bethesda, a month's delay could be the difference between survival or going under
While the closure likely won't affect video games releasing in the immediate weeks (those titles will have already been reviewed and rated by CERO), the closure, which is currently set to last until the 6th May, will certainly change the shape of the summer release schedule in potentially significant ways.
At the very least, gamers should expect delays across the board for anything targeting a June or July launch. Any submission not already rated by CERO will be suspended and effectively held in limbo for a month; games that companies were preparing to submit and planning to release over the summer months will consequently get pushed back, too. And while the shutdown is scheduled for one month, there's no guarantee it won't be extended. For gamers that means the summer may well be a lot quieter than usual, as publishers both large and small join the queue to get their game rated and released in Japan.
Of course, the big games companies will be able to ride this closure out without too much bother. Inconvenient as it is, Sony probably isn't too worried about having to delay the release of Naughty Dog's The Last of Us: Part II, for example - it's a big game with an audience that will wait (heck, already have waited) a long time for.
You've got to feel for the smaller outfits and individuals, though: firms with slim margins surviving on a per-release basis; developers who have sunk everything into making a game set to release Summer 2020; publishers relying on a cash injection in order to fund the next project. There's money invested in so many places and if you're not Nintendo or Sony or Bethesda, a month's delay could be the difference between survival or going under.
[working from home] is often not simply a case of grabbing an office laptop, making sure the Wi-Fi's working and jumping on Slack
Developers around the world are doing their best to work from home, but many companies (Japanese ones especially) aren't prepared and don't have an infrastructure set up for remote working. It's often not simply a case of grabbing an office laptop, making sure the Wi-Fi's working and jumping on Slack. Games development on a large scale requires specialised hardware and equipment, secure data storage and much more besides. Best case scenario, development work will be completed more slowly as unusual obstacles not present in an office environment limit output. It's a tough situation for everyone, and we haven't even started on the psychological and physiological effects of not being able to leave the house for weeks on end. Delays, then, are inevitable, but the closure of CERO is yet another reminder to every gamer to be prepared for several lean months.
So what does this mean specifically for Nintendo? Well, the company has few announced titles on the slate for 2020, meaning the general public can't be too disappointed for unknown projects missing their dates (one of the pluses, from a PR perspective, of Nintendo playing its cards close to its chest).
Conversely, it means planned announcements will be delayed, too. Following the ‘Direct drought’ at the start of the year, Nintendo fans are hungry for new game news--as we've seen from the rumoured 3D Mario 'All-Stars 2' package--and right now the Nintendo-published Switch roapmap for 2020 is populated by Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics and a whole lot of tumbleweed. We expected this to change with a flurry of megaton announcements, but that seems unlikely given the current situation.
Nintendo also had the opening of the Super Nintendo World theme park planned to coincide with the tourism influx brought by the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. It seems increasingly unlikely that the latter won't be postponed and, given the restrictions in place and the precarious economic situation of potential visitors to the new park, a delay to the park's opening feels inevitable even if its doors are technically ready to open on schedule.
Nintendo is arguably more insulated than most firms from these effects
With little news regarding the company's upcoming output, some gamers may have been pinning their hopes on a Holiday 2020 announcement for Breath of the Wild 2, although the chances of that were slim to begin with; they are now presumably non-existent. By all accounts we'll be lucky if we see Metroid Prime 4 by Holiday 2021, and any unannounced titles will now be subject to delay. Throw in production issues and console shortages and things could certainly be rosier in Kyoto.
However, Nintendo has an ace up its sleeve right now in the form of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the game which keeps on giving. The company fortuitously cast this lifeline at just the right time and its popularity has ballooned to incredible proportions, breaking beyond the confines of the gaming community into the mainstream. In the three weeks since launch Nintendo's most evergreen of titles has spread contagiously across social media rampantly - our feeds are filled with little other than COVID-19, custom designs and critters caught.
Where other games have an end point or a campaign that concludes, Animal Crossing changes over the course of a year, with new events, new creatures to catch, new features to unlock, new things to discover. Nintendo lucked out with this game's launch timing, and assuming the emergency situation doesn't prevent the company putting out event updates over the coming months, New Horizons is the best possible game to take both Nintendo and its fans through these trying times. Kinda tough luck if you don't like Animal Crossing, though.
For anybody with a huge backlog of unplayed games, there is a silver lining to this lockdown, but the economic realities are sobering and we're not through the worst of it yet. Nintendo is arguably more insulated than most firms from these effects (Microsoft and Sony are committed to new console launches that look increasingly unlikely to hit their 2020 date), but the continued effects of COVID-19 will be felt across the industry for months, possibly years to come.
We hope you're all keeping safe and making the best of the situation with the finest video games available to humanity. Let us know below your thoughts on how the games industry will be affected in the coming months and beyond.