There’s never been a greater need for the cozy life simulation game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. For years, gamers and nongamers alike have anticipated being holed up with a warm mug of tea, a blanket, and their Animal Crossing: New Horizons vacation. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic only adds to that escapist enthusiasm.
For her two small game stores, Kelsey Lewin, the co-owner of Pink Gorilla Games in Seattle, ordered 350 copies. Retailers say it’s among the most preordered games they’ve stocked in years. Despite a widespread outbreak of Covid-19 in and around her city, and government pleas to limit human contact, Lewin is relying on customers to come by and pick up their Animal Crossing: New Horizons box.
“Even if the store is closed, I will personally be here and let people in one at a time. I’ll have gloves on,” says Lewin. “A lot of people are riding on Animal Crossing, and we are too.”
Digital marketplaces for PCs, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One have subsumed a videogame retail business previously dominated by brick and mortar shops. There aren’t a lot of practical reasons to buy a game IRL anymore, and the numbers prove it: Game retailer GameStop’s annual revenue has dropped by $1 billion since 2015, as the chain closed hundreds of stores over the last couple of years.
But there’s a special nostalgia and sense of community tied to driving over to a local game shop and purchasing an artful, shiny box containing the title you’ve been waiting months or years to play. Lewin’s store is fun to be in, an eye-catching hot pink, walls stacked high with irresistible plushies and vintage games. And there’s a social aspect: GameStop still hosts midnight release events, where excited fans meet and line up together in anticipation of a launch.
Or it did, until Covid-19, which has transformed one of the most anticipated launch weeks of the year into a mess and a half. On Tuesday, GameStop announced it would cancel its Animal Crossing release event, and the release event for Doom Eternal, initially slated to release on the same day, “to maintain the health and safety of our guests and associates.” In recent days, GameStop employees around the country have spoken out about their fears around working shifts as Covid-19 spreads. One GameStop supervisor told Kotaku that although GameStop corporate had promised to take precautions like providing hand sanitizer, “the stores in my area have received nothing.” Another employee told Kotaku they feared losing their job because staying home without a doctor’s note could count as an unexcused absence.
In some towns and cities, all “nonessential” businesses have been urged or ordered to close. On Thursday, GameStop sent out a memo to employees contending that it counts as “essential retail,” an effort to keep its stores open, according to Kotaku. If police come by, the memo says, employees should refer them to GameStop headquarters. A GameStop representative told WIRED that, "While there are many businesses and organizations far more critical than ours, we believe we can have a positive impact during this very challenging time. The health and safety of our employees and customers is of utmost importance and we have and will continue to take extensive precautions consistent with CDC guidelines. We are complying with all state, county, city and local ordinances and we will continue to adjust to any future developments."
On Saturday, GameStop's CEO sent a letter to all store associates announcing that all stores would be closed on Sunday, Kotaku reports. Those still conducting business would offer "delivery at door" service.
Independent stores are sketching out their own rules while following local and state health mandates closely. “Governor Tom Wolf’s business ban isn’t—strictly—enforced,” says Spenser Brossman, who runs Complete In Box Video Games in Pennsylvania, where Wolf "urged" closures. “Police won’t come and shut you down if you remain open.” (By Thursday afternoon, the Pennsylvania governor had announced on Twitter that "all non-life-sustaining businesses" needed to close by 8 pm, and that "enforcement actions against businesses that don’t close" would begin on Saturday.)
Brossman was planning for a “huge” weekend, and says he’s had more preorders for Animal Crossing: New Horizons than for any game in the last two or three years. That enthusiasm is still alive even under the broad mandate to “socially distance”; customers walk up every day, knock, and ask if he has the game they’re looking for. He’s letting people call ahead and pick up at the door or arrange a home delivery anywhere within a 15-mile radius. “We felt that although doing business this way for two weeks will be very difficult (especially with Animal Crossing and Doom), that it was for the best.” (Doom Eternal will be on sale in stores today, a day ahead of schedule, to keep crowds more manageable.) Brossman noticed that, despite his own adjustments, local GameStops were at that time still conducting business as usual.
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has asked all nonessential businesses to send half their employees home. Dan Mastin, who manages Videogamesnewyork, is going to work every day. When he returns home, he has a small quarantine room where he removes his shoes and jacket. He washes his arms and hands before reuniting with his family. Business has been booming, he says; everyone needs games right now as they prepare for indefinite time stapled to their couches. While juggling demand, Mastin says he’s practicing careful hygiene and keeping in touch with his suppliers who, as time goes on, might crack under the pressure.
USPS says they’ve only experienced "minor operational impacts,” but Amazon has suspended all “nonessential” shipments to warehouses. On Wednesday, Square Enix warned Final Fantasy 7 Remake fans that they might not receive the hugely anticipated role-playing game on its April 10 release day because of “extraordinary circumstances” surrounding Covid-19. And while CD Projekt Red has said that Cyberpunk 2077 is still scheduled for an on-time delivery, it’s possible that this weekend’s releases may be some of the last to go off as originally planned.
Supply chains will be tested in the coming weeks and months, yet game distributors interviewed by WIRED said they’ve already received their shipments of Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Doom Eternal and are sending them out to stores. Only one game distributor WIRED talked to said it was closed, which could lead to delays.
“To our knowledge most of the distributors keep their business as usual. The warehouse staff is provided with masks, gloves, and disinfecting liquids,” says Alex Schmidt, head of Wholesale Video Game Marketplace, an information platform for game distributors and wholesalers. Schmidt adds that warehouse workers aren’t super close to each other anyway, and can “more or less protect themselves from the virus spread.”
Distributors are disinfecting packages containing Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Doom Eternal as thoroughly as they can when they enter and exit the premises. They can only account for their own vigilance, though. The warehouse staff has to often trust that the incoming products are packed by staff like themselves in the sending company, who took the necessary precautions.
Mario Rocchi, the president of Nintendo distributor Vast Inc., is still at work in his Pennsylvania warehouse along with his five-person staff. His business falls under the category of “distributor,” so he’s allowed to stay open. It’s a big warehouse and mostly automated, so his staff has kept a safe distance from each other as workers processed Animal Crossing: New Horizons orders, which all left Wednesday. “If there’s any risk of us being in jeopardy, I’ll shut this thing down in two seconds,” he says.
After years of hand-wringing over whether brick and mortar game stores are endangered, customers’ and employees’ resilience in the face of a mass pandemic says something about the appeal of these nostalgic businesses—indie and publicly traded alike. It could be that customer service and reliability are great for maintaining a clientele. Or it could be that big corporations, who don’t give a choice to their employees, are prioritizing finances over public health.
Updated 3-20-20, 9 am EST: This story has been updated with comment from GameStop.
Updated 3-31-20, 7:45 pm EST: This story has been updated with news of GameStop's Saturday announcement.