Defending Bobby Kotick – A Contrarian Take on Modern Warfare 2 and InfinityGate

10 03 2010

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Bobby Kotick is an asshole.

There. I said it and I’ll stipulate to it so you can understand where I’m coming from.

I’ve never met Mr. Kotick personally, and I understand from people who have that he’s actually quite nice and genial when you meet him face-to-face. That being said, Kotick, who’s been the head of the Activision/Blizzard behemoth for many years, certainly doesn’t do much to burnish his public image as being anything other than an asshole. This is, after all, the man who famously wanted to “take all the fun out of making videogames” and create a studio culture based on “skepticism, pessimism and fear.” Kotick by all accounts is a numbers guy who jettisoned the Vivendi portion of Vivendi/Blizzard during Activision’s takeover of the company precisely because he felt that any assets from there weren’t exploitable on year-over-year basis.

The thing is, Bobby Kotick did not kill Infinity Ward, nor did he kill the Call of Duty franchise (and make no mistake, Call of Duty is dead – it’ll just take a few years for the corpse to stop twitching). As events have unfolded in what’s being dubbed “InfinityGate,” it seems to me that Call of Duty was creatively dead the instant that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was released and contrary to popular opinion, it’s Jason West and Vince Zampanella who killed it. Ironically, they did it not out of malice, but out of the same high-minded creative impulses that caused them to create it in the first place. It’s the latest chapter in age-old story of the perpetual friction between the creatives and the suits. At its best, it can create amazing pieces of commercial art that go on to gross billions of dollars for companies and make a lot of people rich. At its worst, it can completely destroy companies and utterly annihilate a successful and enjoyable brand. Often, as in the case of Call of Duty, it does both.

Reading the 16-page lawsuit that was recently filed by Mr. West and Mr. Zampanella reveals some interesting factoids about the root of the issue. Page 7, paragraph 23 of the complaint is the key:

“West and Zampanella were not as eager as Activision to jump into the development of Modern Warfare 2.”

“…Activision forced infinity Ward’s employees to continue producing the games at a break neck pace under aggressive schedules, and West and Zampanella were concerned that Activision was emphasizing quantity over quality. Given Activision’s insistence that Infinity Ward continue to focus on sequels to Call of Duty games instead of new intellectual property, West and Zampanella were also concerned that Activision’s demands risked “burning out” the Infinity Ward employee’s creativity.”

You don’t really need to read between the lines to figure out what’s going on here – West and Zampanella were bored. That’s not really a surprise. West and Zampanella are creative types. What turns them on is the challenge of the new, the untested, the untried. They’re happiest when they’re branching out into areas where they can hit fast and blaze a trail. Bobby Kotick, on the other hand, is a numbers guy. He’s all about market share, ROI and delivering predictable earnings to shareholders in order to get the stock price up. Video games are just a means to that end. People like West and Zampanella start companies to indulge their creative instincts and people like West and Zampanella usually move on when people like Kotick show up. Activision actually had to back up a dump truck full of money and sign a Memorandum of Understanding promising the two complete creative freedom to get them to make Modern Warfare 2.

Was Infinity Ward naïve when they signed on with Activision in the belief that they would be allowed to truly keep their creative autonomy? Perhaps. It’s always possible that they thought they could become the next Blizzard, a developer that has essentially turned the tables on the traditional developer/publisher relationship. The thing is, the existence of Blizzard already makes the development of another developer with that kind of clout extremely unlikely. Publishers hate Blizzard for exactly the same reason that gamers love them – their independence. For somebody like Bobby Kotick, Blizzard is a perpetual nagging headache that he can’t get rid of without cutting off his own head.

A recent SEC filing indicated that 68% of the net 2009 revenue for Activision came from just three titles – Call of Duty, Guitar Hero and World of Warcraft. Looking at total revenue for Blizzard, an astonishing 98% of their revenue comes from WoW. For all the money that Blizzard shovels into Activision’s coffers every year, their prosperity rests on a single title. Should WoW suddenly start shedding players or one of their new games not perform to expectations, it’ll be a disaster not just for Blizzard but for Activision as a whole. Worse from Kotick’s point of view, Blizzard’s position vis a vis Activision means that there’s not a lot of pressure that they can bring to bear on Blizzard as long as WoW continues to be the goose that lays the golden eggs. That means that something that Blizzard by itself could survive, a serious delay in the launch of StarCraft II or Diablo III, for example could spell disaster for a company and an executive cadre that live and die by quarterly earnings reports.

Executives like Kotick hate unpredictability for exactly that reason and Blizzard’s essential autonomy makes them extremely unpredictable. The reason that Treyarch was tapped to bring out an off-year version of Call of Duty was precisely so that the company could shore up its revenue stream if some of its high profile titles slipped with as close to a guaranteed winner as you can get in this industry. Bobby Kotick can say to Treyarch or any of the other studios in his new Call of Duty division something he can never say to Blizzard, “Shave three months off the dev cycle. I need this by September.” Will he dilute the brand? Sure, but that’s a problem for tomorrow. Right now there’s a conference call with some very unhappy Wall Street types and a Board of Directors that he needs to deal with.

The billions of dollars that Modern Warfare 2 brought to Activision was nice, but once the game was out, the question for Kotick becomes “What have you done for me lately?” In Kotick’s world, he cannot and will not allow the health of Activision to be held hostage to the creative whims of West and Zampanella. It’s not about the $36 million dollars he might have to pay the two of them – that’s chump change to Activision. It’s about the Memorandum of Understanding the pair cited in their legal complaint. Assuming their complaint is accurate, the pair have a veto on any Call of Duty or modern Warfare game set in the post-Vietnam era or the near or distant future. Assuming – as is currently speculated – that West and Zampanella were talking to another company about jumping ship, Activision seized its chance to rid itself of two people that were, in fact, threatening to become another Blizzard.

The reason this post is called “Defending Bobby Kotick” isn’t because I think Kotick is a nice guy, but rather that he’s just an ordinary guy acting the way an executive in a public company is expected to act when it comes to defending market share and securing a corporate asset that legally belongs to Activision. Nor are West and Zampanella particularly heroic for fighting for what’s important to them – creative freedom for themselves and their team. In both cases, they’re doing it because they perceive that as a way to secure and enhance their careers and ensure the future prosperity of the business they’re a part of. If there was malfeasance on Kotick or Activision’s part, that’s what the civil legal system is there for and West and Zampanella are perfectly correct to avail themselves of it, but lets not elevate what is essentially a daily struggle between “creatives” and “suits” into a massively overblown David vs. Goliath story merely because it’s happening in public.

Whether Activision’s actions are ultimately good business in the long term is a whole different kettle of fish.

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Sanitarium and the ObamaCare Debate

11 11 2009

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OK. That headline is really just Google fodder looking for Obamacare search traffic, although reading the announcement about the release of Sanitarium at GOG.com did make me think about our current health care debate in a weird way. If you’ve never heard of Sanitarium, that’s a damn shame. It’s one of the most underrated and tragically ignored games of the 1990’s. It was put together by the Dreamforge Intertainment and published by ASC Games, the outfit that was working on an action game version of White Wolf’s Werewolf: the Apocalypse that showed a lot of promise and still stands up as one of their finest titles. (Spoiler warnings ahead!)

The basic storyline is as cliched as they come. You’re a man who awakens as a patient in a horrible sanitarium, your face covered by bandages and you have no idea who you are or how you got there. The staff tells you you’ve survived a car crash suffered during an escape attempt and that your memory will return once you recover your sanity. What follows though, is a truly surreal journey into insanity as you as the player keep shifting in and out of bizarre worlds and the very shape of reality changes while you struggle to recover your memory. As you play, you as the player will find yourself in a 1950’s small town being absorbed by an alien invasion, an Aztec village being threatened by a hostile god, a strange house being haunted by ghosts and a hive of intelligent bees on an alien planet. Even your identity keeps shifting as you change at intervals from a scarred man to a ten year-old girl to a four-armed alien warrior to a living statue.

What makes Sanitarium amazing and still timely though is what all of these different worlds have in common. As you play, a thread between these different worlds begins to emerge, all of them relating to your shrouded past and to why you’re in that Sanitarium. There’s also some interesting commentary on the nature of pharmaceutical companies in a for-profit health care system and the realization that the true horror you face isn’t supernatural at all — it’s the very human emotion of greed and what some people will do to protect a profit margin. It posits a drug company that will murder a researcher who develops a cure for a deadly plague because it threatens to cut into the profits generated by the stopgap drug that merely allows you to live with the disease.

sanitarium

Here’s the thing, though, the commentary in Sanitarium misses out on a very important point in the for-profit world of medicine — or the for-profit world of anything. Yes, there are unscrupulous people who will do anything to protect an individual company, but I’ve discussed health care with too many people who seem to believe that it’s the profit motive itself that’s the problem, rather than the illegal or criminal actions of an individual to protect a particular set of profits. Put simply, profits are the engine of progress. Even if we could magically create a socialized medical system that actually worked, it would bring medical research to a grinding halt. When doctors and researchers make the same money as McDonald’s fry cooks, you get the same quality of doctors as McDonald’s gets workers. Remove the chance to profit, remove enlightened self-interest from the equation and you put the kibosh on the chance for cures to AIDS, cancer or anything else that currently plagues us. Ultimately, you get what you pay for.

To be fair, not even Sanitarium makes the argument that Big Pharma and insurance companies are in a giant conspiracy to suppress the cures for diseases in the pursuit of profit. That game is mostly a thriller about an evil pharmaceutical executive — an individual who commits multiple criminal acts. They leave that to big budget Hollywood movies, Michael Moore and a delightful conspiracy theorist of my acquaintance who will wax rhapsodic on how we never landed on the Moon. I leave their arguments in the Sanitarium where they belong. But even making that argument betrays not only a blatant hostility toward capitalism, but a profound misunderstanding of how capitalism works, how research works and eliminates even the possibility of finding common ground in the health care debate.

Even if a company does manage to Silkwood a particular invention, there are too many other companies out there working along the same lines who will eventually make the breakthrough. Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, he merely made the light bulb so good it became commercially practical. If some candle company had had Edison murdered, the light bulb would have been discovered by one of dozens of other researchers working along the same lines.

None of this, by the way, should stop you from checking out Sanitarium if you can. It’s a genius game that never got the credit it was due. At





Top Ten Videogame Tips for Noobish Parents

7 10 2009

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Noob (n.): Gamer slang for a new, inexperienced player

As gamer and a writer who’s also a Dad, one of the things I don’t get to write a lot about is my relationship with my kids and the things I’m learning about gaming, kids and how to find a balance between sharing my love of gaming with them and not turning them into addicts who spend most of their lives staring into a screen like — well, like their Dad.

That’s why I was thrilled when L.A. Parent magazine asked me to be a guest blogger at I Don’t Have Time for This, Editor Carolyn Graham’s official blog for the magazine. They asked me to put up a “basket of kittens” which is three little mini-reviews all on a similar theme. This time I did a thing on movie games — and trying to find three movie games that weren’t terrible wasn’t easy. You can check it out here.

With that in mind, I also wanted to quickly put up a list of 10 things I always want to shout at parents whenever I see them wandering about cluelessly in a GameStop. It’s not their fault, really. If you’re immersed in the culture, it’s tough to realize just how weird an intimidating and alien gaming looks like from the outside. Add to that the time pressure of modern life and the fact that kids are quiet while playing the games, it’s no surprise that most parents just choose to ignore the world of gaming despite the fact that it’s now so ubiquitous that it’s become the lingua franca of childhood. That’s a mistake. As parents, you need to know what your kids are playing and what they’re into. If it’s important to them, it should be important to you.

Still, if you don’t know your Mario from your Master Chief, these little tips should help:

1. Know your ESRB ratings!

This is a-number one the single most important tips for a parent. Look in the lower left hand corner of any game box and you’ll see a little white box. There’s a rating system similar to the movies that lets you know what age groups the game is recommended for. I’m not going to going into all the details here (you can get everything at the official ESRB Web site) but here’s a quick guide: Most games are rated E or E10+. that’s approximately a G or PG rating. If you see an M, that means “mature” — roughly the equivalent of an “R” rated movie. If you see an “AO” I don’t want to know what shop you’re in because those are the gaming equivalents of porn and most retailers won’t carry them.

2. Check the screens on the back of the box!

Game companies aren’t exactly shy about advertising what’s in their titles. The blurb on the back of the box will usually give you a pretty good indication of what’s inside and if that isn’t enough, look at the screen shots. If something in them gives you pause — a disturbing monster, a scene of bloody violence, a character dressed in a skimpy outfit, the rest of the game doesn’t get any better. Game companies put their most provocative stuff right out on the box for a reason — it sells.

3. Do some research.

In the age of the Internet, there’s simply no excuse for not knowing what kinds of games you’re bringing in your house. Games are extensively previewed and written about for months and sometimes years before they’re released. A quick perusal of a site like GameSpotwill load you down with everything you need to make a purchase decision. One site I particularly like is What They Play, a guide to games for parents.

4. Set time limits!

This is a biggie. Like any other form of entertainment, videogames can fill as much time in your kids lives as you allow them to. So don’t. Have kids schedule their game time the same way they would schedule anything else. How much time you allow them is up to you as a parent but what we’ve found works best in our house is a couple of hours on Sunday morning and that’s it for the week. That way Lily, David and I can look forward to “our” game time while mommy’s still sleeping.

5. Let your kids save their games!

This goes along with number 4, but it’s important. When time for playing games is up, it’s up. Don’t ever just shut off your kid’s game though. Give them five minutes or so to save their game, warn them and stand over them while they do it. Nothing gets a gamer more upset than losing progress in a game because it wasn’t saved. Give your kids a few minutes leeway and you’ll find it’s much easier for them to stick to their time limits.

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6. Try some games out yourself.

Don’t worry about looking clueless — you will. There’s nothing a gamer like more than sharing their passion for games though and you’ll definitely score a few points if you’re willing to try out their favorite games. Ask to start on a tutorial level (almost all games have them) and be willing to ask your kids for advice (and ignore it). You might even want to fire up the games they’re playing after they go to bed just to see what kinds of images they’re exposed to.I know you’re tired, but why not TIVO Dancing With The Stars in favor of being aware of what’s in your house?

7. Don’t surprise your kids with a game as a gift.

This is a biggie. Games aren’t fungible. If you don’t know exactly what game your kid wants, don’t buy it. Gamers have definite ideas about what they want and will often plan purchases months in advance. In the same vein, if you go looking for a specific game, be sure to bring home that game. Don’t listen to the sales clerk that holds up another box and tells you that “This is just like that game, only better!” It isn’t and it’s not.

8. Be aware of games with a significant online component.

Even if a game has no objectionable content, be aware that many games these days have significant online components — even consoles. Players can now play with real people from around the world and that means that kids need to exercize the same level of Internet safety and awareness playing Halo ODST as they would while surfing the ‘Net on a PC. No personal information should be revealed, no phone numbers, no locations, no real names and if something uncomfortable happens, they need to tell you immediately. Ask them to remember people’s Xbox Live Gamertags or PSN IDs!

9. Monitor your credit cards!

The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 both have excellent online services that allow gamers to immediately buy new games, videos and downloadable content online. Be sure you know which of your credit cards these services are attached to and monitor them. Since these services charge “points” rather than actual dollar totals, it’s really easy for kids to forget they’re spending real money.

10. Monitor trashtalk and teach your kids to be good sports.

Gamers have a tradition called “trash talking” where they make fun of and try to “psyche out” an opponent by distracting them with insults. How much of this you allow is up to you, but if you allow it at all, make sure your kids understand that this is all in good fun and that feelings should never be hurt over a game. Trashtalking should never extend beyond the game and shouldn’t cross the line from mocking someone’s playing skills (“You shoot like may Grandma!”) to the personal. Finally, when all is said and done, players need to be good sports. That means being good winners and good losers and telling opponents “GG” (Good Game) when you’re finished.





GoG Thursday: Realms of Arkania 1 & 2

25 09 2009

One of the few fringe benefits of going out on your own is you get to catch up on a lot of games that have been moldering away in your “to play” pile forever. Given that my gaming history stretches back to 1977 though, that means that my “to play” pile includes titles that first came out on floppy discs back in the Clinton era. That’s why I like Gog.com. They’re a startup company that takes old games and makes them workable on modern hardware and sells them pretty damned cheap. Ever tried getting a really old DOS game to run on Windows XP or Vista that you’ve downloaded? Yeah, me too and I have the tear-stained t-shirts and furrows in my desk to prove it. That’s why I’m starting “GoG Thursday.” I’m going to pick out something on GoG.com that I’ve either never played and blast through it or something I have and talk about why it’s still awesome. And no. I’m not getting paid for this, although that would be nice.

This week’s GoG Thursday is the just released “Realms of Arkania 1 & 2”, the first two installments of an RPG series that never got the attention it was really due in North America. the games are based off a stat-intensive RPG series still popular in Germany called Die Schwarze Auge or “The Dark Eye,” a kind of Teutonic answer to Dungeons & Dragons. The Dark Eye series is a fairly standard RPG universe that becomes special in the way harks back to Tolkien’s inspiration in Germanic folklore. Orcs and goblins for example, are furry savage beastmen that haunt the forest rather than the pseudo primitive tribesmen that they usually are in modern fantasy. It’s also a pretty low-magic universe where enchantment is rare and special rather than a substitute for technology.

The first two games in the series will come as a bit of a shock to anyone whose RPG experience only stretches back as far as Bethesda’s Oblivion. Realms of Arkania is old-school RPG time with loads of stats for everything under then sun — including a characters personality traits. They all mix and match in a variety of ways to determine the player’s success at everything. That means if you’re not into min/maxing a character or delving deep into stats and math, you’re going to find this a really difficult game. If you’re not afraid of a little work though, there’s nothing better than this series for the obsessively nerdy RPG player. Back in the day, I lost WAY too much of my youth digging through really well-designed dungeons and battling the monsters in these games. Of the two, the second game in the series — Star Trail — is better. You really don’t have to play them in order to appreciate them though. Whichever one you start with, you won’t be disappointed.

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