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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The Tipping Point? Nexon Reports 36% Growth in 3Q

17 10 2009

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Game Informer is reporting that Nexon’s America had a 36% jump in revenue in the third quarter. Between this and things like Dungeons & Dragons Online switching to free-2-play and the really fun League of Legends being offered for free I’m starting to think we may be reaching a tipping point where game developers are realizing that the traditional methods of revenue generation from gaming are being supplanted by a whole new method of monetizing products. What makes this especially interesting is that this is Nexon America, not Nexon as a whole which was already a successful Korean developer. Nexon America is a separate business entity designed to sell it’s products in the Western market. It’s apparently working.

The key of course is offering products designed with that kind of business model in mind and overcoming the impression of F2P being the catch-all for crap games not good enough to be sold at retail. In the case of Dungeons & Dragons Online, the game was always good. It was just saddled with the wrong business model. The design of DDO was always more suited to small groups of friends pushing their way through the content at a much slower pace than the ticking clock that a $15 a month subscription fee would allow. So what you had was people bulling their way through content over and over again in pick-up groups because they felt like they had to play to justify the expense. What people are finding now is that they can go through the game at their own pace and spend money or not as it suits their game style. From what I understand, the result is people spending a lot more money than they ever did as subscribers.

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The thing about Turbine is that they essentially lucked into an F2P game by virtue of having DDO. This isn’t something that would work with The Lord of the Rings Online because the game structure is completely different. Nexon, on the other hand, has games that explicitly built around this kind of mechanic. If you get the majority of your gaming news from hard-core gamer sites like IGN, GameSpy or GameSpot you may have never seen or heard of Maple Story or Mabinogi. If you’ve seen some ads for it you may have dismissed it as the cutesy free-2-play MMO that “real” gamers wouldn’t give the time of day. When I was PC editor for GameSpy I know I’d get calls constantly from PR reps throwing games like that at me that — blinkered as I was by the “real” games that were sitting on my desk — I’d just ignore and dismiss. To be fair, a lot of them are really bad knock-offs that aren’t worth your time. The beauty of being out on your own though is the opportunity to explore areas of gaming that you’ve missed (I’ve become a hard-core Mafia Wars fanatic). I’m beginning to realize now the kinds of experiences that I’ve missed out on.

Take Mabinogi. On the advice of a friend I downloaded it and started playing and I immediately couldn’t believe how good it was. Mabinogi is a classic example of a game that doesn’t push the envelope as much as origami it around into a new and pleasing experience. Everything you might expect from an MMO is there — questing, leveling, killing monsters, crafting. Rather than the more linear experience that suddenly levels out into lateral advancement after the level cap is reached though, Mabinogi is a broad-based experience from teh get-go. It’s a game that encourages you subtly through things like the “Part-time job” mechanic to really explore and do different sorts of things during the same play session. Rather than mindlessly grinding through monsters or quests, I found myself in Mabinogi really running around and dabbling in the many different things to do. It’s got a fun arcadey combat system and randomly generated dungeons that actually utilize items in your inventory to create them.

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More importantly, it’s got the kind of wide progression scheme that encourages you to get involved on your schedule rather than the game’s. Without those huge time-sucking raids or the kinds of tricks that encourage players to devote big chunks of time to make any sort of measurable progress. That’s the kinds of things you need to justify a monthly fee. If a player doesn’t feel like they need to be in the game in order to advance, they’ll begin wondering just what they’re paying all that money for. It’s also why people feel like they can only play one subscription-based MMO at a time. For most people that’s World of Warcraft, the king of that sort of vertical-based progression scheme.

In WoW you HAVE to devote time to raiding or PvP in order to advance once you reach the level cap and old content is abandoned once the majority of the player-base moves through it. Free to play games don’t need that and consequently they can devote less developer time to creating these huge content chunks. There’s certainly room in this world for both types of games but it seem like there are more people with limited time who would prefer the F2P model than the kind of “health club” mindset of the traditional subscription model that really only appeals to people with lots of disposable time. It’ll be interesting to see how Nexon does once its yearly numbers come out. If it does as well as it has over the last few quarters, I think more than a few big western game companies are going to sit up and take notice.

(and yes, I did put another picture of a sexy night elf in here.)





And The Latest Person Kicked From the Raid…

5 09 2009

Would be Van Jones, President Obama’s “green jobs” czar. As has been making the rounds in the right-wing blogosphere, it seems that Mr. Jones has shall we say — a somewhat sinister view of the events of 9/11 (H/T Five Feet of Fury’s Kathy Shaidle). Oh, it hasn’t happened yet and it still might not, but given Mr. Obama’s predilection for jettisoning “inconvenient” people the moment that they’re no longer of use to him, I’d say that Mr. Jones is probably being encouraged to “spend more time with his family” right about now.

It’s actually funny. As Stacy McCain points out:

And yet, somehow, despite all his success, this Ivy League-educated Fortunate Son sees nothing but misery and oppression everywhere. Am I the only one who finds this bizarre?

That would only be because Mr. McCain has never raided with someone like Van Jones. I have. To extend the whole Obama Administration as a bad raid metaphor, Van Jones is the kind of raider that whines and cries and fiddles with the DKP system to make sure he gets twice as many points as anybody else in the guild and then complains that “it’s not fair!” when the boss doesn’t drop any equipment for his class. No matter how close he is to the guild leader, eventually everyone else is gonna kick him out because every time he opens his mouth he runs down the guild’s reputation.

In honor of Mr. McCain’s Rule 5 and the bent of this blog, I am putting up a picture of a sexy Night Elf from World of Warcraft. Post continues after this.

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In more real-world terms, there’s a subsection of the left who have made their bones and fortunes using interest group grievances and get caught flat-footed when they’re suddenly thrust into a position where results actually matter. Actually strike that. He’s the “green jobs czar.” His results don’t matter but they will be measured which is roughly the same level of kryptonite. What’s happening to Jones is probably what would happen if Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton were forced to get a real job. Or a job.

Given that the Obama’s social circle seems to be filled with these sorts of people and their vetting process is less than stellar (and why haven’t those people been fired?) this is probably going to keep happening. So far, the only people who seem to be completely safe in the Obama Administration are Rahm Emanuel and Robert Gibbs. Gibbs is probably safe because he’s basically Renfield to Emanuel’s Count Dracula and Emanuel — well, because he’s Dracula.

And yes — this post was generated in shameless subservience to Rule 2.

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Obama Wipes the Raid

1 09 2009

This is easily the most succinct description of the health care reform debacle I’ve read in a while:

From Maggie’s farm:

Let me get this straight…

We’re going to pass a health care plan written by a committee whose head says he doesn’t understand it, passed by a Congress that hasn’t read it but exempts themselves from it, signed by a president that also hasn’t read it (and who smokes) with funding administered by a treasury chief who didn’t pay his taxes, overseen by a surgeon general who is obese, and financed by a country that’s nearly broke.

What possibly could go wrong?

Pro-reform advocates are pushing how wonderful passing this legislation would be as a tribute to the late Ted Kennedy. The thing is, love him or hate him, Kennedy was one of the most effective legislators of our time. President Ted Kennedy would have ridden a filibuster-proof majority in Congress, a sympathetic media, an opposition party that’s nothing but a speed bump at this point and the memory of George W. Bush into a signing ceremony so fast it’d make your head spin.

The greatest irony here is that no matter which side of the debate you’re on, nothing shows the ineptness of the the Obama administration more than their horrible mishandling of health insurance reform. To get it back to massively multiplayer gaming terminology, Obama’s trying to take on the biggest boss in the dungeon and he keeps getting wiped on the trash mobs. Here’s a free tip, Mr. President: fire Robert Gibbs. He’s supposed to be your Main Tank and he’s clearly not specc’ed for this.

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The Bitch is Back

14 08 2009

So this is interesting. Apparently Onyxia is making a comeback in World of WarCraft. As a causual-by-lifestyle-rather-than-choice MMO player, one of the interesting phenomena in any MMO is the social pressure to complete content. This happens because as the game ages and more and more of the player base completes end-game stories, raids and collects whaatever the current bleeding-edge loot there is to be had, it necessarily begins to create a bifurcation between those with the time to put in to the game and those who don’t. Put simply, no matter how nice the guild you’re in, it’s never easy to ask members to put their own character’s advancement on hold while they run you through a dungeon that has nothing to offer them. That leaves pick-up-groups with all of their attendent problems — and even these begin to dry up as new content comes in to the game.

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I’m facing this problem myself as I try to get my Loremaster in The Lord of the Rings Online to finish up some of the Book I epic quests. With Book II nearly completed and my play times so erratic, it makes doing so enormnously complicated. My guild is great and if I made an appointment, I’m sure they would help me out, but how many of those can you miss before they won’t trust you any more. That’s why I won’t do it.

From a business perspective though, it becomes even more problematic. It makes it ever more unlikely that once a player leaves, they’ll be able to come back. The longer the time between log-ins, the more catch-up the player has to do and the less likely they’ll be able to do it because of a lack of players at their level. World of Warcraft drives me crazy because of this. I loved the original game and it continually frustrates me how they basically abandon old content. I’d like to believe that this Onyxia re-vamp represents then perhaps re-visiting some this old stuff, but I doubt it. It seems like a promotional gimmick more than anything else. What I’d love to see is companies gradually lower the difficulty on old content until after a certain period of time, they become solo-able (with a commensurate drop in loot, of course). That would allow the entire player base to eventually experience all the content the game has to offer without alienting hard-core raiders.

Is this a problem that can be solved? Is this even a problem at all? I’ve heard MMO gaming likened to being on a bowling team. If you can’t make the time committment, don’t play. That does hurt considering how much I love this type of game, though.

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