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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BioShock 2 — “A Pack, not a Herd”

24 02 2010

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Spoiler Warning: If you have not played BioShock or BioShock 2, this article contains spoilers. Big ones. I’m serious.

BioShock was far more than just a first-person shooter. It was a story told in architecture and voice-overs and character animation. BioShock’s underwater world of Rapture was actually a grand tour through the ruins of one man’s dream. Andrew Ryan was a man who believed — as most Objectivists do — that he had truly understood human nature, and he built a perfect society based on the principles of individualism, capitalism and the ultimate freedom, the ability to carve a life out of the wilderness and rise as far and as fast as your skills and abilities will take you. The tragedy of Rapture was the ultimate flaw in the Objectivist worldview – that human beings are not and can never truly be free because we can never be alone. We are social beings. We are fitted by the millions of years of evolution that shapes our nature to be pack animals, not solitary hunters. We are not cheetahs.

The tragedy of the splicers and Rapture itself is not that ADAM (the gene-modifying substance that gave everyone in Rapture amazing powers) caused the downfall of society, but that it merely accelerated the inevitable destruction of Ryan’s dream. ADAM and the powers it gave were, ironically enough, the ultimate fulfillment of Ryan’s philosophy. It gave everyone the opportunity to evolve in whatever direction they chose and the power to carve out a niche for themselves in the world and defend it against all comers. The end result of the Objectivist dream society resembles the Wild West – an anarchy where those who have the biggest guns rule and those too weak to defend themselves prove their moral unfitness by their failures. In Ryan’s world, there is no greater vice than altruism.

BioShock 2 takes the ultimate story point of BioShock and flips it on its head. It places you in the clunking boots of a Big Daddy and has you hunting through the still crumbling ruins of Rapture some eight years after the events of the first game for your “Little Sister.” Your foe this time around is Doctor Sophia Lamb. Lamb was a clinical psychiatrist brought to Rapture by Andrew Ryan to combat widespread depression and dissatisfaction in Rapture. The problem for Ryan was that Rapture’s philosophy was diametrically opposed to her own. Lamb is a collectivist. More than that, she’s a “communist” in the truest sense of the word. She views humanity not as a series of discrete individuals but as an extended family, a commune of essentially interchangeable parts where individualism is not only frowned upon, it’s a crime against group solidarity. Love is the universal possession of all humanity and to love one more than another is a tear in the fabric of society.

In BioShock 2, the player must battle against the Rapture Family, a collectivist society molded by Lamb to be the very model of a socialist future. Throughout the game, one is exposed through voice diaries to the tenets of Lamb’s philosophy and it’s here that BioShock 2 has its greatest success. I’ve rarely come across a more devastating critique of socialism than Sophia Lamb. This is a woman who understands the inherent contradiction at the heart of the socialist enterprise – that it’s not a society that can ever be realistically created by human beings. The fact is that for a socialist society to work, one must have a race of beings that are utterly selfless. You need people that can work for the good of all without a thought to their own benefit. You need people without individual attachments or families or loyalties to anything beyond the collective body politic. In short, you need a herd. The thing is, just as humans aren’t cheetahs, neither are we cows.

The solution that Lamb comes up with is far more monstrous than anything that Andrew Ryan ever did. Since humanity as it’s presently constituted is incapable of creating a truly socialist paradise, she will create a new breed of humanity that is capable of living there. She will turn her own daughter Eleanor into the mother of a new human race where everyone’s memory lives in everyone, where individualism as we know it has simply been bred out of the breed.

As Lamb herself says “Utopia will arrive when the first Utopians come to claim it.” Anyone familiar with the socialist ideal of the “New Man” knows the kind of horror that leads to – the socialist Utopia can only be built on a foundation mortared with the bones of non-Utopians. The existence of even one ‘counter-revolutionary” puts the entire socialist enterprise at risk. Lamb herself points this out to the player, cursing Subject Delta because his psychic connection to Eleanor Lamb has “infected” her with individualism, causing her to act in defiance of the Family’s wishes – the social imperatives first laid down by Sophia and hardwired into every member of the Family.

Comparing Jack Ryan and Subject Delta, the protagonists of BioShock and BioShock 2 makes for an interest study in contrasts. The first game had the player playing as a man who believes himself to be free only to find his mental conditioning has chained him in the worst sort of slavery imaginable. The second game has the player playing as a Big Daddy, a person so twisted and warped that all semblance of individuality and free will is supposed to have been eliminated. And in fact, it’s pointed out throughout the game that the reason you’re traveling to find Eleanor is that you literally cannot help it. You’ll die without her. Yet within your slavery lie the seeds of freedom.

The choice to kill or save the Little Sisters is the only truly free choice you have – in both games. The ultimate result in both cases is the same – you’ll pretty much be able to “win.” Therefore with no external consequences, only the dictates of your conscience can guide you. As they say, morality is how you behave when you think no one is watching. We may be a slave to circumstances but our reactions to circumstances can set us free, even at the cost of our own lives.

The odysseys of Jack Ryan and Subject Delta are great examples of the contradictions of the human animal. We are not cheetahs. We are not cows. We are wolves. We are pack animals playing a perpetual game of King of the Mountain. Just as a human alone is not a human, neither is a being without self-interest. Our entire history is a constant struggle between the pull of society and the struggle for a freedom we can never truly attain. Our nightmare is that we’re smart enough to understand this yet stupid enough to try and change it.

If there’s one lesson to take away from both BioShock games it’s this: beware Utopians. Lamb herself points out during the game that the word “Utopia” comes from the Greek for “no place.” Our current social turmoil is just a repeat of an age-old struggle between social controllers and the price of freedom – the realization that granting any amount of freedom to a society means that someone’s going to use it in ways we don’t like, often in ways that hurt other people.

I’ve raised my flag with those willing to pay that price often enough, but merely believing in maximizing human freedom as much as possible doesn’t make me an anarchist. I acknowledge that I am a social being. I am a member of the pack and I owe some sort of duty to the social body. The fact that Lamb and socialists like her are subscribers to a monstrous theory doesn’t make Andrew Ryan right. Like most of us, I’m stuck in the middle – far closer to Ryan than Lamb but forever trying to strike a balance between the two that can never be found.

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An Agnostic Jew’s Annual Christmas Miracle

25 12 2009

If there’s one thing I miss since leaving GameSpy, it’s what I referred to as my “Annual Christmas Miracle.” All year long, game journalists are inundated with PR tchtotchkes and free games and I was certainly no exception. That meant by the end of the year I had a desk filled with dozens and dozens of games (mostly PC titles but quite a few console ones as well) along with about a hundred T-shirts, key rings, stuffed animals, tote bags and all the bits of detritus that game companies send out with copies of their games in the hopes of getting some coverage. Throughout the year I would take my own stuff and collect bits of PR junk from other editors and put it all in a pile until the week just before the Christmas break. Then at a specific moment i would send around an e-mail to the entire company welcoming everybody to come down to my desk and just grab whatever they wanted from the enormous pile of stuff I had collected throughout the year.

It was wondrous (and loud given the annual stampede of feet to my desk).

Initially I did it cynically just for myself, I liked seeing everybody rush around and leave with a bunch of ridiculous bits of junk that would end up collecting dust in their cubicles. Then one year I hit on the idea of selling all that junk for a suggested donation of a dollar or more for a charity that really meant something to me and I discovered something more — how good it feels to to do good and how good it feels to watch other people be good. The first year I did it, I found myself stunned not at the dollars that flowed in for useless pieces of plastic but at the fives and tens and twenties for PC games I had given one and two star reviews to. I nearly cried when one person dropped a pair of twenties in my basket for a copy of Shadowrun for the Xbox360. Shadowrun sucked. This person wasn’t buying a video game, they were connecting with me and others in the office. We had found the embers of goodness in our hearts and fanned them — at least briefly — into a flame. it became my annual “Christmas Miracle,” The one time of the year when I’m happy and uncynical for about 24-48 hours.

Considering that I’m an agnostic Jew, I love Christmas more than is probably seemly for someone of my cultural background. Considering that I’m also a cynical angry bear of a person, you’d think I’d recoil at the obvious plastic phony commercialism of the season. Yet I don’t. Cynics don’t become cynics because they don’t care — they become cynics because they’re frustrated idealists and there’s something about Christmas that breaks through the seventy-five layers of calcified rage that’s built up around my heart and makes me happy for at least a 24-hour period. It’s not the faithful aspects of the holiday, either. There’s no danger of my becoming a Christian. It’s the very plasticky cheesiness of it. It’s the tinsel and Rankin-Bass characters and the Charlie Brown Christmas specials themselves that touch me.

They remind me that we’re all ridiculous and lonely and sad and pathetic and ultimately glorious because of, not despite, our inherent silliness and that the only time we’re worth anything at all is when we reach out and touch the heart of another human being. Yet those moments are enough to redeem humanity for all the awfulness we do to each other on a daily basis. Our goodness can dwarf that of the mythical angels and Christmas speaks to that for me. I wish we would do it more often and not just this time of year, but the fact that we do it at all is what keeps me a cynic and not a nihilist. We can be the kind of people we dream of being — sometimes we are, and that’s what keeps hope alive for me.

I’ve said before that my relationship with God got a lot better once I realized He wasn’t real. I’m a writer and a storyteller so I see the inherent power and danger of the calcified mythology that becomes organized religion. Stripped of the mummery and institutional corruption of religion, our figures of worship join characters like Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Spock and Santa Claus and Ebeneezer Scrooge and the Grinch — figures worthy of emulation because of not despite their unreality. They speak to the best aspects of ourselves and tell us we can be this way, even if seems rather unlikely most of the time.

The nihilist will laugh at that the way they laugh at any indication of some kind of order in the universe. They’ll tell us all the things that are precious in the world are just illusions. That love is just our genes pushing us to reproduce, that society is just a shared illusions foisted by the powerful on the powerless, that a nation is just a line on a map, that the truths we hold to be self-evident are merely consensual hallucinations we cling to in order to stay sane in a universe of chaos that’s ultimately indifferent to our fate. My response to that is to quote Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle’s restatement of Pascal’s Wager from C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair:

“‘One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies playing a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”
— (C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair, Harper Collins Publishers, 1953, pp. 181-182.)

The beauty of this is that Puddleglum’s not real either, but he became a hero of mine in that one moment. Lewis, of course, was writing this as a Christian apologist’s response to the idea of atheism, but the context works for almost anything we cling to in order to stay sane. I may love my family because my genes tell me to do so in order to propagate themselves– but I still love my family. I may cling to an American ideal that the real United States often fails to live up to, but I must believe a nation is better for having such ideals than not bothering with them at all. And I may be a fool to believe an over commercialized holiday blown up every year by retailers because the health of our economy depends on it really can speak to the best in ourselves but you know what? I’ll happily accept that moniker. I’ll believe in Christmas and Santa and Rudolph and Coca-Cola and maybe even a little bit about the fictional kid in the barn in Bethlehem because it makes my world better and it inspires me to make others’ lives a little bit better too. Maybe my theology’s a little messed up, but that makes me no different than the six billion other screwed up, persnickety ultimately wondrous souls I share this planet with.

Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Joyous Festivus and greetings for whatever other silly, sappy, Hallmarky traditions you cling to to beat back the dark, cold night. Be happy and help others to be happy too.





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.





The Fallout over Fallout

12 09 2009

And it’s finally happened. Kotaku is reporting that Bethesda is suing Interplay for their failure to develop the Fallout MMO. Is there anybody out there who didn’t see this coming? I’m excepting as always, the troglodytes and mouth-breathers over at No Mutants Allowed and the rest of the so-called “Fallout community” (warning, following that link and reading anything on that site WILL make you stupid). By that, I don’t mean those hundreds of thousands of people who have rightly enjoyed Fallout 3 (many of whom have as it as their sole Fallout experience) or those like me who genuinely love the first two games in the series. I mean those who, their loud protestations to the contrary, have never forgiven the universe for not stopping the clock in 1998 and Interplay for daring to go out of business.

Yes, I said go out of business. I bear no malice at all towared the tiny shell that currently bears the name Interplay and if the seven employees over there manage to magically produce a Fallout MMO, I’ll be thrilled. Good luck, God bless. Let’s be honest, though. It’s not going to happen. Whatever Interplay used to be, it’s been a mere ghost of that for many years — exactly what it was when it sold the rights to Fallout to Bethesda in a wild gamble at creating a Fallout MMO. You don’t need a crystal ball to figure that out, either. The company itself admits as much in their public 10K report. Check out this list of “Risk Factors:”

WE CURRENTLY HAVE SOME OBLIGATIONS THAT WE ARE UNABLE TO MEET WITHOUT GENERATING ADDITIONAL INCOME OR RAISING ADDITIONAL CAPITAL.

As of December 31, 2008, our cash balance was approximately $0 and our working capital deficit totaled approximately $2.4 million.

We are currently operating without a credit agreement or credit facility. There can be no assurance that we will be able to enter into a new credit agreement or that if we do enter into a new credit agreement, it will be on terms favorable to us.

We are presently without a CFO, and Mr. Caen has assumed the position of interim-CFO and continues as CFO to date until a replacement can be found.

These are not the business conditions that make me want to go out and purchase Interplay stock. I’d get a better ROI selling my old comic books on Ebay.

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I’m not entirely certain why Bethesda agreed to this deal in the first place. I can however, envisage a scenario where they get a substantial discount off the price of the original IP purchase in return for essentially waiting for Interplay to fail in which case they would then be able to sweep in and be able to do the Fallout MMO themselves. And if Interplay had succeeded — great! It’s a win/win for Bethesda either way. As for Interplay, well, they were selling the last valuable asset they had in a gamble to keep themselves alive and capitilize on the potential success of a Fallout MMO. If they’ve failed to realize that, well there’s certainly no shame there. Businesses fail all the time. I’m sure the principles and employees currently at Interplay will be fine.

What gets me are the idiot Fallout fanboys and their venom toward Bethesda for doing exactly what anyone in their position would — protecting their intellectual property rights and insisting that Interplay live up to the terms of its agreements. I don’t have any knowledge whether Bethesda is correct in its allegations, of course, but there’s certainly nothing immoral in a perfectly sensible business decision. There’s this perverse romantic streak in the hard-core Fallout community that somehow believes that they not only have a right to “their” Fallout 3 — done of course in a “proper Fallout style” — but that going business concerns should somehow modify intelligent business practices to tailor to them because the original Fallout games were so good and they love them so much.

And please don’t pull out the old “We’re the audience, they should listen to us.” Here’s a news flash — when it comes to Fallout, you are not the audience. The “audience” for Fallout are those millions of people happily shelling out the shekels for Mothership: Zeta and racking up Xbox 360 Acheivements. Full disclosure: I was the product manager for Fallout: Tactics, a decent though not stellar stratgy game based in the Fallout universe. I loved working at Interplay and am proud to have been connected, however tangentially, to the Fallout games and the great people who worked on them. Having said that, the Fallout games as represented by Fallout 1 and 2 are history. Everyone involved with them has moved on — in many cases quite successfully — and the Fallout universe is in the hands of people who obviously love the franchise and are not beholden to you in any way.

Here’s a little secret: The original Fallout games were not terribly successful. Not that they were failures, of course, but even by the standards of the late ’90s they garnered much more in critical acclaim, fan love and industry respect than they ever did in cold, hard cash. While I won’t reveal proprietary numbers, Bethesda does more with the franchise in five minutes than Interplay did with it in its whole history. Knowing that, it makes Bethesda rescuing the franchise from oblivion (no pun intended) even more worthy of respect. They had access to the same numbers when they were considering purchasing the rights to the game. They did it out of love for the universe and the belief that they could bring both the same critical acclaim and the success that had eluded it under Interplay’s care. They were right.

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Dead Beatles Approve of Rock Band?

9 09 2009

OK, normally I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to have channeled the spirit of a dead celebrity, but this story out of Gi.biz has the ring of truth to it. According to this story, John Lennon and George Harrison would have approved of their music being translated into video game form in Rock Band. The beyond-the-grave quotes come from people with absolutely no financial stake in the success of the game — Sir Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison — so you know it must be true.

In all seriousness, though. I actually believe this. One of the things that gets lost in the Beatles status as hippie icons and early advocates for peace, love and flower power is that all of the Beatles were consummate marketers, savvy businessmen and technological pioneers. Many of their recordings, especially Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, were notable for the technological stunts they pulled during production — everything from back-masking to overdubbing to weird audio tricks they tried in the studio. They were also very good at anticipating trends in popular culture and making themselves over to appeal to what was hot in the zeitgiest. John Lennon took a notable left turn into the avante-garde when Yoko Ono attached herself to him like a lamprey but even on the albums they worked on together, Lennon’s pop music instincts never left him. That’s what making big chunks of Double Fantasy actually worth listening to and stuff by Ono not so much.

It stands to reason therefore that they would have approved of Rock Band. I don’t think anyone expects Paul McCartney to be a real gamer, but eventually he picked up on what it could mean for the Beatles’ music. The Beatles were ultimately a pop music band. In fact, the band practically defined what it is to be a pop music band in the modern era and they were multimedia before it even had a name. Pop music is meant to be spread wide and listened to by a broad swathe of the public. The broad swathe of the public is currently playing games.

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360 Price Drop Coming Next Week?

20 08 2009

In one of those blindingly obvious statements that says “look at us, we’re analysts” more than anything substantive about the state of the industry, an analyst with EEDAR says that a price drop for the 360 is coming within the next week. Of course, this hasn’t been confirmed by Microsoft, so this is about as solid as an ice cube in the Gobi desert. Still, it’s not a real stretch to predict this sort of thing. It’s kind of a no-brainer for Microsoft who as a company is in a better financial position to counter the PS3 Slim than Sony is to take any serious financial hit. This does however, underscore my previous post about Sony’s ridiculous decision to not have backward compatibility in the PS3 Slim. Sony is in serious trouble. The game division is the only part of that company that’s even close to healthy. They need to invest in getting market share for the PS3 while they still have time.

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