Editorial: Is Activision Evil?

Are these the faces of pure evil?

It’s said that no press is bad press, something that Activision CEO Bobby Kotick would probably agree with. As the outspoken head of the world’s most profitable third-party video game publisher, Kotick has built up a brand with an amazing roster of titles and some of the most talented designers in the industry. Yet, despite all of this, all is not well in the eyes of many. Amidst growing concern over expensive peripherals, rehashed sequels and extravagant packaging, some of the company’s most ardent followers have now turned a corner. A boycott has been called pertaining to Modern Warfare 2’s pricing in the UK, and worries over Guitar Hero 5’s impending launch have resulted in drastic measures to entice potential buyers. At the center of this all has been Kotick, with an unending string of controversial statements and an apparent disdain for the consumer’s happiness. Public opinion has swayed against the mighty giant, comparable to the way EA was looked upon several years back. Is Activision really the corporate monster that some of their actions have seemingly made them out to be? Is Kotick the real-life manifestation of Flintheart Glomgold? In short, is Activision evil?

Well, I guess that all depends on what you deem evil. In reality, Activision is a very smart company, whose billions have been secured by the corporations ’safe’ actions over the past few years. One of the publisher’s harshest criticisms pertains to sequels, and how Activision can’t seem to get enough of them. With seven Hero titles released in 2009 and a stable of yearly franchises, some have chastised the publisher for not creating enough new intellectual properties and for milking their most successful titles into an early grave. All of this is true of course, yet this exploitation of popularity is a brilliant move that doesn’t really hurt anybody. While your average NeoGAF poster wouldn’t be interested in Guitar Hero: David Hasselhoff (do want – Ed), there are millions of casual players out there who would be (especially in Germany). Their availability is as harmless as the existence of the Imagine series, and just as easy to forget. The other fact worth mentioning is that peripheral-based franchises tend to have a fairly short shelf life. Does anyone really think that Guitar Hero would have stayed as popular as it was had they not flooded the market with releases?

The same can be said for Call of Duty, which Activision controversially handed over to different development teams to guarantee a new release every year. Once again the criticism against this move seems fairly unwarranted. World at War may have been a rehash, but it was a competent rehash that kept CoD fans happy. Activision could have released a Daikatana-quality shooter with the Call of Duty name slapped on the box to sell a few million easy copies, but WaW’s Metacritic average of 84 speaks to its commitment to brand strength. After acquiring Sierra, Bobby Kotick was quoted as saying that Activision wasn’t interested in titles that “don’t have the potential to be exploited every year on every platform with clear sequel potential,” sending his critics into a frenzied stupor. Newsflash: that’s what every publisher thinks. EA titles like Dead Space and Left 4 Dead were made to become franchises, and these cheaper-to-produce sequels are the bread and butter of a successful corporation. So while many might be unhappy to see Shrek Returns Origins 2009 rolling onto store shelves, these sequels are funding unproven new IP like Prototype, Blur and Singularity, and they allow the publisher to take established franchises in risky new directions like Tony Hawk Ride and DJ Hero.

An even riskier move involves the recent change to Modern Warfare 2’s UK pricing. Cost has always been an issue in video games, especially in Europe thanks to nonstop fluctuations of the dollar and other currencies. Activision has chosen to raise the UK price to £55, which equates to about $90. Is this a dick move? Sure, but this has been happening all over gaming in recent times. Does anyone actually think that a bonus DVD and faux-steel casing are worth the extra $20 that publishers are charging for special editions? These higher cost versions are the simplest ways for game producers to make more money at launch without causing much of a stir. Activision’s price hike may be a more blatant money-grabbing maneuver, but it’s merely a reaction to what has been deemed acceptable in recent troubled times, and to the inevitable fact that the game will be resold countless times over the next half decade. Also worth mentioning is that many online outlets will discount that absurd price, leaving the higher cost a punishment for those who sadly don’t know where else to look.

Remember when things were so much simpler?

This just leaves the captain of the ship, Kotick himself. While the man’s motivations are clear, it is apparent that Bobby’s mouth is the reason for most of the backlash. In my humble opinion, Bobby Kotick and his 15 million dollar paycheck are the worst things that Activision have going for it right now. The CEO’s technique has literally been to find something people like and exploit it, but he has enacted nothing to keep these series from going stale. He has also been incredibly lucky with some of his acquisitions, as Activision’s purchase of Infinity Ward several years back was merely a reaction to EA’s successful Medal of Honor franchise. Little did anyone know that the former would eclipse the latter by such a huge margin in a few year’s time.

The real problem with Kotick is that he acts as if everything that he says won’t instantly be plastered across every gaming blog. The gaming audience is far from stupid, and making backhanded remarks about topics that people are passionate about will not win your company any new fans. The solution? Hire a more prevalent PR person to reach out to gamers. Capcom has done this with great success at Capcom Unity, and entities like Major Nelson and the PlayStation Blog help link the fans to their favorite companies in fresh and exciting ways. If Activision was to use just a teensy bit of that Guitar Hero money to build a better image among the gaming community, it’s quite possible that there would be less virulence about them being spewed on internet message boards. Public image is important these days, as Apple and the new, friendly EA would tell you. Activision needs to invest in that bond to ensure that its fans will stick around, especially after the general public grows tired of guitar games.

Or, at the very least, it can invest in an unbreakable muzzle for its CEO. They cost $20 at Petsmart.

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