Over this past week, Microsoft announced that their Xbox Live service had reached a usage level of over two million simultaneous users. This is apparently unprecedented for the service, though it’s not hard to believe; having used all of the major consoles’ (and handhelds’) online services, I feel Live stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of content and ease of use. (And I’m not just saying that because I won enough credit for the service that I haven’t bought marketplace points since February and I’m paid-for until 2011… though the points are getting a little thin now.) Still, something unusual had to have happened to drive usage up that much, and the answer is simple.
This week, Activision and Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was released for both the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. (The Wii, instead, received a port of the previous Modern Warfare game, subtitled “Reflex Edition”.) Most news outlets– and here I’m talking about mainstream news outlets, not specifically the gaming press– have called it the must-have game of the year. While I congratulate Infinity Ward on releasing a product that has received almost universal acclaim from reviewers and the media, I have to quietly and calmly repeat my statement that I will not buy the game.
It’s not for the reasons you think. A “boycott” of the PC version was organized in the run-up to the game’s release, owing to the fact that Infinity Ward elected to shift some control of the game’s online environments– the servers that run multiplayer matches– away from the users’ hands, where it had usually been for PC games (MMOs excepted), and also strip away some control over how users interact in the gameworld (no automatic kicking, griefing control, etc.). These people are somewhat misguided, considering that (from what I’ve heard and read) the online experience for the original Modern Warfare was already a de facto MMO: players gain experience in their persistent profiles, advancing in rank as if they were part of a military organization. Retaining control over the means of governing this system– the servers– makes sense in this light, though to be truthful the answer could have been a bit more elegant (see: Team Fortress 2‘s unlock and progression system), particularly because the PC version uses Steam.
You’ll note that I put the word boycott in scare quotes up there. This is because the boycott, as it were, fell apart within seconds of the game’s release. Hundreds of players who joined Steam Community-based “boycott MW2” groups were spotted to be playing Modern Warfare 2. So much for solidarity. (The argument could be made that many of these people are simply trolls who joined the group with the express purpose of discrediting the whole. I sincerely doubt this is the case for all of the picket-breakers.)
However, my issue isn’t with Call of Duty, or Infinity Ward, or even with the people who play the game. CoD has been acclaimed as having a strong military story, and I’m attracted to well-told stories. Infinity Ward has to be doing something good if they’re able to muster over a million players– on one of the three platforms (Kotaku has a post up showing a screenshot from the Xbox Live version indicating a seven-digit “players online” number). And thanks to the controls on Xbox Live and Steam, I don’t have to worry about random jerks; were I to loosen my bond, I would make an effort to join with a group of players I knew and trusted. No, my problem is where it has always lay. It is Activision, the game’s publisher, who has made it adequately clear to me that they do not want my money.
I’m a very calm and sensible individual. I also take my responsibility as a gamer very seriously; my responsibility being to comport myself in a manner that reflects positively on the hobby as a whole, and to guide the industry, by voting with my wallet, into actions and releases I think would be most mutually beneficial for developers, publishers, retailers, and players. (This is separate and distinct from taking “gaming” seriously. It’s just a game when you’re playing it; but when you’re buying it or talking about it, watch yourself.) Usually I accomplish this with what I call “political purchases”– games that I want to play, and pick up even if I’m aware of the flaws or don’t have time immediately for them. The biggest beneficiaries of these political purchases, though, are the publishers.
The game industry works in ways that attempt to mirror, but can’t exactly replicate, the print industry. In print, you have a single or small group of writers who will be signed to a publisher once they’ve completed a work. In gaming, the “writers” are represented instead by a development studio, such as Tri-Ace, High Voltage Software, or Infinity Ward. These development studios are individually composed of a revolving-door stable of coders, artists, musicians, and designers; the game industry is not a place to work if you want a steady job, with a very important exception (which I’ll get to later). Since making a game is an exponentially more expensive process than writing a book, a studio will instead approach a publisher with a concept and a design document. In the above examples, the publishers are Square-Enix, Sega, and Activision, respectively. The publisher then funds development (read: pays the studio) to work on the game, with the provisos that a) the game will be exclusive to that publisher once released, and b) the publisher has the right to end development if they feel they’re not going to get a decent return on their investment (or really, for any reason– Konami ran into hot water when it was noticed they were attached to Atomic Games’ Six Days In Fallujah and dropped them due to the controversial nature of the game; this is an entirely different can of worms, though, so let’s just gloss over that for now). If a game is dropped by a publisher prior to release, then the studio is free to look for another publisher to finish up the game, or to can the project and move on– or fold. The developer can also cut ties with the publisher if they feel they’re getting pressured too much, or they don’t think the publisher is willing to live up to expectations.
As for the exception, that’s when a development studio is owned in-house by a publisher. Examples include Rare’s relationship with Nintendo in the late 1990s, Clover Studio’s relationship to Capcom, and Infinity Ward’s relationship with Activision. In this case, the studio is completely under the thumb of the publisher, who can dictate any number of terms to the developer they want, up to and including what games to make. On the one hand, having a metaphorical “sugar daddy” allows a development studio to explore a few different concepts here and there– Okami would be a hard sell to a publisher, but because they were part of Capcom the game had a bit more wiggle room and eventually got the go-ahead. On the other hand, it’s a balancing act between working on pie-in-the-sky projects and focusing on bread-and-butter releases, and if the balance tips too far in one way or another, the results are almost universally disastrous.
It’s considered a devastating blow when a game is cancelled while still in development, and even more crushing the longer the game has been in production. For example, axing a concept that’s barely made it past the initial alpha-version-on-test-hardware phase is considered a pretty normal and routine way of doing things, while canning a game that’s seen one or more playable E3s is treated with a jaundiced eye. This is because, to kill off a game that late in development, you’re not just making a statement about the profitability of the game, you’re also stating that the money was wasted, disparaging the work of the individuals who toiled on the project. In some cases, like Duke Nukem Forever, this is a perfectly justified view to take– 3D Realms had proven that they were not committed to the project in any way, shape or form. For something like Brutal Legend, the act is more damning.
Brutal Legend, along with Ghostbusters and Scratch: The Ultimate DJ, are the three core reasons why I’m not willing to support Activision. Each one has its own set of circumstances, but the points are basically that in each of these games, Activision didn’t just disregard the games’ capabilities to make a profit, but they also took legal action to block the release of each of these games. In one case, they have even succeeded in killing off a competitive product.
Let’s start with Brutal Legend. Double Fine Productions, the studio behind the game, had been working on BL for a while after acclaim of their previous game, Psychonauts, had buoyed them to a fond place in many gamers’ hearts. (Psychonauts itself had some mismanaged publication issues as well, but let’s not get into that now.) Sierra, a division of Vivendi Universal, had contracted with Double Fine in order to release the follow-up. Vivendi was subsequently purchased by Activision in 2008. However, during a purge that Activision CEO Bobby Kotick indicated was a desire to focus on “exploiting” their core franchises (and the word “exploiting” is probably not the most attractive one to use there, regardless of accuracy), Activision dumped Brutal Legend. Not a problem initially, as this sort of thing happens all the time. When Electronic Arts (a previous bete noire in the industry, since somewhat reformed) picked up the game in December 2008, though, things began to go sour. Activision filed a lawsuit in February of 2009 to block the game’s release, stating that it was still the publisher. Double Fine countersued, noting (perhaps accurately) that the publisher had let them go, and that the timing of the suit was designed to sour its reputation. The game remained in a “will-it-or-won’t-it” state until August, when an out-of-court settlement permitted EA to finalize plans to publish. The game came out in October of 2009 to general well-acceptance.
This wasn’t the only time a reluctance to produce sequel upon sequel killed an Activision property. Also acquired during the Vivendi purchase was developer Terminal Reality’s Ghostbusters: The Video Game, which had been hotly anticipated as it reunited the cast of the original movies. As part of the July purge, the game was dropped from Activision’s schedule, and later picked up by Atari (itself a company with a checkered past, though it now exists only as an imprint of French publisher Infogrames). Activision’s Kotick said that the game, and I’m quoting the man here, [didn’t] “have the potential to be exploited every year […] with clear sequel potential and […] become [a] $100 million franchise“. The game sold 1 million copies within 45 days of its release, effectively putting the lie to that particular statement. Though it is true that it would be infeasible to get Dan Ayckroyd, Bill Murray, et al into the studio year after year for a new game, that doesn’t mean that doing it once wouldn’t be special or profitable.
Finally, we come to Scratch. In the middle of April 2009, publisher Genius Products sued its own developer, 7 Studios, after they were acquired by Activision. Activision bought the company in order to get its hands on Scratch: The Ultimate DJ, which would either become or compete with its then-announced DJ Hero. 7 Studios initially rebuffed Activision, but were later the target of a hostile takeover. That’s when 7 Studios stopped cooperating with Genius, prompting a lawsuit that eventually went in Genius’s favor a week later. It took well over two months for Activision and 7 Studios to comply with the legal order to turn over the source code to Genius, though, by which time it was practically guaranteed that Scratch would be delayed until long after DJ Hero was on the shelves. DJ Hero was released in late September of 2009; Scratch has had two changes of developer since then and is still said to be on track for a 2010 release.
In all three cases, Activision has shown a complete disregard for artistry and instead reveals that it is unwilling to risk even a single penny in order to do something different or unique that cannot be then made mundane and pedestrian. While DJ Hero is an interesting addition to the music-game lineup, it is neither new (beatmania has been out for well over a decade) nor particularly innovative (it makes only slight alterations to the Guitar Hero formula, which itself is based somewhat on Konami’s Guitar Freaks). Focusing on grinding out sequel after sequel, instead of looking for ways to innovate the arts of storytelling, game development, or fun, is not only greedy, but short-sighted as well. Activision has done nothing but cement its reputation as a company which relentlessly drives its intellectual properties into the ground. I have nothing against sequels, per se, but they should be used to help fund the production of new, truly innovative games. Using a sequel mill as an ouroborous to fund more sequels ends the way the ouroborous does: it devours its own tail, self-cannibalizing.
I won’t buy, play, or rent an Activision game until either Bobby Kotick steps down as CEO, or a game not based on any existing IP, property, or franchise is released by the company and afforded the same amount of advertising and promotion that their sequel-mill games are. While I know that my individual contribution is at best negligible, I at least sleep well at night knowing I’m not a hypocrite– since I made my stand in June, I’ve only played a demo kiosk of DJ Hero twice, and I’m not about to go back to them now. (Even though I really want to– hearing that “In a Big Country” is in Band Hero tempted me greatly, but it’s not called a sacrifice for nothing.)