Game Buzz is a weekly opinion column designed to take an irreverent look at one of the biggest news stories to break in the past week. Every Friday we’ll be bringing you another slice of reaction to topical gaming news, and inviting you to agree, disagree, shout assent, vent rage, scream and complain to you heart’s delight. This week, we return to the Infinity Ward controversy and ask how come EA are now the good guys.
There will probably be a movie version of the events that have unfolded over the past couple of months between Activision and Infinity Ward. It’s a classic tale after all: a big bad corporation led by a CEO (I personally envisage Kotick being played by either Christopher Lee in a fat suit, or by Will Ferrell/Danny McBride for laughs) who is alternately pantomime villain and corporate fat pie squeezes and grinds down its blockbuster producing development subsidiary.
There is talk of contractual re-negotiation, of bonuses not being paid, internal shakedowns and policies designed to bathe the workspace in a pervasive cloud of perpetual fear. The corporation fears that its award-winning development team is becoming too self-aware and so, to reassert the chain of command, it is decided that rebellion must be crushed with a pre-emptive strike – before insubordination can rear its ugly head, it’s time to cut off the head completely. But all is not well, and this only serves to further alienate the creatives from their financially minded, suited and booted progenitors.
A vid courtesy of PC Gamer that puts IW's losses into perspective
The above is pretty much the state of affairs as seen through the eyes of online media, and it’s certainly an attractive narrative. But just like the Wolf on hit Nineties Saturday television staple Gladiators, Kotick has styled himself as ‘the man we love to hate’ and it is a persona that we, both as an expectant media-savvy audience and, indeed, as gamers ourselves, have welcomed and accepted virtually without question.
With that in mind, much like a game of Chinese whispers or adolescent playground gossip, it’s virtually impossible to tell exactly what happened and we shall probably never know for certain. Both sides’ legal documents have more than a grain of truth in them, but are also couched in terms of barely concealed seething antagonism and no doubt exaggerated accusation.
One thing is for certain, mind, and that is no matter how you spin it, the developers who gave us Modern Warfare 2 are in a moderate state of disarray. Yup, Infinity Ward are now haemorrhaging staff, and not just the odd creatively minded acolyte, we’re talking big players here, creative leads who have been with the development company for years. In fact, let’s take a look at that list in full:
- Vince Zampella – Studio Head/CEO
- Jason West – President/Game Director/CCO/CTO
- Steve Fukada – Lead Designer
- Zied Reike – Lead Designer
- Mackey McCandlish – Lead Designer
- Jon Shiring – Programmer
- Rayme Vinson – Programmer
- Chris Cherubini – Lead Artist
- Todd Alderman – Lead Online Designer
- Francesco Gigliotti – Lead Software Engineer
- Bruce Ferriz – Senior Animator
- Mark Grigsby – Lead Animator
- Paul Messerly – Lead Character Animator
There’s a lot of talent, experience and industry nous in the list above. True, of those names listed above, only West and Zampella have really carved out a true statement of intent with the newly branded Respawn Entertainment, but they are hiring and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see one or two defectors eventually turn up on the doorstep beaming at the new, apparently creatively free, partnership that Wempella have managed to crack out with EA Partners.
EA and creative freedom. I have to agree with Jon on this one; there are two things I’d never have thought would go hand in hand. But, as bespectacled chef Heston Blumethal has shown, seemingly opposing ingredients can often result in a match made in heaven. It’s a change that has been made possible due to one thing and one thing alone: developer happiness.
Activision have, amongst other things, accused Wempella of sowing the seeds of discontent and attempting to steal the development team from under their noses and, at first glance, one might see where Kotick and Co. are coming from. But games development is not a simple case of manufacturing a product on a production line as one might construct a car or a fridge. A high degree of personal investment goes hand in hand with reward expectation as well as long working hours. You can attempt to take all of the fun out of making games as much as you want, but it would appear that to then renege on the benefits of creating what was certainly the biggest success of the year is taking the piss somewhat.
Kotick’s production strategy might seem to be an unpleasant one, but even the greediest of Activision suits could not have failed to realise that contracts don’t ensure loyalty and that if you push and push for too long, one day you’ll end up with a revolt. It is a view that suggests a template of prioritisation where the franchise – in this case Modern Warfare – is paramount, and the talent is secondary. Make no mistake, whilst this split means thoroughly delicious things for us gamers with the inevitable pissing contest between Respawn’s new IP and whatever shooter appears from within the obsidian halls of Kotick’s empire, if Activision do retain the blockbuster franchise it will still sell like hotcakes even if it does descend into shiny mediocrity.
The school of thought, heavily perpetuated by Larry Probst’s period in charge of EA, and even Riccitiello’s first Presidency too, that money and title are all you really need to sell bucketloads and that talent is secondary (a concern purely for industry critics and PR reps) is a tricky one to argue against financially, but it doesn’t always work like that. A fantastic editorial from Rob Fahey over at GamesIndustry.biz highlights the acrimonious split of Sport Interactive from Eidos over Championship Manager. Eidos retained the IP but it was SI, taken up by SEGA, who won both the critical plaudits and topped the sales charts with new IP Football Manager, proof that sometimes talent does win out.
It’s something that EA themselves have been exploring since Riccitiello’s return in 2007. In that same year the publisher picked up Bioware, but gave them virtually complete autonomy. It was a move backed up in 2008 when Riccitiello came out and apologised for the demise of Bullfrog, Origin, and Westwood Studios amongst others, ‘We at EA blew it, and to a degree I was involved in these things, so I blew it,’ he said at the time:
‘Creative teams can be thought of as flowers in a hothouse — you move the temperature up or down a few degrees and the flowers will die. [...] The fear that talent will flee a studio, leaving no value left in the business, is "well-founded… it’s exactly right. [...] The command and conquer model doesn’t work. If you think you’re going to buy a developer and put your name on the label…you’re making a profound mistake.’
It’s a turnaround that was embraced by id Software, long time vocal detractors of EA’s policies, in the same year, with them signing up as an EA Partner and John Carmack declaring that EA were no longer the ‘Evil Empire’. Looking now at Bioware and Maxis it’s easy to see why.
Whilst I don’t want to paint a picture of EA as a saviour, or even much of a friendly face, in these troubled times, it would be worth looking at one more example, and a highly pertinent one at that. This little dance has been played out before, although admittedly with slightly less public acrimony, when Activision dismissed Harmonix and their software, preferring instead to acquire the hardware developers Red Octane and hand most of the development of the Guitar Hero franchise over to Neversoft. Harmonix, as it turned out, were picked up by EA and began releasing Rock Band and Kotick himself publicly acknowledged that Activision may have made a mistake there.
I for one wonder if he’ll be saying those words again this time next year.