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 your heart’s delight. This week we take a look at Activision-Blizzard’s ever-popular overlord to see if there really is method to the madness following his various statements in the last seven days.
Oooooh, that Bobby Kotick.
There, I felt that needed to be a paragraph all by itself. Those that follow the news of the Games Industry will most likely have voiced those four words in one form or another this week (probably with a few additional curse words) into a fully-fleshed paragraph of your own, for better or worse (probably worse), and are sick of the sight of him this week (more than probably.) Robert Kotick (or Bobby as he likes to be known to us little folk), the current CEO of Activision-Blizzard Entertainment, with an annual salary incomprehensibly beyond anything us mere mortals will earn in a lifetime, has for the best part of 18 months provided views on ActiBlizz’s products and on consumer behaviour which have caused, to put it bluntly, outrage in both the media and the voices of the gamers.
In doing so he's managed to elevate the company to the role of “the bad guys” along the way stealing the title “Evil Publisher” from wholesome-by-comparison Electronic Arts' grip. Sometimes you have to wonder if he believes his comments are only broadcast to the business elite or that us common folk don’t have the capacity to hear or understand anything he’s saying (assuming we could tear ourselves away from World of Warfare or Modern Warcraft 2 long enough to take them in, of course. We’re easily entertained minions after all!).
He’d be wrong though. Mighty wrong. Which is how he's managed to earn his recent reputation as Lex Luthor, Emperor Palpatine and Sideshow Bob combined to provoke outrage from both the Gaming media and Community as a whole. I won’t lie, I too have felt the anger and vitriol that has been unleashed online towards Mr Kotick and Activision, but this week I actually took a step back after the news that Kotick declared that there are no quality independent developers left in the world, bar Bungie. You see, that comment was so audacious (and just plain wrong) that it made me stop to wonder; will ActiBlizz continue its success into the future under his leadership or will it ultimately suffer a slump similar to EA? To try and answer that, we need to look at the bigger picture: here's a few of Bobby K's recent greatest hits.
First up: paying for in-game cutscenes. This is what I consider a horrible step backwards for a growing art form. Yes, I’ll get this out the way now; in my own (admittedly not so scholarly) opinion, computer games are a very clever interactive art form. This is in huge part thanks to the evolving nature of gaming over the last 15 years that has allowed us as gamers to evolve our experience from “go from Point A to Point B, complete some objectives along the way, rinse / repeat, BAM said the lady, job done” to giving the user the opportunity to explore virtual worlds, to experience the situation the character in front of us is facing. This has been achieved by containing a narrative that is a reward for the player to continue with the experience (forgive me for digressing, that’ll be another topic for another night!). Taking that away that narrative and placing it in one linear movie would rip that experience from the user.
Imagine, as Bobby has suggested, that the cutscenes from Starcraft 2 were put together to form a movie. I agree with him that the cinematics from the game are wonderful and Blizzard's characters are a joy to see come alive, but without experiencing the struggle Jim Raynor and his merry men face with Zerg rushes and Dominion onslaught would it be the same experience for the consumer? Hell no. It’s like watching Bioshock instead of playing Bioshock; as a film it might seem predictable, but as an interactive experience it can scare and shock the crap out of you because you are in control of the character’s fate.
It’s almost as if Mr Kotick wishes to remove the user element from gaming, after all, people are stupid. We need regenerating health in our games to survive waves of enemies, and all that stress actually thinking will kill the consumers! Let’s make sure they live longer AND ActiBlizz make a profit by entering an industry that already exists!
Of course, if Bobby were to enlist Uwe Boll to direct cutscenes for some of their games then he can by all means separate them from the core product and then keep the damn things away from me. Far, far away.
Next up; the idea of a subscription-based Call of Duty. Well, it works for World of Warcraft, right? Why not take all those players of Call of Duty and put them all in a world where they can endlessly shoot each other online for a fee? It’s a sure-fire winner on paper! There are, of course, several gigantic holes in this plan. For instance, WoW takes place on external servers, modern COD games do not. If the way the game is hosted stays the same, you're going to have a hard time justifying a fee just to let players host the game themselves. How does he plan to get the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC (yes, people do still in fact play the game on their PCs, weird, I know...) to all play together? Or are we going to segregate the audience? And let’s not even get into WoW having regular patches, 24/7 customer service, and a steady stream of new content to keep the players happy.
Of course, all this is assuming that ActiBlizz keeps COD as it currently is; an FPS deathmatch arena. If their plans were to turn it into a huge persistent war zone (similar to MAG on the PS3) then they might be onto something (although even then, MAG is free-to-play after purchase). But then it wouldn’t really be COD anymore. They might even approach it like Bungie Pro, being more of a cosmetic addition to the gaming experience to access extra uploading space or features. That I wouldn’t mind, but it would depend on what's for sale - if it turned out to be additional weapons or even perks it would be a disaster for the consumer. It would create an unfair playing field that would force players to either get said subscription to even things up, fight an uphill struggle or stop playing, but of course by that point Bobby’s already got your money out of you, you’re surplus to requirement.
Of course, this is all speculation while he continues to play his cards close to his chest but it’s a scary thought as to where COD might go with its online component. God help us if he considers a pay-per-frag system where we’re charged 10p every time you die in-game… oh god, I’m giving him ideas. PLEASE, NO ONE TELL HIM THAT ONE.
Finally I have to come back to his point of Bungie being the last great indie developer. As I have previously stated, games are an interactive artform, and art is subjective. Can we really trust the subjective view of a guy who is more concerned with making money than the product or even the consumer? I don’t wish to speak for everyone but I assume the answer would be “no.” Besides, if that were really the case we wouldn’t see any innovation in the industry, ActiBlizz would have no reason to push themselves, the industry would buckle and then there wouldn’t be as many money and champagne fights in the office for ol' Bobby and chums.
It’s not just me who feels this way either, he was recently called out by the former head of Bungie for the same argument in a light hearted open letter. At the end of the day the only voice he and ActiBlizz will listen to is that of our wallets. I haven’t agreed with their yearly releases (much like I haven’t with EA’s) and apart from Starcraft 2, the last product I bought from them was COD 4. That’s just my preference though; there are those of you out there that do enjoy the games and the service that are provided with them. If you think that they are fantastic online services and enjoyable games then you should continue buying their products, but if you aren’t happy with it and are just purchasing “because everyone else is getting it” then it really is a sad day for the consumer.
And humanity for that matter.
I’d like to make one thing clear though; Bobby Kotick is a very clever man. He would not have reached the position he has and helped Activision get to where it is today without being astute in business. Perhaps the most alarming thing about his rantings is that if he didn't think the market would let him get away with it, he wouldn't say it. Who knows, perhaps Kotick follows the teachings of the great Philosopher Jagger when approaching the consumer, “You’re can’t always get what you want, but if you try real hard, sometimes, you get what you need.” That said, as EA will probably testify to, that philosophy can be a wonderfully two-way street. Best keep your eyes on the road there Bobby, it might be a bumpy ride.