Industry veteran Gordon Walton has slammed big publishers for seeing developers as "replaceable meat puppets", praising EA for at least trying to do new things under John Riccitiello, and has prophesied thatActivision's business plan will "end in catastrophe".
Speaking to GamesIndustry, Walton, who has spent 35 years involved in making video games, and worked for the likes of Disney, BioWare, SOE, and Origin, suggested that publishers often fail to see their creative employees as anything more than production line fodder. He lamented the number of times that a "coherent team" has been torn apart in the wake of a game's release, suggesting that harmonious development teams are incredibly valuable.
"A shocking thing about our business is how little attention and value is put on coherent teams," Walton said. "At a certain level of abstraction at almost all game companies, there's almost no appreciation at all for the team dynamic. 'They're just replaceable meat puppets,' and that's never, ever true. The value of a coherent team that knows how to work together is not on any balance sheet. So they regularly destroy really good functioning teams and then remake them with all the inherent risks that come from remaking a team. Even people who've advanced in the game business to the higher levels, who actually know that shit, seem to forget it. It always shocks me. If there was a Making Game Companies For Dummies book, that should be the core of it - how important coherent teams are."
He also praised John Riccitiello in the same interview for at least trying to change things at EA
"I give JR [John Riccitiello] a lot of credit for trying to change EA," Walton said. "He really worked hard at it. I think it's hard to change the DNA of a company, and that's the real struggle there. The struggle is not the leader saying 'We need to go into online.' The struggle is how the entire company structure works, how all the reward cycles within the company, how all the people in the company in positions of power grew up and what their muscle memory is. Their muscle memory is completely contrary to to many of the things that are going on now, and it's really hard to change."
He noted that Activision have stuck to their guns, and appear to be perfectly happy doing so, but that this tactic would eventually lead to a catastrophic downfall for the company.
"Here's the Activision situation from my point of view," he explained. "Because they didn't spend energy trying to change, what they've done is gotten sharper and sharper at the things that they do really well. So they're looking like the cock of the walk. They look awesome because they haven't tried stuff that's failed, other than the normal trying new franchises and they're used to those kind of failures. They've haven't said we're going to fundamentally change our company, so they're going to be that last guy standing in the console world. One day they'll be the big fish at the bottom of the pond, and there'll be almost no food left and no water, and it's going to be hard to breathe. That's how that ends; it ends in catastrophe.
"From my ten thousand foot view, it always has amazed me that these companies don't have the discipline to spin off real independent business units that can actually make autonomous decisions. They always want to make them part of their core culture, and the core culture is antithetical to new business models. The culture is part of the problem if you want to do something different. What they always want is the business to conform to them, not to conform the business to what the context is. This is an old human story."
"You can't play it safe in our business and succeed," he noted later on in the interview. "There's a time when you can get away with, but it's not a repeatable pattern. It's a hard truth, but it's one that people don't want to embrace."