How Activision can save its soul

It might be the biggest third-party publisher in the world, but Activision has problems. Big problems. And those problems are just the foundation for a whole lot more trouble to come if it doesn’t seriously sort itself out over the next couple of years.

However much Call of Duty sells, however successful the short-term, smash and grab profiteering opportunism of Bobby ‘everyone hates me but I don’t care’ Kotick, things really are not okay over at Activision. In fact it's teetering on the brink of a very messy situation indeed, a situation that could soon see the Activision party crash into a hideous hangover and stumble straight into a brick wall.

But don’t worry. I have solutions. I can make it okay again. I can make it better than it was before. Read on, and I'll detail the current horrors and the future fixes.

Activision’s line-up is a shadow of what it once was

Activision is big for a reason. And that reason is the same that supports the success of any big game publisher. A wide and eclectic portfolio of strong franchises and a healthy cultivation of new ideas. Or at least that was the case in the old days. The current state of play is very different.


Looking back at the line-up that got Activision to where it is now, you’ll find a stellar collection of series and one-off games spanning several decades. Tony Hawk’s. Call of Duty. Guitar Hero. The Spider-man movie games. Prototype. The majority of id Software games stretching back to ports of the original Doom. Geometry Wars. A stack of Star Trek stuff. The Star Wars Jedi Knight franchise. Soldier of Fortune. Tenchu. The Enemy Territory series. It’s a handsome selection.

But now? Call of Duty is still rocking the monster sales, but Guitar Hero is running on fumes (latest entry Warriors of Rock sold just 86, 000 in its first week over three formats, contrasting with GH On Tour's 500, 000), and all attempted Hero spin-offs have failed. Bethesda now owns id, so that line’s out. The Spider-Man games have long since lost their way, and Lucasarts is handling Star Wars on its own. The Star Trek license has gone. Tony Hawk has been progressively smashed into the ground with uninspired sequels and is now nothing more than a novelty peripheral-based toy that no-one buys. Original Soldier of Fortune dev Raven is still with Activision, but is being utterly stifled. And that leads me on to my next point. But essentially, aside from one megaton franchise, Activision ain't got much worth shouting about.

It has wasted all of its dev talent over recent years

Activision used to have a killer line-up of developers on its books, and it bloody well knew how to get the best out of them. Now only the first half of that scenario is true.

Above: Spielberg. Wedding photos. We're talking about that level of wasted talent

For all of the licenses and titles Activision has lost over the years, it’s always been in possession of the talent to replace them. It has Raven, one of the most stalwart and consistently reliable developers in FPS. Raven created the groundbreaking Soldier of Fortune franchise and produced two very successful games for it. But that was when Raven’s talent was nurtured and allowed to breathe. The studio has recently been treated as a poor relation, downsized repeatedly and having had its recent stunner Singularity crushed by a dearth of marketing.

Activision has Neversoft, original developer of the utterly fantastic Tony Hawk’s series. But it ground that franchise into the dirt with needless demands for yearly sequels and then turned its talented creator into nothing more than a maintenance worker on the endless, thankless Guitar Hero production line. On the subject of music games, Activision also owns FreeStyle Games, creator of the innovative and rather marvellous DJ Hero series, which has sadly never seen the success it deserves.

Above: I know what you're thinking. Now those boys need a tossed out film license

And it just about still owns Bizarre Creations, the corkingly talented bunch behind Metropolis Street Racer, the Project Gotham Racing series and the Geometry Wars games. But Bizarre was put on a “mature” kart racer by the name of Blur, which suffered from a muddled basic concept and poor marketing. After that, Activision handed Bizarre the totally unsuitable poison chalice of the Bond license, farted out its game, Blood Stone, with minimal fanfare, and now has the studio flagged up for closure or sale.

Slip your brain into a parallel universe for a moment. Do you see how different it could be right now if Activision had spent the last few years letting this talent develop new ideas instead of smashing its collective face into the bloodied brick wall of banal franchise fuel? If it had had enough faith in said talent's abilities to let it produce new IPs, and had then marketed those new games with pride and confidence? If that had happened, well, then we’d have a fantastic situation. Activision’s shareholders would be happy, its developers would be happy, and we as gamers would be very happy.

But it didn’t do that. Why? I’ll tell you why

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  • skyline19 - January 10, 2011 11:54 a.m.

    Since Guitar Hero I've always had a dislike for Activision, I just hate those games, too expensive and probably the biggest money grabbing franchise of all time. Despite how much fun they can be with friends. Singularity could of been their IP, I never played it but I've been meaning to pick it up thanks to it's sexual harrassment on here.
  • Japanaman - January 9, 2011 9:38 p.m.

    Why not release all properties but COD and release nothing but COD games each year? We could get COD, CODMW, and CODFW each year. Heck, why not release a COD for Kids featuring Nerf Guns?
  • Rivenscry - January 9, 2011 10:01 a.m.

    Why can't Game Developers these days make a single player campaign that goes for more than 5-6 hours? I know there must be plenty of exceptions to this rule, but I can't seem to find any. I've heard the Black-Op's Campaign only went for about 5 hours and I was like: What the hell? I get that Multi player is insanely popular and makes them an insane amount of money, but I will always turn to single player first, second and last in a game. Sorry for the slight incoherence of this post, but it just really peeves me that they keep on whoring the COD franchise (I loved the first game, but really?) and giving almost to no press to great gems like Singularity. Voice of Survival, out!
  • manicania - January 9, 2011 4:01 a.m.

    I haven't bought a CoD game to date (Modern War and FPS' just aren't my thing), don't get me wrong, I like shooters, but CoD just fails so hard in this category in my opinion. With Guitar Hero, the only one I bought was III: Legends of Rock. It was an excellent game. Since then, not a single good GH game has come out, in my opinion. So I'm sticking with Harmonix for my music games now.
  • manicania - January 9, 2011 3:49 a.m.

    Activision is acting like Adobe. A new product comes out every year and all that's changed is maybe 2 or 3 things. They're not making sequels, they're making the same game with different sub-titles. Ask yourself: What's the difference between Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, CoD: MW2, and CoD: Black Ops? Answer: Very little (mayve 5 or 6 things between each game) Have the mechanics changed? Have any new abilities or features been added? Like Adobe Photoshop, if you own CS4, you won't need to buy another one until CS6 or CS7 comes out. Because you know CS5 is just like 4 only one or two things have been changed. That's how I look at it. Nowadays anyway.
  • MrRagequit - January 9, 2011 1:13 a.m.

    Dan Amrich will love this article..........
  • philipshaw - January 8, 2011 7:13 p.m.

    This article is spot on,what they don't realise is that you are meant to take the money you make from COD and invest it in new IPs that can become as big as COD
  • sheah1 - January 8, 2011 4:32 p.m.

    I'd say that Activision is the new EA but EA are still EA so....
  • Gameguy94 - January 8, 2011 4:15 p.m.

    The thought of EA owning Modernwarfare given how much Activision relies on it is very amusing.
  • Crabhand - January 8, 2011 8:04 a.m.

    @DanAmrich "then when they release original IPs and fresh games, you need to support them accordingly." That becomes a little more difficult when the general gaming public, both core and casual, don't even know these IPs exist. For example, Singularity, a game that has come highly recommended by several editors on this site, got absolutely no serious advertising. I follow a great deal of gaming news and media and I never new the game existed beyond a few small blurbs. People can't be expected to care about a new IP if we are never encouraged to care. But you say Activision may be in the middle of a turn around, which could be intriguing and I hope it is earnest. Until then, however, I'll be looking to other publishers for quality titles.
  • BadCompanyBrik - January 8, 2011 7:29 a.m.

    @SharkBot "I hope they boot-up cross platform Halo with activision, i would love to smash fanboys on my PC.": The Halo IP is staying with Microsoft, and is being developed by the 'obviously created specifically to crank Halo, just look at its name' 343i, which admittedly does have many former Bungie employees. Bungie is no longer working on Halo. It'll very likely be a new IP, though it is slightly possible that they could do one of their really old, practically unknown IPs.
  • QWERTYCommander - January 8, 2011 5:58 a.m.

    I could re-edit this article with just one list entry: "Bobby Kotick, GTFO of Activision." RIP
  • xenon - January 8, 2011 4:27 a.m.

    Publishers must die. Seriously.
  • garnsr - January 8, 2011 3:51 a.m.

    I'd be sadder about Dan Amrich losing his job than anything else if Activision went belly up. I'm always surprised to find myself playing an Activision game on those rare occasions that I do, much like when I play an EA game. There's something more "gamey" to Activision's games, I feel, that I don't quite enjoy. If Activision fell apart, and the studios were free again, and all we lost was CoD, would that be so bad? Activision's name seems more like a warning to me than something that beckons me to buy a game.
  • misfit119 - January 8, 2011 12:12 a.m.

    It's a lot harder to support those fresh games when Activision does little to let anyone know that they even exist. I honestly don't have enough faith in Kotick at this point to believe that he's really pushing to see more original IP's coming out of the company. With how they dragged and pulled and yanked the Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero franchises into the floor but still yank them out constantly to embarrass themselves I'm rather positive they've learned nothing over the past year, year and a half.
  • DanAmrich - January 7, 2011 11:27 p.m.

    I also stand by my editorial from earlier in the year. If you take Activision to task for relying on one or two franchises, then when they release original IPs and fresh games, you need to support them accordingly.
  • DanAmrich - January 7, 2011 11:25 p.m.

    @DLSemen "Somewhere in LA, Dan Amrich is crying a little." No, not really. I understand David's perspective and his commentary makes sense. But...well, David has come to this conclusion now, so imagine what has happened since Activision came to the same conclusion long before. It might be intended as tough-love criticism -- or it might just be a slow news day where traffic needs to be generated -- but either way, it's not really insightful. Then again, "You shouldn't put all your eggs in one basket" makes a less sexy headline because that advice is literally 400 years old. So reading it, yeah, I totally get his point. But I think the kind of developments and evolutions that he says need to be made are already being made -- they just haven't been announced yet. So I'm not crying, I'm just waiting to see how things turn out.
  • EwoksTasteLikeChicken - January 7, 2011 11:20 p.m.

    I love that at the top of the second page! Really though, if I have to choose between a Halo CE remake or a MW3, I'll choose Halo.
  • mahabat - January 7, 2011 11:14 p.m.

    the above... 38 comments, all saying the same thing. haha read everyone elses comments first, anyway swearing off activision isn't going to help the one indie game a year they make, try not getting call of duty one year , i only get one every other year.
  • chriszewski - January 7, 2011 11:11 p.m.

    @soren7550 @Bloodstorm If you strike him down, he will become more powerful than you can ever imagine...