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How Activision can save its soul

Activision is so far up Call of Duty’s ass that it can’t see daylight any more

Activision’s biggest problem is that which it thinks is its greatest strength. And that misperception is the source of all the bullshit currently coming out of the company, in terms of both product and attitude.

In Call of Duty, Activision has a megaton cash farm. It’s the holy grail, a franchise which appeals to hardcore gamer and undemanding casual alike (thought it’s arguably been swinging far more towards the latter market with recent entries) and as such Activision is absolutely bloody obsessed with it. And like the idiot teenager blindly lusting after the big-boobed cheerleader while other, far more interesting girls go ignored, Activision’s blinkered fawning may well eventually see it sorely left behind.

 

From the outside looking in, Activision's attitude of late has appeared downright wreckless.

"Non-CoD developer talent is being mismanaged? Who cares? CoD made a shitload of money this year, so it doesn't matter what those guys are doing. What's that you say? We’re running our other big successes into the ground with short-sighted market saturation models? Who cares? CoD is still selling stacks, however similar each entry is. But you also worry that we’re missing exciting new franchise opportunities left, right and centre? Who cares? None of those games are providing assets or tech for CoD, so screw those guys. Who cares if they sell? If they tank we’ll just hack down the dev staff and divert their resources towards more CoD. CoD CoD CoD! Lovely lovely CoD!"

If that is what's going on, then it's a desperately myopic, narrow, and limited view of the games business, and if it continues, one which will inevitably leave Activision, just like that dopey teenager mentioned above, with nothing but wanking and regret.

And that day could come sooner than you might expect. Call of Duty is making terrifying amounts of money at the moment, but as I’ve previously said, it’s doing that by pandering increasingly to the casual market. The recent Call of Duty games have been the video game equivalent of Michael Bay movies, big, brash, explosive spectacles which provide plenty of visceral gratification but demand very little of their audience. But it’s a mistake to write off the audience that loves that sort of thing as simple-minded plebs who’ll repeatedly lap up any old crap that’s fed to them.

 

The Transformers films are big business, but if there was a new Transformers film every year for five or six years? Not so much. The film industry understands the law of diminishing returns. That’s why when it recognises a potential franchise it usually bashes out a trilogy quickly and then gets the hell out of there (I'm ignoring the freak success of the Saw franchise for the purpose of this argument, obviously). Franchise restarts happen, but only after a healthy period of regrouping and replanning, and only when the market is right for it. Even the casual audience gets sick of repetition, and unlike the hardcore, it has no brand loyalty. As soon as something stops being the newest, coolest thing around, it rapidly moves on to the next shiny bauble.

In games, Nintendo has learned this, and shifted strategies away from purely catering to the waggle-party crowd. EA too, has shifted away from repeated franchise entries in favour of letting developers run with their creativity. Activision though, shows no signs of doing this. And it fails to do so at the expense of its own vitality and potentially the future health of its business. And speaking of Call of Duty, there’s one dirty big black cloud hovering over Activision that could seriously take the wind out of its sails.

Infinity Ward’s ex-bosses are preparing a monumental legal smackdown

Yeah. That little fallout from the sacking of Jason West and Vince Zampalla is still dragging on, and is set to culminate in a court case in May. During said court case, the ex-Infinity Ward men will attempt to sue Activision for a lot of money. And if they win they could take the Modern Warfare brand away too. Which would be a severe kick in the stones, especially given that Modern Warfare 3 is allegedly (and probably) already well into development.

The solution

If you haven’t already worked it out, Activision’s method of sorting itself out is simple. It needs to do the opposite of all of the above. Rapidly. The fact is, Activision is now almost a one product company. Take CoD out of the equation and you’re looking at a pretty weak software line-up. And that's exactly why Activision needs to focus its efforts elsewhere.

Activision needs to take pre-emptive action to cushion the blow that will occur should CoD start to falter in sales over the next few years, and to support it with a healthier catalogue even if it doesn’t. That just makes sound business sense. But given the car crash it’s made of the rest of its stable through mismanagement and disregard, that’s going to take time.

Basically, Activision needs to take a break. It has Bungie’s first post-Halo game coming in a couple of years, but in the meantime it should just go away and spend the time between now and then regrouping and rebooting itself in the same way that EA did a few years ago. Use CoD and a few safe sequels and sure-selling kiddie games to keep ticking over, by all means, but otherwise lay low and have a rethink.


Above: EA's break from the sequel cycle resulted in Dead Space. There's no reason Activision can't do similar

It needs to invest in new developers and change its entire attitude towards owned studios. It needs to acknowledge that it spent money on these guys for a reason, and that reason is their talent and design insight. It needs to learn to trust developers’ ideas and it needs to remember that promoting those ideas is its goddamn job as a publisher. And more than anything else, it needs to openly admit to its errors. Otherwise that new talent it so desperately needs just isn't going to trust it. Not when it can sign with EA's successful and reportedly rather benevolent EA Partners scheme instead.

If Activision wants to change its name to Call of Duty Inc., then fine. It can keep prioritising one franchise above all others and reduce the status of its other talent to mere also-rans. But that would be the sad end destination of a very naïve road. The fact is, if it takes a long hard look at itself and makes a few simple but important changes, Activision could become one of the most exciting publishers in the industry. But if it doesn't, then it could have problems, because it really is debatable just how much longer its current approach can sustain it.

January 7, 2011

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58 comments

  • 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. http://oneofswords.com/2010/06/editorial-and-singularity-makes-four/
  • 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. http://www.blurtit.com/q737605.html 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...

Showing 1-20 of 58 comments

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