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How Activision can save its soul

Activision is so far up Call of Duty%26rsquo;sass that it can%26rsquo;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 blinkeredfawning may well eventuallysee 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 itdoesn'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'sa 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 ofthing 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 casualaudience 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.

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 weaksoftware 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 timebetween now and thenregrouping 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 tochange its name toCall of Duty Inc., then fine. It can keep prioritising one franchise above all others and reduce the status ofits other talentto 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 couldbecome 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

Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.