The News Keeps Getting Worse at Activision

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Jan 23, 2019

Filed under: Column 72 comments

This week I’ve whipped up a delicious bowl of schadenfreude for you to enjoy at the expense of Activision Blizzard.

One small correction: I called Bungie a “subsidiary”. It didn’t occur to me to question this, simply because indie AAA studios are so rare these days. I mean, even id Software is owned by a publisher now. When Bungie signed on with Activision, I just naturally assumed they’d been bought. But apparently their relationship was one of partnership rather than ownership. Good for them. It certainly saved them in this case. Too bad more studios don’t have the leverage to secure these kinds of deals rather than selling themselves to the bumbling and fickle publishers.

I ended the column on a hopeful note, with the idea that this train wreck might result in a change of leadership. Given what’s happening to the stock price, it’s certainly possible that Kotick’s days at the company are numbered. On the other hand, anyone that replaced him would most likely be someone he hired. Getting a company to admit they have a problem is incredibly difficult. The most obvious obstacle is that you need executives who aren’t allowed to make mistakes to admit that they made mistakes. On top of that, it’s hard to see the money you’re not making. When you release the buggy and unfinished Shoot Guy 3 to make sure it hits shelves in time for Christmas, you can’t do a direct comparison with how the polished version of the same game would have sold in March. You can’t see the drop in customer loyalty and enthusiasm for the franchise as a result of the unpolished version.

If a game is a technical success but an artistic failure, it’s easy to shrug and conclude that people are just getting sick of the Shoot Guy series. You have to understand mechanics and narratives to properly appraise the work of your studios.

Dear Bob Projectmanager,

Looking at the pre-release builds of the latest SG, I think this one is missing the spark the earlier games were known for. The skill ceiling is too low. (Homing grenades negate the grenade long-throw trick shots players used to do. The AI sits behind cover and never attempts to flank. You guys had flanking enemies back in 2005! You were one of the first studios to make it look good!) The story is predictable and these cutscenes drag on forever. (Why do we spend so much time with Dr. Invento talking about his University days when none of that has any bearing on the plot? The audience gets it, he’s really smart and educated! Get On With It!) The vibrant art style of the original 90s classic has been reduced to boilerplate photorealism. (I saw the first screenshots and I honesty thought they were from Call of Duty.) There’s nothing technically wrong with any of this, but it’s not fun to play.

It’s too close to release to fix this, but we need to have a conversation about what’s changed in the design process since Shoot Guy III. This work is not up to the standards of your studio.

Sincerely,

Shamus Young, President of Videogames

This is the kind of appraisal executives need in order to make informed decisions, and you can’t do this if you’re not an avid gamerReviews might help, but those are aimed at consumers and are edited for brevity. Also, they arrive too late and very few of them do us the favor of analysis. They’ll tell us the game is boring, but nobody is paying them to figure out WHY.. If you’re an executive then it’s easy to see the graphics look good, the game has all the required features, and the cutscenes look Hollywood-ish. As far as you can tell, Uncharted and nu Tomb Raider are the same game. If one sells and the other doesn’t, then you’ll probably blame it on name recognition or female protagonists or a dozen other superficial details.

Worse, fan response to established franchises often punish sequels for the sins of the preceding entries. If Shoot Guy IV is technically sound but artistically vapid, it will probably sell fine based on its existing base of eager fans. But after a disappointing experience, a lot of those fans won’t be excited for the next one. When Shoot Guy V sells poorly, executives will start wondering what they did wrong with V rather than looking back at the previous games.

Your typical games executive is a bus driver that keeps driving his passengers into a ditch. So he shrugs his shoulders. Roads are unpredictable, passengers are too heavy, and the only way to keep the business going in this economy is to start charging passengers for using the bathroom.

This is what really annoys me about the whole thing. The leadership isn’t even knowledgeable enough to realize things are their fault. They’re not shifting blame to escape punishment, they’re shifting blame because they don’t even know they’re incompetent.

Maybe a change in leadership won’t fix the mess at Activision, but it might be a little cathartic to see the boss resign in disgraceAnd then slink back to his mansion with his millions of dollars in severance pay and live a long life never knowing just how much damage he did..

 

Footnotes:

[1] Reviews might help, but those are aimed at consumers and are edited for brevity. Also, they arrive too late and very few of them do us the favor of analysis. They’ll tell us the game is boring, but nobody is paying them to figure out WHY.

[2] And then slink back to his mansion with his millions of dollars in severance pay and live a long life never knowing just how much damage he did.



From The Archives:
 

72 thoughts on “The News Keeps Getting Worse at Activision

  1. Bloodsquirrel says:

    The question is- will Destiny 3 be a return to form, or is the damage at Bungie already done?

    1. Lino says:

      I think the more important question is: “How will Bobby Kotick be able to afford a new yacht now that their deal with Bungie fell through?”

      1. DerJungerLudendorff says:

        Don’t be silly. The yacht will be part of the severance deal.

    2. Jabberwok says:

      Which form are they supposed to be returning to?

      1. Bloodsquirrel says:

        Destiny 2 was largley considered to be dissapointing, with less polish than the original, and the expansions were very thin on content.

        1. Jabberwok says:

          Yeah, I’ve heard it’s been less popular. I’ve also heard from a couple critics that think the disappointment was undeserved, though I haven’t played it myself. Destiny 1 was the disappointment for me, as a long-time Bungie fan.

    3. Mephane says:

      Some people speculate Destiny 3 won’t be made at all, and instead Destiny 2 will keep getting expanded upon for many years to come now. Apparently the deal with Activision included the plan to release 3 games, hence everyone was expecting Destiny 3 because Bungie were contractually obliged to do that. And for a game of this type, it is definitely better to expand the game than pump out sequel after sequel.

      [rant]That said, I don’t really personally care about the franchise any more. I quit the game when Bungie started making the grind more grindier, lowered the power level soft cap, leaning even more heavily on dailies and weeklies to progress, in order to appease the few hardcore players that were angry about “those filthy casuals” being able to keep up with the grind, leaving them little to look down upon.[/rant]

      1. Bloodsquirrel says:

        I don’t know… I’d think if Bungie wanted a game that they just keep pumping out expansions for they’d want to start over with a base that was explicitly designed for that- and possibly one that isn’t still published under Activision.

        Besides, it would give them a chance to re-brand a little after a disappointing product.

        1. ccesarano says:

          This is both my prediction and my hope. I believe they will try and develop a more content rich game whose mechanics are closer to the original vision and better designed for evergreen support. My hope of hopes is that it will be able to support maps and game modes from Destiny 1 and 2, but who knows how much work that will take.

          The real catch is they don’t have to finish it this year, or even next, as long as expansions can support the current player base. I think Destiny 2 is too tainted by Activision’s influence, though, and even if it has improved I feel it could better be cleaned up in one last iteration.

          1. Jabberwok says:

            My hope is that the company will somehow rehire Marty O’Donnell and Joe Staten while whittling away some of the dead wood in management, and go back to being awesome. Probably too much to ask for…

        2. Sleeping Dragon says:

          I don’r really follow Bungie or Destiny very closely, I kinda started playing 2 casually a while ago when I got the code in Humble Monthly but never seriously got into the game, but in a recent Checkpoint episode Graham Stark of LRR gets in a bit of a rant about how Destiny 2’s issues are to a large extent on Bungie’s side. He might have gotten into more detail in the aftershow (they usually spend about an hour discussing the news on live stream after they finish recording) and obviously there is no way of knowing how exactly the dealings between Bungie and Activision went, at best we’d get into a “he said, she said” between the two companies but listening to this I wouldn’t exactly hold my breath.

          1. shoeboxjeddy says:

            The Checkpoint segment was HEAVILY flawed. A good example is the section where they correctly point out that Bungie thought up the idea of the microtransaction store. That seems to be true. What they didn’t correctly figure on was that it was a makeshift solution to an Activision requirement. They could rush out something that was not ready to meet the requirements of their contract or take a reasonable amount of development time to fully finish content and compromise with Activision on microtransactions so that Activision wouldn’t punish them for missing a benchmark. So the obvious thing there is that if they weren’t beholden to Activision, they wouldn’t have had to “make up” for anything. They would have just done what they thought was best in terms of release schedule. This isn’t to say that the new version of the game (whatever form that takes) will be free of microtransactions. Maybe now that Bungie has a lot of experience with them, they like them and find them valuable. That could be the case! But they won’t be taking suggestions from the Activision peanut gallery to finish things based on an arbitrary contract established years ahead of time.

            1. Sleeping Dragon says:

              To be fair Checkpoint is ultimately a comedy show more than an attempt at journalism (which I know undermines my point of bringing it into the discussion, mostly wanted to call out a dissenting opinion from someone who’s more invested in the game’s wellbeing than I am). Personally I did actually interpret it as “Bungie came up with microtransactions to fulfill their obligations to Activision” even though Graham did not present it entirely that way, also, I don’t know if the system has been changed but at least as a casual player I was not bothered by microtransactions in 2 so this definitely wasn’t the key issue for me, I’d say some of the other stuff he mentions seems a bit more on point but again, I’m not invested in Destiny enough to actually go and do the research and I suppose at the end of the day nobody outside of Bungie (and maybe Activision) has the inside knowledge to prove stuff one way or another. All I’m saying is I’m not going to hold my breath about D3 (or whatever form it takes) being the best thing since sliced bread.

              1. shoeboxjeddy says:

                The way I interpreted it was “the ideas that ruined the game (partially) came from Bungie, not Activision” which leaves out the very important WHY and alternative things that could have happened. Perfect example from today, Nintendo cancelled the development of Metroid Prime 4 from some other dev and gave it back to Retro Studios. That’s a BIG investment in the game being better, they’ve essentially avoided the sunk cost fallacy and invested in the idea of a good sequel. I do not think Activision does this. They would have sent the bad version of MP4 out to die and saved money by slashing its marketing budget.

  2. John says:

    I might feel more schadenfreude if I ever played anything published or developed by Activision, Blizzard, Activision-Blizzard, or any combination thereof. I haven’t touched a Blizzard game since the first StarCraft or an Activision game since the era of Quake 3 and Heavy Gear 2. I think. I have some sense of what Blizzard does, but what is Activision up to these days? Is it just those endless modern military shooters that I can’t possibly hope to distinguish from one another? I mostly play strategy and role-playing games these days and Activision doesn’t seem interested in any of that.

    1. Lino says:

      Yeah, the last Blizzard game I tried to play was Diablo 3, and I was very disappointed. I also played Wings of Liberty, but I never got around to the sequels. I honestly can’t remember the last Activision game I played – it was probably one of the Modern Warfares, just to see what all the fuss was about.
      In the case of the executives running AAA studios, the most accurate way to summarize their behaiviour is: “When you are dead, you do not know you are dead. It is only painful for others. The same applies when you are stupid”. Most people never look for the fault in themselves, and it’s understandable – introspection is a very unpleasant thing, and it’s always easier to blame others.

    2. Joshua says:

      Not sure if I’ve played an Activision game since River Raid myself…..

      1. tremor3258 says:

        Activision used to publish Star Trek games; those were better days (late 90s) in gaming overall, honestly.

        1. John says:

          Except in certain very obvious cases, like the Great Video Game Crash which separated the Atari 2600 from the NES, I am reluctant to say that one era is or was better for video games than another. It’s all very subjective. For me, right now is a wonderful time for video games. Games are cheap, convenient to buy, and plentiful. If I want to buy a new game, there’s bound to be something interesting and affordable available. But I can see how, say, someone whose favorite genre or franchise was in the doldrums might disagree. It is probably not a great time, for example, to be an RTS fan, at least not compared to the 90s.

          1. Matthew Downie says:

            I remember the 90s as being an exciting time for RTS releases, partly because there were only about 6 notable RTS games available on the PC (Warcraft, Command and Conquer, Age of Empires…). Now there are hundreds available on Steam. By most objective measures, it’s a good time to be an RTS fan, unless your specific RTS preference is not being catered for.

          2. Viktor says:

            Late 90s/early 2000’s hit a very specific window of enough power for 3d and large areas, low expectations from consumers, cheap storytelling(because no real VA), lots of incentive to experiment, and minimal pre-conceived rules on HOW a game “should” be. It’s not that games then were perfect, but there were a lot of them that were very good, especially compared to their predecessors, and they all were trying new stuff. Games today are objectively better in a lot of ways, but they’ll never be as new and incredible as games were then.

            1. Tremor3258 says:

              I was mainly thinking the lack of microtransactions and that bug patches came out.

    3. Lars says:

      Prototype 2 of 2012 was the last Activision game I went through. I played it in 2017. Which date counts?
      The last Blizzard game I played was Hearthstone for a few weeks. The last Blizzard game with an end to reach would be Broad War.

  3. Karma The Alligator says:

    Funny how it goes, I haven’t touched a game from any of those studios that’s more recent than a 2010 release (and no, WoW isn’t included. never touched the bugger), so I’ll just leave my usual comment in these situations: a wake up call would be most welcome, but the way it’s going, they might just end up crashing and burning.

    1. Lino says:

      a wake up call would be most welcome, but the way it’s going, they might just end up crashing and burning.

      Crashing and burning, or doubling down on what they’re already doing, i.e. cutting costs and cranking out the same bland games every year, i.e. the shit that got them in this mess to begin with.

      1. Echo Tango says:

        Eventually, I think either medium-budget games that focus on being good will start pushing them out of the market, and/or those types of games will start getting pitched to and accepted by the big publishers. The big guys are slow to catch on, but they do eventually shift – we did after all, escape the all-brown grossness-era of videogames. :)

        1. Lino says:

          Come to think of it, we might start seeing that sooner rather than later. With the correction we currently have going on, most analysts are expecting bad times to come in 2019, or 2020 at the latest. Bad times usually call for cuts, and less risky projects. Suddenly, publishers might warm to the prospect of producing several small-medium sized games instead of one big-sized game.

  4. Hector says:

    Activision somewhat puzzles me, as I just don’t understand the execs there. (I don’t like EA, but I understand why they do what they do, even if it’s foolish.) It’s like Activision assimilated all the worst practices of business in general.

    The weird secret of video games is that IP isn’t that valuable over the long-run, but it’s treated like pure gold. Meanwhile, studios that deliver are treated as nothing more than a Business Asset that can be created casually, micromanaged by finance, and is of no great value if closed. The reality is exactly the opposite: studuis can create new IP, and with a good hook and marketing push from the publisher can show strong sales very quickly. (Yes, it’s absolutely ideal to have an established brand). But without a good creative and development team, the IP is less than worthless; it can actually become a millstone around your neck since you don’t know how to manage the use of it.

    Activision bought up Blizzard, and how they’re desperately trying to wring the neck of the golden goose. They’re similarly tearing up the couches with their other games trying to grab the small change that fell behind the cushions. Of course, once they’ve done that they will be left with a half-destroyed couch, and, at best, a pocketful of small change. Then what?

    I may have another rant in me about how gamers tend to blame stockholders or “the market” for the behavior of executives, which is particularly apt in the case of Activision.

    1. Jabberwok says:

      I don’t find this puzzling, though. It’s exactly what a business exec with no understanding of the medium would do. They can’t appraise the value of one particular artist over another, bu they do understand branding and marketing. Just as they can’t properly parse the failures of a project, they can’t understand the reasons for success either. Which means they can’t distinguish a good dev team from a bad one.

      1. Hector says:

        Sorry, I read my own post and yours and realized I indeed wasn’t very clear.

        By analogy, most people get into Real Estate without being an expert. However, they educate themselves, and a good agent understands the neighborhood and can talk to the client. They know to upsell, but not too much. That’s what I mean. I have no problem with execs who don’t game ( although would you hire a movie exec who had never bothered to watch a single film?). I do have problem with execs who know nothing about their own industry.

        1. Joshua says:

          As a person who works in the business world, it’s a very odd concept to me that you would have execs who are generally ignorant of their own product. I’ve basically worked in primarily Medical and Oil & Gas, and all of the executives I worked with in both were very knowledgeable about the product and industry in addition to their business savvy.

          For example, in my current Oil & Gas industry, a CFO that only analyzed Free Cash Flow, Fixed Asset turnover, etc., yet remained proudly ignorant of how natural gas is produced, or NGLs extracted from a gas stream….well, they wouldn’t last long. You don’t need to know as much information as the Operations or Marketing people, but you need to know enough to follow along a conversation.

          1. Jabberwok says:

            I don’t doubt that some game execs know a lot, but a game is a multidisciplinary piece of art and programming. Even an in-depth technical knowledge of how the product works (which is probably impossible here, considering few would even have coding backgrounds, and even if they did it would be too much) doesn’t necessarily give them any insight into what makes it good or bad as a piece of entertainment, any more than a good photographer would be expected to know how to write good dialogue. Probably in fact much less…

            Plus, major publishers churn out a variety of different projects every year. Even if they have a general idea how a game is made, and managed to play all of the games they released, they would have little insight into the development of each one (I would assume). When an indie dev team has a flop, you could probably talk to any of them and get a laundry list of the things that were wrong with development. But talk to a AAA publisher head with a background in finance, and I’m guessing their list of things wrong would be more like, “Well, we released in third quarter and should’ve saved the push for blablabla 18 to 30 demographic.”

            Now if a game were a single product that could be reliably produced and sold according to a single blueprint over and over like an assembly line, it would be much easier for the high muck-a-mucks to have a handle on it. [Like Madden and FIFA, I guess.] But arts and entertainment is a different beast. It’s not a single item that gets consumed then purchased again, forever.

            1. Lino says:

              Yes, knowing how to make a game is hard. When you have dozens of people pitching projects to you, it’s very hard to know which one will turn into a good product – regardless of the industry you’re in, or your knowledge of it. But the problem with game executives is that they can’t tell a good product from a bad one. Like Hector said above me, this is like a Hollywood studio hiring an executive who’s never seen a single film, and who’s only experience watching films is watching the films his studio’s made during his tenure as CEO.

          2. decius says:

            The CFO doesn’t need an engineering background, but every executive should know everything about the company that doesn’t require an engineering background.

    2. shoeboxjeddy says:

      The problem is that market analysis will bear out that brand generally IS more valuable than developer. If you want examples:
      -Infinity Ward dominates the entire industry with the one-two-three punches of Call of Duty 2, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2. In return, Activision constantly ignores the wishes of their superstar developers and tries to chain them to the wheel of Call of Duty sequels forever. IW’s core leadership breaks away and sues Activision (successfully! with a big settlement payout) for millions. The now free developers create the new developer Respawn and create a new IP with even more advanced ideas in Titanfall. Activision pays dearly for its hubris by… making more money than ever with scab developers on more Call of Duty sequels, including Modern Warfare 3. Meanwhile, Titanfall hits the market like a deflating whoopie cushion and Respawn is mistreated by its NEW mega-publisher as well. That’ll teach ’em!
      -Similarly, Harmonix strikes gold with their Guitar Hero idea. But they don’t want to stop there. They have the talent and the plan to expand from a Guitar Hero to a full Rock Band. But Activision is not interested. Just make a Guitar Hero 3 exactly like 1 and 2 is what they want. Harmonix strikes off on their own, leaving the Guitar Hero brand behind. Now it’s time for the market to decide. Guitar Hero 3, a samey sequel with noticeably less enthusiasm or musical know how behind it (the song charts are DIRE) or Rock Band the exciting expansion to everything that Guitar Hero was. Guitar Hero 3 dwarfs Rock Band’s sales by a large magnitude. Ha ha ha, take that corporate HACK suits! Then the suits take a victory lap and plagiarize the concept they said no to with Guitar Hero 4: We Also Have a Rock Band Edition. Which also sold quite well.

      My point being, the market doesn’t actually penalize big brands for being run cynically or with evil intent. Depending on the franchise, you CAN fire or steal from the talent and completely get away with it.

      1. Jabberwok says:

        Well, similar to what Shamus mentioned, I think it’s hard to prove this one way or the other. We don’t know what could’ve happened differently, but a company with enough money has it in their power to steamroll their way to continued popularity (as the cost of maintaining profits continually goes up). It seems to me that AAA publishing tends to engage in a lot of self-fulfilling prophesizing. In other words budgets for both development and PR reflect projected sales. Then the game sells because it had a massive marketing budget. We have no idea if a different project with the same resources would’ve done better or worse. Same thing happens in Hollywood, as far as I can tell.

        And as you said, publishers are mostly interested in milking a single product with repeated releases. This tends to wear out the brand, but when the interest is in short-term gain, that doesn’t really matter…

        Market analysis is an exercise in prioritizing correlation over causation. The company knows a particular product is successful, but doesn’t know what made it successful. So hunt for successful licenses and names and capitalize on them, and you don’t even need to understand why they were good to begin with.

        1. Thomas says:

          The fact that Titanfall 1 has done worse than COD and the fact that Titanfall 2 seems to have done worse than Titanfall 1, that seems like pretty good evidence against.

          When does Shamus’ idea start kicking in, Titanfall 3?

          In the meantime, COD has made so much money since Infinity Ward left, IW would need multiple decades of world wide success to catch up on the cash Activision has made milking the franchise.

          1. Jabberwok says:

            That’s the point, though, Call of Duty has an immense amount of brand recognition, and brand recognition can be created. Even my friends who know absolutely nothing about video games were talking about Red Dead Redemption 2. This isn’t because it’s the best game ever made, or even the most recognizable gaming franchise ever. It’s because of god knows how much unholy energy being invested in marketing it.

            The Infinity Ward example is a great case of everything being discussed here. The brand was given value by the people who made it. Company hijacks the brand to capitalize on that value. But brands will eventually wear out, and then the company needs new ones made by good developers. Easiest way to get it is to buy something already successful. Then run that name into the ground as well. Rinse and repeat.

            That normal life cycle is upset a bit by the few names that manage to reach recognition with a broader audience (like CoD), because those are the people with no knowledge of the alternatives, anyway. At that point, development is largely irrelevant to the process. People will buy sequels because it’s what they know.

            But that doesn’t mean that a publisher that really knew the dev side of the industry couldn’t save some money by creating those hit brands in-house instead of having to acquire them. Activision no doubt understood the power of Bungie’s name on a new product, but who knows whether they understood enough to know what actually made Bungie’s games good. All of the personnel changes that happened during Destiny 1’s development suggest to me that maybe they didn’t understand, but that’s just speculation.

      2. Mephane says:

        Titanfall hits the market like a deflating whoopie cushion and Respawn is mistreated by its NEW mega-publisher as well.

        It would help to actually name that new mega-publisher: EA. Getting away from Activision only to then hop into bed with EA is simply stupid. What did they expect? Not to be chewed through and spat out like any other studio EA acquired?

        1. shoeboxjeddy says:

          EA didn’t actually acquire them. They were a part of the EA Partners program. So yes, they were actually treated differently because EA didn’t own them. It screwed over Titanfall 1 by betting the whole thing on being an Xbox exclusive for… a one time payment of cash? Seems shortsighted as hell. It then fucked over Titanfall 2 by launching it in between a Battlefield and a Call of Duty game. Because what better time to grow the audience of your new brand than when people are preparing to buy one of the two biggest releases in that ENTIRE GENRE? Shockingly, Titanfall 2 underperfomed.

          That last was sarcasm, but in actually somewhat surprising news, EA is bullish on Titanfall as a brand, actually did go through with acquiring Respawn and are hyping up a Titanfall 3. So… they really ARE treating them differently from their other devs, for now.

          1. Geebs says:

            Controversial opinion incoming: Titanfall 2 is pretty meh. It’s full of the same rather off-putting ooh-rah as the Call of Duty games, the guns are all the same, there’s no weight to the shooting, the Titans don’t convey any sense of scale, the plot is absolutely bog-standard, and the wall-running is both janky and finicky.

            Honestly I don’t think Respawn have anywhere else much to go in the Titanfall universe. I’d much rather they try something new instead, but I guess EA bought them for some CoD-adjacent shooting and, by jingo, they’re going to get it by any means necessary.

            1. shoeboxjeddy says:

              Some notes on your opinion:
              -Titanfall 2 is full of military bravado, but fictional militaries. It’s much more like Gi Joe than actual military propaganda, which is a HUGE step up in my opinion.
              -The guns aren’t the same, they all serve pretty defined roles. I would call this a shallow understanding coming from someone who played campaign only and only dabbled in the competitive part (if you even tried it).
              -I don’t know what “weight” is supposed to mean, but imo it’s extremely solid shooting. I feel the pedigree from CoD MW1 and 2 and not the jank from some later CoDs.
              -The Titans are a bit short for a mecha, but this does allow you to use buildings and environment features as cover. I like how the controls are exactly the same so you’re not trying to learn two games at once.
              -The plot is standard in a bad way (stop the evil empire) but also in a good way (developing friendships between partners with different personalities. The developing bond between a human and his “tool” that becomes his friend. Very good tropes for a reason).
              -The wall running feels like a much more forgiving version of Mirror’s Edge. Which is pretty good for a game about shooting where you’re intended to feasibly use this in combat against real people. Did you complete the speed run in the tutorial level? If you could do that and still feel like you didn’t have a great grip on wall running, I’d be surprised.

              I don’t much care for the lore or “feel” of the Titanfall universe and I get the sense Respawn doesn’t either since they launched the franchise with basically no plot. However, the mechanics and design goals have been very good so far. I’m hoping a very solid third game establishes this as a popular game, rather than a game that didn’t receive the reception it reserved.

            2. Asdasd says:

              I agree it was kind of a so-so game. That one level everyone talks about being a huge leap forward in FPS level design struck me as a very fancy way to dress up Doom’s red, blue and yellow keys, the plot was forgettable (in fact I’ve forgotten it) but I did like the two main characters. I find fictional depictions of AI interesting, because if you don’t assume they go full singularity it’s fun to speculate about what an entirely new kind of life would be like and how they would interact with us.

              Sometimes you get humans in metal costume (Star Wars) and sometimes you get emotionless automata (Star Trek). BT was a halfway house in that you get a robot with a personality which is largely defined by its purpose, a very business-oriented being, but with little shafts of something more breaking in around the sides as the relationship with the main character deepens. Now that’s really no less of a cliche than the Trek/Wars archetypes and I wouldn’t say he was an entirely successful character, but he managed to get me to engage with the story, no doubt thanks to a pretty great turn by his VA.

              1. Geebs says:

                I thought the interactions with BT were cute, but I’m also pretty certain that big metal bastard had it in for me. In fact I suspect that about 90% of total Pilot deaths in the Titanfall universe were attributable to their robot buddy suddenly deciding to ask some philosophical question (on a timer, no less) while they were right in the middle of some particularly tricky wall run.

          2. Mephane says:

            And you think EA had nothing to do with those bad decisions? The XBox exclusivity, then launch time?

            1. shoeboxjeddy says:

              I think EA might be directly responsible (if you were talking to me).

  5. krellen says:

    One problem with your analysis, Shamus, is that you assume Blizzard is the golden goose. But even idiot executives know that you don’t mess with the culture of your most successful division, so the fact that there is evidence of executive meddling at Blizzard tells us that Blizzard isn’t as financially successful as we all assumed. Someone is better at making money than them, and that someone is who they’re being moulded to become.

    1. Daimbert says:

      It’s actually pretty common for large corporations to try to bring all divisions, even their most successful ones, into the “corporate culture”, so that doesn’t count against him here. And most of the culture changes seem to be changes in line with the corporation as a whole, not as attempts to emulate someone else.

      1. Hector says:

        100% true. Witness EA, which bought up and destroyed numerous successful studios and game lines by forcing them to fit the current management. I’ve also seen this in other industries – its surprisingly common for a big but stagnant business to do this.

        Remember that Blizzard is still doing well on Overwatch, while Activision is forcing shutdown of games that aren’t profitable *enough*. This just reeks of a flailing C-suite trying to cover for their bad long- term planning.

    2. shoeboxjeddy says:

      You’ve made a logical error here. “You don’t mess with the golden goose” is good advice, not some kind of rule that corporations all follow. In fact, as a CEO you might mess with the golden goose for many reasons:
      -You want the payout from the goose now, not over a period of 10 years from now. You don’t mind the goose being dead in 10 years because you will not work here in 10 years. The short term payout will make you large cash, so who gives a *** about the business? The shareholders (who this move will screw over in the long term) will cheer you on because they will also make short term gains and they are too foolish to see the downsides over dollar signs.
      -You don’t understand that this IS your golden goose and are foolishly lusting after someone else’s goose. See that time when Capcom decided that Resident Evil should actually be Call of Duty. And Namco decided that Ace Combat could be Call of Duty also. And EA thought that Battlefield could also stand to be Call of Duty… and while they were at it… couldn’t Dead Space also be Call of Duty if you really think about it?
      -I mean… let’s not ‘mess’ with the goose. The goose is great. We all like the goose. But… couldn’t the eggs be bigger? I bet they could be. Let’s change what the goose is eating and I bet the eggs will be bigger. And probably the goose could lay 2 eggs a day instead of one, that would probably be fine.

      1. Kylroy says:

        True…but the merger happened a decade ago, and only in the past year or so – after Titan and a first pass at Diablo 4 took several years and millions of dollars to not make finished games – is the Activision influence starting to show up at Blizzard.

        (I realize Overwatch was salvaged from Titan, but I’m not sure if even it’s success begins to cover the money spent on development.)

        1. KillerAngel says:

          I think what happened is that Morhaime was able to keep much of that outside culture at bay until very recently.

          With that said, SC2, D3, and later WoW expansions all ended up misunderstanding what made their predecessors successful. Hard to know whose fault that is though.

      2. decius says:

        Blizzard’s culture is a holdover from the good old days where you just wanted to make a great game, and hopefully would break even on it.

        Activision’s culture is very much the corporate mindset of wanting to make a profitable product, and if it happens to be good it generates brand value that can be cashed out later.

        Activision’s error is in deciding to cash out their brands’ values by forcing out subpar sequels which end up killing the franchise.

        1. Bloodsquirrel says:

          Blizzard’s culture is a holdover from the good old days where you just wanted to make a great game, and hopefully would break even on it.

          Nobody in the “good old days” was just looking to break even. Blizzard, certainly, was not “breaking even” after releasing WoW, and didn’t lower the monthly subscription cost just to be nice guys. The reasons for the change in culture across independent gaming studios had much more to do with the need to produce more elaborate, expensive, and sophisticated games in order to stay relevant, which required larger teams and the backing of deeper pockets.

          It was the inability of independent studios to make enough money to stay afloat which led to them selling themselves to EA/Activision/Ubisoft in the first place.

    3. Bloodsquirrel says:

      It’s like Shamus pointed out a long time ago when he talked about corporate culture- it doesn’t take a deliberate act on the executive’s part to change a subsidiary’s corporate culture when you’re talking about a ten-year time frame. The subsidiary still needs to be managed on some level, and changes in personnel and the market will naturally require adjustments over time. The executive can’t help but have his personality and style of management influence them over the long run.

  6. Pseudonym says:

    Blunder-buss?

  7. Syal says:

    At the very end of December, it was reported that Activision Blizzard had decided to fire Chief Financial Officer Spencer Neumann. The company claimed this was due to “reasons unrelated to the video game publisher’s financial reporting or disclosure controls and procedures.” At first, this sounds hilarious.

    I always tend to believe statements like that. It’s not a big scandal to fire someone for not doing their job well*, so the only reason to say it wasn’t job-related was if it wasn’t. If they’re trying to cover for them, they’d say it was a resignation.

    *(unless there’s, like, tenure laws I don’t know about or something. “We fired them for reasons they could sue us over if we admitted it”.)

    1. Bloodsquirrel says:

      It’s not a big scandal to fire someone for not doing their job well

      You say that, but “not doing their job well” is surprisingly difficult to bullet-proof enough to avoid litigation if the fired employee has even the flimsiest grounds for making a case out of it. That’s why corporate culture has become so Orwellian and cult-like in modern times.

      Ever wonder why you can’t have a beer in the office anymore? It’s because they if they have a policy that says “no alcohol”, and Bob comes in and gets piss drunk every day, they can fire Bob and point to a black and white policy that he broke. But if their policy is just “Don’t get so drunk that it affects your job”, then they have to work a lot harder to prove that Bob was actually violating policy, because now you have to come up with some hard metrics and track them over a period of time and show that Bob was falling below an acceptable level, and you have to justify having that as the acceptable level, and you have to deal with Bob’s excuses for why the company or another employee was sabotaging him, etc.

      1. Daimbert says:

        In my experience, big companies are more likely to simply buy them out with a severance package than bother with them breaking the rule or having performance issues, which in most cases doesn’t need to be justified. For alcohol, we used to have a specific beer keg thing at my company, and it ended because of liability issues. In fact, Christmas parties used to allow alcohol but that ended except for one division where they had an employee that was a licensed bartender which would then eliminate the liability issues.

        You’re right that proving that they aren’t doing their job well is harder than you’d expect, but I think the original commenter is right that in a big company who is firing their CEO or CFO they can say that without getting into too much trouble because of the severance they get. Here, it sounds more like they’re trying to avoid saying or implying that rumoured irregularities in those processes actually happened.

    2. Erik says:

      At the very end of December, it was reported that Activision Blizzard had decided to fire Chief Financial Officer Spencer Neumann. The company claimed this was due to “reasons unrelated to the video game publisher’s financial reporting or disclosure controls and procedures.” At first, this sounds hilarious.

      I always tend to believe statements like that. It’s not a big scandal to fire someone for not doing their job well*, so the only reason to say it wasn’t job-related was if it wasn’t. If they’re trying to cover for them, they’d say it was a resignation.

      I honestly think what they’re saying is unrelated to the actual reason he was fired. They are making a legal clarification that the reason for firing did not have anything to do with the parts of his job that are under legal regulation. If he had done any of those things, they would be legally required to disclose exactly how he misreported the financials, or what he failed to correctly disclose.

      They are just stating that it doesn’t affect their prior official legal filings, not saying anything about what Neumann actually did or didn’t do.

      1. Richard says:

        Exactly.

        The CFO is legally responsible for filing a lot of very legally-important documents with various regulators and government departments (tax office, SEC etc).

        Doing any of those sufficiently wrong doesn’t just get you fired, it gets you fined, barred from holding a directorship, board or CxO post for some number of years and imprisoned.

        Activision Blizzard are just saying that all the filings they’ve made are good, there’s no need for the taxman to go audit them.

  8. EmmEnnEff says:

    As someone with no knowledge of the internals of A-B, but a good understanding of why companies behave the way they do, I am pretty sure that there is one root cause for all of the problems you listed, Shamus.

    Losing Bungie.

    Blizzard has had problems in 2018 (lackluster WoW expansion, nothing interesting for their other IPs in 2019), but their sorts of problems don’t turn into executives quitting, and shareholders starting lawsuits overnight.

    1. Lino says:

      I absolutely agree – the timing of everyone quitting – from Morhaime to the CFO – lines up extremely well with the announcement. These executives definitely knew about the deal falling through at least a couple of months in advance. I’m willing to bet that’s also the reason why Activision said they’ll increase Destiny 2’s monetization a couple of months ago – they knew they were going to lose Destiny, so they wanted to wring out the last bit of money they could from it.
      However, whatever the reason is for this shakeup, turmoil like this is usually the most common reason for changes in corporate culture and priorities. Will that happen at Act-Blizz? Who knows, but this is the best chance we’ve got of it happening.

  9. ccesarano says:

    Something more to keep in mind. Activision stated that sales of the Forsaken expansion we’re disappointing and that they were looking into microtransactions to try and gain more profit. Keep in mind the Eververse microtransactions store finally reached a point where it no longer felt skeezy but they also introduced what looks to be the thus far disappointing Annual Pass. The Annual Pass is not only holding some content hostage, it sounds like the content isn’t even very good. So at first you feel angry for missing out on gear, but then relief as you hear about the even worse than average grind for an okay but not great new mode.

    And Activision wants MORE microtransactions.

    Luke Smith of Bungie was very public about how happy the development team was with sales, which was likely a very, very thin crack in the door of the arguments within.

    I don’t think Activision realizes they’ve lost something, though. I believe they agreed to this split because they did not believe they would get the desired profits from Destiny, and that it’s own supply of golden eggs had run out. They didn’t realize that the problems with Destiny from the beginning were their own fault, and instead blamed Bungie. So to them it is likely one less headache and money sink.

    I think this is part of a bigger story that began long ago, however. I think it’s coincidence that Blizzard is seeing these things at the same time Bungie left. Over the next several years I expect to see big changes at Activision and EA. What they’ll look like? I dunno.

  10. Gautsu says:

    Please correct me if I am wrong, but didn’t I hear a story that the whole reason Bungie is able to leave their contract with Activision early was because they received a cash infusion by selling a minority share to Net-Ease? In which case everyone who is applauding them for leaving Activision is happy they are joining China’s premier mobile trash publisher.

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2018/06/02/bungie-gets-100-million-from-netease-to-build-new-non-destiny-ips/#6b237834d3a5

    Oh look they also want to develope mobile games with them.

    1. Lino says:

      With any luck, that means they’ll keep the shitty monetization practices in their mobile games. I think people are hoping that Bungie saw what sleazy monetization did to Destiny 2, and the third time around they won’t be implementing it in this ham-fisted way.

    2. C__ says:

      don’t you guys have phones?

    3. shoeboxjeddy says:

      If NetEase wants Bungie to develop shady mobile games for the Chinese market… I’m cynically okay with that as long as they don’t change their games we have access to to be equally shady. Ideally, the Chinese market would also be above board and not taking advantage of its customers, but I barely have the attention and “caring about stuff” mental budget for the US market, much less international ones.

  11. RCN says:

    And then slink back to his mansion with his millions of dollars in severance pay and live a long life never knowing just how much damage he did.

    Worse, he’ll still think he was the best thing to have ever happened at the company for staying there the longest and blame his resignation on something else.

    1. C__ says:

      Probably the company will bleed some more before the damage is fixed, and he is the guy who will say it “When i was there things weren’t that bad. But i leave for one day and then everything goes kaboom, i was keeping that thing floating you know?”

  12. C__ says:

    Neither Orwell nor Huxley, the one who was right about the future was Rob Lowe in “Wayne’s World”

    Big shot that never played a game in his life, but profits from it: “Like, we have a new game called Zantar. Zantar is a gelatinous cube that eats warriors in a medieval village, and every time it eats a chieftain you ascend to a higher level. The beauty part is you can’t get to the next level, so the kids keep coughing up quarters, you know?”

    Rob Lowe: “Gelatinous cube eats village. I think it’s terrific. You know, I know nothing about video games, and I found what you just said riveting.”

    The future is now, old man.

  13. ObsidianNebula says:

    As an avid Overwatch fan, the creeping threat of Activision is increasingly distressing. A game like Overwatch is technically immense with countless fiddly details that the (relatively small) dev team is constantly refining in an effort to perfect the game. The devs are frequently in contact with the fan base, trying to gauge what changes are needed from Bronze to Top 500 to the pro scene. It’s not an easy task, and a company less dedicated to QA would run a game like this to ruin. Even with the amount of QA they do have, sometimes they release new heroes (*cough* Brigitte *cough*) who are overpowered and wreak havoc on the meta- and then they do their best to remedy that mistake (Brig’s much more balanced now). If Activision’s poison spreads through the company’s veins and into Overwatch’s development?

    Time to start a new Morrowind playthrough, I guess.

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