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.
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..
 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.
 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.
Bad and Wrong Music Lessons
A music lesson for people who know nothing about music, from someone who barely knows anything about music.
Games and the Fear of Death
Why killing you might be the least scary thing a game can do.
Bethesda felt the need to jam a morality system into Fallout 3, and they blew it. Good and evil make no sense and the moral compass points sideways.
A Star is Born
Remember the superhero MMO from 2009? Neither does anyone else. It was dumb. So dumb I was compelled to write this.
Game at the Bottom
Why spend millions on visuals that are just a distraction from the REAL game of hotbar-watching?