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Unbranding the Sheep: The Enablers

I have had this piece in my head for a week and a half, but a serious case of writer's block, combined with a case of "I'm getting sick of this shit" caused my reviews to back up a bit, as I kept getting worn down by having to stay up until Fuck Me O'Clock on weekly download pieces. Therefore, I threw this up tonight, and it should go up in the morning.

Guys... I hate this one. I know I've been told that I am rough on my work in the past, but this one feels like I screwed the pooch. Please tell me I'm wrong, but don't lie to me and say it's good if it's a turd.

Being a pro-consumer columnist, reporting on Activision makes me a lot of different feelings, usually at the same time. There's shock that a company can be so brazen about the fact that the ONLY thing they care about is profit, damn anything else. There's revulsion that a carpetbagger like Robert Kotick can not only succeed, but thrive as a CEO of a games company despite being completely disinterested in the medium. There's also frustration that no matter what, Activision only cares about it's share price, which still goes up. Finally, there's fury, at the way they treat their satellite studios like Red Octane and Infinity Ward.

Not since Electronic Arts, during their days of taking on class-action lawsuits from programmers wives, has one video game company drawn so much ire, so much hatred, and yet so much money. Like them or not, the company is swimming in currency like Scrooge McDuck. That's all that ultimately matters when you have shareholders, who by nature are perfectly fine with a company's business tactics as long as they're making money, whether they're not paying their developers' royalties for the fastest selling game in history to force them to stay, or, in certain industries, having union organizers murdered. I'm not kidding about that, by the way.1 No one really seems to like Activision, they just tolerate the company as long as the company continues to bless us with World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, and the Hero games, though on those, we could probably use less of them. Regardless, everyone always talks about how shitty Activision is, right before they reach into their pockets.

This leads me to yet another feeling I've had a lot of lately: indignation at my fellow gamers and their short-sighted stupidity. Before I continue, a lot of readers are probably sitting around, wondering "is he going to call me out?". Chances are pretty good, at least based on sales numbers, that that is exactly what I'm going to do.

People have this assumption that no matter what they seem to do, companies that routinely screw over everyone that isn't a shareholder, from their employers to their very customers, can't be stopped; it's going to happen anyway, so why bother? As a collective consumer base, the consumers themselves are forgetting the primary function of capitalism: supply and demand. They supply because we demand. If sales were to fall because of some of the bullshit Activision pulls on both it's customers and employees - the people that make their games - they would have to take notice, like EA did when their negative PR finally caught up with them. Even that took years.

Might I remind people that these games you proclaim to like so much don't come out of thin air. Companies make them. they spend time on them, perfect them, make them just right. In fact, one of the reasons Treyarch were brought in on Call of Duty was because Infinity Ward insisted on a two year development cycle, which wasn't good enough for Activision's suits. It should be noted that Infinity Ward's last two games were both Modern Warfare games, the first of which was an all-time classic. Treyarch, the outsiders? They gave us World At War, which was merely "OK". Now that Infinity Ward's top two people have been forced out of the company by people described as looking like bouncers - like something out of a movie - and Activision is talking about branching the franchise out to other developers and other genres, how do you think that game's going to be? Don't complain about eating a shit sandwich if you are going to eat it anyway.

Anyone who thinks this is limited to Activision, think again. Other companies love it when companies like Activision take the vanguard on controversial topics, so they don't have to. Activision went without dedicated servers - a PC gaming staple - for Modern Warfare 2, which got the attention of id's John Carmack, who's taking the option out of Rage, at the very least. Also on Modern Warfare 2, they raised the price of the PC game - again, a PC game that didn't have key elements that people are used to and require in PC games, but still required a $1,000+ gaming machine to run - to $60, typically console level. Enough people fell for it, so Ubisoft decided that $60 was the new price point for their big-name titles on PC. It's not exempt to Activision - EA's DRM in Command & Conquer 4 is almost exactly like Ubisoft's - but they do it because the negative PR of these moves do not equate to lost sales. They do not equate to lost sales because gamers have become the ultimate consumers: they not only buy what they're told, they breathlessly defend it, oftentimes before it even comes out. If I had a customer base for a product I was selling that was that stupid, I'd never have to work another day in my life.

"Did you just call us 'stupid'!?" Yes, I did. When a large group of you joins a Steam community to boycott the PC version of MW2, then half of you are shown to be playing it almost immediately after release, you're stupid, and a hypocrite. When you say things like "I don't care what happens at Infinity Ward, as long as I get Call of Duty", you're stupid, and sadly dependent on a form of entertainment. And when you take Robert Kotick at his word at DICE - like a lot of sycophantic writers did - when he tells us that all the horrible things he's said over the years were "just for investors" - as if it justifies what he believes - you are stupid, and a coward.

Ultimately, the problem with dealing with companies like this is that consumers don't want to put their money where their mouths are. They talk a big game, but at the end of the day, they go out and buy what they're told to buy, whether they don't want to seem "uncool" to their more casual gaming friends, or whether they're just weak willed and prone to short memories and impulse purchases. It's a lot like Wal-Mart, in a sense; we all talk about the company as a huge conglomerate that simultaneously kills small businesses and discriminates against women, but people still shop there. After all, there's a sale on stationary, we can save $.69! At the end of the day, people can get on the internet and say whatever they want, but when it comes to choosing to buy a new game that contains DRM and/or is made in a way specifically to exploit people on DLC and turn what used to be a $50 game into oftentimes an $80 - $100 game or simply finding something else to play, they too often choose to go with the dumber option. Why wouldn't they? As someone pointed out - it's a first party Activision blogger, so there's no way I'm linking that rag - once the company raided Infinity Ward studios, stock prices went up that day. It's just too painful for gamers to part with a few select games to keep the balance in their favour. I understand it; I like Blur, and think it will be a good game, but I refuse to buy it because it's an Activision game. Sometimes, when it's time to take a principled stand, you have to stick to it.

Too many gamers don't stick to their stands. They say they will on the internet, right before going out and paying the company they say they hate so much, and who gives them so many reasons to hate them. They enable this bad behaviour and poor treatment.

It sucks to say, but they're getting what they deserve. It gives me one more feeling: pity.


1 - At the end of Aileen's junior year at Smith College, the school ended it's relationship with Coca-Cola over it's union-busting practices. Not only did they get a horrible corporation off of their campus and take their students' opinions seriously, but they replaced it with RC Cola, which tastes better anyway.


Christopher Bowen is the Associate Editor at Diehard GameFAN, and was previously a columnist at Not A True Ending. Having worked in the IT industry as a network security engineer for over five years before coming to DHGF, Christopher brings a unique, pro-consumer perspective to his work. His thoughts on how the gaming industry works behind the scenes, and how it affects the everyday consumer, can be read every weekend at Diehard GameFAN. In addition, he writes DHGF's weekly Nintendo and Playstation Network download wrap-ups every Tuesday and Friday, respectively. Follow Chris on Twitter, or email him with questions and feedback.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 21st, 2010 01:57 pm (UTC)
It's a good article. You need to make a quick sweep through it as I caught about 4 or 5 minor grammatical/spelling errors, but it's a strong article. I would say in response, however, that at the end of the day the consumer could care less about the politics or back door issues a company may have as long as it provides them a "quality" product. Quality being a slippery term, meaning something different to everyone. But bottom line, the games Activision puts out are decent enough that people buy them. And when they stop being "decent enough", sales will fall. Every corporation's goal is to maximize profit while minimizing cost. But there always comes a point where once you've minimized cost too much you impact profit, in which case a corporation will readjust their costs to achieve that maxima again. But right now, while the games Activision is putting out may be at best average, they're not crappy enough that gamers won't buy them, so there's no negative feedback to induce Activision to change how they operate.
Mar. 21st, 2010 03:43 pm (UTC)
I hope you cleaned out all those Mount and Blade fanboy emails.
Mar. 21st, 2010 04:36 pm (UTC)
My problem isn't with Activision as a company -- I find that they release some fairly good games, so I can't complain too much on that front (sketchy business practices aside) -- it's more that I find Bobby Kotick to be a pretentious douchebag, something I've thought since the first time I saw him give a speech after buying Blizzard. As you said, the guy doesn't care about video games as a medium at all, he just wants more of the All-Mighty Dollar and fuck the little guy if he has to step on him to get the job done. Game Informer's interview with him two (I think) months back definitely shed light on this guy. He also hasn't made himself any fans constantly (basically) mocking video gamers during press interviews and staff meetings.

I can say that out of the 50 or so games on my shelf, there's only 5 made by Activision -- Guitar Hero: World Tour, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 2, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2. Speaking of Ultimate Alliance 2 -- they pulled all the DLC just before Christmas, effectively locking out the ability to gain a perfect gamerscore on the game (why would you need DLC to achieve normal gamerscore? Who knows!) which wouldn't have been a big deal -- irritating at best -- but seeing Marvel cut their license with Activision and had set a date of December 31st, 2009 as the final day for them to keep the DLC up, why did they pull it over a week and a half early without any indication to the players? Alas, it means I'll never get to have Cable in my game.

I'll continue to support Blizzard, whether they're owned by Activision or not, because I believe they still have some integrity left. They still give us answers like "Soon" in response to things being done ("Soon" -- Copyright 2004-2010 Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved. "Soon" does not imply any particular date, time, decade, century, or millennia in the past, present, and certainly not the future. "Soon" shall make no contract or warranty between Blizzard Entertainment and the end user. "Soon" will arrive some day, Blizzard does guarantee that "soon" will be here before the end of time. Maybe. Do not make plans based on "soon" as Blizzard will not be liable for any misuse, use, or even casual glancing at "soon."), still seem to give a crap about what the community thinks, and still seem to be putting 100% into their products. Whether we'll see a reform of Activision in the future -- much like EA has done in the past few years -- is uncertain at this time, but you're correct on all aspects of this article: in the end the money will still flow.
Mar. 21st, 2010 11:54 pm (UTC)
The content may not speak to me, since Activision is a company that produces games I generally do not play (except for Doom 3), but the indignation is good. :-) Give it a once-over for grammar, as the Buddha has suggested, and you should be golden.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


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