Activision’s Bluff

An Editorial by Figboy

Earlier this week, Activision VP Bobby Kotick made this comment concerning Sony: “They have to cut the price, because if they don’t, the attach rates [the number of games each console owner buys] are likely to slow. If we are being realistic, we might have to stop supporting Sony.”

Now, I generally try to avoid talking about sales and “console war” topics, because I don’t find them productive, but this particular comment by Kotick has driven quite a few gamers into a panic, and I thought I’d throw in my two cents to view the situation logically.

First: Activision will never drop support of any platform that will make them money. This is the same Bobby Kotick that said they only want to publish properties that they can “exploit” (his word, not mine), on a yearly basis, a la Tony Hawk, Guitar Hero (weren’t there like, 100 different GH’s released this year alone?), and Call of Duty.

Activision puts profit before anything else like game quality, and if they happen to hit on something that genuinely is quality (ie, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare from Infinity Ward), they immediately find a way to whore it out yearly, thus diluting it’s appeal (ie, last years Call of Duty: World at War, and this years upcoming Modern Warfare 2). Dropping support of Sony’s platforms would be cutting into Activision’s primary directive: making money.

Secondly: Speaking of making money, it’s important to note that the Sony platforms (Playstation 2, Playstation 3, and Playstation Portable) accounted for roughly 40% of Activisions earnings in their fiscal year 2008. Activision is a multi-billion dollar company, and Sony accounted for 40% of those billions. No company in their right mind would cut off 40% of their profit. It’s simply bad business. The sales of both Call of Duty 4 and World at War were quite productive on the Playstation 3, so it’s not like they are losing money by supporting Sony platforms.

Thirdly: Activision makes shit products. Period. Besides maybe one or two key franchises (Call of Duty and Guitar Hero), every other title the company produces is complete and utter swill. Whether it be the further degredation of the Spider-Man franchise with it’s yearly mediocrity, or Tony Hawk’s games continuously falling behind other competitive games in the same genre such as Skate, or the countless other medicore licensed movie tie in games like Transformers, Madagascar, Shrek, and anything else they know will sell in large numbers because the target audience of those movies are generally too young to be as discerning about game quality as older, more money-conscious gamers.

The point I’m really trying to make is that Activision is a bane on the gaming industry. Their concepts are derivative and mediocre, and they are not pushing the industry forward in any significant way. Year after year, we are “treated” to below average licensed games from our favorite franchises (Spider-Man, Transformers), and the company actually has the gall to try and supress what appears to be genuinely good video games, such as the case with Brutal Legend.

For those that do not know, Vivendi Games, before being acquired by Activision, were in line to publish Brutal Legend, the new game from respected developer Tim Schafer, who crafted the excellent, and criminally underlooked Psychonauts. This time around, with a fanbase in tow, Brutal Legend was sure to give the developer the attention and limelight he deserved, but never got with Psychonauts. Until Activision stepped in.

After acquiring Vivendi, Activision saught to streamline their spending and pass on the publishing duties of some of the games Vivendi had on the plate. Games like The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust, Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon, Crash Bandicoot: Mind over Mutant, 50 Cent: Bulletproof, Ghostbusters: The Video Game, Prototype, Brutal Legend, and more. Activision passed on the publishing rights to all of these games except for Crash Bandicoot, Spyro The Dragon, and Prototype. Needless to say, all of those titles turned out mediocre.

Other publishers scooped up the rest, with Atari snagging Chronicles of Riddick and Ghostbusters. Both titles ended up being rather quality in the end, surprisingly enough. Double Fine, the developers of Brutal Legend found a willing publishing partner in EA. In the end, all seemed right with the world. Buzz was beginning to build surrounding the game, and it looked like all things were go, and the game would see release in October of this year.

But oh no, Bobby Kotick and the other suits at Activision just couldn’t let a game that they had no interested in publishing themselves get published by another studio! Not now that it looked like Brutal Legend could very well be a critical and, more importantly to Activision, commercial hit. So what do they do? They sue Double Fine. Alledging that they has invested $15 million dollars into the title, and still had a valid publishing contract with the company, even though Double Fine had already transfered the publishing rights to Electronic Arts. What does Activision want in recompense? To have Brutal Legend shelved. As in, never released.

And as gamers, we are supposed to give a flying rats ass about this bullshit, pathetic excuse for a company pulling support on what is arguably, one of the best, and most influential console manufacturers in gaming history? Believe me, the success of the Playstation platforms have never depended on the support of Activision. EA maybe. Square-Enix, most certainly. Konami and Capcom? I’d say yes. But Activision? Fuck all, no. There have been more companies that actually made a dent in the success of the Playstation brand, and Activision isn’t one of them. They are masters at making money for themselves, but they certainly aren’t defining the gaming industry with their products. Hell, even the acquisition of the amazing Blizzard Entertainment, masterminds behind the ludicrously successful World of Warcraft MMO, was just to make Activision’s pocketbooks bigger. Since WoW isn’t on the PS3, or any other Sony platform, I don’t see how this is actually helping Sony’s business in the end, either.

To bring this back around, I have to say I’m calling bullshit on Activision’s bluff. In the end, Kotick’s statement is nothing more than corporate bullying. He wants Sony to drop the price of the Playstation 3 (which retails for $399, roughly the same price as an Xbox 360 Elite, which doesn’t include some of the features the $400 PS3 does, like a high definition movie player and built in Wi Fi for wireless internet access). But why? So he can sell more software.

The logic is that the bigger the install base, the more software potential you can sell to that install base. Call of Duty 4 on the Xbox 360 sold roughly 3 to 4 million units. On the Playstation 3, it sold in the 2 million range. This may seem to support Kotick’s desire of larger install base means more game sales, but the Xbox 360 is sitting at, roughly 28 million units sold worldwide, while the PS3 is sitting at roughly 25 million units worldwide. 3 million units, while a large number, isn’t going to make or break Activision’s wallet in terms of sales.

For example, the biggest seller on the Xbox 360 is the flagship title, Halo 3, which has sold roughly 9 million units. This is the title for the Xbox consoles, and have always sold in fantastic numbers. The next biggest title on the list is Gears of War 1 and 2, which have sold roughly 4 million units each. Also, not surprisinging. Call of Duty 4, from Activision, is sitting pretty next to those major titles on the Xbox 360. It should also be noted that the Xbox fanbase is generally more excited about shooters, and therefore that genre just excells on that platform.

On the Playstation 3 side, it’s biggest sellers have been Resistance: Fall of Man, with 3 million units sold, Motorstorm, with 3 million units sold, Ratchet and Clank Future, and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, with roughly 1.5 to 2 million units sold each, and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots with 4.5 million units sold. Outside of few flagship titles like Gran Turismo (the PS3 title Gran Turismo 5: Prologue has sold over 3.5 million units, and is only a small fraction of what a full Gran Turismo title features), very few other titles sell beyond 4.5 million units, or even reach that number in their lifetimes.

I simply don’t know what Bobby Kotick is expecting in terms of sales, when their best franchises (Guitar Hero and Call of Duty), sell incredibly impressive numbers on both the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. On the other hand, the titles they release on the Nintendo Wii, meet with generally god awful sales (as do most 3rd party publishers on Nintendo’s platform).

Bobby wants to strong arm Sony into an early price drop, no matter how much that could ultimately damage Sony’s business model with the Playstation 3 (meaning that Sony itself may have to cut costs/development on some of their games), just so they can sell another hundred thousand copies of their medicore products, and make more money. Activision wouldn’t dare sacrifice 40% of their yearly revenue to call Sony out, however, so Kotick’s statement is simply corporate posturing.

If Activision is not bluffing, and does indeed pull support of the Sony platforms next year, what exactly, would we, as gamers, be missing? Mediocre licensed games and yearly iterations of franchises we got sick of years ago?

Activision is a blight on the gaming landscape, and when looking at the genuinely quality gaming efforts being produced by Sony’s first and second party studios (ie, Insomniac, Sucker Punch, Naught Dog, Sony Santa Monica, Team Ico, Quantic Dreams, etc), and third party studios like Ubisoft, Konami, Capcom, and Square-Enix, it’s simply impossible for me to feel any sort of loss from the company.

They were barely relevant during the 8bit, 16bit, and 64bit eras, it’s hard to think their loss will be felt by anyone in this generation of gaming. Why would a Playstation 3 gamer weep over the loss of the yearly iterations of Call of Duty, when they have Killzone 2, a franchise that Call of Duty only wishes it could be these days. Even Modern Warfare 2 looks to pale in comparision to Sony’s new flagship Playstation 3 title.

Sony will no doubt drop the price of the Playstation 3 this year (this has been rumored for ages now, and it’s in line with the progress that has been made in terms of the manufacturing costs of the Playstation 3), but it will not be due to Kotick’s bullying. Activision is a dispicable company, and for more ways than one, and I refuse to support a company that has such a low opinion of game quality that each title they release is a testament to how much they can get away with, for as little money as possible, and yet still rake in maximum profits. Yes, it’s just business, but it’s my money they’re playing with. Not anymore.

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One Response to “Activision’s Bluff”

  1. […] of you may remember my earlier editorial calling out Activision’s Bluff, but head honcho Bobby Kotick still isn’t finished […]

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