Is Blactivision Imploding?

2 03 2010

Infinity Ward LogoActivision Blizzard, Inc. (or Blactivision, as I call them) has officially lost its collective minds.  Like, certifiably.

So, if you’ve been into games at all in the last year, you’ve probably heard of one of Activision Blizzard, Inc.’s holdings, Infinity Ward.  And if you’ve heard of them, you’ve probably heard of this little art-house game they worked on, entitled “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2“.  However, printing money is apparently not high on the value list for Activision, according to the following:

In a strange black-ops quietness that was confirmed only recently, Infinity Ward’s President, Jason West (AUTHOR EDIT: and CEO Vince Zampella) was fired by Activision.  This is the man who led the company through some of its most profitable ventures, and made bank for the most recent game in PREORDERS, with many gamers plunking down cash for the name recognition alone, sight-unseen.  (Of course, fans of the series are loving Modern Warfare 2, although the critical response generally states that the game doesn’t hold as much gravitas and that moment-to-moment impact as the first Modern Warfare.)

So, pair this with CEO Bobby Kotick‘s most recent comments at the DICE conference, the layoffs in, and shuttering of the Red Octane brand, and one has to wonder what the heck is going on with Activision at the moment.  There’s no way that this is a savvy business move, and it can do nothing but tank morale for the other developers under the Blizzard/Activision banner.

Sure, Starcraft II is going to keep Activision/Blizzard with cash flowing.  And World of Warcraft is forever going to be a money factory for them.  But then again, Blizzard is not the part of the company that I’m criticizing.  They’re smart, savvy people over there.  Apparently, something of this magnitude would have to pass Kotick’s desk to sign off on.  Something is wrong with the man, or the company is prepping for a fall.  Or trying to lower earnings, so the stock falls, so Blizzard can buy them outright or something.  I have no idea, but this has terrible business sense written all over it.

I guarantee though, that we’re going to hear a lot more about this in the future.  Mind you, surely there could be some terrible skeletons that West is finally catching up to, but in my opinion, this move, for whatever reason, only solidifies Activision’s persona as of late as corporate goons looking only at the bottom line, rather than the gaming revolutionaries that they began as back in the day.

If there’s no sordid backstory, all OtakuDad can say, is that I wish Jason West the very best and we are CERTAIN that he will be snagged by some very lucky company soon.  If there’s a sordid backstory, then I hope that things will work out, that West will repent, bounce back, and get back to making great triple-A titles.

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: Okay, so other than Jason West’s personal Facebook profile stating that he’s been fired, there’s no OFFICIAL comment.  So while I’m calling this one fact, it’s not OFFICIAL fact until someone corporate says something.

Also, something I intended to add but forgot, when originally written, was that this firing was a surprise exit by Activision security, and all the staff at Infinity Ward have no idea what is going down as well.  Again, I cannot imagine this does ANYTHING positive to company morale, and will reverberate throughout the Activision banner’s holdings.

FINAL UPDATE: It’s official.  Activision Blizzard, Inc. has officially reported that Jason West and Vince Zampella, the heads of Infinity Ward, have been fired, although no reason has been given for their departure.  The Call of Duty franchise will be moved to its own internal “studio” status, and will be headed by “Activision publishing veterans”, whatever that means.

May I repeat again, that this will do NOTHING but hinder future efforts and reduce morale throughout Activision Blizzard, Inc., and that this tactic of “ANYONE IS EXPENDABLE!” will simply move developers towards safer, less-innovative content.

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Plastic Instrument Wars…GO!

1 03 2010

Rock Band Vs. Guitar Hero

As all of you who read my ramblings here (why?  I don’t get it!) probably know that I’m a large fan of Rock Band 2.  I’m not against the Guitar Hero franchise, as I have MANY fond memories of playing with friends the original and second in the series.  But, many of the newer titles (Guitar Hero 3 especially, but also Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, Van Halen, and World Tour) have been simply mediocre.  Not bad, but just par for the course.  Innovations in the space seem to originate with the Rock Band franchise, and then migrate (sometimes well and other times, not so much) to the Guitar Hero platform.  The instruments are well crafted for Guitar Hero, but the song song selection, as well as the loathsome “play-as-real-singers” thing for World Tour was just the tipping point for me.  But here’s the interesting thing…some of you may have heard this and some of you may have not, but Activision’s CEO Bobby Kotick was speaking at the DICE summit recently and lamented not working with Harmonix (creator of the Rock Band franchise, and half of the original Guitar Hero game creators), saying:

We really didn’t even think, ‘Hey, we should go to Boston and meet these Harmonix guys and see what they’re up to.’  The world of music games would be very different had Activision partnered with Harmonix.  It would probably be a profitable opportunity for both of us.

Mind you, he said this at a developer’s conference, while the economy and the “plastic-instrument-based rhythm game” genre are in recession.  So lament is bound to be found anywhere.  And let’s not forget that the “Hero” franchise of Activision’s has been milked (Guitar Hero: Van Halen, Band Hero, DJ Hero, etc.).  The golden goose has been squeezed and prodded to overproduce, and unsurprisingly has come up short of Activision’s earnings expectations.
Yet, despite a couple ventures off the path for Harmonix (Rock Band: Beatles, Lego Rock Band, and the forthcoming Rock Band: Green Day), Rock Band 2 remains a platform product, choosing to update the catalog of downloadable content, instead of selling new hardware and retail discs every time they want to expand.  As of this writing, the Rock Band Music Store boasts well over 1000 downloadable songs, with the limitless prospect of more content coming from independent bands through their Rock Band Network (still in beta) offering.  It is this “platform, not iteration” strategy that is keeping the Rock Band brand full of vitality, as the Guitar Hero franchise declines and flounders.
Couple this with the information in February that Red Octane (owned by Activision) has been completely closed, with many employees laid-off, and one has to wonder at the viability of a two-party system for the foreseeable future in the rhythm game-space.  (All other Red Octane employees that were retained have been relocated and will report directly to the Activision mothership for future Guitar Hero games.)  Sure, any company can make a rhythm game (and many do) but the value of the Guitar Hero games was supposed to be in the guitar peripherals as well as the original “flavor” that the founders of the franchise brought to the table.
So where does this leave the industry?  Of course, we know Rock Band: Green Day is in the works.  It would be stupid to dismiss that a Guitar Hero 6 of some sort is being developed currently.  The main question is whether Harmonix (and its partners) will launch a Rock Band 3 platform prior to a new console generation, or remain firm with their dedication to simply updating the current platform.

I absolutely do not believe that rhythm-action gaming has reached its peak.  Of course, 2009 was a tough year with the recession, which especially affects music games given the relatively high price point of instrument bundles. But in the long term, people’s passion for music isn’t going away, and rhythm gaming will continue to provide people with a deeper level of engagement with the music they love. So, yes, I do think that future music games will exceed the sales success of the last generation.

-Harmonix CEO, Alex Rigopulos

However, it is interesting to note that while Harmonix/Rock Band’s new initiative, the user-fueled “Rock Band Network”, which will launch with at least 180 songs created by independent artists, Activision/Guitar Hero project director Brian Bright is the one quoted as saying:

If you can’t create or edit licensed music due to copyright laws then you’re limited to pretending to play someone else’s music. I think the key is to create music, but make it compelling to create, so the game is in the creation, not the playback.

So what does the future of music gaming hold?  I think it’s safe to say that there will be new plastic instruments to clog up your living room, more great songs, both new and old, and competition as always.  However, it also seems naive to think that both companies will remain in a stalemate.  One franchise will eventually take the throne.  Currently, Guitar Hero sales handily beat Rock Band sales.  However, quality polls seem to indicate that people tend to be much more loyal to the Rock Band brand, once familiar, and the brand is growing with each title.  Who knows who will win, but as long as rock and roll exists, I think it’s equally safe to say, we all win.

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