August 2010 Archives

Yesterday, Deirdre pointed me to this article by Dan Amrich, a former games journalist that does PR for Activision now, about Bobby Kotick (CEO of Activision) and his infamous, oft-cited quotes on the game business that have made him a bit of a pariah to many gamers.  Dan tries to make the point that most of the comments Kotick is pilloried for were taken out of context and that Kotick isn't the evil, RoboCop-style corporate executive he's made out to be.

This has also popped up for me recently because I have declined to join the Starcraft 2 bandwagon, despite the encouragement of my brother and a number of my friends, partly because I really don't want to support Activision these days, and Kotick is a large part of that.  While he tries to make the point that Kotick was taken out of context and that what he was saying wasn't as bad as it is made out to be, I'm going to have to disagree and say that the context really doesn't help it all that much.

Let's just take a look at them again and I'll show you what I mean.  I encourage everyone to go read Amrich's original article so you get the full context; I'm going to try to summarize it here, but just to make sure you get both sides of the argument you should read the full context.

"Take all the fun out of making video games."

The first quote Amrich goes over is this one:

Jeetil Patel, Deutsche Bank Securities - Analyst
"What do you think the retailers' willingness these days is to hold inventory on the video game side? Are they building positions today or are they still very reluctant and very careful of how they are buying?"

Bobby Kotick, Activision Blizzard, Inc.
"I don't think it is specific to video games. I think that if you look at how much volatility there is in the economy and, dependent upon your view about macroeconomic picture and I think we have a real culture of thrift. And I think the goal that I had in bringing a lot of the packaged goods folks that we brought in to Activision 10 years ago was to take all the fun out of making video games."

"I think we definitely have been able to instill the culture, the skepticism and pessimism and fear that you should have in an economy like we are in today. And so, while generally people talk about the recession, we are pretty good at keeping people focused on the deep depression."

Dan tries to point out that this is all about the financial side of the video game business.  "Taking the fun out of making video games" was a joke that fell flat and what Kotick really means in this quote is that he wants people to treat the video game business as just that -- a business.  That's all well and good, and I agree -- it is a business.

The problem is that the video game industry is not anything like the "packaged goods" business.  Video games are not soft drinks or toothpaste.  The product they are probably most similar to is movies, as describe in the article at Squaremans, "They Know It Doesn't Work".  And, unfortunately, it seems like Kotick is driving video game production to the same place where movies are now (but more on that later).

The second paragraph is really what makes me crazy though.  I understand the idea of saving for a rainy day, and sticking to budgets, and remembering that there are always going to be bad times and you need to make sure you are ready for them.  That's all well and good, and I can't blame him for that.  However, "keeping people focused on the deep depression" and cultivating a culture of skepticism, pessimism, and fear sounds like a good way to make everyone of your employees, especially at the low level, constantly worried that they will lose their job and be cut from the company.  From Kotick's point of view, I can see what he thinks -- they'll produce their best work because they're afraid if they don't, they'll get canned.

The problem is, that is a shortsighted strategy (which is the problem I have with Kotick in general).  That doesn't make people want to do good work for you -- it makes people want to work just good enough to not get fired, and as soon as a better opportunity comes along, for a company they want to work for, you lose them.

If Kotick wants to keep good talent in the future, he needs to realize that you can't lead by creating fear, uncertainty, and doubt within your own employees, especially in an industry driven by creative talent -- at least not for very long.  You certainly can't lead by trying to screw over the people working for you who create the best-selling games of all time.  Whether or not the allegations by ex-Infinity Ward employees are true, one thing is clear -- Kotick lost the talent that created games with billions of dollars in sales for Activision.  If the allegations of the ex-Infinity Ward employees are true, he actively drove them out of the company by creating a hostile environment; however, even if Activision's claims are true, and West and Zampella were actively trying to break their contract and wiggle away from Activision, Kotick still failed to be a good leader, in convincing them that Activision was the best place for them to be.

"You know, if it was left to me, I would raise the prices even further."

The following quote is from an Activision earnings call:

Tony Gikas:
"[...] And a second question, if you don't mind, just your comfort level regarding pricing of some of your new games that have some expensive controllers and any feedback that you had from retail as we move through the holidays. Thanks, guys."

Mike Griffith:
"[...] On the pricing, we've had for all of our launch titles in the back half of this year, some of which contain peripherals, as you point out, very strong retailer acceptance and support for all parts of our plan, including our merchandising plans, our marketing programs, and our price points."

Bobby Kotick:
"And Tony, you know if it was left to me, I would raise the prices even further."

Amrich points out that from the audio, Kotick is clearly making a joke and laughing at himself -- and goes so far as to admit that it's probably not a very good joke in a recession when people are trying to save money.  Okay, fair enough.  It's a joke, and a bad joke, and everyone does that from time to time.

Here's the problem though; not only does it portray an insensitivity to the penny-pinching consumer, and make him seem like he's completely out-of-touch, it's an example of a guy who just doesn't seem to understand why people think he's horrible for the industry.  If it was a one-off joke that went sour, okay.  But the problem is that it fits a pattern of behavior where it makes it seem like he's trying to wring every last cent out of consumers with the least cost to himself; this quote came at a time when Modern Warfare 2 was going to be coming out $10 more expensive than the vast majority of other AAA titles (on PC anyway) and even worse if you were in the UK, while dramatically reducing the functionality of the product.

As a CEO, a significant portion of your job responsibility is effective communication -- you are the face of your company for many people.  I have to imagine that reinforcing a bad perception is probably not a very good idea -- and I have to wonder if anyone can actually tell Kotick that he might want to be a little more careful with his language in the future.

Bobby Kotick only wants exploitable franchises

This is the quote that bothers me the most:

Jeetil Patel - Deutsche Bank

"[...] Why are you de-emphasizing some of the kind of lesser known brands and focusing on the bigger franchises out there? Is it industry that is causing that or do you think it is more strategy on your part that seems to be [winning] big? I kind of want to understand the dynamics there."

Robert A. Kotick

"With respect to the franchises that don't have the potential to be exploited every year across every platform with clear sequel potential that can meet our objectives of over time becoming $100 million plus franchises, that's a strategy that has worked very well for us. It's something that we have been very disciplined about and so while there are lots of promises for a lot of these products that we had in the portfolio, I think generally our strategy has been to focus, especially given the increase in development expenditures on the products that have those attributes and characteristics that we know if we release today, we'll be working on 10 years from now. And that has been -- you know, narrow and deep has been essential to our strategy of how you expand operating margins. The difficulty in establishing new franchises or unproven franchises as we have seen over the last 20 years, that is one of the great challenges of the business and I think that you have a less than accepting and tolerant retail environment.

Amrich's response seems to be that "exploit" in this context doesn't mean what people think.  Yes, that's probably very true.  That's not the problem I have with this quote though.  What Kotick is basically saying is that he only wants to spend money on developing "sure things," and then developing them as much as possible.

This takes us back to something I said about the first quote.  Video games are not packaged goods.  Video games are a creative enterprise where a "franchise" will only get you so far if the game is crap.  Once again, I'm going to point back to that Squaremans article: each game eventually has to stand on its own and at the end of the day you can't just say "only make the games that will be blockbuster successes."  Eventually, people will get tired -- they will not keep buying every Guitar Hero game that comes out.  When the series started, it was a new and inspired idea, and a great party game -- the problem is that if you just keep churning out new games that offer nothing new but more songs, eventually people will decide they have enough songs and just stop buying them.  You can already see this trend with Guitar Hero sales.

If Kotick gets his way, he seems to only want Activision to produce games that can be cranked out every year like clockwork.  In the short run, I'm sure this will be great for Activision -- Guitar Hero, Call of Duty, and other games of that ilk can crank out billions of dollars in sales before they sputter out.  Not only does this disappoint me as a consumer though -- I really love seeing games that do new and interesting stuff, like Portal -- in the long run, this is going to hurt Activision.  New franchises aren't going to come out of thin air, and your old ones will eventually grow stale, especially when you crank them out every year and seem to chase away the talent that gave you them in the first place.  What will Activision do when Guitar Hero and Call of Duty eventually burn out, or get superseded by a product made by a company with a more innovation-friendly development process?  It can coast a long time on WoW income, I suppose, but eventually, someday, that will come to an end too.

I suspect Kotick's answer would be that he'll simply buy a studio making another game he can exploit as a profitable franchise -- but after the whole debacle at Infinity Ward, how many studios are going to see Activision's umbrella as a good place to take shelter?  Blizzard, I suspect, has been lucky enough to retain a lot of autonomy simply because WoW is such a cash cow -- but when the creators of the #1 selling game of all time can get the shaft, they still have to be a little nervous.  I would be, anyway.

I don't want to see the video game industry turn into the parody of the film industry you see in a lot of 80s movies, with "Rocky 17" in the theatres.  Unfortunately, with people like Kotick at the helm, it seems like that is likely what we'll end up with -- endless strings of sequels of declining quality.  Thankfully, unlike the film industry, the video game industry is not limited by the number of theatres -- bad games can't chase good games out of the market, especially as digital distribution becomes more and more prevalent.  That means that it's less likely people will continue to buy sequels just from inertia -- which is a good thing for the industry, but bad for companies that think they can survive by simply milking franchises to death.

So, to bring this all back to Amrich's assertion, that Bobby Kotick is only seen as the bad guy because his quotes have been taken out of context, I have to respectfully disagree.  It's not a few verbal gaffs that make people think Kotick is a bad guy, it's his whole style of management and what it means for the hobby as a whole.  I can't disagree that he's been great for Activision's bottom line, at least for now, but if he continues down the road he's on, I think our hobby -- and Activision with it -- will suffer.


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Let's start this off by saying what Inception is not.  It is not an M. Night Shyamalan-style movie with "a twist."  If you go in expecting this, and then come out wondering what the big deal was, I think you missed the point -- you are basically told the form of the plot in the first half hour of the movie.  Inception is not trying to shock you with the cheap thrill of a twist, it's telling a compelling story with amazing visuals and an intelligent, unique premise, with some awesome action scenes weaved in there to boot.  Inception is not going to blow your mind like say, Primer, but you aren't likely to forget it half an hour after you leave the theater either.

The basic plot of the movie is relatively straightforward.  Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, the leader of a team of "dream thieves" that infiltrate the dreams of targets to steal their innermost secrets from their subconscious -- this is "extraction."  A Japanese businessman, played by Ken Watanabe, hires him to crack into the mind of a competitor, played by Cillian Murphy, and plant the idea in his mind to break up his father's company -- this is "inception" and it is supposedly impossible, according to Cobb's right hand man Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The bulk of the movie takes place in dreamspace of one sort or another, where reality is what you make of it.  The way this works gives you some amazing visuals (like the city folding in on itself you can see in the trailers), but the way the "outer world" affects the dreamspace is also really well done, translating reality (like getting dunked in a bathtub) into a fantasy (the building you're in getting destroyed in a flood).  Most visually inspired scenes are created through this effect; it reminded me a lot of The Matrix in terms of visual spectacle (and considering the premise, perhaps that's not surprising).

In order to plant the idea in the target's mind, without his subconscious rejecting it as someone else's idea, Cobb's team must drill down deep enough to obscure the genesis of the idea.  In essence, they must create a triple-layered dream -- a dream within a dream within a dream.  This is what creates some of the best visuals of the movie and allows, as my friend Mike at 1000 Monkeys describes, a Return of the Jedi-style intercutting of action scenes, only each scene is on a different level of the dream and therefore slowed down -- dreamtime is a twentieth as fast as real time, and the effect is compounded -- so what takes only ten seconds in the outer world is over three minutes in the next layer, and so on.

Stitched into this fairly straightforward heist plot is a more personal story for Cobb, whose dead wife haunts his dreams and complicates the whole process.  Again, if you're looking for a twist here, you are looking in the wrong place -- but the drama of Cobb's struggle with his own demons is compelling, and is tightly interwoven with the rest of the movie.

Inception is a movie that really fires on all cylinders for me.  DiCaprio leads an excellent cast of actors, including Nolan veterans Watanabe, Murphy, and Michael Caine, who appears in a small part.  It's hard for me to believe I dismissed DiCaprio after he did Titanic; he may be one of the best actors working these days.  And if, as rumor has it, Inception was a sort of audition for Joseph Gordon-Levitt to be the Riddler in the next Nolanverse Batman movie, he certainly nails it.  After seeing him in Brick and (500) Days of Summer I'm hardly surprised, but his Arthur in this movie is a smart, skilled second to Cobb, and his action scenes are great to watch.  Ellen Page, who plays the newest member of the team and is sort of DiCaprio's protege, is sort of the audience stand-in, being the person that gets the "rules" of dreaming explained to her, and does a good job of showing the growing awareness of the new experience without being simply Ms. Exposition.  Tom Hardy and Dileep Rao, who I don't think I've seen in anything else and round out Cobb's crew, don't get a huge amount to do, but do well with what they get.  Even the bit actors in this movie were good -- a very un-Major League Tom Berenger plays Murphy's "uncle" and one of my favorite character actors, Pete Postlethwaite, plays Murphy's dying father.

The writing is smart and never seems to drag, even when the characters need to give the necessary exposition; Mike complains that the dialogue seemed repetitive, and I never really got that sense.  The character do remind each other of the urgency of the situation at times, but it didn't seem like it was out of place (and helped to reinforce the urgency of the situation to the audience too, obviously).  I thought Nolan did a good job of showing the concepts the characters were talking about through various visual cues, which made it easy to follow what was going on pretty much all the time.

Hans Zimmer's soundtrack also deserves special mention.  I've always really liked his soundtracks, even though they aren't as distinctive as say, Vangelis' Blade Runner score; he definitely has a more generic style that isn't likely to blow your mind even if you really like it.  However, what he did in Inception is pretty cool, and you can read about it in this article; he's basically taken the main theme from music the "thieves" use to warn each other that they are running out of time and slowed it down to use as the theme for his soundtrack, and it works great.  The music really helps to drive the action and keep it flowing during the climax of the movie.  You can sample it at this website, if you want to get a taste of it.

Is Inception going to change the way you think about movies and blow your mind?  No, it's not.  Is it a great movie?  Yes, and it's well worth seeing on the big screen for its visuals, unless you happen to have a 60-inch TV to watch it on when it comes out in Blu-Ray.  I suspect it will end up being the best movie I see this year; it was definitely better than Iron Man 2, and the only other movie I'm super-psyched about seeing in a theater this year is Tron: Legacy, which, while it looks like it will be a lot of fun, will have a hard time topping this.

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