Evil Behind the Curtain

The big gaming news this week is easily Activision’s firing of the Infinity Ward heads, and the storytelling lawsuit by the two fired against Activision.  Infinity Ward heads the Call of Duty franchise, which is one of the three Activision franchises accounting for a gross proportion of the corporation’s income.  World of Warcraft and Guitar Hero being the other two.  The plaintiff documents paint a picture of pure corporate greed.  It is not just the firings of the two people just prior to when they would be paid a believably significant royalty but also the immediate actions of Activision after the firings in creating a Call of Duty business unit.  Either Activision is going to very nearly slander the plaintiffs in the response or this will all get settled outside of the public eye.  My popcorn bowl hopes for the former.

It brings, once again, an interesting dilemma: how important is it that a gamer’s fun is created by a good-willed corporation?

That’s why we are all here… right?  Our enjoyable hobby is to play online games with other people in order to pass the hours by having interactive fun.  The hirings, firings, corporate maneuvering, inhumane work conditions, and soul shredding that could occur probably never touches the ear of the majority of those we share our worlds with.  Any in-game discussion on the latest corporate soap in an open chat channel would likely be met largely with blank stares and dismissive expletives.

Still, I know.  I constantly press for information, for bits of photon that will themselves through the corporate curtain, and the image projected on my allegorical cave wall is not always pretty.  I hear about people being led out to a parking lot, like cattle, fired, and then told their personal belongings would be shipped to them.  I hear about “move or die” consolidations on development studios.  I hear about management c@&-offs that produce tsunamis to those they manage.  And, I’ve seen multiple tweets or Facebook statuses of shaken devs implying insobriety and joblessness.

The most important thing to remember is that MMO players are customers of a service.  Whether the player subscribes each month, uses microtransactions, or simply buys-the-box, it is the player’s continued contributions to the company that matter.  Unlike all the Call of Duty players that really cannot return their merchandise, MMO players have the option of making their voice heard through actions. 

I find that my MMO playing, and more importantly my blogging, does follow companies I am proud to support.   I shy away from companies that don’t make me feel good to be a customer.  Scott “Lum” Jennings had a great article over at mmorpg.com about the chokehold many publishers have over the gaming genre.  Their concern is over quarterly stockholder reports where “layoffs are a good start.”  Yet, there are development studios with good publisher relationships, whether they are wholly owned or not.

For now, my money talks.  I was so close to re-subbing to World of Warcraft, but I just can’t find it in myself to give them money.  It was patched and ready to go for this weekend.  There are already soothsayings that accord the Blizzard studios a similar shakeup to what happened with Infinity Ward, and I just don’t want my money going that way.  There are plenty of other fun MMOs where on top of having an enjoyable time I know I will be giving my money to something I want to continue supporting.  But, I can’t blame those that stay.   After all, there is really no reason to look behind the curtain.

that you were evil incarnate

14 thoughts on “Evil Behind the Curtain”

  1. “It brings, once again, an interesting dilemma: how important is it that a gamer’s fun is created by a good-willed corporation?”

    I don’t think there’s such a thing. Mind you, this is not an attack on corporativism. I see it as a statement of fact: Corporations are amoral (not immoral) constructs. Their purpose is to generate money to those who own it. Period. There is no higher mandate and, truth be told, I don’t think there should be one.

    Now, we can surely step down one level and talk about -how- they go around earning this money, because there are different ways to do this. Some better than others. That’s why I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “good-willed corporation”. What I do think is that there are corporations which earn their money in ways that are more pleasing to the general public’s vibes than others.

    Sub-point, and not directed at you, Rav: One cannot pretend to have a market with 30+ AAA offers per year and at the same time not have big corporations running the show. I still maintain that our own player hunger for bigger, flashier and better created the landscape we have today. If big game corporations bother you (which is a more than noble position to have, by the way) then support indie gaming exclusively. If not, then take the AAA’s and don’t complain about the way they do things.

    1. Big corporations do not equal evil corporations.

      Corporations have a subjective currency called “good will.” They sue over it… it must exist.

      I’ll be a bit more clear. You say corporations only exist to make money, which is true but avoids this whole issue because right now a corporation is losing money because their good will is deflating. This money might be balanced out by the efficient assbaggery of offing the leads, but they still lose some customers.

      So if all you care about is the product because you believe a corporation cannot hold good will, then there is really no issue here for you… is there?

      1. There isn’t much of an issue to me, to be honest. You’re right. I think there are much, much bigger fishes to fry and bones to pick than Activision wrongfully terminating two CEO’s (and no, it’s not because they were CEOs so I don’t have to care).

        I think it’s perfectly fine to decide to stop doing business, as a customer, with whatever company on whatever solid grounds or whatever formed opinion. That’s fine, and I wish gamers particularly would do this more often instead of complaining for months about Company X and then buying its games anyway like an addict.

        But when in this industry we have perennial issues with product quality, DRM, EULAs and such, development practices, the hermetism of the industry, even working conditions in some places… to pick -this- thing to have an uproar about strikes me as a bit disingenuous. That’s all, really.

        For-profit business focuses on profit. Film at 11.

  2. Very interesting perspective. For the time being though, our shoes and childrens’ toys are still made in sweatshops, and our hotdogs and hamburgers still come from OH MY GOD THE HORROR and we haven’t in general given a crap about that for some time now.

    1. And we buy Melissa & Doug toys instead of Chinese plastic crap, and we buy bison instead of beef.

      But, I agree with your point… most gamers, as I mildly hinted above, don’t care at all.

  3. Standard business logic dictates that Activision should be cutting back on World of Warcraft expenditure round about now. The game has massive market share in a market that appears to have peaked. This is a classic cash cow. Boston Consulting Groups thinking strongly advices that you spend no more than is required to keep its market share and milk the product for all it is worth.

    1. Firstly, as a capitalist I am disgusted when the “corporations are only supposed to care about making money, they’re an abstract entity” argument. We do not live in a jungle wherein we are prisoners to our own greed and abstractions. A true capitalist venture seeks to trade value for value and relies on his ingenuity and effort to create or add the value they exchange. Exploitation is by definition the opposite of trading value for value and thus the opposite of capitalism.
      /philosopher off

      Secondly, I don’t agree with the “general gamer.” I DO care what kind of company I do business with. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I happen to think that the “good” companies have good success. I’d love to have hypertexted “success” to a blog story making my point, but I’m lame. Instead, I’ll just claim that there a plenty of small games with good community around them right now.

      I care about the “talent” more than the suits. For example, after Vanguard, I won’t be playing any more Aradune or Smed games (there is an epic post somewhere at fohguild telling a juicy story at Sigil that would explain why). But I will be trying to find out who exactly did make certain parts of Vanguard because they must’ve really loved what they do and MMOs as a whole to have delivered such innovation for such a-holes. I’ll follow them to their next studio and give them my dollars. And while I’m on “talent,” let me comment that I doubt I would agree with Julian about which 30 AAA+ games came out last year as I do not find “more pores on each character’s face!” to be “more” compelling play. And so I do not find it necessary to have evil companies in this market (or really any market).

      I was already irritated with Activision for the bait’n’switch that is World At War. I already blame Blizzard for giving “the suits” all over the market a stupid metric to use as justification to kill creative and inovative MMOs (and not that was not reference to WAR). Activision will need to substantiate their claims of malfeasance by the two Infinity Ward guys in order for me to forget about this.

      I understand mbp’s claims about Boston Consulting Groups and about modern business practices applied to games. I also think these are the same kinds of cookie cutter attitudes that completely ignored (because they couldn’t understand) the mp3 revolution. I sort of suspect that these practices create pressure that is behind the “Working As Designed” attitude that some dev teams take.

      Now, I don’t want to get off on a tangential rant here (tangerantial!), but I’m almost exclusively a PC gamer, and so I personally add DRM issues into this goodwill/ethical considerations. I got burned by the activation limit on “Evil Genius.” Yes i could jump through hoops to install MY game again, but I bought it and I’m not a child with a chorelist to complete before I get to play so screw Vivendi and Securom. Now I do my research before each purchase, and if a product has Securom, or any other DRM then I don’t buy. It was tough to resist some big games such as Spore and Borderlands. Instead I use Steam which is a bit of a compromise, but even without a connection most games are accessible and Steam is up front (and forces publishers to be honest about DRM content) and so I reward them with my business (And thank God I didn’t have to miss Valve games). But I won’t be playing Assassin’s Creed’s 2 apparently. My feeling is that if you respect your customer, you won’t treat them like the pirates.

  4. I tend to be of the opinion that corporations simply reflect the values of a society. They ARE abstract, amoral money making machines – and as long as we continue to support them with our wallets while turning a blind eye to what we may find unethical, they’ll continue as they are.

    The problem is a lack of conscientiousness in society, and the solution is awareness and, to be frank, for people to actually care. If the majority of their customers don’t care about this type of thing, why on earth would we expect the corporation to?

  5. As I’ve said before, there’s a reason I’ve stayed mostly independent over the years, and it’s not some sort of allergy to money. It’s because a lot of big game development turns into this type of thing. Usually it’s not quite so public, though, but people in the game industry have heard stories like this circulating for a while. I’ve been careful to pick jobs that I think are interesting. Unfortunately, these also tend to be the jobs that have a lower chance for success. I hope you all will be generous in donating when retirement at age 80 or big medical bills come my way. :P

    At any rate, it’ll be interesting to see how this all goes down.

  6. I’ve always felt that ever since WoW became the juggernaut that it is every subsequent MMO has been released in order to make money, not because they want to make a cool new MMO. The worst scenarios are when they start out making a cool new game and then run out of money and have to bring in the dick fuckers who shit on everything. There’s hardly any risk taking so we’re stuck with the same ole shit over and over. Definition of insanity?

  7. It’s an ethical dilemma that every business school student is asked in their first ethics class.

    What is your responsibility to your shareholders and what is your responsibility to your employees?

    Does the company exist to provide jobs or to provide returns for the people willing to risk investing in the company?

    On the one hand, it’s unethical to take money away from investors who financed the company (without them, there is no company).

    But on the other hand, it’s also unethical to abuse your employee for the sake of profit (likewise, without them, there is no company).

    What’s left is some impossible to define sense of fairness. Basically, the ethical thing is that which treats both parties fairly.

    But what if there is no fair solution? What about when a company is LOSING money? In that scenario, the fairest thing is that which makes the company profitable and retains the most jobs.

    Because, if the company isn’t profitable, then NO ONE is going to have a job.

    I think without looking deeply into Activision’s financial records, it’s hard to look at isolated incidents and judge the ethics of it.

    Certainly on a personal level it’s not fair, but in the broader interests of the company (and ALL remaining employees) the picture is harder to paint.

  8. “Yet, there are development studios with good publisher relationships, whether they are wholly owned or not.”


    There are publisher/developer relationships that are very publicly ugly and there are publisher/developer relationships that appear fine and dandy but if you peel back the 8 layers of bull$h!t, you find that they are very un-publicly ugly.

    The only time you hear about the real inner workings of the industry is when someone gets fired and spills everything.

    You will never get an honest statement from a current developer about their current work place environment.

    Why? Because they’ll be fired. On the spot. And potentially blacklisted in the industry from working at several studios.

    That’s why all you hear is unicorns and rainbows from developers most of the time and then every once in a great while someone will break down and explode.

  9. I’m sure Memmio knows every single developer and publisher and is aware of their deepest underlying relationships.

    It’s implausible that there are developers out there that, you know, have different opinions that he does or actually like their job.

    1. It has nothing to do with opinion, it’s a simple conflict of interest between the goals of the developer and the goals of the publisher.

      Make no mistake, the goals of the publisher is solely to make money. They care for nothing else. Their only interest is getting the most amount of customers they can and then getting the most money out of those customers.

      Developers, on the other hand, are in this rodeo to make good games. And, unfortunately, good games don’t always make the most money (see: Psychonauts). We constantly strive and push to make the best games we can, however, the publisher holds all the cards.

      They have the power to mandate changes that may make the game crappier, but will potentially make it more profitable. And we, as developers, can and do argue against such changes but typically lose because, well, they’re more or less our boss.

      So, unless you are a developer who enjoys making highly profitable crap games for little to no compensation (see: Modern Warfare 2), then you probably don’t like publishers (see: Infinity Ward).

      Are there exceptions? Yes. There are always exceptions in everything. But is it normal for a publisher and developer to get along, at all? No, it isn’t.

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