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Call of Money

Scott Jennings Posted:
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Activision lowers the boom on Infinity Ward, and illustrates a fundamental problem with game development.

If you’ve been here before, you may remember that I’ve talked about the Modern Warfare series once before in my column. Although Modern Warfare isn’t an MMO (although it has some of the design features found in an MMO, such as a limited version of character persistence and progression), its creators, Infinity Ward, are responsible for one of the hugest selling videogames of all time. Alongside the now-slumping but previously huge Guitar Hero series and an online game company you may have heard of once or twice, it helped to make Activision one of the largest and most successful video game publishers.

Apparently, it didn’t help. When the company that owns both the most successful first person shooter franchise of all time and the best selling massively multiplayer game of all time still can’t make a profit, well, perhaps questions need to be asked. And from all reports, the answer Activision’s executives came back with was, strangely, “let’s fire the people who ran the project that earned us over a billion dollars last year! C’mon, it’ll be great.”

The reaction to this was fairly illuminating, on several levels. For one thing, to say that there was a difference between how players reacted and how developers did was something of an understatement. Most of the reaction from players was thinly disguised glee at Infinity Ward’s troubles – after all, these were the guys who killed dedicated servers! They hate PC gamers, they deserve to rot for such unpardonable sins and no one should ever hire them. Well, no one ever said that hardcore PC gamers weren’t opinionated. I know, I’m one of them.

The reactions among fellow game developers, though, were more subdued, and break out into two paths. The first, by developers relatively new to the industry, is a sense of shock, awe and fear. How could Activision do that… to Infinity Ward?? These are the guys who made one of the best selling games of all time with a staff of only 75 people. They made good products, they hit their milestones, they made their owners a lot of money – and they got gutted, their leadership, who had founded the company, replaced with functionaries from Activision’s publishing division. If that can happen to them… who is safe?

The responses from the jaded veterans who may have had experience with similar events are a bit more knowing: this was inevitable, the moment they signed their contracts. Publishers are evil and cannot be trusted. It’s just what they do. Once you sign on the dotted line, you have to assume that you are no longer a partner, but a resource awaiting the inevitable exploitation. Publishers don’t have the interests of developers at heart, nor of gamers – they simply exist to suck as much money into their pockets with the least amount of effort.

So why do publishers even exist… and why do developers sign their independence and their future away so often? The answer, quite simply – money. It takes money to make competitive “AAA” products. A lot of money – in the tens of millions, rapidly approaching the hundred million mark (and in a couple of instances, such as Grand Theft Auto 4, exceeding that threshold). To get this money, developers contract with publishers – the publishers provide the funding, and the developers are promised a share of the profits if the game sells well. It’s a fairly basic relationship, but one that frequently breaks down, as both parties begin to assume the role of antagonists, and believe more and more on both sides that they and not their counterparts are responsible for their projects’ success.

This is true, to a degree, for massively multiplayer games as well. MMOs are even more expensive than most other games, and take longer to develop. That money has to come from somewhere. The younger studios, such as Cryptic, work with a larger publisher to finance their team long enough to get a game out the door. Their more successful elder siblings, such as SOE or Blizzard, effectively become publishers themselves – a necessity given that the knowledge needed to midwife the birth of an MMO isn’t yet common currency. Thus, the larger publishers, such as Activision and EA, simply buy smaller MMO teams to bring their base of knowledge in-house.

This all has echoes of the recording industry: artists who sign contracts with recording labels who gain the lion’s share of their proceeds for what most would consider very little work on their part. This robber-baron sort of relationship makes it easy to justify pirating music – an attitude encouraged by some musicians, who after all most likely aren’t going to see a lot of money from record sales, anyway. (One wonders if game developers would be similarly sanguine about piracy if they, too, could supplement their salaries by going out on tours.) And some more visionary musicians, such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, do their best to make end runs around the entire system through digital distribution.

And that, I think, is the ultimate direction that gaming needs to look to as well. Because in today’s development models, publishers are corrosive – both to the short-term well-being of development teams, and to the long term incubation of creativity. The things that make a good game – creativity, polish, and artistry – are not the things a publisher looks for when juicing up an end-of-quarter report to stockholders. A good development house works as a unified team, to ensure that everyone is invested in everyone else’s success. A good publisher thinks quarterly layoffs are a good start.

So, how do we, as developers, free ourselves from the shackles of the suits carrying suitcases of sweet milestone cash? Simple: small games, self-financed, distributed virtually and virally. This can – and often does – work for massively multiplayer games as well. They aren’t blockbuster hits, they can’t compare in breadth of content to what a Blizzard or EA can fund , and sometimes they rely on models such as free-to-play that most gamers don’t particularly like. But if you believe in the future of game development as a creative enterprise as opposed to, to use Activision CEO Bobby Kotick’s favorite phrase for what his company produces, “packaged goods” – the current publisher/developer model has to be overturned.

Or, we can wait patiently for Call of Duty 7: Duty Call. Based on past examples, it should be out by 2012, will sell about 12 billion copies, and have about two hours of gameplay. Woo.


Scott Jennings