A few years ago, gamers were fed up with the way Electronic Arts had become a mega-conglomerate in the gaming industry. Swallowing small developers whole, annual re-releases on their franchise titles and a reputation of choosing to play it safe rather than create gaming experiences. It seems that a new king will hold that crown.
But why is Activision the evil bully on the gaming block now? Three franchises became overnight cash-cows for Bobby Kotick and his money-printing machine. Guitar Hero and Call of Duty took over their respective genres. Guitar Hero won over masses of casual gamers with the first two releases on the PlayStation 2 while Call of Duty stole the FPS-in-a-real-life-war sub-genre from EA’s Medal of Honor. Lastly, Activision merged with Vivendi Games, which owned not only formerly powerful studios like Sierra Games but also owns a successful little company known as Blizzard Entertainment. Not only did Activision become Activision-Blizzard, they now had control of the world’s largest MMORPG in World of Warcraft as well as publishing control to future blockbuster titles in Diablo III and Starcraft II.
But I digress.
Today, Activision has become known as more of a boss than a partner, which is all fine and good except it seems that their financial bottom line is more important than creative freedom. Despite Guitar Hero’s success, when Red Octane (the creators of the GH peripherals) and Harmonix (developers of the Guitar Hero game) ended their two game marriage, Activision chose to snap up Red Octane and give Harmonix the cold shoulder. Harmonix was long considered the cream of rhythm game development with not only the Guitar Hero franchise but also early PS2 hits Frequency and Amplitude. Instead, Activision let Red Octane continue to create hardware and anointed Tony Hawk Pro Skater creators Neversoft as heirs to the development of Guitar Hero. Meanwhile, Harmonix partnered with MTV Games which turned out to be a perfect marriage. MTV Games allowed Harmonix to have access to a increased number of licensed music and MTV Games was soon acquired by Electronic Arts. The partnership resulted in Rock Band, which was the first full-band rhythm game to be released to market and was well received critically.
The ongoing debate between Rock Band and Guitar Hero has never truly been decided. Harmonix faithful and fans of rhythm games have constantly stood by Rock Band with its stronger soundtrack and precise note charts. In contrast, Guitar Hero still outsold Rock Band, but the franchise was never as well received with Neversoft developing the games. Where Harmonix prided themselves upon accuracy and experience, Neversoft created note charts that seemed exceedingly difficult and copied Rock Band’s new formula to a tee when they released Guitar Hero World Tour.
The second (ongoing) debate is with one of the studios that developed the Call of Duty series. Infinity Ward, creators of the two Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games, were seen as the darlings of the FPS world. Not only were copies of Modern Warfare flying off the shelves, CoD4 was one of the most well received games of 2007 (it was my pick for action game of the year). So when Modern Warfare 2 came out in late 2009, expectations for quality and sales were high. Modern Warfare 2 claims to be the largest launch by any entertainment medium.
Despite the incredible success of Modern Warfare 2, Infinity Ward is not a happy place. Activision fired the two Infinity Ward executives, Jason West and Vince Zampella, over a breach of contract in March. The resulting aftermath has been in at least 35 Infinity Ward employees submitting their resignation from Activision, West and Zampella forming Respawn Studios and Activision and former Infinty Ward employees suing each other over contract breaches and unpaid royalty bonuses.
As much as Activision wants to reprimand West and Zampella for unprofessional conduct and breaching their contracts, from an outsider’s perspective it appears all Activision really cares about is where they stand financially instead of their loss of one of the most talented studios in the business today.
So what does Activision do from here?
Get a bigger developer.
Halo creators Bungie Studios and Activision have entered an agreement for the studio of Microsoft’s most successful franchise to create games for Activision for the next decade. If this sounds familiar, it should. Project Gotham Racing developer Bizarre Creations worked with Microsoft until their acquisition by Activision in 2007.
So what’s in store for Bungie? Newly set free from Microsoft and entering their lucrative 10 year plan with Activision, the studio appears to be moving away from the Halo series. Bungie has long expressed their desire to move away from the Halo universe when the time was right. After a trilogy of Master Chief endeavors, an all-too-brief spin off in ODST, a glimpse at Halo’s RTS roots in Halo Wars and the prequel/finale Halo Reach due out this fall, it may be safe to say that Bungie is comfortable with the state they are leaving the franchise in. The outline of the partnership is that Bungie will work on one new franchise for the next decade.
Halo itself is in safe hands as Microsoft has long taken care of Halo fans and used it as a backbone to their Xbox Live service. Even when the original Xbox Live was turned off in mid-April, Microsoft kept the servers running as 14 players kept playing Halo 2 for a month after the lights out date of April 14. The Noble 14, as they were known, kept their Xboxes running until only one man remained on May 10.
Bungie’s partnership with Activision is intriguing to say the least. Activision might not be the most supportive of publishers creatively, but an established studio like Bungie should have the leverage to continue to work independently. It is important to note that Bungie is entering a partnership rather than becoming a subsidiary of Activision like Infinity Ward is. This should ensure Bungie operates independently and also allows them to work on side projects if they feel the need.
So can Bungie create something new and fresh after a decade of Halo games? Will Activision continue to muscle its way across the gaming industry? Its an interesting arrangement between the two companies for sure. Creativity and experience married to incredibly deep pockets? One thing is certain, Sony is excited to release their first Bungie game since Oni on the PS2.