Why We Love To Hate Activision — And Might Be WrongS

The games biz has a new favorite bad guy, and its name is Activision. Do the mega-publisher and its aggressive, polarizing CEO, Bobby Kotick, deserve the bad rap? Or do we just love to hate? Who is this man, anyway?

Though always an industry mainstay, Activision didn't start to take its place front-and-center in the core audience's shooting gallery until years recent. It was theGuitar Hero and Call of Duty, franchises that became Activision's golden calves; early incarnations of those titles broke ground and dazzled audiences.

Then came the sequels, the sequels, and yet more sequels. As the publisher's stock soared (ticker: ATVI) its triumphant executive became a vocal and often controversial mainstay in the business press – and by extension, the gaming consumer press.

"Hating EA is so last year," CEO John Riccitiello told Kotaku at E3 in 2008, talking to us about what Electronic Arts had learned from its old ways of doing business – ways that look an awful lot like how Activision appears to conduct itself these days. All across the internet, it's clear: Gamers have crowned a new Evil Empire.

Who Is Bobby Kotick?

I, as a games biz reporter, have been given interview time with most major publishing execs more than once – most of them believe it's important to reach out to us from time to time as a way of reaching their consumers. I've never even been in the same room with Mr. Kotick. And while Activision is often responsive to media inquiries regarding its games, calls for comment on business articles or questions about the company itself – such as my request for info for this article – usually go unanswered.

Why We Love To Hate Activision — And Might Be WrongS

But as an industry analyst, it's the job of Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter to check in regularly with top execs and get the info shareholders need to make investment decisions, so he's fairly familiar with the bombastic executive. "Bobby is friendly to a fault, funny, very smart, and quite engaging," says Pachter. "He is a bit flip, in an entertaining way, and I think it translates in print as cocky. I like him a lot, and think that his public persona has been twisted by the gaming media, making him into a ruthless factory head."

Kotick's "public persona" continues to raise eyebrows all on its own. Asked recently by an analyst on a quarterly conference call about the rising cost of packaged game software – bolstered, in no small part, by Activision's higher price points on peripheral-equipped games, Kotick said that "if it was left to me, I would raise [software] prices even further," and chuckled along with his execs.

Just a joke it may have been, but hardly a tasteful one in a recession, where cash-strapped consumers were likely to catch wind of his cavalier attitude. It's just one example why a wash of anti-ATVI sentiment pervades the comments sections and forums that impassioned gamers call home. Contrast that to Nintendo's stated promise to "keep people smiling," EA boss Riccitiello's common refrain that quality must precede profitability as a goal, and Take-Two chairman Strauss Zelnick's regular praise for his development talent on every quarterly investor call.

But Kotick's most recent round of cold talk was the most eyebrow-raising: he recently said his goal's always been to "take all the fun out making video games." As for the working environment at Activision? "I think we've definitely been able to instill in the culture the skepticism and pessimism and fear that you should have in an economy like we're in today."

The widely-publicized quote, delivered at an investor conference, was easy flamebait. Gamers' passionate nature and yen for controversy is part of what defines them as a community – and hating can be fun, as exemplified by this resulting parody song from IdleThumbs' Chris Remo, who says it's "based on the teachings of Kotick."

But what do Kotick's employees think, living in an environment of "pessimism, skepticism and fear"?

Why We Love To Hate Activision — And Might Be WrongS

Nose To The Grindstone

"Kotick basically says that he was partially quoted out of context, and partially the humor of the situation at the time isn't conveyed in the quotations," says a level-headed employee of one of the publisher's internal studios, speaking under condition of anonymity. Infinity Ward's Robert Bowling also seemed to take it as a joke, if you recall his subtle riff on the snafu during a recent Modern Warfare 2 event.

Numerous Activision insiders who didn't want to be quoted said that Activision, as a corporate entity, treats them well – individual developers are more likely to encounter conflicts of studio bureaucracy on the development side rather than on the publisher-side, something of an unusual scheme of events in game development.

The high-pressure, goal-driven environment also means tensions across rival internal studios flare up more often, as we saw with the public spat between Infinity Ward's Robert Bowling and Activision producer Noah Heller, representing Treyarch's Call of Duty: World at War. Of course, the culture of achievement also means that prominent designers on projects like these drive very, very nice cars, we're told.

Our source has never himself met Kotick, but says he's heard little ill of him – he compares what he hears to "people who know Bush, where despite what you think about his policies, they all seem to think he's a cool guy to sit around and have a beer with."

The Bad Behavior

Industry sources say, though, that other gaming companies don't feel quite so positively toward Kotick – in particular, that such a cash-flush company is leaving it up to the others to shoulder the collective cost of piracy protection and first-amendment lobbying via their Entertainment Software Association dues. That is a point of contention.

Activision was the largest publisher to defect not only from last year's E3, but from the ESA – the trade body that represents the interests of all game developers. And while this year, the publisher returned to E3, it still won't rejoin the ESA: "We have our own issues that are not the industry's issues," Kotick has said.

But Activision is part of the industry – so as much smaller publishers manage their pricey ESA dues to support pro-industry lobbying and public awareness campaigns, Activision, one of the world's wealthiest, is sitting out its share. And that decision is viewed in a poor light by other companies.

Why We Love To Hate Activision — And Might Be WrongS

Also worrying is Kotick's pattern of levying lawsuits against the defiant. Activision dropped gamer-darling Brütal Legend, from its publishing slate in the Vivendi merger because the eagerly-anticipated title, plus other Sierra games, "lacked the potential to be exploited every year on every platform," as Kotick said at the time.

But when EA picked up the game, Activision sued – a move an EA spokesperson now-famously likened to "a husband abandoning his family and then suing after his wife meets a better looking guy." ("Hey, if Activision liked it, then they should have put a ring on it," chimed in creator Tim Schafer.)

Under Kotick's stewardship, Activision seems to be developing a propensity for the sort of legal challenge that makes it look like a bully. There's also the imbroglio over turntable games, when Activision bought embattled developer 7 Studios — who'd been working on Scratch: The Ultimate DJ for Genius Products. Genius now alleges Activision levied its legal muscle and some "unsavory business practices" to delay a possible rival to its own turntable-equipped DJ Hero. Activision mantains its involvement with 7 Studios provides the developer with much-needed financing, and that Scratch had fallen behind in production well before its acquisition.

A Culture Of Cash

Pragmatic gamers may not like Activision or Kotick's ways, but will assert the man's just doing his job and doing it well: The games industry is still a business, after all. He has, at least on the books, earned some compliments – and mad money to go with them. The 46 year-old Kotick has helmed Activision since 1991, and in 2007, the NPD group pegged the publisher as the industry's biggest. Activision's 2008 saw four consecutive quarters of revenue growth – and that same year, Forbes says Kotick earned $15 million for his work. That's twice what EA's John Riccitiello made as head of Activision's nearest rival.

And when he's not running the game industry's newest and biggest Death Star, evidence suggests he might not be such a bad guy. He participates in charitable organizations as a member of the Board of Trustees for The Center for Early Education, chairs the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Tony Hawk Foundation – making his game franchise figurehead happy, sure, but the Foundation also puts skate parks in disadvantaged communities.

Nonetheless, Bobby Kotick doesn't seem to care what gamers think. Should he? Pachter points out that when "the old" EA was churning out content with less attention to quality, the resulting gamer backlash did, in his opinion, injure the company's bottom line.

"The argument about consumer fatigue and lower product quality is sound," Pachter concedes. "There is only so much innovation that can occur, and annual games are less likely to be innovative than bi-annual or tri-annual games." It's possible that Activision's business strategy and public persona may one day come home to roost, as it did for EA.

Until then, what can gamers do? Not buy Modern Warfare 2, the holiday season's most-desired title?

...Yeah, right.

[Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]