2009 In Review: The Controversies

Looking back on 2009's many kerfuffles and foofaraws, it may not have been the most contentious year the gaming industry has ever seen. But it certainly was among the most entertaining.

Kicking off Kotaku's review of 2009 are the headlines that generated the most heat, if not light, from the preceding year. The conflicts fracture along familiar faultlines - legal claims; violence and in-game content; marketing and etc. And by no means is this an exhaustive list. There were plenty of other decisions, indecisions, gaffes, gambits and shrewd calls made by the games industry - a dynamic capitalist enterprise, of course - and we invite you to continue the discussion of them in our comments.

2009 In Review: The Controversies

Knuckleheaded
EA's press promo for Godfather II backfires when the brass knuckles it sends (including a pair to Crecente) turn out to be illegal in many of the states to which they are shipped (including Colorado). It's also illegal to ship them in California, where EA is based. EA asks for all of the knuckles back. Godfather II then backfires when the game sucks.

One Fallujah the Cuckoo's Nest
Konami tiptoed up to the "too soon?" line by announcing "Six Days in Fallujah," a combat FPS based on the deadly 2006 American operation to pacify the region in Iraq. Then developer Atomic Games took a flying leap over the line by mentioning it had consulted with insurgents on the game's initial design. By the end of the month, Konami dropped the project like it was a hot, nuclear-waste infused pop-tart. Atomic continued to insist the project was alive, while shopping it to other publishers. But by the end of the year, Atomic president Peter Tamte seemed to have gotten further with his idea for a "family-friendly" game about Marines pacifying Beirut, instead. That one is scheduled for a January 2010 release. Apparently, in video games, it's all about location, location, location. [Thanks to commenter ashleyillman001 for reminding us of this one.]

Our Legal Team Goes to 11
Activision's lawyers file a face-melting suit against studio Double Fine over Brütal Legend, whose publishing shifted over from Activision to Electronic Arts earlier in the year. Activision seeks to halt the game's release on grounds that Double Fine missed a key deadline when it was accountable to Activision. EA, not sued, still tells Activision STFU, and that they're just jealous in the manner of "a husband abandoning his family and then suing after his wife meets a better looking guy." Double Fine countersues, alleging Activision was trying to kill off Brütal Legend, seeing it as a threat to Guitar Hero. Ultimately, the two sides settle out of court, and Brütal Legend makes its declared release day.

Turn Out the Lights, the LAN Party's Over
StarCraft is a longtime staple of LAN parties, but that tradition will end with StarCraft II. In late June, Blizzard tells Kotaku that the title will not support local area network gaming, and will instead steer players over to "our upgraded Battle.net service." One of the reasons given is that it cuts down on piracy. Predictably, Starcraft enthusiasts head to the Batpoles to draft a petition. Instead of making fist-shaking demands and threatening boycotts, what comes out is more of a polite "please?" The effort has gathered 244,510 signatures to date. But at Blizzcon, executive v.p. of game design Rob Pardo tells Fahey that "Only from the press," is Blizzard still taking flak for the decision. "Everyone else has accepted it."

2009 In Review: The Controversies

Edgy Edged Edginess over Edge
Tim Langdell had a terrible reputation within the games industry prior to this year, but his pissing contest with Mobigame over the word "Edge" represents a coming out party. Langdell, excoriated for his aggressive defense of the trademark "Edge," which he registered years ago, has Mobigame's acclaimed title for the iPhone removed from the iTunes App Store in May. The controversy and terrible publicity result in Langdell's resignation from the board of the International Game Developers Association, and ultimately Electronic Arts suing to cancel Langdell's trademarks, over a dispute regarding 2008's Mirror's Edge. Mobigame's game resurfaces as "Mobigame by Edge" later in the year.

Who Sold Out Whom?
At E3 2009, Valve's announcement of Left 4 Dead 2 ignites feelings of betrayal and marginalization in some who bought the original Left 4 Dead barely seven months before. Immediately a boycott group forms on the Steam forums, vowing not to buy or play the new game. Some 10,000 people join it in the first few days. Stern criticisms include: "The fiddle-based horde music is extremely disliked, though the differently orchestrated music is otherwise welcome." In September, Valve shrewdly co-opts the boycott's leadership, flying two of its organizers to Valve HQ to get some hands-on time with Left 4 Dead 2. Both immediately sing its praises. On launch day in November, most in the boycott stick to their guns, but many cave in and play anyway.

2009 In Review: The Controversies

Dante's Fiasco(es)
The Dante's Inferno marketing team was apparently on a rampage to execute the most boneheaded campaign of any title in 2009. After sending a bunch of fake religious zealots to E3 to protest the game there, pissing off real religious zealots with the stereotype, they cook up the "Sin to Win" whopper of Comic-Con. Basically, Comic-Con goers were encouraged to "commit acts of lust" by having their photos taken with booth babes, then submit the photos for judgment and a chance to win a "sinful night with two hot girls," plus other amenities. Outrage catches on, and the Dante's Inferno team apologizes. A real booth babe rips them a new one, and a gay man wins a runner-up prize for submitting his picture with a "booth bear."

Made from Scratch
It's a story that combines 2009's trendiest douche moves - lawsuits, and layoffs. In April, Activision is sued by publisher Genius Products and peripheral maker Numark Industries over its acquisition of 7 Studios, conveniently and coincidentally developing a rival game to Activision's own DJ Hero. A court in L.A. orders Activision to give over all the code from the competing title - Scratch: The Ultimate DJ. The two sides settle on a cash-for-code prisoner exchange, and Scratch is rebooked for an early 2010 release. DJ Hero, despite reasonably good reviews and a full-bore marketing campaign, disappoints in sales, which doesn't look good for Scratch next year. Finally, once 7 Studios is no longer useful to this corporate psychodrama, Activision lays off half of its workforce.

2009 In Review: The Controversies

Sambo No Amigo
Scribblenauts, the wildly creative DS hit developed by 5th Cell, encounters an unintentional problem with racial sensitivity when writing the word "sambo" creates a watermelon on the screen. In the minor video games market known as the United States, both are overtly racist images with a history going back decades. 5th Cell points out the game is developed for multiple countries and languages, and that the watermelon summoned is in fact a "fig-leafed gourd," by which it is apparently known as "sambo" in Spanish. The game's publisher, Warner Bros. Interactive issues a more comprehensive apology, expressing deep regret for the word's inclusion. Internet tough-guy commenters who don't see what the trouble is with the word "sambo" are invited to say it around their black friends. None has any.

Shut Your Hole
Courtney Love, wife of self-martyred pop star Kurt Cobain, announces via Twitter she's gonna "sue the shit out of Activision," over its insensitive use of her hubby's likeness in Guitar Hero 5 - which includes his avatar singing songs not performed by Nirvana, which means in someone else's voice. Activision's response is all, "Um, RTFA," and points to the contract she in fact signed granting the use of Cobain's likeness as a "fully playable character." Jon Bon Jovi backs Love, saying he nothankyou.jpg'd Activision's offer of an appearance in the same game. Then Gwen Stefani, not one to be out-dramaqueened, and her band No Doubt file a lawsuit similar to Love's. Activision returns fire, suing No Doubt for failure to perform due diligence and breach of contract. Congratulations, everyone now looks bad.

A Lack of Dedication
In October, Infinity Ward community manager Robert Bowling goes on a podcast with hardcore Modern Warfare fans and announces the creation of the matchmaking service IWNet. You then hear the gears turning in the podcast hosts' heads: But ... that ... means the end of ... dedicated servers ... right? Right. Immediately, petitions and boycotts are announced, gathering some 20,000 signatures in the first day. Infinity Ward sticks to its claim that IWNet will be an improvement. By launch day, the boycott is effectively over.

2009 In Review: The Controversies

Video About Gamers' Insensitivity Not Acceptable
Philadelphia Phillies pitcher - and noted Modern Warfare enthusiast - Cole Hamels (pictured) reminds us that "grenades are for pussies," in a faux-public service announcement brought to you by "Fight Against Grenade Spam." That, of course, makes the acronym FAGS and all, or at least partial, hell breaks loose. Infinity Ward, the producer of the video, is upbraided not so much for a veiled homophobic slur, but for a clip that portrays the game's community as dominated by uber-macho, insult-spewing assclowns. Infinity Ward removes the video the next day.

No Russian Was Harmed in the Making
Leaked gameplay footage of Modern Warfare 2 shows that players will - in the guise of an undercover mission - join terrorists as they invade an airport, kill and commit atrocities against civilians. Activision immediately points out the mission is skippable, both before it begins and at any point during it, and is "designed to evoke the atrocities of terrorism." The game, already classified for sale in Australia, is the subject of brief demands to have it reclassified and effectively banned, but they go nowhere. The sequence is removed from versions sold in Russia, and modified in the Japanese and German versions so that players shooting any civilians are given a "game over" screen. The Japanese version courts additional controversy when the mistranslation of "Remember, no Russian," - instructions to the terrorists not to speak in that language - comes out as "Kill ‘em, the Russians." In the United States, Totilo goes on MSNBC to plead for national calm and mainstream outrage fails to materialize.Modern Warfare 2 goes on to sell more than 4.7 million copies in the North America and the U.K. - on the day of its release.

2009 In Review: The Controversies

Frumps on the Barbie
Australia's lack of an R18+ classification for video games comes back to the fore when Left 4 Dead 2 is refused classification by the nation's Review Board. Valve's reaction is, in order, to be "pretty bummed," then to appeal the refused classification and then finally publish a spitefully power-sanitized version just for Australia, which might as well have been titled Imagine: Zombiez.

Frumps on the Barbie II or: Australians vs. Predator
Luke attempts to set us all straight on what is and what ain't banning in Australia. But the country's image, that it's a nation of pantywaists tenderly sensitive to depictions of certain manly acts - such as decapitations - persists. And it seems to be having a cumulative effect. Aliens vs. Predator, at first banned - oops, I mean, refused classification - is reconsidered and then, amazingly, classified MA15+ making it good for sale. Then the government asks for public input on changes to the country's game ratings system. Finally Luke, waking up today and reading this last paragraph, bludgeons me to death with a didgeridoo, over the Internet, the end.