Bobby Kotick, head of Activision, thought he was Luke, not Vader. And he didn't mean that thing about wanting to make game-making no fun.
"I don't know how this happened, but all my life I was the rebel flying the Millennium Falcon or the X-Wing fighter and suddenly I wake up and I'm on board the Death Star." That's the second quip Activision's oft-vilified CEO said to start his talk at the DICE gaming convention today. His first was a joke about the height of his microphone, set not for his height (he's short) but for former EA chief Larry Probst.
Mistakes, Kotick has made a few and he was ready to admit them today.
Most notorious was a late 2009 comment he made that seemed to cement his position as more Vader thank Luke. No, he said today, he didn't mean to sound like, his words, "a dick."
In September he had told a group of investors: "The goal that I had in bringing a lot of the packaged goods folks into Activision about 10 years ago was to take all the fun out of making video games."
Today, he said, after describing Activision as a company striving for greatness, "Sometimes that commitment to excellence, well, you can come across as being like a dick. And when I say things like 'taking the fun out of making video games,' it was a line that has been often-quoted lately, but it was a line I used for investors. It was mainly because i wanted to somehow come across in a humorous way that we were responsible, in the way we made our games in that it wasn't some wild west, lack of process exercise and that we really did give some thought to the capital being used to provide a return of investment to shareholders. So I say things like 'taking the fun out of video games' knowing full well that all we're actually trying to do is keep the fun in the process because, as most of you know, when you're getting into crunch time it becomes really difficult to meet those milestones or get things polished the way you would like, that isn't a lot of fun. That is not what I meant by it."
The Kotick speech today was one of of putting on the good face of Activision and the man at the podium here at the Red Rock Casino. Kotick admitted that he's sometimes been so much the businessman that he's cost his shareholders money by not remembering to get close to game creators. "Sometime what winds up happening when you are 50,000 feet above is you can get insulated from that creative passion."
Blizzard? He should have bought them sooner. He had thought that a subscription version of World of Warcraft was "the silliest thing" he'd ever heard of.
Maxis? "When Maxis was getting sold everyone was being sold on Sim City 2000 being this fantastic product that was incredibly late and wasn't coming out." Kotick went to visit some executives at the company. In another office, Will Wright was working on a game called Jefferson. Kotick didn't meet with Wright. No one could explain the game to him. What Kotick missed was the game that would become the Sims.
For a CEO who has been vilified as a business-first enemy of video game creativity, Kotick wanted to reveal that he has made mistakes staying too distant from passionate game creators.
The most vivid example he gave was how he handled the purchase of the Guitar Hero brand and blew off the talented studio, Harmonix, that had built them, prioritizing the Guitar Hero franchise owner Red Octane and handing the development of the series to Activision-run Neversoft.
"When we were buying Guitar Hero, or buying Red Octane, the makers of Guitar Hero, we knew about Harmonix," Kotick said. "We had always known them as sort of somewhat a failed developer of music games." Activision decided that their own studio, Neversoft, made good games, so they would make Guitar Hero from now on, not the Boston-based Harmonix. He said that had Activision met with Harmonix, things would have been very different.
That's Bobby Kotick saying sorry. Note that Harmonix, now owned by MTV Games and creating the Rock Band games, has been distributed by Activision rival EA since then. That distribution deal is set to expire next month.
Kotick was warm and fuzzy, zip-up sweater over polo shirt, no suit and not much business talk. He was reminiscing in his 20s, the ex history of art major spending about $400,000 for a stake in Activision, a company he was worried was losing its soul. He wanted to explain that he was a gamer originally, then a businessman, one with apologies for some of the creators he may have ignored or insulted — and of course a company to brag about now.
"I loved Zork," he said of his gaming days. "I loved Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I loved the whole idea behind Activision." That idea was that it was the anti-Atari, the company that rebelled against the corporate attitude of Atari and would champion creators.
He recalled scheming in the late 80s with his friend who had started a hedge fund to try to buy Commodore. "I tried for a bout a year to acquire control of Commodore," he said. He thought it could be turned into a great 16-bit console. The Commodore console could be better than the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System being sold in Japan at the time, he recalled himself thinking.
Kotick went from gamer to game maker to businessman. Kotick said he's not playing many games anymore. He's a single dad with three daughters and is wary of the kind of developer he would become, knowing his addictive personality (He confessed he is "addicted to food"). Did he used to be an avid gamer? "I still have callouses from Defender. I still wake up in the middle of the night and see the words 'Use key to open door.'" Does he play now? Not much: "If I was regularly playing Modern Warfare 2 I would not be able to stop and it would be at the expense of all my other responsibilities."
Kotick said that Activision is a company that supports creators and champions vision. He took barely-veiled shots at EA, comparing his interest and efforts in the past to help start companies such as Jamdat and Pandemic with the eventual fates of those companies now folded into EA and, in the case of Pandemic, shut down as an independent entity.
"If you have a company and you want to protect your creative freedom and the integrity of the creative process, if you want to retain your identity and culture, if you want the support of the mothership and the resources of the mothership, we're a really great mothership. But if you want to sell out and move on, there are definitely other companies to talk to."
Kotick made no mention of the deep cuts Activision announced earlier this week nor of the couple of hundred developers who were let go. He focused on projecting a game developer-friendly image and announced the start of a $500,000 independent games development contest.