In a fiscal year that has been difficult for some large video game companies and disastrous for others there was one bright spot amongst the earnings calls that took place over the last two weeks. Activision Blizzard was able to claim net profits of $1.1 billion in 2012, thanks to the success of franchise names like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. Meanwhile, Sony sold two of its headquarter buildings–one in New York, another in Tokyo–in order to have its first profitable year since 2008. Other companies are suffering as well with EA looking for a new CEO and Nintendo facing record losses.
Why did Activision Blizzard have such a great year? What itch have they been scratching that the other monstrous companies of the video game industry have failed to reach? The answer is none. Video game companies have been under some scrutiny over the last have decade for simply taking the same franchises, iterating on what made them a success, and shoving them down the throat of the consumers through glitzy advertisement. Many companies are guilty of this, but few have executed it with such blind dogmatic repetition as Activision Blizzard.
After announcing their sky-high earnings, jokes were made about how CEO Bobby Kotick would go home to his bed of money, or poor it all into a giant pool and swim in it ala Scrooge McDuck. However, few people took a moment to point out that Activision has earned their position of comfort and luxury by being on the most stagnant and boring companies in the gaming industry.
It would be unfair to say that Activision Blizzard stand alone. What is EA but a company built to pump out Madden and FIFA games on a yearly basis? Nintendo has slavishly stayed narrow-minded in their development. But with these other companies we often point out and debate their obvious flaws, not to mention they are prisoners to their financial constraints. With Activision Blizzard we often do little more than guffaw at their sales numbers, when really they have the money to take daring chances few companies can afford.
Activision Blizzard may succeed more than other companies in a fiscal sense, but they are worse than anyone creatively. In the last year the company has released such lackluster titles as 007 Legends, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, and The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. Two of those titles clearly stand out from the others. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and World of Warcraft greatly hold the banner of Activison’s success, while the rest of the company simply vomits out licensed titles designed to be creatively unimpressive, while still moving significant inventory.
Activision Blizzard manages to hide their roster of digital disasters, by continuing to push their Call of Duty profits to the center stage. However, their biggest two titles aside, Activision Blizzard most pump out lazy license titles, profiting off of uneducated consumers who see a franchise they are familiar with and swipe it off the shelf, only to get home and realize they’ve sunk $60 into a terrible time investment. On its surface one would wonder how Activision Blizzard remain so profitable at the end of console cycle in such a difficult economy. I wish there was something interesting to report here, something that made me stand up and point at Activision Blizzard and say, “These guys are doing it right.” Unfortunately, there isn’t.
It would be nice if Activision Blizzard could sink part of that $1 billion dollar surplus into a game that really challenged and inspired creativity, and this is where I find the biggest fault in the publishing behemoth. While other companies blindly scramble in the dark, trying to find the secret formula to the ultimate franchise, Activision Blizzard continues choke on their money while failing to do anything enticing or original. While financially they may be the cream of the crop, artistically they ought to be ashamed of themselves. There is no lover for games in this company, instead we are besieged by the hot commodities of the fanboy world. Even when the company takes the smallest financial gamble on Deadpool, who has a sizable cult following, they follow the act up by closing High Moon Studios and putting dozens of people out of work. I couldn’t imagine being recently laid off from a company only to hear a month later that they are reporting record profits.
It would seem that the employees of Activision Blizzard are all too aware of the companies issues. If you head over to glassdoor.com and read employee reviews of the company, they concur with that the company is all about quanitity of quality. These employees seem starved to work on a game that doesn’t have a colon in the title, or have a silver screen tie-in. I don’t begrudge Activision Bizzard their right to have a cash cow franchise, but instead of padding out their launch line up with exploitative titles, they could be the leaders in an industry revolution. Is it too much to ask for Activision to record $900 million profit instead of a $1.1 billion profit?
We become obsessed with the bottom line in video game’s industry. Celebrating studios for churning out mindless, monotonous garbage that desperately panders to the lowest common denominator to maximize the audience and, in turn, profits. Real change, real innovation doesn’t happen under these circumstances, in fact, the exact opposite is true. Stories are told every day of companies who go through significant economic strife to simply make ends meet, companies that trying to satisfy video game enthusiasts with something they have never played before. Is there artistic and financial failure amongst those ideas? Most certainly, but at least they have the courage to challenge the status quo.
The most disturbing part about Activision Blizzard’s slavish adherence to their boring as Ben Stein business model, is that it cannot last. The law of gravity dictates what goes up, must come down. The only way to be spared that is by innovation and creation. Companies like Apple and Google are constantly inventing and reinventing to stay relevant in an ever-changing world. Activision Blizzard may be good at making money off of a couple of franchises, but this company has so long been bereft of creativity, where will they find it when its finally needed?