Unbranding the Sheep: The Enablers

As a pro-consumer columnist, reporting on Activision makes me a lot of different feelings, usually at the same time. There is shock that a company can be so brazen about the fact that the ONLY thing they care about is profit, and anything else be damned. There is revulsion that a carpetbagger like Robert Kotick can not only succeed, but thrive as a CEO of a video game company despite being completely disinterested in the medium. There is also frustration that no matter what, Activision only cares about its share price, which still goes up no matter what they do.. Finally, there is fury at the way they treat their satellite studios like Red Octane and Infinity Ward.

Not since Electronic Arts, during their days of taking on class-action lawsuits from programmers’ wives, has one video game company drawn so much ire, so much hatred, and yet so much money. Like them or not, the company is swimming in currency like Scrooge McDuck. That’s all that ultimately matters when you have shareholders, who by nature are perfectly fine with a company’s business tactics as long as it is making money, whether they’re not paying their developers’ royalties for the fastest selling game in history to force them to stay, or, in certain industries, having union organizers murdered. I’m not kidding about that, by the way.1 No one really seems to like Activision. People just tolerate the company as long as the company continues to bless us titles with World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, and the Hero games (though we could probably use less of the latter). Regardless, everyone always talks about how shitty Activision is, right before they reach into their pockets to buy their games.

This leads me to yet another feeling I’ve had a lot of lately: indignation at my fellow gamers and their short-sighted stupidity. Before I continue, a lot of readers are probably sitting around, wondering, “Is he going to call me out?” Chances are pretty good, at least based on sales numbers, that that is exactly what I’m going to do.

People have this assumption that no matter what they seem to do, companies that routinely screw over everyone that isn’t a shareholder, from their employers to their very customers, can’t be stopped. It’s going to happen anyway, so why bother? As a collective base, the consumers themselves are forgetting the primary function of capitalism: supply and demand. They supply because we demand. If sales were to fall because of some of the bullshit Activision pulls on both its customers and employees, they would have to take notice. Much like how EA did when their negative PR finally caught up with them. Even that took years to achieve a corporate response though.

Might I remind people that these games you proclaim to like so much don’t come out of thin air. Companies make them. they spend time on them, and hopefully perfect them. In fact, one of the reasons the development company Treyarch was brought in on Call of Duty was because Infinity Ward insisted on a two year development cycle, which wasn’t good enough for Activision’s suits. It should be noted that Infinity Ward’s last two games were both Modern Warfare games, the first of which was an all-time classic. Treyarch, the outsiders? They gave us World At War, which was merely “OK.” Now that Infinity Ward’s top two people have been forced out of the company by people described as looking like bouncers, and Activision is talking about branching the franchise out to other developers and other genres, how do you think that game’s going to be? Don’t complain about eating a shit sandwich if you are going to eat it anyway.

Anyone who thinks this is limited to Activision needs to think again. Other companies love it when larger, more public ones like Activision take the vanguard on controversial topics, so they don’t have to. Activision went without dedicated servers, a PC gaming staple, for Modern Warfare 2. This got the attention of id’s John Carmack, who is taking the option out of Rage because of it. Also Activision raised the price of the PC version of Modern Warfare 2. Again, this was a PC game that didn’t have key elements that people are used to and require in PC games, but it still required a $1,000+ gaming machine to run. The price became $60, which is typically console level pricing. Enough people fell for it, so Ubisoft decided that $60 was the new price point for their big-name titles on PC. Again, things like this are not exempt to Activision. EA’s DRM in Command & Conquer 4 is almost exactly like Ubisoft’s, but they do it because the negative PR of these moves do not equate to lost sales. They do not equate to lost sales because gamers have become the perfect consumers in the eyes of corporations. They not only buy what they are told to, but they breathlessly defend it, often times even before it comes out. If I had a customer base for a product I was selling that was that stupid, I’d never have to work another day in my life.

Did I just call you stupid? Yes, I did. When a large group of gamers joins a Steam community to boycott the PC version of MW2, and then half of you are shown to be playing it almost immediately upon release, you’re stupid, and a hypocrite. When you say things like, “I don’t care what happens at Infinity Ward, as long as I get Call of Duty“, you’re stupid, and sadly dependent on a form of entertainment. When you take Robert Kotick at his word at DICE, like a lot of sycophantic writers did, or when he tells us that all the horrible things he’s said over the years were, “just for investors,” as if it justifies what he believes, you are stupid, and a coward.

Ultimately, the problem in dealing with companies like this is that consumers don’t want to put their money where their mouths are. They talk a big game, but at the end of the day, they go out and buy what they’re told to buy. Whether it is because they don’t want to seem “uncool” to their more casual gaming friends, or whether they’re just weak willed and prone to short memories and impulse purchases doesn’t matter. It’s a lot like Wal-Mart, in a sense. We all talk about the company as a huge conglomerate that simultaneously kills small businesses and discriminates against women, but people still shop there. After all, there’s a sale on stationary. We can save $.69! At the end of the day, people can get on the internet and say whatever they want, but when it comes to choosing to buy a new game that contains DRM and/or is made in a way specifically to exploit people on DLC, turning what used to be a $50 game into oftentimes an $80 – $100 game or simply finding something else to play, they too often choose to go with the dumber option. Why wouldn’t they? As someone pointed out (It’s a first party Activision blogger, so there’s no way I’m linking to that rag) once the Activision raided Infinity Ward’s studios, their stock prices went up that day. It’s just too painful for gamers to part with a few select games to keep the balance in their favour. I understand it. I like Blur, and think it will be a good game, but I refuse to buy it because it’s an Activision game. Sometimes, when it’s time to take a principled stand, you have to stick to it.

Too many gamers don’t stick to their stands. They say they will on the internet, right before going out and paying the company they say they hate so much, and who gives them so many reasons to legitimately hate them. They enable this bad behaviour and poor treatment.

It sucks to say, but gamers are getting what they deserve. That realization leaves me with one final feeling: pity.

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1 – At the end of Aileen’s junior year at Smith College, the school ended it’s relationship with Coca-Cola over it’s union-busting practices. Not only did they get a horrible corporation off of their campus and take their students’ opinions seriously, but they replaced it with RC Cola, which tastes better anyway.

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Christopher Bowen is the Associate Editor at Diehard GameFAN, and was previously a columnist at Not A True Ending. Having worked in the IT industry as a network security engineer for over five years before coming to DHGF, Christopher brings a unique, pro-consumer perspective to his work. His thoughts on how the gaming industry works behind the scenes, and how it affects the everyday consumer, can be read every weekend at Diehard GameFAN. In addition, he writes DHGF’s weekly Nintendo and Playstation Network download wrap-ups every Tuesday and Friday, respectively. Follow Chris on Twitter, or email him with questions and feedback.

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