Activision: Moving From Sucking All The Fun Out Of Development To Actually Killing Your Dog

Pretty much everyone I know is talking about Activision's incredible achievement of taking the studio that made them over a billion dollars into a back room and shooting it in the head.

Today West and Zampella, the two studio heads unceremoniously escorted out of the studio they created by, apparently, rented goons, had their say, through the filter of lawyers. Except... well... it wasn't that filtered.

Activision conducted the investigation in a manner to maximize the inconvenience and anxiety it would cause West and Zampella. On little notice, Activision insisted on conducting interviews over the President's Day holiday weekend; West and Zampella were interrogated for over six hours in a windowless conference room; Activision investigators brought other Infinity Ward employees to tears in their questioning and accusations and threatened West and Zampella with "insubordination" if they attempted to console them; Activision's outside counsel demanded that West and Zampella surrender their personal computers, phones, and communication devices to Activison for review by Activision's outside counsel and, when West and Zampella asserted their legally protected privacy rights, Activisions counsel said that doing so constituted further acts of insubordination.

If Activision's executives, on-staff lawyers and rented goons wanted to, say, LARP being the caricature of the most brutal power-mad clueless management possible, this would be a really good way to do it.

Except that - they really did that. (You know, assuming that West and Zampella, through their lawyers, aren't outright lying. Which I kind of doubt. Too much detail and all that.) Let that sink in a moment. Activision took one of the linchpins of their company, the studio that produced one of the best selling games of all time, and strongarmed them like a bunch of Mafia punks shaking down the local grocer for protection money. This is how they rewarded people who earned them over a billion dollars.

I've already said in a column for how this affair shows the dysfunctional nature of the relationship between publishers and developers, and how setting them up as mutual antagonists ensures that no one is effective. I wrote this before the documents that West and Zampella filed came out. At that time, I was willing to assume that Activision wasn't evil, merely part of - and a key component in - a system that was failing.

I'm not willing to make that assumption any more. That sort of fascist hardball isn't done by people with a moral compass. And given the lack of ethics that sort of conduct broadcasts, it makes it easier for me to believe West and Zampella's core argument - that Activision's hostile takeover of Infinity Ward (and that's what it is, with an efficiency that would make the expropriators of Yukos Oil blush) was motivated simply by a desire to not pay the makers of Modern Warfare the money they were owed. Apparently, Activision decided it was cheaper to destroy the studio and entangle its founders in legal tar. Something they anticipated in their 10-K SEC filing:

The Company is concluding an internal human resources inquiry into breaches of contract and insubordination by two senior employees at Infinity Ward. This matter is expected to involve the departure of key personnel and litigation. At present, the Company does not expect this matter to have a material impact on the Company.

Which, it is important to note, was written and filed before West and Zampella were fired.

Bobby Kotick, Activision's CEO, a man with no interest in games save as methods of exploiting profit, who began his career as someone who rented out nightclubs, and couldn't understand why anyone would go to them, is already on record as saying:

"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."

"We are very good at keeping people focused on the deep depression."

The games Activision Blizzard didn't pick up, he said, "don't have the potential to be exploited every year on every platform with clear sequel potential and have the potential to become $100 million dollar franchises."

Surprisingly, this does not engender a lot of loyalty among people who, you know, don't see gaming as a packaged good created by frightened line workers so that it can be exploited on a yearly basis. So I guess that would explain the whole lawyers, goons, and lack of money thing.

And this is where the recession comes in - it works in Kotick's and Activision's favor, at least until now. When jobs are scarce and companies closing their doors regularly (EA laying off workers the day Activision shot Infinity Ward in the head, coincidentally enough), you don't have the luxury, often, of having the courage of your convictions.

Yet, I have to believe that given two founders, who while everyone would admit are wildly egotistical, still have every reason to be and have worked for the interests of their team members, unceremoniously ejected and replaced by "packaged goods" functionaries so that the studio could be overseen by a "business unit" - at some point, the people in the trenches have to realize that no amount of job security is worth that.

Or maybe we really are just packaged goods, waiting to be exploited on a yearly basis.

For more notes on the situation see Dave Taylor and Jake Simpson. I'm sure there will be more. I can't think of any developer who isn't violently outraged at how this is developing.