So Bobby Kotick said some dumb things last year. Everybody hated him, rar, rar, okay, let’s get back to work. We already knew Activision was super greedy, so why are we surprised to see proof? But recently a weird thing has started to happen: amid all the regular Kotick bashing (because he’s still saying stupid things), I’m now seeing more and more people on forums and blogs respond with “Nuh-UH! He’s not really a jerk! You’ve taken him out of context!”
Suddenly, a year later, his quotes are all “out of context”? That’s interesting. It turns out that the common reference that proves they are ”out of context” is a recent post on One Of Swords, by Dan Amrich, who happens to work for Activision PR. But just because he works for Activision PR doesn’t mean he had to defend his CEO — well, I mean maybe he was ordered to, I don’t really know. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
First off, he’s right in the sense that the average gamer may have misunderstood Kotick’s quotes. But he’s wrong in painting Kotick as being dramatically misunderstood. Here’s what I mean:
Belief: Bobby Kotick wants to “take the fun out of making videogames.” He cultivates a culture of “skepticism, pessimism, and fear,” and wants to keep his employees “focused on the deep depression.”
Source: Comments made at the Deutsche Bank Securities Technology Conference, September, 2009
Truth: As soon as I heard this quote when I was at OXM, I knew (and said at the time) that what was being reported, while likely word-for-word accurate, was not the full information or spirit of the quote. So I went digging and found the full, correct meaning.
You have to start with a look at exactly what was said in full and in its conversational context, which was transcribed from the audio recording and posted by Gamespot:
Jeetil Patel, Deutsche Bank Securities – Analyst
“What do you think the retailers’ willingness these days is to hold inventory on the video game side? Are they building positions today or are they still very reluctant and very careful of how they are buying?”
Bobby Kotick, Activision Blizzard, Inc.
“I don’t think it is specific to video games. I think that if you look at how much volatility there is in the economy and, dependent upon your view about macroeconomic picture and I think we have a real culture of thrift. And I think the goal that I had in bringing a lot of the packaged goods folks that we brought in to Activision 10 years ago was to take all the fun out of making video games.”
“I think we definitely have been able to instill the culture, the skepticism and pessimism and fear that you should have in an economy like we are in today. And so, while generally people talk about the recession, we are pretty good at keeping people focused on the deep depression.”
No, You’ve Got It All Wrong! He Just Hates Developers!
Amrich goes on to argue convincingly that Kotick was trying to make a joke with that “take the fun out of video games” thing. I completely believe that — I assumed it was a joke from the get-go. Okay, settled.
But Amrich doesn’t successfully explain the rest of that quote, the part about the fear and the pessimism. There’s no way to convincingly spin that, frankly. And even if all of it’s a joke, it’s not like this is sarcasm. Kotick didn’t follow up by saying “Ha ha, I gotcha! It’s opposite day! What I meant is that I want developers to feel less fearful and depressed!”
No, he was talking to a room full of bankers and he gave a spiel he’s used before (Amrich’s article proves it’s a semi-canned spiel) about how he keeps employees as fearful and worried as he can. And this isn’t exactly the first time we’d heard Mr. Kotick’s philosophy of minimizing creativity, maximizing cheap sequels, focusing on quarterly profit above all else, and keeping costs down with fear and intimidation. This is pretty much his status quo stuff. So I’m not trying to pillory him for any specific words in this quote. But he’s been doing this stuff for years; there’s tons of data to provide any context that might ambiguous in his quote above.
Interestingly, Amrich’s primary goal is less about that angle and more about making sure you understand that Kotick doesn’t hate games themselves. He doesn’t want to make the games less fun, what he meant is that people who work in the game industry should be afraid for their jobs and livelihoods. See? You’ve taken him all out of context!
No, I got it. I do appreciate that many regular gamers probably didn’t understand the background to the quote. But when developers like Tim Schafer go on the record about him, there is not one iota of misunderstanding.
The reason this whole thing became a thing is because developers reacted negatively to his words. Yeah, developers probably helped misrepresent him to game players along the way. But developers hate him because he’s a jerk, not because they can’t source a damned quote.
Game Companies Are Run Poorly Because…
Kotick has a point that a great many gaming companies have very poor financial management these days. That’s because only a financial dipshit would try to create a AAA game studio in today’s environment. Those billions of dollars made in “the gaming industry”? They aren’t made by the artists, designers, or coders. They are made by the middlemen: the console manufacturers, the brick-and-mortar stores, and — most upsettingly — the publishers often take a huge chunk of the pie.
But you have to use these middlemen if you want to make a big game, especially a console game. So you have to play by their rules, give away the vast majority of your profit, ship quickly, and try to stay alive. Is it any wonder that sane businessmen stopped running these studios?
The result is that most “AAA” teams are headed by charismatic game developers with few financial skills, and they get taken advantage of amazingly quickly — if they’re lucky they’re bought by a publisher for dirt cheap, but mostly they just sign all the profit away and then can’t make payroll. Even when these teams have a big successful game, the employees still get laid off. Most game developers I know have been laid off, fired, or “asked to quit” numerous times. Most game developers are already fearful for their jobs and livelihoods, trust me. Kotick wants them to fear even more, work even harder, and accept even less compensation.
And that is exactly what shareholders would hope to see from the CEO of Activision — it makes sense, at least in the short term, because it will earn them more money. Why? Supply and demand. If you’re a game developer, you know every teenage hacker wants your job, and many are happy to do your job for free — or at least for ramen, a cot, and some Dr. Pepper. Even if you have years of experience, you can be replaced by three or four newbies who may not be as good as you, but hey, they still manage to get a new sequel out the door every year, and people buy it, so who loses? Well, for starters, the employees lose.
In my opinion, game developers are not generally very good at finances, either company-wide or personally. You don’t get into video games to make money — at least not for long! Most game developers earn less per hour than the lowliest of web developers (again, I know this first-hand, having been both); they work very poor hours, and they have zero job security. Do you know what gets a lot of them through the grind? What they mutter to themselves as they model the feet of the 28th orc of the day at 4am? “At least I work for a fun company. It’s not some crappy bank job. And I get to be creative. ”
This is a facade — and a very thin one. Sure, they get to be creative sometimes. And the office has subsidized sodas and there’s a ping-pong table, and during lunch you can play xbox with some really fun and clever people. But does that make up for the general crappiness? No, not in general — not for more than a handful of years, anyway. Most people get burned up and go to those “crappy bank jobs” or whatever they can get, while others find niches on the periphery, making middleware, edu-games, indie games, anywhere out of the spotlight. These people still want to make games… they just can’t keep getting punched in the gut every day to do it.
But since the facade of “fun” — specifically, of a non-conformist and creative atmosphere — is the very thing that helps people stay in the industry even as long as they do, it’s really telling that Kotick would even joke about removing that.
“You Are Utterly Replaceable” – Bobby Kotick*
* This is a joke, he hasn’t said that specifically. At least not in print. Yet.
So when Kotick talks about taking the fun out of video games, please understand that he’s not saying he wants video games to be less fun to play. What he really means is that game developers need to work harder and be even more afraid for their livelihoods, because every one of them is trivially replaceable. And he has done a good job of making sure they know this and understand their economic value, which is nil.
I hope it is obvious why that upsets the nil-value cogs.
Why should non-industry people care? Because an industry with this kind of turnover rate isn’t the best it can be. Most games aren’t very good, and that’s because most game teams (especially management) aren’t very good, and that’s because developers gets squeezed and overworked and quit the industry, taking their experience with them. But the middlemen like Activision still make cash even on schlock games. Sure, dedicated gamers may not like it, but what are they gonna do? Play indie games? Ha! Come on, get real. (Sigh… eventually it will happen!)
But I don’t really even mean to argue the pros and cons of his business strategy. My main point is that he’s not being misunderstood here. This is a guy who’s worked with developers for decades… he knows the score, he knows how to say things that won’t inflame them. He just has no respect for developers and doesn’t care what they think of him. That’s probably true of a great many CEOs that profit from their employees’ youthful ambition and naivety… but they at least know not to announce the valuelessness of their human resources. Kotick, on the other hand, doesn’t care, which is why developers think he’s a jerk.
I think Tim Schafer summed it up:
His obligation is to his shareholders. Well, he doesn’t have to be as much of a dick about it, does he? I think there is a way he can do it without being a total prick. It seems like it would be possible. It’s not something he’s interested in.