Find out how to kick start your games industry career

Get Your Free Ticket Today

Activision's reputation "probably unfair" says Spider-Man developer

Beenox studio head Dee Brown shares his thoughts on working with Activision and being tied to licensed games

Big publishers are often slammed for "soul crushing" policies towards developers, and no company has taken more heat in recent years than Activision Blizzard. The Infinity Ward situation and PR backlash that followed certainly didn't help matters. That said, some developers have no qualms with the 800-lb. gorilla, and in a recent interview Beenox studio head Dee Brown defended Activision.

Speaking to GamesIndustry International, Brown remarked, "I would certainly say from an internal perspective that the reputation Activision has acquired is probably unfair. Beenox was acquired in 2005, so it has been six years now that we've been with Activision. We had to work with Activision prior to our acquisition. There was a reason why I as the studio founder agreed to be acquired. It was because of their independent studio culture. I believed in that model, and I still believe in that model today."

He continued, "Activision has always treated us as partners, rather than something to be controlled. They've been, from a creative standpoint, really, really great. When I look at Shattered Dimensions, what were asked for at the time was 'Please make a Spider-Man game.' That was the creative direction that Activision gave us."

"This time around [for The Amazing Spider-Man], it was pretty much the same thing. They said 'Hey, we have a movie coming; we would like to make a game out of it so go ahead and make it.' That is pretty much the creative involvement that Activision had. As a game developer, it is just really great to have that level of freedom, and it is really great to feel empowered and make the game we really want to make."

As we write this Beenox is putting the finishing touches on The Amazing Spider-Man, slated for release at the end of next month to tie in nicely with the buzz surrounding the reboot of Sony Pictures' film franchise. While Brown might "feel empowered" as a developer, the bottom line is it's still a licensed video game, and that can certainly have its drawbacks and constraints. Brown and his team feel more than comfortable working within those constraints, however. And it would appear that Beenox has been given a fair amount of leeway.

"When you are working with licensed IPs, the interesting thing is that you are starting with something that has been developed, especially with Marvel, something that has been developed a lot. There is a lot of material that you can dig into and put into your game; that is very cool. The hard part is how can you innovate in that world and how do you push it further?" Brown said.

"With all that material, you always have a head start on how you can explore the brand. You have something that is already known by the team. Everyone is already such big Spider-Man fans. They already know where they want to go with the brand. It's funny; we always end up in very passionate debates on where a feature should go and what we should do in the game, things like that."

"They gave us the go-ahead and said 'make your game.' They really respected the fact that we are the game makers and they are the film makers"

Dee Brown

It certainly helps Beenox that both Marvel and Sony have been very supportive without trying to impose any specific set of rules.

"Sony and Marvel have been incredible partners, honestly. This was the first time we've worked with Sony as a licensing partner. I mean, I was really impressed with the level of creative freedom they allowed us," Brown remarked. "At the very beginning of the game, we met with them and learned more about the universe... We pitched them on a new story, because the story happens after the events of the movie. We had to be very careful about not spoiling the movie but offering a bigger experience. Again... Sony reacted super well to that. They gave us the go-ahead and said 'make your game.' They really respected the fact that we are the game makers and they are the film makers, and we both have our different expertise. I am very happy about our relationship we have."

As pleased as Beenox has been with the relationship, we couldn't help but wonder if the studio has felt at all pigeon-holed by being the Spider-Man studio for Activision. Not only that, but publishers these days seem to want to get out of the licensed games business. Should Beenox be concerned?

"The Amazing Spider-Man game is the largest project we have ever done at Beenox"

Dee Brown

"Different licenses have different potential. I think the Activision stable of licenses is really strong. Spider-Man is one of the best, if not the best known superhero out there. So it certainly is a license with a lot of potential," Brown said. "For me, that is just a purely business decision. You have to have the right license with the right potential and the right team to do it. That is something I think we have."

Shattered Dimensions was fairly well received in 2010, and with a brand-new Spider-Man movie to reignite buzz around the superhero, Brown is excited to see fans' reactions.

"The Amazing Spider-Man game is the largest project we have ever done at Beenox," enthused Brown. "We've been in development for almost two years now - even more actually if you include the concepts, started thinking about the web-rush mechanic and ideas around that. So when we came out with a pretty ambitious concept, when you think about rethinking the combat system, rethinking Manhattan, rethinking the web-rush mechanic and all those kinds of things, that was pretty ambitious and Activision gave us everything we needed to accomplish that."

Find out how to kick start your games industry career

Get Your Free Ticket Today

More stories

20 Activision Blizzard employees have "exited company" since lawsuit

A further 20 staff have faced disciplinary action in efforts to improve company culture

By Marie Dealessandri

Activision announces new anti-cheat system for Call of Duty

Ricochet includes a mandatory kernel-level driver that monitors the apps interacting with the game

By Marie Dealessandri

Latest comments (15)

Wayne Gibson UK Marketing Manager for 9 years ago
Sounds like he's gently petting the hand that feeds him.
3Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters9 years ago
I'd be more interested to hear the opinion of one of the staff rather than the studio head who probably made a fortune being bought out.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 9 years ago
Amazing how success attracts antipathy. Same with Zynga. If you want to be liked it is best to fail gloriously than to actually give customers what they want.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (15)
Tommy Thompson Lecturer in BSc (Hons) Computer Games Programming., University of Derby9 years ago
I think the last thing most Spider-Man fans want is another movie tie-in game (though it does look decent from recent videos).
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
The reactions of posters is absolutely nothign about antipathy to success but about coming across as genuine.

Maybe if the commentary came from a NON activision company, and talking about the good, bad and ugly of working with Activision, then the industry folk will look at it with less cynicism. Unfortunately, for a public body like Activision, it cannot quite come out and say - hey, all these perceived bashing is unfair. Best it can do is go on a charm offensive and genuinely win over both fans and developers with a consistent glowing report card, for a world view change
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Richard Westmoreland Senior Game Designer, Codemasters Birmingham9 years ago
I understand that some people here are sceptical about someone welcoming their new overlord, I would be too. I do know a guy who works for Beenox though and he is more than happy there.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Nick Ferguson Executive Producer, Stadia, Google9 years ago
Beenox were acquired in 2005 so Activision are hardly a"new overlord".

Some people may wrinkle their nose at working on licensed Spider-Man games, but Rocksteady proved licensed comic book games can be as "AAA" as anything else out there.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd9 years ago
I agree with Nick. More than that as someone who's met with these guys and seen the game played, I can tell you they really enjoy their jobs and the game looks genuinely good. To what degree that turns out to be the case (could be anywhere from "fun" to "great") remains to be seen, but I think this is a genuine statement. If you care about what you do even a licensed tie-in can be good, especially when you're given the leeway to make the game you want to make, which Beenox seems to have.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
I don't hear people complain about Take Two as much as about Activision. I don't hear people complain about Rovio as much as about Zynga. I don't hear people complain about Chick fil-a as much as McDonalds. Yet all of these companies are, by any reasonable definition, successful. Maybe you're being a bit closed-minded and/or childish, and maybe it's not "success" that people dislike.

This right wing "anyone who complains about anything a suit does is just lazy and jealous" rhetoric is wearing thin.

EDIT: Also, it doesn't look like Activision provides much freedom, if a company with as much clout as Bungie has to sign such a one-sided contract: Petting the hand that feeds indeed.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jeffrey Crenshaw on 23rd May 2012 5:39pm

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd9 years ago
@ Jeffrey if you think that's a one-sided contract you clearly haven't seen the kinds of contracts that developers are generally forced into with their publishing partners. I know that kind of leak is rare, but trust me, that contract is pretty incredible for Bungie. The one thing that's rough on it is the 5 million unit requirement for the first game... we'll see if they make that, but I guarantee you few developers in the world get that kind of contract when signing with a publisher. That said, I'm sure that's mostly Bungie's clout rather than Activision being generous.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
No Nicholas, I am not naive enough to think this isn't above average :). I am simply saying that if this is the best that a company with as much clout as Bungie can negotiate from Activision, it seems circumstantially to go against the butt-kissing that Dee Brown is exhibiting. I do think the 5 million unit cutoff is not the only issue with this contract, and detailed contracts in general are better for the company that has more power and lawyers.

Every successful ruler has followers that grovel to them because they are too scared to stand against them. Even I am biased, so certainly don't blindly believe me :). Just keep up with this lawsuit, it is going to show the public a lot of the bullshit that we developers have to put up with via public leaking of corporate emails. Look at the articles on Gamasutra or here about the recent leaks from Activision and make a judgment yourself. The things one says that one does not expect to get out are usually more revealing than staged PR releases like this. Do you really think anyone currently under Activision's employment in a country where you can be fired for anything other than basic discrimination is going to come out and say "hey, here's what Activision is doing wrong"? Now do you think that conversely a studio might come out, either prompted by Activision or by their own volition to stay on Activision's good side and get some free press, and say the opposite?
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd9 years ago
I don't think they'd come out and say Activision is particularly oppressive, of course, but I also don't think they have any reason to have to stress that they've found the relationship to be particularly positive. It certainly wouldn't risk their contract nor future contracts to say "Activision is just like any publisher and we're getting to make the game we want but of course we like to develop without publisher constraints."

Don't get me wrong, I don't love Activision, and they clearly have been involved in some pretty crappy stuff (as were Wes and Zampella, don't make them out to be heroes), but I don't think they're particularly "evil" as cororations go either. From my own interaction with Beenox (and even specifically Dee Brown) they are clearly enjoying the work they're doing and making the game they want to make. Maybe their interests just happen to coincide with Activision's, but don't get the wrong idea here. At the very least there is some truth to this.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
" they are clearly enjoying the work they're doing and making the game they want to make."

Well I am happy to hear that at least. I will take it on your authority that there is sincerity in this article, though I bet there is some stockholm syndrome at play when they say they are making _the_ game they want to make :). I bet it would be more accurate that they find the market-driven tie-in they were offered sufficient to keep them happy, though in a world where suits did not dictate which games and IP get rehashed over and over again they would be happier.

It's still not that simple for me though, as I do feel Activision is "particularly evil" as far as corporations go, and I direct this at Kotick and other higher ups and not necessarily anyone under their umbrella. So Beenox's employees are happy right now, that's good, but we should still be cautious -- I've been happy at every game company I've worked at at some point in time until the unreasonable deadlines kicked in, then the crunch, then the cuts and design decisions made by suits that I could only watch helplessly doom us to failure, then getting fired myself as punishment for the failure of the suits. Seeing how they talk about the talent at their golden goose Infinity Ward (not just West and Zampella, but I remember them telling employees the bonus pool would be split among whoever stayed instead of split among whoever worked on the game as it should be as a sick psychological ploy to stop the talent drain -- which failed).

Such a problem is inherent to the hierarchical narcissism in our society, and I don't think anyone is safe from it even if they are one of the corporation's favorite pets for the time being. If you talk with Dee again, it would be interesting to question how much trust they have for their parent company, how long they think they will be one of their favorite children, what makes them think Activision will be any more honest with them than they have been with IW, etc. Also, regarding "Beenox" as a collection of individuals -- individuals at companies often suffer in silence, fearing that bringing up disappointment with their higher ups will simply get them on the "first to be fired" list and put in an even worse situation. Not sure how happy everyone is at that company, how happy you were told they are, who told you, what you've seen in person, etc, but there is definitely an air of oppression for the working class in any field as the wealth continues to trickle up and options are continuously narrowed by globalization. That I focus on Activision (and a few others) even though this is a systemic problem is merely that they are among the largest tumors :).
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 9 years ago
@Jeffrey Crenshaw

Calling me childish does not make you right.

Take Two are much less successful than Activision.
Rovio are much less successful than Zynga.
And I haven't even heard of Chick fil-a before.

So your analogies just don't hold any water.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 9 years ago
I hope Beenox can make the spiderman equivalent to Arkham city.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.