The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.
Don't give them any ideas
A decade ago, Australia was enveloped in a debate over whether to introduce an 18+ rating for video games. At the time, the most restrictive rating category for Australia was a 15 certificate, and if your game was too much for the 15 certificate criteria (like Left 4 Dead 2), it couldn't be sold. It was seen by many as an unusual double-standard considering films had a more permissive 18 rating available to them but games did not, and there was a push to change the system.
One of the political voices against the 18 rating for games was South Australian Attorney-General Michael Atkinson. Years earlier, Atkinson had been involved in a push to ban biker gangs that labelled them "terrorists within our community," blaming them for murder, extortion, weapons smuggling, and other crimes. Despite that track record, Atkinson said he was more worried about gamers than bikers after one left a threatening note under his door in the middle of the night.
"Atkinson wasn't worried about the biker gangs he was cracking down on, whose members had demonstrated a willingness to kill. He was worried about gamers"
"I feel that my family and I are more at risk from gamers than we are from the outlaw motorcycle gangs who also hate me and are running a candidate against me," Atkinson said. "The outlaw motorcycle gangs haven't been hanging around my doorstep at 2am. A gamer has."
There's some indication that Atkinson was coming from a place of bad faith, as his quote about the objectionable things video games let people do includes over-the-top horrors that were never going to land on Australian store shelves no matter what classification system was used. It's also tempting to dismiss his statement about fear as more over-the-top hyperbole from a politician trying to stoke a moral panic, but there's some reason to believe it may have been entirely sincere.
Fear and intimidation are common tools for the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other white supremacist groups, many of which have well-established ties to motorcycle gangs and biker subculture. Yet a decade ago, this public figure was not particularly worried about the biker gangs he was cracking down on, gangs whose members had demonstrated a willingness to kill. He was worried about gamers.
I can guess a few reasons why that might have been the case. There are far more gamers than there are outlaw motorcycle gang members. Gamers are also well accustomed to being on the wrong end of a moral panic, so there's no shortage of us jumping to defend the industry when people are applying a nonsense double-standard like Australia's lack of an 18 rating for games when it's allowed for movies. There's also no way to tell the reasonable gamers from the ones who go around slipping threatening notes under politicians' doors.
At a certain point, being on the receiving end of so much backlash and having to judge which people are "harmlessly" angry and which are potentially dangerous is an exhausting exercise, and one you can't really escape from without upending your life. In that sense, it turned many of the people raising legitimate objections to Atkinson's position into unfortunate accomplices, amplifying the effects of the harassment even if their own actions -- simply expressing an opinion on a relevant topic and participating in the democratic process -- were entirely defensible.
A decade ago, if you wanted to create the illusion of an army of thugs to terrorize people, the traditional gamer audience was an almost ideal place to go recruiting. And perhaps best of all for those who want to inspire fear and intimidation, using gamers as the means to that end can keep your hands cleaner from a legal perspective. The biker gangs Atkinson was targeting were criminal organizations with hierarchies, people breaking the law at the behest of others. If you can stir up the hornet's nest enough, gamers can be a distributed, self-sustaining harassment engine. All it takes is one anonymous message board post to go viral, to pull the right strings of outrage in the right sympathetic people and they can take it from there on their own initiative. It's a conspiracy of dog whistles.
We might not have understood what was happening at that point, but it's clear some people had already figured it out. And in the decade since we've seen gamer rage weaponized to horrible -- sometimes even fatal -- outcomes time and again, from doxing to swatting and all manner of harassment campaigns. And as much as I don't believe this was an intentional goal of anyone in the industry, I do believe some aspects of how the industry built itself made gaming ripe for this kind of toxicity to thrive. Throw in its track record of underwhelming responses when confronted with the problem, and I don't know how anyone expects this problem to have gotten any better.
"In the past ten years, Activision Blizzard has made job cuts part of its year-end earnings victory lap five times"
Ten years down the road, I suspect Atkinson isn't the only one who fears gamers more than biker gangs.
Celebrate bad times
Ten years ago this month, Activision Blizzard posted its financial results for 2009, showing record full-year earnings per share and operating margins. And we all know what record results from Activision Blizzard means, right? It must be time for CELEBRATORY LAYOFFS!!!
Sure, that phrasing sounds terrible, but I think it's a fair way to put it when your business is in rude health and you still decide to layoff 200 people the very next day. Besides, Activision Blizzard has a bit of a track record here. In the past ten years, the company has made job cuts part of its year-end earnings victory lap five times. Here are the other four:
- February 8, 2013: Record revenues and earnings per share in 2012!
- February 19, 2013: Activision side of the business lays off 30
- February 11, 2016: Record earnings per share in 2015!
- February 15, 2016: Unspecified number of layoffs at Activision
- February 9, 2017: Record revenues and earnings per share in 2016!
- February 10, 2017: More than 200 laid off at Activision
- February 12, 2019: Record revenues and earnings per share in 2018!
- February 12, 2019, in the post-earnings call: Roughly 800 laid off across Activision Blizzard
Activision Blizzard is scheduled to report its annual results on February 6, and even though it isn't forecasting record numbers of any sort, employees might be well-advised to update their resumes just in case.
A pitch black sense of humor
A week after those celebratory layoffs in 2010, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick appeared at the DICE Summit to talk about how the company is "a team business." In his speech, he also referenced his notorious remarks at an investor conference from the previous September where he told people that his goal was "to take all the fun out of making video games." That bit of cartoonishly villainous rhetoric was picked up and passed around gaming sites and forums far and wide, but Kotick wanted to explain it to the DICE audience.
"It was mainly because I wanted to come across in a humorous way that we were responsible in the business... that it wasn't a Wild West," Kotick said.
Sadly, Kotick's DICE appearance isn't archived on the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences' YouTube channel so we can't get all the context of his explanation, but GameSpot did liveblog the presentation so there's a bit more on the record: "So what I was trying to say is by putting in established processes, we're actually keeping the fun in making video games... All good development teams know the importance of processes and discipline. And they can implement those processes in ways which are fun."
Neither site's coverage includes an explanation for the rest of his quote from the investor conference: "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."
See? It was humorous. Just a fun joke about psychologically abusing your workforce and reinforcing for that they should be constantly terrified of losing what little stability they have. Some friendly ribbing between the many-times-over multimillionaire executive atop an industry juggernaut and the thousands of underlings who can deliver record results for his business and still wind up jobless the very next week (or the same day, if he's feeling particularly efficient about it).
We like jokes. Jokes are fun.
The deep depression
Lest anyone start giving Kotick evil mastermind points for "motivating" his workforce by keeping them worried about job security, we should point out that this was not a terribly difficult thing to do in the games industry at the time. Really all you needed to do was allow developers to read the headlines on gaming sites. Here's a sampling of news from February 2010:
- Namco Bandai lays off more than 600
- Koch closes Deep Silver Vienna studio
- THQ lays off 60 in restructuring
- Codemasters confirms layoffs, denies closure of US office
- GAME warns it may have to lay off 80 people
- GAME lays off 247 people, closes 43 stores
- Mathari Studios shuts down
- Interzone facing closure, hasn't paid employees in months
- Stargate MMO dev Cheyenne Mountain files for bankruptcy
This industry has always been marked by precarious employment in the best of times. It's a much harder (and worthier) task to make developers feel stable and secure than to make them fear for their futures.
Good call, bad call
GOOD CALL: Capcom gave up on its push for original Western-developed IP after the disappointments of Dark Void and the Bionic Commando reboot.
BAD CALL: Capcom giving up on new IP entirely. The next couple years after that story would see some real gems come out in the form of Dragon's Dogma, Asura's Wrath, and especially Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. But a look through the company's MobyGames page shows Capcom hasn't released any kind of original IP on consoles since 2013, when Capcom USA published Remember Me (which oddly enough, was developed by a Western studio in Paris-based Dontnod).
BAD CALL: Electronic Arts splurged on a Super Bowl ad, dropping somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million for a 30-second spot during the big game to spread the word about its surefire hit, Dante's Inferno. This was not the first questionable decision of the Dante's Inferno marketing campaign. Or even the second.
GOOD CALL: Screen Digest's Piers Harding-Rolls says THQ is in a bad spot because of its dependence on licenses from companies like Disney and Viacom and those companies' increased interest in gaming. THQ would go under less than two years later for a few reasons, but losing the license to Pixar movies sure didn't help.
BAD CALL: Screen Digest's Nick Gibson (in a report that Harding-Rolls was providing additional context on) said that Viacom, Warner Bros., and Disney represented serious threats to the established gaming publishers and were likely to command significant portions of the market. Viacom sold Harmonix and shuttered MTV Games within a year because the rhythm game market collapsed. Disney largely struggled in games but did have a toys-to-life hit with Disney Infinity before abandoning games when that bubble popped in 2016. Only Warner Bros. has stayed and succeeded, though it seems content with being just another successful AAA publisher rather than an industry-consuming giant.
GOOD CALL: Warner Bros. acquired a majority stake in Rocksteady, developers of the Batman Arkham series to that point and one of a few good reasons for WB to remain in games while others jumped ship.
BAD CALL: Disney's Interactive Media Group president Stephen Wadsworth declares Disney is in games to stay, saying "our commitment is pretty significant, and our perspective is very much a long term one." Much as that might have been the idea at the time, we already told you how it turned out. If you're curious for more detail in how this all played out, we've gone over Disney's wavering interest in games in this space before.