This Week in Business is our weekly recap column, a collection of stats and quotes from recent stories presented with a dash of opinion (sometimes more than a dash) and intended to shed light on various trends. Check back every Friday for a new entry.
Did you know that GamesIndustry.biz has never done reviews?
We have a Critical Consensus recurring feature that rounds up other people's reviews, staff Game of the Year write-ups, and our Why I Love series of developer-penned pieces on games, so we're not completely devoid of subjective assessments of game quality. We've even toyed with a non-traditional substitute for reviews.
But a proper review section? We've never had one in more than 20 years of GamesIndustry.biz. And as a video game site, that's made us a bit of an outlier.
So we're changing that this week as we run our very first formal review of a game. And we thought there would be no better way to debut the new section than with a review of the very biggest game of 2022, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
It's the dawn of a new era on GamesIndustry.biz. Let's do this.
In a word: WOW.
Modern Warfare 2 looks absolutely stunning. The tough cool guys with guns have never looked tougher or cooler. And their guns? Forget about it. They're gunnier than ever.
Our favorite soldier Ghost hasn't looked this totally badass since he first appeared all the way back in Modern Warfare 2. I particularly like the way his skullface tooth drool dribbles down his chin and onto his chest. Attention to detail like that goes a long way to making Modern Warfare 2 the most modern warfare yet.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 plays like a dream. The gunfeel is off the charts.
The gunfeel is off the charts
Ever since the PSone days, my standard for a first-person shooter has always been that it has to be fun to shoot the weapons in a completely empty room. Partly because the PSone didn't have the horsepower to make other kinds of rooms, and partly because I can think of no downsides to making guns into symbols of pure entertainment even when stripped of any narrative context.
Having millions of players' only associations with guns be joyful ones is probably a perfectly healthy thing and does not at all intersect with the interests of the gun lobby keeping us from passing any kind of meaningful gun control, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 does a fantastic job of capturing that joy.
This Call of Duty comes through loud and clear thanks to excellent sound design that effectively strikes a balance between being impactful but not so vivid as to make you really think about what's happening to human flesh and organs as you spray endless bullets through each environment and enemy.
Kudos to the voice actors as well, because the cries of pain and enemy death rattles likewise make it clear you've hit your targets, but stop just short of echoing through your dreams and haunting your waking hours, creating a prison of memory from which there is no escape.
There's a thriving and active Call of Duty community, so you'll always have plenty of Call of Duty fans to hang out with at any hour, day or night!
How we score games
OK, I think we need to have a word about our scoring system. We scoured the entire history of game reviews looking for a system that we thought fit the needs of today's gamers best, and we kept running into one problem with virtually every review system we saw: They don't use the entire scale.
What good is a 10-point scale if basically everything reviewed earns between a 7 and a 9?
To address this, we've decided to review games using a process called stack ranking. It basically grades on a curve, ensuring that the entire scale will be used because we're required to give out our highest grade to 5% of games, our lowest grade to 5% of games, and similar bands for every rating in between.
Modern Warfare 2 is the 20th mainline Call of Duty game on consoles, and looking through the entire archive of GamesIndustry.biz reviews, it appears that we have never given a single one of them our lowest score, 0 out of 10. So sorry Modern Warfare 2, but we've got a 5% quota to hit.
(For the record, we're including Warzone in that tally of mainline Call of Duty games for totally legitimate reasons and not just to spite people who would factcheck an obvious joke.)
On the surface, doling out grades that aren't reflective of the game's actual performance might seem unfair
Now we know that on the surface, doling out grades that aren't reflective of the game's actual performance might seem unfair to the hard-working developers who spent years of their lives on it, even working through a pandemic and a parade of corporate scandals to get this game finished. But we're confident Activision Blizzard will be totally cool with this, considering it already uses stack ranking to review employee performance.
Activision Blizzard said it employs stack ranking to encourage "excellence in performance" and "ensure employees who don't meet performance expectations receive more honest feedback, differentiated compensation, and a plan on how best to improve their own performance."
And really, that's important for us to do here, too. We can't just rubber-stamp a 9 out of 10 on every new Call of Duty that comes down the pipe year after year. We need to ensure we're pushing the series to get better and being honest about its flaws so Activision Blizzard can make improvements. And if bad reviews hurt sales and "differentiate" Activision Blizzard executives' compensation, well, I'm sure they'll understand it's all in the name of progress.
Admittedly, this warps the developers' incentives a bit. Before the approach was just "make a good game, get a good review," but now they have these other factors to consider.
Do they really try to make every Call of Duty game the best it can be, or would they be better off gaming the system? When reviews are a zero sum game and one game getting a sterling review means one less sterling review to go around, what's the rational way to go about your work? Do you prioritize the interests of the company, or yourself? Would devs on one Call of Duty game have any incentive to share learnings with the teams on others to make all the games better, or would it make more sense to sabotage those products so there are fewer quality games to crowd them out of a high review score?
A system like this is great for running the sort of company where people are compelled to pee in bottles rather than take a proper bathroom break, but it rewards clear disparity rather than uniform excellence. After all, you don't have to strive so hard to be the best if it's easier to just make others worse.
And that's fine. I'm confident that this will all work out in the end because I'm a big fan of the worldview at the heart of stack ranking, which believes that a) achievement requires suffering and b) it's fine to claim the former and delegate the latter.
Oh hey, is it time for my favorite Bobby Kotick quote already? This thing is never not relevant.
QUOTE | "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." – Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick in 2009, championing his leadership strategy of keeping his employees miserable and insecure.
Sure, we could all hold hands and sing "Kumbaya," creating incentive structures that are fair, prioritize teamwork, and allow for the possibility that everyone can succeed. But Kotick knows better than that.
Kotick knows competition beats cooperation. He knows there's no "team" in "I." He knows businesses work best when people are pushed, prodded, and permanently stressed out. He knows how far people can go when driven by the stick instead of the carrot.
Dropping the gimmick of this column for a moment, what Kotick clearly does not know is how much further people can go when they work together, driven not by a mandate to be better than the person beside them, but by a sense of community and the support of others who care.
In summary, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is a mixed bag. Fans of the series will like it.
Total score: 0 out of 10.
The rest of the week in review
QUOTE | "I just love hearing we helped their dreams come true and them excitedly telling me, 'Now I want to help someone else' or be a coordinator for a program or be happy to volunteer their hours. All of these things means we're making progress, and someone coming back means this organization is having a ripple effect. You help someone, and their ring of influence builds out and they help someone else, and that person helps someone else; it goes beyond one person." - Pixelle's co-founder Rebecca Cohen-Palacios tells use the most rewarding part of her work with the non-profit that looks to empower women in games.
QUOTE | "We're looking at the girl. We're looking at that one child. If you can serve one child really well, then scaling that just becomes a financial and resource problem." – As part of our Game Changers series, Girls Make Games co-founder Laila Shabir talks about the organization's approach to increasing representation for women in the industry through its scholarship fund, annual summer camp, and other programs.
QUOTE | "We saw a lot of Ukrainian people flee to different countries, and they didn't know what to do next. So I gathered around 30 volunteers from different countries and they helped us to gather and update information on how each country helps, what the process was, what documentation they needed and so forth. It's a huge manual, and it helped hundreds of people." – Values Value founder Tetiana Loktionova talks about efforts to support Ukrainian developers in the wake of the Russian invasion last year. Though born in Russia to Russian parents, Loktionova moved to Eastern Ukraine before she was a year old and has always considered herself Ukrainian.
QUOTE | "Anxiety around the market is understandable, but this isn't a business in crisis.. Did you see how well Call of Duty did? Or FIFA? Or God of War?" – Our own Chris Dring argues that bad news and declining sales says less about the long-term health of the industry and more about a specific post-lockdown moment in time.
STAT | $16.4 billion – Microsoft's profit for the quarter ended December 31, which it reported on Tuesday, just a week after laying off 10,000 people.
STAT | 238% - The week-over-week jump in sales for The Last of Us Part 1, as Naughty Dog's PS5 remake enjoyed a boost from the debut of the HBO TV adaptation.
QUOTE | "Unless there's another black swan event and people are yeeting on Twitter altogether, we don't assume it's going to be that insanely volatile" - Gamesight's Nicole Yang doesn't think much will come from the turmoil around Twitter ever since Elon Musk took over and laid off half the company while withholding severance from them, unbanned the very worst people around, fueled right-wing conspiracy theories in Brazil that led to rioters storming the capital, and perhaps most impressive of all, picked a fight with a landlord in which everybody sides with the landlord.
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QUOTE | "We have annoying restrictions that we place on the artist. The tree has to exist in a tile, obviously the pieces of the tree exist in the tile, but not only that, the type of piece that's in a tile is important. Like whether it's a thick branch or a trunk or some twigs with fruit on them, or are the leaves there, are they not..." - Tarn Adams talks about the challenges the team ran into when converting the ASCII art cult classic Dwarf Fortress into a game with modern pixel-art graphics.
QUOTE | "We're really excited because 'superficial' things like resolution and framerate really matter in games like Tetris Effect: Connected and Rez Infinite, where sound and visuals sync and the crispness of it are extremely important and a big part of the experience." – We spoke with PSVR developers like Enhance producer Mark MacDonald here to see if the opportunities afforded by re-making their games for PSVR 2 offset the downsides of Sony's headset not being backward compatible with the original.
STAT | 2 – Out of 37 confirmed launch window releases for PSVR 2, only two of them are exclusive to PSVR 2.
QUOTE | "On January 16, 2023, Squanch Games received Justin Roiland's resignation. The passionate team at Squanch will keep developing games we know our fans will love while continuing to support and improve High on Life." – Squanch Games confirms that co-founder and CEO Justin Roiland has left the company after a felony domestic battery charge he is facing came to light earlier this month. Roiland is also gone from Adult Swim, the network behind Roiland's animated series Rick and Morty. That show is reportedly set to continue without Roiland, with his voice roles recast.
QUOTE | "Unfortunately, Proletariat CEO Seth Sivak chose to follow Activision Blizzard's lead and responded to the workers' desire to form a union with confrontational tactics. Like many founders, he took the workers' concerns as a personal attack and held a series of meetings that demoralized and disempowered the group, making a free and fair election impossible." – The Communication Workers of America announces that it is withdrawing its request for a unionization vote at Proletariat despite saying it had a supermajority of needed support for organizing the Activision Blizzard studio last month.
QUOTE | "The Washington Post covers the stories that deserve to be told. It has done so for more than 140 years, reporting in areas such as politics, business, culture, sports and technology. In the year 2019, there's a common thread that has woven its way into all of those topics: video games." –In announcing its new video game vertical Launcher in October of 2019, the Washington Post makes clear that the games industry has become an essential area of coverage for the mainstream press. The Post shut down Launcher this week and laid off most of its writers as part of larger cuts to positions it said "are not essential to serving our competitive needs."
STAT | 24,000 – The number of attendees expected at GDC 2023 in March, according to organizers. That's significantly larger than the 17,000 attendees for last year's show, but still a bit shy of the 29,000 attendees from the last pre-pandemic GDC in March of 2019.
QUOTE | "After September 30, 2023, we will no longer add new content or provide customer support for the game. In addition, Marvel's Avengers will no longer be available for purchase." – Crystal Dynamics announces that it is pulling the plug on its first attempt at a live service game.
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