Bobby Kotick of Activision has become a figure of hate. There is a great deal of Internet anger about the departure of the founders of Infinity Ward, the developers of Modern Warfare 2. They should have been celebrating their chart-topping success worldwide, instead there are recriminations, rumours of unpaid bonuses and a cloud hanging over the future of the Call of Duty franchise. But are the geeks right to be angry with the man?
There is a long history of mavericks in the computer industry, not all of them successful. Take Trip Hawkins. Hawkins made a bold move in founding Electronic Arts, a company where the artists who produced the games were celebrated. The distinctive gatefold covers for their early games were full of notes and tips from the designers and programmers. As the company grew, talent moved from elsewhere to be at EA and it became more than just a publisher. Hawkins’ pet project was an American Football game and he found the ideal collaborator in TV commentator (and former head coach) John Madden. With a Madden playbook, Hawkins set about creating one of the biggest franchises that continues to this day. But not all Hawkins touched turned to gold. The 3DO was ahead of its time in many ways – CD-based, but when the technology was still being perfected. High prices and the rival Sony Playstation saw the dream of a single gaming format disappear. EA continued without him, thriving on the annual updates of the sports franchises. For many that made them the target of hatred and campaigns.
The Stamper brothers also did things their own way. As Ultimate Play The Game, the Stampers played a dangerous game of holding the press at arms’ length, but the critical acclaim flowed in for their Spectrum classics. Many did not understand the decision to sell the name and the remaining games in development to U.S. Gold, but the Stampers had a reason. With the help of programmer Dave Thomas, the Stampers reverse engineered the NES, created a game and earned a lucrative developer’s license from Nintendo. The new company’s name was Rare – Designs on the Future, as seen in adverts for new talent in computer magazines during 1987. With steady income the company grew, became a big success for Nintendo and was then sold on to Microsoft. And then the Stampers left – another bold decision, or setting up something new?
Activision itself was started by a group of designers who split away from Atari, tired of not getting credit for the games they created. It became one of the first big third-party developers, buoyed by the profits from its Atari 2600 classics including Pitfall. It really hit its stride with Ghostbusters, the game of the film. But by 1988, a disastrous re-branding as Mediagenic, the troubled takeover of adventure game developer Infocom and attempts to move into other forms of software left the company in a disastrous state. Enter Robert Kotick. He invested heavily in the company, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to allow the company to continue trading. Over the next few years it restructured as a publisher and began to build. The lucrative Tony Hawk series created by Neversoft became an important part of that success, the company growing until it became once more one of the largest software publishers around.
So is Kotick’s strategy wrong? Or is it simply because the company is so big that it becomes a target? Gaming news site Kotaku hit the nail on the head with its 2010 April Fool – a re-branding as “Koticku”. Whether that is seen as satire or respect is up to the reader.