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August 09, 2010

Creative Control at Activision

Last week saw an interesting bit of investigative reporting over on GamaSutra by journalist Leigh Alexander, covering reports of gender bias towards AAA protagonists by upper-level management at Activision. According to sources, Activision specifically directed a studio to change its lead character from a female heroine in the Lucy Liu mode to a male hero. It’s a nice bit of balanced reporting; Alexander reports the accusations of the Activision-owned studio, notes Activision’s rebuttal, and makes specific mention of successful action series with female protagonists as a supporting framework.

My Twitter feed that afternoon was all, well, atwitter with mentions of some of the bizarre comments that the article garnered on GamaSutra. It’s also worth noting that this article received more than ten dozen comments, which is far more than any other news item in the last week or so (I saw one with a count of 32, most were in the single digits, and many of those were just 0)... clearly this touches some sort of nerve. Amongst the comments there were a few discernable threads:

  • Activision is a public company; there’s no gender bias, they’re just going after what sells for their market
  • Statements that the reporting is being done owing to some sort of political correctness
  • Supportive commentary (either in the “there should be more balance in representation” or the “here are some more examples of great female characters in games and movies” variety)

The thing is, regardless of what you think of Activision’s alleged policy, this is valuable news for at least a couple industry segments: independent studio owners and potential or current Activision employees. It’s not political correctness to report on the interactions between corporations or between segments of a corporation -- it’s newsworthy, in this case especially to those two groups. (I'd like to think it's of interest to gamers, too, as it is to me as a gamer... but GamaSutra is primarily a games industry site, not targeted to gamers as much as to those in the biz, so let's leave them out for a moment.)

In the case of the former, it’s well-known that Activision’s strategy for growth over at least the last decade has been acquisitions and mergers, typically beginning with a development or publishing deal for a specific piece of IP and then turning into a later acquisition. This started with Raven Software and Neversoft back in the late 90s and continuing with others too numerous to list here (a few luminaries being Infinity Ward, Treyarch, and Bizarre Creations, but by no means limited to them). If I owned my own company, I’d definitely want to know that despite what they might say at the bargaining table, Activision was likely to involve itself pretty heavily in the creative process of the studio.

As for potential or current employees of Activision (or a wholly-owned subsidiary studio), well, if I were on the creative end of things, in character or narrative design, for example, I’d want to know that my work was going to be up for creative review by the bean counters at the head office based on a sales-driven market study. Those of us on the front lines pour a lot of ourselves into the games we make, and spending months or years with a character only to have him or her changed based on the mercurial whims of what space marine games sold last year would be a huge concern for me, personally.

I’m not likely to work for Activision any time soon; I’m not certain it’s the sort of corporation I’d like to work for. In the long term, Activision’s strategy will probably work with a certain market demographic, males 14-30 or so, and that market will be strong enough to maintain AAA development for years to come yet. It’s not like we’re running out of 14-30 year olds any time soon, they just keep making more¹. But a strategy which looks at last year’s hits will always just pump out iterations of, well, last year’s hits. That’s unlikely to gain new market share, and ultimately causes creative stagnation in the industry². It's unfortunate that a company which has the resources to explore new markets, even in a small way, chooses instead to chase the big hits from the last year or two; it's myopic, and regrettably it will probably work for a while.

So, Activision will plod along making the same kind of games, until it looks more profitable to jump to something else. It’s what the big corporations do. But where big corporations fail to go there is often opportunity to be had, and Leigh Alexander deserves credit both for pointing out those opportunities to smaller, more nimble companies, and to giving pause to those who might think they will retain creative control when they sign with Activision.

¹ It’s worth noting that Nintendo seems to start a little younger and last a lot longer. It’s a renewing segment, but Nintendo holds a hardcore audience well into their 30s, judging from continuing sales of Zelda and Metroid and other key IPs. (back)

² Hollywood seems to be on a cycle of this itself; every ten or fifteen years they have a few fallow years where they lack anything much of interest, and then they drag themselves out of it again. I’d say this year is a bit of a down year for Hollywood creatively. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at August 9, 2010 08:56 AM