On Christmas and Carol

According to the radio, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Reindeer games, boughs of holly, corncob pipes and all of those festive festivities. Bundle up with that special someone in front of the fire, they’ll thank you for it later. I mention all of these non-gaming activities and holiday trademarks because we are officially in the void. No noteworthy releases, no mind-blowing announcements, and unless your name is Infinity Ward, no (hopefully) game redeeming patches will be out during the last week of the year. While I could devote more of your time toward the future and what 2010 will bring, there will be plenty of opportunity for that. Besides, I don’t want to steal the thunder of the great podcasts we have that are doing great work breaking down the potential of 2010. But you’re here, and I’m here, so why not have a little fun.

Join me for some holiday themed thoughts like if those Reindeer games were running at 60 frames per second.

After reading the wish lists of the Talking About Games staff, I started thinking about an updated version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol where Scrooge is played by our beloved industry’s scrooge, Bobby Kotick. Granted, he’s not a bad guy, but I think he is the most noteworthy and identifiable person in the industry that could fill that roll. This is the guy who coined the phrase “annualization.” As of April, he was ranked a mere 157th on the Forbes list of CEO Compensation. However, after the successes of Modern Warfare 2 and some timely sales of stock options, Kotick increased his worth by over $37 million in the course of a week. Sure, it’s a sound business strategy — buy low, sell high — but he’s managed to become the mascot of everything that is wrong with the video game industry in the eyes of the average gamer.

But who will play the roles of the principal characters in this re-imagining? Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s deceased business partner informs him that he will be visited by three ghosts in three nights to try to get him to change his ways. As far as business partners go, I suppose Blizzard Entertainment President and CEO Michael Morhaime can be the dearly departed. Sorry Michael, nothing personal. On the first night, Bobby is visited by the Ghost of Gamers’ Past – It’s-a me! Mario! Mario Luigi is the perfect representation of what gaming used to be. Sure, lately he’s become a bit derivative, but Mario still represents a time in video game history where fun and simplicity were all that mattered. A time before achievements and trophies, a time before multiplayer rankings and 1080p. Do you remember what gaming used to be like? Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is phenomenal and Batman: Arkham Asylum came out of nowhere to wow us all, but I could just as easily go back to Tecmo Super Bowl and Mario 3 and find just as much satisfaction. Those were the days. Do you remember them Bobby? This is what gaming used to be before annualization and yearly sequels.

On the second night the Ghost of Gamers’ Present appears to greet our dear Bobby. The phantasmal representation of today’s gamer is a debate that will never reach consensus. For the sake of furthering this story, and because I’m writing it, let’s go with Kratos. After all, he is the Ghost of Sparta, and he loves women and gratuitous violence — sounds like the perfect representation of this generation. Tonight however, Kratos is taking an unusually diplomatic approach in showing Bobby around.

“Look there, a son getting his own copy of Modern Warfare 2 and a year’s subscription to Xbox LIVE.” Bobby smiles with satisfaction, there’s another Map Pack sold.

“And here, a boy getting Call of Duty: Reflex for the Wii. Grandma didn’t know the difference and now he’ll have to feign satisfaction while simultaneously plotting a trip to his local GameStop.” Dollar signs pass through Bobby’s head. Two for the price of one.

“Here a daughter has a panicked look on her face, there are no boxes the size of Band Hero. Times are tough and her parents couldn’t afford the cost of your latest peripheral-fest.” Bobby holds back a snarky comment as he sees tears welling up in the child’s eyes.

“Over there, a possible family game night is ruined by the unrealized conception of Tony Hawk: Ride. What good is a new peripheral if the game is flawed to its core?” Bobby remains silent.

“Finally a family stuck in a snowed-in cabin, the power has been out for hours.” But without power, they can’t play any video games… why are they still laughing and having a good time? “Video games are not the only form of entertainment, Bobby. A few candles and a game of real Monopoly can be just as entertaining. Until someone lands on Free Parking, then all bets are off.”

Bobby falls asleep questioning his motivations but ultimately holding firm to the status quo. I’m one of the most influential minds in the industry, I must be doing something right. Right?

The third night approaches and Bobby is fearful of the final ghost that will visit him. The Ghost of Gamers’ Future, Milo. Oddly sounding like the child of soothsayer Peter Molyneux, Milo doesn’t waste any time. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but five years from now, you fail us all Bobby. Becoming Chairman of Activision/Blizzard and powerful enough to purchase Valve wasn’t enough for you. The industry was in the palm of your hands but you didn’t know when to stop.”

Valve? That’s great! Anything to keep EA’s dirty hands off of them.

“You’re not paying attention, Bobby. As soon as you acquired Valve, all production on Half Life 2: Episode 3 was stopped. Episode 3 replaced Duke Nukem Forever as the go-to joke regarding endless and fruitless development cycles. Gamers will be stuck with incremental Left 4 Dead iterations and Team Fortress updates. No one complains because you hold all the power but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any unrest in the masses. Look at your consumer! They have become bored and stagnant with your products. What once was new and exciting has become predictable and borders on shovelware. You abused the faith gamers put in the games they love and now no one is happy. You chose a path motivated strictly by financial gain without considering the relationships you would damage in your quest for billions. Sure, you might be happy, but the rest of the gaming world is in pain. You could have done something about this, you could have used all of your influence to change the direction of the industry, but you were blinded by greed and selfishness. Look at your consumer! Still playing expansion packs of World of Warcraft after all these years, still playing first-person shooters in rehashed environments because they were never challenged to do something more, still waiting for the complete Starcraft 2 experience. How long do you plan on delaying that game? Look at what complacency has done to your developers. Where is the motivation to do more when your advocacy for something new is at an all-time low?

“You failed us, Bobby. Maybe we didn’t speak up loudly enough, maybe we didn’t rise up soon enough, but you are just as culpable. Look at what video games have become on your watch. I don’t see one smile out there, do you?”

Who knows if there is any remorse left in the soul of Bobby Kotick. Maybe he knows what he’s doing. Maybe we’ll all come around to his thought process. Maybe the industry is better off with him at the helm of the frigate that is Activision. Then again, maybe he really needs to have a tour guided toward a path of enlightenment by a few ghosts. ‘Tis the season, right?

Have a safe and happy holidays.

Spread some holiday cheer over at Talking About Games, they’ve been good to me this year.

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