Activision’s story is one of peaks and valleys. After they got their start publishing games for the Atari 2600 in the 1980s, they stared financial ruin in the face after a costly patent infringement lawsuit at the end of the decade, finally climbing their way out of the gutter (after being bought by everyone’s pal Bobby Kotick in 1990) to become the top publisher in the business today.
Since becoming the biggest fish in the pond after merging with Vivendi and becoming Activision Blizzard in 2008, they get an awful lot of crap flung in their direction, and the timing is certainly no coincidence. Being at the top paints an awfully big target on your back, regardless of who and where you are. Like anyone else, there are cases where the venom is deserved — I refuse to believe that Bizzare Creations would be closed had Blur been handled better and had their future not rested on a Bond game with no movie tie-in — but for the most part it simply comes with the territory.
In fact, I’m willing to take it a couple of steps further; not only are they not the evil conglomerate out to destroy the games industry, they might be the only publisher doing just about everything right. They’re not number one by accident, after all, so let’s dig a little deeper.
Their licensed games aren’t terrible
Licensed games are pumped out seemingly every week — and a nauseating majority aren’t worth the disc they’re pressed on — but they’re huge business for the publishers that manage to land a licensing deal. EA graced the market with abysmal Harry Potter games, Ubisoft put Tom Clancy’s name on any military game that they work on, and even Activision crank out some miserable game based on a Dreamworks film every year.
For the most part, though, Activision’s name on a licensed game is a sign that, at the very least, what you’re paying for isn’t necessarily broken garbage. This past Comic Con at San Diego served as a reminder that no one does superheroes justice quite like Acti does, as they had demos of Spider-Man: Edge of Time and the promising X-Men: Destiny up and running for the public to see. Sure, WB’s Batman: Arkham Asylum is arguably the best superhero game of all-time, but that doesn’t erase years of awfulness at the Dark Knight’s expense.
The ultimate proof of this are what becomes of Marvel properties when they’re adapted to the virtual space. Marvel have had a long, fruitful relationship with Activision that has spanned plenty of quality titles over the years: Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, X-Men: Legends, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance are just a few of the games that I can rattle off the top of my head. Even Hulk: Ultimate Destruction was developed by Radical Entertainment, who went on to make Prototype for Activision. Meanwhile, Sega have crapped all over their licensed titles, sullying the good names of Iron Man and Thor with craptacular games that had no excuse not to be fun.
But it’s not as if superheroes are all that Activision are good for. While the Transformers license doesn’t exactly shine when it has to be hastily pushed out in time for a movie, last year’s War for Cybertron showed that seemingly hopeless licenses could be redeemed if put in the right hands. Thankfully, High Moon Studios had just the touch required to get people to care about Transformers video games again.
Quantity and quality
Milking franchises is probably the biggest gripe that bitter gamers have against Activision these days, and to an extent they’re correct. After all, this is the company that saw fit to release no less than nine Hero titles between 2008 and 2009.
Still, is it really so bad to annualize a franchise when it’s something that people want to experience? Guitar Hero is an odd example because music games are extremely pricey to produce; the process of licensing songs is an expensive one, and producing several instrument tracks per song is a lengthy endeavor. However, each mainline release was inarguably better than the last. Even with it’s ridiculously unnecessary Quest mode, Warriors of Rock was easily the best-designed game in the series. What killed GH was oversaturation, not quality.
Of course, no franchise in Activision’s stable is a bigger scapegoat for this “problem” than the fruit of Infinity Ward’s loins, Call of Duty. After revolutionizing the way that online multiplayer is played with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, each yearly release in the franchise has been met with more and more cynicism, despite higher and higher sales. Quite frankly, it’s a bit unfair. Think about what each entry after CoD4 brought to the table: World at War had a zombie mode (at the same time Left 4 Dead released, mind you), Modern Warfare 2 made several key changes to how perks and killstreaks work (with admittedly mixed results), and Black Ops introduced the highly addicting wager match. Modern Warfare 3 will introduce Call of Duty Elite, a service designed to help players better track their stats and improve their game. While some of the service’s features will require some form of payment (Activision haven’t revealed those details just yet), much of it will be free. Hell, I’m not even that big of a CoD fan and I’m excited to see Elite in action.
If at a certain point you decide that you decide that you don’t want to play the following year’s iteration, that’s perfectly fine and completely understandable. Personally, I didn’t play MLB 11: The Show after enjoying it the last few years, and I probably would’ve stopped buying Guitar Hero games at some point, too. To say that the quality of a franchise is declining, when in reality the only thing declining is your interest, is simply ridiculous.