(This is another edition of “,” a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more).
Gamers are very selective about the causes they wish to champion. To be more specific (not to mention insultingly blunt), they’ll be activists about anything, provided they don’t actually have to be active. When it comes to politics and the legality of game sales, you won’t find too many gamers on the frontlines. When the ESRB has crossed a line, very few are the gamers who write to them in an attempt to appeal. But if Final Fantasy XIII goes to the Xbox 360, heck yeah they’ll sign a petition!
There are many battles to be had in this industry, and I worry that we often pick the wrong ones to fight. We go for the silly, meaningless ones, like a sequel being released early, an aesthetic change to a playable character, or a previously console-exclusive game going multiplatform. Usually these fights see the angered parties doing the one thing they know they can do that requires little effort — organize a boycott. Unfortunately, I fear that boycotts not only fail to work in almost all circumstances, but they have serious potential to turn disastrous if successful in the wrong way.
Now, I could easily use this column space to pick on some of the more stupid boycotts we’ve seen in recent years — Sonic the Hedgehog 4 fans who are enraged over Sonic’s green eyes, or Left 4 Dead players stamping their feet over the “early” launch of Left 4 Dead 2. These boycotts are inane at best, but they’re not the real issue. Ironically, it’s the sensible — sometimes even noble — boycotts that run the risk of posing a problem. More specifically, those boycotts in which gamers disagree with a certain publisher, thus refuse to buy any of their games.
Transformers: War for Cybertron was released this summer and it was, in my opinion, one of the best multiplayer games released in 2010. Not only that, but it was one of those rare licensed games that had been made with love and respect by people who knew and appreciated the franchise. I’m a Transformers fan anyway, but High Moon Studios’ enthusiasm and ability to craft a legitimately good game really made this a must-have title for me. I wasn’t the only one, either. In covering this game, I spoke to many fellow fans who were also incredibly excited for the game, or at the very least interested. There was just one problem …
Activision was publishing it.
Now, if you’re reading this, chances are good that you’re a follower of this industry, and if you follow this industry, you know all about Activision. My appreciation for that corporation’s business practices could be described as “non existent” at best. In fact, I don’t usually talk about Activision without prefixing the company name with, “Evil Publisher.” From its decimation of original IP to the many verbal crimes of Bobby Kotick, Activision has done very little to endear itself to the community, and it’s understandable that there are folk out there who want to vote with their wallets and ignore the company’s games.
The problem with this endeavor, however, is that the boycott of an Activision game will invariably send the wrong message. In the case of Transformers: War for Cybertron, you have a quality game that bucks the trend of licensed titles, coming from a publisher usually averse to taking creative risks. The good news is that Cybertron sold enough to get a sequel, but what would happen if a mass boycott had somehow occurred and the game undersold at retail? Do you think Activision would get the hint, realize it’s been wrong all these years, and abolish the Guitar Hero series while pumping money into some new Tim Schafer project?
Of course not. When a game doesn’t perform well, only one message is sent to publishers like Activision — “This game has no appeal. Let’s not make any more of these.” Then it’s right back to Harmonica Hero or whatever crap they’ve got Red Octane working on right now.
Boycotts don’t hurt publishers. Unless the publisher and the developer happen to be the same entity, any successful boycott would do direct harm to the studio who poured years of sweat and effort into the game. Do you think it matters to Activision that it hasn’t sold enough copies of an original IP? It’ll make back any potential loss with Call of Duty, Guitar Hero and World of Warcraft. If Activision only published three games in each of those franchises a year, it would still be on top of this industry. In fact, those franchises are what allows Activision to take risks on titles like War for Cybertron or Prototype, and if the risk turns out to be a failed effort? Activision can happily move on with nary a dent in its profit margins.
The only ones being punished are the developers. If a game flops, the publisher holds the studio accountable. They’ll be less likely to trust that developer with a new title, and even less likely to greenlight any sequels. You could make the argument that these studios shouldn’t deal with publishers like Activision, but come on. If the biggest company in this industry comes knocking at your door with a suitcase of cash and an interest in your projects, I defy any of you to sit atop your moral high horse and shut the door in its face. These developers, some of which have talent and passion beyond reason, will take what they can get in order to not only survive, but create original and unique games that deserve to be in your hands. If you choose to turn down a developer’s work because you disagree with the publisher, then you’re only punishing a studio who has absolutely no say in what that publisher does.
Obviously, if Bobby Kotick murdered a child and his executives helped bury the body, I wouldn’t expect anybody to keep buying its games, but then I wouldn’t expect many studios wanting to associate with it either. This goes back to what I said about picking your battles at the beginning of this article. Turning down a potentially good game because Bobby Kotick once said something won’t change a thing. It’ll just take money out of the hands of people who actually deserve it. Even if your actions indirectly support Activision, believe me — you’re never going to harm them. Wait until they do something really evil, not just “bad company rawr” evil.
That’s the thing about only fighting fights that take little effort. They take so little effort because they’re not worth fighting.