Its not precisely a foreign concept to the development world to see smaller studios enveloped by larger ones. Nor is it unheard of to see independent studios put to assistance work on a major franchise. And neither of those events are necessarily bad on a binary scale; good things can come from fresh eyes. That is effectively the only reason I am remotely interested in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, that it comes from Sledgehammer Games, the creators of Dead Space, something that feels so diametrically opposed to the Call of Duty modus operandi that I’m fascinated by what they could do.
But it cannot be ignored that this is yet another company drawn under the monolith of Call of Duty. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that Activision is the Kirby of video game publishing; they are an all-consuming creature from beyond the pale that devours developer after developer into its ranks to work towards a single goal: the production of more and more Call of Duty.
There have been many before Sledgehammer, dog-piling the end credits of Call of Duty games. Now, the time has come for Neversoft, the famed creators of the Tony Hawk franchise and developers of the latter several Guitar Hero games, to be dissolved into Activision. According to a report received by Giant Bomb yesterday, Neversoft will be folded into staple Call of Duty developer Infinity Ward. With this move, the name Neversoft will be retired by the studio, and Activision VP of worldwide studios will be taking up the lead position of this new Infinity Ward.
“While it will be strange to not see the Neversoft logo on future games, the important things–which are the Neversoft team’s talent, creativity, professionalism and commitment to creative excellence–all remain unchanged as part of this new chapter,” said CEO of publishing at Activision David Hirchberg.
So another studio has come under the wing of the most popular franchise on Earth. I don’t even have any snark in me for this one. Just a little bit of sadness. Even though its franchises were run into the ground, one cannot ignore the impact Neversoft’s work has had on the industry. Tony Hawk effectively invented an entire genre of game that no one had ever seen before, and their work on Guitar Hero, while not as revolutionary as Harmonix’s, was hardly the reason the series fell apart, and World Tour remains my favorite full-band music game of all time. Very few developers can claim the kind of success Neversoft has had in their career.
However, the reasoning for Neversoft’s dissolution is obvious: pure economics. The games prior to their folding into development on Modern Warfare 3 and Ghosts were not exactly what anyone would call smash hits. Tony Hawk’s Project 8 and Proving Ground both failed to spark any kind of significant life into the series, selling low and low enough to justify the franchise being put to a near standstill. When they took over Guitar Hero in the midst of controversy and on a rushed time table, the deck was even further stacked against them. Despite having little to no experience with developing for the franchise, they were put to releasing Guitar Hero III: Warriors of Rock in one year.
Such a rushing of development time is a continual trend of the studios put under the gun of Activision’s major franchise. Neversoft’s decaying returns in Tony Hawk were the result of a consistent, unrelenting yearly release schedule for seven years, all the way from Pro Skater 1 to Project 8, with little to no franchise evolution over the installments. This was followed by a similar release schedule for Guitar Hero, except even more strenuous. Neversoft would develop or co-develop seven Guitar Hero games over the span of three years on platforms bridging two console generations and handheld. It is little wonder with that kind of rapid development that the franchise burned itself out as quickly as it did.
Out of a similar situation is the current fate of High Moon Studios, the developers of the under-the-radar 2010 hit Transformers: War for Cybertron and its 2012 followup, Fall of Cybertron. Following their success with the Transformers franchise, they moved on to develop an adaptation of Marvel comics’ Deadpool, but again ran into a rushed development schedule, and, as I have heard from former High Moon contract workers, a great deal of infighting between the creative leads and Activision. Deadpool landed with mixed reviews in 2013, and was followed by the firing of 40 full time staff members of High Moon and the studio put in charge of the Xbox 360 and PS3 ports of the upcoming Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
Then there is the story of Raven Software and their 2010 shooter Singularity. Beginning as one of the flagship titles of Activision’s E3 2008 conference, and a cover story from GameInformer, the time-travel focused title went completely radio silent for almost 2 years. Behind the scenes, according to rumors by ex-Raven staff members, Activision began to lose faith in the franchise potential of the title, pushing in a monsters vs. players multiplayer mode and constantly influencing development before finally, in the summer of 2010, deciding to put the game out the door with little to no marketing or publishing support. While the game was met with very good reviews, it was a financial flop. Since then, Raven, the acclaimed developers of Hexen, Star Wars: Jedi Knight II, and X-Men Legends, have only worked on multiplayer modes and DLC for the Call of Duty series.
It seems as though the studios that have been folded into the Call of Duty series over the years have been victims of a sort of vicious cycle. In the attempt to create successful, profitable franchises à la Call of Duty, the companies put in charge of creating those have not been given the ability to create the necessary base for such a franchise with a successful game that stands on its own. The games that could be solid enough to support a franchise, like Singularity or Neversoft’s own Gun, their sole original IP of the millennium, seem to be sworn off as unnecessary pits of cash before ever giving them the chance to make money back. And when they don’t make their money back, Activision takes those developers, distances them from their own franchises, and puts them to work on the safe and easy bet: the established franchise Call of Duty. The irony that Call of Duty began as a solid, standalone game cannot be forgotten.
I’m not one of those people who views Activision as a form of absolute evil. Maybe Bobby Kotick is, if all the quotes attributed to him over the years are true, but I don’t think the publisher as a whole is a vast, evil enterprise. One must remember that they once did great things, but that was once, not now. To draw literary comparisons, if the environment under Activision’s publishing strategies is a form of dystopia, it is not a 1984-esque dystopia where games are suppressed by force. Through a repeating system of yearly release schedules, multiple attempted franchises, and a lack of support for developers, it is closer to Brazil. It is a form of almost accidental evil done by those who don’t actually realize they are doing something wrong. It is a dystopia by those that have forgotten that in order to have a forest, you need to have trees planted in the ground to begin with. And, for me, accidental evils have always been more terrifying than the deliberate ones.