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Opinion: Why Activision & EA's Feud Embarrasses The Game Industry
Opinion: Why Activision & EA's Feud Embarrasses The Game Industry
September 28, 2010 | By Chris Morris

September 28, 2010 | By Chris Morris
More: Console/PC

[In this Gamasutra editorial, editor-at-large and veteran game journalist Chris Morris looks at the escalating war of words between Electronic Arts and Activision – and the detrimental effects the dustup can have on the video game industry.]

There’s a reason politicians are so despised in this country. One party spends so much time squabbling over disagreements with the other party that everyone’s focus on their main job – ensuring the smooth running of the country – falls by the wayside.

It’s only fitting, then, that as the midterm elections near, the two biggest parties in the video game industry have decided to express their mutual loathing towards each other.

But it’s no more productive or useful than the daily screaming match in the nation’s capital.

Every industry has competition – and it’s not at all uncommon for big companies to actively dislike each other. (You are not, for instance, likely to see Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke attend a July 4th party at the house of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos anytime soon.)

But verbal attacks are rare. Instead, when one company wants to make the other look foolish, they’ll do it through pricing or by surprising the market with a vastly superior product.

In the gaming world, though, companies like to hash things out in as public a forum as possible.

And for an industry that’s at such a pivotal moment in its short history, the sort of name calling and finger pointing that has gone on for the past couple of days is both frustrating and baffling.

In October, video games will face the biggest challenge they ever have. At issue is the regulation of the entire industry – one that has the potential to devastate corporate bottom lines and have a ripple effect through other entertainment fields. Yet now, in the lead-up to that Supreme Court hearing, the industry’s two biggest independent publishers are incapable of keeping their mouths closed?

Beyond that, video game companies desperately seek the public approval that Hollywood studios are afforded. But this bush league back and forth only serves to underscore how young this industry really is.

Instead of acting like the two multinational entertainment conglomerates they are, EA and Activision have likened themselves to a pair of high schoolers, both so desperate to impress the rest of the class that they can’t see how foolish their actions make them appear.

Meanwhile, dutifully playing the role of the circling mob shouting “Fight! Fight!” is the media. No editor can resist the soundbytes that both companies were lobbing - and Bobby Kotick and Jeff Brown know this.

Oh, we tried, mind you. As I understand it, my colleagues here at Gamasutra had serious discussions on Monday about whether we should run multiple stories on the escalating war of words.

Ultimately, by that point the genie was out of the bottle – and the decision was made that ignoring what had become one of the biggest stories of the day would do readers a disservice. The verbal broadsides had become a news event – just as it would if the president of Paramount began lobbing verbal grenades at Warner Bros.

Here’s the thing, though. That wouldn’t happen. While the film world has rivalries that run far deeper than anything Electronic Arts and Activision could dream up, you rarely see the top executive getting into the fight. It serves no purpose – and ultimately just embarrasses the industry.

The issues at EA and Activision are fighting about are, at their heart, petty. Here’s the basic rundown:

- Both companies have lost talented developers to the other. Guys, you’re the biggest publishers in town. You have the most money. If a team is leaving one, it’s not a bad bet that they’re going to the other.

- Both companies have had a taste as king of the hill – and both loath the title of “the industry’s second largest third-party publisher”

- Both know that the fight for that top spot is going to slog on for a long, long time, so any chance they get to point out a perceived weakness in the other is cause for glee in the executive suite.

There’s no denying that the back and forth makes for great entertainment. And it gives games and industry onlookers the chance to vilify one or both companies – a favorite pastime of message boards the world over. Gamer allegiances change fast, though. The cloud this industry infighting casts over the entire world of video games, meanwhile, could stick around for quite a while.

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Joseph Tramonte
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I had never seen it this way your right though. This was a great article

Quinton Klabon
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Keep in mind that this IS an entertainment industry. It's not uncommon for sniping to occur in public in Hollywood or New York City, among publishing companies or record companies. That this occurs between 2 of the players most often pushing product over content isn't a surprise. You won't see Taro Kudo or Jakub Dvorsky doing the same.

Glenn Sturgeon
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I'd put it as simply as they are unprofessional to make public statements as they have, but most of the world pays little if any attention to the people in the games industry.

Theres a time and place for almost everything.

I must ad i think its kinda funny.

EA corporate communications VP Jeff Brown

"His company is based on three game franchises -- one is a fantastic persistent world he had nothing to do with; one is in steep decline; and the third is in the process of being destroyed by Kotick's own hubris."

Thats as we call it on the net "pwnage". lol

Maybe the games industry is the next wrestling with its competition and dramatic rivalries!?

David Fried
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Kotick vs EA is comedy gold every time. :D

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Agreed. I think it's fun to read personally.

Anonymous Veteran
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These men are fully aware that their words and behavior will be covered by the media, and this coverage will be a public face of the games business. They do not believe that, in their tenure, the public will reward the games business for professionalism, integrity, or maturity. They do not believe that their sound bytes will have an effect on legislation. They expect that their attempts to humiliate their competitors will either be forgiven, forgotten, or effective enough. They choose to ignore the fact that their behavior may demoralize and depress anyone who would like to see the games industry move in a more positive direction.

Mark Harris
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For that matter we should understand that our own words, our own sniping and name calling and constant negativity can have the same effect. There are many a young, aspiring game developer reading our comments, which have become increasingly negative and jaded. I find the comment sections of too many articles full of venom and no-thought one liners instead of constructive or informative criticism. This is still by far the best site available for rational discussion of the game industry, but at times we have strayed from our "professional" attitude almost as much as Kotick and Brown.

I don't say that at you, but because I think you made a good point and we should understand that it applies to more than just the current situation.

Mark Tanjutco
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I am 100% in agreement with Mr. Harris' comment. It should be the collective duty of gaming consumers on the whole to "elevate" the nature of our conversations with one another. Sadly, that's not the case, and I find it troubling for an industry that is still struggling to be taken seriously by "mainstream" consumers.

Ian Uniacke
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I actually can't disagree with you guys more. What about freedom of speech and freedom of thought? We must accept that some people's opinions or remarks may seem childish to us, because that is how our freedoms are protected. The wisest man is the man who knows he knows nothing.

As for EA and Activision, on the other hand, I do agree it is childish, however I don't think EA would have been the company to make the first negative comments so I'm less inclined to be upset by their comments.

Mark Harris
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I don't follow, Ian. Can you point out where any of us have infringed on another's right to free speech or thought?

Ian Uniacke
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You are suggesting that peoples "opinions" are invalid because they need to be "elevated" to your own opinions. Who is to say your opinions are more worthy than anyone elses? This is the essence of elitism. The idea that because someone is less able to convey his thoughts in a way that is deemed acceptable by others is not valid input.

If someone is saying "Bobby Kotick is a dousch" maybe they have a valid point they are trying to make but maybe they don't have the finesse to put their thoughts in a way that you find acceptable. If you want to make a difference spend less time putting down people for their comments and more time trying to understand what they mean.

Of course I can see that you are trying to do that right now. I just do not condone censorship of any form whether it's legitimised by law or inferred by elitism. I hope my words are not too harsh.

Mark Harris
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By your own definition you are now censoring me, since you are criticizing my opinion, are you not? My opinion doesn't meet your criteria for acceptance and understanding, and as such you are asking me to "elevate" my opinion up to your level.

No one was suggesting any given opinion is invalid. We merely ask that when we share our opinions we aim for a relatively civil and constructive tone instead of a negative and antagonistic tone.

I don't believe that asking for something is censorship. Censorship implies some level of enforcement or consequence, which I never implied or attempted. Please don't confuse that with disagreement and criticism.

Ian Uniacke
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Actually there is a massive difference between criticism and censorship. I'm not sure why you are confusing the two. I accept your opinion I merely disagree. But this is going nowhere anyway.

Morgan Ramsay
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"The Israeli prime minister should worry about his political future before worrying about us." -- Jordan to Israel, 19 March 2007;

Pithy quips between actors vying for political capital are hardly unique to the game industry.

Evan Combs
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it very much isn't. In fact it goes on in just about every industry, and everything they say is carefully planned. Usually the only people who here about it and care about it are people that are within their respective industries.

Tim Carter
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I think this EA-is-bad or Activision-is-bad thing distracts game developers from the hard work of transforming their industry.

It's far easier to call people or companies bad names than to roll up your sleeves and do something new.

Justin Kwok
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Unless it's BECAUSE of those companies that you can't do anything new. I don't have personal experience with Activision or EA but this is most certainly the case with 99% of the publishers out there.

That's likely why there's such a movement towards indie these days.

Sebastion Williams
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In the grand scheme of things, I believe the bickering between Activision and EA is not helpful. Yes it is an entertainment industry and yes, companies by nature have to compete for limited dollars and a customer base. But the industry is on the cusp of transforming itself to providing more than entertainment. We are fighting for legitimacy with video games being seen as a form of expression, a way to stay sane, a means to better health, a vehicle for education, a spark to creativity and invention as well as just being able to beat the snot out of our friends and family - bloodlessly, of course.

Christopher Totten
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Geez...there's been a lot of bickering in the gaming news lately, especially involving Kotick. I think flame wars are one of the things wrong with the experience of being a gamer. How often have you gone to a message board to try to find some good discussion only to find "HALO IS TEH R0X0R5! F*** NINTENDO/SONY!" or some such language.

If we're trying to get the respect of other artistic industries what kind of example does it set for gamers when the head of two of the biggest third party publishers are having their own public and publicized flame war?

Matt Marquez
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Personally, I have not touched a single game by either company in a good decade, so I care little if they eat each other to the bone.

@Andre Thomas: Ah, and they were more blatant in those feuds, as well! Although, this is on a different level as it isn't marketing vs. marketing, but corporate face vs. corporate face and video game fanatics are going to care little once the games themselves are released. I'd even say that the "competition" is shallow here. Then again, maybe some people pay attention to these two babble back and forth?

I will say that Bobby Kotick's response to Tim Schafer calling him a "pr*ck" was amusing in any business world.

Jacob Barlaam
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Kotick should be a comedian with the comments he comes up with. Without him blabbing hilarious nonsense, there would probably be no war of words between EA and ACTV (how boring). There has to be a little bit of going at each others' throats when it comes to the big giants in an entertainment industry. Although, just imagine if Kotick would plan out what he says beforehand, this would be far less entertaining.

Bart Stewart
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Leaving aside the questionable opening theory that the primary purpose of government is to somehow force a country to run smoothly... (it's just a narrative hook, Bart -- let it go!) ...I think there's another way to look at this latest round of sniping between Activision and EA. Interestingly enough, this lens comes from "game theory."

One of the core concepts in game theory describes the difference between "zero-sum" and "non-zero-sum" games. A zero-sum game is one in which there is a fixed, finite amount of resources, so that the only way Player 1 can win (in a two-player game) is to take resources from Player 2, and vice versa. This naturally leads to highly competitive gameplay behaviors. Cooperation can happen, but only in small groups -- the higher up you go, the more it's about figuring out how to take the other guy's resources (such as votes, which are finite except in Chicago and Houston).

In a non-zero-sum game, the total resources of the gameworld are not finite -- they can be increased through player actions. When the players believe their gameworld is non-zero-sum, and thus that there are plenty of resources for everybody, cooperative behavior is possible. In a non-zero-sum game, you can win without forcing someone else to lose. Or to put it another way, in a non-zero-sum game there can be many winners.

With that in mind, it sounds to me like EA and Activision have both decided that the money available from gamers has become finite. That is, it seems they both now think the gaming environment is zero-sum, that there are now only so many gaming dollars to go around and if they don't get each and every consumer dollar, the other guy will.

So "winning" the computer game publishing game is about taking gaming dollars away from the competition. Instead of being satisfied to swim in their own enormous swimming pools of loot, winning now requires trying to drain the other guy's swimming pool. Hence the attempts to control gamer mindshare through advertising and verbal tactics that criticize the competition.

If there's anything to this analysis, the most interesting thing might be that gamers and the gaming press think that the gaming market is still mostly non-zero-sum, that there's still room for lots of participants to do well. Hence our surprise at EA and Activision bashing each other, which is unnecessary in a non-zero-sum environment.

What's to be done about this? Maybe nothing. Maybe EA and Activision are right, and the computer game industry has reached the point that there really are only a limited number of consumer dollars to go around. In that case, expect public competition between Activision and EA that will remind observers of a certain age of the Cola Wars.

If, on the other hand, consumer demand is elastic, if there's plenty more money to be made from computer games, then it's possible that other vendors could do well by focusing on the positive aspects of their products while the big boys are occupied with trying to gouge each others' eyes out.

Get your popcorn. :)

Gregory Kinneman
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Excellent analysis of the issue. Thanks!

Ian Uniacke
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ha ha, glad you commented about the opening paragraph because I was itching to do the same thing ;)

I think you make some good points that I agree with. I think however another aspect to it is that Activision and EA have embedded themselves firmly in the "hardcore" gamer camp, which they are finding it hard to break out of. I believe they are finding that the hardcore gamer market is zero-sum and this is why this bickering is occuring.

I'm not entirely sure though that all industries will eventuate to this kind of market. Take movies for instance, you don't really see big movie companies being competitive in a mean spirited way, they seem to be happy to have their products sell side by side. Of course they still compete by trying to make superior product, but there doesn't seem to be the kind of petty talk we see in the gaming industry.

Dan Amrich
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I see a lot of people blaming Bobby Kotick for this escalation. Jeff Brown was very outspoken and took several shots throughout the IW/Respawn time period -- shots that were dutifully reported as news and enjoyed by many. Activision was quiet through that, and I was kind of glad to see that, but I suppose everybody has a limit. You keep getting poked, sooner or later, you turn around angrily. It's a human emotion, and everybody involved is only human. I rarely see people taking Jeff Brown to task for baiting, but I see a lot of people taking Bobby to task for responding.

Simon Carless
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Dan, you might want to add a disclaimer that you do work for Activision in community outreach - or I guess I've added that disclaimer now! Though you're welcome to have opinions, of course.

Ryan Miller
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Maybe I'm just uninformed, but it seems like Kotick is always the one starting these little tiffs, and while it may be Jeff Brown/EA's fault for even deigning to respond, something tells me Kotick would just keep firing away whether they did or not. EA goes a bit beyond self-defense, though, it's true, and we could all completely do without the whole thing.

But it's nice to hear somebody tell him to shut-up every once in a while.

Scott Jonsson
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Maybe we should just be grateful that even the execs in our industry have a little fun at their competitor's expense. I'd prefer work in that sort of an industry rather than in one where you're sent home for your tie being on too loose.

I know a lot of you want your job to be accepted as "serious business," but even if we all wear suits to work, we still won't be treated like we're an accounting firm.

Scott Jordan
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I sense a great fight game coming...or maybe unlockable characters in Street Fighter V.

Personally, I think it's hilarious and only goes to further the suspicion many of us know to be true that at the corporate level personal interactions are no more evolved that what you might find at your local playground. This doesn't embarrass our "delicate industry" at it's "most pivotal moment" but instead airs for all to see the tremendous bullshit that lurks in the halls of power. We see more of it games because of the industry's relative access that the consumers have to it's creators and overlords. I suspect we will see more of this sort of public rumbling in other industries. This is a great trend because hopefully it will educate the shareholders of companies like Activision and EA to the fact that their CEO's are asshats and generally loathed by the public they are trying to sell to.

So I say keep it up Kotick et's just a matter of time before you put your foot so far in your mouth that you'll be shown the door.

Eric Kwan
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I think this is just a symptom of growing pains for our industry, as it happens all the time. Hershey's vs. Mars (where Mars opened M&M's World right across the street from the Hershey Store), Kellogg's vs. Post (where they constantly copy each others' products and try to one-up each other), Coke vs. Pepsi (where Pepsi still runs ads depicting a Coke Zero guy drinking Pepsi Max on his off-time), etc. are all deep-seated rivalries that have been going on for a long time. Activision vs. EA is just the newest of these, and we only pay the most attention to it because it affects our own industry.

Tom C
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I think it's a little embarrassing, personally. Our industry leaders bickering to the streets. These are the guys calling the shots, and obviously neither can be the bigger man. Imagine when it comes time for them to make that big decision about your project or company's future. Sorry, but I can't imagine that there will be much compassion.

Mark Morrison
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"… my colleagues here at Gamasutra had serious discussions on Monday about whether we should run multiple stories on the escalating war of words."

@Chris and Gamasutra staff: why don't you all contextualize this story in a new way, rather than fuel it? For example, provide the history of EA vs. Activision including when they started, various leadership changes, quantify/qualify historical performances, and maybe even compare them to their counterparts in the emerging media space. Anything would probably be more interesting than more PR for EA and Activision ;)

Btw- 'The history of the FPS as seen through the eyes of Kotick and Ricatello' might make for a good story?

Richard Putney
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I agree with your sentiment that the unprofessionalism is sad. To me, however, it indicates the lack of connection that investors and "business" people who tend to be executives, CEOs, and product owners have with their specific industries.

The software industry (among others) is being ruined by investors and business / product owners with zero understanding of the tech or market they are in. They demand we build bad products based on poor understandings of buzz words or market trends.

Personally I dont find Kotick's statement an embarrassment to the industry as much as an embarrassed to Kotick himself.

Jason Lee
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Here's an interesting flip-flop analogy, and thanks for the quote btw Mr. Glenn Sturgeon...

When EA corporate communications VP Jeff Brown made the following remark about Bobby Kotick, I don't think he took into account that he was actually talking about himself...

NOTE: Quote modified for the sake of satire.

Jeff Brown:

"My company is based on three game franchises -- one is a fantastic persistent world in which I have had absolutely no involvement with what-so-ever when it comes to the process of development = (SWtOR); one is in steep decline (the MoH franchise); and the third is in the process of being destroyed by my own hubris (EA Sports, namely Tiger Woods and Madden in general)."

If I was Jeff Brown, I wouldn't be so quick to the punch about making such asinine comments regarding the most successful persistent world MMORPG of all time, not to mention a PC FPS series that without a doubt has buried the competition in recent memory.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not favoring one entertainment software Goliath over another. In fact, I'm looking forward to some healthy competition in with the MMO genre when SWtOR finally comes to fruition. Let's just remember though that Bioware and LucasArts are truly the folks to originally thank for this, not the marketing and distribution channels of EA.

Brett Williams
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I think a lot of this is related to Bart's statement. It is a shift of some of the top leaders of the industry to a different method of thinking. However, I don't believe this is entirely their own fault.

I think the shift to digital, the ability for lower scale publishers, or developers to self-publish is itself cutting into the amount of revenue that large publishers are making. While sure they are still making significant figures, their books track a lot of numbers, and one of those numbers is on the decline. They have to search for liability for this and attempt to stop it.

However, they can't. They will continue to bicker while their profits bleed out to independent developers and small publishers making games that people want to play. It's a sad story, but in the end, it is their own ability to not see the big picture that will cause them to not see the numbers slipping away.

Ian Uniacke
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totally agree.