There are some things you can just count on. Birds fly, grass grows, sun shines, and brother: Activision's going to put out yet another Guitar Hero game. Except now that delicate balance is in peril, since the most predictable franchises in their arsenal--Tony Hawk included--are now in hiatus.
This news comes from the usual earnings call, wherein the Activision-Blizzard conglomerate communicates with the pithy beings that provide it fuel every quarter. Usually there's only a few bits of news to be gleaned from these calls, but this one featured more tasty tidbits than usual. In a move that's both uncharacteristic and somehow satisfying, Activision has chosen to take a break on a few of their more regular properties. Yes, that includes the ground-breaking wonders that are Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk. Within the call and an investor statement that preceded it, Activision said they're taking apart the "Guitar Hero business unit" and putting the series to bed. It's not a terribly surprising move - with last year's performance of the Dr. Love-narrated Guitar Hero 6, it was about time for the world to move on from the music genre. The other franchise to get canned was even more obvious: the last two games with Tony Hawk's name on them have required an elaborate skateboard contraption that didn't fit any gamer's needs to a 'T'.
It's hard not to expect an inevitable burnout period on franchises that involve exactly the same gameplay year after year - especially coming from a company whose CEO prides himself on taking the fun out of making videogames. At the same time, it's a shame to see the faith fall in franchises that - at their peak - were exemplary of good game design and fun tricks.
Part of the lack of financial success might come from the retail sector - the deep discounts that follow a floor-filling title like Tony Hawk: Shred or the band bundle of Guitar Hero 6. For every one of these that a retailer like Best Buy stocks, they're losing shelf space for at least five other games that might sell just as well. This leads corporations to strike deals with each other where a game that was projected to sell at $120 (like Tony Hawk: Ride) is discounted to $50 so it can stop taking up precious stockroom space. If that ultimately means a loss for Activision, then it only stands to reason that their ability to continue pumping out that in-home experience is limited.
Activison COO Thomas Tippl said on the call, "We will release no new music or skateboarding games" during 2011. So where is their attention turning? Why, to Call of Duty, of course!
A whole list of impressive stats is available for those of you who'd like to consider ATVI for your next stock purchase, but the gist of it is: Black Ops sold a whole lot; maybe broke a few records in the process. For that, Activision is willing to throw most of their eggs in this one basket of wargame and hope the rest of the world follows. They announced the creation of a new studio: Beachhead, which will join Sledgehammer, Treyarch, and the mostly-gutted Infinity Ward in making sure CoD stays the name to beat for years to come.
While it's not terribly surprising that Activision is casting a few hard looks at their porfolio, what sucks most is the impact on the jobs there: they've announced the impending layoffs of at least 500 people in their recent developments. While the exact locations and studio-restructing it will take to lose that many people is unclear, they have admitted they'll shell out about $50 million in severence packages. For reference, that's about 5% of what they've made so far on sales of Call of Duty: Black Ops.
So it certainly looks like the hydra that is Activision has started to reap the horrible harvest that comes from milking franchises dry. It's just a shame that developers who were intent on doing good work will be hurt in the process. Maybe it's my will to be a psychic savant talking, but does anyone else see the possibility that their last huge franchise, Call of Duty, will go the same way? There are an inordinate number of fans here, but there's also only so much money those fans are willing to shell out year after year. And as Kotick himself said at DICE last year:
"A lot of times when you get caught up in the financial details of the business, it makes you overlook what's really important, which is who's passionate, who's committed, who's inspired and where's the next idea going to come from."
Which will it be? Will Call of Duty reign tall as the king of online gaming with upwards of four studios chipping in, or will Activision see its gold-egg goose gutted by something a little more innovative?