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Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Warning For Activision

Activision had best watch itself.

I'm not saying this because of recent controversies or even because Bobby Kotick, the current CEO, is a jerk. I'm saying this because of history.


I recently purchased Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection, a collection of the Sega Genesis' astounding murderer's row of games. There are 40 games in the collection, mostly released within eight years of each other, between 1988-96, and 8 more unlockable games. Some of the games are great games that I've never played (Bonanza Bros.) and some of them are horrible games that suck (Super Thunder Blade).

However, this got me thinking. 40 games in 8 years? That's nuts! That's at a clip of 5 games per year, and many of them were very solid games! That was some amazing work by Sega! How did they not continue to compete with that sort of capability? What happened?

Let's take a closer look at what they really did. Of the games in this collection, there are 2 Ecco the Dolphin games. There are 5 main Sonic series games (Sonic 1, 2, 3, Knuckles and Sonic 3D Blast), 3 Golden Axe games, 3 Streets of Rage games, 2 Shining Force games, 3 Phantasy Star games, and 2 Vectorman games. They also have Shinobi 3 in this collection, although there are no other Shinobi games. The first sequel in this group was Golden Axe 2 in 1991. The last sequel was Vectorman 2 in 1995.

Let's do the math. In a span of five years, Sega pumped out 15 sequels to their hits, at a clip of three per year. I'm not counting handheld games in this number, as a steady library of games was necessary to attempt to establish a handheld presence.

Are some of these games excellent? You bet! Sonic 2 is the best of the Sonic series, Shining Force 2 is amazing, and the Phantasy Star games were great too. But what did Sega accomplish by making so many sequels in such a short period of time? They watered down their franchises to the point that no one was interested in them anymore, and what's worse, they blew all of their great ideas in such a hurry that no more great ideas existed.

Let's compare this with Nintendo. During this time frame of 1991 to 1995, Nintendo also released sequels. They released 10 of them in Japan, and only 8 in the United States. Of this group, there were three Fire Emblem games, Super Metroid, Super Mario World (in the US it was released in 1991, Japan 1990) and Super Mario World 2, Donkey Kong Country 2 and Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past as well as Kirby's Adventure and Star Tropics 2 for the NES. I'm also not counting handheld games in this number, as Nintendo was trying to build up the library of the GameBoy.

In most of these cases, Nintendo went back to the well in order to do things they couldn't do previously. For example, Yoshi was created during the making of Super Mario Bros. 3, but they couldn't include him due to system limitations. Instead, they held on to the idea until they could do it in Super Mario World. Kirby's Adventure built on concepts they couldn't accomplish in Game Boy iterations of the game. Super Metroid became one of the greatest games ever made, and so on. The only series that was really run into the ground by excessive sequels was the Donkey Kong Country series, which started strong with the first two installments and had a miserable third game.

Therein lies Sega's problem. For example, what does Streets of Rage 3 add to Streets of Rage? What did Golden Axe 3 add to the Golden Axe formula? Sure, they added new characters and continued the story, but no one was dying for either of those series to continue. In those cases, the property was run into the ground by repeated trips to the same well.

Take Vectorman. Vectorman was Sega's response to Nintendo's CGI characters in Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario RPG. Vectorman was a fun, if slightly unpolished game. The music was tremendous, and the level design was good. Vectorman 2 looks and plays like a cheap cash-in. It's boring and repetitive.

Sonic also suffered. Sonic 2 was great. Sonic 3 was good. Sonic and Knuckles was OK. Sonic 3D Blast was hideous. The downtick in quality is striking.

Now, let's say that Sega held off on developing these properties. Let's say that they instead waited on Sonic 2, integrating the Sonic 3 save system, the fantastic Angel Island level, and the different elemental shields into Sonic 2. Wouldn't you say that it would make one of the best games ever? Instead, some of the ideas had to wait for the inferior Sonic 3.

Sega probably thought they were doing the right thing. It would make sense to strike while the characters are hot, right? I mean, Nintendo was taking their sweet time making sequels, so pumping out sequels would distract from what Nintendo was doing and make the Genesis the more viable system, right?

That's almost exactly what happened, too. The Genesis overtook the SNES in Europe and made Nintendo look like out-of-touch old fogeys in the States. They opened the door for a new core audience that wanted more adult games, and if they had been able to keep their momentum going, they could have become the dominant company.

I'm going to bring another thread into this discussion, so keep up. A long time ago, I made a webcomic. Don't bother asking about it: It was awful. I never put it online because I started running out of ideas. Instead of creating situations with the characters I had made, I just started adding more characters to create more situations. It was totally unsustainable, and I'm glad it never came to fruition.

Sega made the same mistake, especially with the Sonic series. They blasted through all their great ideas in the first 5 games they made and ended up sitting on a great character with no gameplay ideas. What to do? Add characters!

They're still doing it, too. Instead of stopping with Sonic games, look what they've done in the last few years. Starting in 2001, we've had Sonic Adventure, Sonic Adventure 2, Sonic Heroes, Sonic the Hedgehog (again), Sonic and the Secret Rings, Sonic Unleashed, Sonic and the Black Knight, and Sonic Colors. That's an average of about one Sonic game on a console per year.

Now compare Mario's main offerings since 2001. We have Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario Galaxy, New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Super Mario Galaxy 2. That's it. Since they spaced out their releases, Mario is still a big deal. Most every Mario game sells quite a few copies because it's still a big deal.

Heck, let's throw Zelda games into the mix. Since 2001, we've had Wind Waker and Twilight Princess on consoles. Once again, that's it. Heck, throwing in handhelds, we have Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass, and Spirit Tracks. That's still fewer games than Sonic.

OK, so what does this all mean? Let's look at the facts.

1) Sega watered down their franchises to the point that they are unusable. They can't revive them either, because nobody cares about them (see Golden Axe: Beast Rider).
2) They got some quick gains in their market by creating tons of games based off their franchises, but quickly lost ground to Nintendo, they of the "slow and steady wins the race" attitude.
3) While they did make some poor decisions with their management (i.e. the early termination of the Sega Saturn, among others), a game company is all about the games, and if the quality drops, they can't expect to stay in business for very long.

All right, so let's circle back to Activision. Activision has three major licenses that they keep trying to exploit: Guitar Hero, Tony Hawk, and Call of Duty. Blizzard's licenses are independent of Activision, so World of Warcraft and Starcraft remain untouched. Activision has made piles of money off of these, and is one of the most powerful companies in gaming.

However, of the three major licenses that Activision attempts to exploit, Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk are almost dead. Guitar Hero has been exploited so often their name is on milk cartons. Tony Hawk has been lapped by other, more superior games that don't require ridiculous and expensive peripherals. Call of Duty is showing signs of collapse, as the latest Call of Duty has been marred with issues, although it still sells mightily.

Activision hasn't really developed any new licenses. They brought in Bungie to work for them recently, but there aren't any projects ready to see the light of day, not for a while.
So, we can see that they're doing something similar to what Sega did in the 90's. They've watered down their franchises so much that they've killed not only their OWN franchise but also OTHER similar franchises, like Rock Band. They've made astounding monetary gains, but at what cost?

If things start going south at Activision, how long would it take for them to start raiding the coffers of Blizzard and demanding more product from them? They could end up not only killing their own franchises, but also Blizzard's venerable franchises too.

Plus, bad management decisions happen every day. When a company is going along fine, these decisions can usually be smoothed over by other departments or solved carefully. When a company is in trouble, those decisions can create a ripple effect throughout the organization, eventually sapping companies of manpower and the ability to innovate. For instance, Sega withstood the poor Sega CD and 32X add-ons because they were healthy. They could not, however, withstand the failure of the Saturn.

So, too, if Activision finds themselves in a dangerous spot, how much faith do you have that they'll make the right decision? Right now they're fine, so when Kotick opens his fat mouth or tries pushing Tony Hawk: Shred on a public that doesn't want anything to do with it, they survive. When, say, Call of Duty collapses, will they have the ability to recover from those poor decisions?

Time will tell. But Activision would be wise to heed the warning of Sega: Over-exploit your properties at your own risk.