Activision's Robin Kaminsky spoke to attendees of the 2008 DICE Summit about the increasingly competitive videogame marketplace.

Activision's Robin Kaminsky spoke to attendees of the 2008 DICE Summit about the increasingly competitive videogame marketplace.

Speaking at the 2008 DICE (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) Summit, Activision Vice President of Publishing Robin Kaminsky made an interesting point: It is no longer adequate to simply make a great game and expect to reap the rewards of your efforts, because great games, in and of themselves, are no longer a guarantee of success.

In order for a game to be a financial success, there has to be more; specifically, there has to be a tremendous behind-the-scenes marketing effort in order to drive the desire to actually buy the game. Activision relies on wide-ranging market analysis, user research and “customer relationship management” to promote their major releases long before they hit the shelves. “At one time, Activision thought it was sufficient just to make great games,” Kaminsky said. “But a great game doesn’t guarantee sales success.”

Kaminsky noted that 18 titles released last year managed to accrue Metacritic scores of over 90, that magical number that elevates a select few titles into the realm of the truly outstanding. But of those games, only two sold more than seven million units; 12 titles moved less than two million, and seven couldn’t even reach one million units sold. And while breaking the magic million might sound like a notable achievement, such numbers, in Kaminsky’s eyes, are apparently far from a resounding success.

It’s a disturbing conclusion. Certainly, in today’s crowded and competitive market, branding and advertising are an important part of making any top-ranked title stand out. But when the marketing process stops being subservient to the product, it’s bad news for consumers. Companies become excessively risk-averse, slavishly dependent upon focus groups and exit polls to determine their next step and next product. In such an environment, creativity is stifled and innovation withers.

Given her position as an Activision vice president, it may not be too difficult to understand her perspective. Development costs for AAA titles have grown exponentially, and obviously the profit threshold has risen accordingly. Multi-million dollar bets on the success of a single game have become relatively commonplace, so it’s difficult to begrudge major publishers like Activision doing everything they can to crank up consumer interest. Few publishers can afford to absorb many major flops, or even lower-than-anticipated sales, before the red ink starts to bleed.

But I suspect Kaminsky’s argument may be skirting around a more salient point: The real problem here may not that great games need more support, but rather that greatness in videogames has become frustratingly elusive. In 2007, Activision’s catalog of games consisted entirely of sequels, spin-offs or licensed properties. The company’s biggest winner, which also just happened to be the most successful game of the year and one of the two to break seven million in sales, was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the latest entry in a franchise first established over four years ago; next in line was Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, the fourth Guitar Hero title to be released in two years.

Call of Duty 4 is unquestionably one of the finest FPS titles to be released in a very long time, well deserving of its success. But the rest of Activision’s stable, made up primarily of movie games, appears aimed squarely at safe targets. With pre-established source material, these games can be developed with both minimal resources and risk, and while none of them will ever be expected to break sales records, the carry-over popularity of the original properties will almost inevitably turn them into at least modest moneymakers.

Strong reviews helped make Call of Duty 4 the best-selling game of 2007, but Activision's aggressive marketing campaign didn't hurt, either.

Strong reviews helped make Call of Duty 4 the best-selling game of 2007, but Activision's aggressive marketing campaign didn't hurt, either.

So when Kaminsky says, “What we’ve realized over time is that making a great game is important, but not enough,” one cannot help but wonder if Activision decided that, since great games aren’t enough, maybe great games aren’t necessary at all. Activision’s mind-boggling bottom line, now measured in the billions, indicates the company is certainly doing something right, but it’s not necessarily indicative of a commitment to great videogames.

And like so many things, success is in the eye of the beholder. Call of Duty 4 made a spectacular splash and it’s very near the top of my “to play” list, but I find greater hope for the future in the far more modest accomplishments of games like EVE Online, the space-based MMOG with less than 200,000 subscribers that is nonetheless viewed as a resounding success by its developers and fan base. Not because of the “little-guy-makes-good” angle (although I’m not so cynical as to suggest that’s not pretty cool in itself), but because it represents a different kind of paradigm for the industry: Risk mitigation through reduced scale. If tens of millions of dollars aren’t riding on the success of a single game, developers and publishers may be more inclined to take greater chances with their creation, leading to – dare we think it? – real innovation in future releases.

Innovation as it stands now is little more than refinement and incremental improvements in technology. And in case there’s any doubt about the effectiveness of the marketing machine, one need only look at the latest entry in the Madden NFL franchise, a grey-bearded series that, by any rational estimate, overstayed its welcome years ago but continues to plod forward, driven by the EA Sports engine. Madden NFL 08, despite minimal improvements and a Metacritic score of 77, sold over four million copies by the beginning of November 2007; its predecessor, Madden NFL 07, has sold over seven million.

Kaminsky’s eagerness to accord the same importance to marketing as development hints at a bleak trend among the major players in the industry, in which the advertising expenditures becomes more important than the money spent on development. If great games are really on the menu, then what’s needed is a little less PR and a little more boldness and insight – and budget – in the development process. Kaminsky’s system may be a moneymaker, but it does little good for gamers.

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