[Continuing Gamasutra's 2009 retrospective, Leigh Alexander looks back on the year's biggest controversies, rounding up the news stories and scandals that generated the most buzz. Previously: Top 5 PC Games.]
Generally, video games are fun, touching or sad; the video games business is just business. But there are always more complex news stories that surface from among the daily reports of publisher revenues and franchise sequels -- with such a passionate community of players and creators in the industry, controversies always get a major share of buzz.
Now, let's look back on 2009 to reflect on some of biggest controversies; here are the news stories and sagas that got us really talking and thinking this year.
5. Brutal Legend's Love Triangle
Gamers were saddened when Brutal Legend, the joyous heavy metal opus from fan-favorite designer Tim Schafer, was unceremoniously dropped from Vivendi's publishing slate in its merger with Activision -- it was a creative risk that lacked franchise potential, according to the company.
So when the game found a new publisher in Electronic Arts, everyone cheered it as the de facto avatar of the creative and quirky, creating a narrative that pitted Brutal Legend against the ills of big corporate. And that plot only thickened when Activision sued, ostensibly to hamper the game's release by claiming it still had the rights.
But almost as fun as the success story was the visible show of ill will, albeit good-humored, between the rivals -- EA's comment that Activision was behaving "like a husband abandoning his family and then suing after his wife meets a better looking guy" was nearly as delightful as Schafer's own timely reference to pop star Beyonce's homage to single women: "Hey, if Activision liked it, then they should have put a ring on it."
4. Richard Garriott, Fraud Victim?
Famed Ultima Online forbear Richard Garriott returned from his much-publicized trip to space to find his latest project, NCsoft's Tabula Rasa, had become little more than a heavy drag on the publisher's finances, and declared he would leave NCsoft to pursue other interests inspired by his stint as an astronaut. That was last year.
Early in 2009, Tabula Rasashut its doors with a bang, and that's when the surprise came: Garriott's claim that his was no peaceful resignation, but a force-out grossly misrepresented by NCsoft. Garriott now claims he'd objected to his dismissal but was forced to leave -- and that the company re-categorized his termination as "voluntary" so as to impact his stock options.
He claims he was forced to choose between exercising his options in "one of the worst equity markets in modern history," or take the risk that the company would refuse to honor them later. Garriott now claims he's lost "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in costs and taxes, and has sacrificed "millions of dollars in value" having lost two-and-a-half years of his options period.
3. The Complex Orson Scott Card Issue
Swaths of gamers couldn't wait for Epic and Chair Entertainment's Shadow Complex, a refreshing return to the exploration-driven "Metroidvania" style of gameplay many remembered fondly from a simpler time. That was until some began to take a closer look at the personal philosophies of author Orson Scott Card, friend to Chair lead Donald Mustard and writer of the fiction from which Shadow Complex was derived.
The problem? Card is vocally against gay marriage, and is in fact an active political opponent to it as founder of the National Organization for Marriage, a group formed to address "the growing need for an organized opposition to same-sex marriage in state legislatures."
Those who believe that same-sex couples should have an equal entitlement to marry as heterosexual couples balked at the idea of allowing such an active opponent to profit even in small share from their purchase of Shadow Complex; game fans on the popular NeoGAF forum discussed and debated the issue, and Gamasutra's own Christian Nutt took a close look at the proposed boycotts.
Political beliefs and causes are highly personal. But as state governments across America begin to consider the issue, passions and polarities are increasingly prevalent in mainstream media and news. More importantly than arriving at a "right-or-wrong" answer for Shadow Complex was the fact that a wider world issue had reached gamers, generally more likely to get up in arms about far more insular issues.
It may or may not be appropriate to politicize video games, but the Shadow Complex controversy got everyone thinking about the places where our entertainment medium of choice and issues of wider relevance can overlap.
2. Who's The Ultimate DJ Hero?
Developer 7 Studios started out with the kind of story that makes small developers everywhere take heart: A rep for publisher Genius Products visited the cash-strapped studio -- still reeling from the Brash Entertainment collapse -- and stumbled upon "a labor of love" tucked away in "this audio engineer's closet of an office," and was swept away.
That little one-man experiment, or so the story goes, was a turntable controller, and from that discovery was birthed the project that would become Scratch: The Ultimate DJ, an inventive concept that sought to leverage the tide of the music game boom in the direction of DJ music with the help of legendary musician-producer Quincy Jones.
No sooner had the team announced their project, however, than things got ugly very quickly. Activision, monarch of the music genre with Guitar Hero, wanted to put out a turntable-equipped video game too. Claiming it was helping out a cash-strapped studio -- and indeed, Activision had given 7 Studios staff contract work in the past to help them stay afloat -- the publisher purchased the developer.
Genius Products and partner Numark didn't quite buy the charity act and found the timing a little too coincidental, and it wasn't long before the pair slapped Activision -- along with its former collaborators 7 Studios -- with a lawsuit, alleging conspiracy and claiming 7 Studios was making it hard for Genius to get its assets back. According to Genius, there was a plot afoot to keep Scratch from launching before Activision's own DJ Hero.
There was a restraining order, and a countersuit from 7 Studios claiming it was Genius' "unsavory business practices" that caused Scratch's delay, and the costs kept ramping up: Activision reportedly shelled out at least $350,000 in legal fees, while Genius and Numark had to put up a $2 million bond to have Scratch's source code returned.
Genius and Numark say they still haven't gotten back everything that's theirs, but plan to finish the game anyway with a new developer, Commotion Interactive, for release in the year to come. Just before the release of DJ Hero, Activision gave some 30 developers at 7 Studios their walking papers, saying it wanted to focus the studio more on music games. Unfortunately for all involved, most analysts think the music game heyday has passed; although DJ Hero generally received a strong critical reception, its sales were only modest.
1. Modern Warfare 2
Where popularity goes, scrutiny follows, so perhaps it's to be expected that the biggest game of 2009 was also the most controversial -- not just one, but three of 2009's scandals emerged from this title alone, and that's excluding the silly back-and-forth over whether to put the "Call of Duty" branding on it or not. First, there was the revelation that PC gamers would have no dedicated servers for the game's multiplayer -- and PC gamers can always be relied upon to sound their displeasure the loudest when they end up with the short end of the stick. Just one of several online petitions received 234,351 signatures.
Infinity Ward revealed details of IWnet, the matchmaking service unveiled in place of dedicated servers, but they still weren't enough to please vocal PC fans, many of whom permanently soured on the game. Then, fresh on the heels of the dedicated-server debacle came F.A.G.S, an unbelievably ill-conceived marketing video designed as a fake PSA warning against grenade spam -- but offending many for its frathouse-homophobia brand of humor.
And if that weren't enough, there was, of course, "No Russian," the game's much-buzzed sequence wherein the player must accompany his enemy in an airport terrorist attack on civilians. Certainly the implications were offensive to Russians, but the critical consensus, encapsulated here by Rock Paper Shotgun's Kieron Gillen, was that the scene -- heavy-handed and inappropriately following an adrenaline-fueled snowmobile chase -- missed the mark so badly that it was offensive to gamers.
Of course, none of it seemed to hurt the game's record-breaking, 4.7 million-unit day one launch; probably, the most likely damage was done to the blood pressure of Infinity Ward community manager Robert "FourZeroTwo" Bowling, the one who had to field all the drama (and who incidentally appeared among 2008's top controversies, too).