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DICE 2010: Kotick Talks Passion For Industry, Debuts Indie Contest
DICE 2010: Kotick Talks Passion For Industry, Debuts Indie Contest
February 18, 2010 | By Simon Carless

February 18, 2010 | By Simon Carless
More: Console/PC

Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick has developed something of a reputation as the industry's newest big, bad executive -- but he says he's always felt like more of a rebel on board the Millennium Falcon.

And yet, "suddenly I wake up and I'm on board the Death Star," he joked. In fact, as part of Kotick's whimsical, personal keynote at this year's DICE Summit, he mounted a defense of his alleged Machiavellian ways -- he says that keeping passion in game development is something that's important to him. He also announced a $500,000 independent video game competition for small indie developers working with new platforms.

Kotick joined Mediagenic 20 years ago, after paying over $400,000 for 25% of a bankrupt company that wasn't even yet called Activision. He did this, he says, because he loved the earlier Activision games, from KaBoom! through the Infocom titles, and liked the heritage of the company's founding -- that "developers get to make the games they want to make."

Kotick is himself a former developer, he reminds -- he created Apple II games for companies like EA starting in 1983, and "the idea that we could restore Activision" was really appealing to him.

He said pointedly of taking over Activision in 1990: "These were properties that I really had a great affection forů [and there was a] great amount of opportunity, both financially and creatively."

The exec also revealed that in 1987, he tried to buy Commodore in association with a hedge fund partner. He believed that taking the Amiga 500 and removing the keyboard and mouse would create a dedicated video game console that "would have eclipsed anything being sold at the time" -- even Nintendo's NES. Although it didn't work out, it made Kotick passionate about building a video game company.

The Activision boss also talked about his love of the early game industry from the perspective of a player. That love, he said, underpinned his two-decade career at Activision. Now, as the company has grown, he "can't really get too involved" in individual games, he says, because he needs he game creators to have ultimate control.

But, on the other hand: "When you're 50,000 feet above what's going on... you get insulated from that creative passion," he adds. In fact, Kotick says not being engaged with the creators on that level has cost him and the shareholders lots of opportunities.

For example, Kotick recalls the sale of Maxis; although Sim City 2000 was the big company focus, Will Wright was quietly at work on Jefferson, which eventually became The Sims. The Activision execs never went to look at it, and ultimately passed on the deal.

Kotick's also made another significant miss: choosing the wrong acquisition among the Guitar Hero co-creators. "We knew about Harmonix... [who had] lots of good ideas, but nothing that was really commercially viable," he said. Activision instead acquired RedOctane in 2006.

According to Kotick, Activision believed if they gave the franchise's development to Neversoft, great games would result. But he said that if they had also gone to Boston to talk to Harmonix, things might have turned out differently, and "it would probably be a profitable opportunity for both of us."

It's vital for Activision to be "respectful of the independent cultures" of individual developers within a company, he adds. Creating a culture that "fosters independent thought" will result in great games games -- although he agrees that it's not always possible when balanced with the needs of a public company.

"You can't always do what you'd like to," he says -- but there is a middle ground.

In two deals, ex-Activision execs, perhaps fighting against the creative/financial balance, formed new companies -- JAMDAT and Pandemic -- both of which were sold to Electronic Arts for large amounts of money. The exec joked, to much mirth in the DICE audience: "We're a great mother ship... if you want to sell out and move on, there are definitely other companies to talk to."

Aware of recent criticism of some of his remarks to investors -- remarks about taking the fun out of making video games and working in an environment of skepticism, pessimism and fear, to name a few -- Kotick says that too much brashness means "you can come across as being like a dick."

He particularly addressed his 'taking the fun out of video games' comment: "I wanted to somehow come across in a humorous way that... it wasn't some Wild West lack of process exercise." Nonetheless, he says, he regrets how it was misconstrued.

For investors, Kotick thinks that a history of high-profile industry failures, from Atari's first '80s fall through more recent companies like Spectrum Holobyte and GT Interactive, have soured some institutional investors on the whole market.

So, to help both re-imagine that early passion and potentially fund smaller creators, Activision is announcing a $500,000 independent video game competition for small developers "using new platforms and technologies", hoping to create or honor "super-compelling and engaging" titles.

[UPDATE: Activision has released preliminary guidelines (PDF link) for the game competition, noting that more concrete information will be issued in March.

Entrants will be required to submit a two-page game proposal, including defining features, along with a short video depicting development materials like concept art, animatics, previsualization, or the game itself.

Potentially conflicting with Kotick's statement, the official release values the grand prize at $100,000. It is possible the $100,000 figure refers to the grand prize amount, while the $500,000 figure refers to the total value of all the competition's prizes.]

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Reid Kimball
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Here's the official PDF announcing the rules and more info to come.

Kumar Daryanani
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I was just wondering where the rules for it could be found. Thanks for the link, Reid!

phil fish
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go fuck yourself, bobby kotick.

David Delanty
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Kotick's embrace of indie-culture games and smaller development team is pretty consistent with the recent remarks of THQ's Brian Farrell for smaller games. While I see this as new era of video gaming, where we break away from the huge blockbusters and put more effort into just making games for gaming sake. To me, and this is just my personal opinion, I like to cite Portal as a game done right. You don't need to invest 100+ hours into a game for it to be enjoyable. If I can get an evening diversion for a much lower cost, I say mission accomplished.

In a hit-driven industry, a blockbuster game needs to become the most wildly-selling mega-hit of the century, or it is considered a huge failure. But if the indie/casual genre is given more credence by the big publishers, I see it as a way to better the industry, where a game with even mild to moderate sales becomes a fiscal success.

Just my opinion.

Dr. Squirrel
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while the $$$$ sound appealing, i am not so sure about submitting creative content

to the "Death Star", as the head honcho is calling his sweatshop nowadays.

David Rodriguez
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I agree, too much resources and money are going into games now and days and studios are getting shut down if it don't sell. The big publishers are all shifting focus to casual gaming because more material is going through the web. Smaller dev, on a focus more on gameplay, less on fancy visuals. (Nintendo's wii has been on that track) This sounds really interesting and could spark something good, gonna take a look at the rules in a sec..


Put more thought into your statements.

John Bachynski
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Is the contest US exclusive? More specifically, can Canadians participate? ;)

scott anderson
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Maybe Bobby Kotick has changed and wants to help the poor indie kids out of the goodness of his heart. Have you ever read the Grinch or A Christmas Carol, Fish? Maybe Bobby Kotick has finally grown a heart or perhaps he's been visited by the ghost of game development's past.

Alan Rimkeit
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Personally this smells of a large company looking for smaller indie game makers to swallow up whole. But that is just my 2 cents adjusted for 2010 inflation.

Chris Remo
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I don't think that's really the case; it doesn't sound like they're asking for completed games, it sounds like they're asking for concepts. I'm not sure what the end goal is there, but it wouldn't make sense to look for team acquisitions on that basis.

Timur Anoshechkin
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Bobby you are already in hell, 500k for indies not going to save you. Sorry!!!

Alan Rimkeit
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I guess that does make sense. I wonder what their end goal is then. Is Activision really trying to further the Indy market of games for the sake of just being benefactors? Some how I really doubt it, though I do hope it is true. It would be a good thing for companies like Activison to foster the Indy scene. We shall see I suppose.

Scott Jonsson
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Some of us would be pretty happy to have our little game idea be swallowed up whole by a big publisher like activision.

Mike Kasprzak
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@Scott - Your willingness to give it up doesn't speak well to the quality of the idea.

- - -

So I wonder. Is this $100,000, or is this another one of those "nudge nudge wink wink" publishing/distribution deals we've been seeing? If this is a pseudo grant for "small indie developers working with new platforms", then okay, you have my attention. I.e. drop a sponsorship nod in the credits similar to some of the Canadian grant programs (but minus the whole paying back part). Otherwise get in line, 'cause it's nothing new.

Michael Meyer
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I am a bit weirded-out that it is $100k for just an idea and not a finished game, but I guess there's nothing wrong with running a "2-page description and 5-minute video" competition instead.

I'll try to reserve judgment until the official rules are available. The fine print could make a big difference.

Wyatt Epp
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I'm rather curious what they're planning to require an NDA for in this case. Signing for non-disclosure to enter a contest just seems fishy.

Benjamin Marchand
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Actually I enjoyed reading this article about Kotick. We didn't know a lot about him except those famous frightening quotes. Now I can better see where he comes from, which is more important than judging on small quotes.

John Petersen
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I'm going to enter this contest knowing I'm not going to win because I don't have the capacity to program games.

For years I've been talking to people about how important game visionaries and just the game concepts are important to the evolution of gaming. But everyone keeps saying it's about the programming, that every Tom, Dick and Harry has a concept.

That might be true to a point but it also makes it where some very genius yet very simple and fun game conceptions are simply overlooked.

The tools and redtape are limiting the imagination.

Pierre Gilbert
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Sounds like cheap advertisement to me.

Is "fear" and "depression" good for your recruitment, Mr Kotick?

What about a little contest to prove you love indies, and statements that say you were a dev once, too?

Anyway, the contest could be interesting.

Adam Bishop
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While you may be right to some degree, John, it's not any different than other fields. You can't release a great album if you can't play an instrument or write a great novel if you're illiterate. Everyone has "ideas" that they think are amazing, and many people probably do, but the difference between an idea and a finished product is all in the execution.

It's also true that a lot of game concepts that sound good on paper turn out to actually not be very interesting once they're finished. This is why prototyping is so important.

With games there's also the fact that there are technical restrictions in place. People who want to design games without some skill in programming (or at least a good idea about how programming works) can easily underestimate the complexity of actually making their ideas come to fruition or just how much work they're asking of others. There is no such thing as a game with an unlimited budget or time (unless you work for Blizzard!) so it's important to understand what kind of work is going to be required to make things like game mechanics and level designs come to life.

E Zachary Knight
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Actually a NDA is quite common for contests run by for profit corporations. When Bioware ran their Writing and level design contests you had to sign a NDA as part of the application.

The difference between that NDA and standard employment NDAs is that the bulk of it was understanding that Bioware was not going to steal your ideas. So this is probably similar.

Alexander Bruce
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John, there are two ways that you can deal with people saying that ideas are a dime a dozen. You can either believe that you have great ideas but cease to get them made, or you can get the skills to make your ideas and prove them wrong.

There are many people who have ideas but can't program, and those who are most passionate and serious about it go off and get teams of people together and start making things happen. There's always something someone can do to contribute to a project in a meaningful way, without being the one doing the code.

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@Scott-- Yeah, I see your point. What people seem to not realize is that many people making indie games WANT to have their game published somehow and actually be able to secure a job in the industry. Granted, this isn't always the case, but I know if someone in Kottick's position came to me and said "Hey Robert, that's a friggin sweet game concept. Oh wow, nice demo. Want a job? Better yet, want a team and funding?" You bet I'd say yes.

Reid Kimball
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Alex, thanks for saying what so few do. The statement that "even if you have a great idea, you can't make games if you don't have programming skills" gets repeated often as truth and it's not. It is possible to create games if you have the idea but no programming skills. I've done something very similar in fact.

I led a team to create a closed captioning mod for Doom3. I had no programming skills, just and idea of how the mod should work so that deaf and hard of hearing people could play the game without frequent frustration. My lack of programing skills didn't mean I was doing nothing and barking orders. I was writing design docs, writing captioning files, doing UI mock-ups, recruiting translators for other languages and most of all, playtesting the mod and giving feedback to the programmers for improvements. I was after all the target audience for the mod.

There's frequent discussion about how big publishers are driving away creativity and innovation and yet the same people who cry about that will repeat the falsehood that to make new games you need to have the idea AND program. But if we really want to see creativity and innovation, we should be open to the idea that anyone can make a game with a great idea, even without any programming skills, because that way we'll attract new talent outside of the industry and see fresh new games.

John Petersen
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@ Adam... You can sell the lyrics to music and not know how to produce a single note on an instrument. They do it all the time.

@ Alexander... I am always trying to find a way. Thing is, I know games can be made differently, I just can't afford the tools. If someone, anyone gave me the tools I asked for to build a game,... and i know they exist... the market will be flooded with innovative titles. But I can't find the right people to listen.

Michael Meyer
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What tools do you think you need? Game Maker is free. BlitzMax is free. AS3 development is free. XNA and VisualStudio are free. Unity is free. There are all kinds of free audio, graphics, and modelling programs.

What redtape is stopping you? If you make it for PC/Mac/Linux/Web there's nobody controlling what you can release like there is for consoles!

Nothing is stopping you! If noone else wants to program it for you, you can learn to program! Or you can use Klik-n-Play, Construct, or something else that doesn't require programming knowledge!

If you want to make a game, you should!

Alexander Bruce
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John, I'm going to have to agree with Michael here. There have been many many tools available freely to everyone for a long time. To add to his list, the UDK is another free one now, though even that stuff was technically free for learning for the past decade via mods. I point out the UDK because there's a hell of a lot that you can do without ever touching a line of code with that one. It's also incredibly easy to learn.

I used to have ideas, so my response was to go off and learn how to do everything so that I could make games. Like anything, it just took time. Modding is as good a place as any to start learning how to do things, because you already have an entire game there for you! You just need to start taking what you're given and work on turning it into something else. If you're wondering whether modding is ever feasible for demonstrating new concepts and ideas, my answer would be of course, that's what I'm doing. I'm working with Unreal, and all of my projects with it have been entirely against what Unreal was actually for. I keep using Unreal because it's tools are amazing and let me do what I need to do without getting hindered.

If all you're seeing is red tape, you're not trying hard enough. The biggest blocker to getting your ideas out there is not having the motivation to learn something new. World class programmers weren't born with that ability. They had to learn it, and may have spent their lives doing so. Same as artists, or any other skill really. You need to give it the time required to learn how to do it properly, but you're never going to get those abilities if you don't seriously try.

The dime a dozen comment refers to there being more people who "have ideas" than there are those who can make them happen. People who have the ability to create things don't need to take on board everyone elses ideas, because they're busy with their own.

Jason Bakker
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The visionaries that matter are the ones that do something about it. If you've got good ideas, sit down with some tools and spend the time to put at least a prototype together. It'll mean that you'll actually have something to show people that you know what you're talking about, and also along the way you'll probably expose the gaping holes and flaws in the reality of your ideas, and then you'll be on your way to making something good!

Ed: Oh, in response to the original article, I'll believe it when I see it. Kotick seemed like a decent guy in his talk, but if you're in his position it's actions that count, and Activision's actions for the past few years have seemed mostly mercenary and moneygrubbing. I'd like to believe that he's acting in the best interest of games as a medium, but he's got a long way to go to convince me, and until he does, my one-man Activision boycott continues ;)

John Petersen
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@ Mike and Alexander

The tools available aren't the tools I need. I do have a concept for the tools I need. But If i tell you what tools I need and how they work and they come to life, will I get credit for it?

The tools I need and the "red tape" I need to cross, need to be handled compentantly. But it's actually a very simple thing to do for those who know how to do it. I personally can't make it happen, I need backing, not money, just backing. the money will come after it's done.

Hopefully that's explains it a little. If it doesn't, let me know and I'll try to elaborate some more.

David Reese
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And yet... despite all his talk about fostering indie game development and whatnot... he sends his legal department after fan-based Phoenix Online Studios (an indie developer) for developing The Silver Lining (a game that takes place in the King's Quest universe and has been in development for 8 years).

Sorry Bobby... but it's kind of hard to take you seriously when your actions speak louder than words.

Jim Perry
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David - there's a big difference between fostering indie game development and protecting one's IP. Phoenix Online Studios may be an indie developer, but they're breaking the law by using IP they have no permission to use. They might be fans of King's Quest but that doesn't give them the right to use the IP, even if they have no plans to sell it. There's a right way to be an indie developer and a wrong way. Phoenix chose the wrong way.