Activision’s CEO Bobby Kotick: Don’t Hate the Innovator

The gaming community has not, historically, shown Bobby Kotick the love and it really, really should.

Photo: Activision

Today’s New York Times profiled Activision Blizzard’s C.E.O., Bobby Kotick.  Kotick is well known in the business of video gaming, and has been wrongfully villainized in years past. 

Talking to the Times’ interviewer, Kotick discussed some of the real world problems he runs into as a result of his villainization: “Think about what it’s like for my dating life when the first picture that comes up [in an online search] is me as the devil.”

The world of gaming is, shall we say, passionate, but why would anyone compare Kotick to the devil?  Kotick has been seen as controversial in the gaming community mainly because he is the type of businessman who knows how to get the most money out of a single game (look at the longevity of World of Warcraft and its numerous expansion packs). He is a man of action and likes to experience the thrill of growing a business, popular opinion be damned. Kotick has been accused of exploiting the gaming community by only publishing games with “clear sequel potential and [that] have the potential to become $100 million franchises,” he said.

Kotick also courted outrage with a comment he made at Activision Blizzard’s Q2 2009 conference while discussing the company’s financial results. After bearing the brunt of backlash brought on by the sale of games that require expensive controllers to play, Kotick seemingly threw caution to the wind and said that if it were up to him, he would raise the prices even further. Predictably, this comment was seen as insensitive given the current state of the economy. 

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Kotick was also accused of not actually being a gamer, which in the gaming community, of course, is the harshest insult that can be lobbed at someone.  But, as Kotaku’s 2010 profile makes clear, Kotick actually has quite the passion for video games.  Kotick says, “I really like video games and that passion has never really gone away. If I go play Modern Warfare, I’ll find a hundred different things I’d like done differently. And I don’t have the discipline to not express my opinion.” The man is a gamer and a free thinker.

That one statement: “If I go play Modern Warfare, I’ll find a hundred different things I’d like done differently”… is the key reason behind this article. Bobby Kotick clearly still has a passion for gaming. That is why we see the Call Of Duty series improve with each new iteration. Instead of ridiculing Kotick, the gaming community should be embracing his borderline unhealthy obsessive need to improve gaming franchises instead of introducing titles that aren’t really good enough and/or ready for a release. In fact, look at it this way; Kotick is saving you money in the long run by not letting you waste your $60 on an unsatisfying, not ready for primetime, new title. Kotick focuses on titles he knows consumers already like and makes them better.  This is really not something to criticize or complain about.

Kotaku’s article also raises the spectre of Kotick’s retirement. Kotick explains, “I have a big objective for the next ten years. You know the thing that’s really exciting is that when you look at what’s happened to our medium, we’re finally now at a point where we have all the characteristics of mass market, mass media opportunities. And I think it’s three things for me that are really driving how you make video games as appealing as TV.” Kotaku further goes on to reveal these three things: making video game characters real (as he did with Captain Nathaniel Renko of Singularity), physical interface (as has been done with Guitar Hero) and tapping into social interaction (think Call of Duty: Elite). Kotick is a billionaire, but he sees himself working ten years in the future, because he sees work he wants to do.

Under Kotick’s guidance, Activision increased its earnings to $226 million, or 20 cents per share. This is a major achievement, especially when taken in the context of the current state of the economy and in the midst of declining retail video game sales this year (video game sales dropped 26 percent between January and October 2012). 

But, how does Kotick do it? Simple (Ha Ha). Kotick helps developers publish bigger and better iterations of already popular games, thereby capitalizing on a game’s existing fanbase. We saw  an example of this with the release Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 earlier this year.  Black Ops 2 is, in our estimable opinion, the best Call of Duty franchise title to date.  Others clearly share our opinion as evidenced by the game’s record breaking $500 million in sales in its first 24 hours. The now multi-billion dollar game certainly added a bit of comfy padding to Kotick’s already pretty well lined pockets, but those rewards come because he takes risks, good risks that end well for we gamers. With Black Ops 2, Kotick risked leaving the existing success of the Call of Duty franchise by risking the balanced gameplay with futuristic technology. The neat trick that Kotick pulls off is that he puts in the groundwork and the background before taking that leap to market. Kotick’s games’ new iterations and only go public after thoughtful deliberation and extensive testing of what technology should be introduced, lest that technology hinder current gameplay. Because Kotick understands The Prime Directive of gaming: never hinder gameplay. You can throw every mind boggling new technological bell and whistle at a game, but if you hinder gameplay you’re only shooting yourself in the foot.

Activision has released a slew of new franchise games this year. The Amazing Spider-Man, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, Skylanders: Giants and 007 Legends all obviously have mega-potential for sequels in the future. And the company is showing no signs of slowing down. Next year, Kotick will oversee the release of The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct in an effort to capitalize on the The Walking Dead, and all things Zombie Apocalypse, craze. Kotick will also help Bungie get Destiny to what Kotick sees as its potential; an immersive new game world with franchising potential. Lastly, Activision will be publishing the Deadpool video game next year, which, like most Marvel titles has major, future franchising potential.

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Bobby Kotick shouldn’t be seen as the devil. Because, you know, he’s not. What the man deserves is some sort of award for how he has managed and guided Activision, bringing the company out of the red and into the gaming spotlight.

Read the New York Times article here: Bobby Kotick of Activision Drawing Praise and Wrath