Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick delivered a winning keynote at DICE in Las Vegas that was full of charming anecdotes about his own mistakes, as well as a vision for how large publishing companies can and should work with creative teams and individuals.
His speech to a packed house verged on confessional as Kotick talked about his own changing role in the game industry over the past 27 years and the opportunities he felt he’d missed.
He also sought to explain his notorious comments to investors that he wanted to "take the fun out of game development".
He announced a $500,000 independent game developer competition for new platforms. And, of course, he directed a barb at arch-rival Electronic Arts.
* In one anecdote he talked about a dinner in the mid 1990s when he was "mind-boggled" by the "ludicrous amount of money Blizzard had been sold for". It was $7m. Eight years later he passed on an opportunity to buy Vivendi’s game operation, including Blizzard, for $700 million. He said that, at the time, he believed the idea of a subscriptions based MMO was "the silliest thing ever". The punchline, or course, is that Activision later merged with Blizzard in a deal worth $7bn.
* When Maxis was up for sale, he went to talk to the company’s bigwigs about a possible deal. Development of SimCity 2000 was going badly. While at Maxis’ offices, Kotick was told that on-site wonderkind Will Wright had a new project. "We thought SimCity 2000 was too much of a mess. We never even went to see Will or his project. The project he was working on was The Sims." Kotick said that focusing too much on financial nitty gritty had sometimes pushed him into making poor decisions. "When you’re 50,000 feet above what is going on, and you’re not fully engaged with the creative process, you can miss lots of opportunities."
* Kotick talked about his own start in the industry, back in 1983 when, as a student, he wrote games software (published by Electronic Arts). He said that it later became difficult for individuals to create great products but that now, social platforms and moble platforms were ushering in an era when "guys in a dorm" could make great games. To aid creativity, he announced a $500,000 independent game developer competition.
* Perhaps one of his biggest regrets was his failure to buy Commodore in the late 1980s. He believed the Amiga "without the keyboard" could have been the greatest games console of its era. "It would have blown away the 8-bt NES of the time," he said. He raised financing and partners but was unable to secure a deal. Commodore’s management at the time wanted to be in the computer business. "They wanted to compete wih Sun Microsystems."
* But that experience "got me engaged in thinking about how a next generation video game company would look like". This led to him, in 1990, into taking a 25 per cent stake in a ruined company called Mediagenic, previously known as Activision. "I loved the games that they had released, and the principles on which the company was founded. I felt real affection. I really did see it as a business where there would be opportunities to express yourself in unique ways". He added, "I count myself incredibly fortunate to be in a business where I am passionate about the people, the products and the technology, which also happens to be a great business opportunity."
* Senior executives in this business can be relied upon to declare their passion for gaming. Kotick is no exception, although his take on this well-worn theme carried a certain self-deprecating sincerity. He admitted that he does not play games as much as he used to ("I still have callouses from playing Defender") but said that he avoided games because of an addictive personality and their dangerous role as time-sinks. Kotick, displaying a measure of rotundity not uncommon in men of his age said, "As you can see, I like to eat." "That inability to control my behavior might have consequences on my other responsibilities."
* He said that Activsion had learned "after 15 acquisitions, how to acquire companies and then protect their cultures and their independence and their talent". "It’s not always the easiest thing to do," he said, but he pointed out that most of Activision’s acquired studios are run by their founders.
* Kotick was unable to resist lobbing an insult at Electronic Arts. He pointed towards some former Activision people who had gone off to create new ventures, often with some Activision funding or contractual backing. "It’s very satisfying to see passionate people go off and enjoy tremendous success," he said citing Jamdat and Pandemic, both of which were later acquired by EA. "We try to retain the culture and independence of our studios. We’re a good mothership. But if you want to sell out and move on, there are definitely other companies to talk to." He added, "Outsize egos really need to be checked at the door. It takes a village, but the guy who thinks he can do it all on his own, is usually the village idiot."
* Turning to his comments about taking the fun out of games development he conceded that a person in a position of authority can "sometimes come across sounding like a dick". He expained that he’d been trying to convince institutional investors – generally burdened by the prejudice of the games industry as being impossibly failure-prone and risky – that companies like Activision understood the importance of process and, in fact, have a better record of success than other entertainment businesses. Clearly though, the furore of the remark had caused him discomfort. He’d begun the speech saying, "All my life I was the rebel flying the Millenium Falcon, and then suddenly I wake up and find myself on board the Death Star."
* His main point though was straightforward enough. "I’ve realised in the last 20 years that you have to empower people, to give them he responsibility and the resources to do what they love. Because those are the people who really know what they are doing."