Wherein I subject you folks to my wretched face and voice, discuss an un-deadening of Dead Space, another accursed acquisition, the struggles of a ship of scallywags in Singapore, and how Activision Blizzard is a truly wretched company based on a lawsuit filed by the state of California.
Hello everyone. I know that the vast majority of Nigma Box readers have no idea what I look or sound like, and for this week’s Rundown, I wanted to correct that. So, here I am, I’m Natalie Neumann, this is what I look like, this is what I sound like, this is who I am. And just based on this short video, you can probably understand why I typically stick to writing and don’t do anything beyond that. Because I know I’m not the most pleasant thing to listen to, and I’m not much to look at either.
This actually isn;t the first time I’ve shown myself on Nigma Box. I did once before in Natalie Rambles About Being Trans, Autistic, and Weird— but I had no idea what I was doing then, and that video was terrible. This video is terrible as well because I still don’t know what I’m doing, but hopefully you should have some idea of who I am, what I look like, and all that stuff. Anyways, let’s get on with the rest of the Rundown, I guess. Bye!
A few weeks ago, industry insiders claimed that EA was working on a remake of 2008’s Dead Space, and at this week’s EA Play event, EA announced just that. A full remake of the original Dead Space developed by EA Motive Studios. While this reveal should be grounds for celebration, it instead filled me with a… bitter feeling.
Dead Space was a beloved horror sci-fi action shooter that quickly became a cult classic. However, EA did not understand what they had with the title, and tried pushing this series as a major multimedia project, with comics, an animated film, and spin-off titles including a mobile game and a rail shooter for the Wii.
While the first game did only modestly well commercially— considering it was a new IP put out at the start of the 2008 recession— EA wanted the series to get bigger and bigger, which led them to pump up the development and marketing budgets up to a combined $120 million for 2011’s Dead Space 2. A title that fared very well critically and had strong sales, but it was unable to recoup its bloated budget. This put the series in an awkward spot, as while EA had established the series, it was not doing ‘Call of Duty numbers’ despite being budgeted like a Call of Duty.
Now, I am not an executive, so to me the right thing to do in this situation is to make one more Dead Space game before the console generation ends. A game with a lower development and marketing budget that would reuse existing technology and assets, while trying to do something a little different, as that’s typically best for the third game in a series. But EA decided they wanted to turn 2013’s Dead Space 3 into a blockbuster title. One that featured another large budget, touted co-op as the big new feature, introduced microtransactions, and was met with a far colder reception both critically and commercially. Also, EA expected Dead Space 3 to sell 5 million units, when I’d estimate that Dead Space 2 only sold about 3 million during the first two years of its life.
After Dead Space’s failure to take off, EA began assigning the series developer, Visceral Games, to other projects, while robbing the studio of its creative freedom, before eventually shutting them down in 2017. It was a sad bit of news that was one of the three colossal failures of EA in that year, with the others being everything surrounding Mass Effect 4: Andromeda and EA’s “virtual casino” known as Star Wars Battlefront II (2017).
Or in other words, EA killed Dead Space, fired its creators, and compromised their creative vision. That was nearly a decade ago and now they are having EA Motive Studios do a remake of the first game. Why exactly? Well, EA was allegedly inspired by Capcom’s wildly successful 2019 remake of Resident Evil 2, and presumably thought this would be a low-risk fan pleasing project, as the game is already designed in full.
This should be good news, and it is because this does mean another Dead Space game will be released… but this entire sequence of events is just a bit too depressing and bleak for me to view things in a wholly positive light.
Next up… I swear, every month Tencent pops up in my news feed, and it is always the same damn story. This massive Chinese company has gathered the funds needed to acquire a majority or significant stake in a western video game developer. This month the latest victim is none other than Sumo Group, the holding company for Sumo Digital, Pipeworks Studio, Secret Mode, and The Chinese Room. All for the tune of $1.27 billion. Prior to the announcement of this acquisition, Tencent owned 8.75% of Sumo, so this is not as unfounded or as sporadic as other acquisitions I’ve reported on. However, that does not make this news any more pleasant.
While there is nothing bad about these acquisitions in and of themselves, when done en masse they lead to industry consolidation, which centralizes influence and power into smaller and smaller groups until they become near monopolies. And of all the companies I want to see gain further control, power, and influence across the games industry, Tencent is firmly at the bottom of that list. Not because of anything they did, but because of how close they are to China, and how, by acquiring more game companies, by spreading themselves across the industry, they are making the industry more dependent on China. Which also should not be a bad thing, as China is like a sixth of the world’s population, but China is unfortunately run by a terrible government with zero indication of changing soon.
I would lean into this next story with a comparative statement, but I don’t think that would be fair. China’s government has power beyond video games, and I should not compare any game company to them. So instead, let’s just talk about a known promoter and defenders of abusers, and sustainers of toxicity, Ubisoft! Ubisoft is a company that I admire to an extent because of how they have the organizational structure needed to push out so many massive games while maintaining truly global operations. However, even when you are proficient at maintaining global development, mismanagement is still entirely possible, if not inevitable.
You might remember Skull & Bones, an open world pirate live service with an emphasis on naval combat, conceptually built off of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. The title was first revealed during E3 2017 as a new IP from Ubisoft Singapore, but since its second showing at E3 2018, very little about the title has been revealed, and it has been delayed time and time ago. What happened to this title and why has it been taking so long? Well, Ethan Gach of Kotaku recently put up an article describing the development woes this title faced. While none of this is too surprising, I still find it fascinating how projects so big can make such basic mistakes.
Skull & Bones originally began development as an expansion of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, but as development went on the folks at Ubisoft Singapore and Ubisoft corporate decided that they should make the title something a bit more ambitious. Despite this change, they still wanted the project to be quick and reuse existing technology, but quickly ran into a problem. Black Flag released at the tail-end of a generation, and both its assets and technology would be dated next to other games hitting new platforms. This meant the developers had to build the game from the ground up, and in doing so, they decided to make the title a new IP.
This marked a somewhat rocky start, and the developers soon ran into a major problem. Between the Singapore staff, Ubisoft corporate, and project managers sent to Singapore, nobody could really settle on what this new game would be. How its world would work, if it would only be naval combat, what its focus would be, what the gameplay loop would be, and so forth. All of these issues were compounded by a high number of turnover, as managers shifted throughout the project and many senior staff jumped ship (pun intended) to other companies that paid better and actually knew what they were doing.
Skull & Bones has cost Ubisoft around $120 million, and it still does not have much to show for it. As the article points out, any other publisher would have shut this project down, but Ubisoft seems to think this project is worth salvaging, and salvage they will. Even if it leads to diminishing morale and a sense of restlessness in those who have stuck with this project despite so many restarts.
Now, I thought that would be the most feel-bad story in this feel-bad week, but I was wrong. FAR wrong. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing recently filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard, citing innumerous instances of the company being discriminatory, sexist, and basically everything you imagine when the phrase “frat boy culture” crops up. I would encourage people interested in the ongoing culture issues at major game studios to read through the introduction and allegations in full. But for the sake of this Rundown, I’ll just hit the major takeaways:
- Only about 20% of Activision Blizzard staff are women and very few of them ever reach top roles.
- Women are paid worse than males working similar positions, have lower starting pay, and are passed over for promotions in favor of men.
- Men at Activision Blizzard would “proudly come into work hungover, play video games […] while delegating their responsibilities to female employees.”
- Women were denied the opportunity to meet with corporate executives in favor of their male counterparts.
- Women were given negative performance reviews for getting pregnant and denied promotions because they could get pregnant in the future.
- Women were criticized for picking up their children from daycare and kicked out of lactation rooms so the rooms could be used for meetings.
- African American women were targeted unfairly by white male supervisors by holding them up to a higher standard than other groups.
- Human Resources did nothing to improve the sexism at Activision Blizzard despite receiving numerous complaints.
- Sexual harassment and derogatory comments alluding to prostitution, rape, and female body parts were commonplace.
Now, this is all abhorrent, but the most damning claim, the absolute worst thing in this court document, is the following line from paragraph 48:
“[A] female employee committed suicide while on a company trip due to a sexual relationship that she had been having with her male supervisor. The male supervisor was found by police to have brought a butt plug and lubricant on this business trip. Another employee confirmed that the deceased female employee may have been suffering from other sexual harassment at work prior to her death. Specifically, at a holiday party before her death, male co-workers were alleged to be passing around a picture of the deceased’s vagina.”
…I’m not even sure what to say about all this.
For all their money, for all their excessive wealth and resources, Activision Blizzard’s executive staff allowed this wretched culture to perpetuate and get so bad that it led a woman to kill herself. Things got so bad, so terrible, that it is going straight to court, without even a social media campaign to precede it. And while I definitely could use this as justification to call Activision Blizzard every bad thing under the sun, I think paragraph 81 of this document phrases things quite succinctly:
“[Activision Blizzard’s] actions were willful, malicious, fraudulent, and oppressive, and were committed with the wrongful intent to injure female employees.”