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Activision's Kotick on Brutal Legend drama: 'That's not really what happened'

This is the first part of Joystiq's in-depth discussion with Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, in which we cover Activision's Bungie partnership, the Infinity Ward situation, Treyarch's time in the spotlight with Call of Duty: Black Ops, and why Kotick's been cast in the role of video game industry villain. Up first: The real story behind Activision's Brutal Legend lawsuit:

In 2009, for the first time in years, E3 felt like a celebration again. The annual video game trade show had reemerged after a period of austerity, newly invigorated. For Brutal Legend, it was an especially momentous debutante's ball -- the game had suffered from delays and publisher battles, but it had finally found a suitor in EA Partners and a booth alongside Electronic Arts' other games. Then on June 4, the last day of the show, developer Double Fine got sued.

The difficult thing about lawsuits is this: None of the parties can say much. The inevitable result of that vacuum is confusion and misunderstanding. On the surface, it looked like Activision -- amidst the chaos of a merger with Vivendi and its Sierra and Blizzard games business -- simply chose to pass on Brutal Legend, leaving creator Tim Schafer and the team at Double Fine without a path to market. That's where EA Partners comes in, like a knight in shining armor. Then, perhaps in an effort to keep its biggest competitor from releasing a highly-anticipated game, Activision -- a company whose corporate persona had been portrayed as increasingly villainous in much of the gaming press -- sued the developer. During E3. The celebration.

But there was that vacuum: Double Fine couldn't say much; Activision couldn't say much; and that left Electronic Arts -- the white knight, if we're following the characterization of the press at the time -- to speak up. And the publisher did, issuing the following zinger which set the tone for the conflict:
"We doubt that Activision would try to sue. That would be like a husband abandoning his family, and then suing after his wife meets a better looking guy."
And why not? Without any other commentary, the press, readers and fans all wanted an answer. Nature abhors a vacuum and, just like that, Activision wrote its own role, as the devious, conniving villain.

"That's not really what happened," Activision CEO (and aforementioned curly-mustached villain) Bobby Kotick told me in September over a glass of water at the posh Beverly Hills Hotel. Speaking about Double Fine creator Tim Schafer, who famously called Kotick "a prick" [Ed.'s note: Joystiq never ran that story or any of the myriad permutations it evolved into], Kotick said, "I don't know him. I never met him. I had no involvement in Vivendi's decision to go into business with him. I had very limited knowledge of what we were even doing with him. The guy went off and signed a deal with Electronic Arts for millions of dollars and owed Vivendi money."

Huh. Why hadn't we heard this before? Why let the gaming press and, by extension, the readers and fans create this narrative about Activision, the evil empire, if it was as simple as owed money? But first, let's start at the beginning.

When you have projects that repeatedly miss their milestones [...] the likelihood that that project is going to be turned around and be successful is very low.- Bobby Kotick on Brutal Legend

"Vivendi had advanced him like 15 or 20 million dollars," Kotick explained. "He missed all the milestones, missed all the deadlines, as Tim has a reputation of doing." As the massive merger between Activision and Vivendi wore on, Kotick said he had very little on-the-ground knowledge of Brutal Legend.

"I don't know if it was a decision not to publish it. I don't even really know where we were in the negotiation and discussions about what was going to happen to the product. Unbeknownst to everybody, they didn't have the rights to sell. So all we'd said is, 'Look: If you go and do a deal with somebody else, pay back the money that was advanced to you.' That was all we were looking for. We ultimately got a fraction of the money that had been advanced to him, and as far as I know, that was the end of it. But I don't even know if there was a lawsuit from my recollection."

The fact that Kotick himself wasn't the one making the Brutal Legend decision was a surprise. Certainly the CEO of this major company had to have had some sort of say in the process? "I was not the person that was making the assessments of this," Kotick told me. "I probably wouldn't have been most qualified to do so."

I could honestly tell you, sitting here, I never saw Brutal Legend ...- Bobby Kotick

For Kotick, and the team he entrusted to determine which Vivendi properties would come along to Activision, it was a simple business calculation: Will Brutal Legend be a good game? "I think there was a determination made that it would not be a successful game. That at the end of the day we have an obligation to our shareholders to make a profit and make great games. And I think there was the judgment of the people who were involved in making that decision that, first and foremost, it wasn't going to be a great game."

The criteria used to determine whether or not Brutal Legend would be successful may appear especially dispassionate, but it's hard to argue with the logic, however "corporate" it may be. "When you have projects that repeatedly miss their milestones, where they change direction multiple times, where lots and lots of the folks who are involved in the game leave, their resource changes, the likelihood that that project is going to be turned around and be successful is very low. So I think that maybe nobody was able to clearly articulate that this is not a judgment about Tim Schafer. There's no personal animosity between Bobby Kotick and ... I don't know the guy. Never met him. I could honestly tell you, sitting here, I never saw Brutal Legend and so the judgment of the people who I trust and respect about the quality of the game, and whether or not audiences would be excited and enthusiastic about this game, was 'No.' And that's why it was not a commercial success."

With a lawsuit, a merger and an increasingly sympathetic competitor, it's easy to lose sight of the ending to this story: Brutal Legend was released and, commercially, failed to deliver for EA Partners; selling less than a quarter million units across two platforms in its debut month. Critically it was something of a mixed bag: While some critics adored Schafer's ode to metal, others, like Joystiq's own Randy Nelson, who wrote that Brutal Legend "doesn't live up to its billing," were left wanting. For Kotick, he felt that his team's initial prediction was born out fully.

I think Mr. Kotick understands now -- years after this particular wound had already scabbed over; years after the press, Schafer and fans had picked at the corners, trying to divine the meaning behind it all -- that it's not enough to think you're right if you never tell your side of the story. "I don't really take a lot of time to do what we're doing today," he told me. Stay tuned this week for much more from Mr. Kotick.

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