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The news that Viacom are trying to offload Harmonix and that Activision will either sell or close down Bizarre Creations got me thinking about how fragile success in the gaming industry is. Harmonix are responsible for one of the biggest booms of the last five years (Guitar Hero), and Bizarre Creations were purchased in 2007 on the back of four very successful Project Gotham titles. Mismanagement? I would say so. Bizarre Creations were known for the semi-simulation style street racers, and under Activision ownership they produced one great, but undermarketed weapon based multiplayer-focused racer, Blur, and a rather weak licensed action title James Bond 007: Blood Stone.
When Activision bought the Liverpool-based studio everyone assumed they wanted a piece of the lucrative street racing scene. Something to challenge the likes of Need for Speed or Project Gotham for that matter. And what was the plan for Geometry Wars? A game with a strong hardcore following, but as digitally distribution is hardly a part of Activision's vocabulary (unless it has to do with Call of Duty map packs), there was no real direction and even if a sequel was released it was clear that Activision didn't really see much potential in the franchise.
Was it case of mismanagement or unreasonable expectations? Activision decided to offload all European studios as they merged with Vivendi, so the addition of Bizarre Creations was always a weird one and the commercial failure of Blur was probably what sealed their fate with Blood Stone just providing icing. Blur was sent to die with no marketing in May, so perhaps Activision had already decided at that point to cut their losses and bail out. Hopefully Bizarre Creations can now find an owner that has a clearer view on what to do with the veteran studio, but left in limbo as they are the more talented employees are probably already leaving for greener pastures.
What gets me worked up about this is how poorly managed the whole Bizarre Creations ordeal has been. It makes me think of what happened to Pandemic Studios when they where part of the package that saw EA acquiring Bioware. I'm not sure EA ever really wanted Pandemic Studios. Sure, Mercenaries was a successful franchise and Pandemic did a great job on the Star Wars: Battlefront series, but they had done nothing to prove themselves on current consoles and was a rather large studio to add to an already bloated internal development organisation. A few mediocre releases later and a couple of cancelled projects saw all of Pandemic Studios shut down and their last project Mercs, Inc. was moved to EA Los Angeles.
The weird part of the Bizarre Creations story is that it was a studio that Activision went after on their own initiative. There must have been a plan at some point. Was the prolonged development of Blur part of the problem? Was there friction between studio heads and Activision management? I guess we won't find out until the three month period of evaluation is up, but I'd imagine there were things simmering beneath the surface. There almost always is.
And how about Harmonix? Back in September 2006 they were acquired by MTV Networks and Viacom for an estimated $175 million. The music genre was on the rise and everything was looking peachy. Viacom even went on to pay out bonuses to Harmonix employees as part of the agreement upon purchase, reportedly an astounding $450 million over the course of a couple of years. Not unreasonable seeing that the music genre was worth $1.6 billion in the US alone in 2008. Two years later and the same genre is grossing a quarter of that. That's when executives label you a bad investment and look to sell your ass and that's what's happening to Harmonix. The people in charge don't care whether Dance Central is the best thing to hit Kinect or if Rock Band 3 is the pinnacle of the music genre to date. The bottom line is, sales didn't meet Viacom's expectations given the investment they've made in Harmonix.
Time to move on, and perhaps the best route for Harmonix is if some of the people who got healthy bonus checks from Viacom banded together, bought out the company and became independent once again. Harmonix is a completely different story than Bizarre Creations, but the end result is the same. Two well regarded developers left in some sort of vaccum, until new owners are found or worse.
Would it have been better for them to stay independent? What responsibility does the buyer have when they pick up a developer? It's an unsafe world for independent publishers out there, but then again you're the master of your own destiny.