Bonus Round: Call of Duty devs vote to unionise

Another week, another Bonus Round. Welcome to our weekly column offering a few thoughts on some of the week’s biggest gaming stories. It’s been a rough week, with yet another maddening example of the tragic consequences of the United State’s gun violence epidemic. It’s certainly true that there are far more important things going on in the world right now than video games, but there’s at least one story that goes beyond frivolity and points toward a brighter future for workers in the industry. Let’s take a look.

Call of Duty developers vote to unionise

A bit of gaming history was made this week: a small group of quality assurance testers at Raven, a division of Activision Blizzard that provides support work on the Call of Duty franchise, have voted to unionise. This is a big deal. It’s the first such union at a major US gaming company, and one can only hope that it’s a sign of things to come.

Unionisation is long overdue in the gaming industry. Much has been written about issues with ‘crunch’, the practice of developers being forced to work 18-20 hour days for months on end, if not indefinitely. If you want to learn more about the topic, I’d recommend reading Bloomberg writer Jason Schreier’s excellent books Blood, Sweat and Pixels and Press Reset. Unions are perhaps the only shot workers have at reducing or eliminating crunch practices; without giving them a seat at the table, the issue will likely continue unabated.

Activision Blizzard in particular has come under fire recently for its horrendous working conditions. CEO Bobby Kotick has been accused of heinous behaviour, including threatening to have his assistant killed. In comparison to sexual discrimination and threats of murder, overworking might seem like a small issue, but it all paints a picture of an overwhelmingly toxic workplace. A union of around 20 QA testes won’t fix these issues overnight – they still have to bargain to even be recognised by Activision – but it’s a step in the right direction.

Matters will likely become even more complicated when Microsoft completes it acquisition of Activision, which is projected to take place within the next year. As a general rule of thumb, the bigger the corporation, the more resistant they are to unionisation efforts. This is proven true every day, with companies like Apple and Amazon striving to quash attempts at unionisation. I won’t keep banging on about my own personal politics, but I will say that I support the Raven union, and I wish them luck in navigating the uncertain territory ahead of them.

EA looking to sell

The gaming year got off to an explosive start in January when Microsoft announced their intention to buy Activision Blizzard. This wasn’t just the biggest deal in gaming; it was one of the biggest deals in the history of business, full stop. At the time, it was often said that the next biggest acquisition would be Electronic Arts, and it has emerged this week that EA is definitely interested in selling or merging.

According to news site Puck (via VGC), EA has been ‘persistent in pursuing a sale’. It has apparently attempted to court some of the biggest companies on the planet, holding talks with Disney, Apple, Amazon and Comcast-NBC Universal. It’s not hard to see why EA might be an attractive prospect; Apex Legends is raking in cash, and while it might not have the FIFA brand name much longer, EA still makes the biggest football (or soccer) game in the world.

This isn’t news in the sense that anything has actually happened, but it’s probably a sign of things to come. Content is the currency of the modern day; you need only look at Disney buying 20th Century Fox or huge artists like Bruce Springsteen selling off their catalogues to know that there’s a lot of money to be made in owning a treasure trove of music, movies, or games. Game developers and publishers know there’s a lot of money to be made in selling, too.

The sad reality is that moving forward, fewer and fewer companies will be responsible for the entertainment we enjoy. Big companies will be swallowed up by even bigger companies, and competition will be reduced as a result. EA might not be getting sold this week, but it probably will be in the future. The same goes for Ubisoft or Sega or Capcom, or any other big publisher you can think of. As GamesBeat’s Jeff Grubb has said, when it comes to acquisitions, ‘everyone is always talking to everybody’.

God of War Ragnarok could still hit 2022

I speculated a couple of weeks ago that God of War Ragnarok could be the latest game to be hit with a delay. While a specific date was never announced, it has been known for a long while that developer Sony Santa Monica was targeting a 2022 release date. We’re nearly halfway through the year, though, and every day without a release date announcement has invited greater speculation that the game might slip to 2023.

As of this week, though, it seems that Ragnarok might make it out the door this year after all. The game has received an age rating from South Korea’s Game Rating and Administration Committee, which has designated it as an ’18 and over’ game. The rating itself isn’t a surprise – the God of War series is known to be bloody and violent – but the fact that it has been rated at all is noteworthy; games don’t tend to get age ratings unless they’re relatively close to release.

If God of War Ragnarok is indeed set to hit a 2022 release, Sony must be sighing in collective relief. Personally, I’m all for delaying games if developers need the extra time to nail their vision, especially if it in any way helps them avoid having to crunch. But business-wise, God of War getting delayed to 2023 would be bad news for Sony. It’s pretty much the only big exclusive game they’ve (ostensibly) got coming out this year.

There are indies and smaller games to look forward to, of course, but those don’t necessarily motivate people to buy new consoles; games like God of War Ragnarok do. Without Ragnarok, Sony would be facing the same situation as Microsoft now that Starfield and Redfall have been delayed: a (relatively) new console to sell with no new games to play on it. Time will tell if God of War releases this year; Sony certainly won’t live or die by it, but it’s clear that they’d certainly prefer to get it out before Christmas.