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A Strange Tale: Dark Days For Bizarre?

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The internet moved at especially frightening speed this evening, with a tale that 007 Blood Stone/Blur/The Club/Geometry Wars/Project Gotham developer Bizarre Creations was allegedly to lose staff or even close its doors slamming from 0mph Twitter rumour to 100mph damning Activision statement within 90 minutes.

Online chatter’s divided into roughly two camps. 1) Owners Activision are greedy so-and-sos who have no right and far too much to money to do this 2) Bizarre have been churning out duds in recent years and this is only logical.

It’ll be a while before the full story’s out, I suspect, but while I fully appreciate that the mediocre-tastic Blood Stone might leave the casual observer convinced the studio’s no good, I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to it than that.

With the exception of ambitious semi-failure The Club, their last game before joining the Acti-fold, Bizarre seemed to do pretty well both critically and commercially when operating as an independent developer. Hell, Geometry Wars played a vital part in establishing Xbox Live (shame the same couldn’t be said of the too-late, power-hungry PC version, though the game remains a landmark shmup). The developer’s actually been around since the early 90s, formerly known as Raising Hell and pumping out clever Amiga things for Psygnosis. They’re Important.

The same couldn’t be said of Bizarre following Activision’s buy-out of them in 2007, alas. Earlier this year, they came up with new racer Blur, which seemed to tank at retail despite being pretty decent. Activision made noises about the franchise continuing nonetheless, but before that happened came the rather surprising news that Bizarre were to develop a James Bond shooter instead.

Bloodstone was announced, released and critically slammed within the space of just over three months. Two weeks later, the studio may be about to die.

Allegedly. It’s all at rumour stage, though supported by a lot of industry chatter. Word on the wires is that potentially all of the 200 staff at Bizarre may lose their jobs, but Activision’s cautious official statement is the following:

“Over the past three years since our purchase of Bizarre Creations, the fundamentals of the racing genre have changed significantly. Although we made a substantial investment in creating a new IP, Blur, it did not find a commercial audience. Bizarre is a very talented team of developers, however, because of the broader economic factors impacting the market, we are exploring our options regarding the future of the studio, including a potential sale of the business.”

Which hopefully means there’s some hope, though in apportioning blame for whatever’s going on neatly doesn’t mention Bloodstone, I note. The tale of Blur is strange – it seemed to have a lot of funding and a lot of time, but didn’t seem (to me at least, but admittedly I’m not much of a TV watcher or magazine reader these days) especially heavily marketed around release-time. Then again, it was released into a market dominated by Red Dead Redemption (though the same wasn’t true of its PC version), which apparently also meant Alan Wake underperformed. Another Activision title, Raven’s Singularity, also pratically disappeared at retail, with the publisher even admitting in an investor call that it had stepped down marketing efforts due to diminished faith in the title. So whose fault was Blur’s commercial failure? It’s easy to point fingers at a dev in that instance, but when it’s a publisher-owned dev it’s hardly that simple. Was it not good enough, was it gunning for an audience that didn’t exist, or did it lack vital support at a vital moment?

Bloodstone’s even stranger – it was such a hard-switch from Blur, and brought to market so quickly that I couldn’t help but wonder if Bizarre had had it forced on them at short notice, and with their own clout dimished by Blur’s sputtering weren’t in any position to say no. Another potential factor there is that Bond owners MGM have been damn near on the rocks themselves, unable to fund a new 007 movie, so a request for a quick game or an existing deal with Activision to release one based on a film due around now which didn’t materialise may also have been a factor.

I’m speculating wildly. Sorry. I just don’t like the “well, they should have done better, shouldn’t they?” mentality that I’ve seen in some commentary on this. Maybe they should; but that’s presuming they were given the chance and resources to do better, most especially in terms of their last game.

It’s a sad day, not just for the goodly folks at Bizarre, but also for the promise of big publishers dabbling in new ideas. Increasingly, Activision is the Call of Duty company, propped up enormously by sister firm Blizzard’s WoW mega-monies. Is that sustainable? I suppose there is definitely some new IP inbound, thanks to the deal it has with the newly liberated Bungie. That’ll certainly be an interesting one to watch, especially if it ends up head to head with whatever the first game from ex-Infinity Ward types Respawn turns out to be.

In the event that Activision doesn’t find some way of saving the studio, best of luck to everyone affected: I hope you find excellent gigs working for considerate bosses.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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