Activision as a company isn’t in the best light with gamers these days, and a pair of new reports making the rounds this week certainly aren’t likely to help their cause in redeeming the company’s image, in the wake of the on-going Infinity Ward scandal. Gamasutra broke a story today, claiming to have spoken with several sources (both former and current employees) who assert that Activision apparently doesn’t believe female lead characters can sell software. Lara Croft, Samus Aran, Jill Valentine, Mirror’s Edge‘s Faith, Silent Hill 3‘s Heather, Portal‘s Chell and GLaDOS, and countless others might have something to say about that. The allegations come via word that this fall’s True Crime: Hong Kong, developed by United Front Games, was originally set to star an action heroine modeled after Lucy Liu when it was called Black Lotus back in 2007.
If that title sounds familiar, it’s because it should. Black Lotus was the first information we had on Activision’s potentially new open-world action franchise last year, before it ended up being a total reboot of the True Crime property. Originally in development at Treyarch, the game was pitched as an experience “inspired by Hong Kong action-cinema and featuring an Asian female assassin as the player character.“
One source claims “Black Lotus was a great project internally. We were all very proud of what we were trying to make and the team was excited. We made great progress.” That was in 2007, and then plans swiftly changed. Apparently the success of testosterone-infused games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Halo 3, and Assassin’s Creed, and results from focus-testing, left Activision with a question as to how a female lead could make an impact and catch the public’s attention. “Activision gave us specific direction to lose the chick,” the source alleges.
A while later the project eventually got going again, now reborn as the gritty undercover cop drama True Crime: Hong Kong that we know, and at its new development house, while Treyarch went on to do Call of Duty: World at War. “Activision has no room for ‘we are making an open-world game with a Hong Kong action movie feel with a female lead,’ because that game doesn’t exist right now,” claims a source familiar with the matter. “What they do have room for is, ‘we are making an open-world game with a gangster main character who can steal cars and shoot people, but it will be in Hong Kong instead of Liberty City. And then they go, ‘Hey, GTA IV sold 10 million copies, so that’s what we expect from you.’“
A second insider adds: “If Activision does not see a female lead in the top five games that year, they will not have a female lead. And the people that don’t want a female lead will look at games like [Bethesda's] Wet and [Sega's] Bayonetta and use them as ‘statistics’ to ‘prove’ that female leads don’t move mass units.“
The sources further state that Activision have allegedly fudged focus test results, to better align them with a particular design choice, concept or point the suits might have, but otherwise wouldn’t make it in a project. Like the inclusion (or removal) of a female lead character. “Most of the focus tests that I have seen run at Activision are very questionable. If someone from publishing has a point to prove or can’t get an idea in the game, the focus test questions are skewed, and the Activision feedback is skewed in their favor … I have sat in a focus test that in the team’s opinion went exceptionally well, but the feedback sent to the higher-ups from someone on the publishing side were skewed to be the exact opposite.“
I’m sure this happens with other publishers as well, but that some pretty damning stuff. Activision’s official response to the allegations is that the publisher “respects the creative vision of its development teams,” and “does not have a policy of telling its studios what game content they can develop, nor has the company told any of its studios that they cannot develop games with female lead characters.“
“With respect to True Crime: Hong Kong,” the company adds, “Activision did not mandate the gender of the lead character. Like all other game and media companies, Activision uses market research in order to better understand [what] gamers are looking for.”
Potentially skewed market research?
A second, unrelated story claims that Activision tried to steal the Greg Hasting’s Paintball franchise out from under its star, shortly after Greg Hastings Tournament Paintball Max’d shipped on PS2. During a preview for Majesco-published Greg Hasting’s Paintball 2 last month, the paintballer said, “I had to fire Activision for doing such a poor job. Activision tried to steal my franchise.“
“Within 24 hours of me shipping my PlayStation 2 game, Greg Hastings Tournament Paintball Max’d, they sent me a letter and they said, ‘We feel you’ve abandoned your franchise, and we’re going to commence making games called Greg Hastings Paintball without Greg Hastings.’”
“They made us spend a whole pile of money and we won unanimously in court. A billion-dollar company tried to steal my identity, and I was able to fight and regain my identity. That’s why I’m on cloud nine; I fought the giant and I’m a success story against Activision,” he concludes.
What? That’s certainly curious. Kind of sounds similar to the “You don’t want to make more Modern Warfare games? You’re fired” situation that reportedly went down earlier this year. Activision hasn’t issued a comment on the Greg Hastings story at this time.
[Update]: WouldYouKindly presents the full audio of Hasting’s comments made during E3.