In an act of unparalleled greed, a newly hired Activision-Blizzard executive was paid millions of dollars last month despite the fact that the company is preparing to announce a huge round of layoffs. Though it's far from uncommon in the gaming industry to "trim the fat" like this when times are tough (i.e., when shareholders are disappointed with sales) and downright commonplace for corporations to award absurdly large signing bonuses to executives, Activision-Blizzard's most recent gaffe is particularly egregious.
The writing has been on the wall for some time now, which makes the publishing giant's choice to hand out bonuses of this magnitude when these layoffs have likely been forecasted well in advance of their pending announcement all the more outrageous. Activision-Blizzard's poor fiscal performance and falling stocks of late isn't exactly a secret, with the latest blow to the company being the departure of Destiny developer Bungie from their ten-year contract and the loss of the lucrative property. Shareholders signaled their intense displeasure with Acti-Blizz when filing class-action lawsuits against the publisher after this loss. This disaster was preceded by multiple executives jumping ship, including longtime Blizzard president Mike Morhaime and a succession of two CFOs, a painfully clear signal of troubling times at Acti-Blizz.
Nevertheless, Activision-Blizzard's newest CFO Dennis Durkin received awards valued at fifteen million dollars as a way of sweetening the pot for his willingness to take on the much-avoided position, according to a January Bloomberg report. On top of an already titanic $900,000 salary and promised bonus of over a million dollars for hitting sales targets, this massive figure consists of millions each in stock and cash. Meanwhile, an untold (but likely immense) number of Acti-Blizz employees are facing down prospects of unemployment, with a newer report estimating that mass firings will come as soon as February 12.
Some may question if the latter decision to leave potentially dozens of Acti-Blizz employees jobless was made well after Durkin was promised more money than the soon-to-be-unemployed workers will likely ever earn, and the faith in humanity required to maintain that outlook is truly admirable. Unfortunately, that doesn't appear to be the case. According to Kotaku's Jason Schreier, word of upcoming layoffs had trickled down from the top of Acti-Blizz to lower level staff as early as mid-December 2018. So yeah, Acti-Blizz's actions here are about as deplorable as it gets in the corporate world.
While it's easy to clutch one's pearls over this single incident, the single-minded callousness with which Activision-Blizzard is unashamedly approaching a situation of their own design and the uncertain future that many Acti-Blizz staff face are - while frustrating and tragic - only symptomatic of a larger cancer eating away at the gaming industry. AAA developers like Activision-Blizzard have continually and exponentially grown in size, and with each passing year the expanding value of the multi-billion dollar industry has increasingly married the interests of these companies to the unrealistic expectations of the shareholders to which they're beholden.
The perpetual cycle of setting unattainable goals, development crunch, frequent sales target failures, and layoffs of "nonessential" staff has evolved into the normal state of things for gaming's largest publishing entities. Until that norm is challenged by either choice or crisis, it can be expected that the industry will be abuzz with the same conversations come this time next year.