Corporate Creativity

Several months back Activision CEO Bobby Kotick caused quite a stir when, during a long interview with Forbes magazine, he implied that DJ Hero was a mistake and that it sucked focus away from the Guitar Hero games and led to the demise of the franchise as a whole.  This set off quite an uproar among the gaming community (as is typical when Mr. Kotick says, well… just about anything).

Now, some disclosures and disclaimers before I carry on:

  1. I became an Activision employee in 2009 when my company (7 Studios) was acquired, and spent 2 years working within the “Hero” brand on new music game concepts.  I was there up to and including the shuttering of the franchise and the mass layoffs that followed.
  2. Prior to that, I created and led the development of Scratch: The Ultimate DJ, a game that was set to compete head-to-head against DJ Hero.

But this isn’t an excuse to bad-mouth my former employer, or talk trash about the Hero games and the decisions made during their lifecycle.  What’s done is done; I’ve moved on, and so has most of the gaming community.

Here’s the thing… had anyone actually taken the time to click through to the source article (as opposed to just reacting to the flame-bait quotes that were extracted and reprinted), they would have found a long interview with Kotick on the topic of innovation, and how Activision encourages and rewards innovative thinking within the company.  It gives a lot of insight into the way the company thinks about the creative process, and it brings me to the topic of today’s post: corporate creativity.

There is a difference between “creativity” and “corporate creativity”.  This is a fundamental truth, and anyone hoping to be a creative professional needs to accept it.

Creativity (noun) – The use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of artistic work

Corporate Creativity (noun) – The use of metrics, focus groups and other sorts of qualitative data to inform a carefully calculated and heavily vetted development process

For most young people, creativity knows no bounds.  A small child can often find excitement and intrigue in the mundane.  Ask a kid where their stuffed animal lives, and you’ll be amazed by the story they might tell you.  Often it makes no sense, and it doesn’t have to.  This is a form of pure, unrestricted creativity.  It is making up new stuff, just for the sake of making up new stuff.  No rhyme or reason.  As we get older, many of us lose a bit of the naivety and develop some perspective and our own form of self-censorship.  Still though, a lot of us manage to escape into adulthood with at least some of our creative drive and energy in tact.  We want to make new stuff and give back to the world, and we want to rely on our imagination and instincts to help us deliver true innovation.

Some of us will remain true, unrestrained artists and manage to find success in this manner.  But, many more of us will end up trying to find work in a creative field.  And a lot of that will involve a move towards creating under the watchful eye of a corporate overlord… someone like Mr. Kotick.  Here he is in the Forbes interview, in response to the question “What’s the most important thing that you do to encourage innovation at your company?”:

“…One thing that probably is unique at Activision is that we really spend a lot of time up front with our audiences, and in big quantities and with a very thoughtful process, to really try and draw out from them what it is that they would like to play. So we have a pretty good sense going in what the expectation of the audience is….”

– Bobby Kotick

Think about that for a second.  This man runs the largest video game publisher in the world.  So how does he encourage innovation?  Simple.  Ask the audience what they want, then give it to them.  Bam!  Innovation.  That, in a nutshell, is the true realization of Corporate Creativity as I see it.

To be fair, this is not a phenomenon specific to Activision, or Mr. Kotick.  In spite of his claim that this process is “unique at Activision”, I’ve seen it first-hand in a number of places I’ve worked and shared enough war stories with friends in other creative fields to feel pretty comfortable saying that this is more or less par for the course.  I still remember my first all-hands meeting as a young intern at EA, where the studio head introduced everyone to his concept of “feature-IP”.  As he explained it, feature-IP was an innovative idea delivered within the context of an existing game or franchise.  He used examples like “real-time injury reporting and performance effects in Madden”.  So, basically… get inside this box, and innovate the hell out of it, just so long as when you’re done it fits right back into this box.  Feeling inspired yet?

But here’s a secret… growing to understand corporate creativity – not subscribing to it wholesale, but rather understanding where it comes from and how it works – made me a more powerful creator.  That’s not to say that I’ve sold out to the man (at least, not all the way…) but rather it gave me another lens through which to look at and think about my creations.  Because honestly, the idea that you should consider your audience during the creative process isn’t inherently evil.  Far from it.  The key is to retain your unbound creative spark, while at the same time having enough awareness to ask yourself questions like “who is this for?” and “are people really going to like this?”  If you want to remain a pure “creative” and ignore those lines of thinking, that’s fine.  Just don’t expect anyone to care about the things that you create… you might get lucky, you might not.  Who knows.  And certainly don’t expect that anyone is going to pay you to work a job where you create in that manner… corporations aren’t so much interested in taking bets on getting lucky.  They like a sure thing.


Looking back on this post, I can’t help but feel that my tone took a turn for the cynical as I progressed.  So please don’t misunderstand.  True, pure, creative energy is a wonderful and beautiful thing.  In spite of my various experiences as a professional creative, I still cling to my pure creative spirit.  And coming to understand the concept of corporate creativity, while at times frustrating, has forced me to grow as a creator.  My point about “Creativity vs. Corporate Creativity” is simply this: if you have drive in the former, and interest in the latter – just don’t expect them to be the same thing.

    • Fabian Bouthillette
    • November 3rd, 2011

    Considering the audience during the creative process is not evil at all. It has nothing to do with good vs. evil. As i write my book, I always consider how my words could be interpreted by whom I perceive to be my audience. I adjust my words based on the action and emotion I wish to stimulate, not how much money$$$ I can get.

    Activision supports creativity if it perceives (through focus group testing) the end-product to be something that will make money, which encourages artists to rely too much on old models of success (like DJ Hero using the Guitar Hero model) instead of thinking how something new could positively affect an audience and, yes, profit.

    • I completely agree that there’s nothing inherently evil about it, and I did not mean to imply that in my post. What you are doing with your book (and generally, what anyone does when they create with that perspective) is, in my opinion, actually a sign of creative maturity. As I said… going through the experience made me a more powerful creator, and I was merely trying to shed some light on the distinction between “pure” creativity and “corporate” creativity.

      The specific method that Activision (and many other companies) employ through focus testing does serve to validate ideas in a certain sense… but it is highly biased towards ideas that are derivative or easily digestible. For example, they can say “this is the 4th highest testing 3rd person action concept that we’ve ever tested”. That can be very helpful, but it limits the types of creativity that can gain traction.

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