Axios Gaming

Picture of a gaming controller.

Good afternoon. I'm Stephen Totilo and I haven't had time to play a video game in three days. Feels weird. Feels wrong.

Situational awareness: EA studio Respawn is removing acclaimed multiplayer game Titanfall from sale, starting today. No reason given, but the game was routinely beset by hackers in recent years.

Today's edition is 1,183 words ... 4.5 minutes.

1 big thing: Six states warn Activision

Photo illustration of Activision Blizzard's logo and a chart of its stock price
Activision Blizzard. Photo: SOPA Images/Contributor

The pressure on Activision Blizzard to make meaningful change over harassment allegations, unequal pay and other workplace issues is intensifying, as treasurers from California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Oregon, Delaware and Nevada are calling on the company to take action.

Why it matters: The game maker, which is already facing lawsuits and investigations, is now hearing from state treasurers who aren’t afraid to use billions of dollars of investments, often through pension funds, as a way to trigger corporate change.

  • In a Nov. 23 letter, the treasurers asked Activision Blizzard’s board of directors for a meeting “to discuss your response to the challenges and investment risk exposures that face Activision.”
  • The treasurers noted that they would “weigh” a “call to vote against the re-election of incumbent directors.”
  • That call was made earlier in November by activist shareholder group SOC. The group said Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick should resign and threatened to vote against members of the board next year.

What they’re saying: “We think there needs to be sweeping changes made in the company,” Illinois state treasurer Michael Frerichs told Axios.

  • He cited accounts from the past few months involving harassment allegations and unequal pay at Activision Blizzard as well as a November Wall Street Journal investigation that said Kotick downplayed sexual misconduct allegations at the company.
  • “We're concerned that the current CEO and board directors don't have the skill set nor the conviction to institute these sweeping changes needed to transform their culture, to restore trust with employees and shareholders and their partners,” Frerichs said.

Activision declined to comment. But a rep for SOC said the company replied to the letter yesterday to figure out next steps.

Between the lines: The treasurers manage about a trillion dollars in assets, but it’s unclear how much Activision stock — and therefore how much voting power —they have.

  • Frerichs confirmed that Illinois has investments in Activision Blizzard and is therefore impacted by the company’s plummeting stock price but declined to say how much.
  • “One thing the treasurers bring is also a bit of a spotlight here and a little public pressure as well,” he said.

The big picture: It’s new for treasurers to be targeting a gaming company, but this type of action has plenty of precedents.

  • A year ago, New York state announced plans to divest its $226 billion pension fund from fossil fuel companies.
  • Last month, Massachusetts’ Deborah Goldberg said her state would use its investments to pressure companies to enact better climate policies.
  • Goldberg supports engagement, arguing that divestment abandons the issues and the companies’ employees. “If you don't have a seat at the table, you don't have a seat at the table,” she told Axios

What’s next: The treasurers want a meeting with Activision by Dec. 20.

2. The Halo experiment

Screenshot of a first-person shooter, as a character takes aim with a virtual machine gun at an enemy in red armor
Screenshot: 343 Industries/Microsoft

The monetization of Microsoft’s Halo Infinite is one of the most interesting works in progress of the year.

Driving the news: Following complaints from players of the game’s surprise-released multiplayer mode, development studio 343 Industries has increased the number of experience points players will gain per match.

  • This will allow them to more rapidly advance through the game’s battle pass, a sequence of rewards meant to maintain player engagement (which in turn tends to get players to buy more in-game stuff).
  • Free-to-play games often rely on players paying extra to advance through battle passes more quickly, but 343 agreed with critics who said progress was too slow.
  • But there's also now a subscriber bonus: Microsoft also revealed today that subscribers to Xbox’s Game Pass Ultimate ($15/month) will get items and progress boosters for the multiplayer mode.

Bear in mind: Infinite isn’t entirely free. Its single-player, story-based campaign mode, which launches Dec. 8, will cost $60.

  • Previous Halo games cost $60 for campaign and multiplayer.
  • And one more wrinkle: The campaign is included for Game Pass subscribers at no added cost, another first for the series.

The bottom line: Pity anyone whose job it is to figure out how this game will make its money. It’s complicated.

3. Building a balanced Disney cast

Video game key art showing Disney characters, including Mickey Mouse and Elsa from Frozen
Image: Disney

The developers of the upcoming Apple Arcade game Disney Melee Mania say they prioritized not just a 50-50 split of Disney and Pixar characters but an even gender split as well.

Why it matters: The ensemble casts of most multiplayer games from Smash Bros. to Street Fighter skew male, which occasionally stirs discussion about the importance of players being able to choose characters who resemble themselves.

  • Melee Mania’s cast includes Elsa from "Frozen," Manticore from “Onward,” Moana, Mickey Mouse, Bing Bong from “Inside Out” and Frozone from "The Incredibles."

What they’re saying: Having that much female representation and a diverse cast in general “is very important to us,” Simon Davis, CEO of Mania studio Mighty Bear Games, told Axios.

  • Why? “Speaking from personal experience, like my whole life, the protagonist of every game I've played has basically looked like me,” Davis, who is white, said.
  • “There's maybe 4 billion, 5 or 6 billion people in the world that don't look like me.”

4. Need to know

🤔 Nintendo plans to increase the number of women in managerial positions, according to a new company report. It says 23.7% of its managers globally are women, though just 4.2% in its Japanese headquarters.

⬆️ Microsoft shareholders have approved a proposal to issue a public report about sexual harassment at the company and how incidents are handled. The company had advised a vote against, saying it already planned to commit to public reporting.

🤖 Twitch plans to use machine learning to identify suspicious accounts that may have been started by users who were previously banned. It’s part of Twitch’s efforts to address the harassment of its streamers by users of the service.

5. Worthy of your attention

The Making Of The Fake Game In The Red Hot Chili Peppers' Californication Video [Cian Maher, The Gamer]

“Obviously it was inspired by games that had come before it, but also in many ways, the games everyone hoped to see in the future,” [developer Josh] Scherr says. “You have to keep in mind, this video was made in the summer of 2000; the PlayStation 2 had just come out a few months earlier in Japan; it still wasn’t out in the US yet. Games like Grand Theft Auto 3 and Metal Gear Solid 2 were still over a year away from release, and the original SSX came out in October. At the time, a lot of the things in the video seemed fanciful, but in the years since, we’ve certainly seen plenty of crazy snowboarding and driving games, games that simulate an entire city, and of course, games with people running through collapsing buildings.

6. Separating the wheat

Video game screenshot of a blue farm machine driving down a row of plants
Screenshot: Giants Software

Farming Simulator 22 has already sold 1.5 million copies in its first week of release for PC and console, according to its publisher Giants Software.

  • That’s a record for a franchise that dates back to 2008, according to GamesIndustry.biz.

The details: The realistic game lets players control more than 400 farming machines, many tied to real brands.

  • Among the new features in this year’s game: mulching and stone-picking.
  • The series even has its own esports league. Its world championships, this Sunday, will offer a prize pool of 100,000 Euros (about $113,000)

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🐦 Find us on Twitter: @megan_nicolett / @stephentotilo.

We all remember the summer of 2000, right?