Axios Gaming

Picture of a gaming controller.

Happy Thursday. Megan Farokhmanesh and Stephen Totilo back with more gaming news, none of which is about "Donkey Kong," to our EIC's dismay.

Today's edition is 1,322 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Development so white

Photograph of a group of game developers standing on a staircase. All are white men.
Photo: Raccoon Logic

One of the most notorious images in games right now is a photo of 20 mostly white male staffers that was included as part of the announcement of a new Montreal game studio called Raccoon Logic.

Why it matters: The photo has become central in the discussion of diversity in game studios and who gets a seat at the table.

  • It first started drawing attention yesterday when Bloomberg reporter Jason Schreier tweeted it and noted, "It's pretty wild that in 2021 a new game studio still looks like this."
  • The studio currently employs one woman, who co-founder Alex Hutchison said "unfortunately couldn't make that photo call."
  • It's not quite a grassroots start-up. Studio leadership has worked at Ubisoft, EA and Google. The new group is partially funded by Chinese gaming giant Tencent.

What they're saying: "I can see why people reacted to the picture of the studio the way they did," Hutchinson told Axios.

  • There are "two important caveats," he added, "one being that diversity extends beyond gender, and I'm proud that we have LGBTQ members on our team, but also that this is just Raccoon Logic's starting point, not the endgame."

Between the lines: Hutchinson initially responded to criticism with snark, yesterday calling the initial Schreier tweet "trolling."

  • But the photo elicited sharp reaction on Twitter, where women in the industry shared anecdotes of being a distinct minority in studios where they worked.
  • Hutchinson's critics said the photo sends a message about who Raccoon Logic values having on the team.
  • He says the initial hiring was done prior to outside investment and that the "initial reach-out before the money came in" involved "talking to people we already knew" about jobs.

What's next: Hutchinson says Raccoon Logic has "made a point to interview BIPOC candidates for other positions" and will continue to hire.

  • "It's not hard to grasp that a diversity of opinion and expression — as well as people who have just led different lives and have different life experience — just leads to better games," he said.

Meanwhile, other game studios keep getting announced with limited obvious signs of diversity.

2. "Diablo 4" director out at Activision Blizzard

Diablo 4 video game from Blizzard
Photo: Activision Blizzard

Three prominent game developers at Activision Blizzard, including "Diablo 4" game director Luis Barriga, lead designer Jesse McCree and "World of Warcraft" designer Jonathan LeCraft no longer work at the company, a spokesperson confirmed to Axios.

Why it matters: Activision Blizzard is in turmoil following a lawsuit filed by California alleging toxic and sexist workplace behavior, though it's unclear whether the "Diablo" developers are gone because of those issues.

  • "We have a deep, talented roster of developers already in place and new leaders have been assigned where appropriate," the spokesperson told Axios. "We are confident in our ability to continue progress, deliver amazing experiences to our players, and move forward to ensure a safe, productive work environment for all."
  • Barriga is a veteran Blizzard developer who'd been with the company for over a decade; "Diablo 4" is deep in development.

Kotaku, who first reported the news, spoke with a source who said the company did not tell employees why the three were gone.

  • The publication, which also reported on the company's infamous "Cosby Suite," also notes that LeCraft and McCree were developers featured in those images.
  • McCree, a designer on "Diablo 4," is also the namesake of the gunslinger hero of "Overwatch."

Another prominent exit: "Apex Legends" lead designer Daniel Klein says EA has fired him after the discovery of racist and sexist messages he wrote in 2007.

3. Twitch shamed into action over hate-raids

Twitch will improve its ability to detect bad actors on its platform, the company announced yesterday, after being criticized for its failures to protect marginalized streamers from being inundated with hate speech as they broadcast live on the service.

Why it matters: Amazon-owned Twitch is the dominant player for live-streaming games in much of the world, but it remains a treacherous platform for anyone streaming who isn't a cishet white male.

Between the lines: A Twitter-based movement dubbed "Twitch Do Better" has been making the rounds for several days, after streamer RekItRaven posted a clip of its viewer chat being filled with comments such as "this channel now belongs to the KKK."

  • Its experience wasn't unique. Streamer Omega Jones shared a clip on Tuesday in which he's playing a game, only to see his chat filled with the N-word.
  • "Twitch, do f--king better, end of story," he said.

In a four-tweet acknowledgment of the problem, Twitch vowed to have "an open and ongoing dialogue about creator safety."

  • The company says it identified and is fixing a problem with its "proactive" chat filters and will roll out "channel-level ban evasion detection and account verification improvements" before the end of the year.

4. Nine Inch Nails band member's new studio

Image: Eyes Out

"Spec Ops: The Line" creative director Cory Davis and Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck have formed a new game development studio called Eyes Out.

Why it matters: The studio is working on a new "immersive cosmic horror game" that blends expertise from the music and video game industries.

  • In addition to "Spec Ops," Davis has also worked on the "Condemned" and "F.E.A.R." horror series.
  • Finck's work scoring games includes No Code's "Observation" and Devolver Digital's "NOCT."

What's next: The studio is still building its team and will release more information about its debut title down the line.

5. Need to know

  • The next "Call of Duty" continues to leak, now through files added to the most recent game in the series. Subtitled "Vanguard," it appears to be set during World War II.
  • The shopping spree for makers of "hypercasual" mobile games continues with Rovio's purchase of "Handyman 3D" studio Ruby Games. (Ruby is based in Turkey, as is hypercasual giant Rollic, which Zynga purchased last year.)
  • The CEO and COO of Glu Mobile are leaving the mobile company, which was purchased by EA this year for $2 billion, VentureBeat reports. Last month, EA announced that the CEO and CFO of Codemasters, which the company recently bought, were stepping down.
  • "Frostpunk 2" is in development, Warsaw-based 11-bit studios announced today. The studio is known for making psychologically complex simulation games that force players to make tough moral choices. The new one will explore "the conflict between humans and their nature." No release date is set and it's planned for PC.
  • The makers of bleak post-Brexit management game "Not Tonight" have announced a sequel, "Not Tonight 2," which will be set in "an alternative broken America, where capitalism and political greed have taken center stage." Out later this year, it's planned for PC, Xbox and Switch.

6. Worthy of your attention

💰Remarks by Nexon CEO Owen Mahoney to investors yesterday, in reference to why two of the company's upcoming games don't have release dates [via Nexon's investor site]:

... [W]e could give you a date. That would satisfy your near-term need to plug something in to your model. And it would generate near-term excitement from users.
But then it would put the WRONG type of pressure on the game developers. They would have to hit a date regardless of what is right for making the game fun. In our industry that’s called Crunch mode, which is industry parlance for "put a game out by a certain deadline, no matter what the costs on the employees...."
Crunch mode is one of the most pernicious problems in our industry. The charade of launch timing serves little purpose except this dance with equity analysts.
Instead, the right thing to focus and push for is a game that blows people’s minds. If we achieve that, the game will last many years and the revenues will dwarf what we would have made by launching a quarter or two earlier.

7. Kirby and Kafka

Screenshot of a website featuring the character Kirby and text from Kafka
Screenshot: Nintendo/Axios

It's probably just placeholder text, but Nintendo's official site for its cute Kirby character and his many games now features the first lines of Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis."

  • Well, they did until people started tweeting about it, and the pages were hidden or taken offline.
  • Nintendo watchers noted the company's "Animal Crossing" site also became Kafka-esque in 2018.

Editor's note: The fifth item in yesterday's newsletter has been corrected to state that Kiichiro Urata is Capcom USA & Europe CEO.

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

Axios Gaming is set in the present day.