Editorial: The Toys For Bob Controversy Speaks To The Problem Of Mixed Messages In The Industry

Robert argues that fan reaction to recent rumors is grounded in seeming hypocrisy on Activision’s part.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 05/04/2021 23:06 Comment on this     ShareThis

Recently, word began circulating on the Internet that Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time developer Toys For Bob had been recruited by parent company Activision to work on Call of Duty: Warzone as a support studio. It’s been a while since CoD has appeared on a Nintendo system, but in brief, the games are so massive, complex, and incredibly important to Activision from a financial perspective these days that the company uses any and all resources at its disposal to keep the franchise running smoothly. If that means taking a developer like Toys For Bob, which has been working on the Skylanders, Spyro, and now Crash Bandicoot series for many years, and positioning them in an ancillary role, Activision isn’t going to think twice. CoD is the prime moneymaker. Them’s the breaks. Not that it left fans pleased, with many bemoaning what felt like Toys For Bob being pulled away for veritable grunt work as opposed to focusing on the games that make the developer unique.

While that reaction might have been expected, a secondary rumor took on a life of its own and complicated things a bit. Word was that Toys For Bob had gone through some layoffs following middling sales for Crash 4. This was bolstered by a handful of now-former Toys For Bob employees reacting to a Tweet the company had put out announcing its work on Season 3 of Call of Duty: Warzone. The rumor was pervasive enough that Activision spoke to VGC and clarified with a statement:

Reports of layoffs at Toys For Bob are incorrect. There has not been a reduction in personnel recently at the studio. The development team is operating fully and has a number of full-time job openings at this time.

The studio is excited to continue supporting Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, and more recently provide additional development support to Call of Duty: Warzone.

Fan outrage isn’t always apropos of anything real, nor worth addressing, but in reaction to the debunked layoffs talk their concerns were rooted in legitimacy and speak to a larger problem. Fans were upset to hear, albeit as an unconfirmed rumor, that Activision was letting anyone go at Toys For Bob at a time when it didn’t seem even slightly justified. The company’s CEO Bobby Kotick was just criticized across various media outlets for being primed to earn $200 million in bonuses after the layoffs of eight percent of Activision’s workforce—following a year of record profits, no less. Kotick’s salary and bonuses were subsequently very publicly slashed following decidedly negative media backlash, but it was a hollow gesture to many. Activision and its CEO are doing swan dives into a money vault not unlike Scrooge McDuck, but somehow the workers that already got pink slips weren’t enough of a sacrifice to shareholders and the gods of Wall Street? Needless to say, the news rankled.

As the VGC article attests, these fears of layoffs were unfounded, but it does nothing to change the fact that Activision still laid off a sizable chunk of its staff while lining its pockets. Let me be clear: I think anyone in this country should go out and earn as much as they can if it’s within their power. A kid getting drafted into the NFL is worth whatever dollar amount a given team is willing to offer him, someone rising up from a copy editor to the editor in chief of a periodical deserves to be paid more for reaching the top, and on, and on. Where my frustrations come in is that companies like Activision seem so oblivious to what can be easily perceived as blatant greed, so convinced that fans don’t see when words and deeds fail to match up.

Fans know that Activision made a ton of money in the last year. Fans also know that, up until a few days ago, Bobby Kotick was going to get $200 million of that profit in bonuses. Fans also know that in the same year that Activision made record profits it chose to layoff a large number of workers. Thinking that Toys For Bob, which has produced so many wonderful and profitable games for Activision over the years, should deserve to have any of its workers jettisoned under those conditions was a massive affront. Yes, this turned out not to be true, but it also served as something of a tipping point for many a fan, nonetheless.

The eight percent of Activision workers that were let go comes across as especially egregious after an entire year of the industry talking big about equity and diversity initiatives. To say nothing of the jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well. While Activision has been less pandering than some outfits when it comes to these discussions, the company has nonetheless thrown its hat into the ring. Why bother getting a specialized education in game design or marketing, strive to get into the industry, land a steady job with a good employer, and then be laid off for no seemingly justified reason other than the bean-counting “rationalizations” of upper management? Again, I don’t believe in limiting what people earn, but I do think that the marketing statements and hyperbolic claims on social media need to line up, at least slightly, with the reality of working in the industry. Don’t claim to be concerned for workers while simultaneously laying them off during profitable times.

For years now, it’s been an open secret that working in the video game industry can be a very unglamorous existence for rank and file employees. Concerns about a lack of healthcare abound, not to mention low salaries. When the industry is raking in money at a rate that makes the combined assemblage of professional sports leagues and Hollywood blush, seeing a company like Activision laying off anyone isn’t just head-scratching, it’s alarming. It also begs the question, what is the Goldilocks scenario in which a company can make record profits and not allege the need to send workers to the unemployment line? If the goal is just pure profit, workers be damned, then simply say so, because the fiscal decisions never reflect the flowery talk employed in press releases—and fans are acutely aware of this.

So, kudos to Activision for assuaging everyone’s fears and confirming the (for now) stay of execution of who knows how many workers at Toys For Bob HQ. It will feel better to know moving forward, however, that rather than relying on bad press to compel change in the future, Activision might instead be fair to workers because it’s the right thing to do.

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