A Billboard Heard Round the World: The Digital Protest That Rattled the Gaming Goliaths

In the bustling heart of Los Angeles during a sweltering summer’s day, in the world of digital realms and streaming frenzies pervading the Summer Game Fest, a billboard did what few things can: it made the metaverse stop and crane its virtual neck. A few hours before Microsoft unveiled its blockbuster acquisition of Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion, a billboard on West Pico Boulevard flashed the message: ‘Gone but not forgotten… Thank you for great games.’ It went on to name several now-defunct studios, including Arkane Austin and Tango Gameworks. Its message did what these things often try to do, which is to create a small guerrilla-style impact in the metaverse’s cultural landgrab. The billboard instantly went viral.

Unpacking the Message: A Tribute Turns Viral

New Blood Interactive’s co-founder Dave Oshry came up with the idea for the billboard as both a tribute and a kind of protest; an embattled, voice-in-the-wilderness manifesto, but also, quite literally, a conversation starter. Oshry explains that, for him, the billboard wasn’t just clever advertising — it was a way to honour the fallen studios, and by extension, those who had developed in them. ‘There’s no one game[s] they developed, there’s a history behind them,’ he told Polygon in 2019. ‘I thought, these were human beings that went there. These are people’s kids and that’s sad.’ In the industry and in its fanbase, the billboard caught on like wildfire. Oshry’s poster has racked up more than 3 million views to date. News started popping up on gaming publishing sites and eventually, validation — an article on NPR, a 2020 documentary on the ‘ghost signs’ of New York.

MICROSOFT and the Industry's Tightening Noose

So the narrative became more introspective, more soul-searching as the scroll grew ever longer with developments that included tweets regarding the controversial studio closures of Arkane Austin (one of the developers behind the Dark Messiah of Might and Magic franchise and, more recently, Prey) and Tango Gameworks (responsible for such horror classics as The Evil Within and the recently released Ghostwire: Tokyo), with MICROSOFT as a central figure to this new digital protest due to the company’s very recent closure of these two studios. ‘I want to criticise Microsoft. I want to criticise the industry for doing stuff like this,’ Oshry explained and extended the metaphor: ‘the one that’s walked the farthest sweats the most,’ pointing to the larger companies market imperative and their need to squeeze developers and their dreams dry.

The Cost of Virality vs. The Cost of Participation

The other standout feature of Oshry’s protest was that it cost next to nothing. A stunt at an event as big as the Summer Game Fest can cost companies more than a quarter of a million dollars, but this digital billboard spread around the internet for a fraction of that cost. Oshry didn’t reveal the exact number, but nodded towards a price tag that was ‘monster’ but also ‘way less than that shit’.

MICROSOFT's Controversial Decisions Under the Microscope

This riposte leant scrutiny to the industry and gaming public’s reaction to the closures – not just the perpetually penitent schadenfreude familiar when MICROSOFT slips up, but the way the tech conglomerate handles its studios, and the consequences of those decisions on the gaming community. Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft Gaming, was put in the awkward position of having to explain the closures as part of ‘maintaining a business that can continue to invest in building great experiences for players over the long term’. This almost utilitarian response spurred controversy about where limits to the exploitation of profit sit within the industry.

The Path Forward: Supporting Developers Post-Cuts

Courtesy OneOddGamer Though the billboard and the drama it engendered allegorised the tribulations and controversy that surround game development, Oshry’s note was not one of protest but also of hope and solidarity – a clarion cry to hire these developers, bankroll their dreams, and lend them an ear, and be welcomed to include their work in the mosaic of gaming.

Understanding MICROSOFT: A Closer Look

After all, Microsoft is a giant multifaceted technology company with a long history in gaming, from its Xbox console and its Microsoft Studios, to its recent acquisitions of several big-name game developers. Microsoft’s decisions have ripples that stretch all the way down the gaming universe, affecting not only its own products but the day-to-day work of countless game developers — and also, tellingly, the company’s carefully cultivated image. The billboard debacle drove home the extent to which the gaming business is still human after all.

Tapping into a widespread feeling of loss and shared, community-driven anger against MICROSOFT and other corporate giants in the industry, Oshry’s performative social media gesture generated public debate on far more fundamental issues than mere trolling: the sustainability of the gaming industry, the value of human creativity, and the dire need for those who work in gaming to stand up for themselves. As this story evolves further, it becomes still another telling example of the power of community, the effects of digital platforms, and the bravery of those standing up for change.

Jun 12, 2024
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