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Activision CEO talks 'Destiny' and 'Advanced Warfare' development

Activision's CEO spoke to us about some of this year's big titles
Activision's CEO spoke to us about some of this year's big titles
Photo courtesy of Activision, used with permission

The holiday gaming season is just around the corner. Activision is hoping to lead this year's major year-end releases with Bungie's Destiny, which will be releasing in a few weeks for the PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, only to follow up with Skylanders: Trap Team in October and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare in November. We had a chance to sit down with Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg to discuss a couple of these upcoming titles and the hard work that went into creating them. We started by discussing Destiny, which was originally supposed to come out earlier this year.

“I think you know Destiny was delayed and that pushed it into the holiday quarter. It was the right decision to delay it because you never get a second chance to launch [a new game] and make that first impression. Obviously we wanted to prioritize getting the game right and set up for the 10 year vision that we have for Destiny.

“The delay did put it closer to Call of Duty than we had originally planned, but they are as far apart from one another and still be in the holiday quarter. I think that's also true of the games. They're both first-person action games, one is a gritty, somewhat realistic, military shooter, and the other one is a far-future fantasy with capes and aliens and takes place on other planets. So yes, they both have the first-person point of view in common, but I think they'll actually attract some different types of fans, and then of course there will be a lot of crossover as well. The first-person genre has consistently shown that it's broadly appealing enough to accommodate more than one blockbuster success. We're just trying to have two of them,” Hirshberg stated.

There has been a lot of buzz concerning Nintendo's current status, as the Wii U has struggled to find success amid Sony's PS4 and Microsoft's Xbox One. We asked Hirshberg what his thoughts were regarding Nintendo's predicament.

“It's probably a better question to ask Nintendo. They are obviously not off to the start they've probably hoped they would've had with the Wii U, but they also have some of the world's best IP and some of the world's best game makers. I've always said they've been through rough hardware cycles before, but when you have the kind of game makers and beloved IP like they do, you can't count [Nintendo] out for long-term,” Hirshberg replied.

Returning to the subject of Destiny, we asked Hirshberg about the game's development. He recounted to us a couple of instances where Bungie surprised him with their concrete plans, as well as when the project's multiplayer began to come together for him.

“What I'll say about Bungie that seems unique to them is they have one of the clearest visions, meaning when I think back to the first meetings on the game that I was a part of, the concept art, which can often times look like a distant cousin of what the game ends up looking like, hit exactly what they were aiming at. They had this vision for this world and the way it was going to look and feel, and [even though] it has taken a few years to execute, it really does feel like the picture they painted years ago.

“I remember another key moment for me was the first time I experienced what we're calling the shared world shooter elements where you're playing single player, you're playing a campaign [mission], and then you get dumped into this public space with other players, and you have to team up with them to take down an enemy, that was magic. It was one of those moments where I thought 'okay, I haven't experienced that before. That feels new, fresh and cool.' Those have been the big moments that I remember and have given me a lot of enthusiasm for the project,” Hirshberg told us.

Of course, Destiny isn't the only major title coming out this holiday season. We asked Hirshberg about his thoughts during this competitive time, and whether he thought Destiny and Advanced Warfare would have to compete with each other.

“I'd always rather have a completely open freeway with no other traffic, but I've yet to find that weekend anywhere in the year when it makes sense (laughs). Obviously there's a lot of heat around the holiday quarter and we're not the only ones to have observed that. There are only so many weekends around that corner that people have to choose between. This is also driven by when the games are ready, you've seen a lot of games that were supposed to be in the four quarter pushed out of the year, so that creates problems too. Look, it's a competitive business and the best content and the best marketing is always the best predictor of your success,” he replied.

Moving the discussion to the upcoming Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, we asked Hirshberg about the franchise's new three-year development cycle, and how that may affect future titles.

“The first thing is polish. Hopefully you see that in Advanced Warfare. That extra time to polish the game to the nth degree is probably the most [obvious] benefit, but there are a couple others that are more technology based.

“Things like the facial animation strategy we're taking with Kevin Spacey. We showed an R&D project at GDC a year or a year-and-a-half ago that had a near photorealistic face being rendered in real-time demo in a console engine. Figuring out how to actually get that out off of the R&D shelf and into live gameplay takes some time because it's different from the way we've done it in the past. That third year allows us to take things like that and get them out of the ivory tower and make them a reality. We're getting great feedback on the way facial animations look, how characters like Kevin Spacey look in the game, the emotional connection you are having with the characters and the fact that you are picking up emotional shifts [is impressive],” Hirshberg explained before moving on to his personal feelings regarding this new technology.

“My favorite moment from [the scene shown during Microsoft's press conference at E3] is a gruesome one, but when you're laying on the ground after the explosion at the end, and your buddy comes up to you, you see the look on his face, you don't know what's happened yet as the player, you just know there's a look on your buddy's face that isn't good. That level of detail is something that games have struggled to deliver until now.

“Another great example that you saw in Advanced Warfare is we've added an exoskeleton that's got some capabilities like boost jump, exo-strength and cloaking, those are new core mechanics. Call of Duty has had the same basic movement system for a long time, and we get criticized for that, but that's also part of what people love about Call of Duty. Changing that and adding something like being able to jump 25 feet in the air is going to have a lot of unintended consequences. It's going to have a lot of domino effect. [Having the three year cycles] gives us a lot more time to playtest, to get it in the hands of our fans, to optimize the maps for that new movement system. At the end of the day, it's a huge investment every time we make one of these games, and we thought moving to the three year cycle was the right thing to do for the games,” Hirshberg continued.

The increased development time isn't the only thing new for Advanced Warfare, as award-winning actor Kevin Spacey is joining the cast as Jonathon Irons. Hirshberg gave us some details as to what got the actor involved in the project in the first place.

“We had this great idea for [Kevin Spacey's] character. I love the narrative that the villain is not a government or country, but a company. Call of Duty has always had elements that are ripped from today's headlines; the idea of private military corporations is something that is on people's minds right now. The number of private contractors that are on the ground in Afghanistan is now 62% of soldiers there, I think. They are not a part of any military, they're employees of a company, so that idea is something that, if you take it and let your imagination run wild and think 'what does that look like 30 years from now?', it's a pretty compelling villain and a compelling idea. Someone who isn't an elected official is presiding over the world's largest military, and what if he decided he could run the world better than the people he would usually provide services to, that was a compelling concept.

“[Getting Kevin Spacey to sign on for Call of Duty] started with a conversation between me, Glenn Schofield and Michael Condrey where they came and said, 'let's hire an iconic actor for this, let's get someone who people won't see coming.' There have been great actors involved with games before, but he's a two-time Academy Award winner, and it's more than just him standing in front of a microphone and giving the voice, this is full performance capture. This is what the actors in Avatar did, this is him wearing the suit, the movements in the game are his movements, the body language is his body language and the face is his face. I think he is bringing another level of emotional impact to a game, than we've ever seen before. Also, he's a guy who has shown a willingness to experiment with new media. I think when he brought a high-production value, scripted series to a website that seemed like a crazy idea two years ago, now it's a no-brainer. House of Cards seems like something that should've lived on HBO or Showtime to most people, instead it launched Netflix into the owned content world. So he's a guy who appreciates new technology and goes to find audiences wherever they live and that's what got him interested.

“We sat down with him and described the character to him, described the narrative, and first and foremost, I think he responded to that, but also when you sit down with him and say 'this is how many people you're going to reach, here's the kind of engagement we get with this content,' it's pretty compelling. We had a long list [of other actors and actresses] and he was at the top of it. Kevin Spacey was the one person where we thought, 'if we could get him, he would be perfect for this,'” Hirshberg stated.

Our final question during the interview brought us back to Advanced Warfare's development. With additional time spent on each title, we wanted to know whether Activision had considered transitioning to an open-world style of gameplay.

“I would never say never, but I think the first-person action genre has consistently shown that it's highly appealing to people and I think we do it better than anyone. I think we'll continue to focus on making that experience better and better, as opposed to shifting genres where developers who are making these games are less experienced and would probably face a lot more challenges with [an open-world game]. That said, the open-world genre has shown to be really popular to people, so like I said, never say never,” Hirshberg said.

Gamers will have a chance to get a hold of Destiny and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare when the games launch for Sony and Microsoft's current and last-gen consoles on September 9th and November 4th, respectively. Fans of Activision's Skylanders series can also look forward to Trap Team this October.