Anyone who has been following us over the last week knows that we recently had a chance to sit down and speak at length with Activision's Eric Hirshberg. With the recent success of the Skylanders series, a new entry in the Call of Duty franchise set to release within the next week, and next year's release of Destiny, it's safe to say that the publisher has a lot on their plate going into the new console generation. We began the discussion with the latter, asking how Activision's partnership with Bungie had come about.
“A lot of it is pretty obvious; they have a pretty great track record with making games that achieve a pretty rare level of both critical and commercial success. That was the beginning of the attraction.
“Secondly, the idea for Destiny itself, which we thought was a pretty special idea and if you look at it from an Activision Blizzard standpoint, our two biggest franchises are Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. We thought Destiny had a pretty unique way of bringing the best of those two worlds together. We thought working with the developer was a great idea and the pairing of them with what Activision knew how to do well, would probably be a pretty good combination,” Hirshberg replied.
While Activision is known primarily for their existing Call of Duty franchise, they're no stranger to trying new things. This begs the question of how they come up with new IP in the first place.
“I think we're definitely at our best when we're creating franchises, when we're creating very deep experiences. So if you look at new opportunities through that lens of whether or not you think that world is a deep world people would really want to explore, then those are the best gaming experiences we want to bring.”
Of course, Bungie's new IP isn't the only thing Activision has to offer. This Tuesday will see the release of Call of Duty: Ghosts, the latest in a long line of the franchise's annual releases. We asked Hirshberg whether he thought yearly releases were underappreciated in today's market.
“Not according to the marketplace response, that's who we make games for. There are a lot of people who really appreciate our approach. By the way, there are a lot of companies who have a different approach and there's always something for everyone in the industry and that's what makes this industry great.
“I certainly don't think there's anything inherently better or worse with either approach. If you're going to do a one-off experience, it's going to have to be great. If you're going to have a franchise that's going to have multiple chapters to a story, each one of those are going to have to be great. I'm an enthusiast and I look at it through that lens, you know, quality is the great equalizer. Neither strategy will work if the games aren't great,” Hirshberg stated.
The topic of releasing quality content would soon become this interview's central theme. We asked what type of genre Hirshberg believed was most popular with gamers. The answer we got may surprise a few fans.
“I think the genre is less important than the execution of an idea. I don't think if you would've taken a poll of gamers and described the Skylanders genre, it would've won a poll. I think the execution was so captivating and so magical that it won on its merit. I think there are great executions in multiple genres. I think the genre is less important,” Hirshberg said
Creating memorable experiences through video games is unlike in any other medium. We asked whether or not Hirshberg believed Activision's games should ever be turned into films.
“Again with all creative art forms, execution is everything. We've been very cautious about [films]. With the strength of our brands, we've been approached countless times. It's something we look at and say, 'is this going to make the franchise stronger, is this going to make the experience for our gamers stronger?' If we ever do that, then the answers to those questions are going to have to be yes because our primary business model is making great games,” Hirshberg answered.
With all of that said, we now had a better idea of Activision's business model and how they work. Thinking ahead to the upcoming release of Sony's PS4 and Microsoft's Xbox One, we asked whether it was better to launch a new IP at the start of a console cycle, or if that was just a myth.
“There's a natural flashpoint with new technology launching with new IP and people are in a mode of sampling and wanting to see what the new hardware can do, and I think that is a natural time to look at investments in new IP. I know that's what we're doing with Destiny.
“If you look at things historically, the big franchises have done well through console transitions as well. I do feel like people look for patterns in all kinds of ways, but at the end of the day I think the best games and the best experiences tend to win.
“So if there's a new IP that's great, I think it would find an audience whether or not it was coming out in a new console year or not. We saw that with Skylanders. I think lots of these things defy the patterns we try to look for. That stuff is maybe harder to put on a graph, but that's why we follow the best ideas and look for the best development talent. Our strategy is to try to do a few things and do them exceptionally well. That leads you to focus and make sure everything you put out is really special, and to me that seems like the best long-term strategy,” Hirshberg replied.
The Call of Duty series continues to be one of the biggest franchises in gaming, and it's clear that Activision and its developers must get a lot of feedback from their passionate fans. We asked Hirshberg how fan reactions have influenced their games over the years.
“I think quite a bit versus other creative industries. There's a stronger amount of feedback than you would see in movies or other forms of entertainment. It has more in common with software. It's somewhere between software creation and entertainment creation.
“There's a constant feedback and our development teams are constantly aware of both what people are saying and also what people are doing. Sometimes those two things aren't the same. I think it's good to listen to the opinions there and it's also good to watch behavior. At the end of the day, sometimes we're surprised by the things that catch fire.
“I think Zombies was a good example that started with the Call of Duty franchise, it was something that was an Easter egg in one of the Treyarch games and it just caught fire. It's not something we necessarily designed with the foresight that it would turn out exactly how it has. We sort of followed the heat to a certain extent and then decided to invest more in it. But that's an example of the community having a lot of impact on our creative process,” Hirshberg stated.
It's interesting to think that the popular Zombies mode, and most likely Ghosts Extinction mode, are products of fan feedback. With the release of Sony and Microsoft's new consoles on the horizon, we asked whether the new hardware would allow for additional feedback.
“They are certainly both more connected devices, particularly in the way they connect to other devices. They have more connectivity, but I don't know that they necessarily provide more feedback than we've had in the past.
“I think we've had a very rich feedback loop and ability to see what our fans like and don't like already, so I'm not sure there's anything about the new console cycle that amplifies that,” Hirshberg replied.
We know that the Call of Duty franchise has grown into a powerful franchise over the years, but what about the sudden success of Skylanders, and how such a series came to be.
“There was a kind of visceral response that everyone had and everyone has had when they see a toy come to life. We saw that with the reaction of everybody inside of Activision and the consumer. There was a lot of analyst and pundids scratching their heads saying, 'why are you guys getting into the kids phase, other publishers seem to be getting out of it? The Wii is in decline.'
“It was hard to argue the case for it on a chart or on a graph, but that's where the magic of this industry lies. None of that mattered. What mattered is we had an idea that was transformational and really cool and magical. The one thing we had going for us that outsiders looking in didn't have, was the response we were getting from consumers.
“Usually, whenever you test any new IP, there's usually three populations. There's exceptors, rejectors, and people who are neutral. The only variant is the size of those three populations. In this case, there was only one population and that was everybody loved it. We have yet to see a kid whose eyes didn't pop out when they saw a toy come alive in the game. With that as fuel, we were emboldened to make a pretty big investment in an unproven genre and obviously it's gratifying that it's been proven right in the marketplace,” Hirshberg went on.
Part of Skylanders success has come from its ensemble cast of toy-based characters. Still, we wondered whether or not we would ever see standalone installments of the series.
“I think that the ensemble cast is kind of baked into the DNA of that game because it drives the selection of which toy you're going to use in any given situation. If the game ever got too focused on any single character, it would by nature be less about picking one toy up and putting another one on.
“Part of what makes that game so fun is the endless variety of personalities, powers and capabilities that the ensemble cast provides. The thing I think the developers have really gotten right is changing the characters out is more than just a superficial change. They really do different things and they really help you solve different problems and navigate the visual world differently.
“The character is more than who you are in the mood for; it's also a strategic choice. I think the game takes another step toward giving the player a lot of control as to how they want to navigate the world. It's a great leap forward from a visual standpoint as well. It's really a nice step forward to the franchise,” Hirshberg said.
The recently released Swap Force is available on every current console, but will also be making its way to the Xbox One and PS4. We asked Hirshberg how these versions would stack up against what is already available on store shelves.
“I'd have to say the graphics are the most immediate difference that is demonstrable. Obviously in a year like this, there is a lot of excitement and focus on the next-gen for obvious reasons. People want to see what the new machines can do, but the majority of the install base is still on the current-gen.
“You have to make sure you have the best game for both generations of platforms, which is what we've tried to do. No matter where you want to play the game, we think we've got a great game for you,” Hirshberg stated.
It's great to see franchises like Skylanders find success across all platforms, but what about titles that remain exclusive? Bungie is known for their Halo series, which is only featured on Microsoft's consoles. We asked Hirshberg whether Destiny had ever been considered as an exclusive as well.
“Activision has been a platform agnostic company and I think that's a good strategy for us. Our focus is on making great IP and great franchises that people want to play no matter what platform they choose to play on.
“At the same time we have entered into relationships that are mutually beneficial with the first parties. It gives them some exclusives to market to their community and that in turn helps us launch our games as effectively as possible,” Hirshberg said.
An example of one such deal would be Microsoft's timed exclusive content for many of the Call of Duty games. Infinity Ward's Ghosts is set to launch next week, which made us wonder what Treyarch might be up to, and whether we'll see a new sub-series from them as well.
“It really depends on their creative process. Part of the strategy is to allow each developer the maximum amount of freedom to make a great game. With [Infinity Ward] this year, starting with them, everyone thought it was the right time to introduce a new cast of characters, a new world, a new narrative, and the Modern Warfare series had a great arc with Modern Warfares 1, 2 and 3 and they really wanted to take it into a new area.
“We wholeheartedly supported that and I think that gamers seem to be excited about it as well. As to what comes next from Treyarch, that'll come out of the creative process,” Hirshberg replied.
While we couldn't get a confirmation on what Treyarch may be working on, it's nice to know that the possibility for something new is there. Call of Duty: Ghosts is certain to be one of this season's biggest releases, with a lot of hype being placed on its multiplayer mode. We asked Hirshberg if he thought the new dynamic multiplayer maps were this installment's biggest addition.
“I hope so, it certainly is a really cool feature to my eyes. I think the Call of Duty multiplayer game has been incredibly successful and popular. I think it has a unique brand of fast-paced gameplay that our developers do better than anyone and our developers try to develop maps that have replayability to them.
“One of the things that separates players who have always played the multiplayer is their knowledge of the maps. Up until now, it's been how they're laid out. Now it's not only how they are laid out, but also what you can do to them to change the game. Understanding those triggers and how they work, which ones are happening randomly, which ones you can control, is a whole new level of control I think people are really going to find [enjoyable],” Hirshberg said.