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Examiner Exclusive: Activision CEO discusses ‘Skylanders Trap Team’ and more

Examiner chats with Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg, who discusses the company as well as the yearly pressures it faces with the “ Call of Duty” series in addition to its uber popular “Skylanders” series. With two of the most popular game series in the industry, occupying the time and energy of two different demographics, Activision continues to cement its dominance every day.

Eric Hirshberg.
Photo by Michael Loccisano

Examiner: When looking at the progress “Swap Force” made for the series, why was Trap Team the next logical step for the franchise?

Eric Hirshberg: We’ve built the brand and achieved success on these kinds of “breakthrough, wow moments” for kids, and I think that it would’ve been easier for us to keep adding characters and rest on the laurels of the magic of the first game. But we really felt like the right thing to do was to keep trying to find these magical moments that blur the lines between the physical and digital world. When we saw the idea of pulling the character out of the game, it immediately captured our imaginations and it certainly became a lead idea.

Well the first Skylanders disrupted two industries. It disrupted both the video game industry and the toy industry, but more than that I think there’s also a moment of disruption when people see something they haven’t seen before. That’s the type of disruption I’m talking about, where something just seems magical, something just has that strong magnetic pull that you want to go into that world. It’s a little bit of a genre-bending, media-bending idea so we’re looking for those kinds of breakthrough moments.

For Skylanders, the audience of kids is so fun to work with because they just have such active imaginations and it’s so much easier for kids to suspend their disbelief. That’s one of the things that’s so satisfying about working on a franchise like this is you get to see that response. When we showed kids this one, we literally had kids picking up these plastic crystals and looking inside of them, closing one eye and holding them up to their ear. They’re convinced the character they just defeated is in there, and [the kids] think they can see them, so it is just so real for them. When you can create that kind of magic for a kid, it’s super gratifying.

Examiner: How have kids been involved with the making of this game?

Hirshberg: Kids are a big part of the creative process, through the development, at multiple stages we bring in kids for play testing, which is fairly standard. With Skylanders, a lot of the people that are involved with [the series] just coincidentally happen to have kids [of their own] in the right age zone, and so that’s become a big part of the process, it’s that our own kids have become these de facto, built-in focus groups. When we’re designing new characters or working on some of their mechanics, they’re sort of the first ones we run them by, and I think everyone who has had the lucky coincidence of having kids of the right age is really enjoying that part of the process.

I think it probably can’t help but do that. A, because you are constantly trying to channel your own inner kid. You’re trying to think like you did when you were a kid and trying to unlock that imagination that we all are born with and tend to lose along the way. So you’re trying to always be in that state of mind yourself, and then of course your ultimate report card comes from kids all over the world.

Examiner: What have yearly franchises taught you about the market?

Hirshberg: If there was one thing I would say we’ve learned is that people really do invest deeply in the worlds and the characters they love. Across all forms of entertainment right now, I think that’s why you see so many franchises. It doesn’t matter which medium you look at right now, whether it’s publishing books or movies, there are these long-standing characters and franchises that stand the test of time. As long as you keep the worlds constantly evolving, interesting, vast and worth returning to, people have a healthy appetite for that kind of relationship with entertainment.

Examiner: Skylanders into a movie?

Hirshberg:It makes all the sense in the world for the movie business (laughs). They are great characters that have a built-in audience with kids, and the kids have built an affinity for, anything like that has appealing properties for the movie business. For video game companies, I think there’s been pretty mixed results when it comes to making video games into movies. It’s obviously something we talk about, and I think Skylanders really could benefit from. You have to do it just right and very carefully so it expands the brand and builds our core business, which is making games. We want to make sure that if we were ever to do that, we would do it in a way that enhances that core experience.

Examiner: Do you all ever become complacent?

Hirshberg: Never, that’s the key thing we try not to do. That’s why we’ve taken the strategy we have. I think that’s more challenge, trying to come up with those clever magic moments, but I also think it leads to a higher pique because it keeps the franchise fresh. Last year, we introduced the Swapable toys where you could create your own characters, and then have those combinations of personalities in the game, that was a nice step forward for the toys-to-life idea. This year, we’re literally pulling characters into the physical world from the game and that’s the next step forward.

Examiner: Were there other ideas that didn’t make it in?

Hirshberg: In fact [Trap Team] was the most out there one (laughs). There were lots of concepts we were looking at and lots of concepts Toys For Bob brought to the table at a very early stage. We looked at a bunch of things together and this idea of trapping a villain in some sort of trap was a sub-side idea of another one we ultimately didn’t go with, but we all pointed at this idea and said ‘I know this has a side element to this other idea, but we think that’s the coolest idea.’ We didn’t know how to do it at that point, we didn’t know whether the illusion of the character being trapped should be visual or if there is technology available to support that, but ultimately we came to this wonderful solution of sound being the thing that creates the illusion. Sound and light essentially. It’s very simple use of existing technology, but when sound transfers from the TV speakers to the portal, the illusion is pretty vivid.

Examiner: With "Disney Infinity" entering the market last year, has that brought a new level of drive and commitment to developers on Skylanders?

Hirshberg: The way we looked at [Disney Infinity] is that it was only a matter of time. With the level of success that Skylanders achieved, it was only a matter of time until competitors came into that genre. That only puts Skylanders in the same situation that all of the other games we make have. We have competition in every genre we make games for. Skylanders was an anomaly for a brief period of time because we invented it, so competition is nothing new. We really try and not focus on the competition because that’s not what leads to the best games. What leads to the best games is us pushing ourselves to come up with bigger innovations and big ideas and very well-crafted experiences.

Examiner: With allowing players to play as the villain or hero, how much does this increase the value of Trap Team? It almost doubles the playtime in a way.

Hirshberg: I think Skylanders has always presented a lot of value. The figures themselves cost about the same as a regular toy does, and yet they do so much more. I think now that’s amplified even more because these Traps will be at a lower price point and yet you can capture a huge variety of new characters. The more diversity in experience we can create for people within each game, the better.

Examiner: Did you ever think next-gen only?

Hirshberg: No not yet, there is still a huge audience on what is now the last gen of hardware. Lots of times, the early adopters for the new hardware are more core gamers and so a lot of Skylanders fans are still playing on an Xbox 360 or a PS3. We’ve always been a platform agnostic company, and we want to be where the audiences are, so right now it still makes sense to do it on next-gen and current-gen.

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