Activision’s Call of Duty boss Eric Hirshberg is ready for battle

Eric Hirshberg is the chief executive of Activision Publishing, a big chunk of the world’s largest video game company, Activision Blizzard. Among his duties is to make sure the Call of Duty franchise keeps humming along every year despite new competition from rivals such as Electronic Arts. We caught up with him at the E3 trade show in Los Angeles last week, and he told us what he thought of everything from Nintendo’s upcoming Wii U video game console to the Call of Duty Elite social network that debuts this fall with the launch of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3.

Hirshberg was named CEO of Activision Publishing last year. He was previously an executive at Deutsch LA, an integrated marketing and advertising agency with a billion dollars in revenue. He helped create advertising strategies for clients like Sony’s PlayStation business, and now he’s in charge of a multibillion-dollar business in Santa Monica, Calif. that includes the Call of Duty franchise. Naturally, we spent a lot of time talking about that as well as the company’s new Skylanders toy-game combo product debuting this fall.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

VB: Do you know if the Nintendo Wii U can actually handle shooter games or not?

EH: It sure sounds that way. I think that it is very promising. Clearly they are going in a different direction and I think that the controller is very intriguing, and I also think that clearly they are committing to a platform that would be more welcoming to more kinds of games. I think the Wii was a spectacular platform for certain kinds of games but this feels like it’s going to be a more versatile tool for publishers.

VB: I thought that was the case, because they showed the tablet sitting on top of the gun accessory in their press conference video.

EH: I don’t think anything got into Nintendo’s press conference accidentally. So if they tell us that, it’s a loud and clear message that I took away.

VB: That sort of solution didn’t work so well with the Wii.

EH: I think that the Wii is a wonderful platform. It was a great novelty in terms of the input device and the motion control, and it really started the whole motion-control revolution that has ensued. It was wonderful for those types of games. But for a Call of Duty game, I think there are a lot of sacrifices that needed to be made in terms of processing power and graphics in order to make that game work on that system. It sounds like the Wii U is going to solve all those problems for publishers. It sounds like they are committing to a more connected digital backend.

VB: As far as how much you will get behind it, what is the story? Will you be able to publish a single game across four different platforms, including the Wii U?

EH: I hope so. That certainly is the direction it seems to be going. Ultimately, we are going to dig into it and make the decisions on a case by case basis. But Nintendo has always had a basic advantage with their own intellectual property and they have always done a wonderful job of matching their own intellectual property with their hardware. But this console seems to be a more versatile toolbox for our developers.

VB: There is plenty of advance notice this time too.

EH:  Yeah.

VB:  That seems to invite third parties to develop for the platform in a bigger way.

EH: Yeah.

VB: So EA described Battlefield 3, and you showed off Modern Warfare 3. What is the reaction so far? I see that they announced a social network that will be free for their players.

EH: So did we! I am not laughing. The free portions of Elite include free multiplayer gaming.

VB: I think their joke about it (at the EA press conference, where the free nature of the social network was pointed out in contrast to Activision Blizzard’s plan to charge a premium subscription fee) was somehow meant to confuse people.

EH: I think so too. I think that — let me pause for a second here. Let me just respond to the part that is about us. I don’t want to talk about it yet. The free portions of Call of Duty Elite are going to be the best, most robust and most fully featured in the industry.

Yes, we are also doing a premium membership that will offer you even more capabilities and even more robust experiences. So it’s a free service with a premium option, a premium membership option. But like I said, the free service will be the best free service on the market. The mostly featured. There would be several industry firsts within the free portion, and I think that what happened is everyone was so convinced that we were going to start charging for multiplayer on Call of Duty games. I cannot tell you, I cannot count how many times since I have been on this job that I have been asked, when are you going to start charging for multiplayer? Everyone assumes that that is what is going to happen.

VB: Are you going to start charging for multiplayer? (laughs). Somebody almost swore adamantly that it was going to happen.

EH: And not only did we not do that, we didn’t take anything away from the current value proposition and we added to it. So now in addition to buying a disk that has campaign mode, multiplayer mode, the ability to buy a la carte downloadable content throughout the year — now we’ve added this giant very robust, innovative free service as well. And all anybody focused on for the first couple of days was, “but they are asking for a subscription fee for the premium service.” Which we are. And we think it’s worth it, and we think that there will be a healthy percentage of gamers who agree with this. If not, then they don’t have to choose to do that. But we’ve taken nothing away; we’ve only added more choice than ever. Now one of those choices is a premium membership, but we have to earn that. We have to have made a service that is worth the money.

VB: EA is coming out a little earlier than you this year. It didn’t make much difference last year.

EH: I am really not focused on our competition. I am focused on making the best game we can and marketing it the best we can.

VB: Why is November such a great time to launch a Call of Duty game?

EH: It’s close to the holiday and people are off work. It has just worked for us historically.

VB: How was the reception for Skylanders?

EH: The reception of Skylanders has been great. We are so excited about that franchise. I mean, first of all the sort of core idea, “I will bring your toys to life” is simple but so visceral, particularly for kids. We’ve not yet met the kid whose eyes don’t light up when he sees one of those toy characters come to life inside the game. And we’ve sort of blurred the lines between physical world and a virtual world in a new way, which is also a big innovation.

Not just bringing the toys to life in the game, but the fact that the game is remembered inside the toy. In this game, any powering up, any achievements, any leveling up that you do with your character is written in the toy’s permanent memory. It happens on your console. Or it happens on your friend’s console even if he plays on a different console platform. It happens on your iPhone app, your 3DS game, your web world games. So it’s a pretty innovative proposition. It’s a situation where we delayed the release. It was supposed to be out last holiday. We took an extra year. We gave the developers Toys For Bob a whole bunch of resources to get this thing to a very high level of polish. They also created a large universe around it: a web world, a 3DS game, iPhone app, three console games, the PC game. And the iPhone app and the web world are completely different game play than what you get on the console. It is game play that is indigenous to those devices.

VB: So the industry seems to have pretty much bounced back from the recession, I guess. What is your take on the recovery?

EH:  People aren’t gaming less. There are no statistics you can find to show you that. People are gaming more than ever in terms of the installed base of console hardware. If you look at the number of hours being played online, it’s huge. It’s bigger than it’s ever been before. You look at the sales of the top titles, and they are bigger than ever before. What people are doing is they are gaming more in fewer games. They are going deeper into fewer franchises. And so that’s how we’ve built our slate. We are following that pattern. And so we are making fewer and bigger bets.

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