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LOS ANGELES — Activision Publishing moved all of its chips to the center of the table when it bet on Bungie’s Destiny, Skylanders, and Call of Duty. The division of Activision Blizzard showed off its lineup this week in a giant booth at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles.
Eric Hirshberg, the president and chief executive of Activision Publishing, is the one who pushed those chips forward. He is spending billions and making billions. His company should benefit from the huge investments that Sony and Microsoft are making in their next-generation game consoles.
He isn’t saying which in his favorite console: the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One, or the Nintendo Wii U. With his cross-platform games, Hirshberg is selling ammunition to all three in the console war. But he is willing to offer limited exclusives, and we probed into that in our interview with him at the Electronic Entertainment Expo.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: The console makers have spoken. Did they reveal anything that enables you to talk some more about any particular things that are relevant for these games? They do seem very different as far as where they stand on the sensors, with Kinect, and the controller.
Eric Hirshberg: Yeah, for sure. Has PlayStation even talked about the Move?
GamesBeat: No, it hasn’t. There was no mention of it.
Hirshberg: Is that just going to fade out?
GamesBeat: I haven’t had a chance to ask Sony about Move yet.
Hirshberg: It’s interesting. One of them is doubling down, and the other one is not.
GamesBeat: It sounds like the Move isn’t on your radar at the moment, then.
Hirshberg: [Pause] That’s a good deduction.
GamesBeat: On the Destiny demo, I couldn’t quite tell if the chatter was from the two guys on stage chattering as opposed to the chatter in the game.
Hirshberg: We were worried about that when we were putting that demo together. We thought we’d made it clear with [Bungie’s] Joe Staten’s introduction – this is Destiny, I’m a Guardian, and here comes [Bungie cofounder] Jason Jones, we’re going to meet up. Before they start bantering between one another, there was this setup that made it clear that this was their voices. But it’s interesting that you noticed that. Those were the voices of the players, not the onscreen characters.
The thing we were trying to get across in that demo was to bring to life this idea of a shared-world shooter. That was a single-player type of environment where you’re playing against artificial intelligence. That’s also the way that you go through the story in the game, how the plot unfolds before you. So it would be most highly related to single-player in the current lexicon. But here you are bumping into friends who are inhabiting the same world you are, and bumping into strangers who you have to team up with in order to take down a boss villain. That’s pretty fresh. That’s what we were trying to get across. That’s why we kept adding people who kept teaming up with one another.
Now, if you just want to play alone and have a single-player experience, you’re able to do that in Destiny as well. But this was one of the key innovations. It’s either a new genre or a very fresh take on an existing genre.
GamesBeat: It’s a little like what Ubisoft has been calling seamless multiplayer, where it has no break between the single-player and the multiplayer experience.
Hirshberg: Yes, but I would say that because you’re progressing through the world—it never turned into a multiplayer game. You never entered an arena and started competing against other players. You could team up or not team up and make that choice autonomously. But you’re all inhabiting the same world.
GamesBeat: I saw the public part of this pop up. Can it be as large or small as the developers want to make it?
Hirshberg: The space itself? Yeah. Those public spaces appear at the right cadence as well. There’s a lot of different types of gameplay that you’re going to encounter through an average play session in Destiny. The demo showed that. It showed Joe starting out as a lone player. He’s deciding to go outside the wall. He teams up with a friend. They get in and have a battle, just the two of them, and then they encounter the spider tank – a miniboss, if you will. There’s another strike team that’s hard at work trying to defeat it, and they team up so that the five of them are able to take it down. I feel like those public spaces are both novel and differentiating, but they need to come at the right pace, so you’re having different experiences. The demo definitely focused on the newness.
GamesBeat: Is there a narrated experience that you haven’t shown yet?
Hirshberg: Yeah. We’ve shown a bit of that in the trailer. It wasn’t a huge part of the demo. The story of Destiny, the mythology and the characters and the narrative, is a very important part of the game. It’s something Bungie historically has done very well: creating characters that you connect with and care about and worlds that seem to have their own set of authentic structure and rules that you connect with. I certainly felt that way about Halo.
GamesBeat: Could you explain your long-term relationship with Sony?
Hirshberg: There’s not much to explain. It’s a fairly straight-up-the-middle relationship, not unlike the relationship we’ve had between Call of Duty and Microsoft. It’s a way for us to amplify our launches and our branding and our marketing. It’s a way for us to give them some exclusives that are relevant to their audience as well.
GamesBeat: This doesn’t sound like that Destiny is exclusive to Sony, though.
GamesBeat: It sounds like exclusives are becoming more creative these days. They used to be just that franchises like Final Fantasy never went to Microsoft.
Hirshberg: I think you still have both. You certainly saw both first parties announcing several pretty compelling exclusives, I thought. Both first parties had games that I would want to play and that you couldn’t play without their hardware. That’s a great strategy for their business. It’s not our business. Our business, we’ve always been platform agnostic. We always want to be wherever gamers are. That doesn’t mean we can’t do certainly things first or a little bit earlier – exclusives of the right scale, if you will – for a first-party partner. But we want to make sure we deliver a triple-A experience on every platform.
GamesBeat: Some of the things Microsoft’s talking more about include cloud processing. Do you know if you’ll jump into that?
Hirshberg: I don’t have any announcements or insight on that today. I will say, though, that particularly with Call of Duty, one of the competitive advantages we’ve had has been the back end technology that underpins that game that we’ve built with DemonWare. We’ve made sure that our matchmaking and multiplayer experience is something that we control, and that we can impact the quality of it. I don’t think that is going to change. That said, there are certainly some creative possibilities that they’ve described for cloud computing that our developers are surely going to explore.
GamesBeat: I’m still looking forward to seeing something take advantage of the new Kinect and the new Xbox 360 controller. Microsoft hasn’t really shown that yet.
Hirshberg: We have some things planned for the dog, in particular, in Call of Duty: Ghosts. Did you see the level we have with the dog? We have it running down in the theater. The idea of having the dog was born out of a narrative idea, but it really caught fire creatively when Infinity Ward brought in a Navy SEAL who’s an expert in training and working with these military dogs. When you hear how they work with these dogs and the equipment that they use, it was like a video game, built in. The dog wears a vest that has vibrating sensors. You can send commands to have it turn left, turn right, bark, hide, attack. It has a little microphone in its ear so you can talk to the dog. It has a pop-up camera on its harness so you can see what he’s seeing. We looked at this and it was practically all laid out for us. So the different ways that you can input suggestions to the dog will be really fun in Ghosts, and Kinect will be a part of it.
GamesBeat: These boxes that are around today are still pretty good: the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Do you think you’ll have more of a chance to have both be sustainable for a while?
Hirshberg: Yeah, but that wouldn’t be anything new. Look at the long tail that the PS2 had in the last console transition. That machine stayed relevant for years into the current generation. So that might happen again. The current boxes both deliver a lot of value. We want to make sure that we’re delivering a great experience on every platform. Whether you’re going to wait and see on the next generation and continue to play on the current hardware or whether you’re an early adopter, we want to make sure we’re there with the best possible experience on that platform.
GamesBeat: Are you satisfied at this point that the console makers have done enough to get everybody to upgrade and shift over at some point?
Hirshberg: Everybody? [Chuckles] I think there always early adopters in these transitions, the enthusiasts who can’t wait to try the new hardware. There are people who are going to wait and see. They’ll wait for the reviews or a good look at the content. They’ve put some compelling things on the table. Obviously it’s in our best interest to help make both of them successful.
GamesBeat: Is the livestream provider Twitch working to produce new players for you through live streaming?
Hirshberg: We’ve been an early adopter with Twitch as far as our podcasting, leagues, and e-sports element within Black Ops II. We had a push-button broadcast capability baked in [that game]. If you think about what was going in the world seven years ago, when the current generation of consoles was created—think about what wasn’t going on. The entire social media revolution, the entire smartphone revolution, all that. YouTube didn’t even exist. Those machines weren’t designed to deliver those things.
So a lot of the things that became creative ideas were inspired by what was happening in culture. They were force fits into the current hardware. Things like Call of Duty Elite, where we wanted to have a second screen that could do two-way communication with the game on the console. We had to do a lot of technological gymnastics to pull that off. Now the hardware’s being designed to be very conducive to those kinds of ideas. When we wanted to bake the ability to broadcast yourself through Twitch.tv into our game, we had to work around the technological obstacle course inside the current hardware. Now that kind of idea is built in.
Some of these things, I feel like we’re a bit ahead on. We have a head start. The next-gen hardware is going to make it easier and more seamless for us to deliver. And it’ll obviously open up new ideas.
GamesBeat: That kind of community engagement seems like a smart direction to head in.
Hirshberg: It’s certainly one of the macro-trends in our culture right now. The ability and the desire to connect with other people through digital means is the zeitgeist. I would say that games probably played a hand in that. Playing multiplayer in Call of Duty is one of the first things that masses of people did together in a digital arena. Obviously that wasn’t as social an experience as what we’ve eventually seen since, but it was certainly connecting with other real people in a digital space, which is something that humans have become very comfortable with all of a sudden.
GamesBeat: So that’s still important to you. Does it mean, though, that you have to do less of the heavy lifting? Maybe you can count on the platform guys to integrate this.
Hirshberg: Technology and cultural preferences unfold in unpredictable ways. I’m sure seven years from now, we’ll be saying, “Hey, remember seven years ago when X, Y, and Z hadn’t happened yet?” But it just makes the hardware, at the moment, more current and more reflective of the snapshot of the world today as it relates to technology.
GamesBeat: Do you put e-sports in the same boat as something like live streaming or Twitch?
Hirshberg: Yeah, e-sports has been something we’ve been curious about. We’ve played with it around Call of Duty. I don’t know if you tuned into our Call of Duty championships. We did an event with Xbox, where we had a global tournament that culminated in a huge live stream even that drew millions of viewers. It was great content. It really works as a spectator sport. But interest in that kind of content is obviously growing. That’s something we’ve been interested in and trying new things with for a while now. Again, like I said, I think the new generation of hardware will make experimenting with that stuff more fluid.
GamesBeat: Skylanders Swap Force looks good against the competition, Disney Infinity. It’s an interesting way to get people to reinvest in the whole platform.
Hirshberg: I think Swap Force is great. Just straight-up great. It’s a great game and a great innovation. We launched Skylanders with a magical idea of bringing toys to life. Very early on, when we saw the success we were having, we looked at each other and said, “We have to make sure we keep bottling magic on this franchise.” The idea of swapping parts and characteristics of toys in the physical world, that’s just fun to do, period. You make these combinations—I don’t know if you’ve gone down to the booth and played around with some of the toys, but when you put the octopus legs on the flaming robot, you’re like, “Well, what can this guy do?” Your imagination starts to run wild. Then you put it in the game, and the game says, “All right, let’s see.”
It’s also adding innovation without adding complexity, which I think is key. One of the keys to Skylanders has been simplicity. Slamming a toy down on the portal and having it come to life is very visceral. When we did Swap Force, we wanted to make sure that it’s instant, that it’s fun, that it’s fast, that it’s intuitive. Having the game recognize your choices in the physical world is thrilling.
VV has done a wonderful job with the gameplay itself, too. The new graphics engine looks wonderful. The characters look more vivid and full of personality. There are now zones based on, say, this guy is a good climber, or this guy’s fast, or this guy can fly. Those traversal skills have areas of the game built around them. There’s an area of the game you can only fly through. You need to swap to make sure that the bottom half of your guy has the rocket boots or the jet engine or the wings. Then he can go through the fly zone. Or we have obstacle courses laid out vertically that you have to climb through. Being rewarded for your choices and your collection is a big part of it.
The other thing we’ve got going for us is the ongoing value of your collection. Every toy from Spyro’s Adventure and every toy from Giants not only works in Swap Force, but they’re better than ever. They can jump. They look better. They’ve been made over with the new graphics engine. If you have a Skylanders collection and you go home with the starter pack, you have so many options. The value of that collection is a huge competitive advantage for us.
GamesBeat: I’ve talked with people who have said they’re considering doing something like this through Kinect. With this next generation, you probably don’t need a portal. Kinect should be accurate enough to recognize whatever toy you have in front of it.
Hirshberg: It depends, though. The portal is visceral physically — the fact that you can slam the toy down on it, the fact that it lights up and recognizes not only that your toy is on the portal, but what element you put down. You put a fire elemental on it, it glows orange. You put a water elemental down, and it glows blue. Also, it depends how we use it. The Swap Force portal has more RFID readers because you have to be able to handle double the combinations now. It’s not just about, “Is there another way for the technology to detect the toy and import it into the game?” That’s functional. The portal is magical. So long as we keep delivering an experience that feels magical, I think that the portal has to be a part of it.
GamesBeat: So it’s almost a technology platform unto itself.
Hirshberg: It’s a technology enabler. But you have to look at these things equally as physical toys and virtual ones. To your example, could Kinect import the characters? Of course. But it wouldn’t be as fun. That’s why we did it the way we did it. Not because we couldn’t do it another way, but because it felt right to do it this way.