The appointment with Destiny has arrived. Activision is about to learn just how much gamers will love developer Bungie’s new major first-person shooter, Destiny. The sci-fi game ships in September, and the alpha test goes online to consumers Thursday.
Destiny will join Skylanders: Trap Team and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare as Activision’s blockbuster offerings for this fall. Billions of dollars are at stake, and the man on the hot seat is Eric Hirshberg, the chief executive of Activision Publishing, a division of Activision Blizzard. We caught up with him at the giant Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) tradeshow, and we talked about the prospects for the big games as well as the game industry itself.
Hirshberg believes we live in a world of franchises, and his team is about to create another one with Destiny. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Hirshberg.
GamesBeat: What’s your feeling about this E3? What’s exciting here?
Eric Hirshberg: A lot of good-looking games are taking advantage of the new hardware. There’s a lot of enthusiasm, industry-wide. The fact that both of the new consoles launched to such a strong start, that’s good news for companies like ours. We were proud to open both the Sony and Microsoft press conferences yesterday with two big games coming from us. I can’t remember the last time that happened, one publisher opening both of those shows.
GamesBeat: It’s good to keep them both happy, I guess?
Hirshberg: Not only that, it’s good for us to be able to participate on their stages and reach those audiences. We have two games that they each felt were the best ways to open their shows and represent what their machines can do.
GamesBeat: Is that a reason why you don’t do your own press conference, like some other major third parties?
Hirshberg: We have lots of very effective ways to reach our consumers. Getting those marquee positions in the first-party press conferences is chief among them. We’re also letting people get hands-on with Destiny in the booth. That’s not something we can do at a press conference. Each year, we choose the right tools to communicate what we want to get across. We’ve done that this year as well.
GamesBeat: That seems like an increasingly big part of the business, how to communicate about a game. Sony Online Entertainment made an interesting move, announcing the zombie-survival MMO H1Z1 on Reddit and Twitch.
Hirshberg: I don’t know if that’s a change. Any competitive business is also competitive in the way you communicate. I come from the advertising business. The emergence of new media and new ways to connect with consumers and reach consumers is nothing new to me. That’s something Activision has done very well, building great communities and using new media in new ways to connect with people.
I don’t know if you use Uber? If you download the Uber app and you’re within three miles of the convention center, you’ll see that integrated into the app, you can order a Town Car, an SUV, or a Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. A giant vehicle from the game will come pick you up and give you a ride around downtown. That’s an example of the kind of medium that didn’t exist as an advertising platform a couple of years ago. I’m sure it’ll generate a lot of fun buzz for us.
GamesBeat: The other thing that interests me is packaging and how much that’s changed. Microsoft has their Halo Master Chief Collection. It’s almost just repackaging things.
Hirshberg: I think it’s more than repackaging. They’ve obviously up-rezzed it and remastered it for the next generation. You get in the Halo 5 beta. I haven’t seen more than what they showed at the press conference, but if they do a good job of that, it can be a compelling way to make people fall back in love with stuff that they have some nostalgia for. They can make it new for the next generation.
Look at the movie business. Every time a new format comes out, people buy a lot of the same movies, because they want to see better quality than they ever have before. I think it’s similar to that.
GamesBeat: With Destiny, what do you feel is the right messaging for it now? I got into the alpha test and played it. To me, it seems like the most fun when you’re playing with a couple of friends that you know.
Hirshberg: Is that your usual style of play?
GamesBeat: Not usually. Usually I’m off by myself. When I was off by myself in Destiny, though, it didn’t seem as fun as, say, a Call of Duty game. They’re very different games.
Hirshberg: They are. There’s certainly an intensity and a cinematic quality to Call of Duty single-player that’s unique to that franchise. It’s also something that people criticize from time to time, that it’s more tightly scripted and a bit more on-rails, giving less autonomy than a game like Destiny in the single-player mode. I feel like it comes down to personal preference.
What I’m confident in with Destiny is that no matter how you like to play, there’s a great mode within the game for you. One of the things I’m proudest of and most excited about is that we’ve packed so much content and so many different styles of play into the first version of this game.
GamesBeat: There’s the playing with strangers part in the middle too, right?
Hirshberg: There’s single-player. There’s single-player that becomes co-op in a fresh way with the shared world elements. There are persistent world elements that take some of the best aspects from MMO games. There’s great competitive multiplayer. As others in the industry are narrowing the aperture and focusing on one or two modes of play – either it’s all single player or all multiplayer – we’re zagging and saying, “There’s a lot of different types of gamers out there. A lot of people like to connect with these worlds in different ways.” We and the team at Bungie believe that’s going to be a key strength in Destiny.
GamesBeat: The shooter market, maybe, is in a mature state. Do you think you need to do something different? I talked to CEO Ted Price from Insomniac last night. He said that they’re quite capable of doing a zombie-apocalypse game — the gray, boring end of days – but they decided to do something like Sunset Overdrive, because there’s too much of the other stuff out there.
Hirshberg: Yeah, I think so. It’s going to offer people a different and fresh take on the genre. Not just in terms of the aesthetic and the worlds that you get to explore, but also the modes of play are innovative and new as well.
The freshest one that I really enjoy—I’m a big single-player fan. But when you get dumped into these public spaces and matchmade with other people and you have to team up and work together to take down an enemy, it’s pretty cool.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about the broader gaming world? We have console and PC in the middle, while everything else around them is getting much bigger. The prediction for 2017 is a $100 billion business where half of it is mobile games. What’s your position within that larger industry?
Hirshberg: Those are new mediums, so of course they’re the growth mediums in the market. Console and PC have been around a lot longer than phones that play games. It follows that would be where a good portion of the growth in the industry is coming.
Our strategy remains fairly consistent. We want to be wherever gamers are. We want to be there with big opportunities and big titles that we feel have the chance to be blockbusters. You saw Blizzard releasing Hearthstone, which includes mobile. They’re doing great with it. They’re using IP that comes from World of Warcraft. That shows the potential for IP that’s perhaps born on and maybe even best played on console or PC migrating to other platforms.
GamesBeat: Do you feel excited enough about these new markets to experiment more in them? Or do you feel like you’re more in the mode of focusing on what you do best?
Hirshberg: We’re a very focused company by nature. We’re very choosy about the new ventures about the new ventures we take on. This year we’ve got a couple of big ones. We’re trying to make Destiny the biggest new IP launch ever. We’re still working on our free-to-play version of Call of Duty for the Chinese market, as well as big investments in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Skylanders: Trap Team. We’ve got a full plate.
In terms of our willingness to experiment, I think we’ve shown that. We’ve done some very highly rated and well-received mobile games. None of them have broken through from a commercial standpoint, not the way that our games on other platforms have, but they’ve been well-reviewed. We have good capabilities. We have no new announcements today, but we’re constantly exploring how we can best please fans on those platforms.
GamesBeat: The other interesting thing about that $100 billion market is that if you move into adjacent markets, there are other opportunities. The toy market is a way to expand.
Hirshberg: When you asked about our willingness to expand, I know you were thinking specifically about mobile, but like I say, I think we follow the best creative ideas. Who would have thought, a couple of years ago, that Activision would be one of the most successful toy manufacturers in the world? That’s an example of following a great idea and producing and marketing it with excellence.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting to guess at how large the toy-game segment is going to be and how many successful players will be in it. Disney’s in there, and Nintendo is coming.
Hirshberg: We’re certainly going to find out. With the scale of the success of Skylanders, everybody with relevant IP for that age group is probably having the same conversation about finding a way to compete and participate.
GamesBeat: The multiplayer online battle arena looks like another area where the same question applies. Will it support more players than Dota 2 and League of Legends? All these new MOBAs are arriving, and we’ll see if they get traction. It seems to be affecting other genres, too, like with Rainbow Six: Siege.
Hirshberg: In the entire industry, good ideas feed off one another. In the same way that Destiny is obviously partially inspired by games outside of the first-person shooter genre, as other genres capture imaginations and draw big audiences, of course people are going to be inspired to experiment with adding elements of those genres into their games and come up with something new. MOBA’s definitely one that’s gotten a lot of fans, a lot of traction out there.
GamesBeat: Your boss, Bobby Kotick got quoted, and probably misquoted, on the $500 million figure for Destiny. It sounded like that would be more over 10 years or so.
Hirshberg: It’s an all-encompassing number that includes a lot of things. It got misinterpreted as a production-only number. It includes marketing, manufacturing, and multiple years. That said, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that we’ve made a big investment in this game, that we’re taking a big bet on it, and for good reason. It’s the first game post-Halo from the team at Bungie. They’re one of the best developers in the industry, joining forces with a publisher that knows how to go big and market things well and help them with their vision. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that that’s a big investment.
GamesBeat: Call of Duty looks very good. The graphics seemed better than they have been.
Hirshberg: I don’t think that should be a surprise. It’s our first three-year development. That gives us more time for polish and experimentation. It’s also the first truly next-gen development, since last year’s was developed for the previous generation through the majority of the process. The new machines didn’t exist in their final state. This is the first time our teams had a good long period of time to work with that hardware.
GamesBeat: Do you have any larger thoughts on where we are?
Hirshberg: I remain fascinated by the degree to which it seems like we live in a franchise world. People, across all media, seem to be most attracted to worlds that have the depth and the complexity and the characters to keep them coming back over a period of years. You see it in the movie business, the book business, in our business. It’s different than it used to be.
That makes launching new IP more challenging, but also more of an opportunity if you can get it right, as we’re hoping to do with Destiny. The reason for us betting big on it is because if you can do it, you don’t just have a hit this year. You have a new world for people to live in and come back to.
To me, that’s a lot of fun, thinking about creative ideas on that scale. You look at it and say, is this a world I want to come back to again and again.