In the span of just a few months, Activision Publishing transformed from a small-time player in the mobile gaming space to an aggressive competitor with today’s announcement of its first mobile studio, The Blast Furnace. For a part of the industry that’s becoming increasingly populated by giants like Gree, Electronic Arts, Gameloft, and many others, Activision’s presence is long overdue.
“We’re not the first,” admitted Greg Canessa, vice president of Activision Mobile, to GamesBeat, “but we’re taking a thoughtful approach to the space…. The Blast Furnace is a significant investment for us [as it’s our first] studio that’s 100 percent dedicated to mobile development. We’ve been able to attract and hire best-in-class [talent] and deeply experienced veterans [from] the console and handheld space to build microtransaction-based mobile and tablet games.”
Led by former Rockstar London head Mark Washbrook, the new Leeds, U.K.-based developer has also added Gordon Hall, former president of Rockstar Leeds, to its ranks. Hall was a co-founder of Mobius Entertainment, a studio that worked on a variety of titles for Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance handheld. The company joined the Rockstar Games family after an acquisition in 2004.
In addition to being The Blast Furnace’s new studio head, Hall is also serving as the chief creative officer of Activision Mobile to spearhead the development of triple-A experiences on mobile devices.
“Anything we touch has to be quality,” said Hall. “We have to make sure we’re innovating…. You’ll never catch us doing a port of a console game, which I think is a second-class experience for the user. Everything will be built from the ground up for mobile [devices] and tablets…and open to a wide audience — something that is easy to play and simple to grasp but still be an immersive product. We don’t think anybody else has the intent to [create] something that ambitious. The team is geared toward that kind of development.”
Even the studio’s name is a reflection of that ambitious spirit. Before Hall came aboard, the team sat together in a room to decide on something new. “They picked it out for themselves a while ago,” said Hall, “putting up on a big wall everything that mattered to them: hard work, dedication, and team spirit. It’s a place to come and make new core games and not to hide away or knock out something you’re not happy with.”
“In the Leeds area, the original studio used to be a furnace,” he continued. “Historically, it was a whole area about steel [manufacturing]…. Our name is more inward facing for staff who might want to come and join. [It evokes] heat and molten metal. It’s about forcing yourself to create something you’re proud of. Similar to giving birth…[creating games] is a joyous occasion.”
Canessa reiterated Activision’s calculated approach in its slow-to-mobile strategy. “We’re a very thoughtful company,” he said, “as it is with other products and investments that we decide to get into. Mobile is the same approach for us. There are huge disruptive forces around free-to-play, microtransactions, games as a service…. [They’re] phenomena that the game industry [must] embrace. We believe that in a fragmented market, what’s going to win after all is said and done is high quality and a differentiated approach.”
Canessa declined to comment on how many people The Blast Furnace employs but said it’s a “medium-to-large-size studio.” Its first title is a reimagining of Activision’s Pitfall franchise (pictured above), which is starting out today on the Apple App Store.