LOS ANGELES — Eric Hirshberg is the man in charge of blockbusters. As chief executive of video game publisher Activision Publishing, he is responsible for titles that include Call of Duty, Skylanders, Destiny, and Guitar Hero. We talked with him one-on-one about each of these games — and the responsibility of creative leadership at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the big gaming trade show in Los Angeles.
Activision’s titles generate billions of dollars in revenue each year, thanks to its ability to churn out one sequel after another in its safe, proven franchises. And yet Hirshberg argues company is still willing to experiment with gameplay and new intellectual properties. Destiny is still fresh, after all, and Skylanders has become a $4 billion business after just four years.
This year’s risks include reviving Guitar Hero with Guitar Hero Live, which turns the camera around and allows a guitar player to see a cheering audience. Hirshberg’s teams have also experimented with Call of Duty Online, connecting guitars directly to the TV without a game console (via smartphone), and adding iPad capability to Skylanders games.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You made an interesting switch there. I wonder what the thinking was behind that.
Eric Hirshberg: Maybe Sony’s the one that made an interesting switch? The thinking behind it, it was the right partnership at the right time, for the right reasons, for all parties involved. I’d rather not talk about the inside baseball stuff. Both platforms matter to us. We want to create great experiences on both platforms. We’re going to do that. No matter where you play Call of Duty or Destiny or any of our games, we’ll deliver the best possible experience on each platform as we always have. In the case of Call of Duty, everyone gets all the content as well.
We’re excited about this partnership with Sony. They have a lot of momentum and a great platform. They’ve been a great partner on Destiny. When a first party gets behind your game, it matters. These things are big and risky and expensive. We take them seriously. Any time we can put some more aces in our hand to try to launch them successfully, it’s helpful. Having them and their support on Call of Duty is a big deal. We’re going to make it a win for everyone involved, gamers first and foremost.
GamesBeat: It seems the PS4’s momentum is almost self-explanatory in some ways. You want to be with the platform that has the bigger base, but you also have the challenge of a lot of veteran gamers having chosen the Xbox platform.
Hirshberg: You can read that into it if you like. We want both platforms to be successful. We had a great run between Call of Duty and Xbox. Of course, because of that partnership, there are gamers who’ve played Call of Duty primarily on Xbox. In the end we want to focus on making a great game.
GamesBeat: It’s only a 30-day exclusive, but it is meaningful.
Hirshberg: Everyone gets all the content eventually, but these things are meaningful. They give the platform holders something to market to their community that matters. And it’s a great game.
GamesBeat: You probably love all your Call of Duty children, but it seems like a good time to get back to Black Ops. It’s remained so popular. They were saying 9 million people a month still play Black Ops games.
Hirshberg: It’s a great franchise. Treyarch is a great studio. Black Ops is our most played sub-franchise, and Black Ops II was the most-played Call of Duty game ever. One of the most-played games period. We’re excited to bring it back. Treyarch has hit their stride as the lead developer. They do what they do better than anyone. Black Ops III has a ton of innovation. It’s our first co-op campaign. It adds a lot of replay value, a lot of variety for the player, a lot more autonomy. It’s a lot less on-rails.
In multiplayer the specialist system they’ve introduced is really cool. The Zombies experience will be like nothing else.
GamesBeat: I’ve played the multiplayer twice. It’s easy to learn. It’s not as hard to pick up as I might have thought, given there’s so many big changes. It doesn’t seem to make me lose more than I usually do.
Hirshberg: [laughs] What I would give the team a lot of credit for is adding new ideas and innovations, but still retaining that core familiarity as far as how it feels. That’s hard wire to walk on these long-standing franchises. There are certain expectations that players who’ve been with the franchise a long time have. You have to make the game that everyone fell in love with, but you have to give them a reason to come back every year as well. This game does both. It feels like the Call of Duty you love, but it also feels new and fresh.
GamesBeat: I feel like I’m a bit more in the dark on the storyline. Maybe that’s the way this is supposed to work?
Hirshberg: Well, it is Black Ops.
GamesBeat: The last time around, for Black Ops II, you led with the story and the villain.
Hirshberg: We led with the story here too. There was a nice marketing piece that talked about what’s happening with augmenting human beings and where that technology is heading, the idea of a super-soldier, technology becoming one with our bodies and minds. You’ve seen that. But I do think that, if you think back to past Black Ops games, there have been some big twists and unexpected things we don’t want to spoil. Last year, with the Kevin Spacey villain character, and with Advanced Warfare the story was really front and center—In this case we’ll probably keep a few more twists and turns for the gameplay experience itself. But it’s a fun story, and a mind-bender as only Treyarch can deliver.
GamesBeat: So do you make any other games?
Hirshberg: We make a few other games. The current number one game in the industry right there, Skylanders. Destiny. And one you might have heard of called Guitar Hero.
GamesBeat: Why was this the right time to bring back Guitar Hero?
Hirshberg: We had the right idea and the right execution. We set a very high bar for ourselves internally. It’s obviously a strong brand and a strong franchise. It’s something people had a lot of love for. But it was clearly also out of gas. It was in need of meaningful reinvention. We made a deal with ourselves that we wouldn’t bring it back just to bring it back. We wouldn’t bring it back unless we felt like we had reinvented it for the next generation of gamers and hardware, and we have.
It’s a very different game built on a very familiar set of core principles and fantasies. Every bit of it has been reconsidered. The live audience that responds to you in real time, that’s visceral and immersive. The six-button guitar, with the two rows of three, introduces both more advanced gameplay, more combinations and more challenging gameplay for the advanced player, as well as more approachable gameplay for the beginner with the three-button mode. And we have GHTV. One of the things that we always wanted to introduce was the ability to keep the music fresh. We’ve done that in such an elegant way, where we just have this stream of music videos you can play. That allows us to keep the music fresh and allows you to compete with your friends online. It makes it an even better party game than it was before.