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.
GamesBeat: I like how the cloud seems to address the problem previous generations had with the consumer exhaustion of having to buy 50 more songs on another disc. All they really wanted was more songs. The cloud seems to make a big difference.
Hirshberg: It is Guitar Hero TV. It’s like MTV when we were growing up, except now we can play it. It has that curated stream of videos that pass. The only difference is that now it’s a video game.
GamesBeat: Was that idea almost cooked independently of the game itself?
Hirshberg: I remember when Freestyle brought it to us. Live was the original idea we got excited about. At the end of one of our greenlight meetings, they said, “We have this other idea we’ve been playing with, what do you think of it?” Everybody just sparked to it. For a while they almost became competing ideas internally. We were looking at GHTV and wondering if that was the big idea all on its own.
The more playtesting we did, the more we realized that they were very complementary ideas, though. We took a deep breath and did both of them. Live and the live audience gives you that super immersive, high production value, novel experience that games do so well, where they put you into an experience that you can’t have in real life. It’s very vivid and very real. TV does something very different. It keeps it current and fresh. It lets you compete online. It makes it social.
The two of them work well together in that campaign/multiplayer way that we’ve seen in Call of Duty. One of them is a visceral, high production value experience. The other is something you can do for months or hopefully years with your friends.
GamesBeat: I got a quick look at the piece you wrote about creativity in leadership here.
Hirshberg: It was a commencement address, actually, that I gave at UCLA’s art school.
GamesBeat: Business leadership seems to be a lot of what gets talked about in the game industry. Creative leadership is an interesting topic, though. What’s the short version of what you’d like to convey about that?
Hirshberg: That was a speech delivered to kids who just earned an art degree. It was geared toward them, not toward business leaders. But my message to them was to not accept limitations on themselves that the world would try to put on them as creative people.
When I was asked to share whatever wisdom I’ve learned, it occurred to me that — it made me wonder why so few creative people are asked to lead things. Every other discipline in the business world is routinely considered for leadership positions — operations, finance, law. It’s almost never a creative person. Part of that is perhaps a bias the world has about creative people. Part of it is things creative people tend to do to themselves.
I encouraged the kids to think of themselves not only as creators, not only as the fuel for organizations, but as potential leaders in those organizations, and to do the work they need to do to be prepared and informed to help make the big decisions. Step out from behind the walls that we put up around ourselves.
GamesBeat: It seems very well-suited for the game industry.
Hirshberg: I think so. I spoke to them a bit about the process I went through coming here, whether I felt like I could do it. It was a different scale for me, from the advertising business. I quoted something Bobby said to me, which was, “What you don’t know, you can learn. We can surround you with it. What you do know is unique. That’s what the company needs.” That changed my thinking on it. It represents a big shift from how most companies think about creativity. I hope more companies embrace that.
GamesBeat: That seems like an interesting topic to propose for them.
Hirshberg: It was a real honor. It was almost surreal. I sat in that exact quad where they were sitting. It feels like yesterday, but it was 25 years ago. It was one of those life moments where I thought, “Wow. What am I doing up here on this stage?”
GamesBeat: Can you apply those memories to all this?
Hirshberg: I think what I apply to all this is my inherent respect and understanding for the challenges of the creative process. As someone who’s been in the creative director’s seat for most of his life, I know that process and I know those challenges personally and intimately.
I hope that makes me able to help our creative leaders do their jobs better and provide them good guidance and give them the space in the room, the right encouragement and direction they need to do their best work. I hope I can create an environment where great work can happen, where people are encouraged to take risks, where they feel free to challenge the status quo. I look around our booth and I see our developers coming up with a lot of meaningful innovation.
GamesBeat: It was interesting to see Guitar Hero come back. It reverses that view of Activision as a company that’s been narrowing down to blockbusters. Some creativity has helped you bring something back and start expanding.
Hirshberg: I’m going to challenge the premise of your question. We’re sitting in a room with four pieces of key art, two of which didn’t exist either a year ago or two years ago, and both of which introduced new franchises and new genres of play. One of them is coming back with major innovations. I think that any impression you had that Activision was narrowing to non-creative thinking isn’t reflective of the current slate.
Even within Call of Duty—Everyone has opinions about which one is their favorite and whether things work, but no one can say that things like Advanced Warfare or Black Ops III are the same old Call of Duty games. They’re new and fresh and have lots of innovation. Even within our existing franchises, we’re innovating.
GamesBeat: You could wonder if you’ll wind up with six Call of Duty studios at some point. You might have to give up some things because of that. But it seems like that’s not the case, that you’re giving up some things to double down on properties that are particularly working.
Hirshberg: I think we’re able to do both. We’re able to make the Call of Duty games that we’re making, to provide the volume and quality of follow-on content. It takes a village. It takes a lot of brilliant people. We’ve provided those teams with the resources they need to realize their vision. We’re doing the same thing with Bungie. It was a very ambitious vision for a game, a very ambitious undertaking. It took years to get up and running. That takes a lot of very focused and brilliant resources.
When we see interesting new ideas, though, or new mechanics, like what Toys for Bob brought to us with Skylanders, what Freestyle has done with Guitar Hero—I’d say the same is true with what Bungie first showed us in Destiny. We’re not afraid to take gambles on big new ideas, so long as that big new idea sounds like it has a lot of breakthrough appeal, so long as we think the developer has the goods to deliver on the vision. I look around this room at Skylanders, Destiny, Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, I feel like we have both of those things in place: breakthrough ideas being realized by people who have the talent, the passion, and the follow-through to deliver on the vision.
GamesBeat: Where are your experiments right now? Is Call of Duty Online in China a good example of that, or whatever you might be doing in VR, or Skylanders going to the iPad?
Hirshberg: There are things going on that I’m not going to talk about today because we’re not ready to reveal them. But yeah, you mentioned a couple of things. We’re trying to tackle the market in China with a free-to-play version of Call of Duty. It’s been a big investment and undertaking. We’re trying to unlock Skylanders on mobile. Skylanders Trap Team’s mobile version was a top 15 mobile game for Q4 and Q1, when you include the toy attach. We’re bringing Guitar Hero to mobile, both with the guitar and without.
GamesBeat: That was very cool, I thought. It gets to a wider audience than just on the consoles.
Hirshberg: Yeah, that’s going to be a great experience. That’s where a lot of that audience is gaming. The more casual player is playing games on their phone, so why not?
GamesBeat: It resonate with Google announcing Chromecast games on your TV.
Hirshberg: Right, right. We’re doing a lot of those things. At the same time, we’re a focused company. We try to be choosy. Our human resources are our most precious resources. These are very special talents. We want to make sure that we’re working on things we think have big potential and that a lot of people will enjoy.
GamesBeat: You guys got on that best places to work list, right?
Hirshberg: Yeah, we did.
GamesBeat: What does that say? What do you think was a big factor there?
Hirshberg: Obviously it was an Activision Blizzard acknowledgement. I won’t speak on behalf of Blizzard. I can certainly speak to what’s going on inside Activision that helped us get that acknowledgement. Some things we’ve talked about have been great for the culture. Focusing more on creativity. Taking those educated risks. Those are things that inspire people. We’ve built and published a set of values for our employees and the way we do business that we’ve embedded in daily life that have been helpful for the culture and people’s experience.
This is a fun business. It’s a powerful art form that is gaining momentum in culture. Our people are able to build some of the biggest entertainment franchises in any medium in the world. That’s a lot of fun. It’s fun to be a part of things that go out there and change culture. We have a culture that works hard, and that in many ways is very serious, but at the same time, one of our core values is that we make fun. It’s important to never forget that. If you don’t have fun along the way, that seeps into the finished product.
GamesBeat: Toys to life is becoming pretty vicious, pretty competitive. What do you think about the changes in that market?
Hirshberg: It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, we’re very flattered. A lot of companies have decided that this mechanic is something they want to be a part of. At the same time, of course, we had a very unusual period where we had no competition because we invented the category. It was only a matter of time until that ended because it was successful. Of course it’s a good strategy for other companies.
Honestly, it doesn’t do us any good to focus on or talk about our competition. We can only control our own actions. What we are focused on is innovating every time. We committed to that and we’ve delivered that. We’ve never made the same game we did the last year with new characters. We’ve always brought in new innovation, a new reason to come back, and a new way to blur the lines between the physical world and the digital world. Swappable toys, reaching into the game world, playing as the villain, adding land, air, and sea vehicles this year—Each time we’ve brought something new and fresh.
I’ve said many times that we make kids say “Wow” for a living with Skylanders. That’s what’s kept us on top. Right now it’s a $4 billion category and we represent $3 billion of it. We’re going to stay committed to that strategy of innovation.
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