The Blast Furnace: Rebooting Activision's IP for the tablet generation
Hall and Canessa on the publishers new commitment to building freemium mobile games in the UK
Activision today releases a reboot of the Pitfall franchise on iOS, built by its newest studio, The Blast Furnace. Based in Leeds, UK, the team is headed up by ex-Rockstar studio heads Gordon Hall and Mark Washbrook and marks the beginning of the publisher's significant push into tablet and smartphone games development.
In this exclusive interview with GamesIndustry International, vice president of Activision Mobile Greg Canessa and chief creative officer Gordon Hall speak in depth for the first time about the studio's focus, why it's now taking tablet gaming seriously, the adoption of freemium, micro transactions and analytics, as well as opening up the IP vaults for the team to reinvigorate franchises for a new generation of gaming hardware.
Q: Gordon, you were at Rockstar for many years but left in 2011 to take a sabbatical. What brought you back to video games and Activision in particular?
"The UK actually contains some of the best and brightest minds in game development in general, but specifically game development as it pertains to handheld"
Greg Canessa, Activision Mobile
Gordon Hall: Actually I thought I might be out of the games industry, I thought I'd killed myself [laughs]. After a few months off I found that every day I was spending all my time researching the games business still, I couldn't get it out of my blood. As we've all seen the industry has changed so rapidly and becoming so exciting, the new mobile space is growing up, it's like going back to 1986 for me.
I've known the Activision guys for a while and this opportunity came along. They're such a great team, they've got such an impeccable leadership and the direction and vision is very business-like and incredible to behold. And my god, they've got some fantastic IP that we can riff off. It's very exciting for me, certainly. Put that together, the business changing, me taking time out to spend time thinking about this and feeling energised by it, the fact the guys have already been working on setting up a studio here and inviting me into that. It's a perfect storm, there's no way I couldn't have seized that opportunity, really.
Q: So while you were taking time out you noticed the considerable differences in the mobile landscape from when you were at Rockstar to joining Activision?
Gordon Hall: I noticed it had become a lot more intelligent. A lot of things that we wanted as games players and games designers become available when you've got instant feedback with your players. When you've got the ability for a player to buy in an item rather than just give them everything up front and charge a higher price. There were so many games out there that have had high price tags associated with them and when you buy the game they were rubbish. I'm loving the mobile space because you buy your games in piecemeal. This company has got some of the best IPs on the planet, and when you combine that with this new business model, what's going to happen is the race is going to be won by people that care about creating brilliant games.
Q: Greg, what attracted Activision to Leeds, or indeed the UK? It's not exactly the cheapest location for game development…
Greg Canessa: With Activision getting into the mobile space we've made some announcements recently, but we're definitely a little later than some of our competitors and we've moved with a very thoughtful approach to getting into the space. One of our core objectives when creating an Activision Mobile group was to hire, attract and retain world class game development talent. And when we think about mobile game development and translating our intellectual property and expressing that IP on different devices we needed to think about who's got experience in mobile game development or handheld games development. The experience of developing for small form factors, different controls, different displays. When you look at the global landscape in development talent the UK actually contains some of the best and brightest minds in game development in general, but specifically game development as it pertains to handheld.
Leeds and the UK was naturally one of the first choices when looking to create a dedicated mobile development studio focused on tablet and smartphone development. It was at the top of the list and we're super-excited to be able to attract a level of talent we've been able to achieve with Gordon and the other guys.
"We're not going to be seeding new talent and growing that, not for the foreseeable future. What we're looking for is industry veterans"
Gordon Hall, The Blast Furnace
Q: When you're looking to staff up and build a studio like this, what are the key skills and disciplines that you're looking for, and are you looking for mobile experience or the more traditional console game development sector?
Gordon Hall: Really what we want is people who have got passion and dedication. They could come from a GPU rendering background but if they've got passion for the mobile space I want them in for an interview. Just people who work really well together, we've got a policy of no egos, leave that at the door. Come to work really respectful of everybody else and we tend to hire people we know are going to get on with each other and who are the best in class for what they do.
This is such an important operation for us we're not going to be seeding new talent and growing that, not for the foreseeable future. What we're looking for is industry veterans who know what they do, work great in a team and bring in the skill sets that we need. Of course the skill sets are varied and wide. There's a skill set increase with mobile, with the analytics role, you have to break apart the game in terms of the psychology of the player in much greater depth than you ever did on console. You need really bright buttons, especially when you consider the development cycle is so short, you can't just let ideas grow, you have to force them out of the minds of the talent you've got around you. So you have to go for excellence all the way.
Q: Activision has a very refined portfolio with three key pillars - Call of Duty, Skylanders and Blizzard properties. How does the work that The Blast Furnace is doing fit into that?
Greg Canessa: While there's a lot of focus and attention on our core triple-A franchises, Activision has one of the richest portfolios of intellectual property of any game developer or publisher in the industry. We have over 350 pieces of IP in our catalogue. With mobile there's a tremendous opportunity for you to reinvent, reboot and reinvigorate IP, as we've seen successfully deployed with other games in the tablet and smartphone space in the last few years. There's a tremendous opportunity once you think about the mobile field with small, medium and large games, casual, mid-core, hardcore and to really take advantage of that IP portfolio and build a wide variety of games with an aggressive plan we have that utilises those pieces of intellectual property. Our first title, Pitfall, is a great example of that. It's an iconic name in the games industry celebrating its 30 year anniversary that we've pulled out of the vault, reinvented it, rebooted it. Gordon recently joined us but The Blast Furnace has been working on that product for quite some time and those guys have done an amazing job of building something that is true to the tablet and smartphone format but also utilises the classic aspects of the original.
Q: Activision has been late to this in terms of a dedicated studio but you've already put out successful iOS games based on Skylanders and Call of Duty. So what is it you're doing differently at The Blast Furnace to those mobile games that are already out there?
Greg Canessa: You're right in that Activision has been in the mobile space for quite some time and we've had a good deal of success, but what you're seeing from Activision is a definite increase in our footprint in the mobile space; we're now making a dedicated effort to invest resources into creating mobile games, with an emphasis on micro-transaction games and freemium games. Skylanders: Cloud Patrol was an example of a new generation of mobile games that this group is creating with an emphasis on our casual games with a backend infrastructure that supports micro transaction products. You can see that as indicator of things to come from us.
Gordon Hall: If you look back historically Activision has done some mobile titles but what Greg is now bringing to the table is a much more cohesive plan built around these new tools and technologies. We've got some fantastic analytics tools inside our software that give us a minute-by-minute account of what the players are and aren't liking, what they are and aren't reacting to. Cloud Patrol marked the beginning of us utilising that data to create an experience for the player. If you follow that to a logical conclusion you're just constantly putting out updates that are really valuable to the player because it's based on their reactions. And that marks a clear distinction to what Activision has done in the past and what Activision is doing going forward. It's the difference between dipping your toe in the water and diving in at the deep end.
Q: Are there any operating systems or formats that stand out to you above the others? Android is a huge market but there's fragmentation with handsets, iOS is simple to use and understand but there are discoverability issues, etcetera. How do you make your bet when it comes to format?
"We're now making a dedicated effort to invest resources into creating mobile games, with an emphasis on micro-transaction games and freemium "
Gordon Hall, The Blast Furnace
Gordon Hall: The whole of the industry has been led by iOS. Microsoft Windows 7 wasn't very good and they're promising a lot with Windows 8. But competition is really good in the marketplace. I don't know where we're going to be but I'd like to see a store with Microsoft Windows 8, Android growing, Apple growing and they're all in competition so we get the best service possible. Nobody wants a one horse race when it comes to platforms. The kind of games you're building on mobile, other than the macro economy side of things, you can ignore your platform and go for what feels right at each and every six month period. As this grows and expands we'll be like water, we'll have to change and adapt to that climate so we can reach the mass market. But it's not just about mobile phones, the smart TV space is very interesting, that could be just an extension of mobile as far as I can see in the future, so it's very interesting and I like the fact that the really big players are taking it very seriously, looking at the next big leap in technological advancement, and that can only benefit developers.
Greg Canessa: As a company and as a third-party publisher of games we take a very platform agnostic stance to game development, whether it's Xbox, PlayStation or tablet devices like Android or iOS, it's about creating the entertainment experience. We want to develop the best experience for our users and what's really great about this space is that the platforms encourage competition in the market place and we can build a game that exploits the capabilities of each device while economising from a development standpoint.