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Activision's Dan Winters

On Beachhead and digital roads, Guitar Hero and why the publisher isn't the evil empire it's made out to be

Since its merger with with Blizzard, under the giant banner of entertainment conglomerate Vivendi, Activision has laid claim to being the biggest commercial publisher of video games in the world. Whilst having a studio like Blizzard on board is undoubtedly a boon for any publisher, the core company has basked in a great deal of success in recent years, making the most of existing IP such as Call of Duty and developing new brands such as Guitar Hero.

More recently, along with most of the rest of the industry, Activision has begun to feel the pinch. In February the company underwent a 'refocusing', canning several projects to focus on big earners and closing or downsizing a number of studios. A combination of success and unpopular decisions like these has seen Activision take on something of a Machiavellian reputation - consuming studios and series for blind profit.

However, that reputation is undeserved, says developer relations head Dan Winters. Activision is the same studio it was when it was a plucky underdog not so long ago. Read on for an insight into Activision's self-perception, its plans for digital distribution and the potential resurrection of a familiar series.

GamesIndustry.bizYou're talking at the Festival of Games later this month - can you tell us a little bit about it?
Dan Winters

My goal is to try and share some of my various experiences over the last few years. I've been in the business for pushing on twenty years now. My goal is to try and share some of my misspent youth and explain how that has led me to, I guess a broad perspective and a healthy respect for the development community - the ability to have people pitch their ideas and themselves.

GamesIndustry.bizSo is it aimed at helping developers how to pitch or publishers to know what to look out for?
Dan Winters

Primarily to help developers understand the mechanics of a successful pitch to publishers. I think that part of that comes from a healthy respect for how much bravery it takes just to put your ideas out there in the first place. Along with performance and the various things that I've learned over the years by being in different businesses - I was an actor for a number of years, a baseball player for a number of years, I worked for the Walt Disney company too, I have a more than healthy respect for the creative process.

I've also done a pretty good job, I think, of fine-tuning the art of the pitch itself. So I'd like to share some of the things I've learned along the way.

GamesIndustry.bizI see that a representative from Unity is also giving a similar presentation - are you presenting to the same people, do you think, or is a good pitch to Activision different from a good pitch to Unity?
Dan Winters

I don't profess to believe I have all the right ideas! I just want to share my experience and knowledge, my personal perspective. I'm not saying - 'this is how you should pitch', I'm just saying that these are things that have worked, whether if I've been the one pitching or if someone's been pitching to me. There are ten tentpole ideas that I'll share which should give people an idea of what has worked before.

It maybe a little bit different for them individually, they put their own style on things. Personalisation and passion are two very important things - one's ability to convey your ideas. So, it's strictly my experience about what has worked, there may be fifteen other things that have been effective for other people along the way, but I have a limited amount of time. But I'm not at the point where I think that the ideas that I'm going to communicate are the only ideas out there.

Our model has always been the same, which is that we have a completely healthy respect for the independent development community.

I'm not really talking about Activision, either. I'm really trying to share ideas that are more broadly of benefit to the development community or anyone who is trying to pitch an idea or selll themselves.

GamesIndustry.bizSo what does your day-to-day role include? I presume that it's a bit more complex than you sat behind a desk saying either yes or no?
Dan Winters

I think that I shepherd ideas. So whether it's me or someone at another publisher or at a film studio, there's usually an initial filter. I guess for Activision I would be one of those filters, any new idea or pitch that comes into Activision, I get my eyeballs on at some point. The idea is to try and give whoever your advocate is inside the company enough in their toolbelt so that they can put a package together which will not only be compelling to themselves but also to other people in that organisation who are going to be the stakeholders in that organisation.

That's another thing that I hope to share: one of those things in that toolbelt which you can provide is someone on the organisation so that they can be an advocate and, I guess, share your idea almost as effectively as the person generating the idea in the first place.

GamesIndustry.bizYours is a job which seems like it would be evolving quite quickly at the moment, with a changing focus. Did the recent round of cuts and the refocusing of Activision represent a change of policy in terms of the way Activision deals with internal and independent studios?
Dan Winters

Well, at any time we have anywhere around ten or twelve internal studios. Our model has always been the same, which is that we have a completely healthy respect for the independent development community. Even when we bring someone into the family, like we did with Bizarre Creations or Freestyle games. Freestyle Games is not a concluded situation yet - we're still working hard to try and find the best opportunity for Freestyle, and they're an active member of that process.

For Bizarre we went through the same process, recently Martin (Chudley) was quoted in press, giving some little glimpse of what that process was. But our perspective hasn't changed at all on internal or external development. We understand that having talent is what wins. Talent is the real value in anything that we do.

There are great ideas that can be presented, but without the talent to execute to excellence, that idea is minimised, I think. So the situation with Bizarre and with Freestyle and our independent developers is more a result of the market than it is policy change. We still feel as confident with our development partners, and have just as much love for them as we did before, but the market has obviously changed for everyone. At the end of the day, we're a company that has to do right by the business and do right by our shareholders - we have to make very difficult decisions sometimes.

Recently we've had to make some of those decisions based on market conditions, but not because of policy change.

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