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Shooting From the Lip

Activision's Eric Hirshberg on EA, the economy and what went wrong with Blur

As I sit in the Activision lounge at Gamescom, an affable Eric Hirshberg is espousing the joys of his company's new product line, Skylanders Spyro's Adventure. As you might expect, he's quite keen.

"I'm sorry, I'm off on a...I love this game", Hirshberg tells us - showing off the $69.99 starter pack which features three of the chunky, colourful toys which are the physical component of the series, plus a game disc and the 'portal' which enables play.

Skylanders, firmly aimed at children and launching across 3DS, Wii, 360, PC and PS3, with a web, iOS and Android presence, represents a new direction for a company who's management once made it clear that it didn't see the appeal of mobile and social.

That's all changed now, as Activision prepares its own take on social and mobile, bringing its huge IP to bear on the fresh markets.

Read on to hear about Hirshberg's position on those markets, as well as CoD Elite, Blur, the economy and EA.

GamesIndustry.bizSo Skylanders will be a tentpole product for the business, alongside CoD and the Blizzard products?
Eric Hirshberg

That's the hope, yeah. We've also got our project with Bungie, forthcoming. Bungie's got a pretty good track record. We're doing a pretty ambitious project with them, so that will certainly be one of the tentpoles.

We've got Call of Duty Elite - I know you might not think about that as separate, but it's a separate development studio, it's a separate investment path and a separate revenue stream. It's a pretty inventive piece of software. It will travel and migrate from several different platforms and really affect the game.

We've got Prototype 2 coming out. People forget that Prototype was the biggest selling new IP the year it came out. Launching an IP is the hardest thing to do in this business. I think nine out of ten of the best selling games last year were based on existing franchises.

We only do it when we think we've got a really breakthough idea and a competitive advantage. So we feel that about Skylanders, we fell that about Bungie. We feel we can grow Prototype. That's obviously much more of a core audience - it's a grotesque, ultra-violent, beautiful game - that obviously doesn't appeal to everybody. It really appeals to the people who play it, so we think we can grow that.

GamesIndustry.bizThe contraction and refocusing of IP, which we've seen across the board in the industry was obviously at least partly a result of economic circumstances, but also a changing market - do you think we'll ever see a return to the days when big publishers were less cautious about new IP?
Eric Hirshberg

The one thing you didn't mention in terms of influence on that was gamers! Meaning, gamers seem to want to spend more time on, and go deeper into, fewer games. They're gaming more - all of the metrics in terms of number of uniques, number of hours spent, all those are up. Hardware install base is up.

If you look at all the graphs, it's hard to argue that economic turbulence is the driver, because people are still buying new Xboxes and PS3s at a record clip. We get 20 million unique Call of Duty players every month. The shift is that the games have gotten deeper, and as we've seen this shift to online connected play, the tail on games is a lot longer than it used to be.

What doesn't get a lot of focus is that we've also created a lot of jobs.

I think that, as much as anything else, has decreased the demand for new IP. Just a few years back, when there wasn't that long tail of connected play, you'd buy a game, roll through the campaign, roll through the various play modes. Maybe you'd do it again, but then you'd be done with it. There'd be very few games, maybe the sports games would be the exception, like the Maddens and the FIFAs, where you'd just continue to play them all year round.

But now you're seeing that more and more with these DLC strategies and a lot more connected play. This is something we're learning from gamers. Just because it's part of an existing franchise, doesn't mean it's not innovative, doesn't mean we're not bringing new ideas.

Call of Duty Elite is a great example of a big new investment in an existing franchise. Within the disc itself (for Modern Warfare 3), there's a completely reinvented spec ops mode, new multiplayer game modes, obviously a new campaign - you'd expect that. Just because it's in an existing franchise doesn't mean it lacks newness for the industry.

GamesIndustry.bizBut that winnowing of 'middle-ground' IP suits your purposes quite well, doesn't it?
Eric Hirshberg

I don't know, I wouldn't state a preference one way or the other. I think when the revenue was spread out across a lot more titles, that was cool too - it was fun to compete across more categories. I think that our approach is to focus more innovation, more investment more depth of gameplay into our best ideas, our best opportunities. That goes for existing IP like CoD and new IP like Skylanders.

So that's really the barometer for us - do we feel like we have something unique, something differentiating, something that can give people a unique experience. What we're not doing is sort of spreading our chips all over the table and trying to compete in every category.

GamesIndustry.bizThere have been a lot of job losses and closures this year, is that process an ongoing one?
Eric Hirshberg

Well there's a lot of people who we'd gladly work with again if the right opportunity arose. Those are decisions you never want to make, you never want to do that stuff, unfortunately it's a reality of business.

What doesn't get a lot of focus is that we've also created a lot of jobs. We've created Beachhead to build CoD Elite, those are all new jobs. We've expanded studios which are working on Call of Duty, we've obviously created a lot of work with Skylanders, everything I've mentioned about that has it's own resources - there's Toys for Bob making the console game, Vicarious Visions making the 3DS game, other developers we've partnered with on mobile and online.

So on one hand we've had to make cuts where it was reflected in our slate, but we've also created new jobs and grown where that's reflected in our slate. It's not an ongoing process, we did what we needed to do at the beginning of the year when we decided to not make Blur 2 and to shut down the production on the games in the Guitar Hero franchises that had been announced.

Which was the right business decision. That doesn't mean that Guitar Hero won't come back. It's an incredibly strong and well liked franchise and brand, but with the current model, those games just couldn't be made profitable any more.

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Dan Pearson