Activision’s Eric Hirshberg on taking creative risks, investing in Destiny and hitting back at online critics
Eric Hirshberg is Activision Publishing’s CEO, and is responsible for selling some of the biggest game series in the industry. He’s also a frighteningly smart and confident interviewee; he answers our questions without hesitation and, in particular, bristles when we suggest that Activision might be considered by some to be an uncaring corporate giant, singling out former internet antichrist Bobby Kotick for special praise.
Hirshberg’s right; it’s wrong to portray Activision as a videogame giant wholly dedicated to exploiting its franchises for financial gain – in Destiny it is investing heavily in an ambitious studio and fresh game concept and Skylanders is a new phenomenon entirely of Activision’s creation. It is a smarter company than many credit it for, and in Hirshberg, as you can see below, it has a focused, determined leader.
What’s the feeling inside Activision right now about the indie scene? Are you aware of this kind of creative renaissance that’s going on, and do you think it affects you in any way?
I think it’s great for the industry and I think it’s great for the creativity of the medium. I think if you look at every other art form there’s room for blockbusters and there’s room for an independent scene in films and in music. The same has always been true in games but because the process of developing and publishing is so much more complex, generally it has been hard, but one of the things I really appreciate about both the first parties with this next generation is that they’re handing the tools over to independent developers, making it easier for them to publish and get their ideas out there.
Is Activision thinking about investing in smaller, more offbeat games? Is that where you feel your mobile focused studios come in?
I think that we’ve been a little bit more experimental where it comes to mobile games thus far but I also think that we are who we are as a company – and we’re a very focused company. Our strategy is to do a few things and do them exceptionally well.
I think that sometimes people misperceive that as somehow being risk-averse, and yet we’re taking some of the biggest risks in new genres and new business models and new IPs than anybody. So the fact that we only do it a handful of times doesn’t lessen the fact there’s a lot of risk and complexity baked into anything new you try.
Skylanders is a brand that didn’t exist eighteen months ago – people forget that already because it’s been so successful. It was not only a new IP, but a new genre of play that was totally unproven.
Do you consider the size of the investment you’re making in Destiny as a big risk too? Can you put a figure on that?
Yeah that’s how I would describe it. We don’t talk about the specific budgets of our games but you can see the ambitiousness of the concept and in order to bring that concept to life it’s been a big investment.
I think Bungie is a pretty special group of creative people and they’ve had a very good track record of games that are both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. As Activision Blizzard, our two biggest franchises are a persistent world game with World Of Warcraft and a firstperson shooter with Call Of Duty. So we know the appeal of both of those two concepts and we thought that [Bungie] had a very clever way of bringing the best of both of them together.
What’s the relationship like between you and Bungie? Who’s the boss?
It’s a partnership – obviously they’re an independent company and independence is very important to them and were happy to support that with the way we constructed this agreement, being a ten year deal. It’s a partnership that takes both an Activision and a Bungie to bring to life.
At times Activision is talked about as if it’s this big, heartless corporation – do you feel like you need to get out there and change some of those perceptions?
Look, this is a company of passionate people who make games and love making games. I’m certainly aware of all of the reputational perceptions out there but I think they’re incorrect and this is a company that has consistently made some of the most well liked and most played gaming experiences and that hasn’t happened by accident.
Why do you think some people don’t connect those things?
I think that’s starting to change. The fact is that sometimes it’s fun to root against the biggest – both as Activision and with Call Of Duty – and a lot of companies in this industry have experienced that at one point or another.
As a company whose fortunes and success rises and fall with great quality, it’s something that takes a lot of passion and a lot of energy. I want to make the perception match the reality. The reality is that this is a group of people that lives, eats, breathes games. And it has done a pretty great job of creating franchises that a lot of people seem to love and appreciate.
For a time Bobby Kotick was at the receiving end of a lot of criticism online. Do you feel that’s fair?
Bobby’s the guy who bought Activision out of bankruptcy because he believed in the potential and the power of interactive entertainment. And he’s built it into this incredibly successful company by making great games over a long period of time – I know there’s this other narrative but it doesn’t link up with the reality of the person I work with every day. There’s no greater champion of making great experiences that people really appreciate.
You can say a lot of things about Activision but you can’t say you don’t invest heavily in the ideas we believe in, from Call Of Duty to Skylanders to Destiny – these are big ambitious visions and it takes someone who really believes in the potential of interactive entertainment to champion that.
Call Of Duty and Xbox are pretty tightly aligned now after years of co-marketing and content deals. What would change that? Would Sony have to outbid Microsoft?
Well, it’s not just a bidding process – there’s a mutually beneficial relationship that has a lot of different prongs, and as you saw we announced a very similar kind of deal with Sony on Destiny so it’s a case by case thing.
Have you ever thought about bringing Bungie in-house? How much do you think that’d cost?
Bungie is very intent on being independent. That was important to them and so that was something that we knew going in [to the Destiny agreement], and we figured out a way to structure the deal. It’s ten year deal and it’s got a long and ambitious vision to it and we felt like we needed that length of deal to justify the investment it was gonna take to make the game. But they’re independent.
What happens if they come to you and say they need another year to work on Destiny before you can publish it? Can you turn around and say ‘no, you’ve got to get it done on time’?
We’re going to do the right thing for our players – there’s no road to success that doesn’t included making a superb game so we’re going to make those decisions together as a partnership.