While console transitions are exciting for fans, they can be terrifying and costly for game publishers. Changes in hardware specs mean many millions need to be spent on new engine technology, and as development teams grow larger and budgets expand, the transition grows ever more complex. Just ask Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg, the man responsible for nurturing some of the highest-profile names in games, including Call Of Duty, Skylanders and Bungie’s hotly anticipated multiplayer FPS Destiny. It seems that having deep pockets doesn’t make all-in bets any less harrowing, however.
In Destiny, you have a hugely ambitious title that seems to hint at where game design is going – towards more epic and seamless experiences. But it has clearly been a hugely costly project. Has it been a scary investment to for you to make, or are you well accustomed to such projects by now?
Well, certainly whenever you make a big investment there’s always a level of scrutiny, care, trepidation and preparation you do to ensure it’s a wise investment that’s going to pay off. That said, our entire business strategy is about making big investments in a few things, then making sure they’re successful by surrounding ourselves with the best development talent, by trying to choose the most compelling ideas, and then making sure we’re focused and not distracted so we can market them in the most compelling way possible. If you accept that is a scary-yet effective strategy, then it settles your nerves a little when you go into something like Destiny, because you have all the pieces that usually lead to success: a tremendously talented developer, a very compelling differentiated concept and then an ability to market things successfully. We focus on doing a few things well. That’s been a very good strategy for us. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s very effective.
What’s your impression of the next-gen console war so far?
Taking the broadest perspective, it’s great how passionate everybody is. The worst possible response we could be seeing as an industry would be apathy. People are anything but apathetic! There are a lot of very strong points of view out there and we’ve seen them being voiced in very dramatic fashion since the console reveals, and that’s ultimately good news for the industry. This is a passionate and engaged audience, and they’re paying attention to the new hardware. I think, though, that the concept of the console wars exists primarily in our own echo chamber as an industry. What you really have is two different approaches from two very capable companies. Both machines are terrific, so it’s gamers who will win, because they have choice. They’re not carbon copy boxes with different logos on the front.
How do you smooth transition between generations?
Historically, console-transition years come with some short-term bumps in the road but create new opportunities in the longterm. The way to combat that is to make sure that you are developing superlative games for the next generation that establish the gold standard with your franchises. We’ve done that in the current generation with COD and Skylanders, and we have every intention of doing that again in the next generation. In a strange way, the assignment remains consistent – it just ups the complexity of the process, because you’re utilising new technology that’s still under development while you’re trying to create games for it.
With the increased expense of next-gen development, how do you ensure that you’re still able to publish original titles?
We haven’t timed our new IP launches to coincide with the next generation, they’re timed to coincide with when we have great ideas. For example, in many ways, Skylanders is a next-gen idea. I don’t mean in terms of the specific hardware, I mean the level of thinking that went into it: it’s a very outside-of-the-box way to approach a game. It’s not attached to hardware capabilities; it’s attached to a new gameplay mechanic that’s very captivating and original, which is why we invested in it. With Destiny, when we first got into this relationship with Bungie there was no way of knowing that a console transition year would be happening when we revealed it. It’s good luck that the style of the game is where it seems development is going in the next generation. We signed off on that vision as a current gen game because that’s what it was at the time. I feel that, when the next-generation consoles come, it’s our job to utilise them to the best of our ability in order to maximise the gaming experience, but I actually think it’s a misperception that because there’s a next gen of hardware that’s what instigates thinking about new IP. The creative process is more fluid than that.
But does game design have to change? A lot of the games we see now are still aimed at that familiar demographic: males aged between 18 and 30. Do you foresee Activision reaching beyond the comfort zone of the young adult male and kids markets and looking at other genres? The romantic comedy is among the most popular Hollywood genres, yet videogames have no equivalent. Will Activision ever make a romcom?
That’s a very provocative question. However, I think there’s something to do with allowing different media to do what each media does well. When I think of games as an art form, they start with being transportive. Because they’re interactive, because you are more involved in the experience than in any other form of entertainment, it all starts with being transported. And obviously a natural place to want to transport people is into an experience they can’t have in their everyday lives. Sometimes that’s driving a fast car, sometimes that’s being a professional athlete, sometimes that’s being a rock star, sometimes that’s being a hero or going into a fantastical future. I think this is inherently what games do best and so I’d expect that to be the basis of games for a long time to come. I don’t know if romantic comedy fits that model. I think that’s something that movies and TV do well. There’s this strange desire to morph games into movies or have them behave more like movies; I don’t share that desire. Games are wonderful as they are and do different things better than other forms of media.
But as the fidelity of visuals and inputs improve, won’t we see more subtle forms of interplay and emotion in games? Indie games are already going in that direction…
It’s certainly true that games are improving as a storytelling medium. I don’t think it’s just indie games, I think The Last Of Us was a great example: it had dramatic improvements in narrative and character development for the medium. But, yes, there are a tremendous number of creative indie games that I think will be compelling and successful in their own right, and also have an influence on blockbuster titles. The ecosystem of innovation usually starts at the independent level in lots of art forms.
But importantly, it seems that the old barriers between indie and mainstream are coming down…
Both of the console manufacturers are talking about how the machines are designed, in part, to support independent games; we’ve seen them be very successful on smartphones and tablets, which are an easy path to publishing. A lot of creativity follows suit. But I think there’s a tendency to think that one renders the other obsolete, that because there’s a burgeoning independent sector it means blockbusters are somehow in danger. There is a demand for both and they do different things very well.
Do you think the idea of social or multiplayer gaming will fundamentally change in the next generation?
When most people play COD online, it’s against strangers, not friends. Can that change? This is something that I see becoming one of the hallmarks of the next generation. If you look at the things that didn’t even exist when the current generation of hardware was introduced: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, smartphones, tablets… That whole suite of things we now can’t get through a day without didn’t exist when 360 and PS3 were launched, therefore they weren’t designed to particularly work well in those ecosystems – how could they [be]? Now the next generation of consoles is being designed to slot right in to be a part of that multidevice daisychain that we all have. I think this will be the element, much more than improved graphics, that will lead to the creative new ideas in game design – the fact that there are multiple devices and much more of a social signature. It feels that, in the last generation, things like Xbox Live and PSN were originally conceived as online stores, and then they unleashed multiplayer. The creative process has a way of surprising us with the way things get used.
So when the next-gen consoles have bedded in a little, how do you envisage that Activision games will differ to the games you publish now?
I can’t answer that question too specifically without starting to reveal things that aren’t ready to be revealed! But if I were to predict a trend, it would be that games are about to become equally immersive and transportive, but also connected and social. That’s the zeitgeist idea of the decade, that’s what we’re all participating in: connecting with other human beings via digital portals in very rich ways. Games are one of the first things people did together in a digital space, but while COD is very connected and very compelling, it’s not very social. Compared to the other things that we all do together now – whether it’s communicating on social networks or commenting on content, or sharing content or forwarding links to each other – games have a long way to go to be truly social.