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Activision's Hirshberg: 'Simply a fallacy to say we're not innovating'

Activision's Hirshberg: 'Simply a fallacy to say we're not innovating' Exclusive

February 13, 2012 | By Kris Graft

During DICE 2012 in Las Vegas last week, Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg gave a speech about the importance of letting the creative minds lead a video game company's business decisions, and not the other way around.

Talking to him face-to-face, one can tell it's something that he really believes in. Before joining video game megapublisher Activision, he was CEO and chief creative officer at major marketing agency Deutsch LA. He also says he has an art school background, not business.

If you tell him that there are people out there suggesting that Activision isn't innovative, lacks creativity or is losing relevancy, he'll adamantly argue against that notion -- in an endearingly agitated way -- and go to bat for Activision's developers and its methods.

There was a DICE panel that explored today's publishing model, and one argument was that it is inherently broken, and that big publishers are hindering innovation and choice for consumers [Activision was named specifically in this panel]. When you look at the publishing model right now, are there certain things that you see that need to be fixed? What would you focus on improving?

I didn't see the panel, but there are two things. One, we were one of the few publishers that launched a new intellectual property [Skylanders] this year, and not only launched it well, but in the top 10 games of the year. And we launched a fairly ambitious and entrepreneurial digital service for our Call of Duty community that took two years to develop, that there was no proven model for.

It's simply a fallacy to say that we're not innovating, or that we're not attempting to bring new IP and new ideas to the industry. What we are doing is making those choices very carefully, and focusing on areas where we think we have something unique to contribute, and a real competitive advantage.

The other thing that I think that point of view doesn't take into account is gamers' behavior. Gamers are voluntarily spending more and more time with the games that they love, and that by nature drives you to innovate within those franchises, as opposed to maybe the behavior we saw a few years ago, where people grazed more, and sampled things from many different categories, and moved on. Now you have really long-standing relationships between gamers and the games that they love, and to an extent, we're responding to that behavior.

Has the role of the "big traditional publisher" lessened in light of all these emerging business and distribution models?

No, I think it's actually increased, in the games that people seem to want to play the most -- the big, deep, connected experiences that gamers seem most enamored with are very complex, expensive, and entrepreneurial undertakings.

I think it takes the scale and the partnership of a publisher to bring those things to market. And I think [knocks on wood] in a year when we've delivered not only the biggest-selling game of all time, but also the one new intellectual property that managed to pierce the top 10 [on U.S. NPD sales charts] and put a very unproven, innovative mechanic in it, it's hard to argue that the role of the publisher isn't integral to those successes.

That said, I also think that the presence of these big, blockbuster hits does create an alternative demand for a more independent approach. And I completely applaud and embrace that. There's more than one way to succeed in this business, and that goes for the movie business and the music business.

... I have no problem with independent development or entrepreneurial approaches. It's great for everyone. There's independent records, independent movies. There's room for lots of different kinds of ways to go to market.

The presence of alternative ways to go to market does not render what we do any less relevant or powerful.

And you also see us doubling down on games like Prototype, and new things like [subscription program] Call of Duty: Elite that are very differentiated, very entrepreneurial, and very unproven. So it's a balancing act between trying to protect those big franchises, but also trying to innovate in other areas.

That word "innovation" comes up. A lot of times, people will criticize not just Activision, but also other big publishers for not being able to innovate. I actually feel that Activision did innovate with Skylanders. How do you foster real innovation at a large corporation?

I think that's an easy target. I think that's an easy thing to say.

That big publishers aren't innovative?

Yeah, I think that if you look at Toys for Bob's Skylanders, if you look at Call of Duty: Elite, and even if you look at some of the incremental innovations in the Call of Duty releases, that's a hard creative assignment, staying true to the things that people love about a franchise while also figuring out new ways to make it fresh that don't ruin what people loved about it in the first place. That's a very delicate balancing act, and our developers do a great job of doing that.

I look at Call of Duty: Elite, Skylanders, the innovations within Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, the project we're doing with Bungie... There are very few places on our slate where I don't see innovation. So it's an easy potshot to throw, but the reality is different.

In light of Double Fine's big Kickstarter campaign and the rise of crowdfunding in the games industry, do you think crowdfunding could ever pose a threat to a traditional publisher?

There's room for great ideas to come from anywhere in this business. Crowdfunding isn't a new idea, it's been done in the movie business from time to time. It's cool and admirable that they were able to get fans to step up in that way.

I also think that publishers like us bring a lot of value to the party, and bring a lot of scale and a lot of infrastructure that helps drive franchises to success. There are multiple ways to get to a successful franchise in this day and age.

Activision's view on Facebook -- are you still taking a wait and see approach before really diving into it?

We haven't made any formal announcements, but we are definitely seeing that as a viable platform for us. We've had a little bit of a different approach. We tend not to, as a company, chase the hot topics, but instead take a more methodical approach. And also, I don't see social and mobile gaming as a threat to more immersive gaming. I see it as an opportunity to further expand on universes.

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