Eric Hirshberg is the CEO of Activision Publishing, making him
responsible for two of gaming’s biggest franchises — Call of
Duty and Skylanders. With the much-hyped
Destiny about to launch, Hirshberg speaks with Wired.co.uk
at Gamescom on investing in Bungie’s post-Halo vision, the
yearly cycle for many of the company’s games, and bringing
Skylanders to kids on the go.
Wired.co.uk: One of the biggest reveals you’ve made so
far at Gamescom has been the full console version of
Skylanders: Trap Team on mobile. What have you got planned
for that as a company?
Eric Hirshberg: It’s something that we’ve been
trying to do for a while and we’ve finally figured out how to do
it. Now the hardware is finally co-operating and we can deliver a
no-compromise version of the whole Skylanders experience
on tablet. With some very clever engineering from Toys for Bob and
Vicarious Visions, we’ll be ready for prime time.
Considering the target demographic and the proliferation
of tablets amongst kids, do you think this will overtake the
I doubt it. It’ll be incremental. There are a lot of households
out there where kids play on tablets and don’t have consoles. I
think there’ll be some level of cannibalisation out there, people
choosing the tablet as their preferred gaming platform, but there
are lots of consoles out there too. This isn’t about trying to
replace anything; this is about trying to add. The tablet is
undeniably an appealing game platform for kids and
Skylanders is undeniably an appealing game for kids.
Skylanders was first to market with near-field
communications tech crossing the game world with real-world
objects. What was your view when Disney and Nintendo came out with
their own versions?
It was only a matter of time. When you have a success on the
scale of Skylanders, and it’s a new genre, it’s only a
matter of time before other companies with relevant IPs decided
they want a piece of that. It’s nothing new for us.
Skylanders is actually a bit of an anomaly for us because
we didn’t have any competition for a brief spell. We’d invented the
category. The fact that we have competition now just puts it in the
same league as Call of Duty and our other titles.
Competition is all part of the business.
Has it forced you to innovate or change how you do
things between versions?
It doesn’t force us to — we’d be doing it anyway. Innovation is
our best strategy. The best defence is a good offence and that’s
what got us here. We’ve been one step ahead of everyone who’s
catching up to our initial innovation, while we’re moving onto our
next one. Not only in terms of bringing it to tablet but in the
core gameplay mechanic of Trap Team. For the last three
years, we’ve been letting kids bring toys to life in the game, and
this year we’re going to let them reach into the game and pull toys
out with the traps. They want to play as the villain. This is the
biggest innovation we’ve had since the initial idea of bringing
your toys to life.
It’s all about magic. Skylanders is all about making
kids go wow. We want to always deliver on that promise, never rest
on our laurels, never just add more characters. Instead, we should
add more magic.
Will there ever be more articulation to the physical
toys, so that kids can play with them in a more traditional manner
when away from a tablet or console?
Kids play with the toys as currently designed a lot, away from
the console. They’re not the only maquette-style toy built more for
display and admiration than articulation. I find, and we have found
through our play-testing and research — as well as with my own
kids — those toys get used a lot. I think the game fires the
imagination and gives them this framework, this narrative so that
they can use their imaginations. They work really well as toys both
inside the game and outside the game.
Moving onto Destiny, one of the figures that
has been floating around is that the game cost $500m to produce.
Apparently that’s not quite accurate though — can you
Yeah, this is one of those figures that got widely
misinterpreted as a production cost for the first game and it’s not
that. It’s not all-inclusive but it does cover things like the
marketing, making a new game engine, which other games will benefit
from in the coming years. It’s more of an all-inclusive number than
some people reported. That said, it shouldn’t be any surprise that
it’s a big undertaking. This is a big vision and that requires a
big investment. It’s not for the faint-of-heart. When we first saw
the idea from Bungie, we knew it was going to be a big undertaking
because it was a vast vision covering multiple genres of play. We
wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t believe in it.
Bungie has a certain pedigree to them, coming off
Halo but when they came to you with a ten-year vision for
a project needing a huge investment, were there any second
There was a lot of discussion and scrutiny but at the end of the
day everyone at Activision thought that it was a huge opportunity
and a big idea. This business starts with talent, great creative
teams and visions. Destiny has both of those. The team at
Bungie is a special group, we thought the idea behind the game was
a special one, and that bringing the creators of Halo
together with the publisher behind Call of Duty — well,
the potential there speaks for itself. We’re geared up for a great
With CoD and Skylanders, you’ve got a
yearly iteration cycle. Will Destiny be a third annual
pillar, or more of a core game with expansions?
We’ve announced the first game and two expansions, the first
being The Dark Below so far, but that’s not the whole
picture. It’s not an MMORPG like World of Warcraft and
it’s a different business model. There was some speculation early
on that it would be a subscription model and we debunked that
fairly quickly. We don’t want to jump the gun, but I will say that
it’ll be a more straightforward approach to the business than
people seem to expect. People seem to be expecting something weird
and exotic but really the business model is straightforward — make
great content and put it out there to buy. Destiny is all
one big world and what’s important to me and Bungie is knowing that
there’s enough depth to make sure there are new and interesting
stories and adventures coming out.
The reaction to the alpha and beta has been
predominately positive. How has that affected your feelings towards
Our opinion of it was already very positive! It was just
confirmation that what we were seeing and feeling was what gamers
were feeling as well. We wouldn’t be leaning in and making the
kinds of investments we’re making if we didn’t believe we have a
special game here. And we do! It’s great to see that gamers are
enjoying it. We’ve not been caught off guard.
On Call of Duty — last year’s Ghosts
didn’t seem to get the response the franchise at its best has. Has
that sub-franchise been put aside, or will it see its own sequels
as Modern Warfare and Black Ops did?
We do have multiple sub-franchises under the Call of
Duty banner. I don’t have any announcements about future
Infinity Ward games – right now we’re focussed on Advanced
Warfare. But I think it’s important to remember that
Ghosts is the number one game on next-gen consoles and
that there are more people playing Call of Duty
franchise-wide today than ever before. There’s still a lot of
momentum and interest in this franchise and it’s up to us to come
out with great content that’s fresh, and new, and brings some
innovative experiences. I think Sledgehammer’s really delivered on
that with Advanced Warfare.
One of the things I really think Sledgehammer has gotten right
is they’ve managed to bring real innovation and new movement
systems to the core of the game but kept that Call of Duty
feeling. There’s a way they feel or run that’s very specific –
they’re smooth and precise; there’s fast, fun and frenetic
minute-to-minute gameplay. This game delivers that feeling but it’s
also incredibly new and there are a tonne of new tricks for you to
Now you’ve got three teams cycling on Call of
Duty — Sledgehammer, Treyarch and Infinity Ward — how much
top-down management does that require to maintain a cohesive
I wouldn’t describe it as top-down. I would describe it as
side-to-side. Those teams have a lot of natural chemistry and a lot
of interactions. They want each other to be successful, obviously.
They know that the franchise is on the line when it’s their turn to
bat. There’s a lot of collaboration and sharing best practices. But
at the same time there are a lot of benefits to having these
different creative teams working on the same franchise because
that’s how you keep it fresh. A Treyarch game feels very different
from an Infinity Ward game, which feels very different to a
Sledgehammer game — but they all feel like Call of Duty.
I think that’s been the secret to our success. We let these very
different, very independent creative groups have different
approaches and iterate on the same core theme. I think that’s been
a lot of the success of Call of Duty.
What was the instigating factor to spread out the
development and add a third pillar to Call of
The games had gotten more and more ambitious and we were packing
more and more content and game modes into each release. We saw the
console generation transition coming and we knew that this was
going to require even more time to take advantage of the increased
graphical capacity and processing power. When you’ve got a game
that’s routinely the biggest in the industry, your greatest
competition is yourself. You’ve got to top yourself over and over
again. We just felt that to put every possible ace in our hand,
additional time was a prudent decision. Going to a three-year cycle
meant the teams had more time for experimentations in the creative
process, more time for iterations and innovation. Things like the
Exo-movement system — that’s not a small or casually made
decision. That’s something where you’re really tinkering with the
core mechanics of the game, so you want to make sure that you have
the time to get it right, to playtest.
The third year allowed for that, for breakthroughs in facial
animation and performance capture technology that you’re seeing in
the campaign. It allowed experimentation with the supply drops, the
loot Call of Duty-style. It’s also lets us be able to
introduce a new group. Treyarch and Infinity Ward have been going
back and forth with this for over a decade. Sledgehammer gave a
fresh set of eyes and have fresh ideas. I think that’s good for
CoD is one of the few franchises that ‘non-gamers’
play — the consumer who just buy perhaps that and FIFA, or Madden
in the US. Does that change your focus?
I think that happens with a lot of blockbuster entertainment
though. A lot of people who aren’t sci-fi fans also saw
Avatar or Star Wars, even though those were
sci-fi movies. I think a lot of non-hardcore football fans watch
the Super Bowl or the World Cup. There are certain entertainment
icons that reach a level that I call “pop culture inevitability”.
If you consume pop culture, you just kind of feel that you have to
be part of that. I think it applies to certain movies, certain
games and certain sporting events, and we feel very lucky that
we’ve reached that level. It’s a game that appeals to a hardcore
audience that play it competitively year round but it also appeals
to a wider, more mainstream audience as well. We try to make the
game a satisfying experience for both ends of that spectrum.