We weren't the only people visiting Sledgehammer Games last month. While we were at the studio to get a look at Call of Duty: WWII for our cover story, Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg was there to check on the game's progress. He was gracious enough to set aside some time to talk with us about Call of Duty, Crash Bandicoot, and even PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds in a lengthy conversation.

Game Informer – We just wanted to ask the obvious question: Why World War II again? How long has it been in the company’s mind? What was the decision like to choose which studio to kind of tackle this throwback?

Eric Hirshberg – Great question. I wish there was a more scientific answer; it really is a little bit of instinct, and a lot of conversation. I think there are several elements. First of all, there was a time not too long ago when everybody in the Call of Duty community was fatigued with modern and was asking for innovation and asking for new experiences, and that’s what led us to start experimenting with taking the franchise into the future in the first place. I think with the benefit of hindsight we can all agree we might have had one more future game than we needed [laughs]. Not to make any comment on the quality of the game from last year, but I think that while there were a lot of innovations and a lot of fun new things that players got to do, it was one future game too many. 

Two-and-a-half years before that, we started both feeling ourselves as players, and also starting to maybe hear that desire for a return to our roots. And again, when these games take three years to make, it’s a bit of a fool’s errand to try to perfectly time the changing tides of opinion with the slate. So that’s not the only thing that we listen to; we also listen to the passions of our teams, and I’m a huge believer that you don’t get great games that teams aren’t passionate about making. So no matter how much I think the time is right for one thing or another, or how decisive I am in that opinion or discussion, if there’s a team who doesn’t have the passion or a bunch of great ideas for that game or that environment, that’s another road to failure that you have to make sure you stay off of. In this case, the stars really aligned.

I think the original desire at Sledgehammer was to make Advanced Warfare 2 for very understandable reasons, because what developer doesn’t want a sequel and to start a long-standing sub-franchise that they sort of have unique ownership over? But, as soon as we opened the conversation about “Hey guys what do you think about WWII? There’s a small group of us who thought it might be the right time to take us back to our roots.” And, you asked a question about why this team, all of us wanted to play a World War II game made by Sledge, meaning they have – you know I think each of our lead studios, you know, very compatible in many ways, but each brings a certain flavor to the franchise, which I think has been a part of its success is that we have these slightly different riffs on the theme, and I think that Sledgehammer’s unique contributions are fitting with their name. It’s impact, cinematic scale, that sense of big Call of Duty moments – I think they do those as well, or better, than anybody. 

So that, paired with the big war, the big epic scale of the greatest war ever fought, the grandest scale war ever fought, just felt natural, so it didn’t take long for them to get really excited about it, for their team to get excited about it, and they were off and running. So it was a conversation really early in the process and it went well, and here we are.

Do you feel like the tides could ever fully rotate again and you go back to Advanced Warfare? 

Oh god [laughs]. Just uh, proba– I don’t know [laughs]. I don’t wanna take a decisive position. It’s one of those things that, you know, if you stay on the train long enough, the scenery keeps changing.

Do you see this as just a one-off to satisfy the old-school fans, or do you see this as future direction for all of Call of Duty?

Well, you know I can’t reveal things on the slate that are several years off, but no I don’t necessarily see it as a one-off; I think that World War II and historical settings more broadly are very rich territory, and I think there’s every possibility that that could become an area that we explore more than once. 

With the shift toward the social space and dynamic events like that, has there ever been any consideration toward moving Call of Duty toward a game-as-service instead of an annualized franchise?

Yeah, that’s another great question. First of all, I know this sounds like a little bit of a hedge, but I think it already is in many ways, and in many ways was one of the first. I mean, there’s more than one way to create a community that sticks around for many years and continues to play together. Call of Duty has a very high percentage of players from year to year who come back and purchase the new game and keep playing together and move their social network to the new game. Now, I understand that the properties it doesn’t have are that sort of continuous world with expansions and a continuous string of accomplishments that carry over from game to game, so it doesn’t have those things that I think classically people associate with a persistent platform, but it does have a very stable community that has been very committed to the franchise and very “sticky” for a very large number of people, which is, I think, one of the main benefits of a game as a service. 

I think that we have tried to find the right solution for each franchise individually, and Call of Duty has really benefitted from that annual innovation moment, that annual reengagement moment where a lot of people, who maybe played for a couple months and had a great experience but moved on to other things, come back and check out the new game, and there’s advantages and disadvantages to both. We’ve experienced the other side of the coin within our own slate; Destiny has advantages to how sticky that game was for the core players and how long play sessions were and how long they stuck around to play, and then also we see that sometimes it’s harder to bring a new player into an environment where they feel like “Oh, I’m three years behind my buddy who’s been playing persistently for that length of time.” So I think there are gives and takes on both sides. 

I think on Call of Duty, we actually have a system that works with the annual release, but I think there’s more we can do to unify the player no matter where they’re playing. You’re seeing us now starting to have some success with releasing content wherever players are. You just saw us release a big zombie pack in the Black Ops III community, and that game is two-and-a-half years past its launch, but it’s super “sticky” and there’s still a passionate group of players playing it, so we want to be wherever players are and we want to provide great content wherever players are, so we’re starting to have some success with that. I think there’s more we can do to unify the player experience if there are going to be people who move around from game to game. There are players who buy the new game, try the new game, maybe have a satisfying experience with the new game, but still decide “I’m going to go back to the previous game because more of my friends still like that, so I want to play MP with them,” or “I want to get the clan back together” or whatever. 

There are people who shift into the new game and never look back. I think that our goal is to not necessarily completely reinvent the things that are working, but to make the experience for “I’m a Call of Duty player, I like multiple titles within the franchise” – make that experience better, create more benefits for being a loyal player, those are things that we’re working on and trying to improve.