Activision’s Eric Hirshberg Explains Why The Company Bets Big

by Mike Futter on Jun 17, 2014 at 05:01 AM

Publishers and developers have personalities just like the individuals that comprise them. That’s the benefit of working in a creative industry, even one that is becoming increasingly driven by bottom line performance.

As you look across the field of remaining mega-publishers, you’ll notice that no two are exactly alike. EA has dipped heavily into mobile, has its sports franchises, and continues to push action gaming in a variety of sub-genres.

Take-Two is comprised of a few different pillars, with Rockstar at the center of its operations, along with 2K Games and 2K Sports delivering a variety of experiences in many genres. Ubisoft is known for its international studios and collaborative development approach.

Activision is a different beast altogether. The publisher is known for huge bets with long periods of return. We spoke with Activision Publishing CEO about how often he has to say no to projects and what it takes to get to “yes.”

“We say ‘no’ a lot, so that when we say ‘yes,’ we can do it with a lot of impact and put a lot of focus and resources and energy behind the handful of things that we do,” Hirshberg says.”We try to do a handful of things exceptionally well. In order to do that, you have to say no a lot. And that’s hard. I’m a creative person, I’m a guy who likes things.”

Activision has a history of building upon big hits. It just added a third development team, Sledgehammer Games, to Call of Duty. The result is that Sledgehammer, Infinity Ward, and Treyarch will each have three years to build their titles. Advanced Warfare, which is out this November, is the first to benefit from the extended cycle. The company is also putting a lot of faith in Bungie's Destiny, which just completed its first look alpha and will arrive on September 9.

Of course, some projects never make it out of the concept phase. “Generally, I’m someone who gets excited about things, and so then you have to take your creative enthusiasm hat off and put on your scrutiny hat and say, ‘Does this really have the impact and the potency to break through?’ And when the answer is ‘yes,’ it’s super exciting,” Hirshberg says.

Hirshberg comes from an art school background, and brings a sense of creativity to his daily business. “My orientation towards doing this job starts with the creative process, always,” he says. “That’s true about the games we’re making, that’s true about the talent that we’re bringing in and associating ourselves with.”

As game franchises flourish, Hirshberg says it’s important to keep the consumers in mind. “At the end of the day, these are pieces of popular culture, and they’re things that people are investing a lot of passion in; not just time and money, but passion,” he says. “These are purchases people want to make. These are the things that they save up for and look forward to. It’s a business of passion. And in order for you to succeed in a business of passion, I think you can never lose sight of your own passion for what you’re making.”

After a time though, passion isn’t enough. People move on, and once-potent franchises need to be put away at least for a time. We spoke about Guitar Hero, and the decision to sunset that series and how it affected the company as a whole. “The world had clearly run out of appetite for not only that game but that genre, at least in the way that we were making it at that time,” he recounts. “That’s a great example, that’s still a very potent brand. If you woke up from a coma today and looked at that brand just as a brand, you would say, ‘Boy, there’s very high awareness, there’s very high likability, there’s nothing broken about it.’ It’s just that people didn’t want to play that style anymore, at least the way we were making it.”

Activision was able to transition the team at Vicarious Visions to other projects, and that studio is now working on the Skylanders franchise. Neversoft, the team behind the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, is another transition success story having worked on Guitar Hero and is now part of the larger Call of Duty family.

There have been layoffs along the way, though. “A short time after I joined the company, there were some things that we felt that we needed to shut down,” Hirshberg tells us. “At the end of the day, this is another benefit of the ‘go big’ focus strategy. It galvanizes all of your best people and all of your resources on these few things, and it does create a higher percentage, I think, batting average, because all your best people, all your best resources are focused against making these things successful. So if you get them right, then success breeds success. If you get them wrong, then you’ve got to make tough decisions.”

For more on Eric Hirshberg, check out a video interview with him from our Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare coverage