E3 2012: Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg Discusses ‘Black Ops 2’ and Hollywood Licenses

Eric Hirshberg CEO Activision 2011
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Eric Hirshberg

The Activision exec talks about the company’s ambitious Black Ops 2 and the relationship between Hollywood and video games in this exclusive interview.

LOS ANGELES – Activision has dominated the entertainment landscape consistently since Call of Duty graduated from World War II to Modern Warfare. Each game has topped the last offering to become the biggest entertainment launch and most successful game of that year. With each title generating over $1 billion in sales worldwide in under two months, Activision is constantly competing against its own success. Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg talks about the latest offering in the bestselling franchise, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, and explains why this title will propel the franchise forward in this exclusive interview.

The Hollywood Reporter: What impact does the explosion of casual and social gamers have on introducing new gamers to mainstream franchises like Call of Duty?

Eric Hirshberg: I don’t think it’s exactly an apples to apples comparison. We’re in the business of making highly immersive, high production value, very immersive gaming experiences and some casual games deliver a version of that, and some do a completely different type of gameplay. They’re competition in a way that all other forms of entertainment are competition, but they’re not necessarily our core business.  There is an opportunity to utilize social games and mobile games as ways to expand upon our core business, and that’s been our approach. Casual games deliver interactive entertainment in the same way that more immersive games do, and you can say the same thing about a YouTube video delivering video for entertainment purposes the same way a Hollywood blockbuster movie does. One doesn’t necessarily negate the other, and in fact in most cases, one super charges the other, and that’s what we’re trying to make happen in gaming.

THR: What do you attribute to the mass market success that the Call of Duty franchise has had over the last few years?

Hirshberg: Amazing games, first and foremost.  Call of Duty has come to represent a pretty unique blend of epic realism. They’re games that are easy to play and hard to master, meaning if you you don’t play games a lot you can pick up and play Call of Duty and be having fun within 60 seconds. But that mastery, that sense of real accomplishment in the game, comes with much practice.  We also strike just the right balance between feeling authentic, but not feeling like a military simulation.  These games feel like a Hollywood blockbuster action movie.  We’re unabashed about that in the populous roots of the game. We just want to take people on a thrill ride and give them the ultimate adrenaline rush in gaming.

THR: What impact do you feel that this new Black Ops 2 game will have now that you’re going into the future and away from the historical aspect of that franchise?

Hirshberg: There was a big jump for Call of Duty several iterations ago when it went to the modern era from the World War II era. That gave a quantum leap forward for the franchise. I’m hopeful and confident that Black Ops 2 by going to the near future will have a similar kind of effect for the franchise.  This is as big a shift as the move from historical to modern because it opens up new game possibilities.  It opens up new weapons, new equipment, new mechanics, and new art directional expressions of the world.  The thing that we’ve done really well with this game though is it’s not just another science fiction shooter that is taking place on a spaceship or in the far future.  It’s really a credible next step.  We’ve worked really hard with military experts and futurists to figure out where warfare is going next and it’s a glimpse into the future.  Now, of course, we’ve taken a lot of creative license with things, but the weapons you’re fighting with and the conflicts you’re having are all born out of things that are percolating today.

THR: You said Black Ops 2 will deliver the biggest entertainment offering ever on a single disk. Can you explain the scope of this game?

Hirshberg: Call of Duty games already deliver a tremendous amount of value.  There are several different modes of play.  There’s the single-player campaign mode which is like playing in an action movie.  There’s the multiplayer mode, which people literally play all year long with their friends -- it’s got a tremendously long tail.  There’s co-op mode, where you can play with a couple of different friends. And then Treyarch has always had this zombie zone, where you can stop playing the regular game and you can fight against the undead.  Black Ops 2 is going to offer a more expansive and more robust zombie experience than it ever has before. It’s almost like a game within a game.  When you add all that together, it’s just a tremendous value. It might be one of the best values ever put on a single disk.

THR: Can you explain how Call of Duty Elite has progressed as a new business for Activision?

Hirshberg: Call of Duty Elite was born out of a simple observation we had.  There were 20 million unique people a month with seven to eight million people a day logging into Call of Duty to play multiplayer. But there were actually very few ways for them to connect with one another.  It was a multiplayer experience, but not a social experience.  At the same time, we met a trend in our culture that was all about social networking through technology.  So we thought let’s bring these two worlds together.  Call of Duty Elite is really a franchise exclusive social network.  It takes your game experience off the console into the palm of your hand on your smartphone, onto a tablet, onto the Web, and allows you to have a lot more social interaction and a lot more new ways to play with your friends, whether that’s starting a clan and playing as a team or joining a group of people with similar interests, or entering a tournament for real prizes. It’s opened up all kinds of new ways for our players to connect with one another.

THR: How successful has Call of Duty Elite become?

Hirshberg: Today, Call of Duty Elite, which has only been in existence since the end of last year, has 10 million registered users and two million premium subscribers, who get all of the downloadable content associated with Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 as part of their subscription. They also get other premium features like the ability to compete as a clan and watch shows surrounding Call of Duty like “Friday Night Fights”, which is executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott and brings together real world rivals and let’s them settle their differences Call of Duty style in multiplayer. It all adds up to a really fun addition to the Call of Duty experience.  It’s not designed to replace the gameplay.  It’s designed to enhance the gameplay.

THR: What are the challenges that you foresee in the fall where you have the new Modern Warfare 3 DLC content competing against Black Ops 2?

Hirshberg: We got asked this question last year too.  Thus far, driving continuous engagement in the previous title has not been an impediment to us getting people interested in the new title.  In fact, I think it’s the opposite.  The more people we can keep engaged with Call of Duty, the more thirsty they are to see where we’re going to take them next. Our goal is to provide as much content as our players can eat up. Thus far, there’s been a really high appetite for it, so we are providing a lot of downloadable content after the initial launch. People who love Call of Duty consistently want to have more and new experiences.

THR: With Activision’s The Amazing Spider-Man and Transformers: Fall of Cybertron coming out this year, what role do you see Hollywood-based games today playing in the industry?

Hirshberg: Just a few years ago having a character from a movie in a videogame was seen as a tremendous advantage because it came with a built-in mythology and it came with a character that you already had a relationship with, and sometimes some cool game mechanics like swinging through the world like Spider-Man.  The games business has matured in the last few years. We actually think now the most preferred characters are the ones that are developed for games. It’s not about Indiana Jones, it’s about Nathan Drake in Uncharted.  It’s not about characters from military movies, it’s about Price from Call of Duty.  These are characters that are becoming beloved in their own right, and I think Skylanders shows that as well.  As much as people love Pixar and Dreamworks movies and the characters that they see coming out of animated motion pictures, that’s the way they connect with Skylanders

THR: It doesn’t seem like Hollywood makes as many games based on movies these days.

Hirshberg: That’s still happening, and we’re still in that business and we still think that’s a good business, but it’s really shifted from that. Now if there’s an advantage to the character, the way that Transformers gives you tremendous creativity to play with in terms of what the characters can do as fighters and vehicles in one character.  That’s great for gaming, it’s the same with Spider-Man.  We came out with games for Battleship and Men In Black, so there is still a role, but I do think that the games business has matured to the point where the narratives, the mythologies, the characters that are coming from games are the most powerful in games and I think that’s great for the industry.

THR: What does The Amazing Spider-Man, which offers a prologue to the new Sony Pictures movie, open up creatively for Beenox to be able to go beyond the scope of the movie?

Hirshberg: Anytime you’re working with a licensed character it brings certain opportunities.  Spider-Man is a character that everybody knows and everybody already has a relationship with.  He comes with some powers and capabilities that are very game-friendly, so that opens up a lot of creativity. But I think the shift that’s happened in the relationship between gaming and Hollywood is that it’s now not viewed as a licensed product, so much as a mutually beneficial relationship where the game becomes one of the key marketing assets and one of the key ways that generate interest in the new franchise. There’s always been the advantage that if we’re coming out with a game attached to a big movie property, there’s a lot of marketing going on and a lot of focus on that character and that story at the time we’re launching and that’s advantageous to us. But gaming has become pretty key to the strategy of a lot of the properties in the movie business, and rightfully so, because it’s where a lot of people are spending the majority of their entertainment dollars and time.