E3: Activision CEO on New Call of Duty Elite Service, 'Modern Warfare 3' and 'Guitar Hero's' Future (Q&A)

Eric Hirshberg CEO Activision 2011
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Eric Hirshberg

Eric Hirshberg also discusses the impact of recruiting Hollywood talent like Ed Harris and Gary Oldman has had on the success of the "Call of Duty" franchise and why there won't be a movie based on the war game anytime soon.

Activision's Call of Duty video game franchise has become a pop culture phenomenon. Each new game has outdone the last title by breaking U.S. and global sales records. Last year's Call of Duty: Black Ops from developer Treyarch has sold more than 20 million copies to date. At E3 2011, Activision is showing one of the most-anticipated games of this year, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, from developer Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games. The game publisher is giving attendees a chance to experience its new Call of Duty Elite online service, which will launch in tandem with the Nov. 8 release of Modern Warfare 3.

Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision, talks about the importance of the company's Call of Duty franchise, why we're not likely to see a Hollywood movie based on the war game anytime soon and why gamers might not have seen the last of Guitar Hero in an exclusive interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
Call of Duty: Black Opsfeatured Hollywood talent like screenwriter Alex S. Goyer and actors like Ed Harris and Gary Oldman. What impact has this had on the mainstream success of this franchise?
Bringing in Hollywood talent to work with our developers has had a big impact on the franchise. The experiences of both interactive and linear entertainment continue to get closer together. The visual look of movies has long been influenced by video games. The facial and motion capture technology today really lets audiences make an emotional connection with characters in games. We've seen the storytelling, the character development, and the writing become much more important in interactive entertainment today. I think Black Ops really delivered a great story where you were really engaged in the narrative, as much as you were in the gameplay mechanics and the level design. That's a trend that we want to continue to amplify.

How are you pushing things forward with Modern Warfare 3?

This game has come together unbelievably well. It's not just another Call of Duty game. It's bringing tremendous new mechanics, visuals, ideas and scale that are very much with the keeping of the Call of Duty franchise. All the things that make Call of Duty great and have made it such a phenomenon, are all in place. Yet they found a way to escalate that and bring a new level of scale that is just incredibly fun.
Electronic Arts has said both Modern Warfare 3and their own Battlefield 3games will see over $100 million each in marketing this year. What are your thoughts on the November battle between the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises?
I honestly, as a rule in life, try to not look at the competition. We try to look at the finish line. We're just trying to make the best game possible. There's always strong competition. Last year we were up against (Microsoft's) Halo Reach and (EA's) Medal of Honor, which were hugely marketed and hugely hyped games. This year it's not just Battlefield 3, it's also (Microsoft's) Gears of War 3. There's always going to be strong competition. When you're in first place, you're the one everyone's gunning for. I think that's an incredibly fortunate position to be in because it puts all the pressure on creative excellence, and that's what we're focusing on.
With the Call of Dutygames breaking Hollywood box office records consistently, what are your thoughts on this franchise one day traversing to television or movies?
We obviously get approached on that topic all the time. I think that the answer would be it is an interactive entertainment franchise, and we're only going to do things that amplify that experience. If there's a way for us to do filmed entertainment in a way that is creative and grows the Call of Duty experience for our fans, then we will do that. We don't have a tremendous amount of interest in just translating the IP to linear entertainment simply because one bad movie can ruin a perfectly good TV franchise.
What are your thoughts on what Hollywood has done with movie adaptations of games?
They've had some success. There are success stories like Resident Evil. However, with the economics that we have in our core business as a gaming franchise, we need to be very deliberate and very strategic with those decisions. We'll never do anything that doesn't add to the interactive universe. We're not just going to make a movie to make a movie and cash a check from a movie studio. That would be very shortsighted.
What role will the new online service, Call of Duty Elite, play in keeping the older Call of Duty games relevant to gamers as you come out with new games each year?
It will play a large role. It's a key competitive advantage that we have such an incredible library of beloved Call of Duty games. Particularly in the multiplayer environment, the ability for players to compete on that many different maps in that many different countries with that many different aesthetics will make Elite something pretty cool.
How will Activision monetize the Call of Duty Elite online service?
We haven't discussed our specific business model. We're really focusing on the content and experience of Elite right now. That will come in a few months. I will say that we have focused entirely on creating a service and an experience that brings enough incremental value, and enough new experiences, and enough "first evers" that people might be willing pay for it, or for parts of it. We've obviously done a lot of interfacing with our fans, and a lot of research. There will be free elements, and there will be paid elements.
Is there a potential future in the music video game genre, which seems to have lost its audience this year with the closure of EA's Rock Bandand Activision's Guitar Hero franchises?
Certainly the music genre, as it has existed with the personal bass controllers, new gameplay modes, new songs, and new graphics coming out every year; has lost the interest of gamers. The world seemed to run out of appetite for that genre all at the same time. However, I do think that Guitar Hero reached phenomenon status because it did tap into a universal truth that there's a rock star in all of us. That idea is as potent as wanting to be a professional football player or wanting to be a hero. It's an archetypal fantasy that those games tapped into.
Does the Guitar Hero brand still have relevance today?
If you just were to study Guitar Hero as a brand, just on the strength of name recognition and likeability, it's an incredibly strong brand. I think that we're going to need to make sure that we have real innovation, and a real reason to believe that we can reinvigorate that category before we come out with anything (new). But I think that having such a strong brand at least makes us open to, and curious about, what we could do to come back with real innovation.