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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

February 18, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Q&A: Activision’s Hirshberg on Bungie’s Destiny

With the success of its hits like “Call of Duty” and “Skylanders,” Activision has avoided the doldrums affecting the overall video game industry.

Now the Santa Monica, Calif.-based game publisher is counting on “Destiny,” the new sci-fi game from Bellevue game studio Bungie, to continue its run into 2014 and beyond.

To find out more about what it takes to develop new game with franchise potential, and compete with other forms of entertainment, I talked with Activision Publishing Chief Executive Eric Hirshberg.

Eric Hirshberg

Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:

Q: Several  companies in this area – Bungie, Valve and Microsoft – are exploring new forms of entertainment. Perhaps the competition isn’t against other games as much as time spent watching TVs and movies?

A: I think it’s against all of them.

First of all I think we live in a franchise world right now in all forms of entertainment. You look at the best-sellers and the top 10 lists – it’s always dominated by existing franchises and sequels. There’s good and bad that comes with that. But the fact is it’s reality.

What that says to me is that for whatever reason, consumers of entertainment are spending more and more time with the franchises that they love and going deeper into those worlds. I think that’s true of the way we consume sports, that’s the true of the way the book publishing industry is going, the movie industry is going – it seems like everyone’s living in a franchise world.

The bad news is there’s only so much room for new stuff in a world that’s dominated by sequels, so I wouldn’t’ go so far to say the competition is just against television and other media.

People are going to spend so much time playing games and you need to make sure your franchise is one of their franchises of choice. Especially if you’re not going to graze – like I think people used to, and try a little bit of this game and a little bit of that game and try a bunch of different games.

Q: Could “Destiny” become a “Star Wars” level franchise ?

I would love that. I certainly think we’re striving for something of that level of merit. Hopefully you saw the level of creativity and level of depth of the world that Destiny is striving to provide to people – the deep mythologies, the multiple different characters and species and classes. The best franchises have deep worlds –  worlds that feel like they’ve always been and you’re just arriving there now.

Q: You need new franchises eventually –  how far you can milk “Star Wars.”

A: I think you can find examples on both sides. I’m not so sure that Disney would agree with you on your assessment on “Star Wars.” The challenge is finding freshness and innovation within one of these worlds that people already love.

I think that the challenge is to find meaningful innovation that gives people real reasons to come back but that also honors what it is about that world and those characters that people fell in love with in the first place.

I think Marvel’s done a wonderful job of that in the last decade with their movie launches, with Iron Man, with the Avengers – they’ve made that IP (intellectual property) seem incredibly fresh and current and yet it still feels like the characters I grew up reading comic books about. I think we’re doing a good job of that with Call of Duty, where that game has showed tremendous staying power and each time out we’ve got new ideas that we bring to the table, new ways to play and new innovations. And yet it’s true to a core set of aesthetics and principles and game play feel that is call of duty’s signature that people love.

So I think there are ways to have real longevity and certainly that’s our plan with Destiny. We’re talking about this today and it’s not even out yet but we’re thinking about this on a long horizon.

Q: What’s the market – is it the 10 to 15 million Halo fans, and offering them a new sci fi action game?

A: No, obviously, first of all Bungie has been a single platform developer for the last 10 years. So this is an opportunity to bring their creativity and their creations to a wider audience first of all. Second of all – you compared it to Star Wars, you can see the way we’re thinking about this and approaching it as it has a very accessible, broad appeal, yet it still has an appeal to core gamers. It has to work on both of those levels. It has to be something that the casual gamer can get into and enjoy and feel like they belong there and are doing well and not get frustrated with, but the core gamer feels challenge and there’s the depth of content to really satisfy them. Striking that balancing act is a big part of what it takes to get these franchises right.

Q: Microsoft’s been pulling Halo toward video entertainment with the episodic content they are creating. Valve’s Gabe Newell and J.J. Abrams are talking about movies. Do you have to do something like that, to complement Destiny, to bridge the gap between games and filmed entertainment?

A: I don’t have any announcements about that today so I’ll answer philosophically. Certainly we’ve dabbled in linear content. Certainly it’s something we’re considering and talking about carefully with Skylanders. But I will say there’s almost a reflexive appeal to taking a game and saying ‘we could make a movie out of this.’ Of course you could – games are one of the primary forms of mass entertainment today. It doesn’t’ mean you should. The way I look at it is, if it’s going to make the creative expression of the world and the franchise better, is it going to add something that the game can’t?

If it can do that it might be a worthwhile project. There are a lot of these things people have tried in the past that have just turned out to be creative disasters and big distractions and maybe even hurt the commercial potential of the game franchise. It’s something we take a lot of caution with.

“Destiny” concept art

Q: You’re closer to Hollywood than we are. I’m wondering, 10, 15 years down the road, are these franchises going to be considered our “filmed” entertainment?

A: I think there’s a strong gravitational pull when people are thinking about the future – they always think about convergence, this and that are going to become one, right? I don’t know. Films satisfy a totally different entertainment need for me than games. I love games, I probably spend more time playing games, but I love movies – they’re narrative and escapist in a different way. Games are more active and more interactive obviously – where the stories unfold in a different way than the stories in a movie, which are far more of a controlled narrative experience.  So I don’t necessarily think that new things render everything that came before it obsolete – usually it comes down to the quality of the content.

If there continue to be great movies, there will continue to be an audience for them. If there continue to be great games, there will continue to be an audience for them.

Q:  Maybe we should talk about TV – that’s where Microsoft’s going with the episodic “Halo” shows that it’s releasing and distributing to its consoles.

A: For a generation of people, video games are the entertainment medium of choice, maybe the first choice, for a wide section of the population. That doesn’t mean they cease to consume other forms of entertainment. I think interactive entertainment scratches a different itch than passive entertainment and they both have merit.

Q: Why didn’t you buy Bungie instead of partner with them? I’d think you would want to own them outright if their new IP has so much value.

A: I’ll just say that I think the deal works for both parties. Bungie’s independence was very important to them and that’s something that was key in terms of the partner they were looking for. For us we wanted the benefits of being able to build and partner for the long term on an IP. The way we wrote the deal, I think everybody gets the best of both worlds.

Q: How about Valve – would you be interested in ever acquiring them?

A: I have nothing but admiration for Valve but I certainly don’t have any announcements to make today on any acquisitions.

Q: They’re moving into the connected TV space. Will titles like Destiny keep people using consoles, instead of moving to smart TVs, streaming games, cloud services and things like that?

A: Obviously there are disruptive technologies every direction you look right now. There are smart screens in all of our pockets that can deliver interactive entertainment and games. There are connected TVs that are offering totally different functionalities. But on a macro level, if you step back, often times the appetite for change or prognostication for change inside the boardroom outpaces that of real consumer behavior. When you’re trying to upend very entrenched markets like television and things like that you really have to have a better mousetrap because people aren’t out there unhappy with that right now. There are disruptive technologies you always need to look at and make sure you’re innovating appropriately but I think it’s also important not to overreach.

The other thing I’d say – you talk about smart TV, people are talking about Google TV, Apple TV or Samsung Smart TVs having apps baked in – if you’re looking for the companies and the industry that has successfully put a connected device under every television set and delivered a two-way stream of entertainment into the living rooms of hundreds of millions of homes – it’s the video game industry. It’s not streaming television from your tablet to your big screen – it’s video game consoles.

I know that seems passé because they’re not a new industry as of the last couple of years but everyone’s chasing a holy grail that the Xboxes and PlayStations of the world have actually accomplished to a large degree. If I said to you there’s a company that’s got hundreds of millions of boxes with an Ethernet connection and a broadband connection that can play high-res interactive games that are highly immersive and play high-res discs and deliver streamed movies and pipe music all around your house you’d say what is it? Google? Apple? I’d say no, it’s an Xbox, it’s PlayStation. Video games I think are the tip of the sword bringing interactivity to the living room. I think of it as the tip of the sword that got interactivity into the living room. So I don’t necessarily feel threatened that others are now following into the hole that we’ve sort of created as an industry.

“Destiny” concept art

Q: At CES last month quad core TVs showed up – but that’s still not going to run Destiny.

A: But it could. It’s just a matter of whether there’s a big enough market to justify that level of processing power in that device and whether that company that is endeavoring to do that can make that business model work. I certainly think that as an app store ecosystem comes into the living that that’s something we’re going to have to grapple with because there’s a different economic structure in the app store and a different level of immersion. But I feel there’s a lot of comfort to be taken in the level of demand we’re seeing for highly immersive, high production value experiences like the ones we create. Whether or not the hardware migrates or changes, if we are making the IP and the experiences people want there will always be a market for great content.

Q: With Destiny, you’re pushing the envelope with the technology, which seems to drive you to the most powerful hardware.

A: Yes, that’s right.

Q: So is that cycle going to continue for awhile?

A: If it’s compelling and it draws more people in, then that will of course feed more commitment to the hardware that’s necessary to drive it.

Q: Speaking of hardware, are you going to offer Destiny on Nintendo’s Wii U?

A: We don’t have any announcements on that yet right now. Right now we have announced the Xbox and Playstation. But we’re big fans of Nintendo and we’ve got a lot of support on the Wii U already.

Q: You’re not talking about the next generation consoles from Microsoft and Sony but Destiny feels like next-gen entertainment software. Can you talk about  how the software will evolve to keep up with the next generation of hardware?

A: If the rumors are true that I read in all the blogs, it seems like a lot of innovation and energy might be going into making games more connected. Certainly that’s one of the thing we’re thinking about here. That said, we’ve been one of the people who have made games more connected in the current gen as well, with Call of Duty being the world’s biggest multiplayer game and Skylanders toys being cross platform and things like that. There are elements of it that are next gen in its thinking but there are also elements of things that are happening right now.

If you ladder up and look at culture outside of games, the macro trend in our world right now is connection through digital media – human connection – whether that’s social media, connected devices in everybody’s pockets, whether that’s multiplayer video games –we’re connecting through digital portals with each other more and more so obviously the creators of games are going to be curious about that and want to see how that trend and appetite can fuel better creative ideas in their games.

Q: Business models have to evolve, too, right – will there be new licensing schemes as well?

A: Today’s about introducing you to the world, the mythology of Destiny, and not talk about the business model today. There will be plenty of time to talk about that.

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