Three minutes. That’s how long it takes Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg to mutter the C-word.
And we don’t mean ‘Call of Duty’, the eighth instalment of which – Modern Warfare 3 – was finally officially unveiled last week. We mean ‘competition’. Because, as Hirshberg himself says, “When you are in the number one position you have a lot of people gunning for you.”
Certainly, all eyes are on Activision this year. You know the backstory: Call of Duty, the blockbuster franchise, made $1bn in two months with 2009’s Modern Warfare 2, then $1bn in six weeks with 2010’s Black Ops. And if there’s no limit to that growth, as Hirshberg says, it’s no surprise rivals want a slice of the action. This year, Modern Warfare 3 is being challenged by EA’s Battlefield 3.
Is Activision concerned?
“It sounds trite but it’s true: we focus on what we need to do to make the best games we can. We don’t pay much mind looking at what the competitors are doing. I know they are focused on us… well that’s all I’ll say.”
It’s the stock answer a figure like Hirshberg is supposed to give, but it doesn’t take much pushing to get more out of him.
EA’s well-publicised fury (CEO John Riccitiello said the firm was out to ‘take down’ Call of Duty) surely must have some bearing on what Activision is doing?
“Well, I think EA might talk about our games in the press more than we do,” he jokes. “So, the first thing I say to them is ‘Thanks for the assistance in building awareness.’
“But when you think about it, we’ve had tough competition every year for Call of Duty. It’s never been easy. This is one of the most competitive genres in one of the most competitive industries. Last year we had Halo: Reach and Medal of Honor, and it’s not like they weren’t amazing developers gunning for the top of this mountain either. And it’s the same this year – Gears of War is back along with lots of other games.
“So, of course, we take all the competition really seriously. But at the end of the day I really mean it when I say we are focusing on the finish line, not the competition. We are making the best game we can, and are throwing every resource, innovation and all the creativity we can at it. And hopefully that will maintain our position.”
And Activision certainly has quite an enviable position. Call of Duty is the number one franchise in the world. Can the firm really keep growing it?
“I hope so,” says Hirshberg. “I won’t make any financial prognostications but we do seem to be continuing to maintain momentum. This is a franchise that has grown every year of its seven-year existence. It generates more and more online connected play every single year.
“The average Black Ops player spends 58 minutes per day in multiplayer. For comparison, the average Facebook user spends 55 minutes per day on that service. That’s an encouraging pattern, and it’s up to us to continue to deliver great gaming experiences and find new ways to surprise, to surpass expectations for those players, and innovate. There doesn’t seem to be forces in the market place that would throw the franchise down.“
Not bad going, then, for something you’d think would have hit a glass ceiling.
“Well look at other forms of entertainment,” is Hirshberg’s answer to that. “Lots of non-sci-fi fans would have seen Avatar – to participate in pop culture, you see a movie like that because it is an event. That’s how we see Call of Duty. The needle we are always trying to thread is to making a game that core fans love, but which also welcomes new players in.”
CALLING FOR MORE
A new Call of Duty online service, ‘Elite’, is Activision’s way of striking that balance between committed and new players. Elite launches at the same time as Modern Warfare 3 this November, but runs as a service across a range of CoD games, and is accessible in-game on 360, PS3 and PC as well as via associated web and smartphone apps. It’s mostly free, with premium elements still to be detailed, and features functions such as player data, level heatmaps, competitions, strategy guides, plus clans and group support.
Elite “supercharges the multiplayer experience” says Hirshberg.
“You can look at those 58-minute-a-day players I mentioned as a passionate social community – but right now there’s not a way to really unlock it or get closer. Elite lets you choose which players to play with, or choose people on a similar skill level, or Man United fans, or join a group or squad based on a passion… Suddenly, players have the chance to curate their experience. We’re even making a suite of linear video content for fans – much in way ESPN would do that for their audience.”
Sounds perfect for the hardcore, but what about these new fans Activision insists are out there?
“Yes, the easiest way to look at Elite is through the lens of what it does for the core player. But Elite also makes the experience much better for new players. We hear the complaint from new players that they can get in to the game – and if you’re playing against people of higher skill, your experience will be over fast. So the tools on analysing how you play will be of benefit to those who want in.”
Activision hasn’t announced yet which bits are to be monetised and which are free. But a big chunk will be free, the firm says. Why not charge for all of it? It’s surely a no-brainer for the biggest games cash cow to find new ways to make money.
Hirshberg explains: “We have to protect the momentum we have. Elite is a tremendous investment that further connects the fanbase to the game. We want to give something back that makes the experience for them better.
“That said if we have succeeded in creating a big enough service which people then wish to pay to access more of, then great.”
That reflects a duality which has run through all of CoD’s next phase. So Elite works separately to the likes of PSN and Xbox Live, despite being their most popular game. Meanwhile, the new Modern Warfare is developed by two studios in tandem – masters Infinity Ward and new outfit Sledgehammer – a first for the series.
On the PSN and XBL issue, Hirshberg points how how Elite “adds something neither PSN or XBL were designed to do” and that “There will be elements of Elite that are first ever for that kind of service; they are real firsts for consoles; they are real firsts for games.”
And what of this dual-studio approach? “Of course it’s unusual, and it is more of a true collaboration than having other studios pitch in to help out which we have done in the past,” Hirshberg admits.
“The proof will be in the pudding, and right now it’s working out great. Whenever you have two strong creative entities working together there is potential for huge benefits and potential for healthy tension.”
Indeed, Activision has more resources pointed on this goal of growing Call of Duty than ever before. There are in fact three studios working on the game, as Elite is developed by another new team, Beachhead. And that’s not to mention a new free-to-play version for China and talk of other spin-offs.
“We have a passionate audience and want to give them more,” says Hirshberg. “The reward of the gameplay is to keep players feeling more involved – and Elite follows that pattern. It makes it easier for new fans, but it means that the more you play the more powerful you become.
“The idea that as you get better you gain more power and become harder to defeat is the core idea of the Call of Duty experience.”
And, clearly, with a rival hot on its tail, that’s the core idea behind Call of Duty as a franchise, too.