Pt2: Studio boss talks Bungie-jumps, swinging Sledgehammers and needing a horse at Ubisoft

Activision: Beyond Infinity

It’s inevitable that, at some stage over the next 18 months, Infinity Ward will no longer be on the tip of the tongue when talk turns to Activision.

From Bungie to Treyarch to Sledgehammer to Neversoft, Activision has enough talent to capably fill two-year release schedules with show-stopping product.

In the first half of our interview with worldwide studio boss Dave Stohl, the Infinity Ward fallout was naturally the focus for discussion. Now, in the second half below, we explore the global fleet of talent driving the Activision empire forward.

Activision’s ten year partnership with Bungie will very possibly be looked back on as the most significant game deal this year. Was that the best way to silence your critics?
Well, obviously, it’s not the reason we did it. We’re a big company now, and we have a lot of passion for the shooter genre. We’ve always been telling ourselves that we need to partner with a studio like Bungie that is inventive with shooter games, and just has an incredible amount of passion.

The most significant thing for me about the deal is not that they’re Bungie, but that they’re so passionate about what they’re building. We’re stoked about how it’s going to come about.

They’re really, really great guys to work with, and [the deal] shows that Activision has the kind of people and infrastructure that can support a studio like Bungie and its ideas.

The core talent at your newest studio Sledgehammer has drawn much praise. What is the long-term strategy for the group?
They are still a core team size right now, but I will say they have built something that sets the highest bar. It’s incredible, really.

I love the idea of building towards triple-A, no excuses, and what the team at Sledgehammer is doing is definitely that.

What Sledgehammer is doing is the coolest thing, honestly it’s great. Wherever they end up in the fray of titles and genres, they are building towards something incredible.

Are they building their own technology?
Well I will say that in this part of the console cycle there’s not much need to build from scratch.

At Activision we use everything; Unreal tech and the [id tech-modified] Call of Duty engine, everything. We don’t push one central, monolithic codebase philosophy at all. There’s been times when I’ve tried to develop a lot of our own stuff that our teams can use, but man, developers want to do their own thing.

And it makes sense because it’s not like a developer at Activision – or anywhere – has been one for twenty years or so, these guys come from EA or Rockstar, Crytek or wherever, they’ve been using their own tech and we don’t want to impose on what they’re comfortable with.

I’m a big a fan of middleware as anyone else. I think the IW engine is fantastic for shooters, but I wouldn’t say that a different kind of shooter should definitely use it. What ever you’re comfortable with is good for us.

Activision recently repositioned its business to have a dedicated Call of Duty division. Why?
Well there are a few reasons for that. The first is that Call of Duty has become such a massive franchise. If you have a business that has Call of Duty in it and something else, the attention is always going to be on Call of Duty.

Another reason is that, personally, I believe Call of Duty needs to be its own business. It needs to be supported, it needs to be focused on, and we have all kinds of ideas with the series. But other franchises need a dedicated focus as well.

Was it an easy decision to make Treyarch a Call of Duty only studio?

Oh absolutely. I would say that any studio in the industry right now would benefit from focusing its attentions on one thing. There’s so much on the line for every developer, and as titles have got so much bigger there’s a theory that, if you don’t focus, you’re going to be walking into problems.

You’re in charge of Activision’s internal studios. Do you have a broad philosophy that applies to each, or would you rather see each one do its own thing?
I believe that game studios should have their own individual cultures, and I believe that because I see it. Neversoft is Neversoft, and it’s so different from Treyarch and Vicarious Visions. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for developers.

More and more I believe in the idea of connectivity for our customers, either by online multiplayer or social elements. That has to happen for us. Even with games that don’t include a big player-versus-player component, we have to maintain our focus on connectedness.

What is Activision’s take on Ubisoft’s thousand-man studio policy, where studios grow to gigantic numbers for game production?
Well, I’m not going to take anything away from the games Ubisoft Montreal has been making. Assassin’s Creed is a great game. Certainly, Ubisoft has made planning and management work in those scenarios. And I can understand why the team is out in Quebec, with all the great tax breaks that the region offers.

But it’s not the way we’d approach game development. If Ubisoft can foster smaller teams within the studio, then that would be impressive. I believe that great games usually come from connected teams of developers, and you simply can’t do that with thousand-man studios.

At the end of the day, you just kill yourself with these people. You stay up late with them, you argue with them, you live with them. You can’t do that with a thousand people. It would be like a town hall. You would need a horse.

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