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Activision Publishing CEO: 'We Need To Correct' Hardcore Reputation
Activision Publishing CEO: 'We Need To Correct' Hardcore Reputation
July 14, 2010 | By Kris Graft

July 14, 2010 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC

In recent years, Activision Blizzard has worked its way to the top of the video game industry. But it also has found itself with a reputation problem, particularly among hardcore gamers, who slam the publisher for everything from its choice of business models to the lawsuit involving former employees of Call of Duty studio Infinity Ward.

Eric Hirshberg, the newly-appointed head of Activision Publishing and soon-to-be former CEO of top-tier ad agency Deutsch L.A., acknowledged that there is still work to be done in regaining the trust of the hardcore gamer. It's a demographic that he suggested is still important, even if Activision's focus is shifting toward the broader mass market.

Asked if he believed Activision has a reputation problem, he told Gamasutra, "I think there's certainly a reality to that in the hardcore gaming blogosphere. You sort of can't escape that there's some perceptual problems and an air of controversy, certainly right now."

He added, "I don't think that's anything that's widely-held in the consumer community, but I definitely think it's something that we need to correct. A company that has so many of the world's most beloved games should have the reputational momentum to match, amongst gamers."

Hirshberg has some experience in giving companies a face-lift. He's worked on video game accounts while at Deutsch, including the hit PlayStation 3 campaign, "VP of Everything" Kevin Butler. The campaign with the goofy "VP" has completely changed the PlayStation image, appealing more to gamers' sense of humor rather than focusing solely on an abstract hip or cool factor.

"On the whole, on average, yes, I think that video games are fun, they're entertainment, and advertising should take on that tonality," Hirshberg said when asked if video game marketing takes itself too seriously.

"As far as how the gaming industry communicates [with consumers], I think there's some excellent work, and I think there's some not-so-excellent work in the industry," he said. "I think one of the struggles and one of the constant debates will be the value of consistency from a single brand versus the value of diversity and the ability to communicate a specific title."

"One of the things I think we did with the Kevin Butler campaign that we did for PlayStation is that a single creative idea could accommodate a variety of messages," Hirshberg explained. "You think about the fact that that campaign sells a variety of hardware and software for that voice, but it also sells games as diverse as LittleBigPlanet and God of War with one voice. There was tremendous value to that for Sony. The usual formula is to think that you have to do a different campaign for every game. So that's one thing that I'm going to think a lot about."

Hirshberg said he is a gamer, with some of his favorite games being Activision products like Call of Duty and Guitar Hero, as well as Sony's LittleBigPlanet. But like other top Activision executives like COO Thomas Tippl and former Activision Publishing CEO Mike Griffith, Hirshberg doesn't come from a game development or publishing background. It's a recruitment strategy that he thinks gives the industry-leading publisher an edge against competitors.

"I think any industry has the tendency to be insular, inward-looking and self-referential, and looking to other disciplines is always a way to get fresh ideas and fresh takes on things," he said. "There are those formulas and habits to unlearn."

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Tom Franklin
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step 1: Don't attempt to completely fuck over the people who slave away to make money for you.

step 2: Don't be dicks.

Tadhg Kelly
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Traditionally the number 1 third party publisher tends to be an object of hate anyway.

More specifically, the ongoing saga surrounding Infinity Ward is the thing that most informed and influential hardcore gamers care about. Publisher have all too often been keen to de-personalise development studios and key people in favour of brands, but that strategy is often what hollows out a franchise and turns gamers against those publishers. In the end, most tend to view all publishers as basically faceless business entities.

To retain a reputation, a publisher has to make their message for influential gamers be about the creators. Gamers are like any media enthusiast: They care about the personalities as much as the product, and look for the signature touch, the human element that tells them that they're not just wasting their time on "product".

The problem, as this IS a fallacy that outsiders coming into the industry make all to often, is that the publishing side of the business tends to think only in terms of the IP and nothing else. Few are the ones who understand that (for example) part of what makes a Halo or a Starcraft work is the identity and individualism of a Bungie or a Blizzard. Even though those companies may actually be owned by a larger entity, it's the perception of creative identity (the Miramax to Disney, as it were) that gets gamers to become fans.

In the end of the day, gamers don't care about what they owning corporation thinks because it's job is basically funding and distribution. It can do those things well and basically get out of the way, or it can weigh in with its own stamp, trying to create a love to which it has no right, and denuding its products of any sense of worth in the process.

So what I'd say to Eric is this: Champion developers.

Joseph Garrahan
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Bob Stevens
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It's a communication issue to a large degree. How many people still think Bobby Kotick wants to literally take the fun out of game development? Anyone who took that at face value is just bad at critical thinking, but it goes unchallenged very often.

It doesn't help that Activision has been involved in litigation with some lovable cuddly characters like Tim Schafer and Jason West. This is a communication issue too... Activision obviously believes it was right in both cases and probably has good reasons (from their perspective) for thinking this, but they can't talk about pending litigation.

Still, an effectively marketed title with lots of consumer value will trump this reputation nonsense any day. As a developer I've been pissed on by consumers so many times that I just don't care about what whiny forum kids think anymore. If they don't manage to improve their reputation but still move units, it's all good.

DaFacts1on1 Jack
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Ahhh yes,...the good cop bad cop routine, so this is the new face of activision while dip shit sits behind the scenes and watch the repairs. What a spineless Gollum this Kotick is.

Consumers aren't the only thing Activision has to worry about but also the developers who might seek opportunities with their competitors as a result of this mess. I'm sure this has been a huge eye opener.

Daniel Boutros
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Yeah. I'd go with the first post; don't fuck over devs on royalties.

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@Tom---To add to your list:

step 3: Don't make dumbass comments about game development unless you want gamers to send you to the seventh circle of Hades to be routinely beaten by dead franchises.

I at least modified it to be a little more civil lol...

Jesus Rambal Llano
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The title kind of tell everything. They are only interested in changing their reputation, not what they do to get that bad reputation.

BobbyK Richardson
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Since Kotick took over Activision has a laundry list of shady, abusive dealings longer than the Great Wall of China. You screwed over Infinity Ward and we all know it, you used them to make a lot of money and didn't give them what you promised. Everyone within earshot of Kotick knows he's a money grubbing executive who treats this business like he's trying to sell overpriced priced cars to suckers. I don't like being treated like a dollar sign and being called a sucker behind my back. EA's had a bad wrap for a long time, but Activision has seriously taken center stage in gamer anger. No amount of PR smiling and nodding and "we're not that bad" is going to change the nature of who is running your company.

Anthony Charles
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this is lip service. they don't care if hardcore gamers like them. you guys scream about how all kotick cares about is money, and then in the same breath act like he's trying to court us. if all he cares about is money he couldn't care less about then 1 in 10,000 that knows his name. as long as we keep giving CoD 90+ on metacritic we're his best friends.

gus one
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What a mature and commercial focused thread. If this snapshot of replies represents the consensus of the best of the talent out there no wonder Kottick gets what he wants.

Bobby Anguelov
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As much as EA was the big bad publisher a few years back, they seemed to have cleaned up their act to a large degree. While activision seems to be making one bad decision after another for quite a while at the moment. Some of their decisions seem so short sighted that they seem unbelievable.

Do they think that they can keep pushing the COD and guitar hero franchises indefinitely? The WOW revenue will dry up one day just as the everquest revenue did over time. And what will they have left?

I'm sure that as far as the shareholders are concerned, Kotick is doing a great job, thanks mainly to the MW2 revenue, but now that IW is dead and only treyarch and one other unproven studio is left, i cant help but feel the franchise is on its last legs. I also think people are starting to get over the whole guitar hero franchise. If those franchise fade away what new IP does activision have in the pipeline?

I think the general gamer perception atm is extremely negative towards activision, I've been seeing parody activision logos and shopped kotick images on almost every gaming forum/blog I visit. At its worse, the EA sentiment never reached such lows. I think that they need something more than just a snazzy ad campaign to repair the damage.

Sergey Mohov
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I lol'd. This is just lame. The thread has a lot of hate in it, on that I must agree, but hiring a new guy to fix reputation is not just worth it. Activision should just change the way they are operating, no one cares about commercials and smiling dudes on YouTube telling about Bobby Kotick being Jesus Christ incarnate. What I'm trying to say is can you imagine a developer going to Activision to sign a deal which includes royalties? Come on.

Kris Graft
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@sergey: "hiring a new guy to fix reputation is not just worth it."

They're not hiring him solely to fix Activision's reputation... he's replacing Mike Griffith. Activision Publishing CEO is a multi-faceted executive position.

Sean Parton
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@Sergey Mohov: Bungie says hi.

Lo Pan
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A very interesting insight into ATVI is that many of the Sr. Production Execs are lawyers and that they have a huge legal department. You can read into that as you like.

ATVI easy PR fix - put Bobby on a beach in the Caymans with his millions and have him only consult from there - no media contact. Let Eric and Mark speak to and about game production.

Benjamin Marchand
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@Lo : lol, true, and I think it's exactly what they are doing from monthes ;)

Didn't you notice that before some point, all ATVI public communications were made under the name of Kotick, and after that point, new faces started to pop ? :D

David Serrano
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Jeez... Eric is brand new to the industry and he's already part of the problem. His comments are straight out of the publisher's play-book: "it doesn't matter what we do because we can always gloss it over with advertising and PR". This is what Eric said in a nutshell:

"The business practices and unethical conduct of the large game publishers which caused the anger, frustration and alienation in the hardcore audience is irrelevant. The publishers are not the problem and they have no intention of changing the business model of game design by marketing formulas, over saturation, exploitation and greed. The real problem is how the hardcore audience perceives the misconduct and how can we change that perception? My plan is to create better advertising to convince hardcore players we are really "one of them". If we can convince them we are their friends, they'll accept it without question and the perception problem will vanish".

Eric should have stayed in advertising. He doesn't understand the problem or the audience. The problem is not one of perception, the problem is the behavior and conduct of the CEO's, board members and executives of EA, Activision, Ubisoft, etc... "Don't shit where you eat". It's a pretty simple concept they simply can't grasp. By implying the problem actually lies with the audience, Eric has shown the true colors of the "leaders and entrepreneurs" who current run the industry. The clinical term for a person who lies and cheats and then attempts to deflect the blame onto the victim is a sociopath.

If he thinks an ad campaign will change the "perception" of all the misconduct, he's completely clueless. The hardcore audience is likely the most knowledgeable and involved segment of the audience. No advertising campaign will sway or distract them.

He's also in total denial if he thinks the problem has not spread to the mainstream audience. Anyone with more than a passing interest in gaming is aware of all the abuses currently taking place. Publisher greed and exploitation has directly lead to the loss of a large number of non-hardcore PC, 360 and PS 3 players. The success of "casual gaming" has been driven by both social networking and the defection of giant chucks of the PC and console audience. They got sick of both the publishers and their games so they migrated over to the Wii, social gaming and MMORPG's. The success of Modern Warfare 2 temporarily stopped the bleeding but the numbers show that bubble has ended.

People can clearly see the ship is on fire while Eric claims: "trust me... it's not really on fire, it just looks that way". Instead of acknowledging the real problem, he'll resort to propaganda to cover it up. The big publishers don't need better ad and PR agencies... they need Oprah, life coaches, therapists, priests, and rabbis.