[Activision Publishing's CEO talks to Gamasutra business editor Colin Campbell about the company's "bad guy" reputation, his love of making great game ads, and this year's major battle for the FPS crown.]
In retrospect I ought to have begun the interview talking about 'There's a Soldier in All of Us', IMO the best games ad ever created. Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg was behind that campaign and has a history of making terrific games ads. I badly wanted to talk about the games ad form, a fascinating subject.
But, no. I decided that my opening gambit would be a critical appraisal of Activision's Death Star Landing Bay E3 booth which featured a vast open space for the plebeians to gawp at the imperial majesty of the company's wares while, presumably, CEO Bobby Kotick sat above, in a darkened room, cackling and rubbing his hands together.
Hirshberg, not unkindly, said my question was "negative." I laughed. The two PRs sitting opposite, generally agreeable fellows, did their Easter Island impressions. The room temperature dropped, slightly.
This is Activision, weary of the perspective that it's a bad guy, that its success and wealth and, yes, swagger, make it fair game to play the role of evil corporation. And even though I didn't want to give Hirshberg an easy ride, nor did I want to spend my allotted half hour watching him swat away the barbs of games forum conspiracy nuts.
I really wanted to talk about advertising. Apart from the games themselves ads are the most important art that this industry creates." Hirshberg was CEO and chief creative officer for much-admired ad agency Deutsch LA, which also created the phenomenal Kevin Butler campaign."
And we got there in the end. I hope if you're as animated by games ads as I am, you'll stick with me here. But first...
The Bad Guy Thing
...But first Eric Hirshberg and I had to address this thing, this double-headed Activision that creates culture-defining games that we all play, and yet inspires loathing and absurdly dismissive knee-jerk reactions to stand-out ideas like Call of Duty Elite. This company that handles a major leak of its biggest game of the year with amazing dignity, and yet snares itself in a horribly damaging public spat with a leading development team.
I ask if he cares about this 'bad guy' thing. "Of course," he says. "Who would wish for that? Who would be wished to be cast as the bad guy in your own industry or as the villain or the evil empire?"
He adds, "I think that the case is drastically overstated in terms of the reality that I see. I see a very creative company that gives its developers the tools and the resources they need to do great things, that isn't afraid to [delay] games if that's what it takes to get them right."
Hirshberg says the best he can do is change perceptions little-by-little. "It's about putting a human face on the company. It's about being transparent and honest and human in our dealings with our community." He points towards the company's cool-headed reaction to the pre-E3 Modern Warfare 3 Kotaku leak. "We got a lot of props and a lot of pleasantly surprised people in our reaction to that," he says. "People assumed that we would go silverback gorilla crazy, and we didn't."
He also says that while the initial reaction to Elite was negative, gamers are beginning to see that it's a valuable optional package and not, as was widely feared, a gruesome attempt to monetize multiplay. Two million people have now signed up to the beta, but on day one of the announcement, the forums were crying foul.
He says, "I'm not sure that there was any way we could have messaged it any better and not gotten that response from that portion of the audience. But I will say this. We were not ready to reveal the entire feature set of the service because a lot of it is embedded into Modern Warfare 3...So what we revealed was incomplete and we did create some confusion. We're not ready to reveal everything yet. We're going to have a better service at launch because we're going to be able to polish it and refine it through the beta. I think we made the right choice."
Finally, We Talk Ads
So video game ads are mostly terrible. I mean, all ads are mostly terrible, but games seem to follow an especially moronic template. I challenge you, dear reader, to construct a games ad in your head for, say, a shooter based in post-apocalyptic New York.
See, you just did it. The games ad form is as familiar and as easily constructed as the template for a Red Lobster ad. Just substitute the fingered, succulent shrimp dripping with buttery goo for a broken monument, shrapnel flying directly at-camera, a grizzled, cynical marine. These commercials are fucking crap. Which is why great ads like 'There's a Soldier in All of Us' stand out.
The problem with games ads is that they are telling a story of a product that is, itself, telling a story. Hirshberg says, "You can say the same thing about movie advertising. Both video games and movies are creative content themselves in a way that a soda can or an athletic shoe is not. You have to imbue those inanimate objects with some creative use of storytelling in order to make people interested."
"But in the games industry, we tell stories for a living. The things we make are already full of images and audio. It's very easy to just get out of the way of the game, and often times that's the right move. But I also think that advertising, when it's done at its best, adds a promise of an emotional connection to the product."
He adds, "It's not our job to replace the creativity of the games with the creativity of the ads but to amplify it, and I think the Black Ops one is a great example. On one hand you can look at that and say 'well there's no game footage in it'. On the other hand, it was all game footage. It was the game come to life."
The ad was a hit, but there was some trepidation at Activision, pre-launch. "It's funny, that commercial was not uncontroversial inside the walls of Activision because it was showing people who you wouldn't immediately think of as our core gamer. It was showing women, it was showing older guys, it was showing a wide range of humanity playing the game. But because that's real, because that resonates as true, because that's what's special about Call of Duty, the core loved it and it also welcomed more people into the franchise."
What of those people who criticize ads that don't show the game in action?
He says, "If we get to the end of a campaign where we've asked someone to buy our game and we haven't shown them how it plays or what it looks like, we haven't done our job. And there are lots of ways to do that - YouTube, websites, social media. Game footage can be in the mass market ads, if that's what is going to draw them in, but it doesn't be have to be there.
"The core is going to see the game footage because they're interested and they're going to find it through our other channels. We have 10 million Facebook fans. We have 2 million people subscribed to our YouTube channel. We don't have a hard time reaching our core audience through digital media. But when we go out into mass media we're reaching a lot of people who might not be core gamers and we have to ask ourselves, 'is our best foot forward the game footage or is our best foot forward telling a different story?"
Hirshberg's job isn't just framing Activision's marketing messages. But he believes his creative background in story-telling is helping his transition from the ad business to the games biz. "Every creative person has a question they ask themselves. Can I to use my creativity in a different media, to test if my ability to solve creative problems is universal? I know how to do it in one medium, can I do it in another?"
"I am not a game maker but one of the things I think I have brought to the executive level at Activision is a creative sensibility. So when we're interfacing with our developers there's someone who understands what it's like to be a creative person for a living, who speaks their language and is a gamer. I like to think that's bringing value as well."
And Now, We Talk EA
There's a war going on, in case you haven't noticed, between EA and Activision. A war of words as each tries to win power over the incredibly lucrative FPS genre. It's not just about whether Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3 is better. It's also about perspectives, about the cultures from which these games emerge. Quality and ads will carry each game a long way, but winning over the cool cachet, winning over the core, is essential. I have lots of friends who buy maybe one or two games a year. So do you. Those friends look to us for guidance. If we tell them Game A is the one to go for this year, that carries weight.
EA is trying to stake its claim for the authentic war-game while also portraying itself as the plucky underdog. For EA, association with Call of Duty, credibility as an actual challenger for those huge sales numbers, is all gravy.
Activision has not been silent, although it has been constrained in comparison to EA which charged out in E3 interviews with Uzis blazing. Even Bobby Kotick has mostly restrained himself, although he was unable to resist one dig. Hirshberg won't be drawn on EA's game, but he's happy to talk about EA's strategy.
He counters, "They're obviously trying to draw a response. That would be great for them. They've talked about our game in the press more than we have. That's obviously strategic. That's obviously a decision they've made. But I don't want to swing at a pitch in the dirt. I'm being genuine when I say we want to focus on our games. There's no road to success for us that does not include us making a phenomenal game and delighting and satisfying our fans. That's what we're focused on. We have absolutely no control over Battlefield, Gears of War, whatever Microsoft does next with Halo. That's all venerable competition. But we are one hundred percent focused on making the best game we can."