Activision’s Hirshberg On Next-Gen COD

Editor’s note: Veteran entertainment journalist John Gaudiosi is now a regular contributor to [a]list daily.

Activision’s Call of Duty franchise has topped $8 billion in global sales and remains one of the most successful game franchises of all time. With Infinity Ward revealing some of the multiplayer capabilities for Call of Duty Ghosts today in Los Angeles, we caught up with Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg to discuss the challenges of raising the bar in the crowded shooter genre and explain what next gen will bring to Call of Duty in this exclusive interview. 

What are the challenges of introducing a new Call of Duty franchise every year?

The challenge is the same to Call of Duty as it is for a lot of franchises that have been successful over a long period of time, which is simply striking the right balance between bringing new ideas and innovation to the game each and every year so that it has enough novelty and enough new thinking in it to continue to bring people back. But at the same time you have to stay true to and honor the game that everyone has fallen in love with. Therein lies the creative balancing act that our developers have done a terrific job with. We’ve shown a willingness to allow Call of Duty to reinvent itself to an extent every year and to play with some of the rules in adventurous ways. Taking it into the future and introducing branching storylines in the campaign as we did last time with Black Ops 2 and introducing dynamic maps as we’re doing this year with Ghosts. These are all things have a pretty fundamental impact on the gameplay and yet don’t disrupt the appeal of the gameplay that people have come to know and love.

What do you feel will differentiate Ghosts from past Call of Duty experiences?

Ghosts is a new sub brand and a new set of characters and a new world for Call of Duty. Infinity Ward is bringing a lot of new ideas to multiplayer like dynamic maps, character customization and four or five new game modes that are incredibly fun. These are all things that are going to make the game very fresh and a very cool new entry into the franchise. But at the same time these guys know how to make a Call of Duty game better than anybody and all that that represents.

What have you learned from online fans that you’re applying to the multiplayer for Ghosts?

We have a great feedback loop with our fans. We have a great dialogue with our fans. We have a very engaged and vocal audience and that provides a lot of inspiration and stimulus for our developers. They’re very engaged with the fans and what they want. They have a lot of community outreach and there’s a big feedback loop when you have a community that size and that passionate.

‘Ghosts’ screen shot (click to enlarge)

Can you talk about what’s new with multiplayer?

The new engine and the new graphics translate beautifully into multiplayer. The character customization is really fun, being able to sort of express yourself and have an identity that’s yours in Call of Duty multiplayer is really cool. There’s a lot of depth and options to that and the dynamic map moments are really fun. They’re very well designed to provide meaningful tweaks to the gameplay. The maps in Call of Duty have always been incredibly well designed as stages for battle, but they’ve been inert. They don’t move, they don’t change, and learning the maps has been a matter of learning where the hiding places are and where the good vantage points are. This has a whole different spin on that phrase of learning the maps because now you have to figure out what the maps can do, what you can do to them, and what they can do to you. You can change things within the map to block a pathway or to bring down a bridge or change the flow of the map. Sometimes things happen to you like an earthquake or a downed power line or a flood that changes the world around you. It’s really a cool new twist on the game.

What do you feel next gen has opened up for the Call of Duty franchise with Ghosts?

Probably most demonstrable is the new engine we created with the next gen engine. That has an immediate impact on the atmosphere in the game. Ghosts is going to be the best looking Call of Duty game ever and that’s not just in the environments, it’s also in your ability to connect with the characters. As you’ve seen in tech demos there’s a whole different level of human connection with the characters than we’ve ever had before.

What do you feel will define next generation gaming?

If you look at the innovations that are being promoted by the first parties for making the hardware, there’s a bigger focus on connectivity with the share button on the PS4 and the ability to Skype with your friends while gaming on Xbox One. There are a lot of ideas that seem to be taking connected gaming and making it more social. That’s one area that I would be looking at carefully to see if that inspires any really compelling new gameplay experiences.

The ideal Call of Duty second screen was on display at E3 (click to enlarge)

What opportunities do you see in mobile games, especially with second screen when it comes to Activision franchises?

Our approach has been to use mobile as a great way to expand the appeal of our core franchises and expand your ability to interact with our core franchises. You’re going to see a really robust and innovative second screen application for Call of Duty Ghosts. Obviously, we’ve had a couple of very highly rated and good selling games under the Skylanders brand. We’ve also had a couple of great selling games for Call of Duty with Zombies. We’ve built a lot of great capabilities in mobile, but the thing I’m most excited about is the ubiquity of second screen. Whether it’s the smartphone in your pocket or a tablet, the ability to connect with the next gen hardware will be in a much more seamless way. We can really have our games comes to life on a second screen in a much more robust way. We were a little ahead of this with Call of Duty Elite. We were the first ones to allow you to create the load-out of your character on your tablet or your smartphone and then push it into the console. On the current generation we had to do a lot of technological gymnastics in order to make that happen. The consoles just weren’t designed with those devices in mind because those devices didn’t exist when these consoles were designed. Now with next gen, there’s a much more robust connectivity with other devices. You’ll see a lot of creativity and a lot of energy coming from developers with the next gen in this area.

The Key Challenge Facing Games

The gaming industry has undergone massive changes in the last decade, but one of the key ones is the enormous increase in the number of games being produced. This is as important a platform shift as any disruptive technology — perhaps more so. As the industry enters a new era of consoles, it’s important to note that the technology base for consoles, computers, smartphones and tablets will continue to change — but for the next several years at least, not in ways that will fundamentally alter game designs.

The early days of the electronic game industry saw enormous effort being expended on technology. Just getting visuals on screens was a challenge, and one that absorbed a huge percentage of development resource. Rapid improvements in graphics technology, storage technology, and screen resolution followed, with grand leaps to such technologies as fully 3D settings and touchscreens. Certainly, there was attention paid to game design, to marketing, to sales and distribution. Many companies rose to prominence because of an aptitude in one of these areas. But technology was the focus of the industry.

The situation has changed. Platforms continue to improve, but the changes are incremental and not ones that will cause designers to completely rethink how games are made. The next-gen consoles coming this fall will have a substantial advance in graphics, but it’s not as difficult to handle as the jump from 2D gaming to 3D gaming. The last major technology disruption that caused massive shifts in game designs was the introduction of the smartphone (and tablets), with a touchscreen and an array of sensors built in.

Smartphones and tablets continue to post solid sales gains, and are expanding around the globe. The technology improvements ahead for the next several years won’t really cause a fundamental shift in game designs for mobile platforms, though. Faster CPUs and GPUs, better screens, longer battery life, improved cameras are all nice to have, but merely make things better, not different. The touchscreen will continue to be the main interface to smartphones and tablets, and the array of sensors won’t change.

The biggest change that affects game design now is the sheer volume of games available. “It used to be that gamers were starved for content and fascinating new releases,” said Scott Steinberg, CEO at TechSavvy Global and noted marketing guru. “Back in the early 90’s I’d be happy to get a high-profile new release every three or four months. Anything even remotely interesting had a chance of succeeding. Now, we’re at the other end of the spectrum — we’re drinking from the firehose. There are too many Kickstarter projects, too many interesting, quirky or fascinating games out there, too many apps, too many interactive entertainment experiences. Even if you’re a gamer, there’s only so many hours in the day.”

Now the issue is whether someone can find your game among the thousands of new games appearing every week. “Discoverability is the fundamental problem,” said Steinberg. “Games, like many other properties like books, movies, music, are increasingly commoditized in the eyes of the customer. When you have hundreds of thousands of games that are one tap away, many of which are free or incredibly affordable, increasingly brand awareness and the trust factor are becoming increasingly important.”

The basic skill needed, Steinberg explains, is the ability to attract and retain the customers. You have to get noticed, then you have to convince customers to stay with you, and then convince them to come back. Finally, you have to convince them to spend money. A good game in and of itself can rarely do that without good marketing.

“I’ve argued for a long time — fire your marketing team,” said Steinberg. “Everybody in the company should be in the ‘marketing department.’ Designers need to think like marketers, marketers need to think like designers, and really think about from day one what they’re going to do to drive that awareness, and have something to offer the customer and something unique to say. Think about your customer, think about their needs, and how you’re going to offer them something considerably different.”

Steinberg says that games have become ‘content’ in the eyes of quite a few people, and what that’s telling you is they’ve become a commodity. “The games that succeed are AAA blockbusters or quirky independent releases. Why is that ” Steinberg asks. “The answer is probably that they had something unique to offer, or they stand out at a glance, or they have a tremendous following, or any or all of the above.”

“We’re talking about multiple challenges here, game design simply being one of them,” Steinberg notes. “The business, the branding, the marketing piece is every bit as important a part of the equation. Everybody argues content is king, gameplay is king, but you have to have a sound business strategy and a great high-quality game experience. At the end of the day, if you can’t stand out from the noise you just fade into the echoes.”

Building and maintaining an audience is a task that’s as important as building and maintaining a game. Developers and publishers need to see these elements as equally important parts of having a successful game. Everyone involved with a game needs to keep both of these goals in mind. As the game industry continues to grow, the technology will be just one important issue alongside equally important issues of game design, game quality, community, brand-building, monetization, and business strategy. Successful games and successful game companies will find some way to do well at all of these elements.

One Giant Leap

Squad is aptly named. The Mexico-based company was founded in 2008 as a marketing firm that wanted to be an employee-centric workplace, according to co-founder Adrian Goya. It had enough marketing acumen to draw regional business from global brands such as Coca-Cola and Samsung, but along the way something else bloomed at the firm. It transitioned into a kind of ideation lab, encouraging staff to take advantage of a program the company labels ‘make your dream come true with Squad’. Teams can pitch any new venture, and Squad will fund it as long as there is a potentially successful business case behind it. The program is what gave birth to Kerbal Space Program, a rocket science simulation game that’s long on originality and gaining a dedicated player following.

“Kerbal-nauts” on a mission

Some of the same tenets that seem to underpin Squad as a company also apply to Kerbal Space Program, or KSP, as a game. The brainchild of Squad’s Felipe Falanghe, KSP is one big adventure in courageous risk taking and learning on the go. There’s also much more to it than initially meets the eye. It’s a serious and solidly designed science-based simulator with physics rooted right here on earth. Yet it’s wrapped in the veneer of a quirky, otherworldly IP where the characters that populate it, called Kerbals, are something right out of a Nickelodeon cartoon. That hasn’t hindered the game from attracting a following among serious PC gamers, including loyalists in the game press like PC Gamer’s Ian Birnbaum , who has a running journal dedicated to his KSP exploits.

“Our lead developer, Felipe, played with fireworks as a kid and built little tin men to strap onto his bottle rockets,” says Bob Holtzman, who runs PR and marketing for KSP. “He called them Kerbals. The Kerbals are there for comedic relief. They’re pretty fearless, in a sort of stupid way. So they’re always good for a laugh and help you enjoy yourself, even when your rocket blows up. Felipe told me players come for the explosions and stay for the rocket science.”

Squad thinks the appeal of the IP helps overcome one of KSP’s biggest challenges from a game play standpoint. True to its source material, much of the experience is rooted in trial and error as players tinker with designing rockets, launch pads, space vehicles and everything else needed to build a space program from the ground up. When it comes to figuring out what works and doesn’t, the emphasis is on learning from failure, and lots of it.

“It’s not a casual experience and takes effort,” says Holtzman, adding, “The development team understood that attempting to realistically recreate a space agency was going to be a real challenge for most gamers, myself included! So one of the team’s major focuses is making sure failure is fun in Kerbal Space Program. The Kerbals make that happen. They’re like a running joke version of ‘did you see the look on his face ‘ while you’re blowing your latest rocket or spacecraft to smithereens.”

With KSP as its first foray into game making, Squad might have been impatient about quickly recouping what it invested. Instead, the company is taking a patient approach to marketing and monetizing the game that’s surprisingly cognizant of how gamers embrace a product. It’s using the freemium version of the free-to-play model, but it’s doing it in a much more calculated way compared to how many games come at free-to-play on a wing-and-a-prayer, essentially begging players to go ahead and play for free while hoping they’ll eventually buy something.

Goya explains, “After several months in development we made a free public release of the game on our website, just to test and see how people reacted and see if the idea was a good one worth keeping up developing. There was a very positive reaction so we decided to carry on with free updates. After a while, almost a year in development, we decided to start accepting pre-orders for the game, while still giving it for free. If you gave us seven dollars at the time, you would have the full version of the game forever. The pre-order price has increased over time and we eventually released a free demo version and a paid version you’d only have access if you made a pre-order.”

“It was a natural process for us and you can say it’s a sound marketing strategy,” adds Holtzman. “Developers who understand the market for their game can form a powerful community of word-of-mouth marketers while funding a longer runway for their team to develop the game. The important part, and this is where teams can’t slack off, is making sure the game is developed to the utmost of its potential with each new update. One bad update can ruin your relationship with your community. Their support is fueling your takeoff so you can’t let them down.”

“You have players who are in direct contact with you, who start loving your game, help you shape the game and talk about your game. And added to that, in our case, you get very talented people out there creating mods that make our game grow,” says Goya.

A big part of experiencing this game is getting exposed to that robust modding community around it. Modders are playing a critical part in helping lower the barrier for entry for new players. The game is all about building and testing parts that work within larger systems, and while failures that explode are fun not everything that fails explodes. Once a player is past the basics of building a rocket that flies into space, there’s room for all sorts of improvements. Ultimately the player moves from building rockets to the other fun aspect of KSP, space exploration. Thanks to mods, which in KSP‘s case could very well stand for ‘modules’, players can get past the time sink of testing every little component of their growingly complex enterprise by installing parts and systems developed by other players. As one example, the currently most popular mod for the game is a nifty looking, and presumably tried and tested, escape pod for players who are building space stations.

Shopping for mods almost adds a game within a game to KSP. Squad’s robust online hub for modders, Kerbal Spaceport, feels like an e-commerce site. Browsing through categories such as “Structural and Aerodynamic” or “Command and Control,” and considering items such as the aforementioned space pods, the site makes you feel as if you’re a NASA acquisition specialist sifting through a database of government contractors. Given the level of sophistication for some of the mods, it’s not surprising to hear Goya say that they’ve actually hired modders to the development team. There’s seemingly an opportunity to monetize this side of the game too, though Squad says they’re not ready to for that just yet.

“It’s definitely something we’ve considered,” says Goya. “One of the challenges is the legal side since our game is played globally and if you start to allow people to sell the mods, it opens up a number of legal issues. It’s something we’re working on but haven’t made any final decisions.”

From here out, the emphasis for Holtzman, Goya and the KSP team is to broaden appeal for a game that may not have mainstream hit written all over it, at least not at first blush. Overcoming that has a lot to do with how the product is communicated, and who’s doing the communicating. Here, Squad is still relying on the people who play the game and get what it’s all about.

“We’re trying to make sure the community has all the tools they need to share this game with their friends. We recently updated the website to make it more user friendly. We’re also looking to expand our social media options. Right now, our focus has been on our forums, Facebook, Twitter and Twitch.TV. We’re really making an effort to show people how much fun it is to stream KSP and had our social media manager, Miguel Pena, and one of our developers, Chad Jenkins, join the GamesRadar team on a stream the day we launched update 0.21. It was a chance for us to introduce the game to a new audience and some of our core audience members showed up to both tease and support some of the new players from the GR team.”

Kerbal Space Program hasn’t approached its potential, both as a game and its brand,” Holtzman adds. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to see new players discover the game and see how future updates help it grow. We’re also working hard to strategically invest in the brand. We just want to make sure it makes sense with where the game is in development too.”