Last month I had the opportunity to speak with Hirshberg in his office at Activision headquarters in Santa Monica. It was less than a week after a massive leak upended the company's carefully prepared marketing plan for the latest in the blockbuster Modern Warfare series and, for Hirshberg, it was a chance to connect with that audience. "We woke up with a marketing crisis," Hirshberg told me, "and wanted to go to bed with a marketing win." Throughout our conversation, Hirshberg mentioned the need to be transparent with consumers, so I challenged him to explain some of the company's more controversial decisions since he's been CEO: the cancellation of True Crime; the closure of Bizarre Studios; and the very public retreat from the Guitar Hero and DJ Hero games.
"The game had been delayed twice; the budget had been increased twice; and it had ballooned to a size where it was going to have to be a pretty incredible success in order to be worth the investment that it was taking to get it done," Hirshberg said of United Front Games' open-world reboot of True Crime. The ambitious sandbox title had been announced two years earlier in as high-profile a way as there is in this industry: live during the Spike Video Game Awards, a show that's more notable for its announcement trailers than it is for its awards.
I asked him why, after going so far as to show it to the press at E3, it had taken the company that long to realize True Crime wasn't a game that it was interested in releasing. "That wasn't the case the day True Crime got greenlit," he told me. "Just a few years back, there was room for a lot more titles to find an audience of scale." For Hirshberg and for Activision, it all came down to the quality of the title. "The finished product was not going to be at the top of that genre."
The finished product was not going to be at the top of that genre.- Eric Hirshberg
That's not to say that True Crime was going to be a bad game. Hirshberg praised the game's Hong Kong setting, and its action-heavy mechanics. At one point he paused. "The only reason I'm hesitating isn't due to lack of transparency," he said, bringing up that T-word again, "it's due to respect for the people who were making it who I think are incredibly talented and really brought their all and I don't want to say anything to disparage their efforts." He continued, "That's a super-competitive genre with some of the world's best games in it," alluding to Rockstar's best-selling Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption games. In a world that's dominated by a handful of major brands, Activision is looking for deeper engagement with fewer titles, a lesson that might be familiar to anyone with access to sister-company Blizzard's playbook.
I pointed out that Activision just released, with an awkwardly small amount of fanfare, Bizarre Creation's last game, Blood Stone, a Bond title that nobody would argue was at the top of the crowded and competitive third-person action genre. "Fair enough," he said. "The Bond game was a completely different level of investment and level of time than True Crime. There's a different economy at play with licensed characters, because there's a built-in fanbase for people who love James Bond." Where Bond had a chance to succeed with Bond fans, True Crime "was playing in one of the biggest genres in gaming" and doing so without the safety net of a popular license. Notably, Activision still has a large slate of licensed games in the works, including Spider-Man, X-Men, Wipeout, Transformers, and Family Guy – all titles that Hirshberg says benefit from a "built-in passionate audience."
But Bond wasn't what prompted Activision to close the studio, after spending 90 days unsuccessfully seeking a suitor. "The thing that Bizarre is best at and what they're known for and what their signature is is in the racing world," Hirshberg said. "And the decision had as much to do with our assessment of what was happening to the racing genre as it had to do with anything specific to Bizarre. We just didn't think that was the best place for us to put our competitive energies. The racing genre had shrunk, pretty precipitously."
The world doesn't need another racing game and they told us that resoundingly.
This phenomenon wasn't exclusive to Bizarre's last racing game, Blur, which failed to find what Hirshberg calls "a meaningful audience." "It was a big investment," he said. "It was a big investment in marketing. And sometimes you pour the chemicals into the beaker and nothing explodes." Like True Crime, the problem with Blur was that it wasn't going to topple the top games in the genre and, even if it did, that market is shrinking. "There are these big, very well established franchises that we would be competing against, fighting for a shrinking opportunity."
Guitar Hero and DJ Hero
After publishing the first Guitar Hero in 2005, Activision found itself at the center of what would become a massive business. In just a few short years, the Guitar Hero brand had become one of the biggest names in entertainment so the decision to put it on hiatus, canceling the year's games in the annualized (some would say over-annualized) series, was genuinely shocking to the game's fans, both current and former. The first thing I asked Hirshberg about was if we could expect to see the "Hero" brand relaunched. "All we did was cancel the games that we previously announced were going to come out in 2011," Hirshberg explained. "The Hero brand is still incredibly powerful and potent. It's one of the best known entertainment brands in the world."
So what's the goal for bringing it back? "If we can generate meaningful innovation and meaningful reinvention, we will bring it back," Hirshberg said. "But what we couldn't afford to continue doing was putting out iterative improvements of the same idea because that idea had run out of gas in the marketplace."
From a peak of more than eight 'Hero' games in 2009 to zero in 2011, Activision's decision showed a tremendous amount of resolve. But why not simply rein in development, focus on a few games, and keep the brand alive? "If they had been more moderate investments, I think we would have been able or willing to continue fiddling with the dials or experimenting but they weren't," Hirshberg said. "Those games had peripherals that needed to be manufactured – guitar-shaped controllers, drum-shaped controllers. Those games had 70 or 80 licensed songs as part of them, and celebrity likenesses that needed to be paid for, and music that needed to be paid for. They were not inexpensive games to make in any way."
If we can generate meaningful innovation and meaningful reinvention, we will bring [the Hero brand] back.
But if the Guitar Hero series is described as iterative improvements of the same idea, surely the critically praised DJ Hero series provided some of that reinvention. "That game found an even smaller audience than the Guitar Hero stuff," Hirshberg lamented. "Even with all the things you said: rave reviews, real innovation, one could argue more relevant, more contemporary music." After two successful back-to-back launches, active DJ Hero development, including DJ Hero 3DS, was canceled.
Hirshberg pointed out that while some of the tracks may not have been as expensive to license, others were – he singled out Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Eminem, and Jay-Z – and each of the game's songs included two tracks, mashed up. "The fact that we now have two different pieces of music in one track, it now almost kind of doubled. Not the dollar amount of licensing, but the number of songs that needed to be licensed in order to just execute the idea of the game," Hirshberg explained. The DJ Hero series "had every opportunity and it didn't succeed. At the end of the day, we've got to take a clear-eyed look at that."
For Call of Duty, innovation is being brought to the franchise in the form of Elite, something Hirshberg calls "one of the biggest gambles and biggest innovation investments the company's ever made." For Guitar Hero, and the rest of the 'Hero' games, that means a hiatus until it can generate "meaningful innovation." In the case of Blur, "the world doesn't need another racing game and they told us that resoundingly," Hirshberg said. "Through no lack of expended effort or expense, that was their response."
And as for True Crime, as well as the rest of Activision's titles (outside of the licensed games business) Hirshberg declared, "We only want to make the games that we think we can make better than anyone else." The result of that ambition should mean better games, as consumer-friendly an ambition as any. For a house reducing the numbers of games it's releasing, a mistep can be disastrous. When you're one of the biggest names in the business, the decision to take fewer risks may be the biggest one of all.