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Interview: Activision’s Hirshberg On Black Ops, Tony Hawk: Shred And More

Gamasutra's Chris Morris talks to Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing about why, despite a stronger opening week, the company predicts total sales of Call of Duty: Black Op will fall below those of last year's Modern Warfare 2.
As Treyarch and Activision's Call Of Duty: Black Ops continues to smash entertainment industry records, analysts who cover Activision are scrambling to up their year-end sales predictions. At the publisher, though, things haven’t changed. Despite the fact that Black Ops sales are tracking 18 percent ahead of where Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare 2 was at this point it its life cycle, Activision is still officially estimating that the game’s performance will fall just short of last year’s sales totals. “We remain cautiously optimistic,” Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing tells Gamasutra. “It’s great that we’re shattering the five-day record, but we’re still at the very early days of the holiday season. … And we need to keep our foot on the gas.” The gas, in this case, is a coordinated marketing and public relations plan. But with a franchise that has its roots so squarely in the core community, there’s only so far television commercials can take you. Word of mouth is a critical part of a game’s success – and that’s something Activision has no control over. But that’s not entirely true for viral campaigns. The company’s TV spot for Black Ops, featuring Kobe Bryant and Jimmy Fallon, took on a life of its own – quickly becoming an Internet sensation and blurring the lines between word of mouth and paid advertising. “I think we live in a day and age where there’s a blurred line between paid media and earned media,” says Hirshberg. “We live in a world where traditional marketing can become viral marketing – where something as traditional and old school as a television commercial can become viral.” In addition to setting sales records, Black Ops is also setting new high marks on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game consoles. By the end of the game’s launch day, more than 2.6 million players had played Black Ops. Cumulatively they had logged more than 5.9 million hours in the multiplayer portion of the game. As with Modern Warfare 2, Activision plans to support Black Ops with DLC to keep players engaged - and to keep the income flow from the game steady. MW2’s DLC was a strong source of capital for the company. The first add-on, dubbed the “Stimulus Package,” brought in revenue of $37.5 million in the first week. (Roughly $26 million of that went to the publisher, analysts estimate.) “You’ll see a steady stream of digital content from us, probably more than we’ve ever had before,” says Hirshberg. “I think because gaming is becoming such an online media, there is a real advantage for games that have a built-in community of engaged players. They’re all a part of the narrative and the experience. And to keep that momentum up, all roads go through a great online experience.” While other publishers, such as THQ, are increasingly using other entertainment mediums, such as books and film, to expand the reach of their big franchises, Call of Duty has remained exclusive to the video game world. That’s not due to lack of interest by the rest of the entertainment industry. But while Activision has been willing to have conversations about extending the brand, Hirshberg says the company will not rush into any deals. “There’s obviously a ton of interest, but there’s nothing we have announced or entertained yet,” says Hirshberg. “It’s something we want to be very careful about, because we have an ongoing community relationship with people. … Our goal, first and foremost, is to do the right thing for fans that are engaging with the game and the franchise online. Whether or not a move plays into that remains to be seen.” While my talk with Hirshberg was mainly concentrated on Black Ops, I couldn’t help but ask about the dismal performance of Tony Hawk Shred in the most recent NPD report. The game, released Oct. 26, sold just 3,000 copies in October, according to Cowen & Co. analyst Doug Creutz. Critics pointed to the mixed review scores and lack of marketing for the shockingly low numbers, but Hirschberg says the story hasn’t fully played out yet. “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” for example, has just named Shred as one of the 12 top gifts for the holiday season, he says. And the target audience for this installment of the franchise is much different than it has been in the past. “There’s hopefully a method to that madness,” he says. “For the first time we’re targeting that game to kids. It’s a gift-oriented game, but, that said, we need to build awareness for the game still. … I think you’ll hopefully see a bigger ramp-up as we get further into the gift giving season.”

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