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Interview: Dan Amrich of Activision community site One of Swords

Justin McElroy

We don't envy Dan Amrich. From the moment we heard the former OXM editor was taking on the unenviable task of putting a human face on corporate monolith Activision -- through community site One of Swords -- we've been pressed to imagine how anyone could tackle such a Herculean task. It's a great compliment to Amrich, then, that after his first interview with us, he's almost convinced us that he'll be able to pull it off.

What specifically is One of Swords? Are you One of Swords?

One of Swords is my gamer identity. I had been thinking of changing my gamertag for a little while, and when I went looking around for something else that had personal meaning, I hit on this, and the new project came up around the same time. But then I realized, okay, this can also be the name of an editorial website; this can be my home on the web. So OneOfSwords is really its own bloggy entity, a platform/portal to all the podcasts and interviews and videos and journalistic style things I want to do here.

Can you explain the name?

I like swords. I play D&D; I had a medieval wedding. The levels of my dorkistry have not yet been fully revealed. (Note: I do not LARP.)

But on a deeper level, I am fascinated with real-world mysteries and weirdness -- the supernatural, Oak Island, puzzles, Ouija boards, you name it. As an extension of that, I used to read tarot. The One/Ace of Swords is a strong card that can mean several things, all of which were relevant to this undertaking. The biggest was clarity -- I really believe in that, and I don't want to be misunderstood. But I saw a lot of misunderstanding, sometimes willful, when it comes to Activision. Also, this is a card that means bravery and fresh beginnings -- definitely true since I left a 16-year career and moved to a new city -- and tempering emotion with intellect. That last phrase alone really hit home: "You mean the opposite of fanboys stoking flame wars in forums?" I would like to be that bastion of rational thought in a world gone mad. Or at least a world gone irrationally and illogically angry. It was a good metaphor all around.

Also, the URL was available.

What have you learned so far about Activision -- something that we may not know?

It's only been a few weeks, but I'm learning that there really are good reasons for a lot of the controversial decisions that the company makes. They're not evident because they're not interesting. I asked about several of the recent events when I came on board and found that the truth was related to high-level business strategy. People assume the worst, but usually it's something totally boring. Part of my whole reason for being here is to try to explain those when they come up, only with the boring taken out.

What did Activision tell you before you signed on that made you think, "This is the kind of company I want to be a public face for?"

I more or less asked if there was an instruction manual to selling out, and the response was, "Uh, you can't sell out. If you're not authentic, this won't work." That is, I get to be myself on purpose, to follow my same journalistic instincts, but now I cover Activision as my full-time beat. They do not expect that I will always agree with the company and its choices. They made it clear that my natural approach that I developed as a member of the press was valuable and not something they wanted to change. When I found out I would be operating like a media outlet but with better access to information and developers, I was down for it.

That said, I go back with Activision -- I still have my 2600 carts and the patches I earned by getting high scores on Pitfall and Enduro. (They're on my desk if you want a photo.) Interstate 76 is, no lie, one of my top five games of all time. I've been following the company for years, both professionally and personally, and I've had a generally favorable opinion. They'd made some games I've really enjoyed, and that's really all I care about as a gamer.

How will you go convince people that you're not just a marketing stunt, not just a cog in the evil machine, etc.?

I don't know if I will be able to change their minds, really. I'm being totally transparent -- yes, I am paid by Activision, but I would not have come on if I were not allowed to be myself. But until I can prove my worth, people just have my word, and whether they trust me or not from my previous work. I have a lot to lose personally if I turn into a marketing stunt.

Kind of joking about that last bit, but I don't think you'll argue that Activision has developed kind of a soulless reputation over the past few years. How important is it to you that you reverse that? How do you?

I can't appeal to minds that aren't open. If someone really wants to hate Activision for some deep personal reason, rational or otherwise, I am not going to be able to stop them. But I am curious to know how they came to that opinion. Was it a game that you bought but didn't live up to expectations? Was it an interview you read, a bad review for a game? Did you intend to buy that game anyway? Or are you just jumping on a bandwagon because it's cool to hate whoever has power? We have trained gamers for years to rage against machines -- it's kind of in their DNA to want to see the end boss go down. So they throw a lot of hate out there and ask, "When does Bobby start blinking red and morph into his second, more deadly form?" I'm only half kidding; I think it's always trendy to hate the guy who looks like he's running things. And at Activsion, it's Bobby Kotick.

A few years back, the gamer hate vibe changed from hating EA to hating Activision -- right around the time that the two companies swapped positions on the third-party publisher leaderboard, I might add -- but my perception didn't really change. Activision is now bigger, but they're still a company making both smart choices and mistakes, making good games and bad. When I looked at Activision's public perception, I honestly felt people were jumping on every negative example -- and they're there, don't get me wrong -- and going to town with them. I had a different perspective; I could play devil's advocate and really have some information to back it up. Activision didn't have a public channel for that kind of two-way communication, and I agreed that they really needed one. So that is definitely a challenge, but I like having those kinds of discussions.

How unfiltered will your content be? Is Bobby Kotick combing your text?

I posted one of my first potentially inflammatory things today, and I asked my supervisor, "Hey, do you want to look at this before I post it?" I mean, it's early days; I am going on instinct but I don't mind having a discussion and explaining my choices. And the answer was, "No, just do your thing." So really, my main concern when filtering content is not giving away game details before I'm supposed to. I'm used to sharing whatever I find out as soon as I learn it in the press, I have to remind myself, "Oh wait, that's not known yet."

We're seeing this more now (Bethesda has its own blog to communicate directly with the fans; Irrational Games is kind of doing this thing with its new site and podcast). Do you see this as a necessary evolution for publishers and developers?

I actually don't think it's an evolution, I think it's a throwback. In the early 90s, there were these things called .plan files, used frequently by people at id Software, 3D Realms, and other developers that had strong followings. They were basically proto-blogs -- you would use the telnet command "finger" to point your prehistoric internet tools to a text file where the developer would share info about their game in development, but they would also talk about what movies they had seen that weekend or some other thing relevant to their lives. It was a totally open, uncensored line of communication straight from the source, and anybody could access that text file to get the latest update. I see the recent developments of developer podcasts and community managers as a resuscitation of that idea, just with better production value. And nobody has to get fingered.

Are you going to be handling any Blizzard stuff?

No, other than playing World of Warcraft like I always have, and I'll probably be at Blizzcon. But my primary focus will be games published under the Activision banner -- Guitar Hero, Call of Duty, Transformers, stuff like that.

Will you cover live Activision events, a la Major Nelson?

Yes, I'm making plans to be out and about. I'll be at E3, PAX, GDC ... wherever geeks are excited about games, I will be there, geeking out excitedly with them.

Will Activision capitalize on the name? Will we have next year, then threeofswords?

Do. Not. Give. Them. Ideas.

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