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Activision studios head brings development strategy into focus


"It doesn't make sense anymore," Activision executive VP of worldwide studios Dave Stohl declared to us in a small office, hidden away from the noisy E3 show floor. "You've really got to focus." The executive, who oversees every development studio that Activision owns, was reflecting on the old business model that encouraged studios to take on multiple projects at once. Today, the industry's leading third-party publisher has a new mantra: one game per studio.

"People want the freedom to put all their resources against the big opportunity, and that's what we're trying to do," Stohl explained during our conversation at last month's show. We wondered if the shift in strategy was less ingenuity and more a sign of the times. Last year's holiday season was headlined by two major events: the slowdown of music game sales and the ridiculous success of Modern Warfare 2.

"We saw it kinda coalesce around one or two titles a publisher," Stohl recalled of last year's market. "On the Guitar Hero side, yeah, we're not pursuing the strategy of doing as many SKUs as we were. And that's a good thing, because that will simplify the strategy around one release on the Guitar Hero side and focus on innovation there."

As for the music game genre overall, "I think it's also, still, a big business," Stohl said. "Between Guitar Hero and DJ Hero, as a business overall, it's still a big business. Is it as big as it was back in the heyday? No. But it's still a big business and I think there's still a lot of opportunity there."

Speaking of opportunity, Activision acquired 7 Studios just over a year ago. The team was working on Scratch: The Ultimate DJ for Genius Products and Numark at the time, and now they're assumed to be Activision's DJ Hero "B-team" – the guys who create the odd-year iteration. Stohl laughed at the suggestion of 7 Studios as a secondary unit, but didn't deny it. "I can't tell you what they're doing, but they're doing some cool stuff," he teased. "They have supported FreeStyle a little bit, but they're doing something new and different." (FreeStyleGames is Activision's primary DJ Hero developer.)

"You can't think only about today ... But you have to say, 'What are our three-, four-year plans,' so that you don't make short term mistakes that you're gonna regret in the long term." - Dave Stohl

Sledgehammer Games, which Stohl called an "absolutely fantastic and talented crew," seems also to have been ushered into somewhat of a support role, as the studio is working on a Call of Duty franchise game, albeit from a so-called "action-adventure" angle. When asked how much is too much Call of Duty, Stohl tiptoed around the question. "I think that people are still digging the experience, you know what I mean?" And, according to Stohl, Sledgehammer's veteran founders, Glen Schofield and Mike Condrey, have the "old school passion for creating a really kind of unique experience." (They hatched Dead Space, after all.)

Perhaps Sledgehammer would have been better put to task on resuscitating Activision's Spider-Man games, which CEO Bobby Kotick said have "sucked" in recent years. Instead, the relatively unknown Beenox Studios has been offered the next Spider-Man project, Shatter Dimensions, following last year's closure of Shaba Games, which had done a commendable job on the previous Spidey effort, Web of Shadows.

"I was a big fan of Web of Shadows, and I think that Chris Schultz and the guys at Shaba did a really good job," Stohl said, before suggesting that the game's open-world sandbox design didn't quite succeed. "So, we decided to kind of change direction and focus on the license." With Shattered Dimensions (and its four featured Spidey universes), Stohl sees an opportunity to implement "a cool part of the license that hasn't been exploited," adding that "we're gonna focus on that experience rather than having to, you know, beat up a thousand bugs or whatever."

From Shattered Dimensions to Transformers: War for Cybertron to the upcoming GoldenEye 007 reboot, "We are focusing on our licensed business, from a business standpoint, to see what makes sense," Stohl relayed. "I think we're trying to make every one of those launches really notable." Where Activision continues to seem to not have focus is on the digital platform front. Following the 2007 acquisition of Bizarre, Activision now owns the creator of arguably the most iconic Xbox Live Arcade franchise on the service, Geometry Wars. And yet, when asked why Activision hasn't better targeted platforms like XBLA and PSN, Stohl simply offered, "everybody is busy and kind of focused on their thing." According to Stohl, it's largely up to the studios to "do something here or there" in terms of smaller, downloadable projects.

What about re-releasing updated Activision classics? Surely, the release of Call of Duty: Classic alongside Modern Warfare 2 last fall could have been the start of a digital strategy for the publisher. "I think there is a lot of opportunity for all those games," Stohl agreed. "I think that's something that we are looking at -- thinking about."

What Activision seems to be mostly looking at is how to inject that "Call of Duty" magic into its retail releases. "The fact that Call of Duty is a game that really promotes a connected network -- this big backend environment that promotes competition, that promotes play with your buddies -- I think those are important things we want to see in all of our games," Stohl outlined. "That doesn't mean that every game is a natural hardcore, 'player versus player' kind of experience, but there's a certain kind of community -- social connected piece -- to it."

To create those "important" elements, Stohl suggested, takes focus. One game per studio, remember? Currently, the industry is geared toward "big cross-platform launches in all territories with massive network support on the backend," Stohl explained. "So the opportunities and projects are just bigger; they're more challenging. And it absolutely takes focus. I mean, it really does."

Still, Stohl knows that Activision can't expect this strategy to be a permanent solution. "You can't think only about today ... But you have to say, 'What are our three-, four-year plans,' so that you don't make short term mistakes that you're gonna regret in the long term."

"I think we have done a really good job," Stohl said of the company's efforts to create stability. "In fact, we have done probably the best in the industry ... But you've gotta anticipate things -- things like new hardware, hardware transitions, the cycles of it all, that kind of stuff -- and then anticipate, and try to be smart about it."

Unfortunately, when even that strategy can't protect Activision and its employees from trying economic times, Stohl admitted that layoffs sometimes do have to occur. Reflecting on that, he sighed and resignedly added, "it's certainly a bummer when it happens." But then, Stohl's got a cadre of one-game studios backing him up -- a model that will hopefully help Activision to move away from the cyclical layoffs we've seen so much of in the past few years.

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