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Interview: Activision studio head, Dave Stohl


Activision's development ethic is one of stability, based on large franchises capable of longevity and market leadership. The shocking news of Infinity Ward's meltdown earlier this year, then, can only have been intensely troubling for the publisher's EVP of studios, Dave Stohl, but the "unfortunate thing," as he describes it, appears to be in the past for the exec. Talking to VG247 at E3 earlier this month, he looked only to a future of rebuilding the studio and reattaining former glory.

There was some little Bungie deal to chat about as well. Frapper le lien.

VG247: There's been a very big shake-up recently with Activision studios in general. Obviously, you've had some very good news and some not so good news in the past six months. How do you feel about the general structure of Activision's development at the moment?

Dave Stohl: I feel really good. I'm really excited about the partnership with Bungie. Obviously, I think that's great, and it's something that a lot of us worked on for a long time, and that's exciting. I feel really good about the way people are reacting to what we're doing with Black Ops, and just the general reception. I'm really proud of the work that Treyarch's doing. It's not a great position to have to follow up such a massive title. It scares me every day. But they've really risen to the challenge. It's great to see the reaction to it, you know what I mean?

This title has been so driven by Treyarch from a creative standpoint. It's been really nice to see it.

On the IW side, what I feel good about it the way we're able to… People ask me this all the time. It is still a huge recruiting drive. I've been a development guy for a long time, right? Recruiting at IW is not a problem. What we're trying to do is say that IW is a culture, it's a way of doing things, there's a lot of people there and there's still a lot of passion for doing it. We're trying to rebuild, trying to help them and support them to rebuild. So people are stepping up, new people are coming in and we're setting the bar so high. And we're making sure it fits with the culture of what IW actually is. So far so good.

The fallout of what happened with Vince and Jason; does it worry you beyond "the internet"? Do you think there's a perception that Infinity Ward will never get back to its glory days, and that that perception will impact what they do next?

Dave Stohl: They being?

Infinity Ward.

Dave Stohl: Infinity Ward. Look: it was a really unfortunate thing, for sure. We are a big company, you know what I mean? Forget about a company; we're a development organization and we have a lot of good people in it. We've got a lot of really, really hard-working people that are so focused on what they're doing now. And, at the same time, we've got a lot of good people that are helping to support them get back to hopefully where they'll get to, and I think that they will.

You know, to me, rebuilding IW is about culture and talent, and we have the wherewithal to help them get there. I think there's a real desire. There's a real desire to do it. I think they'll get there, and we've got a ton of hard-working super-talented people. People say "Activision," but it's Neversoft and Treyarch and it's VV in Albany and it's Bizarre Creations; it's people all over. There's just a ton of talented development.

I'm not taking anything away from what Infinity Ward was or is, but all I can do it focus on supporting them and setting the bar so high that they keep what they have and what they had, and that's a focus on excellence and a culture that works the way it does.

Is there still a focus on Call of Duty, though?

Dave Stohl: We're not saying right now. There is definitely a strong shooter philosophy there, for sure. And I think that there's a short- and long-term view on the whole thing. But I think we're rebuilding a studio that can go off and build great new franchises in the future.

There seems to be something of a land-grab going on at the moment. The bigger third-party developers that were affiliated to single-platforms are going multi-platform en masse. What it's like to be in an environment where you have these large, established developers saying, "Hey, we want to go multi-platform. Are you the right guy?"

Dave Stohl: It's a good place for us to be, because, in the case of Bungie, you've got someone coming from a single-platform background, but we have spent a lot of time with this central Demonware network portal. We have a network back-end that supports Call of Duty across platforms, so they know what we're doing, and how well we can support. When we start talking to them about what they're doing, or how we can partner with them or how we can bring support to it, I think in this day and age everyone needs this kind of support. It's not just platform support; it's platform and network support, experience outside Xbox Live or whatever platform they come from.

Over the months we talked it became such a great partnership, because they are so buttoned up, and they are so passionate about their idea, and they're so passionate about not just their development but how they reveal it to the consumer and they so get what is cool about the concept. I love that. There's so much passion. They think about what it looks from the inside, about what it looks like from the outside; the whole thing. They really have a great, comprehensive plan for the game and the release.

The thing that was really exciting for me was the long-term aspect of it. That enables us to work together in a much closer way than you would otherwise in a normal contractual relationship. They're incredible, but we're there when they need it.

To go back to your question, I think that with people looking for that type of support and partnership, we're in a great position right now, because we've spent so much time on a cross-platform network, on all that stuff that people need. It's very hard to build. Not only do we have it, but we've shown what we can support with it, with a back-end the size of Call of Duty.

Do you think we're seeing a change in the publishing landscape in general? You're starting to enter into these types of contracts with bigger developers and we've just seen Insomniac sign with EA. We've seen Itakagaki-san and THQ announce the first deal in the THQ Partners project. Do you think it's a trend?

Dave Stohl: I don't know. I think it's interesting that it's all just happened. I personally don't think it's a trend. For me, I think the important part of our partnership with Bungie was the longevity of it. I think that, to me, makes it something beyond. It's not a one-off deal kind of thing. It's a partnership. For Activision that's really important, and it was really important for me. I don't know the nature and the specifics and the nature of the other deals, so I can only answer for us: a key piece of the partnership was that, while it's not an acquisition, it's a partnership to the point where we feel very comfortable actually partnering, instead of having maybe an old skool, one-off contractual relationship.

Would you consider the relationship with Bungie going forward a bit, a little more like the relationship Activision has with Blizzard, where you're working on an integral level with all your processes?

Dave Stohl: Obviously, Blizzard is part of Activision, so there's less contractual issues in terms of ownership and things like that. I will say that my hope and intention – and I know this is Bungie's intention – is for us to work very closely, much more like we work with Blizzard in that sense, but obviously it's a little bit different. Right now they're really focused on launching Reach which is important, but that said, the integration has been great and the partnership with the people has been great.

We want to integrate them more than maybe an outside developer would usually be integrated.

How significant for Activision as the company is the Bungie deal? Obviously there are very few developers of that size in the world, but are we going to see you sign any more similar deals over the next 12 months?

Dave Stohl: I don't know that. What I will say is that any deal that we do like that would have to be something where we have a long-term partnership. As you say, there are very few of those deals to be done, but I think those are the kind of deals we need to be focused on. That's in addition to our own internal development. I think that the deals need to reflect that kind of structure for us.

Bungie was large enough to match your philosophy?

Dave Stohl: Yeah. Large and long-term. As we all know, the development times are longer now, the commitments are greater. Supporting the back-end requires all sorts of expense, work, blood sweat and tears. It needs to be a long-term partnership, I think, for it to have that type of structural work. And you want to see it through, too. I'm super-excited about it. Obviously, we haven't announced timing, or anything like that: they're focused on launching Reach. But the process is going to be cool, the launch is going to be incredible. I'm really excited.

When are we going to get any kind of information on it?

Dave Stohl: I don't want to say anything because I don't know exactly. Not now [laughs]. But it's going to be cool when you hear about it. You're going to be stoked.

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