We're thoughtful, not like the competition, paying crazy prices for companies, says Activision Mobile VP Canessa

Organic growth and building internal capabilities

We're thoughtful, not like the competition, paying crazy prices for companies, says Activision Mobile VP Canessa
The biggest game publisher in the world has been one of the last to embrace mobile games.

Thanks to the success of World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, mobile just wasn't financially big enough for Activision Blizzard to bother investing in.

Now, however, the advent of free-to-play gaming and a billion-strong potential audience has seen the company change tack.

We caught up with VP of mobile strategy, Greg Canessa to find out how the company is approaching the opportunity.

Pocket Gamer: Activision had some early successes with the iOS games, but then nothing. So what's the motivation for re-entering the market?

Greg Canessa: First of all, thank you for acknowledging we had some mobile games a few years ago.

A lot of people tend to forget we had quite a bit of success with Guitar Hero for iPad, and were on stage with Steve Jobs. We also released games such as Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart, Geometry Wars: Reloaded and the original Call Of Duty: World At War Zombies, which did very well.

What's happened now is Activision decided to increase its overall footprint in the mobile space and get into the mobile business formally, through the creation of Activision Mobile.

I came over from Blizzard Entertainment about a year ago to start the new division, and build upon that previous success.

What's different about Activision Mobile compare to the previous approach?

Those titles were successful, but they were done mostly from an external development standpoint. It was more of an ad-hoc approach, so the creation of Activision Mobile represents a dedicated effort to get into the mobile space and to build those core competencies internally.

Activision is a very thoughtful company. We take a very thoughtful approach to our investment in a new market, and so we view mobile as a tremendous commercial opportunity.

We're not like some of the competition, which pays a crazy valuation for a company or multiple companies, and then tries to mesh them all together and say "Hey! We're in mobile!" That's not our approach.

Our approach is to say we're not first to the party, we're going to take a thoughtful approach. We're going to build those capabilities internally. We're going to staff up new game development studios, as is the case with The Blast Furnace, which has been around for upwards of nine months now.

We're not a company that over promises and under delivers. We're a company that talks about stuff when we actually have product to sell.

There's already a rich mobile games ecosystem so how will Activision operate in this?

Whether it's the creation of internal game development capabilities, the building of a mobile technology platform, the building of a social network that join all of our titles together, or our efforts around analytics, we're willing to partner where it makes sense.

Our partnership with Swerve is a good example. We're using its behavioural analytics to enhance our own business intelligence and analytics capabilities, or our partnership with Flurry to create a mobile publishing division.

We'll partner where it makes sense to do so. Otherwise it's about organic growth and building internal capabilities.

What did Activision learn from its previous mobile experiences? What are you doing differently this time?

We learned a number of really important things. We learned that there was a tremendous market opportunity. We had some financial success with our products.

We learned that smaller game development teams and rapid, nimble, agile development is the order of the day, and is what you need to be successful.

In many ways it was high-level market validation that served as the impetus behind Activision Mobile. But I will tell you, the industry has evolved significantly since then, and it has evolved in many positive ways, to provide further impetus beyond the creation of the group.

What specific developments have excited you?

Two, three years ago, we were selling 99 cent games without any micro transactions, and it was hard to justify the investment in the space.

The advent of free-to-play and micro-transaction-based games has resulted in real market opportunity for large companies like Activision to make a large return and revenue from these products. That has been a very positive trend.

The second positive trend you've seen is device penetration - 1.5 billion smartphone and tablet devices by 2015? That's a tremendous market opportunity for us to reach consumers and gamers in new ways - different ways from which we can reach them on the console and PC today.

The third phenomenon, and we've seen this accelerate in the last eight to 12 months, has been from a usage standpoint. Our gamers are spending their gaming entertainment minutes on tablets and smartphones.

We're seeing a shift; when they're at home, they're on the couch playing on their console, or they're watching TV and they have an iPad on their lap.

From a smartphone perspective, there are pockets of time throughout the day that are completely incremental to us at Activision.

We weren't able to access these before, but players are on the train or on the bus, they're playing five to ten minute time wasters. This provides an opportunity for us to engage those customers with our brands and franchises, and entertainment experiences, incrementally to what we're able to do on the console or the PC.

CPU and GPU capabilities is the final thing. We're looking at - within one generation, from a CPU and GPU standpoint - the smartphones and tablets being the equivalent of the current generation of consoles; Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

And they're only going to get more powerful.

For a company like Activision Blizzard, which focuses on midcore and hardcore immersive gaming experiences, this unlocks a tremendous potential for us to bring those types of experiences credibly to those devices.

So, across the board, device penetration, micro-transactions, device capabilities, and technology advancement and usage, this has become a far, far more interesting opportunity than it was even two years ago - and that's the impetus behind the creation of Activision Mobile.

Concerning the release of the new version of Pitfall, what made you return to the brand?

We had an inspired creative vision. We have a lot of love for Pitfall. It's a game that got me interested in getting into the games business as a kid. I was sitting on my bedroom floor, playing on the Atari 2600. It was my favourite game as a kid.

Gordon Hall and Mark Washburg and the team at The Blast Furnace similarly had a lot of love for that franchise. Going back to the original 1982 David Crane title got it all started for us, and got it all started for Activision as a company. It's the 30th anniversary of Pitfall this year...

So our vision was to create a reboot, or a re imagining of that title, from a retro-nostalgia play for guys like us who used to play the game and love it. And also have it speak to a whole new generation of gamers that didn't know Pitfall.

Our vision was to pay homage to that title, and bring what was great about that game - the original action platform runner game; all of the classic iconography; the rope swings; the gold bars; the cobras and the scorpions ... and then marry it with a cool retro HD look and feel.

We also bought some new gameplay elements, and some new play mechanics that specifically take advantage of the capabilities of the iOS platform and tablets and smartphones in general, and merged those two into a new entertainment experience.

That was our vision behind it, and I'm proud to say that The Blast Furnace has really executed well as its first game as a studio. I'm very proud of its efforts. The team really pulled off something special.

Are you also looking remaking at H.E.R.O. and River Raid or some of the other big early Activision hits?

Without getting into any specifics or announcements, I'll tell you that we have a lot of enthusiasm and energy for this approach.

This retro HD remake is a new approach for us, and if it's successful, I hope to do more titles. As you mentioned, there's River Raid, there's Kaboom!, H.E.R.O., Barnstorming, Keystone Capers ... just a ton of great titles from that era that we love, and I would love to do more titles going forward.

You've also got Call Of Duty Black Ops Zombies coming to Android next month. How do you deal with the piracy issue on that platform?

Those are the realities and challenges in the business. The Android market is a bit more of the wild, wild west. It's a wide variety of devices, sub platforms and 90-plus marketplaces in which you have to sell your game.

It's a very chaotic market, but there is a huge opportunity, particularly on the smartphone side - tablets as well, but iPad is dominant in that space at the moment. On the smartphone side, Android outsells iOS by a considerable margin, so there's a tremendous community of gamers out there.

Yes, there are issues of development difficulties, piracy, modernisation etc. These are real challenges facing our industry, and Activision faces them like everybody else.

And what about all the other platforms; Windows Phone, BlackBerry, Kindle Fire...?

Windows 8 in particular is a platform we're interested in. Microsoft is making some interesting moves in that space, and we're very enthusiastic about the opportunity for Windows 8, and what it means for tablet, PC and smartphone.

We're an entertainment company. At the end of the day, we like to think of ourselves as a developer of world class entertainment experiences, agnostic as to platform.

So whether it's a console or PC, or a smartphone or a tablet, or a handheld, we want to put our entertainment experiences on platforms. We love a vibrant, healthy, competitive ecosystem of platforms, right? It benefits us to have as broad a distribution as possible. That's Activision's philosophy.

Are you looking at smart TVs too?

It's an interesting opportunity. As we continue to evaluate the marketplace, they're very interesting opportunities for us.

Again, it's about creating entertainment franchises and experiences, and coming up with new and different and interesting ways of reaching our consumers. If the consumers are there on those platforms, that's an area we may be interested in.

Why did Activision look specifically to the UK to form a mobile studio?

Coming back to my earlier point about taking a thoughtful, organic approach to internal mobile development, a key component of that is attracting top talent.

We want to get in this space in a very big way, and rather than build a team from scratch - that's green with no experience - a tremendous advantage for us competitively is to attract top-tier, world-class development talent.

So when we took a step back and thought about where this talent exists, that could build world class experiences on tablet and smartphone devices, and save us in terms of time to market, the UK was a natural fit.

It has some of the world's most talented game developers - not only in console development, but in handheld development, which shares many characteristics with mobile. Developing for 3DS and Vita, or GBA, you have to deal with issues of different controls, smaller screen size, different inputs, and many of those skills port directly over to the mobile space.

Through the creation of The Blast Furnace, we were able to attract the most talented game developers in that space. We currently have over 600 years - we've counted up - of game development experience at The Blast Furnace.

And I think you see it in Pitfall. If you play Pitfall, the level of polish is something you just don't see in mobile, especially in an initial release.

In terms of pricing Pitfall was 69p/99c with micro-transactions. Is that a case of testing the water, or are you looking into the completely free-to-play market?

Going forward we're interested in completely free-to-play, with just micro-transactions. I think that's something you're going to see us roll out with several titles coming forward. It's an interesting space for us.

All the current models are viable and interesting. The industry continues to evolve - these are very dynamic and disruptive times - and so new business models are emerging on practically a monthly basis.

We're students of that. We're learning as we go, and we'll make adjustments as needed.

Thanks to Greg for his time.

There's no such thing as 'not enough time' in Kristan's world. Despite the former Eurogamer editor claiming the world record for the most number of game reviews written before going insane, he manages to continue to squeeze in parallel obsessions with obscure bands, Norwich City FC, and moody episodic TV shows. He might even read a book if threatened by his girlfriend.