Activision: Playing tough

Activision: Playing tough

By Rob Crossley

August 10th 2010 at 5:00PM

Pt 1: Dave Stohl takes questions on the Infinity Ward, layoffs and hard choices

"Y’know, there’s a lot of talk about what Activision is.”

Dave Stohl was working overtime at Activision years before Modern Warfare broke onto the scene. He joined the company as a young, aspiring developer a whole generation before Infinity Ward first opened its doors.

He was at Neversoft when the studio’s floorboard creaked under the immense weight of ten developers. He gradually rose through the development ranks, grass-roots style, to become the executive vice president of Activision Worldwide Studios.

Now he’s having to answer questions about Infinity Ward – the kind of studio he ate, slept and breathed in his younger years – while representing the corporate empire he has become key to. It’s a struggle.

“I think that with all the stuff that you read in the media – people use the word ‘Activision’ of course, but who is that?” he asks.

“Activision is made up of thousands of people, and a lot of them are just stoked to be on a game team, and cannot wait to make their mark on this industry, and are passionate and anxious to impress.
 
“That’s something I feel quite passionate about, because to me, Activision is a bunch of development teams working really hard, coming from all over, and just happy to be making cool stuff.”

Despite Stohl’s almighty responsibility at Activision’s corporate arm, his spots can’t be changed. Speak to him long enough about game development, and his buttoned-down, media-trained poise breaks away. He begins to speak passionately, sometimes agitatedly, about Activision’s – perhaps unfair – reputation for developer-relations.

“There is a corporate strategy here, for sure, but most of Activision is just people trying to make cool stuff. That’s the Activision I know – people that really care.”

In the first half of our interview, we discuss Infinity Ward, layoffs and a tough market.



Despite the PR nightmare that Infinity Ward has been at the centre of, most people genuinely want to see the studio land on its feet. Infinity Ward has produced seminal, industry-shaping games, and it’s unfortunate for Activision that it lost so much key talent. What is the strategy for bringing the studio back to form? Promote internally for development leads, or are you looking externally to replace those who left?

We’re doing a bit of both. We’re supporting Infinity Ward in that rebuilding process, and I use the term ‘support’ because as much as possible we don’t want to tamper with that group of people. We want Infinity Ward to be Infinity Ward; it’s a very specific culture.

Recruiting for Infinity Ward – I mean we have had … well, let’s just say recruiting is not a problem!

But setting the bar super high, finding the right people that will fit in well with the culture, they’re the most important factors for us.

On the Treyarch side I’m so proud of the team there. Following up on Modern Warfare 2 is a great challenge, and Treyarch has really taken to it.

There’s always talk and people sniping at developers, but Treyarch is a really strong team of 200 young developers faced with one of the toughest challenges that any team has taken on – ever. They are doing a fantastic job.

Who runs Infinity Ward these days, internally?
We have this interim group, but it’s important to understand that we’re trying to support the studio to build itself up. That’s the process right now.

There’s a tonne of talented people at the studio, and yes some on the inside are stepping up their game internally and becoming more senior. We’re recruiting like crazy and we’re trying to find the best talent out there.

I’m one hundred per cent confident that the studio will come back to what it was, especially considering all the talent we’re seeing rising through and also being recruited.

I’m not going to sit here and say no good talent left the studio, because obviously a lot of good talent did. But a lot of people who are really passionate about their job are still there.

There’s a development philosophy that remains intact, and the studio is attracting amazing new talent. Ultimately, Infinity Ward will rise from the ashes.

Activision isn’t evil, and it is no doubt actively looking after its studios in a way that is taken for granted by much of the industry and press. But for a publisher to stay ahead of the likes of EA – by staying as profitable as possible and satisfying its investors – surely it has to make unpopular decisions in regards to layoffs and product strategies?
No you’re right. Are we required to focus our business more? Yes of course, everyone is. Absolutely every company in this industry is. That’s the realities of the marketplace. The development of projects has got so big that we, by necessity, have to look at some parts of the business and admit they are not as big as they want to be. That’s the realities of the business.

That’s a hard thing to deal with. But through all of this, I think, the one thing we’ve always, always stuck with is respecting the independence of studios.

I know that gets said, and by us, an awful lot. I always laugh because people don’t really get what we mean by that until they join one of our studios, by which point they realise we’re completely leaving them out there. Yes you’re really out there, we’re really not going to bother you for another 18 months, you’re independent! “Er, tell me what to do”, no, you figure it out [laughs].

I think that’s ever so important. When I was first working at Neversoft there were like ten guys at the studio, and some of them slept at work. There was something to that. There was a magic to that. And as we got bigger and bigger I saw, first hand, the intricate challenges of becoming this massive monolithic studio.

Once something becomes too big and too corporate it is simply too difficult to manage, and it loses its identity. I’m always very conscious of that.

While that principal remains, business runs the show.
I think it’s a balance though. The innovation and the franchises come from development.

In order for Activision to be number one in the world it has to make those [alleged] layoffs at RedOctane, Neversoft and Radical Entertainment. It has to be ruthless. Any genuine well wishing doesn’t change the fact that business must dictate policy. This isn’t about Activision being evil, it’s about the inevitable bad press you get from trying to run a very successful business and thus having to [allegedly] lay off 300 staff.
Maybe it is an inevitability. Layoffs happened across the entire industry, and everywhere else. There’s no other way to describe it apart from saying it was, for us, a real shame.

But, there’s other aspects of Activision that is business driven. The way we release franchises, the scale and rate in which we release games – that itself has introduced some really interesting challenges.

We have to make these games unique, we have to make them innovate and kick ass – that’s a solid business strategy for success. We have to make great games.