E3: Activision Blizzard Press Conference

Ever since Activision and Blizzard merged, and the outrageous hike in fees to be a part of the Entertainment Software Association, or ESA, they’ve kept themselves away from the E3‘s of late. This decision was also brought on by the change in the way that E3 was being held, and how it wasn’t open to the public half as much as it used to be. Now, with E3 nearly returning to it’s normal format at the Los Angeles Convention Center, Activision Blizzard, still not fully keen on joining back with the festivities, is showing off some of their games at the expo, but in trying to keep themselves separate from the rest, held a unique Sunday webcast press conference to discuss their current state of affairs.

Robert Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, stepped up first and crunched numbers. He explained that they were continuing to earn money due to the fact that more people are playing games around the world. This can easily be considered the truth, as video games are one of the largest form of media on the market at the moment, but with the state of the economy, game sales are down for nearly everyone except new releases, for the most part. He continued by saying that new physical accessories were important in keeping the franchise fresh, noting games such as DJ Hero and Tony Hawk: Ride, coming bundled with a new turntable controller and a skate board controller respectively. Having these unique interfaces and ways to play are nice, but if you’ve seen the price tag on these, they run quite the pretty penny. There will eventually become a point in which consumers will not be willing to shell out hundreds of dollars to play this certain special game, when the system that they bought comes with a controller good enough to play almost every other game released for it. This can also be said for the Guitar Hero franchise (speaking in terms of Activision and leaving out Harmonix). In this case though, consumers are asked to continuously shell out more and more money for special packages of songs featuring a certain artist, or to purchase downloadable songs from the store. Eventually though, in order to keep up with technology, they will release another new package of instruments, unless the franchise takes a steep dive and dies, costing consumers another few hundred dollars in order to have the latest design. I find there to be two audiences for this that would continue to purchase the game no matter what: those who are casual game players and only play these unique games such as Guitar Hero, and those that play on Expert, since they love the game so much.

None the less, Kotick moves on to explain that games have become more social, stating numbers showing that more players in World of Warcraft are now joining Guilds in order to play with other people than before. Kotick then passes it over to Activision’s Mike Griffith, who begins by explaining that Activision plans on releasing more expansions to their current lineup of games, as well as increasing their SKU count, or the amount of unique games on the shelf at a retailer, in 2010. In theory, this sounds good, because this means that Activision has the money to spend in order to continue making games for the consumer, but quantity does not equal quality, and with the economy still being in the situation that it’s in, this could force consumers to have to pick between one or another game to buy, instead of buying all of them as they usually would. If this decision is between only Activision games anyways, this could pose less of a problem, but they have to hope, then, that they don’t produce too many copies of certain games, because the production cost of all of these SKUs could potentially come back to bite them in the long run. Moving on, he mentions that there will be new James Bond, Tony Hawk, Spiderman, Transformers and Shrek games coming in 2010. Griffith also mentions Modern Warfare 2 and the Call of Duty series, stating that World at War has sold just as well as the original Modern Warfare had. That is a number that I, personally, am skeptical about, as Modern Warfare was, and still in, more popular than Treyarch‘s World at War, but, this is arguing semantics, as they are still part of the same series.

Griffith moves on to also talk about their newest racing IP, Blur, which is a mix between a realistic driving game and an arcade-like type. They don’t speak much about it, but during a trailer they show for it, they state, “the company wants it to do to racing games what Call of Duty did to shooters”. Racing games are a hard genre to get in to, as they appease to a smaller audience than many other games, such as shooters, and with the big racing titles still holding the market, such as Gran Turismo and Burnout Paradise, it will be intersting to see if Blur can penetrate the market at all.

Moving into the music game genre, they bring in Guitar Hero head Dan Rosensweig to speak. He, of course, mentions more of the Guitar Hero games, such as Guitar Hero Metallica, a PlayStation Portable version of Guitar Hero, an iPhone version of Guitar Hero and more. This is where I feel that they are milking the series for all that it’s worth. Now, this is not to say that they don’t have a successful franchise on their hands, and that there isn’t a potential market in the rest of these platforms, but there eventually reaches a point where you’ve made too much and gone too far. I’m interested in seeing where that line is in which people have played too much Guitar Hero, and just don’t care to want to pick up another version of it. Right now, it doesn’t seem like that line is nearby yet, but at the same time, loyal video game fans have begun to express their concern with the announcement of so many other Guitar Hero games being released. He continues by speaking about their newest music-based IP, DJ Hero, in which you play with a turntable controller. He confidently claims that they are proud to have signed Jay-Z and Eminem, for use of their music in this game. When I think DJ, I think more along the lines of trance music, such as Armin Van Buuren and Markus Schulz instead of rap artists, who they consider “hip-hop”, but still don’t have a good beat for DJing.

Following this, Blizzard’s Mike Morhaime is introduced and welcomed to the stage, and he begins by speaking about World of Warcraft, touting their subscriber numbers and record amounts of sales of their expansions, neither of which are surprising to anyone who knows anything about video games. The meat of the announcements surround StarCraft II though. The new, re-vamped Battle.net will release with Starcraft II, bringing back the multiplayer aspect to a whole new level once again. He explains that there will be a Beta test of Starcraft II coming later in the summer, and the company hopes that the game will be ready for an end-of-the-year release, though he makes sure to highlight the point that, “it will only ship once the game is done”.

The Press Conference is finished off with explanations of numbers, sales and business strategies and models that Activision Blizzard is using. Overall, this was an unsurprising press conference in my eyes, as they announced only what has already been announced previously for the most part. While they did show off a new trailer or two, and some gameplay footage of games like DJ Hero, I’m still not convinced by Activision Blizzard at the moment. Blizzard has always been a successful company, and I continue to see them rake in the profits for the company as a whole in the near future, and Activision is hanging in there by milking some of their most popular franchises for consumers to drink up, but I wonder if there will be an end to the seemingly endless inflow they’re been receiving. They stated that sales were up three-fold since three years ago, despite the rocky economy, but I wonder how much influence a game like World of Warcraft had on that number, or any other of Activision’s games other than Guitar Hero. None the less, with some big games coming by the end of this year and beginning of next year, they have a solid base to keep them going for time to come.

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