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Activision Publishing CEO talks Black Ops (Q&A)

Eric Hirshberg chats with CNET about the record-breaking sales figures for Call of Duty: Black Ops, and what it means to the venerable franchise.

Activision released sales figures yesterday that showed Black Ops, the latest release in the Call of Duty franchise, tallied over $650 million in revenue during the game's first five days of availability. That figure easily bested the previous record of $550 million set by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

But with two years of record-breaking launches under its belt, the onus is now on Activision to deliver high-quality and perhaps most importantly, fast-selling, titles each and every year. And no one understands that pressure better than Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg, who heads up the Activision side of the larger Activision Blizzard company. Although he only joined Activision in September, making this is his first experience with a Call of Duty release, it will be up to him to lead Activision forward with the hope of maintaining the franchise's success.

Hirshberg took some time yesterday to chat with CNET about Black Ops and where the Call of Duty franchise could be headed in the coming years. He also touched on the impact Modern Warfare 2 might have had on the sales of Black Ops this year.

Read on to see an edited transcript from that conversation.

Q: What does the strong sales showing for Black Ops say about the Call of Duty franchise?
Hirshberg: It says that it's stronger and healthier than ever, and that more and more people are attracted to the franchise and want to get involved in it. So much of the gaming industry has to do with interactive experiences and online experiences. And so, big blockbuster releases are great, but really they're just the beginning of a process of community building and providing a constant stream of new experiences and digital experiences that keep people engaged with a game for longer than ever. The issue when you buy a video game is that you're engaged with it for a couple weeks or a couple months and then you're done with it. But now what we're hearing is that we're creating a really lasting online community.

Call of Duty: Black Ops reigns supreme in the gaming space.
Call of Duty: Black Ops reigns supreme in the gaming space. Activision

Do you think the success of Modern Warfare 2 helped Black Ops set a new record this year?
Hirshberg: I think that it cuts both ways. On one hand, Modern Warfare 2 gave us a tremendous amount of momentum and built a tremendous fan base. On the other hand, it created a tremendous amount of scrutiny and pressure for Black Ops to deliver the world-class experience it should have. So, I think when you have that kind of lead-in, you are more scrutinized and you have a higher bar to get over in your execution. And the thing that we're most thrilled about is that Treyarch (the game developer) delivered a world-class game experience.

Based on that, for the next Call of Duty game, do you think Treyarch's title will then help contribute to sales of the next game? Do you think this will be a common thread going forward where title after title in the franchise has to build upon the last release?
Hirshberg: Of course it gives the franchise tremendous momentum and a tremendous fan base of people who are already a part of it. At the same time, you have to constantly get over the highest possible bar of expectations, which is exactly what we plan on doing. And we have unprecedented resources placed against this franchise to make sure that's exactly what we do going forward--continuing to innovate and deliver best-in-class experiences to our fans.

Activision says Black Ops had the biggest launch in entertainment history, beating out books and movies. Do you think that's an unfair comparison, simply because movie tickets and books are much cheaper than a single game unit?
Hirshberg: Well, certainly if you're going to divide it by pure headcount, then it's not a fair comparison. But I think that [Black Ops] costs $60 and people are willing to pay it is quite compelling. At this moment, people are reaching into their pockets to spend $60 as infrequently as possible. So, the fact that people see so much value and so much entertainment quality with this product that it would justify that price is very compelling.

More Call of Duty: Black Ops action.
Call of Duty: Black Ops action. Activision

What do you think was the principal reason consumers bought this game? Was it the single-player campaign? Was it the multiplayer?
Hirshberg: I think it's a combination. I think first of all, there is a growing, passionate, engaged community surrounding this game, and it is ongoing. The usage of Modern Warfare 2 a year after its release was almost as intense as the day it was released, and we expect the same thing to happen with Black Ops. So, there are people who are really engaged and enthused about participating in this community. I also think that Black Ops set a new high watermark for the story and the cinematic value of the game. If you read a lot of the reviews, a lot of them focus on that. You're doing more than just playing a series of gaming events, you're really participating in a narrative arc and a cinematic experience. You care about the characters, you care about what happens next, and it moves you along through a narrative experience that few games have. And I think that as motion-capture technology and production values continue to rise, that storytelling element becomes more and more important, as do recurring characters that you have a relationship with.

Where does the franchise go from here? Will the series continue to choose a single period and drill-down into it with each new release?
Hirshberg: Well, I don't want to comment on future releases, since we're very focused on Black Ops. But I will tell you that you got it right. There are a number of different ways to immerse people in an experience of battle. And the signature of Call of Duty is that sense of individuals' contribution to these campaigns. It's about individual bravery and experiencing that on a very human level. So, we're going to continue to tell stories that allow us to do that.