Between DICE taking place last week and Tim Schafer successfully turning to Kickstarter to fund a Double Fine-developed graphic adventure, there has been a lot of talk recently about the role publishers serve in the videogame industry. There is the belief among many people that publishers do little more than stifle innovation, a suggestion Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg takes issue with.

During a panel at DICE, Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter made the case that today’s publishing model isn’t good for for the industry. Publishers are opposed to risks and many shy away from bringing out games unlikely to sell millions of units, he said, also adding, “We are getting fewer choices as consumers because financial guys are taking over. Financial guys are making the decisions.”

Research group EEDAR’s Jesse Divnich countered that publishers allow for innovation to be brought to gamers. “Innovation doesn’t occur at the publisher level, but they do put it in front of a mass market so that [the masses] can experience it,” he said. “Your Limbos, Braids, Bastions — those games wouldn’t have been successful without a publisher.”

The latter is a sentiment Hirshberg would likely appreciate. Speaking with Gamasutra, he argued, “I didn’t see the panel, but there are two things. One, we were one of the few publishers that launched a new intellectual property [Skylanders] this year, and not only launched it well, but in the top 10 games of the year. And we launched a fairly ambitious and entrepreneurial digital service for our Call of Duty community that took two years to develop, that there was no proven model for.

“It’s simply a fallacy to say that we’re not innovating, or that we’re not attempting to bring new IP and new ideas to the industry. What we are doing is making those choices very carefully, and focusing on areas where we think we have something unique to contribute, and a real competitive advantage.”

Activision has moved towards supporting fewer titles, but each of those tends to be much bigger than the average game we’ve seen in the past (Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, etc.). Hirshberg said this is a result of what gamers are doing, where they “are voluntarily spending more and more time with the games that they love, and that by nature drives you to innovate within those franchises, as opposed to maybe the behavior we saw a few years ago, where people grazed more, and sampled things from many different categories, and moved on. Now you have really long-standing relationships between gamers and the games that they love, and to an extent, we’re responding to that behavior.”

Call of Duty Elite

It’s hardly going out on a limb to suggest Activision is smart for having gone in the direction it has given its phenomenal financial success, but I do think it does not deserve to be accused of lacking innovation. Risk averse, sure, and calculating in a way that can be frustrating to a segment of gamers, but a lack of innovation doesn’t seem correct. Skylanders is a hell of an idea and has rightly made the company a great deal of money. Call of Duty Elite is really smart — there exists a market of gamers who buy a game or two year and are clamoring for more Call of Duty content to play until the next one is available. And there are clearly people willing to pay for that content, as evidenced by there being more than 1.5 million paying Elite subscribers (even though many of the franchise’s haters would like to think paying for new content is… foolish, to put it kindly). Even Electronic Arts has admitted on more than one occasion that Activision did well with Elite.

It’s not surprising Activision is accused of this sort of thing; it has undeniably done things to draw the ire of gamers such as refusing to publish low-margin games or those that can’t be “exploited” on an annual basis. It’s one thing to approach publishing in such a manner, and you could argue it is simply good business, but given the way it attempted to block the release of Brutal Legend by filing a lawsuit it’s easy to see why many gamers have an anti-Activision attitude. Even Double Fine’s Tim Schafer, who once famously called Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick a “total prick” (by accident, mind you), seems to still hold somewhat of a grudge even when defending publishers in general.

“I’m not vilifying or saying publishers are evil, or that they’re not doing what they should be doing,” he told IndustryGamers. “It’s just it’s inherent in that set up that they risk a lot of their own money and, therefore, they need to invest in mitigating that risk and there’s a cost or a burden with that risk mitigation that affects development in a negative way. But I don’t think that they’re jerks — well some of them are, the ones that sue us. But, there are great people at the publishers, they’re making a lot of money, they’re doing the right thing for themselves.”

There are other reasons for the anti-Activision sentiment among gamers, namely the way many would argue it ran Guitar Hero into the ground by insisting upon annual retail releases. Even when it was apparent downloadable content could have more than sufficed, boxed products — complete with all the plastic hardware — were released year after year until the band genre had been played out. Some would say the same thing is bound to happen with Call of Duty, although with each new iteration topping the previous year’s sales records, there are no signs of that happening yet.

I do wish Double Fine, for instance, had a choice other than resorting to asking fans for help to fund an adventure game and that a company like Activision would be more willing to back a game which might not have annualized franchise potential. But between Elite and Skylanders, I think it’s hard to claim Activision is completely against innovation — that innovation just needs to have moneymaker potential.

By Chris Pereira