Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg spoke to TIME exclusively about the company’s new toys-to-life game Skylanders: Imaginators, why it’s not bringing the game to mobile devices this time and the vibrance of the toys-to-life category in the wake of a major rival’s surprise exit. (Additionally, our hands-on with Imaginators is here, and our interview with Toys for Bob cofounder and CEO Paul Reiche is here.)
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
TIME: Imaginators feels like a much bolder move, because you’re ceding authorship of a franchise tenet.
Hirshberg: This has been sort of our white whale idea from the beginning. When we first launched Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure . . . There’s something about this franchise that feels infinite to kids, that feels like there are infinite possibilities. And I think it’s unique when you look at other franchises. I’ve never heard a kid say ‘There should be an Avenger that does blank.’ I’ve never heard a kid say ‘There should be a Jedi that does blank.’ Those characters seem somehow set in stone, and set by other narratives, whereas Skylanders has this sense of infinite possibilities. And kids tapped into that very early.
From the first day that we’ve been in business with this franchise we’ve been getting these drawings from kids, that literally they all started letters that begin ‘You should make a Skylander that does blank.’ And then they’re incredibly imaginative, they’re usually accompanied by a drawing, they’re usually accompanied by pretty dazzlingly in-depth thinking and creativity. And so from that point forward, Paul [Reiche] and Fred [Ford] and I and the others who have been with this thing from the beginning have been talking about how we could unleash kids’ imaginations and give them a toolset to express themselves in this universe. We finally have the answer this year.
Who came to whom with the idea to do this now?
It’s a team effort, and there’s incredible creative vision with the team at Toys for Bob and the team at Vicarious Vision, each of whom has brought their own imprimatur to the games. And of course there are people here who have been with the franchise from the very beginning who play a big role in our creative process. So it is truly a jazz ensemble of creative thinkers.
I know that just after Trap Team, that’s when we green lit this game officially, because these games are made on a two-year cycle. But I know that the idea for it has been in conversations going back to the very beginning, when we saw kids sending us these letters.
I’ll give you a personal story. In the year of the wake of the launch of Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, my youngest son wrote a poem called “If I were a Skylander.” And he described all the powers that he would have, and his Skylander was called Icebreaker, he could skate on land, and he belched ice blocks and had all these great powers. And as a birthday present I sent that poem up to Paul and a gentleman named I-Wei Huang, who’s our lead character designer at Toys for Bob. And I asked I-Wei if he would do a drawing for me of that character. And to this day, that framed picture along with the poem still hangs on my son’s wall.
So from the very beginning, we’ve all had a front row seat to the way this franchise unlocks kids’ imaginations, the way they think about possibilities and powers and creativity when they play this game.
I was expecting the pitch to be more like ‘So we went from one toy to two toys on the portal last year, and this year we’re squeezing on three!’ And then I saw the kids’ pictures on the table, and it’s interesting because I have a son who’s about to turn four…
At four he’s right on the edge of being able to master the controls. That’s how old my youngest was when it started. And I think the story I told you, that happened when he was five.
I wonder about that disparity between some of us who cover the category who tend to be older and the younger target demographic. I confess my engagement with the toys-to-life category feels different now that I’ve started playing with my son.
I don’t know whether it’s coincidence or causality, but there are a number of people who’ve been working on the Skylanders brand either from the beginning or for a long while who do have kids kind of in that age zone. I think we all have these wonderful focus group room in our houses, where we take things home and we get feedback. And it’s amazingly consistent. Take the things that tend to resonate in my house. I’ll come into the office and say ‘My kids really respond to x, y or z.’ And all the other parents from very diverse backgrounds, very diverse points of view, they’ll say ‘Yeah, that’s the same one that popped in our house, too.’
Whether we’re talking about names or character designs or concepts, we all kind of use the kids in our lives as touchstones. And we all would like to think that we’re in touch with our inner kids. Some of us are obviously more than others, and I think that’s a talent some people possess. And yet even those among us who we feel are the most in touch with their inner kid, you still get surprised by the things kids say, by the ways kids think, by the way kids respond to different things.
At the same time, we have also been careful from the beginning to strike a balance . . . There are certain properties in the world that have done this we’re inspired by, that resonate with kids, but that are also fun for adults. Whether that’s humor laced in that will mean something to the parents that the kids might not understand, or whether it’s designing the gameplay to be simple for kids but satisfying and challenging for adults as well. We’ve always tried to make this an experience that, if not something parents would go out and buy on their own, at least something they’ll want to do with their kids and enjoy and not feel like torture, like a lot of kid’s content is when it’s being consumed in the house.
You’ve dropped tablet and mobile phone support with Imaginators. Why?
I think those games we put out [Skylanders: Trap Team and Skylanders: Superchargers] where we ported the full console experience to the tablet were very well executed. And they were an attempt to do something that’s pretty rare in this world, which is change consumer behavior. People don’t buy iPad games in a toy store, they buy them in an app store. We realized that technologically our engineers were able to deliver a fairly compelling complete experience à la the console game on the tablet. So we figured why not try to see if there’s an appetite for this and change behavior.
As I’ve said, changing consumer behavior is a very rare and difficult thing. And the bottom line is, when you look at the top 100 games on that platform, I think 99 of them are free-to-play games with a game design that’s indigenous to that platform, that works on glass, that has all the properties of a great mobile game. And that’s very different from what makes a great console game or a great PC game.
So the bottom line is I think we did something innovative and high quality, and maybe it was ahead of its time. But at least at the moment, there hasn’t been a big market for it. But you’ve also seen hopefully that we are continuing to experiment with the Skylanders brand and franchise on mobile. We launched a new ground-up made for mobile game on May 24 called Skylanders: Battlecast. It’s a card battle game, but you have the option of collecting the cards either digitally or physically. And the physical cards come to life in the same way that the toys come to life, just using the camera and augmented reality so the characters literally pop out of the cards. So we’re continuing to experiment to see if we can find our voice for Skylanders on the mobile platform and you’ll see more of that from us as well.
It’s interesting in the wake of all these years of predictions that mobile was this Borg-ian thing, and that established platforms were doomed.
I notice media narratives often misperceive that any new innovation or disruption must lay waste to that which came before it. It’s actually very rarely been true. Usually new experiences and new technologies tend to find new markets and new audiences, and I think that’s what’s happened with mobile gaming. Console gaming is growing faster than ever. This console cycle is off to a tremendous start for both Sony and Microsoft. And I think that there’s always a market for great content. Each platform does different things well.
We’re trying to find our voice in different areas and continuing to experiment and innovate, which has been one of the things that we’ve stayed committed to from the very beginning. We’ve never just put out the same game with new characters. We’ve always found a new way to put a twist on the genre. I would opine that Imaginators is our biggest twist yet, that you know, games like Trap Team where you could pull a villain out and play with the villain, or Swap Force where you could mix and match parts of the toys, were great steps forward. But I would argue that turning the creative toolset and palette over to kids, then letting them realize these characters and then play with these characters is a pretty big step forward, and maybe the biggest innovation since the original idea of bringing toys to life itself.
Given what just happened with Disney unexpectedly shuttering its Disney Infinity line of toy-games, what would you say to worries there’s a market saturation or viability issue looming for the toys-to-life category?
I certainly can’t comment on Disney’s business, so that’s a good question to ask them, and they’ve obviously got good reasons for making the decision they did. What I will say is, we’ve said publicly that some of our more recent games haven’t met our expectations, and yet we’re still here making games, so we obviously still believe in the potential. We created the category, and Skylanders is now the 11th most successful game franchise of all time after just five years.
I feel like there’s a core mashup of mechanics that could very well stand the test of time—that kids have been playing with toys forever, and kids have been interested in video games forever, and that we had found this very powerful way to bring them both together. Now in any given year, there are going to be forces beyond any single competitor’s control. How much competition there is, what the platform dynamics are, how quickly kids are adopting new consoles, how steep is the drop-off of them buying software for legacy consoles, et cetera. And any snapshot at any moment in time can paint a particular picture. We remain confident that there is something fundamentally appealing here in this genre, and that our best strategy is to try to make the best, most innovative games in that genre.
The other thing you’re seeing us do as a company is taking the brand on a true trans-media path, where we have a TV show that’s coming out this year that’s incredibly delightful and well-executed and not only captures the spirit and the humor and the creativity of the franchise, but makes it maybe appealing to an even broader audience. We talked earlier about some of our efforts in mobile games. We’ve got a great licensing program, and we’ve got a great footprint in consoles. So what we’re trying to do is make this a ubiquitous franchise and character set that matters in the culture for kids, and that you can interact with and consume in multiple ways.