Activision are celebrating 25 years in the Video Games Business this year, and their strong position in the area (only EA out does Activision) means that with the American company on board, Nokia have one of the most well known and respected names in the gaming field. Since the launch of the N-Gage, with the Tony Hawk franchise, the relaunch as the QD, and the lead up to Christmas, Activision have some pretty tasty N-Gage titles to choose from. I caught up with Dave Anderson, one of Activision's Senior Directors, to find out more...
A Bit Of History
Activision have come a long way since the company was started in 1979. Then it was four programmers leaving Atari and starting up one of the first third-party development houses. They made their name in the 8-bit markets of the ZX Spectrums, Commodores and Atari 2600's, and progressing to be one of the leading publishers for the Amiga and ST 16-bit machines. Then it went a bit pear shaped, as they went into (reorganisation and filing).
It wasn't the end though, as their current CEO, Bobby Kodak put together a small team to lead the company out of Filing, and steer them onto their present direction. Firstly focusing on the (then in its infancy) PC Gaming market, and moving to support the home consoles of Sony and Nintendo, Activision have remained, at their core, a "Traditional Video Game Publisher."
This slow build up has led to being the number two third party publisher in the world, and as the gaming world starts to embrace more mobile and wireless gaming devices, Activision are continually assessing the emerging technology.
Looking at the N-Gage
When Nokia showed up with the prototype N-Gage's, they knew that here was a device that was going to go places. Dave explained what they liked. "It was a progressive device, with the capability to do 3D. It had technology that was so much further along than any other mobile device on the market, and that included the Gameboy Advance. The graphics were really pushing the envelope."
"Nokia are one of the major global players, and we could see that they had a commitment in terms of resources and funding that most start-ups just don't have. What they were going to do was make a very large contribution to the mobile space."
"When we first saw the prototype N-Gage we did mention the obvious flaws, such as having to removing the battery (and the cover) to swap out the MMC cards. Along with, I'm sure, the other published, we did let Nokia know our views on the device from a consumer gaming device. The changes they've made to the QD pretty much mirror our comments, and the comments from the rest of the industry"
Coming to the N-Gage from devices such as the X-Box and Playstation Two, are Activision finding the development process on the N-Gage any different to its less mobile counterparts? "There are fundamental similarities in game design and concept," agrees David, "but from that starting point, things need to be scaled to be suitable for the device and the platform. Some offshoots will crop up, for example the number of levels, and these are all considerations of the device. Designing for a mobile platform means you need to be careful of the lower amounts of memory available compared to the consoles, for example. In general though, at Activision we like to achieve a certain amount of symmetry over all the platforms in our key brands." So Tony Hawk should play and be controlled in a roughly similar manner on the Playstation to the N-Gage then? "Yes. The brand of a game must be upheld over everything else, over every platform."
Tony Hawk Files Through The Air
Activision had arguably the stand out launch title on the launch of the N-Gage with Tony Hawk Pro Skater. Given the N-Gage wasn't just a new device, but a new genre, and it could potentially sell only four hundred units in the run up to Christmas, were you at all worried about committing such a strong brand as Tony Hawk to the platform? "Lots of faith would be the simple answer", replies Dave, with almost no hesitation. " The ergonomics and features on the N-Gage was a good fit for Tony Hawk." So it would uphold the brand then? "Yes. Alongside that, the Developers took advantage of some of their competencies as well. Everything was just a good fit. Put simply, we believed Nokia."
You're not going to tell me any sales figures are you? Dave shakes his head with a smile, "we're not going to disclose any sales numbers or revenue, but what I can say is that working with the N-Gage has been a financial success for Activision. Developing titles for the N-Gage does cost a little bit more than an equivalent title for the Gameboy Advance, but the N-Gage is a superior platform as I said. In term so the size of the development team, they're roughly the same, but the development time is a bit longer, with nine months being a fair estimate for an N-Gage title.
We do feel the arrangement with Nokia has been worthwhile, and we're excited not only for the new titles we'll be releasing in 2005 for the N-Gage, but also for sales of the N-Gage QD.
Where do you see the difference between Nokia and Nintendo? Dave takes his time thinking about this one. "Nintendo have been there and done a lot in the mobile handheld market. They're the incumbent champion, if you will. It's encouraging from our point of view to see Nokia positioning the N-Gage at an older demographic than Nintendo typically reaches. We saw a clear route through the N-Gage to get onboard, sell more units, and extend the reach of our core brands. Another viable company entering the mobile space is encouraging for the market as a whole."
"Of course now we have the Sony Playstation Portable coming, with a lot of similar features to the N-Gage, such as wireless multiplayer, and Sony are pushing that towards the same demographic." Do you think that it's a case of winner takes all between the two companies? "No, there's definitely space for both companies to thrive. It'll be interesting to see how those two play together in the market. Nokia are big enough to take on Sony and put their best Finnish foot forwards."
The Christmas 2004 Titles
2004 Q4 sees a large number of N-Gage titles being released in the run up to Christmas. Activision have two titles that are definitely anticipated, with Call of Duty and X-Men Legends being high on my Christmas list. Looking at all of Duty first, I asked Dave first about their Second World War based title.
"Call of Duty is a great opportunity for us to do a first person shooter title. We've already done this to a limited degree with the Gameboy Advance and Doom."
Fact fans should note that the Developer House who did Doom 2 on the GBA was Torus... who went on to code Ashen as an in-house N-Gage title for Nokia.
But Dave continues, "The game is on a different level to any other first person shooter on a mobile device. Of course a lot of that is due to the better technology on the hardware. No matter, though, because the user experience is great." Has Dave actually played a final version yet? "Not yet no, but I've played every major build we've done and watched it improve. It's compelling, it plays really well, and it should be a massive hit." And feel just like the other versions of Call to Duty if Activision's care of brand names is anything to
The other Q4 title is "X-Men Legends," an isometric adventure with the Marvel Characters. There seem to be a lot more "thinking" games coming out now for the N-Gage. Is this down to researching the typical N-Gage User? "Of course. There is a need to scale any offering we make to the market, and X-Men Legends is, if you pardon the pun, something a bit more engaging than other N-Gage titles."
What about some of the online features that you're promising for X-Men? "You'll be able to new characters and new scenarios through the N-Gage Arena." So you'll be able to constantly update the game? "I wouldn't go that far, but there is a certain longevity to this title that uses the Arena functions to achieve this."
Dave's already pointed out that Activision continue to asses emerging platforms, and while the Gizmondo is still being assessed, the Tapwave Zodiac is going to have Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4 available for it. I asked if Activision had considered the other Series 60 devices out there? Are they considering anything with downloadable Java games?
We are a traditional video game publisher, broadening slowly. In terms of creating mini Java games, we're assessing opportunities, and we've worked with other partners such as Jamdat (On Tony Hawk 4 and Tony Hawk Underground) which gets these titles out to the Java/Brew market and ultimately onto Series 60 devices. We are optimistic, but we've no infrastructure supporting it. we're happy in these co-publishing ventures for the moment.
And finally, Activision are sticking with the N-Gage, aren't they? "Yes absolutely. We've got more titles due out in 2005 that haven't been announced yet, all from solid licences that have done spectacularly well on other platforms."
Dave, it's been great to hear more about what goes on "behind the scenes" at a company like Activision, thanks for your time today.