Activision Mobile making phones, tablets a new focus

Pitfall, an "infinite runner" update to the Atari classic and first game from newly organized unit, available on iOS today.

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Activision made a successful business model out of focusing solely on what it does best, but so far, mobile gaming hasn't figured heavily into the equation. Activision Mobile means to change that, and its first step in that direction is available on the App Store today.

Pitfall for iOS is available today.
Pitfall for iOS is available today.

Pitfall, an "infinite runner" take on the classic Atari game, which will turn 30 this year, is a product of Activision Mobile and The Blast Furnace. The business unit and developer were formed by Activision to bring an in-house team with significant experience in the game industry to bear on the rapidly growing mobile market.

Activision Mobile vice president Greg Canessa said the publisher has had several successful efforts on phones and tablets, such as Call of Duty: Black Ops Zombies and Skylanders Cloud Patrol, but they were all "very ad hoc." Now, with a unified strategy in place and Activision's investment in mobile solidified, all that's left is to put out more games.

"We are going to be significant players in the mobile, tablet, and handheld space with an emphasis on microtransactions and premium games going forward," Canessa said in an interview with GameSpot. The business unit plans to capitalize on Activision's large repository of intellectual property to attract casual and hardcore players alike. Pitfall, the first game from The Blast Furnace, was a great first opportunity to update a known license with modern gameplay and familiar iconography, Canessa said.

"You won't find anybody working at Activision Mobile just porting the console experience and then emulating a couple of thumbsticks," said Gordon Hall, co-studio head of The Blast Furnace and chief creative officer of Activision Mobile. The developer, who founded what is now Rockstar Leeds, said the many novel methods of interacting with a mobile device like a phone or tablet make it much more than just a piece of glass to poke and prod. "That's a fantastic opportunity for reinvention. … Everything we do will be designed on mobile, for mobile, ground up."

But working in the mobile space presents its own problems. Different operating systems--such as iOS, Android, and Windows Phone--and a fragmented hardware base challenge developers who largely ditch old platforms as soon as new ones come along. But Hall thinks that's one way Activision Mobile can flex its muscle. Instead of not allowing old models of the iPod Touch to run Pitfall, for example, the game's graphics are scalable--dynamic shadows are automatically disabled and it runs fine, he said. "It's a barrier for people who haven't got the effort, the time, the power, or the resources to get over it, but it's another edge for us, as far as I can see. It's a hurdle, but it's an edge."

The new Pitfall is inspired by the likes of previously successful iOS games like Temple Run. But Hall hopes that his team's collective experience shows through in its polish and deviations--predictive controls, a carefully implemented dynamic camera, and vehicular sections to mix up play and "give the game a heartbeat"--and that the final product will give players excitement as well as "that little Zen-like state."

Activision CEO Bobby Kotick stressed in last week's investor call that his company's success comes largely from "doing a few things very well"--he didn't include phones or tablets in that list. But Canessa said that just means mobile is becoming one of those foci. "We view this to be very consistent with focusing on a few things and doing them well," he said. "This is one of the things we're focusing on now."

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