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Kotick: "We give people freedom to fail"

Activision boss on how he rewards staff.

Oft-demonised Activision boss Bobby Kotick has outlined a few of the ways in which the publisher attempts to encourage and reward innovation within its ranks.

Speaking in an interview with Forbes, Kotick explained that one of the company's key strategies was to allow staff to experiment, fail and then learn from their mistakes.

"The most important thing we do to encourage innovation is give people the freedom to fail," he explained.

"And I think you can articulate that and establish that as a value in a lot of different ways. I don't want to say celebrate the failures, but in a lot of respects it's sort of that.

"We have what we call the post mortem process, really evaluating what is it that caused an outcome not to be aligned to the original expectation."

He added that Activision has an internal initiative set up to reward innovation and hard work among its staff.

"So if you create a great game like Modern Warfare 3, which is coming out this fall, or Call of Duty: Black Ops, the entire team will make tens and tens of millions of dollars. And then the head of the studio that made the game gets to determine how to allocate the rewards, there's a big pool that comes to them, and they allocate to the rest of the team members.

"One of the criteria that they're going to use to make those allocation determinations is who came up with a great new idea.

"And I as the CEO have a separate, few million dollar fund that I can use for a spot bonus, to reward a really great idea."

Kotick was coy when pushed for a specific example, though did recount the tale of how he once surprised a few team members with a new TV.

"I was taking a tour of one of the studios, and they had just moved into a new building, and there was a group of five people in a pod. In this case they were doing cinematics, and cinematics is a very visual part of what we do.

"I went into their little cube area, and said, 'What are you guys working on?', and they showed me what they were doing on a little 18-inch monitor.

"And they had their cubes – everybody gets to decorate their environments however they choose – and their cube was set up with a fake fireplace that had a little gas fire, and had a couch and a coffee table," he continued.

"I was sitting there and I said, 'You're really missing the big screen TV, it would go well with the décor, but also to show people cinematics, you really want a big screen TV.' And they were like, 'Yeah, we haven't gotten to that yet.' So the next day I sent over a big 65-inch flat panel TV.

"Even though we can do the spot bonuses for innovation, those kinds of things sometimes have more of an impact on people than a reward for a specific technology."

Elsewhere in the interview he explained how Activision generally tried to "promote from within" to reward loyalty.

"You know, we have really really long tenure, the people who come to Activision generally stay for a really long time. So we have a long history of seeing who’s performed and who’s been successful in developing new innovative ideas, and we would generally try and promote from within."

That said, Kotick also revealed what happens if a team loses focus, citing the example of an unnamed open world action title that it cancelled recently.

"In one case we were doing a game that was more of an open world Grand Theft Auto style game, something that our company had aspired to build just a little bit more audience friendly, not as violent as Grand Theft Auto, but more focused on the driving and the fighting, and less about the profanity. And so it wouldn't have been as controversial content, but really great dynamic in the game play.

"We recognised that after giving it a good college try for three years we didn't have the skills at the company to do that type of game, so we canceled it.

"And I think that it was a demonstration to the organisation that focus is going to get rewarded, and that if you can't after a sustained period of time get to that level of excellence, then we're going to have to make a change."

Might he be referring to United Front's recently euthanased True Crime: Hong Kong?

Of course, United Front isn't the only team to have felt the sharp end of Activision's stick of late. Bizarre Creations, Budcat, 7 Studios, RedOctane and Luxoflux have all been shut by the publisher since January 2010, with significant job cuts reported at Vicarious Visions and Freestyle Games earlier this year.

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