Touring the Depths of Activision’s Basement
When I was in high school and starting to consider games writing as a career, it was Dan Amrich’s podcast with Ryan McCaffrey during their stint at The Official Xbox Magazine that got me enthused enough to try my own little something with my friend Jeff Alyanak. The first (and admittedly TERRIBLE) GeneralGames.ca podcast aired in the fall of 2007 and my time as a hobbyist journalist began.
I’ve since moved on to bigger and better things, and so has Dan. Currently he’s community manager for Activision and exists within the monolithic corporation as a bit of an outlier, sidestepping some of the bureaucracy that can weigh a big company like Activision down while acting as a voice for the players within the office. Where other PR and community managers have been at least a little wary of letting a hobo into their den of secrets, Dan welcomed me with open arms and gave me an amazing tour of Activision’s Santa Monica headquarters and the neighboring home of Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Treyarch Studios.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer volume of money-making titles Activision puts out. The minute you walk into the lobby you’re greeted by posters, marquees and point-of-purchase displays for games like Skylanders, Call of Duty, and Diablo III. Activision is undoubtedly the biggest force in the third-party publishing world and it’s all headed by the sometimes contentious Bobby Kotick, who I had the good fortune to bump into – literally – during an awkward restroom encounter (don’t worry, there was no splash damage).
Activision is also an old company, so old that unlike most offices that keep their industry awards locked up in a glass cabinet, they’re casually scattered about the 3-floor headquarters reminding you of the history behind their most acclaimed titles every few feet. There’s decades worth of material littered about the space and I found myself constantly having flashbacks to my childhood whenever I’d see something I thought I’d long forgotten.
With no developers actually residing in the office, the building is dedicated to the decision-making, marketing, and management departments of the company. The title-specific producers working as liaisons between external developers like Radical (Prototype 2) or High Moon (Transformers: Fall of Cybertron) and Activision are the closest thing to game makers in the building, but it takes a lot of folks to market and distribute titles, especially for a company as massive as Activision.
Our tour took us through the various wings of the building, the most interesting of which may have actually been Dan’s office littered with old Activision Atari titles (he also happened to be wearing a matching Pitfall shirt), an assortment of Guitar Hero controllers, and an original marquee from Joust. What’s interesting about the office, which doubles as a recording studio for his weekly podcast, is that he’s technically not supposed to have it. Not being a director of anything, Dan lobbied for the space so he could create content for Activision’s players behind quiet closed doors without the hustle and bustle of the office in the background, exemplifying once again his very unique position within the company.
As we were saying our goodbyes at the end of the tour, Dan thought it wise to show me one last area of the building; the basement. Though it was once a prominently used QA testing area (it still is if I’m not mistaken), it has slowly been filled with random bits of Activision history (read: junk) that’s just too interesting not to look at.
Between skids full of ancient PS2 development kits and storyboards for long-forgotten commercials one can find all sorts of strangeness here. Whether it’s the source discs for the Gamecube port of the Pitfall! revamp or left-over door hangers from some quarterly corporate meeting advertising Quantum of Solace, there’s a lot of obscure and historically insignificant things to be found.
My favourite of the basement treasures had to be the lone arcade machine that sat in the corner near the freight elevator. With one red joystick, three buttons and two player select buttons, it was the most generic looking cabinet I’d ever seen. The marquee reading “VIDEOGAME” and the flavorless cabinet art only helped add to its simplicity. Dan explained that the machine was one of the original Jamma arcade machines and was one of the first to feature swappable chipsets allowing owners to change games within the cabinet rather than replacing them.
It’s no wonder Dan is so good at his job, having been in the industry long enough to know everything he’s got interesting tidbits of information about nearly anything you can come across in a half-warehouse, half-office environment like the Activision HQ. He likes to joke that the seemingly disorganized (and in some places broken down) parts of the building are proof that Activision puts all its billions of dollars right back into the games, but considering the sheer amount of content that office puts out, it might not be far from the truth.