INTERVIEW: ChristophHartmann, 2KGames

Take-Two’s other publishing label is trying its hand at everything from boxed blockbusters to MMOs for Asia. 2K boss Christoph Hartmann discusses the firm’s initiatives with Christopher Dring.

MOTION SUPPORT

2K may be known for BioShock and Duke Nukem but the publisher is not just about the triple-A blockbusters. At E3 last month, the firm announced a string of projects for Kinect (Let’s Cheer, Nickelodeon Dance) and Move (NBA 2K11). Does 2K see these devices as ways to extend the console lifecycle?

Not at all,” says 2K president Christoph Hartmann. I don’t think they are avoiding doing another machine but testing the water. Rather than coming out and saying: ‘this is our console now,’ I think they are playing around and seeing what they can do. These guys know how to manufacture the chips or push the memory, the kind of thing you usually get with each new console generation. But now everyone is looking for innovation and at online components, so they are experimenting.

And it’s not been a case of just jumping on the Wii wagon – it’s been a case of learning about what Wii did and trying to take it somewhere.Look, when Microsoft made the first Xbox, I assume there were always plans for Xbox 360. It was just the first Xbox was the machine to get it there. Microsoft was new to the party, so they used Xbox 1 to test the water. It’s the same principle.”

BRINGING BACK XCOM

Last year 2K announced cult turn-based strategy series Xcom was to return – but this time as a first-person shooter. Fans recoiled at the apparent bastardisation of their beloved series, but Hartmann says there’s good reason for the change of direction.

He explains: The ‘90s generation of gamers all love Xcom and we own the IP, so we thought OK, what do we do with it? Every studio we had wanted to do it and each one had its own spin on it. But the problem was that turn-based strategy games were no longer the hottest thing on planet Earth. But this is not just a commercial thing – strategy games are just not contemporary.

I use the example of music artists. Look at someone old school like Ray Charles, if he would make music today it would still be Ray Charles but he would probably do it more in the style of Kanye West. Bringing Ray Charles back is all fine and good, but it just needs to move on, although the core essence will still be the same.

That’s what we are trying to do. To renew Xcom but in line with what this generation of gamers want. The team behind it is asking themselves every day: ‘Is it true to the values of the franchise?’ It’s not a case of cashing in on the name. We just need to renew it because times are changing.”

WHY BIOSHOCK 2 UNDERPERFORMED

Next year’s BioShock: Infinite is one of 2K’s most anticipated video games. However, 2010’s BioShock 2 failed to do the numbers the label was expecting.

Hartmann explains why: It was the publishing window. It was the spring of death. We shipped two weeks after Mass Effect 2. Every two weeks there was a major release so you had two weeks to sell. And if you look at the statistics of all of those titles, sales fell off a cliff for all of them after two weeks.

The window was really bad and it was a tough one. We were all shooting for autumn and all of us missed. So I think it was the window more than anything else because the critical ratings were good.”

EXPERIMENTING WITH BROWSERS, MMOs AND NEW PLATFORMS

2K has identified the Asian market as a major growth area, and has partnered with Tencent to create a basketball game, Nexon to develop a baseball title and XL Games to create an MMO (based on one of 2K Games’ major franchises) for the region. What was the thinking behind these partnerships?

We all know that browser and MMOs are a growing market and we need to be in it,” answers Hartmann.

It’s not just because people say we have to be there. When World of Warcraft was the one thing everyone talked about, we didn’t run out and say ‘We need an MMO.’ We just feel that this is an area where we can really add value and the Asian markets are growing dramatically.

But despite that growth, there’s a lack of experience in that market and we feel we can help improve the quality of their games. So they can learn from us, and of course we can learn from them – I don’t know how to run 5,000 servers. So these are good partnerships.”

2K is also investing in a number of other platforms, including streaming services, tablets and more.

Not necessarily everything will stick,” says Hartmann. It’s the same thing as if you have 10 new IPs. Not necessarily all of them will work, maybe six or seven will. It is good for the industry. There’s some power shifting, and some new business models but it’s all about growing mindshare and getting people to invest time in the game.”

2K SPORTS IN EUROPE

Aside from the popular Top Spin series, 2K’s Sports division isn’t well known outside of the US. Is it important for the label to grow across Europe?

I think you have to look at sports in general,” says Hartmann. North America is a much bigger market, the society is obsessed about sports, and there are three monster-big sports. In Europe it is all soccer. Every country has a little bit of this and that, Germany used to love Formula 1, but when Schumacher left that went away. Some countries are into tennis. But it is all soccer. There are already great games in this field out there. If someone has a good idea to give a new angle to soccer games that no one has thought of, and we think adds a lot of value, then hey, we’ll sign it up.

For me it is not about establishing 2K Sports in Europe, we just want to make great sports games. It is driven by the content. If there is a great opportunity in Europe then we will go after it. By the way, the numbers for our NBA game in Europe went up a lot. Based on that data, I think it went beyond the die-hard NBA fan and actually appealed to sports gamers looking for something different.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF NEW IP

2K is a company that has plethora of big brands, from BioShock, Civilization and Mafia, to Carnival Games and Duke Nukem. But the firm is continually investing in new IP. It’s a part of 2K that Hartmann is proud of, as he says pumping out sequels is one way to kill a franchise.

Our studios don’t want to do the same things all the time,” he says. I have seen so many franchises die because of poor quality or creativity running out. Not everything is meant to go on forever. You have to push yourself and build new things, there’s no way around it.

My vision for 2K is to be the Miramax of the early days, when you had all these great movies that won Oscars but were also commercially really successful. That’s what we want to do.

In the last generation of consoles, I remember walking around E3 and seeing nothing but WWII games. Everyone had one. Back then costs were much lower, but now the industry really has a problem with costs. I know we all like to play safe. But we should not just be competing for gamers because everyone can enjoy games. We should be competing with other things people spend time on, like email and Facebook. So we have to deliver new ideas and fresh ideas so that people spend time with us.

It is always a risk to put out a new IP, with so many strong players with established properties, but you have to, we have got to be different.We are about making great things, having fun and making money. Like life.”

Hartmann stresses the importance of building games that studios want to create, and not just assigning projects based on corporate planning.

I am not of the belief that you need to strategically move into genres because they are growin

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