How did 2K Games buck the 2012 slump?

2K is enjoying a golden period on the back of Borderlands 2, NBA 2K13 and XCom: Enemy Unknown. The publisher’s president Christoph Hartmann discusses its recent success, next year’s BioShock Infinite and the future of consoles…

In a tough year for games, 2K?appears to have bucked the trend. What’s been the secret?

We focus on quality and we’re willing to take risks. Take how Firaxis did XCom, I don’t think other people would’ve done it. When you look at the first BioShock, Ken [Levine, franchise creator] is a superstar, everyone would sign him up, but I don’t know if they’d sign BioShock. Borderlands is the same. It’s an extreme experience, great developer but it doesn’t fit into that Call of Duty box.

So taking risks on things like XCom is the key?

Some people wouldn’t take the risk because they think the upside is limited. But that’s not true. It’d be like if the music industry decided not to have any alternative bands and movie studios decided there was no point in funding film festivals. Taking risks is where you find new talent and ideas. You can’t just go for the big things.

Developing console games is a costly experience. Taking risks is easier said than done.

There are these reports about how the industry is going down and whether the console is still a viable entertainment form for the future. I think our line-up shows that it is.

It all comes down to something good and fresh. I know the problem:?The bigger the risks are getting, the more nervous people are about whether it’s worth facing them. Everyone has to find a good balance between the risks you want to take and the risks you can afford to take. Not taking risks will be the only thing that kills this industry.

People want to be entertained and if they’re getting entertained by the same thing over and over, that’s just boring. That will be the only thing to make people turn away from console gaming. It’s not going to be the console experience because it’s a great, amazing experience.

Did the success of Borderlands 2 surprise you?

No. When you look at the last one and you look at the sales curve, it was actually a title that never really dropped off. It grew via word-of-mouth. The market was unaware for the first one so I expected Borderlands 2 to do much better. Obviously, I was aware of the quality of the title and how much effort Gearbox put into it. Timing also helped. I think we picked a very good window. Our marketing did a really good job and communicated things wisely and efficiently.

You released a Borderlands iOS game. Why do that? Do you want to do that for all your franchises?

The iOS market is very interesting. Obviously, everyone talks about it and the journalists write about it being the future, even though they’ve never looked at the numbers. It’s just impossible to have a title there which keeps up in any financial form with triple-A console games.

We want to work at having games out on every platform but we’re always carefully investing. That means we’re not doing iOS versions of any game. It needs to make sense because the market is flooded with titles. If we use an IP that was built for consoles on mobile, then I think we’d need it to work with the main game, or at least have the same values. We can’t just lift out one or two elements and putting it on mobile to try and cash in on the iOS market.

What about the free-to-play market? There was a recent article that said XCom would make a great free-to-play game.

Free-to-play works because League of Legends has worked very well, but it’s the same as someone quoting Angry Birds to show the potential of the iOS market. The marketplace is not as hot or as successful as it was a while ago. It is a good model but I think it will coexist with everything else out there.

There will always be something else that is hot for a while but everything seems to steer back to the console market after a certain period of time. Free-to-play is definitely something to watch, it’s definitely something we’re looking at. I don’t think it is the Holy Grail to change gaming and that everything will change from thereon in.

The future of games will definitely be more diversified and it’s not going to be as straightforward as just PC and two or three consoles and that’s it. There will be many more places for people to consume games and the upside is that more and more people will consume games. We’ve just got to figure out how to turn it into a viable business.

Why do you have so much faith in the console space?

During my entire working life, I’ve seen several ups and downs and people saying ‘is console gaming over?’ and then console games come back and grows again. The console will always be an apt platform to play high-end games. There’s free-to-play and iOS and they’re all getting better but you’ve got to play a super high-end game on the console.

I don’t believe in the death of the console market. The trouble has been keeping up with the joneses and making a Triple-A experience meant that development costs went up dramatically and the market didn’t keep up with growth. It’s our job as a publisher to figure out how to give people the same experience they demand whilst keeping up with the industry standard and keeping costs under control. We’ve been spoilt because before the development costs didn’t matter as much, it was really about creativity. Now, they matter. But it’s no different to any other industry.

What’s next for XCom? Where do you go from here?

The developers should be proud of what they’ve done, and the publisher also for supporting it and getting it to a commercially successful point. People are still in the stage of enjoying it and in a couple of weeks we’ll start thinking about how to move forward. I don’t want to rush it.

XCom, NBA and Borderlands generated a lot of critical plaudits. How important are review scores to the success of a game?

It makes a big impact. Look at the data. Take the Top Ten and put it against the Metacritic scores, you’ll see that there are few titles which didn’t score at least 80 and the big ones always score 90 or very close to that. There’s a direct correlation between the quality of the game and the sales numbers. Getting high scores is just a foundation. Without them, there’s no chance of being successful. Then it’s down to the market. Without great quality you will have no chance of success.

Licensed kids games have gone through a challenging time. THQ has backed out of the sector. But you’re continuing to push your Nickelodeon titles. What’s your take on the recent trends?

If you’re talking about the future of licensed titles, the future is really in kids’ games. Kids identify much more with brands and once they get hooked on something, they really get hooked on it. The demand for branded kids products and electronic entertainment, which we do with games for products like Dora the Explorer, is just growing. Of course as development costs go up, some people might say we should stop doing it. But the rising development costs are not Dora’s fault. There are many faults that Dora has, but the challenges in the market are not down to her.

Are you excited by Wii U?

Nintendo always impresses and surprises me. The team there has so much knowledge built up over many, many years. Nintendo always finds its crowd. There has been people doubting the Wii U because they don’t really understand it. I wasn’t sure about the Wii and I was proved wrong, proved wrong by my own people, which I like the most because we sold a lot of Carnival Games. I believe the Wii U offers something special and we will be surprised how consumers will get attached. There’s nothing in my body, not a single piece, doubting that the Wii U will be successful.

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