A company typically shy of talking to the press, Take-Two also had a relatively low-key presence at E3 last week. Apart from the announcement of a new PlayStation 3 exclusive title, the publisher decided to remain in the background, showing games to only a handful of analysts and industry insiders (BioShock 2, Mafia II and Red Dead Redemption are all turning heads, apparently).
In this exclusive interview with GamesIndustry.biz, CEO and president Ben Feder spent some time to discuss the exclusivity deal with Sony, how downloadable content is improving sales of its biggest franchise, Grand Theft Auto, and how the newly-unveiled motion technology from Sony and Microsoft can inspire a new wave of innovation from games creators.
Q: You didn't have a big presence at E3 this year, but you surprised everybody with the announcement of Agent for the PlayStation 3 – has Rockstar North been working on that title for long?
Ben Feder: We can't really say too much about it, unfortunately. The game, like anything from Rockstar North, is going to be very, very cool. It's going to push the edge, it will be genre-defining. We think it's going to be a whole new way of experiencing videogames that we haven't really seen before.
Q: And it's a full boxed title or a downloadable game for PSN?
Ben Feder: It'll be a full boxed game.
Q: Why go with Sony as a PlayStation exclusive?
Ben Feder: We have a lot of respect for Sony, we have a lot of business relationships with Sony. The PlayStation 3 platform is well suited for the title. There are all sorts of business reasons for it, but we're just pleased to bring it to a Sony platform.
Q: But don't you limit your audience by opting for one console over another?
Ben Feder: Exclusives do work when you look at the bottom line and think about all of the positives and negatives, the pros and the cons of doing an exclusive. They do work, even in this environment and even at this stage of the cycle.
Q: And you're happy for a new project from one of the most highly-regarded development teams to only appear on the PS3?
Ben Feder: I would say Rockstar are highly skilled and highly talented. I'd say they are probably the best development team on the planet.
Q: So what are the pros and cons of doing an exclusive with Sony?
Ben Feder: The trade off typically is that on the one hand if you don't go exclusive you get access to a larger installed base, but if you do go exclusive you get the support of first-party in a way that you wouldn't usually expect to. In addition to the buzz, and the exclusivity itself drives that buzz around the game. A lot of the time we don't go for exclusives, but sometimes we do.
Q: So you're saying it helps new IP in particular to get that extra marketing support given to exclusive titles?
Ben Feder: I'm saying when you're introducing new titles and new franchises, the trade off between marketing support on one hand and installed base on the other – it's important when you're developing a new franchise to get the right kind of support for that title. We think Sony is the right partner for this title.
Q: Do you have a release window for Agent?
Ben Feder: We haven't disclosed a release window yet, but when we do we'll make that clear with the market. I'm happy about the excitement it's creating because it's going to be a really cool title.
Q: When you released the exclusive DLC for Grand Theft Auto IV, did you see a significant rise in sales for the boxed game at retail?
Ben Feder: Typically, when we launch a new title we see almost the entire catalogue show an improvement with sales. We saw that with the initial Grand Theft Auto IV release, not only did GTA IV sell well but also GTA: San Andreas, GTA: Vice City and some of the other GTA titles because the awareness is up and people are excited about the franchise all over again.
One of the great gifts of GTA is that it never seems to get old. On all platforms, it never gets old. And we see the same thing with downloadable content. It's not just GTA IV but the entire Grand Theft Auto franchise saw an uplift in sales. But that's less important to us generally than making sure the users have access to the game and make sure they get the best experience of the game. The Ballad of Gay Tony, The Lost and the Damned, and now the boxed set that's going to be available with both episodes without the need for the original GTA IV – we think it's the best way to get the GTA experience into the hands of consumers in as many ways as possible.
Q: How's the DLC model working out for Take-Two? It's still a relatively new business model, a new way of delivering games, and each publisher and format-holder seems to be approaching it differently.
Ben Feder: I think you have it exactly right. Everybody is trying different things. Our goal is to be a pioneer and an innovator in the market and it's one of the reason we went exclusive with the Grand Theft Auto IV episodes for download. We want to test the market, we want to see where the tensions are, where consumers really want to see the game. It's been a success and we will continue to pioneer that.
Q: Is there anything you're going to do differently with The Ballad of Gay Tony from the release of The Lost and the Damned?
Ben Feder: The benefit of being an innovator in the business is that you get to learn and keep that learning to yourself for a period of time. We'll keep that to ourselves until we can get The Ballad of Gay Tony into consumer's hands. We'll continue to learn and feedback that experience to drive innovation in downloadable content. At the same time we're also innovating in terms of the boxed set, it's a really clever idea because it's so simple. And I think it's really going to resonate with the gaming audience.
Q: What are your impressions of the motion control technology unveiled by Sony and Microsoft at E3? Do you see that as a real opportunity to push games into new areas as much as the format-holders do?
Ben Feder: Take-Two is really focused on innovation and creativity. Anytime that there is an innovation in the hardware it leads to an ability to innovate in software. When you have some of the best and most creative minds in the business working at your company, you always welcome that because it leaves the door open to doing cool things that weren't possible before. I'm quite sure that whatever the innovators in hardware have in mind, the software innovators are going to take it in whole new directions. We plan to be at the forefront of that. There's no end to that. They're going to innovate in hardware and we're going to innovate in software and together we'll end up with better and better gaming experiences. Every now and then you end up with a real dog that doesn't lead anywhere, but I don't expect that to happen here. This is looking pretty good.
Q: Does any one motion control system stand out as more impressive for for Take-Two?
Ben Feder: No, the whole innovation there in motion control technology is where we're interested. Nintendo obviously did a great job with the Wii controller and it's clear that consumers want that, the ability to just stand in front of a display and motion with your hand or talk, that's what people want. The closer to natural motion we get the more we can take advantage of that to create specific software.
Q: Do you see Project Natal and Sony's motion technology pushing what Nintendo has already achieved a lot further, or are they playing catch-up?
Ben Feder: Innovation never stops. It's going to be pushed and pushed. And the people who benefit from that will be the consumers and the gaming audience.
Q: Another clear trend is peripherals from publishers – Activision has almost become a hardware manufacturer with its Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk games, and Ubisoft is looking at bundling camera hardware with its new fitness title. Is Take-Two interested in that business?
Ben Feder: We haven't announced anything. Typically Take-Two leads with story development, character development and creating immersive experiences in software and interactive entertainment. Sometimes that doesn't lend itself to peripherals as more physically orientated games. The sports business is an obvious place where we would consider something like that although we haven't announced anything yet. But any time one of these types of peripherals comes out it's something that we look at very, very carefully.
Ben Feder is CEO of Take-Two. Interview by Matt Martin.