2K's Christoph Hartmann: Why Consoles Will Always Matter

We interview the head of 2K Games about next-gen and finding the 'next Bungie' to compete with the likes of EA and Activision

2K Games, as a label within Take-Two Interactive, has only been around since 2005, but in that relatively short timeframe, the publisher has built up an impressive portfolio of IP and game development talent. Firaxis Games, Visual Concepts, and Irrational Games are just a few of the outstanding studios that fall underneath 2K's wing.

2K and parent company Take-Two don't have the money or muscle of the big boys like Electronic Arts or Activision Blizzard, but that doesn't mean that the publisher can't compete. 2K has to be a bit more careful about where to place its bets, and budding talent needs to be evaluated and fostered.

All of that also comes currently with the challenge of being on the cusp of next-gen in a quickly evolving market. GamesIndustry International caught up with 2K Games boss Christoph Hartmann to find out how 2K is preparing for new consoles, how important the mobile market will be, and how 2K can build up its talent to take on much bigger companies.

Q: Randy Pitchford has said some positive things about the Wii U. What are your feelings about Nintendo's new hardware?

Christoph Hartmann: In general, we at 2K are always going to be positive about new hardware out there, but we are also cautious about things we aren't experienced with. We don't want to flood the market; we'd rather pick our opportunity and work well on our projects. About the Wii U itself, Nintendo is such an impressive company, they have over and over again put handheld and consoles out that are impressive. They have so much experience that I am sure they are going to do it again. With any new console, especially where something original is added, it will take time for consumers to understand it and see the beauty of it. I know that they have such clever people at Nintendo that people will see the beauty of the console, though it may take some time.

Q: So would you say that 2K is taking a more cautious approach to the new console? It seems to be the opposite of Ubisoft, who are very gung-ho about the Wii U launch. How does it fit for 2K?

"I think the market is ready to take console gaming to the next level. It is the longest cycle we've had and it is harder and harder to launch new IPs"

Christoph Hartmann

Christoph Hartmann: It is not different from what we have always done. We are very careful and very selective here. When you look at the Wii, we didn't do many titles, but we put out Carnival Games, which did very well. It was probably one of the best titles. While you can't plan for it all the time, we don't throw 10 things against the wall and assume that two stick. I throw two at the wall and hope two stick, perhaps one. We have a very different approach, which has a lot to do with the size of the organization and the mindset of the organization. We always focus on one thing, and we are a very different organization than a lot of the other publishers out there.

Q: It's looking likely that we will see Microsoft and/or Sony bringing out next-gen consoles in 2013. What does that mean to 2K? Are you lining up a portfolio to take advantage of these new platforms?

Christoph Hartmann: Let's look at the market. I think the market is ready to take console gaming to the next level. It is the longest cycle we've had and it is harder and harder to launch new IPs. Consumers are very used to the big franchises, but we need innovation in terms of content to really drive things. I think the market is ready to take it to the next level. As for us getting ready for what is coming one day, we really do not have any concrete plans. It is pretty much the same like always. It's the same for Wii U - we are awaiting new things and want to try out new things, but we are cautious about where we put our efforts and then will really get behind it. If you look at the last couple of years, we don't flood the market with titles. We focus on one title after the other, and... that is the approach we are taking.

Q: When you look at your 2K portfolio, it represents the bulk of what Take-Two produces, but analysts often say that Take-Two can't do well when there's no new Grand Theft Auto. When you hear that, is it sort of insulting towards your built-up portfolio?

Christoph Hartmann: To be honest, I think I like it because it puts me in a position where I can surprise. One day, people will look back and say that something is bigger than they expected. They can take a snap-shot and make a quick comment to make a story. I really believe in what we've achieved, and I don't want to sound arrogant, but we do a lot of work as an organization and we achieved something great. How people see it from the outside, there is nothing I can do, they have their opinion. 2K has been succeeding and we've been doing really well compared to other people. There are companies that have been around for 20 years and we've been around for one generation. I'm pretty impressed, and so are people who know how hard it is; they know that we've done a lot. I'm not too fussed about their opinions and I'm not judging them.

Q:When you look at building a portfolio, how do you analyze where to invest? Publishers are always reluctant to come up with new IP. It's expensive and risky and investing $40-$60 million on a new IP is tough. Companies often prefer the safe bets. How do you balance that?

Christoph Hartmann: Being afraid that a title doesn't work is a fear you always have until the day it launches. It doesn't matter what you score or what the expectations are. You never know in entertainment. Some major movies or games have been hyped and didn't live up to expectations. The proof is always in the pudding. With new IP, you have to look at the landscape. A game is about a dream of being someone you are not. That's where it starts. In the old days, it was much easier. 10 or 20 years ago, if you wanted, for example, to be a skateboarder, a game could be made and you'd live the illusion of being a skateboarder. Today though, it's harder because those kinds of straightforward titles are taken with other titles, and getting better and better. So if you stop and look at games like BioShock and Borderlands, they really made sure to have a focus on co-op, amazing story and things like that; they are really different and amazing. The story Ken Levine is writing is very different. It's really like genre mixing.

You have to find people that are motivated and believe in themselves and then keep in mind that you are a business and manage it the right way. You have to have a balance between the business side and the creative side to have the right product to entertain people. Sounds easy, right? [laughs]

Q:Looking at your competitors in this space, how do you compete against an Activision or an EA who can spend a lot of money? Activision, for example, has the ability to sign Bungie to a 10-year deal. As you look to grow, how do you respond?

"I think it is on us to find people like that, find those hidden gems and really build them. Some of the biggest guys now are the ones that took 20 years to get to where they are now"

Christoph Hartmann

Christoph Hartmann: There are two ways to build a soccer team. You can build a team over five to ten years, or you can see big teams get billions injected to buy off the best people to build a team. There is not one way that's better than the other. It just takes time to build things. Look at Bungie. They weren't formed big. They did Myth before, which was a good title, but then they had a big breakthrough thanks to Halo. They had resources from first party, but it took them time. To someone like Activision, they seem like the right investment now. That doesn't mean there won't be another Bungie, but it just takes time to build another team like that and they will always pop up.

I think it is on us to find people like that, find those hidden gems and really build them. Some of the biggest guys now are the ones that took 20 years to get to where they are now, it just takes time. I'm not saying we won't do anything, we just can never predict it. You have to be fast and more innovative than the big guys.

Ultimately, doing huge investments means huge risk. If you have risk, you have to think 10 times about every step. If you are the guy with nothing to lose, which is not us anymore, but you might as well set up three companies in that time and hopefully one will stick. I know we have done very good and great things, and someday we might do something amazing, but we will organically grow those things.

Q: Looking at your portfolio, the one obvious question mark, the one game that was panned, was Duke Nukem Forever. Do you see a future with Duke Nukem in it still? At the corporate level, Strauss Zelnick had said there could be more Duke.

Christoph Hartmann: Talking about Duke, again the game was in development for, I don't know, 200 years. There are two options. We could have had the most polished title ever, or the title's development got started over and over. You and I both know that people had to start development over and over. We couldn't let it die; we just kept hitting the restart button to get the title going and get it out. The decision was made to build the title, and we still think it was the right thing to do. I feel the press wasn't really fair to the title. It was a fun title and those people in the press know that you can't say it was in development for that long. We presented the title and our developers knew what they had with the various iterations, and it would have been fairer to judge it a bit differently, but who cares. I think it was the right decision. As for the franchise, I can tell you there is not one coming this summer. If there is ever time to talk about it, we'll talk about it. Maybe we'll never talk about it.

Q:From a brand perspective, does Duke Nukem resonate with gamers anymore? Is it worth it to develop further titles?

Christoph Hartmann: With the brand, we're always careful about this. When it comes down to it, it is all about the quality of the game. If you make a great game and it resonates with people, you have a franchise. Just because you have a franchise does not mean the game will sell if it is bad. We should never say that we should make a game because we have a big franchise. Again, we have to build a great game. The brand can help a lot, but ultimately it is the entertainment product. If it is good, it will find its way to the consumer. If you look at the other brands, movie licenses like Spider-Man got really big, but it got big because it had great games - same with Batman recently. It wasn't just because it was a brand that was well known. There are a lot of games with huge brands behind them that simply haven't done well.

"Mobile will be a larger part of the market, but it is not the holy grail... there is a place for everything, but I don't think anything is ever going to replace the consoles given the maturity of the market"

Christoph Hartmann

Q:On the mobile front, a lot of traditional publishers have been having a hard time adjusting to that market. EA has done well, and Activision recently launched a mobile brand, but how does 2K look at tablets and smartphones? Is that going to be a big growth opportunity for you at some point?

Christoph Hartmann: It definitely is a platform and area that we are looking at very closely. If you look at Civilization, it was one of the best-selling games on the iPhone and iPad. We definitely are committed to that area of the business. We're definitely looking at other IPs that we have to see if they work on mobile. We're not just going to take some random IP and throw it on there. We're going to make good games, and we're also looking at doing something original one day.

We don't think it will be a revolution to the business, though. No one will ever be able to replace the power of the console business - having a console with that power and the opportunities for quality games is very important. And while being able to pick it up and being convenient is a big thing, and your phone and calendar are there, playing and carrying around games is nothing new. It will be a larger part of the market, but it is not the holy grail of the market and the business. Look at the history, there is a place for everything, but I don't think anything is ever going to replace the consoles given the maturity of the market.

Q:I met with David Jaffe at E3, and he said that he thinks consoles will become dinosaurs after the next generation. He says next generation is probably the last generation now that things are going digital with smart TVs and cloud gaming. It sounds like you disagree completely with him?

Christoph Hartmann: I semi-disagree with him because the way your games are going to get transmitted from one source to the gamer might change, but I'm talking about big, huge quality games. It is like how people consume food. Fast food is on the rise and that has to do with our lifestyle, but there are high quality restaurants that are not going away. When I talk console games, I'm talking about huge experiences with many hours of gaming... and you will always need a major platform for those titles.

I don't know what we will have in the future, maybe a PS 15 or something, but we will need the hardware. It's like in the software industry, the software pushes the hardware; there's a give and take and it's the same in video games. We need machines built to perform well in one area, and that is gaming. You're never going to be able to compete with it because it's about quality and it's built to do one thing best. And, by the way, the whole streaming and cloud thing is just nice words until the [internet infrastructure improves]. I don't believe in cloud gaming until a cable provider stops breaking my internet connection every morning, when everyone logs in at the same time. I don't see this being fixed for a long, long time.

Q:What's your reaction to Warren Spector and his talking about how today's games are overly saturated with violence? Obviously, a lot of games in the 2K portfolio have plenty of violence in them. Do you think developers should be working to make other types of games not steeped in violence to help the maturation of the medium?

"To dramatically change the industry to where we can insert a whole range of emotions, I feel it will only happen when we reach the point that games are photorealistic"

Christoph Hartmann

Christoph Hartmann: It's something that comes up internally a lot and in product development. What's the difference between the movies and gaming? Movies you just watch. You get emotional involvement in both, but in gaming you interact. That limits you already in what you can do, as certain emotions can't be recreated. Recreating a Mission Impossible experience in gaming is easy; recreating emotions in Brokeback Mountain is going to be tough, or at least very sensitive in this country. It's limiting. Comedy is already very hard in video games. You can't have a game simply built around comedy. It has to be part of an overall vibe. So there is only a certain area that you can use [to create games] and then you look at technology, you can kind of maybe make people look right, but it will be very hard to create very deep emotions like sadness or love, things that drive the movies.

Until games are photorealistic, it'll be very hard to open up to new genres. We can really only focus on action and shooter titles; those are suitable for consoles now. If someone comes up with a video game where it's all about you falling in love, where you have the emotions and you don't need a lot of interaction from your device, that's great but what happened to those interactive movies from the '90s? They were boring. It was like a movie that gave you three endings.

Q:So to your point about photorealism, that's kind of why we need next-gen to push things forward sooner than later right?

Christoph Hartmann: Every new platform changes video gaming because it is able to do certain things. When you look at how many open-world games are out there, that was not doable for most people 20 years ago. Other huge games like Skyrim simply weren't able to be done. Every time the technology advances, new things will open up and be created. To dramatically change the industry to where we can insert a whole range of emotions, I feel it will only happen when we reach the point that games are photorealistic; then we will have reached an endpoint and that might be the final console.

It will then be all just about the content, and no longer about the technology. Right now, this industry is about the content but also about the technology. We're still a tech industry and driven by programmers. Once you get to where it looks like real life, you can focus on doing other things, and it won't be about technology as much as it is now. Until then, I think there will always be new tech, consoles, devices or whatever to drive the industry.

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Latest comments (12)

Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 9 years ago
Ok so i suddenly respect the guy a bit more... Just a little. I still dont agree things have to be photo realistic, i do agree what he says that new technology opens the door for new advances in creating video games. I mean bioshock infinte is hardly realistic, but it works well. But putting aside photo realistic graphics as a necesity to make an emotionally immersive games, i think the possibility that technology offers to creating games is invaluable. I mean, better AI or larger enviroments can add significantly to games. But in terms to aethetics, i think its only relevant to what the game creator wants to achieve in the game. I dont think a game like limbo or journey would succeed with realistic graphics. I mean look at ICO and Shadow of the colosus. Tell me you at least jerked a tear??? Sometimes hand drawn or artistic visuals have more personality than photo realistic visuals. Photo realistic visuals tend to be cold and lifeless and depend heavily on good writing, scenography, camera and gameplay elements to support it. I mean we had realistic graphics with sewer shark in the sega CD, and what about the resident evil cut scenes in the very first original game? I agree that technological advancements are a good thing, since they offer more resources to create games. but it will never be a substitute for creativity. because only a creative mind can do something interesting with it. And with less technology, creative minds always strive to achieve. The original resident evil didnt prevent you from being scared and shadow of the collosus didnt keep you from tear jerking, even with graphics that are considered to be outdated by todays standards.

"It is the longest cycle we've had and it is harder and harder to launch new IPs." Let me get this straight, all this technology and its harder to make games? we have more time to develope games because of longer hardware cycles dammit!!!! Yet with more time games seem to take longer and longer to make. Is it the fault of the hardware cycles. Gimme a fucking break.

Is it the hardware cycle fault games take hundreds of people to develope and costs have inflated so high? I just think developers are so spoiled with technology they are losing there creative edge. Before people would do more with less, now its like no matter how much you give them, they cant do enough. If anything games like zone of the enders2, metal gear solid 3, resident evil (PSX) and shadow of the colosus (PS2) are proof that alot can be achived with less, because they were developed in an era with less technology, yet they achived landmarks in game design. And I think developers should sit down and think about how they are going to use their resources better.

Yeah hardware cycles are too long they say? I bet if they were shorter, people would complain they are too short. So what gives?

I think you just cant please everybody.

But im rambling... hope you guys get my drift... no what Im sayin?

Edited 4 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 2nd August 2012 8:22pm

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Terence Gage Freelance writer 9 years ago
"It is the longest cycle we've had and it is harder and harder to launch new IPs."

I've seen this written quite a lot recently, but can anyone actually explain why?! I mean, surely with 6, 7 + years development experience with current-gen machines and an understanding of trends and consumer tastes, it'll be just as easy to launch a new IP now as it would have been 2 or 3 years ago, or even in 24 months on the PS4/720?

"Consumers are very used to the big franchises, but we need innovation in terms of content to really drive things."

But new hardware won't necessarily drive innovation in terms of content, if at all. Will there be much next gen can do that this gen cannot besides having more detailed visuals and faster processors? I mean, we've already got amazing AI (Halo), huge, detailed gameworlds (Just Cause 2, Skyrim, Assassin's Creed), incredibly detailed visuals (Crysis, God of War, Killzone) and superb physics (Half Life 2, Cold Winter, GTA). Unless my vision is much too inside the box, I don't see what - from a game design point of view - more powerful consoles will bring that isn't possible now.

I look forward to new genres like he mentions but I don't think they'll be allowed solely by new tech - it'll likely be smaller developers who get good ideas and develop them on the indie scene who push this particular boundary.

I also like his comments about finding the 'next Bungie', and building a talented team, and really cultivating that talent (like they have with Irrational Games). A couple of developers I've always thought could/would shine given the right amount of freedom and support: Digital Extremes and Obsidian Entertainment. Both have had a bit of crap luck in the past but I think they're top-quality studios who I would hire if I had countless millions to invest in game development.
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For 2K, I wonder if the limiting factor would be the use of the Unreal engine vs a next gen engine, to carry through a complexity of simulations and animation afforded such as Ubi's watch dogs...

To be able to continually develop for a core audience, with big franchises will mean needing the raw power and flexibility to go with it, along with finding the next bungie.
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Show all comments (12)
Hermann Rauth Game Audio Designer 9 years ago
Tiny detail, might be worth a correction. Bungie did Myth, not Myst. :)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Hermann Rauth on 2nd August 2012 6:05pm

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James Brightman Editor, North America, GamesIndustry.biz9 years ago
@ Hermann, thanks, I've fixed the typo.
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I believe this is a question you have to ask the consumers. Everyone wants new IPs, but when it comes to spending money, people stick to what they know.
Only when a generation is still new, people give new IP a chance. As seen this gen with Gears of War, Assassin's Creed, Bioshock, Uncharted and others.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 9 years ago
@Felix: True, but thanks to advertising being too focused on sequel after sequel rather than promoting more new IP, many gamers are force-fed the idea that part 4, 5, 6 ad nauseum are more important games than something new and unique that may also be worth their time and money. Or hell, might even be a better game overall.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd9 years ago
I've seen this written quite a lot recently, but can anyone actually explain why?!
I would speculate that it's because it's harder to make a new IP stand out now that we've maxed out the capabilities of the current consoles. All the blood and thunder of the E3 demos was intended to distract from this. And also, a growing number of console owners are getting bored with the current gen and/or waiting for the next gen.
But new hardware won't necessarily drive innovation in terms of content, if at all.
It always has (in the fullness of time) in the past. And yeah, I'd say your vision is too inside the box. ;) Most of the technically ambitious games of the last few years have been utterly hamstrung (in visuals, simulation and scope) by the need to contend with outmoded hardware specs.

New tech will bring new things into reach and make some existing things more practical for the average developer. But I agree that it's only one of several routes to innovation.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 9 years ago
Greg, correlation is not causation. It could just as well be the case that companies are forced to build and advertise the sequels because that's what gamers buy, not new IP. And in fact, several folks working for publishers have said just that.
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Fyzard Brown Sales Associate, VideoGameAdvantage9 years ago
We don't need new systems. Developers are getting fatigued from yearly sequels and it show in the games. We can have great games if there weren't such a focus on graphics.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 9 years ago
The idea, Curt (or at least MY idea), is to change the common mentality by defying what's expected. Giving people what they want might make for great sales, but guess what suffers in the long term because of it? If publisher can force all sorts of changes on gamers, why not get them to change their minds about wanting yet another game that's going to be the same thing as before but with a new coat of paint?

You could say that by being too predictable and yes, mainstream, games become less art and more commerce, which is too bad for those who want to call this an art form.
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Alex Bunch Proof Reader, ZiCorp Studios9 years ago
Giving people what they didn't know they wanted always gets the highest rewards. It's very lazy creative thinking to say we need a new generation of consoles to move forward.
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