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Take-Two expects shorter gaps between releases

CEO Strauss Zelnick talks about release planning, working with third-party studios, next-gen, unions, and E3

When Borderlands 3 launches later this year, it will arrive almost exactly seven years after Borderlands 2. Eight years passed between the launches of Red Dead Redemption and Red Dead Redemption 2. It's been six years since Grand Theft Auto V and BioShock Infinite came out, and neither franchise has a sequel even announced, much less ready to launch in the near future.

There are a number of reasons for these extended waits between major new releases. AAA games are bigger and more expensive than ever. Downloadable content and offerings like Grand Theft Auto Online keep developers busy (and catalog titles relevant) longer.

While Take-Two chariman and CEO Strauss Zelnick acknowledges that the gap has been growing, he tells GamesIndustry.biz at last week's Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles that he sees that trend coming to an end.

"I don't see it expanding further," Zelnick says. "In fact, I would expect in many instances it may compress. I think you're right in that our ability to engage with consumers on an ongoing basis has [resulted in] some less pressure on getting to market with an all-new title. But we find that intersection between the time it takes our creators to do the best work in the industry on the one hand, and what the consumer wants, recognizing that building anticipation is a good thing.

"And we believe in resting titles as a great thing. I was a real outlier 12 years ago when we said we don't think it makes sense to annualize non-sports titles, and now most people would agree. But I think eight years is probably too long."

The eight years between Red Dead Redemption and its sequel was 'probably too long'

The eight years between Red Dead Redemption and its sequel was 'probably too long'

When asked what will drive that change, Zelnick points to bigger (and better) teams, and improved development tools. He also suggests the recent trends that have exacerbated the problem could also remedy it in part as games adapt to them.

"It's possible that games may be a bit shorter than they were in certain instances," Zelnick says. "It's possible that the ability to deliver content on an ongoing basis for a long time after an initial release of a hit would mean that perhaps that initial release wouldn't be as long in terms of number of hours of gameplay as previously had been demanded in a world where that was all you were getting."

"I wouldn't say we have a light touch anywhere [but Private Division]. We just exercise our touch nicely"

That's not to say he sees a sea change away from the trend of AAA publishers aiming for "fewer, bigger, better" titles.

"I still think it will be a fewer, bigger, better strategy," Zelnick says. "All entertainment businesses in maturity are top 10 businesses at any given time. All of them. There are no exceptions."

Having major franchises launch new games on a shorter schedule would help with another of Take-Two's current pushes, namely having a strong slate of major AAA releases each year. It's something that has been an issue for the publisher -- particular in 2017, when a delay to Red Dead Redemption 2 left it without a major release outside of its NBA and WWE titles. Red Dead Redemption 2's launch ticked off the major release part of the company's 2018 checklist, while Borderlands 3 will do some heavy lifting for the company's 2019 financials, with an assist from the first new stand-alone releases from the Private Division label, Outer Worlds and Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey.

Given that all three of those titles are developed by external studios anyway, we ask Zelnick why one project is 2K Games and the other two are on Private Division.

"Borderlands is a big, AAA title that looks -- in terms of what resources were required and the breadth of the title itself -- looks very much like something we would do inside our company," Zelnick says. "So it fits with one of our labels. What Private Division is doing is working with much smaller teams with highly capable, experienced independent developers and offering a pretty light touch. So we're offering marketing, we're certainly offering financing, but the creative freedom on the part of those developers is very, very significant."

We start to ask if it's a lighter touch than Take-Two exercises with developers like Gearbox or Rockstar, but before we can get the names out, Zelnick starts his answer.

"I wouldn't say we have a light touch anywhere else. We just exercise our touch nicely."

While that touch has produced plenty of success for Take-Two, it's by no means beyond questioning. We ask about the decision to have Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford as the public face of the game, given he's facing a lawsuit alleging he took $12 million in royalties that should have gone to Gearbox employees and left a USB drive containing underage pornography and confidential company plans at a Medieval Times in Dallas. (While it has stayed out of court, another former Gearbox employee publicly accused Pitchford of assault and withholding royalties.)

Randy Pitchford welcomes the crowd to Borderlands 3's gameplay reveal event

Randy Pitchford welcomes the crowd to Borderlands 3's gameplay reveal event

"In that instance, we don't own or control Gearbox," Zelnick says. "They're a third-party developer, and we're not engaged with them in how they run their business. We're very supportive of them, and Randy's been very plain publicly that the allegations have no merit. We market the title, but we have to clearly state there's a corporate division between Take-Two entities and Gearbox."

Looking ahead to next year, there's at least one new console on the way with Microsoft's Project Scarlett, and a PlayStation 4 successor in the works at Sony. Zelnick confirmed that support for new Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft platforms is usually a given for Take-Two, but naturally didn't discuss specific plans.

"It's challenging, except for people who are real historians of the business, to go back and play a PS2 title... It's not what most players are looking for"

Microsoft and Sony likewise haven't shown their cards, but both companies have confirmed their new systems will be backward compatible with their current consoles. Given that one of Take-Two's biggest successes this generation has been Grand Theft Auto V on the PS4 and Xbox One (re-releases that launched a year after the game's previous gen debut), we ask Zelnick if Take-Two sees backward compatibility in new systems as a benefit or a drawback.

"I don't see it as having much impact, but if it were to have an impact, it would be net positive as a marketing matter," Zelnick says. "As a practical matter, it really doesn't matter. It's not relevant."

We see a similar attitude when we ask about the company's efforts to monetize its catalog titles. Outside of mobile ports for some older AAA games like Grand Theft Auto III or Max Payne, Take-Two has not been very aggressive with any kind of retro strategy.

"I think it's challenging, except for people who are real historians of the business, to go back and play a PS2 title," Zelnick explains. "It's a unique animal. It's not what most players are looking for.

"I mean, should we make that available? Sure. Will we eventually, when there's a whole bunch of platforms for which you can easily develop or port? It seems to me we probably will, in the same way a whole bunch of old black and white movies were colorized at one point, or you can find old movies really easily now because of all the streaming services that exist and you couldn't find them anywhere near as easily 20 years ago. But on the other hand, unless you're a film buff in the extreme, how many arcane old movies are you watching?"

"There are 220,000 or so people employed in the US video game business. They make about $100,000 on average, maybe more. It's hard to imagine what would motivate that crew to unionize"

Another topic we raise for Zelnick is that of unionization. The subject has drawn plenty of discussion in development circles following a number of controversies in the past years, including a series of reports on working conditions at Rockstar Games.

"Look, unions tend to develop when labor relations are not typically non-existent," Zelnick says. "And typically unions have been most beneficial when there were more workers than there were jobs. And where the jobs were low-paying jobs. We have fewer workers than we have jobs, and they're high-paying jobs.

"Right now, Take-Two has 500 open positions. There are 220,000 or so people employed in the US video game business. They make about $100,000 on average, maybe more. It's hard to imagine what would motivate that crew to unionize. But we're a compliant company and will serve the law. If our colleagues want to engage in collective bargaining, then we will."

[UPDATE]: A Take-Two representative confirmed the numbers Zelnick cited came from a 2017 Entertainment Software Association report on the economic contributions of the US games industry. That report stated an average annual compensation for US developers of $97,000, a number arrived at by taking the average US developer salary of $83,060 reported in a 2014 Game Developer/Gamastura salary survey and adding 16.8% to represent supplements (like employer contributions for retirement funds, insurance and government social insurance). The 16.8% figure used was taken from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis 2013 data for supplements as a percentage of wages and salaries for employees throughout all publishing industries, which would include software publishing and games.[/UPDATE]

Given the setting of the interview, we also ask about the state of E3. With companies like Sony, Electronic Arts, and Activision playing a smaller role at the show than in year's past (or no role at all, in Sony's case), we ask what Take-Two thinks of the show and how it would like to see it evolve.

"First of all, we continue to be highly supportive of the show, and you can see that," Zelnick says. "And for the past two years before this year, we didn't even have products we were showing and we had a corporate booth. We've always found it to be very productive. We want to support the ESA. We therefore want to support the show.

"But to be clear, we're here because the show works. We create great press opportunities. We create great opportunities for investors, great opportunities for analysts, great opportunities for retailers and distributors worldwide. And frankly, our team also gathers together and that's nice. I think it's very beneficial. I'm a little astonished that not everyone sees it that way."

Zelnick adds that everyone attending the show should benefit from a planned $1.2 billion expansion to the Los Angeles Convention Center and neighboring LA Live complex that would add 26% more exhibit space and 19% more meeting room space.

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