The Future of 2K Games

Apr 17, 2009
San Diego, CA
A few months ago, 2K was betting big on the 2009 holiday, with three key action games -- Borderlands, BioShock 2, and Mafia 2 -- scheduled to hit within a few months of each other. But then, as is quickly becoming trendy, the publisher decided to hold back the latter two until 2010, leaving Borderlands on its own this year. Following that news, I talked at length with company president Christoph Hartmann about everything from the reasons why they held those back, to his take on new ways of selling games, his interest in Microsoft and Sony's motion controllers, 2K Marin's future, and those hints about a Darkness sequel that came out at Comic-Con.

1UP: From my perspective, the trend for 2K in the past year or two -- with Borderlands, BioShock 2, Mafia 2, and even the hints that Ken Levine has been giving about his next game -- seems to be that you guys are going with fewer, bigger games. Is that how you see it?

Chistoph Hartmann: Well, totally. I mean fewer, bigger games -- that was always actually the strategy from the beginning, except we didn't go and announce it because what's the point if you don't have games to prove it? When we set up 2K four years ago, it was always the goal to do fewer games, better games. And that has to do with where the market is going and also to do with the way we're structured. We're like this petite gaming powerhouse who wants to be the Miramax of video gaming: great titles, commercially very successful, but also winning Oscars.

At the beginning, when we started off having 12 games a year between various licensed titles... [that's because] you just have build up some critical mass. You can't go out and build a label and not ship a single title for three years, which is the minimum it would take to build an original game. Let's compare it to a company I admire a lot, Ubisoft, which does amazing games... I remember the old days when they started off. It was like, "You want to do original games?" And look at them now. They do amazing titles and they're known almost better as a developer than a publisher.

1UP: Going forward, do you think we'll see even fewer games from 2K, or are you happy with the number per year you have now?

CH: I think we're happy with the amount we have now -- I don't think it's going to be less. In general, yes, the industry will ship fewer games. First of all, the costs went up, so you have to pick your battles. Secondly, any time there's a good game that's going to become the new standard, you've got to keep up and you've got to follow it and hit the same quality bar. And, in general, if you ask me... for my crystal ball, what I predict for the future is bigger, better games, where the games are more involved with their franchises long-term, with DLC, and also finding different business models where maybe you can buy something like on iTunes: you're not forced to buy the whole album -- for the people who just like two songs, you just buy two songs. And there are the people who buy the whole album, and there are the people who buy the whole album plus bonus tracks and then buy the limited edition. So I think the standard $50-60 pricing model -- put it in the box, put it out -- is going to change... I think that's why people will have the tendency to do fewer but bigger games.

1UP: One of the ideas I've heard batted around a lot -- but I haven't seen too much in execution -- is companies could slice off the multiplayer portion of their game and sell that as a downloadable product. Does that interest you? Could we see the full BioShock 2 retail package on the store shelves, but then just the multiplayer mode for download or something like that?

CH: I don't think so. I think that's the wrong way to go. I mean, yes it's possible to do it, but I think that's actually the wrong direction. I'd rather have it together and give people the full experience. I think what more likely will happen -- or at least what I believe with what we've done with BioShock -- is you start off, basically with a new IP, and introduce a new environment, a new world. BioShock was so super rich... I think if it would have had multiplayer back then it would have probably been overwhelming and we would have confused people rather than really pulled them into the story, which was one of the main features. The multiplayer now is really, I think, the right progression because people know the characters, so people are going to be ready for it; it's not going to be overwhelming.
But slicing up the way to divide single-player from multiplayer and make it two different SKUs -- I'm not sure that's the right way to go because then you limit yourself. In the multiplayer, you'll be stuck with all the hardcore guys and no one else will try it out. I feel like you have to use the single-player platform to suck people into playing more multiplayer.

1UP: In 2K's future -- maybe three years from now -- what do you think you'll be doing differently than you are now?

CH: I don't think we're going to do much differently; I think we're going to do everything better. And that means we're going to drive the quality, and we're going to drive the level of innovation and immersion. We try to find one unique thing for each title -- like in BioShock, we have the story, which really is driving you through the game, with Borderlands it's really the [fusion of] first-person shooter and RPG, and so on. And that's all about innovation. We want to have one new thing to try out and we're willing to take risks as you have seen

Believe me, neither one -- BioShock or Borderlands -- was a [safe bet]. People were really afraid of the risk and saying "Ooh, we don't know. That's not Call of Duty. How can we sign it up?" And we're like, "Yeah, you know, we have a vision. There are some issues, but we can work them out."

And I also want to have games where you feel immersed within the game. I want a game to be a whole emotional experience; I don't want it to be, "Hey, dude, it's cool what I can do -- I can blow his head up into like 15,000 pieces." You know, that's nice when you're in middle school, and that works for a while, but I also want to have the music, the whole atmosphere and [everything], so that when you go and listen to someone on the radio -- you're not talking about a movie or "when I kissed my first girl." It's more like "remember this girl I played?" Ah, "this girl I played..." [Laughs] I'm sorry -- [I mean] "this game I played." See, my mind is a bit wrong here.
But having a totally different relationship [than] you have with a movie -- I think that's very important. You truly saw that in BioShock, and you will see it also in Borderlands, and you will see it for sure in Mafia where we're really trying to give you this feeling. You're really caught in the '40s and '50s and feel that post-war environment as well. You know, that '50s environment -- it's something that hasn't been touched for a while.

1UP: So I'm curious, then -- you mentioned you like to see one big innovative thing in each game. What do you see as the one big innovative thing in BioShock 2 and Mafia 2?

CH: BioShock 2, it's a little bit early, because we're going to do another big round or two rounds of press before we put it out, and [public relations representative] Charlie who's sitting here is going to have a heart attack in front of me if I say anything early. But, for sure it will live up to the expectations. It will have the quality everyone expects from the game. And what will be the big thing -- it's the right question you ask, but it's just the wrong time because we're working on the demo and obviously you'll get invited to have a look at it.

On Mafia, same thing; it's a little bit early to answer, but you can see already where we're going. We want you to dive in, to be really immersed in a world which is set in the '40s and '50s, and have a very super realistic city you can experience, but also have heavy shooter elements where the shooting experience is very, very great for an open world game, and so on. But I won't really go into the details. It's visually stunning; I'm sure you have seen how good it looks. But again, it's next year, so... I don't want to hint at something and run into risky territory.

1UP: So six months from now, we'll be able to look back, and you'll be able to point to one thing in each one of those games. With that, you're pretty confident?

CH: Call me up in six months; I promise you... and if you tell me Christoph Hartmann is full of ****, I'm totally fine with that as well.
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Apr 17, 2009
San Diego, CA
Microsoft and Sony's New Interfaces

1UP: How much do you guys plan to support Project Natal and Sony's motion controller?

CH: I think we've got to give them both a try. It's very hard to predict. You know, we're going to do the same strategy we have done with the Wii. Look what we did with Carnival [Games] -- rather than throwing 30 things out into the market and seeing what resonates with people, we'd rather try and go after one experience and do it really well.

And yes, in general we're open to any new platform, and we're going to give it a try and really want to work with it. But you really have to find the right thing... Look at our sports games, which we started to do relatively late for the Wii. But you know why? Because it took us a while to figure out how it works, and honestly we're still working on it -- making it really a great sports experience. Our best selling sports title was Top Spin, the best tennis game out there, but that's a very obvious one for the Wii. Basketball and hockey is much harder. But I think we found a good way to make a good experience. We're definitely not in favor of just putting the game out -- and releasing everything on every platform -- just for the sake of it.

1UP: Can you say if you have any Natal or Sony motion controller projects in development right now?

CH: I can't tell you that. But I can tell you that we're normally open to any new platform. In general, we'll give everything a try.

1UP: Do you think it's likely that we'll see multiplatform motion control games in the future? Like a game that maybe appears on Wii, and Natal, and Sony's device?

CH: Um... I think that's possible. I would have to look at the development impact, because it's really very different development. And then you have to look if the market's big enough for that, because ultimately it's still programming for the 360, programming for the PS3, and for the Wii. If there's a game where the motion control offers enough that you can sell three million units plus, I'm sure that's going to happen. If it's going to be more of that one-million unit model which you have very often on the Wii, I think it's going to be hard because the development cost is probably going to outgrow the opportunity, so you might be better off tailoring it. But the future will tell. I'm sure there will be a few games where you can do that, but I'm sure it's not every game.

Q4 vs. Q1

1UP: I wanted to go back to your current lineup. Obviously there's been a lot of talk about Mafia 2 and BioShock 2 moving to next year. Am I correct in thinking that both of those delays were done for quality purposes and not for strategic placement in the market?

CH: Only quality. We want to ship the highest quality games we can make, and while I'm sure we're not going to get it right all the time, we're going to kill ourselves to get there. The games were just not ready, and it was simply a quality issue. I'm not afraid of any launch windows. I'm not afraid of going against heavy competition. Because, like X-Men and Harry Potter on the same weekend -- you'll go out and see two movies rather than just one, so I'm not afraid of it if you have the quality there. But the games were simply not ready.

It's not a lot of time. It's not a substantial issue. It's just polishing, because that's what the consumer wants. And we went so far, and put in so much work, that you really want to go the extra mile to achieve what you want. I think it would be stupid -- it's not going to be good for the company, not going to be good for the industry, and not going to be good for the consumer -- having games which don't have the quality.

I think even there's a shift in Wall Street -- even Wall Street is starting to understand gaming, which is a very modern form of entertainment. But there's risk because there's a lot of technology involved. You can't treat it like producing tires. It's just something different.

1UP: It's interesting to me because it seems almost like from a strategic perspective that January to March 2010 is going to be busier than October to December 2009 -- basically minus Call of Duty, Halo, and Assassin's Creed.

CH: Yeah, and Borderlands...don't forget it! That really hurt me. [Laughs] Yeah, it seems like Spring is the new Christmas.

1UP: And that doesn't worry you at all?

CH: No. As I said before, if two major movies release back-to-back, I think that the only thing that will happen is that people will go to the movies twice in a month, so I'm not worried.

1UP: I guess the idea is, with two major releases, it would be easy to split the market, but if there's 10 it could be a little harder.

CH: And that's the thing. I don't believe in splitting markets, to be honest. My target is always that we as an industry take market away from other entertainment forms, not from each other, and as long as the games have great quality and diversity -- you're not shipping two amazing, triple-A racing titles both on the same day -- there's always an opportunity for people to buy more games. I mean, if it's a great experience, they will let go of other experiences which are not as much fun.

2K Marin and Visual Concepts

1UP: I also wanted to talk about 2K Marin. Do you think for the future it will continue to be "the BioShock studio," or is it going to expand into multiple games at a time?

CH: I know they're working already... We already have plans, and have worked far beyond the conceptual stage for a follow-up project after BioShock 2. What that is, I can't announce; I can't tell you obviously. But so far, they've completely exceeded my expectations. Don't forget, they were built from the ground up. The [San Francisco] Bay Area's great for that. They have a lot of super talented people there who are very passionate about what they do, who work very hard, and they make a great team.

We hired a lot of superstars, and you know how it is in sports -- there's always the risk if you hire all the superstars and it doesn't work out -- but with a portion of luck, we get a great team. They have a bright future, and we have something lined up afterwards which is going to be exciting as well. And yes, they keep on growing. Will there be two teams at some point? Sure, it's possible. But it's something you have to be careful about, because many teams have tried it and it's not that easy to juggle two things at the same time and hit the same quality levels. Often what ends up happening is you have one triple-A game, and then the other one is kind of a B-plus. And I also don't want that.

1UP: You're located in that same office, right?

CH: Same office -- Visual Concepts, 2K Marin, and 2K Publishing are in here. And actually it's a great thing because -- it's not "happy-happy" where we're all great friends who do a group hug in the morning -- but we don't have a lot of middle management. We're very lean-running, and that's what we believe in. As I said before, we're this petite powerhouse of video gaming. I see us more like the school of the gifted, where people work together to try to overachieve, rather than a high school where they bring people together from Sonoma County down to the South Bay and everyone is in the hallway and no one knows each other and people spend their time with presentations. I'd rather spend the time working on games, and I don't mind if there's a little bit of conflict -- it's good. It's competition, different opinions. I compare it always to music... Take The Rolling Stones. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger on their own? They're worth nothing. Together they're The Rolling Stones. They each tried individual careers -- they pretty much sucked -- one guy can't sing; the other guy can't play guitar. Together however, they built something which was a rock empire for many years. It works, and I believe in the same thing. I'm sure Marin is not happy with all the things 2K Publishing thinks, and we're not happy with all the things they think, but as a result, if you work together, it's going to be great. It's going to be much better than you sitting there drinking your own Kool-Aid and raving about what you just achieved, because sometimes you could be out of touch with reality.

1UP: Obviously what Visual Concepts is working on is much different from BioShock, but is there any technology sharing there?

CH: No technology sharing -- they're very different. But there's a lot of sharing, you know, of people talking together. Because, if you think about it, engineers, they're the first ones to build relationships because they're the most non-political. They meet each other during lunch, or walking around, or coming to work in the parking lot, or playing sports together, or going biking, or whatever people do here. And, you know, they share. There's a lot of things -- not that Marin's going to use the VC engine or they're going to start to use the modified Unreal Engine for sports -- but, "How do you deal with that? What's there? How did you get your framerate up?" So it's a good thing because if you bring bright people together, it's always going to create something better.

1UP: Do you think in the future they might collaborate on technology?

CH: I don't know... It sounds like something that a corporate office would think is great: "Ooh, we have one technology base, and this, that, and whatever." Except, one has to put out games annually and has to push in different areas while the other has to push to do amazing things over two or three years. It's very hard and I don't know. On paper it's a good thing, [but] I don't know if it's going to make all the games actually better.

1UP: Yeah, I know a lot of people blamed Midway's insistence on that as part of the reason it struggled towards the end there.

CH: I would fully agree with that. It sounds like a great thing, but I don't know how much money they really saved.

1UP: Also, BioShock 2 is kind of an unusual scenario because, if I'm correct, there are at least four different teams working on it in different capacities...

CH: I think that's the model of the future. Let's go to different products which are even more high-tech than what we do: airplanes. Look how Boeing is building the new Dreamliner airplanes. That thing is built everywhere from China to Italy, and they just assemble it in there. Apple has a 'nice designed in California/produced in China' on there. I think that's the future that you're going to do it like this, because the Bay Area we know is not the cheapest place to build something. And if you want to try new things and want to avoid a huge financial fiasco, you've got to keep your costs under control, and you've got to mix it up.

That's probably going to be the future in my opinion, also with modern technology to do it. And honestly, to tell you where I saw this the first time -- I was at Dreamworks to look at a production. We had a few meetings, a few talks there. This was many years ago, so don't think there's any story to be written about. And they showed me how they do production from different parts of the Earth, from Australia to the UK -- multimillion dollars, not something we could afford. But basically, in all of those buildings the same conference room -- which looked the same -- I don't know how many, let's say, 50 cameras were there. And there was a huge screen, and you literally thought you were sitting in the same meeting room with them, and that's how they worked, every day. It was obviously super high tech, and it did so well that they started renting it out to other companies and they turned into a business... I just think the future of game development is smaller branches who work together and have kind of a brain box sitting somewhere, but then have smaller teams really focused on their areas.

1UP: We hear a lot about how studios outsource art and all these other things, but a lot of them we don't hear about until after those games come out, so in BioShock's case, it's slightly unusual that we know about them ahead of time.

CH: Yeah, that's true; everyone uses outsourcing nowadays. But it's also a respect thing. I feel like the people at Digital Extremes are doing a tremendous job. And 2K Australia, obviously, we have a long-term relationship with, and they worked on BioShock 1 already and they understand the brand. So yeah, I want to treat them with respect and want to be proud of their work. And there's nothing negative about it. I understand also that other studios want to protect it all in-house. But I think there's hardly anyone who does it all at home.

The Darkness Sequel Chatter

1UP: Finally, there was a lot of talk coming out of Comic-Con about a new Darkness game from a developer than Starbreeze, and I was wondering if you could say anything to calm people's fears who may be skeptical about that.

CH: There's nothing I can comment about. Usually we don't comment on rumors. I think Top Cow delivered an ad and there was a lot of wishful thinking involved. There's nothing we can say about it. My mind is really on Borderlands, BioShock 2, Mafia, and then the things we have shortly coming after that. My mind is really not on what some comic guys think.

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beer snob
Premium Supporter
Feb 16, 2009
Milwaukee, WI
good stuff.

i like how they mention that they would rather create fewer, bigger games than mass producing a bunch of games that are poor to average quality. they should sell quite a few copies of bioshock since people will know the name now, so im betting that this approach will pay off for them.