2K Games' upcoming Borderlands faces some stiff competition at retail this holiday season. When the Gearbox Software-developed "role-playing shooter" launches October 20 in North America, it won't have to worry about other titles occupying the exact same genre niche. However, it still needs to stand out from a crowd of high-profile titles in established franchises, such as Halo: ODST, Assassin's Creed 2, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and New Super Mario Bros.
Despite that assortment of big-name offerings across all the consoles, 2K Games president Christoph Hartmann told GameSpot the field of contenders is actually light compared to the last stretch of 2008. The executive also touched on the difficulties of launching new intellectual property in the game industry, the decision to switch up Borderlands' art style, and how 2K Games is like an apple tree.
GameSpot: Any particular reasoning for that release window?
Christoph Hartmann: Holidays are a great window for great titles. I don't think we have to be afraid of competition or shy of what's out there. And we believe in the game. It could be one of the big surprises of the year. And by the way, I think this holiday season is a little bit lighter in triple-A games than last year. It's actually a good holiday to put something out.
GS: What are the advantages and drawbacks to launching a new IP in the holiday quarter when the new release shelves are clogged with hit sequels?
CH: There's always risk and opportunity. The risk is you have a hard time standing out against established IP. The opportunity is you have a lot of traffic here, and it can be a much bigger product at retail than it would be otherwise. And there's a lot of core gamers out there who buy more than one game [during the holidays] so it doesn't mean you have to beat the number one game. You could be the number two game and still have tremendous success.
Obviously, that's backed up by our instinct, but there's also a lot of data around that. If you hit a certain quality bar, it really doesn't matter what season you launch.
GS: There have been lots of new IP launches in the last year that met with varying degrees of success: Assassin's Creed, BioShock, Mirror's Edge, Army of Two, Dead Space. What lessons did you learn from those games? Do you think of launching new IP in a different way than three or four years ago?
CH: Well, three or four years ago, we were still in the old generation [of systems], so it was a totally different ballgame. When you say "launched," it sounds like the last month of the production schedule, but for us, it starts much earlier. We always want to be the leaders in innovation because it's not enough to simply take the biggest budget and go out and try to conquer the market with it.
Look at BioShock. Many people would never have done a game like BioShock. We were willing to do it, and it worked. It's the same with Borderlands. There's been a lot of discussion about the [change in] art style. Ultimately, it's a risk we took, but the press loves it, and when the press loves it, we assume the consumers will love it. Look at [Borderland's] RPG element within a shooter. Two years ago when we talked about it, people didn't like it. Now it resonates with people.
I think all that leads to our launch strategy. Basically, what's in the game is going to be the strategy. It means getting the press on your side, making them excited, showing innovation, and getting the consumer excited about trying something new. That's how we build an IP. I don't believe just creating a lot of noise [and not] fulfilling your promise will do anything good for you. I have seen titles with a lot of noise that don't do anything, simply because they didn't resonate with people.
GS: You mentioned the switch in Borderlands' art style as something of a controversial choice, even though it was a new franchise that didn't yet have an established art style. Is that the sort of change in development you could only do because this is a new IP?
CH: You can do any sort of change at any time. It just always comes with a price. Look at the lessons we learned from BioShock. BioShock portrayed a very unique atmosphere, when you look at the water and the rest of Rapture. It's all about emotions.
A good game needs amazing gameplay that's intriguing and pulls you in. It also needs a great, unique atmosphere so that when you stop playing the game, you still have the emotions, like with a movie. We want you to be at a point where you hear a song that's in the game and all those emotions from the game come back to you. And that means far more than the gameplay.
Look at Borderlands. Gearbox created its own universe, with open space, some insides. It didn't immediately have a unique look like [BioShock's] water elements, but what the art does is give it a lot of uniqueness. And it works. Look at movies, like the graphic novel look of 300. People were skeptical, but it's one of my favorite movies. It looks very different to what's out there, but if it were just a standard movie, it wouldn't have worked, maybe.
GS: Will Borderlands have downloadable content?
CH: Yes. I think nowadays it's standard to have DLC. But we're not ready to reveal what is planned.
GS: You mentioned this holiday season may be a little light on titles.
CH: Not light; but it's maybe not as heavy as last year.
GS: Part of that is of Take-Two's own making, with BioShock 2, Mafia II, and Red Dead Redemption being delayed, but there are a lot of publishers that seem more willing to push their holiday games out into the early part of the following year. Is the holiday release window less important than it once was?
CH: I think it has nothing to do with the release window. It's a great window, and everyone knows it. It's that the quality bar goes higher and higher. Ultimately, to be commercially successful, you need a triple-A product. And everyone knows pushing a product out the door just isn't going to get you there, so they're going to do the right thing.
The great thing for the consumer is that normally when they pick up a game from the big publishers, they know they're going to get a quality, triple-A product. And that's a huge improvement from the last generation where they maybe didn't have that guarantee.
GS: Are you looking at the late 2009-early 2010 lineup as a turning point in Take-Two growing beyond its reliance on Grand Theft Auto?
CH: I can't really talk for Take-Two since I'm the president of 2K. But let's put it this way. Three or four years ago, we had a little seed. We put it out in the field and wanted to grow an apple tree. We had two nice apples there with The Darkness and BioShock. Then there was the apple called Civilization, which was a little bit of an import. But now the tree's going to blossom. It's going to have more and more fruits, and I think you'll see that. Borderlands is going to be one of those perfect apples on there, then you've got BioShock 2 and Mafia II coming. And then there are a few unannounced games, I'm not going to tell you about that perfectly fit into there.