‘NBA 2K21’: 2K President on the Next-Generation Launch

The new generation of consoles is finally here — and it’s not just Microsoft and Sony hustling to get the new hardware to fans, with the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 both debuting this week.

The development side is certainly feeling the strain as well, especially amid a pandemic, which has both increased demand for games and made it harder to physically produce them. “Cyberpunk 2077,” in one instance, was pushed back for the third time earlier this month, with developer CD Projekt Red citing challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic and prepping the game for both current-generation and next-generation consoles.

Still, a number of games have managed to either debut in time for this week’s next-gen launch or release upgrades to current games for the current consoles. Publisher 2K’s “NBA 2K21” and “Borderlands 3” fit into the latter, with “NBA 2K21” being the only sports simulation ready for next-generation launch day for both consoles.

2K President David Ismailer acknowledges that getting the two AAA games ready for launch was a challenge, especially amid the pandemic. He says at first, the difficulty was getting equipment to developers’ homes — then, the fact that remote work is the new normal needed to sink in. But the next-gen launch, he notes, presented an important opportunity.

“The appropriate analogy I’ve been using recently is that console transitions are like a Formula One pit-stop,” he tells Variety. “It gives us a chance to sometimes catch up to or leap ahead of our competition when these moments occur, and they occur very infrequently. So we want to lean into these moments to make sure we have a great chance to show the consumers what our development teams are capable of.”

With “NBA 2K21,” 2K also made a big step: pricing the game at $70, a $10 price increase from its previous prices, which led to speculation that $70 will become the new standard for next generation.

The move was quickly met with backlash from fans. Ismailer, however, defends the decision, saying it’s “reflecting the high-quality experience” of the new game.

“I think it’s a modest price increase after 15 years where the actual pricing of games has come down in real value,” he says. “We always try to ensure that the consumer gets an experience that’s worth more than what they’re paying, and I think that we feel that this game delivers that.”

Asked to respond to concerns that the price increase could make gaming less accessible to fans, he says, “I think as long as we provide the value for the entertainment experience, and as long as the consumer, after spending $70, feels that they’re engaged with the product enough, I think they will speak for the products, that are worth paying that price for.”

Ismailer also addresses the issue of unskippable ads in the professional basketball series, as introduced last year in “NBA 2K20.” Last month, there was an outcry over unskippable ads playing ahead of the in-game 2KTV segments. At the time, “NBA 2K21” said on Twitter that the “ad placement impacted our players’ experience in a way we didn’t intend, as these ads are not meant to run as part of the pre-game introduction,” vowing to fix the issue for future episodes.

In terms of 2K’s larger strategy regarding in-game ads, however, Ismailer says the speed of the next-generation consoles “gives us an opportunity.”

“Those ads, in some cases, were there because of the way the technology created a gap between loading up portions of the game,” he says. “So I think that we want to make sure the consumer has the best experience that they have, and if those portions of the game aren’t there, they shouldn’t be seeing ads during that time.”

In general, Ismailer says that the company is watching a few narratives as gaming heads into the next generation, one of them being how the improved technology of the new consoles will affect players’ activity. Will they engage more on social, for example, or switch between their games more quickly because the new technology allows them to do so?

But the pandemic, and the increased gaming audience that came with it, includes another variable into the mix.

“As I think we leave the pandemic with a larger audience than we did when we entered the pandemic, the question is, are there more people engaging with games than there were before, and are they engaging with games that provide new experiences to them?” he says. “That’s what I’m looking forward to the most.”

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