Aliens: Colonial Marines dev discusses the highs and lows of triple-A development (exclusive)

Borderlands 2

GamesBeat: The milestone thing is a good point, but there’s definitely a trend in our industry where there’s something else going on. You see the L.A. Noire team. They come out and they talk about how oppressive the working conditions were. There’s the “EA spouse” controversy and lawsuit and a million other different things. Then you also have Yager claiming that the multiplayer was forced upon Spec Ops by Borderlands 2 publisher 2K Games.

The most recent one, which is still this nebulous thing, is the doctors leaving BioWare. “We’re done with games.” There’s probably a lot of different reasons for that, but you just wonder one of them even hinted at it when he said BioWare’s relationship with publisher Electronic Arts is like a “bear hug.” That was the quote.

Pitchford: Yeah.

GamesBeat: It’s probably the nicest way that he could have put it, right? What are your thoughts on that specific element of our industry?

Pitchford: The reality is that … with what we do, especially in all of those examples you mentioned that are big triple-A kinds of things, we’re talking about real money being invested. Our video games budgets at that level of triple-A can exceed $50 million dollars. For example, [Aliens: Colonial Marines ships this week]. This is a video game that’s a sequel to the movie Aliens. I’m not gonna speak specifically, but the budget … we know what triple-A games cost. We can recall that James Cameron’s movie cost him like $18 million dollars. [Laughs] OK? Now we’re like, “Wait a minute. We’re on a different scale here.”

The industry rationalizes this. These aren’t reckless decisions. There’s a lot of opportunity with great promise that can reach people. There’s a lot of demand for the work we do. But there’s a lot of folks that have a lot of stake in these decisions. You can see publishing units affected massively. The needle will swing in a big way depending on the results of these things. These guys are on the stock market. They’re publicly traded. That’s just the way it is. You’ve got a lot of people that have something at stake. You have a lot of creatives that have something at stake. Even within a team… You might hear one guy’s comment. You mentioned Team Bondi. I imagine if you could sit down and interview every single person on the team, you would have a spectrum of perspectives. You’d find the most energetic guy who just loved everything that was going on. Maybe he comes off a little more like me. Then you’re going to have a guy who might sound like he was being driven like a slave.

We put a lot on ourselves as creators. We’re constantly walking this balance between the expression side of our art form and the commercial side of our art form. It is art. But the difference between expression and commercialism is wide. The expressive artist only creates because he must get something out. He doesn’t care if anyone ever sees it. In fact, most of the weird stuff and all of your starving artists are in expression-artist land. The extreme end point of that, most of us can’t even parse that stuff. It doesn’t have any value to us because it’s so bizarre we can’t relate to it. Then, on the other extreme end with the commercial stuff, you get this soulless…

[Randy uses the decor of his hotel suite that we’re doing the interview in to illustrate his point, but it’s kind of one of those “had to be there” things with lots of hand gestures.]

Randy Pitchford

He or she is creating this object for this specific commercial purpose. It doesn’t mean it’s any less art. I’m just saying, those are the two end points of the spectrum. Farther than this, even, the further you get towards commercialism, the more soulless and almost valueless it is. You can feel that it doesn’t have heart. You can’t sense the creator when you get too far to the commercial side.

So there’s this wide spectrum. Most of us live in the middle somewhere. But there’s a tug-of-war, a constant balance. As artists, we all wish we lived more on the expression side, but in order to not go out of business — in order to make a little bit more than we spend, or at least as much as we spend – and succeed and be able to do it again, there’s this pressure towards the commercial side. Now, imagine you are a creative who wants to lean towards the expressive side. You’re working with a lot of people, because we’re not just single individuals in this. There’s a lot of this and we’re all navigating this process together. We’re trying to collaborate. We’re dealing with our own interests. Imagine you’re on the creative side and you’re leaning expressionist.

There’s a force that’s this commercial force. It’s trying to push you in this other direction. The reason it’s trying to push you in that direction is because it wisely knows that if you make something that does not have an audience, you will not make back what you spent. If you make less than you spent, you’re done. You need to make a little bit more than you spent so it makes sense to put more money into that endeavor, versus just buying a certificate of deposit at the bank. There’s various ROIs and investment expects certain returns to go with certain risks. There’s a certain point where it’s a better bet to just go in there and put it all on black instead of betting on some of these video games, thinking from an investment point of view and a commercial point of view, if that’s your interest. There’s that tension…

GamesBeat: You definitely get your result faster that way.

Pitchford: [Laughs] Yeah, right? There’s value in that, too. Mindshare value is tremendous, too. There’s a lot of investment in mindshare, just in the contemplation of the options and the decisions. That’s valuable time. Time is one of the most valuable resources we have in this world. So imagine this tension. You wish you were over here, because you’re an artist and you feel this need for expression. I’m definitely in that world. You’re feeling these forces pulling you the other way, and you compromise. You feel, in the moment, that you should compromise. But then the results happen and you didn’t get the payoff.

You have a result like Spec Ops, or you have a result like L.A. Noire, the two things you mentioned. Both were fine games. But I think anyone that was creating those games, whether you’re involved on the money side all the way over to the guy who spent the least amount of time painting a model. It doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum of all the people involved. Everyone involved in that, in both of those examples, wished for higher review scores and more sales. Everywhere on that spectrum, they feel like they compromised towards the other end.

There’s a natural bitterness that could emerge from that. You mentioned the bearhug. I love Ray and Greg. I’ve known those guys for some time now. I think I know Ray a little bit more than Greg. Those guys have been at it for a long time. I think that was — again, I don’t want to speak for Greg, but I think that when he said the bear hug thing — we can look back at all of the acquisitions that EA has ever made, and I think he’s nodding and acknowledging what people might imagine it’s like. He’s giving it some credence, that there is a relationship there. But EA — look at [John Riccitiello]’s situation. Riccitiello left EA and started, what is it, Elevation Partners? They acquired BioWare and Pandemic for some ridiculous sum. Then he left that and rejoined EA and bought these entities back from his own thing for two and a half, three times the money. He made this huge bet.

Then we have the results, like Star Wars. I played it. I was a day one customer and a subscriber. I’m not going to criticize. I don’t know how hard that is. I know how hard I can imagine it is, and I have a tremendous amount of experience. I’m sure it was infinitely more complicated than I can even imagine, and I’m imagining quite a lot given the experience that I’ve had. And yet still, you come out on the other end of it and I think it’s the same kind of thing. I think they all wished for a better critical reception. They wanted more love from their customers. They wish they made more money and reached more people and sold more units and had more subscribers than they actually experienced. All of them feel something from that. I think Greg was definitely very invested in that one, more so than Ray. We know EA was. That’s really interesting, right?

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