“I enjoyed almost all of your questions,” Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford says with a smile as we conclude our hour-long interview.
Those words from the outspoken Borderlands developer (who is apparently big on magic tricks) have left me wondering which question(s) didn’t go over so well. I always aim to take a tough but fair conversational approach, and Pitchford is particularly hard to read because, as he explains below, he’s almost always happy — to the point where he wonders if he’s “broken” and envies fellow developers who experience more dramatic emotional ups and downs during game development.
But Pitchford does have a lot to be happy about. Publisher 2K Games recently announced that Borderlands 2 has sold over six million copies worldwide, and Gearbox’s next title, Aliens: Colonial Marines, is now out. So I wanted to get Pitchford’s thoughts on a number of topics, most notably the state of triple-A game development and whether the role of publisher has become to help or hinder the creative teams.
GamesBeat: A discussion appeared on Twitter recently about whether the Borderlands 2 character of Tiny Tina was potentially racist. Someone asked lead writer Anthony Burch that if he felt it was inappropriate, would he go back and change his dialogue in the original game? Burch basically replied that it was technically impossible.
Randy Pitchford: You can, but the difficulty of that is —
GamesBeat: Maybe “improbable” is more like it? [Laughs]
Pitchford: And there are some people you’ll never be able to reach, because there’s physical media that’s in a box. It’s not connected to the Internet. There are people playing offline. We care about that guy. There’s nothing we could do there.
GamesBeat: My question is, if there was something larger — in any game, not just Borderlands — like an entire character that was instrumental to the story, do you think it’s worth a studio actually going back and changing it?
Pitchford: If you want to imagine infinite hypothetical scenarios, I bet we can. I’m a reasonably creative person. I’m sure you are, too. I bet we can imagine a scenario where everything should be on the table. I bet we can create a scenario where … “Who cares what is going on? Let’s change this!” Because the scenario we’ve created makes that the right decision. But we’re inventing a scenario. The reality is that it’s unlikely that we can create anything where some outside force would be so significant as to move that immovable object. Everything is on the table.
GamesBeat: I think Mass Effect 3 kind of proves that there are those scenarios, and gamers have — hopefully — started to feel that if they voice their opinions and band together intelligently, they may be able to make a difference.
Pitchford: I thought the Mass Effect 3 thing was really awesome and interesting. In one respect — I will confess, I didn’t finish Mass Effect 3, so I didn’t experience the ending myself. And I didn’t play the DLC. I’m not even sure if it came out yet. But I watched a bit of what was unfolding there. I thought, “Here’s a situation where, clearly, there’s a lot of love for this game. There’s a lot of love for this property, or else there would be no comments about it.
Here’s a situation where customers are saying, “I wanted something and I didn’t get it.” I think that’s a great position to be in if you’re a creator. Customers are saying, “I WANT SOMETHING FROM YOU AND YOU HAVEN’T GIVEN IT TO ME.” Well, fuck, that’s great! I can just give you something, and I already know you want it! Sweet! This is easy! I’ll just create that. Here, you can buy it. The hardest thing in the world is to try to imagine the thing that doesn’t exist yet that we can bet that customers will wish they had. If we can know in advance that they wish to have something, and all we have to do is manifest it, it makes it really easy to commit to manifesting it.
GamesBeat: It’s kind of like how dogs and cats can’t talk, so you never know when they’re sick or where it hurts. They can’t tell you how to fix them.
Pitchford: The fact that we’re increasingly in a world where creators and consumers of what we create can interact and entertain premises that we throw at one another, without necessarily accepting them — they can throw a premise out there and entertain what that would mean for a property or a brand or an experience or whatever. Customers and creators are doing this simultaneously. That’s really neat. The fact that, when we create something and put it into the world. It’s kind of not ours anymore. It becomes the world’s. The world’s position on what it is and what it should be almost becomes more important than whatever the creator imagined.
GamesBeat: Not everyone feels that way.
Pitchford: The old way, you couldn’t have that interaction. That’s why George Lucas happened. He grew up in a time when we didn’t have all these tools and these methods of interacting, but he created something we all passionately loved. It became ours. It was mine. Star Wars is mine, you know? But the creator feels that it’s his. We’re in this world now where because we’re having these interactions and we’re feeling that it works. It’s creating better results sometimes, when we’re interacting and we’re listening to each other. We’re offering stuff, and we’re hearing each other, and we’re letting that affect us. That creates better results than when we keep ourselves in the tunnel. The guy that stays in the tunnel gets punished for that.
GamesBeat: That perfectly segues into my question about the Borderlands 2’s level cap. I maxed out my Commando at 50 about halfway through my second playthrough.
Pitchford: You’re hardcore.
GamesBeat: That was before the game even came out. I didn’t sleep, I had a deadline! [Laughs]
Pitchford: Dude, that’s awesome. I like to hear that.
GamesBeat: And so I completed a quest right after that.
Pitchford: See, you did that before the game came out. Wow. That’s crazy. I don’t want to interrupt you, but I looked at it in December, and in December about 16.5 percent of all people who’ve ever played Borderlands 2 had a single character achieve level 50. I have some new questions from our data mining stuff that I’m going to get an answer to soon. The data is so much. We’re moving in this world where we have to start doing “big data” management. Sometimes we have so much data that to just answer a simple question, we have to dedicate a machine to processing the data and it doesn’t spit out an answer for days.
GamesBeat: Because there’s so much information?
Pitchford: There’s just so much data to parse. We’re collecting everything, but we’re not … it’s just stored as raw chunks of stuff. Google is fast because it can know exactly … it’s not fast because it can look at everything and find the right thing. It’s fast because it’s indexed itself and it knows exactly where to go for any given query. We have everything. We don’t know where the stuff is that we want. We have to look at everything and add up little bits along the way.
GamesBeat: Do you plan to make one of those infographics where it’s like 700 million Bullymongs run over … ?
Pitchford: That would be cool. Maybe we should. Would that be interesting?
GamesBeat: Of course! I love those. It’s good insight.
Pitchford: OK, cool. I’ll toss that up as something we should do. We’ve redone and re-architected the way we’re managing our data. We’re in a big data world, and we never anticipated that we would be. What we kind of did, but we didn’t architect for it, because our Shift stuff, which is the way that … it doesn’t matter which platform you play it on. There’s an interaction between us and the software. That’s a whole new infrastructure. Most people don’t have anything like that. Even the ones that do, they’re like in 1 or 1.5. This is our 1.0. Anyway, I totally derailed. You were going somewhere?
GamesBeat: Right, so I hit level 50, and I completed one quest after that. I got a ton of experience and it just bounced off, because if you hit the cap XP becomes useless. I was like, “Oh, my God. I don’t want to play anymore.” [Laughs] I felt like I’d be wasting my time or wasting that precious XP. I just stopped. I have the season pass, so I’ve downloaded everything, but I haven’t played any of it.
Pitchford: Experience drives toward leveling up. You want that to also be in the loop when you’re experiencing the new campaign content, so you’re holding off on the campaign content until you have that. That makes a lot of sense.
GamesBeat: Partially because I know it’s coming, but I don’t know when. It even says in the achievement, “Capped out … for now.”
Pitchford: Yeah, “for now,” right. That’s a good indicator. We did it in Borderlands one.
GamesBeat: Especially with my Commando, there’s all these skill tree combinations that I want to do that I just need a few more skill points to get to.
Pitchford: That’s by design. Some of those things start to become game-breaking. This has actually created a huge problem for us. We designed the skills really well this time, but we did, for better or for worse, make a lot of the decisions with the knowledge that there will be no more skill points available to put into any trees after you reach level 50. We knew the impossible configurations. Some of the design exploits that. Some of the impossible configurations, if they were possible, would break the game. Sometimes very literally. “Oh, that’s gonna blow memory. Your Xbox will crash.”
We, as customers and gamers ourselves, hear the fans. People want to level up more. It makes sense. We totally get it. We did it in Borderlands 1, so we have the precedent. And we’re gonna break our fucking game if we change the math. If we change it up, who knows what the balance will do? People don’t want to just level up. They also want the game to level up with them. If I’m level 55 and everybody else is level 50, it’s a walkover. I want to get level 55 gear if I’m level 55. I want to fight level 55 enemies. Then we have to make the whole game over again.
It becomes this really “Oh, shit, have we painted ourselves into a corner here?” Yes, the Achievement indicates that some of us, somewhere, wrote that Achievement and anticipated it, just as many customers do, because of the last game. But we’re now in this world where we’re confronting the reality of what it means to do that work, and it’s terrifying and challenging. It’s easy to imagine, when we’re playing the game, “We could just change the number, and everything would be fine.” No, dude, there’s a lot. This is the most fundamental thing about the game. It’s a big deal.
GamesBeat: Are you saying that you used the word “anticipated.” But you didn’t map it out much ahead of time?
Pitchford: No. When we finished Borderlands 2, everything that we imagined was in Borderlands 2. Once that was finished, OK, now what do we do? We had just started asking ourselves, “OK, do we want to level up some more?” All of us do. A lot of us have level 50s as well. It’s time to tackle that. We dug in, and we were like, “Oh, shit. This is really hard. This is going to take a lot of time. It’s going to be really expensive. Oh, my God.” And we’ve got all these other priorities and all these other things to do. So we’re in the middle of that. That’s the world we’re living in right now. We’re excited about the goal, both as gamers and as creators. But … I mean, I’m not gonna lie. It’s a big challenge. It’s a big undertaking. It’s not going to just turn on. It’s a thing we have to work ourselves through.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about–
Pitchford: By the way, I don’t know where the story ends, either. We’re in the middle of it. There might be things that aren’t going to work the same way. We might have to radically change the game. We have to think, “What’s more important? Do you we maintain these skills, or do we let people level up? What if we have to change skills?” We shipped the game with this shield that was totally broken.
GamesBeat: The Bee?
Pitchford: Yeah, the Bee. A player that’s spec’d right can just melt the hardest boss in the game solo in like four to five seconds. That’s obviously not by design, right? If you go in, and you can melt Terramorphous in five seconds because you’re using a Conference Call and a Bee shield and you’re spec’d with a Gunzerker for throughput, that’s clearly not any designer’s intent. That’s a bug. That’s the one nerf we’ve ever done, and we got so much rage.
GamesBeat: You nerfed Amp Shields in general, right?
Pitchford: It was a number of related things. The way we had divided up certain effects across weapons … . The shotgun, for example, we did the math wrong. Every single pellet was being affected instead of just the shot. Then, when we fixed it, we did the math wrong again. We did it wrong differently. It’s really complicated stuff, so I forgive us. [Laughter] The intent was beautiful. The intent and the commitment to improve was there. That’s really important. But I’m grateful. We were going fast, too. We do this thing, and we know people want it. It looks right, and it feels right, and we test it, and we deliver it. Then suddenly we’ve got 6 million beta testers. “Oh, we found something.” “Oh, shit, we didn’t see that.” We did a lot of testing, thousands of hours. But we didn’t notice that because the fans have done millions of hours in one day.
GamesBeat: I feel like a lot of people expected the DLC to raise the level cap. That was what they were waiting for, and then it would also help them get more out of the DLC and their season pass.
Pitchford: I think that’s a fair expectation because we did offer a level cap increase in Borderlands 1 in line with the third DLC.
GamesBeat: And then another one after that.
Pitchford: Actually, that one was just detached. We felt like we made a mistake when we attached the level cap increase to the DLC. The second level cap increase in Borderlands 1 was completely detached. You didn’t have to buy a DLC to get it. That was a different kind of mistake. We learned lessons from that step as well. We did fix the earlier mistake, but there are others.
GamesBeat: It’s a Jenga tower.
Pitchford: You try it differently. “Oh, there’s some things with that too.” So we learn. We don’t want to make … . We are taking risks, and we are in uncharted territory very often, especially with this game. It’s a wild game. We haven’t done it before. No one’s done this kind of game before. We will make big mistakes, and we’ll make them often. But I’ll be damned if we want to make the same mistake twice. Our approach on this one is to try not to repeat mistakes we’ve already been aware of, that we’ve already experienced.
At the same time, we don’t want to make new mistakes. They’re inevitable when you do things you haven’t done before. Sometimes you stumble when you push yourself harder and you’re trying to run faster or whatever. We forgive ourselves, pick ourselves up, and keep running. We don’t cry and stop running because we skinned our knee. We definitely do not want to repeat mistakes we made before. Sometimes we trap ourselves. We get painted into corners on things. It’s tricky. But we’re committed to it. But yeah, I think that’s a fair expectation, given Borderlands 1.
[In response to the controversy surrounding Pitchford’s above comments, he confirmed that a level cap increase for Borderlands 2 will be released “this year.”]
GamesBeat: So, I’ve actually wanted to speak to you for a long time, for a very specific reason. I’ve been in games press for several years, and one of the biggest trends I’ve seen is that, when you pull back the curtain, a lot of the magic seems to have been sucked out of game development.
You encounter a ton of people who are just really stressed out because of mismanagement, or because the people above them are not always in it for the same reasons that the creative types are. The glimmer in their eyes is gone. They’ve become those little potato people from The Dark Crystal.
So you’re one of the extremely rare people I’ve ever picked up on where you have this constant enthusiasm for making games.
Pitchford: Well, thank you. I don’t know why I’m wired that way. Sometimes I notice that some of the people I interact with can swing a lot. I don’t swing at all. Some people have these incredible highs. If you could measure how happy someone is on a scale of one to 10, sometimes they’re really depressed and down around two or three or something. But when they swing high they go up to 11 or 12. I spend my whole life at around eight or nine. [Laughs] I don’t really have much deviation. It’s strange. Maybe I’m flawed in some way, but whatever. Thank you. I’ll take the flattery. Which I think is what you meant by that.
GamesBeat: Definitely. So going off of what I said, what do you think are some of the things in your experience that can lead to those twos and threes?
Pitchford: That’s so interesting. You’ve decided to ask the person you’ve pre-identified as someone who always tends to be high about what makes someone low. [Laughs] I’m probably the least qualified person to answer that.
GamesBeat: But at the same time, you have seen it, right?
Pitchford: Yeah, I have. We’re all wired a little bit differently, but I know that chemically, in our brains, a lot of what affects how we feel is related to chemical processes. How much our brain is producing dopamine or serotonin and other related chemicals. It’s a thrilling enterprise, what we do. This blend between the subjective of entertainment … we’re in the business of emotion in many respects. It’s very amorphous. It’s a non-science. It’s an art.
But on the other hand, there’s the technology, which is all science. You have this interesting blend of subjectivity and the very rigid rule set involved in the way we interact with these machines. It’s a very unique combination. It’s very, very difficult to navigate. The puzzle is exciting. It’s very thrilling to crack those nuts, and there’s a million of them in any given video game development. When we crack those nuts, we feel a thrill. Then there’s this moment where we’re going to launch something and there’s a huge number of things to do, an absurd volume of just Things To Do that have to be managed and tracked. While we’re going through this process, our brains tend to adapt to what we need from them. We’re producing more endorphins. We’re producing more serotonin. We’re becoming addicted to our own brain chemicals.
The most obvious time is when we ship, or when we reach a major milestone, or when we finish a big push. Arbitrarily, the pressure changes, and all of those chemicals stop. We very literally go through withdrawal. It changes our chemistry. Some of us are very susceptible to that. I think it’s fundamentally a chemical thing. For some reason – I don’t know why – but I don’t work in the same way. I tend to have even doses throughout. Sometimes I’m kind of disappointed, because I look at the people who have wide swings and I see how high they can get. I go, “Man, that guy is just stoked right now. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that high.” But I also don’t have the lows. I have learned that when we understand that this is our brains playing with us, we can affect it.
I’ve known some incredibly smart engineers and programmers that have absurd ability to reason. Very rational people. But they’re still human beings and they’re still affected by the same chemicals. They’ll go into depression after a big milestone. Just the knowledge, the education about the brain is working, helps them defeat that. “Yeah, I’m depressed right now, but that’s chemical withdrawal. I’m gonna ignore it and do what I need to do.” That’s a hyper-rational mind at work.
Perhaps, and this is just me hypothesizing… I know that oftentimes in game development, particularly in triple-A game development, we go through these spurts and these phases. Often, PR rounds are scheduled in line with the completion of major processes and sequences and these iterative bursts. You might be frequently seeing people that are involved in the process at the points where they’re most likely to be going through those withdrawals, because some major effort has been finished and the new effort hasn’t yet been contemplated. The new iterations that are built on whatever that last phase was haven’t yet been put upon all the minds that are involved in the process. That’s just a hypothesis, but it’s interesting. You might be in a better spot to test that than I would.
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.
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.]
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?
GamesBeat: The financial burden or expectation of these triple-A games has very notably shifted a lot of franchises towards the Call of Duty demographic. A perfect example that came out recently is Dead Space 3. That’s one specific example, but there are quite a few more. At a very high, top level, it seems to be like executives are turning to each other and saying, “We need to emulate what’s popular.” Then the creative side is caught in that tug-of-war.
Pitchford: I don’t know that it’s really about emulating what’s popular. I think the real situation is: You have a brand. It has credibility. It’s earned an audience. When you’re going to follow it up, you think to yourselves, “What can we do? We can do anything. What do we want to set for ourselves as goals? Do we want to reach more people? Or do we want to please the same number of people in the same way? Do we want to reach more people or not?” That’s a question. Then, usually, the answer is, “Oh, yeah, we’d love to grow the brand.” Nobody says, “You know want? I want to keep the brand the same.” More people should say that, but not many do. I’ll give you a personal example about that in a moment, if you’re interested.
Pitchford: No one says, “We really want to shrink the brand, actually. Let’s reach fewer people.” No one says that. Usually it’s, “I want to reach more people.” Then they think, “How do we do that?” They look at, “What was our limiting factor? What keeps us from reaching more people? Was it the marketing? Was it the positioning? Was it the design? Was it a component of the premise or the promise of the game? Was it the story? Was it the style? Or was it the actual gameplay?” They ask themselves these questions. The most introspective and self-critical people I know in this industry are people in the craft, people that make things.
I know how I feel as a programmer and as a designer. I’m in this constant battle with myself. I call it the artist’s dilemma. We can imagine something so perfect and so beautiful that we’ll never realize. All artists deal with this. I don’t care if you’re painting the Mona Lisa. The thing that is in the mind of the artist is way better than what is possible with the actual material and the actual labors of our hands. We’re always going to fall short. But those of us that are driven to get better, we use that experience to want to get better. We’re very introspective people. I imagine this team, talking about Dead Space 3… Again, I have not played Dead Space 3 yet. I look forward to it. But I imagine this team thinking to itself, “We do want to reach more people. How do we do that? We can do better. Where can we do this? We’re not going to blame it on marketing…”
And I’m not suggesting that there’s any blame to lay. We’re not going to assume that gains can be earned by other people’s responsibilities. As a craftsman, I’m going to assume that I have to gain it myself through the decisions I make and the work that I do. You can go bigger, faster, harder. That’s a fine strategy. But it’s hard to create precipitous results from that. You can get incremental… “Oh, if I go faster, better, harder, I might increase by five or 10 percent.” But a lot of the dreaming goes more like, “What if we could double our audience?” If you’re a first-person game, you know what the ceiling is. Whatever the game that sold the most in our respective genre, that’s the ceiling. Is that a hard ceiling? Can we push it even further? You start asking yourself these questions. “We’ve got a 22-million-unit ceiling for Call of Duty. Is that a hard ceiling? Where’s my ceiling? How do I move that up a little bit?” You start thinking about your design and questioning your design. You make decisions and changes. This can sometimes do the job.
But we have some other things going on when we have a brand. That is, we have the hopes and dreams of the customers that have been with us before. What happens is … I’m gonna use the bear hug. Imagine we’ve got these customers. We’ve got these little guys that loved us when we made Dead Space and Dead Space 2. We’re thinking, “There’s all these other people out there we haven’t reached. This group is great and we love them, but there’s all these … what do I do?” I can maybe take one of these kinds of strategies [makes a tight bear-hug squeeze]. Or I can maybe bearhug in close and do a wider sweep in. You can go like … [opens his arms as wide as he can] you’re basically letting go of everything so you can reach out and pull it all in. Sometimes people try to do this.
Every time you open your arms just a bit, release that just a bit, there’s a risk that people will seep out. To whatever extent I was a lover of Dead Space one or 2, and I’m playing Dead Space 3, and what I wished for because of my prior expectations isn’t being delivered, I might have feelings about that if I’m an existing customer. But if I’m a new customer, I’m starting fresh. We’re still calling these things one, two, three, four … it’s this weird problem. I was in it.
A couple of years ago at E3, we announced a game called Brothers in Arms: Furious 4. Before that moment, when we were working on the game, we started playing with some game mechanics — we were getting very creative. By the way, we didn’t … the design iteration wasn’t the same problem that I was just speaking to earlier. Game designers just want to explore and try new things. We’re apt to do that because we get bored of the stuff we’ve already done. It progressed to this state where the core loop and some of the things that were going on weren’t perfectly compatible with what we remember from a very different Brothers in Arms game. Some people said it was like a Quentin Tarantino kind of action thing, not the Saving Private Ryan approach. It was more like the Inglourious Basterds kind of approach, just in tone. That’s a style point of view.
Above: Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway
Image Credit: Gearbox Software
From a gameplay point of view, we were all-in for co-op. We loved all these shared-experience kinds of levels we were reaching with our experience making the Borderlands games. We were exploring that and playing with that in that space. We were backing off of the puzzle space of squad combat and using fire and maneuver. We were backing off of that and getting towards this more action-oriented, shared experience, pace-driven kind of thing. From a design point of view, there were some radical iterations there. It got to a point where when we announced it … most critics have to consume a lot of stuff. They don’t love the one thing. Most of the critics looked at it and thought, “Wow, that looks really fun.” Our most hardcore, loyal Brothers in Arms fans were like, “Fuck that. That is not fucking Brothers in Arms. What the fuck are you doing? Burn that fucking thing to the ground. I hate that thing.”
They didn’t even want to parse it for what it was, because what it represented to them was the destruction of the thing that they cared about. It wasn’t the thing that they cared about, yet it was named after the thing that they cared about. And they’re right. They were right. So we went to E3. We had a good time. We felt it was a good show for the game. But what I let happen there was … I said, “Look, you guys are cooking. Unhinge yourself from Brothers in Arms and just cook. You’re going in awesome places. Just unhinge yourself from Brothers in Arms.” It was, I think, about six months or so… A while back I said, “Hey, the next time people see what that is, it’s going to be a new brand. It’s not going to be a Brothers in Arms game. You might not even recognize it.” The people that are watching closely, they’ll see the DNA there. But it’s iterating to a whole new place.
Meanwhile, we know what Brothers in Arms is. We love it and we will do something there. I haven’t announced anything yet, but I had to acknowledge that I was falling into that trap. Or our studio was falling into it. There wasn’t even a mandate. It wasn’t like there was a suit saying, “DO THIS.” I wasn’t directing it. This was just designers wishing to try new things and push new boundaries. But they started from, “Hey, we’re going to make another Brothers in Arms game.” We were able to recognize that and say, “The best game that that can be will be even better if it just unhinges itself from Brothers in Arms.” Meanwhile, Brothers in Arms is awesome! We should make a Brothers in Arms game and we should commit to what it’s supposed to be, instead of trying to turn it into something else.
Take-Two did their earnings announcement, revealing that Borderlands 2 has sold over six million units, which is awesome. Maybe the ceiling for Brothers in Arms is like three or four million units. That’s cool. I can be very profitable with three or four million units. There’s a budget that we can do amazing things with that is a very intelligent budget given those kinds of results. And that’s fine. I don’t need to worry about, “How the hell am I gonna get 20? Let’s spend like we’re gonna have 20, even though we have no idea if we’re going to get there. I’m gonna disappoint people who want it to be what it is and I’ll risk spending a lot more than I make.” That’s a bad decision. The good decision is, “Let’s let that be what it’s supposed to be and make a sensible and disciplined decision about what to invest in it, based on expected results. Then, if we’re having fun in this other direction and there’s value we’re creating there, we love creating new things.”
We’re not afraid to take risks. I mean, look at Borderlands. We’re not afraid of trying … let’s just go there and we’ll figure out a way to create value out of that too. I was really proud of us as a studio when we identified that and we figured that out. We made that tough call. I’m not going to lie. There was a tremendous amount of tension it created with our publishing partners on that. But we resolved that tension and everything is fine. I know that if we weren’t a strong independent … if we weren’t in a spot where we didn’t need any single thing … a lot of these guys are so dependent on a thing, they can’t risk damaging it. We’re in a spot where we have multiple brands. We’re strong enough to where I don’t need any single thing. I can take the risks. “I think this is what needs to be done with it, and it might break it if we go there, but this is what we have to do. If it breaks that’s probably a better result than going down the wrong path.” So yeah. Does any of that make sense?
GamesBeat: Yeah. That answered a couple of questions. [Laughs] You mentioned PR earlier. You’re actually a little bit notorious for breaking PR plans, in that you’ll talk about whatever you want to talk about.
Pitchford: Yeah. That’s one of the consequences. No one can fire me, so … [Laughs] only customers can fire me.
GamesBeat: Do you think that you’ve gained or earned a position within the industry where you have this unique standpoint?
Pitchford: I don’t know. Maybe you could tell me. I’m just being who I am and doing what I’m doing.
GamesBeat: I think the fact that you said, “Only customers can fire me” — that’s not a position a lot of people have.
Pitchford: That is true. Yeah, that is true. When I think about that, there are very few of us that are in that seat. In fact, most of the heads of publishers — their challenge is that there’s a board of directors and there’s shareholders. They have like three masters, right? A board of directors, shareholders, and then the actual customer. That’s a challenge. Those guys are amazing, to me. Being able to manage these disparate constituencies… Holy crap. That’s an art form. We vilify them and we imagine horns on the heads of these guys that are the heads of publishing companies, but just knowing what I know and the things I have to manage and the different constituencies I have to deal with to successfully navigate these shark-infested waters … I must acknowledge the challenge of what these guys do and give them tremendous deference. I don’t know if I would put myself in that position. [Laughs] I do have it a bit easier, because I really do only have to, ultimately, concern myself with our customers. By being a single-minded advocate for the end user, I can take those other kinds of risks that you might not be able to take if you had more than one master.
GamesBeat: But by advocating for the fans and the customers and doing hard things like you did with —
Pitchford: It’s hard enough as it is. I don’t even succeed. [Laughs] Even with that single goal, a single aim, I don’t always succeed. Sometimes I fail.
GamesBeat: Yet you have obviously pleased quite a few people, especially with the Borderlands series, by, as you said, taking creative risks and doing the thing that’s best for the game and best for the customers, as you illustrated with the Brothers in Arms example. Because as you said, we imagine the vilified publishers. They have the shareholders and their other masters, all with financial reasoning for the decisions that directly impacts game design. Do you feel like it’s a conflict, where who they’re answering to and what they have to do conflicts with creating the best possible game?
Pitchford: I think that the more people who have involved in an effort, the more possibility there is of disparate interests. Any time you have even slightly misaligned interests, there will be some tension in the resolution of which interests have higher priority. When something is on the table where the interests become mutually exclusive. That tension has to be resolved. But it’s just part of the process. Any one of us that chooses to be resentful or scream about it … OK, solve it or work with it. Do it differently. You’re welcome to. It’s a free, open world. Any of us can do whatever it is that we want to do. You’re welcome to try to do it differently if you have a better way. Some people do. Sometimes they try and their way is better. Sometimes they try and their way isn’t. Or, given what is there, find a way to work with it and make it work. Turn all of that power into a resource instead of a detriment.
There’s a million things that are going to kill you in any endeavor. A million things are going to stop you in any endeavor. You can let that defeat you, or you can say, “Well, OK, here’s something that is driven by a motive, an interest. That’s power. That’s potential energy. Let’s turn that into kinetic energy.” If you understand what’s driving it, tap into that in some way. Let it work in your favor. There’s a lot of things to think about, a lot of angles, a lot of complexity to it. It can become overwhelming for some people. But I think it’s exciting. I think it’s terrific, frankly. I’d be bored to death in most other endeavors. There’s so many components to it. It’s endlessly stimulating.
By the way, I do want to make sure that it’s clear that. when I interact, I’m speaking on behalf of my studio. When I say “my studio,” I really mean “our studio.” Gearbox is a team. There are awesome people, lots of awesome people, who I’m thrilled to work for. I was talking about how my real constituency is the customer. What I really mean is that our real constituency is the customer. In fact, I might argue – if I debate all my interests intellectually – that I’m probably more working for my studio, rather than working for the customer. But my studio is directed toward the customer. The most important thing that we all have given to Gearbox is we’ve created a culture which exists only to entertain. That is its purpose. That is a very customer-minded kind of approach. Some of the pronouns and the weakness of language might suggest that I speak as if it’s a one-man show, and that can’t even be any farther from the truth. There’s a lot of people involved.
It’s impossible for a guy like you to talk to every person on the team. Here’s this body of work that’s clearly complex and clearly a lot of people are involved. We tend to attribute it to the figurehead. As talent, as someone who started as just a humble programmer and a lone designer on the team, I have a lot of love for everyone that I am so privileged to work with every day. I never want to take anything away from the company, the studio, the team.