Randy Pitchford on the "tug of war" between creativity and business
Gearbox head says gun violence wouldn't be as big an issue if the NRA acted like the ESRB
During a busy DICE where Quantic Dream's David Cage took the industry to task for acting like irresponsible teenagers by promoting gratuitous violence, GamesIndustry International sat down with another outspoken developer, Gearbox Software boss Randy Pitchford, to get his take on the state of the industry, video game violence, the ESRB, and more.
While Cage is of the opinion that developers are far too frequently making the same types of games over and over again, Pitchford is pleased with the variety of content his peers regularly craft. "I think that there is a huge spectrum of games and we're seeing new stuff all the time. In fact, I would argue that we're seeing more new stuff in today's age - I think it's kind of a renaissance right now - it might not be coming from triple-A blockbusters with $50 million development budgets, but if you look at what's going on with the indie space there's so much wild invention that it's really exciting. I spent a good portion of my holiday break playing FTL, which is really cool," he said.
"As a creator, the idea that our studio can build something with a budget that's two or three times as large as past efforts - oh my god, can you imagine what we can do then?"
With sales declining on the retail side and the industry becoming increasingly hits driven, it's only natural that many in the industry are leaning towards safe bets in familiar franchises and genres. At the same time, there's always a battle between creative expression and the bottom line, Pitchford observed.
"Art runs along a spectrum between expression and commercialism and most artists respect and wish to lean towards the expression side...Most of us live in the middle there and as artists we tend to lean towards the expression side but if we go too far then we spend more than we make and don't get to do anymore and get cut off and then we become starving artists, so we have to always consider that pressure from the commercial side," he acknowledged.
"Within that tug of war there's that leaning towards the expression, that's where the invention will happen, the leaning towards the commercial will want to count on the things that we can count on. So our game that we released last year was Borderlands 2 and it's a sequel to Borderlands. Borderlands, on one level, you can go, well the shooting stuff feels like Halo and the RPG loop is... Yeah, but I never got to eat a Reeses peanut butter cup until somebody decided to mix chocolate and peanut butter and thank goodness because those are so freaking tasty."
With the industry now relying on fewer, bigger hits, the risk for a developer to spend a couple years or more on a project only to break even or, worse yet, not make any money has gotten that much higher. The middle class of game development seems to be going extinct. Pitchford, however, doesn't seem too concerned about the risks of game creation going up.
"I don't think about the future with fear. I tend to think about it with excitement and anticipation and on one level, I love the idea of fewer, bigger bets because I'd love to see what's possible when it makes sense to put more resources than we've ever put into something before. As a creator, the idea that our studio can build something with a budget that's two or three times as large as past efforts - oh my god, can you imagine what we can do then? So it excites me," he said.
"You can look and say - retail, console game business, year-over-year total sales this year is less than last year. Down by 20-25 percent. But then you look at per title sales and it's up by 20-25 percent. Each game that did appear sold more than it did before; there are just fewer games. So it's like fewer, bigger bets really means something and there's an actual affect on the market," he continued. "Is that bad or good? I don't know. I'd rather have fewer things that are awesomer because I can't play all this stuff anyway. You know what I mean? There's just so much that I can't keep up and I'm f***ing hard core. I play games all the time! And I can't keep up so I actually like the idea of fewer, bigger bets. I'm excited by that. And meanwhile, there's so much vibrancy in the indie world and there are so many more tiny bets. There's so much more diversity there. It's really awesome."
When it comes to the issue of violence in games, and whether developers have a moral responsibility to portray violence in more meaningful ways, Pitchford seemed conflicted, but ultimately he thinks most gamers don't buy into gratuitous violence anyway. "I have mixed feelings. I don't think there are thought crimes. I think it's really important that we all stand up for anyone's ability to explore ideas and to express. I think the evidence is that the more a culture can share an experience and understanding through informational media, that the more mature and safe and secure and nonviolent that culture actually becomes," he said, adding, "That said, as a creator and as a consumer, you can see true bullshit. I don't really have a lot of respect for that. If you're going to do something gratuitous just to get my attention and there's no other value to it, I'll see right through it as a customer."
Video game violence has been in the spotlight again lately thanks to the terrible Newtown tragedy and the ongoing gun debate, but Pitchford believes the whole issue could be put to bed if the NRA would only act responsibly. For as much as game developers get frustrated by the ESRB's regulation, most - including Pitchford - recognize that it's for the good of the games industry.
"Imagine if the NRA had the same relationship with the gun industry that the ESRB has with the game industry"
"Think about the world's relationship and the game industry's relationship with the ESRB. The ESRB is our self-regulated ratings body; the industry created this body to put labels on games. Most publishers, we pay for the ESRB, but we also have this high tension relationship. They're really good at their jobs - they hold the industry accountable to fitting within the guidelines of whatever the label is and they will label appropriately. If you cross a line they will put you in a different spot, whether you want to be in that spot or not. And compared to the movie rating system, they have the best awareness and understanding of what their rating system is, and they have the best enforcement. Retail participates. That's awesome," Pitchford noted.
"Imagine if the NRA was actually advocating for gun laws; imagine if the NRA had the same relationship with the gun industry that the ESRB has with the game industry," he continued. "Instead of the NRA saying don't make any laws, now it would be like, 'F**k, the NRA's making me do all this so my guns are safer, and I get why they're doing it but it's kind of a pain in my ass.' That's how the game industry's relationship is with the ESRB. We love that it's there but we've got to deal with shit; we have to go through a process to get the rating. If we don't the retailers won't stock us, and when some of the content pushes the line a little bit they're going to call us on it and we have to deal with that. Imagine if the NRA had that same relationship with its industry, the rest of the country would be like 'Go NRA!' They could be good guys."
Debates over violence aside, Pitchford is hugely excited for the future. With Borderlands 2 selling 6 million and being on pace to become 2K's best-selling title ever, Gearbox feels that it's primed for plenty of growth. We asked Pitchford specifically if he's working on next-gen platforms right now, but he wouldn't get into specifics. He did admit that he already has a vision for the next five years though.
"We haven't announced any of that stuff officially yet, but I'll tell you one thing. I feel like we're just getting started. We learned so much with both Borderlands 2 and Aliens. Each of these things taught us so much and we have so much momentum right now. Borderlands 2 is like - holy crap, it's like a thing... So it kind of feels like the momentum and the vibe at the studio right now - it feels like we just kind of figured out... with the momentum we've got, we apply that to new promises and new angles, holy shit. I can see a bit ahead. I can see ahead about four or five years and we're just getting started."
[Editor's note: It should be pointed out that this interview was conducted prior to Aliens' release and subsequent lambasting by critics]