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Randy Pitchford on the "tug of war" between creativity and business

Randy Pitchford on the "tug of war" between creativity and business

Fri 01 Mar 2013 8:39pm GMT / 3:39pm EST / 12:39pm PST
PublishingDevelopmentDICE 2013

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?"

Randy Pitchford

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."

1

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"

Randy Pitchford

"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]

14 Comments

Andreia Quinta
Creative & People Photographer

214 535 2.5
Popular Comment
It's all very nice and interesting to read what he said, but then Aliens happened...

Posted:A year ago

#1

Spike Laurie
International Digital Games Coordinator

12 14 1.2
@Andreia +1

Posted:A year ago

#2

David Serrano
Freelancer

299 270 0.9
"imagine if the NRA had the same relationship with the gun industry that the ESRB has with the game industry"

Clearly, the NRA is a sociopathic organization which needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. But come on... anyone in the core game industry who makes this type of claim only lowers themselves down to the NRA's level. Because the reality is all of the criticism directed at, and the primary concerns about the content in question, is about AAA multiplayer action - shooters. And all AAA games containing multiplayer or co-op modes now contain the warning "Online Interactions Not Rated by the ESRB."

So don't boast about the relationship between the AAA industry and the ESRB being the gold standard when you know full well AAA developers and publishers are now exclusively focused on co-op and multiplayer games and all parties concerned have effectively absolved themselves of any responsibility for rating or policing the content.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by David Serrano on 3rd March 2013 5:29pm

Posted:A year ago

#3

Josh Meier

40 15 0.4
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.
Um, okay... Their 2 last big games (that I'm aware of) were Aliens: Colonial Marines and Borderlands 2. Aliens was a FPS that (from what I'm told) is terrible. Borderlands 2 is a FPS thrown in a blender with Diablo and WoW. What variety of content is Gearbox making? I feel like I've missed something here, because neither of those games are particularly innovative or fresh.

Posted:A year ago

#4

Jade Law
Senior concept artist

72 291 4.0
@ Josh
Your description of borderlands 2 explains its variety. Its not just another FPS, it does have a mix of rpg elements.
He said variety not originality and sometimes to obtain that all you need is the right mix of ideas to create something unique.

As for Aliens, I'd be interested to know how many of the people who comment on it being bad have actually played it?

Posted:A year ago

#5
Popular Comment
@David Serrano
And all AAA games containing multiplayer or co-op modes now contain the warning "Online Interactions Not Rated by the ESRB."
That's because the ESRB can't rate the interactions between players. They literally can't. The multiplayer content of the game is still rated, but what players say to each other isn't, and nor is any user generated content. That's outside of the ESRB remit because it's not part of the product being sold.

Online Interactions Not Rated by the ESRB" - Warns those who intend to play the game online about possible exposure to chat (text, audio, video) or other types of user-generated content (e.g., maps, skins) that have not been considered in the ESRB rating assignment - http://www.esrb.org/ratings/ratings_guide.jsp#elements

It's got nothing to do with the industry absolving itself of responsibility, and everything to do with making it clear what the limitations of any rating system are.

It's like asking the MPAA to include the behaviour of cinema audiences in a movie rating.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dan Whitehead on 4th March 2013 9:12am

Posted:A year ago

#6

Rafe Gaskell
Lead Programmer at the Design Institute

11 12 1.1
@Jade
I stupidly pre ordered A:CM as did many of my friends (we grew up on aliens and love borderlands) and I've still to meet anyone with a nice thing to say about it. It just plains sucks, it's one of the rare situations where all you need to do is watch videos of it to work that out.

Such a shame both Borderlands games kicked ass :(

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Rafe Gaskell on 4th March 2013 4:34pm

Posted:A year ago

#7

Leo Wakelin
QA Tester

24 4 0.2
I can't even begin to listen to a word RP says any more. Since the mess that was ACM, followed by more and more interesting articles on Sega, GBs artwork theft and unethical artstyle "borrowings".

*puke*

Posted:A year ago

#8

Gregory Hommel
writer

91 53 0.6
Clearly, the NRA exists not to regulate, not to keep tabs, not to choose sides, only to preserve our God given right. A right preserved in print to never allow us to be ruled or oppressed again. Rights that have already been wittled away to the point that a law abiding citizen can't own the most effective tools for defense on the market. We are stuck with the most neutered version of armament possible, and we are constantly fighting back the dumb-masses to keep even that. I'm sick of this debate entering the interactive entertainment industry and especially sick of hearing more artists chime in. Just like your counterparts in the live action entertainment industry, your opinions are worth less than the average man on the street. Your art and lifestyle allow you a bent view of society that does not apply to the hundreds of millions of heads of households in the U.S.

As far as the ESRB/NRA comparison, how foolish. The ESRB exists to inform parents as to whether the content of a video game is suitable for children of all ages, children who are older and capable of complex actions and thoughts, teenagers, or adults. They don't even do that correctly as all M rated material should be AO. Guns, however, do not change in content. Each gun produced serves the same purpose to different degrees of effect.The NRA is not in the business of regulation or information. They are in the business of education. Trying to teach the message that we have given up as many rights as we are willing to give up. Laws only apply to those who abide by them. More gun laws will only affect those who plan to follow them, rendering us incapable of defending ourselves and empowering those who would ignore them. The last and most important message is that we WILL NOT BE DISARMED. No matter what Randy Pitchford or Tom Hanks think about the issue.

Posted:A year ago

#9

Andreia Quinta
Creative & People Photographer

214 535 2.5

Posted:A year ago

#10

Derek Fitzgerald
Director, Quality Assurance

7 7 1.0
Greg - I'm not going to engage you in the rest of your outlook on the NRA, 2nd Amendment rights, or the viability of individual protectionism in a technologically advanced civilization. I'm only interested in the topic of Randy's ESRB/NRA allegory.

You might be well served to consider the full history of the NRA. While there is no question what role the NRA plays today, this has only been true for the last ~20% of it's existince. You might consider the thoughts of former NRA presidents Karl T. Frederick & Harold W. Classen, who supported the National Firearms Act of 1934 & the Gun Control Act of 1968, respectively. Without being an official legislative body, the NRA outlook until 1977 was in many ways similar to the ESRB, seeking responsible legislation and restriction. Given the vast majority of it's history, I think Randy's proposal is far from foolish, and actually has historical footing in the majority of the Association's history.

Posted:A year ago

#11

Steve Nicholls
Programmer

66 29 0.4
Thats great but when will this guy talk about what happened with Aliens? and yes I have played it and yes its bloody awful.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Steve Nicholls on 4th March 2013 9:46pm

Posted:A year ago

#12

Dave Herod
Senior Programmer

521 748 1.4
Rights that have already been wittled away to the point that a law abiding citizen can't own the most effective tools for defense on the market. We are stuck with the most neutered version of armament possible, and we are constantly fighting back the dumb-masses to keep even that.
Still trying to work out if you're being serious or sarcastic.

Posted:A year ago

#13

Ben Campbell
Graphic Designer / Freelance Games Journalist

17 20 1.2
Shh...Don't feed the trolls (Greg) and don't move....They can't see us if you don't move....

Posted:A year ago

#14

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