With the tenth annual Develop in Brighton conference very much on the horizon, GamesIndustry.biz caught up with keynote speaker and CEO of Gearbox Software Randy Pitchford for an insight into his talk on "striving for happiness, creativity and profit as a game developer in our dynamic and rapidly changing industry".
Q:Your talk, and some of your recent comments, have seems to focus on the need to balance iterating on successful IP and keeping your team creativity alive with some variety. With Borderlands having sold so well, and several side-developments in the IP also succeeding, do you feel that you've reached a creative peak with it? Are you looking to take the series in a new direction after Matthew Armstrong's departure?
Randy Pitchford:We seem to like making completely new things. We also seem to have fans that want us to also offer more with things we've created in the past and we exist to entertain so these feelings are important to us. We have had a lot of fun playing around by adding more to games we've created, too. We have also picked up some properties through acquisition and there are fans who want more with those as well. So all of this together means we must learn how to manage all of these things - creating entirely new things while delivering new material inside of past creations. It's a challenge that I hope we face with success.
I am glad for Matt, who has earned enough success at Gearbox that he can try new things. I had a lot of fun working with him through thick and thin as the franchise was created here. I think I speak for the entire team here when I say we will miss his involvement, but I think he would be the first to tell you that it was a team effort. And as for future Borderlands, well we haven't announced anything, but I am excited to talk to talent that would like to work on future Borderlands games with me. Anyone who can convince me they can help make our games better and anyone who can be fun to work with is someone I would love to have join the team.
Q:When you're operating at the budgetary scale of AAA, any risk is a potential disaster for the company. With fan-feedback of ever-increasing importance, how do you go about persuading an audience in love with an existing universe that they need something new?
Randy Pitchford:I agree that with any big risk comes potential for failure, but I don't think that the potential for failure of AAA budgets has much to do with your question. I believe that not taking a risk is probably the biggest risk of all, though, so betting big just goes with the territory for AAA. We've had some financial disasters as well as incredible financial success in our past. We seem to be batting a thousand when we do original things, so there may be a bias there. It's a very stimulating business!
I'm not sure if you're serious or not about new things. We can love many things that already exist, do we not? And yet all of us might also get excited about new things, correct? I'm not sure how you're relating one's ability to enjoy something that already exists with one's ability to potentially enjoy something new. I mean, I suppose there might be some people out there that will never be interested in any new things, but I don't believe I have ever met anyone like that.
I think the challenge with offering new things is the same as it ever was. Before we launched Borderlands, it felt impossible to get any attention. Now in hindsight it is extremely successful and yet most random non-gamers haven't ever heard of it. It's always a challenge to break through, but it is a thrill to try!
"I believe that not taking a risk is probably the biggest risk of all, though, so betting big just goes with the territory for AAA"
Q:Is there pressure from a publisher level to become a single-franchise outfit?
Randy Pitchford:We work with different publishers for different things and each experience is a little different. I think it was difficult for Ubisoft to think about us doing anything other than Brothers in Arms and the consequence of that is that if we agreed there would have been no Borderlands. By disagreeing and making it anyway I think they missed out on Borderlands and also they were a bit upset with us because they worried about us getting distracted. It is true that doing more than one thing takes different amounts of attention, but it is also true that diverse success has made us stronger and better game makers. But I suspect they've grown some from the experience and I can say definitively that we have grown a lot from the experience. I like those guys and respect them a lot. I was happy when they decided to publish the retail version of Homeworld: Remastered Collection in Europe.
Meanwhile, 2K is the publisher of Battleborn and they, of course, published Borderlands. So the evidence there is that 2k was happy to get behind us for something new. I think they realize that when we try new things we can apply our experience and ambition in new ways and have a chance to go farther. I think they also know we are sincere when our ambition is to not only create completely new things with new properties, but get better about doing great new things with the properties we have already created. And if we are happy and motivated and supported, we are likely to produce more success than if the opposite of those things are true.
Q:Do you feel that you have the freedom to fail?
Randy Pitchford:Certainly everyone has this freedom, yes? Perhaps I misinterpret you, but I think we are always failing and always learning. I think we should always try to profit from failure because we are bound to experience lots of it.
Q:Are you excited by the potential new avenues of creativity offered by VR and AR?
Randy Pitchford: I am very excited about AR. VR is neat, but AR is the real future. Full disclosure - I am an investor in CastAR from Technical Illusions. I am an investor because I am a true believer.
"I am very excited about AR. VR is neat, but AR is the real future"
Q:Your recent hire of Paul Sage raised some interesting chatter about the direction of your forthcoming games. Are we going to see you make a move into the MMO space?
Randy Pitchford:There's been chatter? Cool! Paul is very smart. He told me he wanted to move back to Texas and that he really likes Borderlands and he has a lot of great ideas. I think he has a lot to offer video games and I have already learned some things from him and am glad to get the chance to work with him.
As for what it means? It just means that Paul is at Gearbox. We haven't talked publicly about anything we might be doing for the future of Borderlands, but I appreciate how you want to try to read the tea leaves on this stuff.
There is a Borderlands On-Line game in development for Asia - I am very curious to see where that goes.
Q:Now that Gearbox has been dropped from the civil suit regarding Aliens :Colonial Marines, do you feel fully vindicated? Do tensions with SEGA remain?
Randy Pitchford:That whole thing was a huge waste of time. The market proved it was doing its job perfectly. The market is dispassionate - rewarding what it likes and punishing what it doesn't. There is an objectivity and fairness in the open market's harsh, firm justice.
For every place the market succeeded, the legal system failed as it was being manipulated by what appeared to me to be essentially mafia style extortion tactics. Sadly, the manipulation would have actually worked, as it had in other cases with those same guys and to the detriment of the industry and gamers and actual, you know, justice. But those guys made a mistake in naming us as defendants because we stood up to them That's all it took - someone to stand up yo them. And so they lost since they didn't have a legitimate case.
"For every place the market succeeded, the legal system failed as it was being manipulated by what appeared to me to be essentially mafia style extortion tactics"
Q:As the studio grows in size and influence, have you considered spinning out departments for more experimental projects and IPs with smaller budgets, perhaps on mobile or other platforms with lower barriers to entry?
Randy Pitchford:Not really - that's not really how we approach the creative process. We tend to make the kind of games that we think can be fun and that aren't really being done by anyone else. I don't feel dogmatic about platforms, though, and we have played around a bit on what you are calling "low barrier platforms" both internally and with partners who have licensed our properties.
Q:Shanda is leading development on Borderlands Online, with some consultation from yourselves and 2K, and Telltale had great results with Tales From the Borderlands - how hard is it to hand over the keys to an IP you've created from the ground up like that? Would you consider taking an IP to a different medium in this way, say an animation?
Randy Pitchford:We gave 2k a license to develop an On-Line game for Asia and they found Shanda as their carrier partner. It's been a really interesting project to collaborate with all of them on and we're learning a lot from it. I have a lot of trust and confidence in 2k, obviously, so when they explained their ambition there I was actually quite grateful for their interest and very happy to work it out with them.
Meanwhile, for Tales of the Borderlands, well... I think Telltale walks on water and are the best interactive story tellers in the world right now. I would gladly let them use any property I have that they would be excited about working with. Tales has been very fun collaborating on and we've been happy to offer quite a lot of liberty there. As the last two episodes of the season come through, I think Borderlands fans are going to really feel that.
"I think one of the reasons the best Gearbox games are the original ones is because that freedom is really necessary for talent to bring quality"
You know, I worked with the Half-Life IP with Valve and the Halo IP with Bungie and also with a couple of movie licenses and it's always interesting dealing with the preciousness of a franchise in the hands of their owners or creators. I think those experiences have put us in a really good spot to be more relaxed with creative talent we have trusted so that they can have the freedom to do what they do best.
I think one of the reasons the best Gearbox games are the original ones is because that freedom is really necessary for talent to bring quality and that freedom is difficult with licensed properties where the property owner holds things too preciously.
So far, the more freedom we offer, the better the results have been. Maybe we've been lucky so far.
I'm open to anything with respect to our IP in other media. We get all kinds of interest and have tried a few things over the years. One of my most positive experiences was working on a television documentary series with the History Channel for Brothers in Arms. The research we did and historical authenticity of the games was quite astonishing, so it was awesome to use the documentary medium to get more of that value we dug up out there in an entertaining and educational way.