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How choice leads to fanboyism

DICE 2013: Randy Pitchford talks about the importance of choice in gaming and how it's similar to magic

Gearbox Software boss Randy Pitchford used to be a performing magician. It's an interesting fact that many of you may not have known. Why is it important? Because making games and entertaining players is actually not all that different from entertaining an audience with magic tricks, he said at his DICE talk today.

"We make a deal with our audience... Come into my world, abide by my logic, and if you trust me there will be a payoff, a sense of gratification and accomplishment," Pitchford said, calling magicians and game makers both "purveyors of pleasure." Pitchford noted that game makers have to do some things very early on to make sure that players ultimately feel satisfied, and it's somewhat similar to magic tricks.

"If we don't validate the promise and deliver the goods, we will lose that audience. They will resent the purchase decision"

"We have to establish our credibility, we have to validate the promise early on, and then we have to deliver the goods. It's the same in almost all entertainment mediums," he said. Pitchford noted that especially in big AAA games where companies expect players to pay $60, the developer wants the customer to feel that they're getting a lot more out of the experience than they're putting into it.

It's important to do this with integrity, Pitchford said, as there are lots of expectations about how much time and entertainment comes with that $60 price tag. "If we don't validate the promise and deliver the goods, we will lose that audience. They will resent the purchase decision. It's why we have an awesome introduction in Borderlands, then the game starts and it's where we validate," he said.

A big part of magic tricks is offering the audience a simple choice, but it's a fake choice usually. Pitchford referred to JJ Abrams' talk with Gabe Newell from yesterday where Abrams argued that the choice a gamer makes is a bad thing because it's fake, because the narrative still plays itself out the same way usually. "JJ's argument was interesting but it's wrong. It doesn't matter if the choice is fake, it's that there is choice," Pitchford asserted. He said it's called "magician's force." Too much choice can be confusing, but having some simple choices are good even if they're meaningless choices (although he wasn't suggesting developers have to offer meaningless choices).

The point Pitchford was driving home was that the choice people make actually changes their mindset. If consumers are given a few choices, the choice a person makes suddenly becomes "the good choice" and the product the person didn't choose becomes "the bad choice." And that, he said, explains platform fanboyism in the games industry. People buy an Xbox 360 and that means PS3 is a "bad choice." So Pitchford's advice is that developers should provide choices in their games, but they should look to avoid it in the marketplace.

This is a lesson that was applied to Borderlands, and it worked wonders for the franchise. "We don't like going head-to-head with good things because we don't want to be the loser. We blended genres in Borderlands so we were the only choice - we couldn't be the loser among consumers' choice. It's not a Coke or Pepsi decision - it's a yes or no decision," Pitchford concluded.

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James Brightman avatar

James Brightman


James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.