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Nordic 2012: Gearbox boss Pitchford says image matters

Opening the Nordic Game Conference, Gearbox Software CEO Randy Pitchford explained how he developed his studio's internal and external image, and why that image is important to both employees and customers.

Cassandra Khaw, Blogger

May 24, 2012

6 Min Read

When it comes to your video game studio, image matters. That's according to Randy Pitchford, CEO of Borderlands house Gearbox Software. "There are really only two vectors [of image] that matter: the internal image and the external image," Pitchford stated at the Nordic Game Conference keynote today. He explained that the internal image not only encompassed the viewpoints that each member possessed of themselves and each other but also of the interview of the studio's collective image. While Pitchford said that the important external image is what the customer has of the company brand, he also noted that there were other vital variables such as the opinions of other developers, industry pundits and partners in the field. "When I first founded the studio, I had one real goal in mind: to entertain the world," Pitchford said. "I figured out a long time ago that the most effective form of entertainment is interactive entertainment. It's the only one where the person being entertained is also a participant. This is a really exciting but difficult industry to be in because technology is always changing, always strange and there are always things to learn and discover." Pitchford outlined the objectives practiced within Gearbox Studio. "Entertainment is like a religion at our studio," he said. "Our purpose defines us," he enthused. "Often times, we'll talk about entertainment and creativity. We're not just talking about the entertainment of customers but also about our own entertainment. There's an artistic side that is the root of creativity and a component of entertainment." Pitchford added, "We're also a business. We're artists and entertainers but we also have to think of ourselves as a business. We need to figure out how to make as much as we spend. If we make less, the dream ends," he explained. According to Pitchford, Gearbox Software's aggressive profit-sharing system, where the amount of time invested into the company or a project invariably translates into the revenue a person received ("Those who have been with us since the beginning earn almost as much as I do!" Pitchford shared.), has helped cultivate an environment where everyone thinks like owners, something that had led to more pro-active attempts to increase profitability and reduce costs. Harmony and happiness comprise the third objective of the company. "We are people. We spend a lot of time in the studio on ourselves, on our feelings, and we think this is a really healthy thing. As a consequence, it affects how we see ourselves and see others." How Gearbox developed its image Further into the keynote, Pitchford spoke about the strategies that Gearbox Software utilizes to develop its image. "The most important thing that we've pursued with every step we've taken is how it affects our credibility." Prior to becoming associated with the highly successful Borderlands and Brother in Arms games, Gearbox Software was already well-known for itsefforts in helping to develop and expand franchises like Counterstrike, Halo, Tony Hawk and, most famously, perhaps, Valve's Half-Life. "It kind of led us to thinking that if we're going to be creative and be happy doing it and do profitable things at the same time even as we're pursuing credibility, we had better make sure our efforts are relevant to our customers, our industry, our peers and our pundits." "Relevancy is a key factor in credibility." Pitchford stated. "Without relevancy, you have no hope of earning credibility. If you're not relevant, no one will know you exist. We had to bring something to the table. It wasn't enough to do the job, we had to do something unique, to make it our own, to offer something that makes someone feel no one else could have done it." "And that concept there is how image is developed." Pitchford added. "To get credibility, we had to succeed at that." He then noted that the company had also wanted to do things that gave them experience. "We needed to constantly develop mastery. Doing something is better than nothing, doing something that teaches you something you did not know is important. Doing the same thing again and again will cause you to eventually die." "We think about these two ideas at Gearbox. Each of our decisions must earn credibility and develop experiences." Keeping credibility on both ends Pitchford went on to explain that one of the vectors that helped cement an image of credibility and proof of experience was the studio's ability to 'handle a dream.' "We wanted to make sure that our image was developed to a point where people would naturally trust us with any license, any project, that they would feel lucky if Gearbox was involved in the endeavor." At the same time, however, Pitchford explained that "as much as we love things that other people create, all of us have dreamed about inventing something." He added, "When you think about top-tier developers, you usually think of people who only ever do their own thing or people who are always 'work-for-hire'. We wanted to find a way where we could get credibility on both ends, where we could get experience with both vectors, where we could build great IPs and do great things with other IPs if you let us." According to Pitchford, this was what led to the revelation that the cultivation of Gearbox's identity was integral to enabling that desire. "Imagine if Gearbox was only capable of making games that were Half-Life. We'd have nothing at this point," he said. After working extensively with big names like Activision and Electronic Arts, Gearbox Software eventually released its first original brand, Brothers in Arms. The huge success was something that affected the company's image. "Immediately after, we had options. Our publishing partner wanted us to go on and not get distracted by anything else. We wanted to be a franchise out of it. We wanted to do things for this new brand that we previously did for Valve." "There's something else that we put into motion in 2006. We knew that there were a lot of opportunities with Brothers in Arms. It was also the best time to leverage that credibility and experience to create a new brand and in the very beginning of 2006, we had a creative process for what would later become Borderlands." Pitchford stated that team had also realized that if they weren't careful, they could, in a few years time, lose their credibility in regards to their ability to work on external IPs should they become known for only working on internal games. This realization eventually resulted in Gearbox helming the production of a new version of Sega's Samba de Amigo, the acquisition of Duke Nuke Forever and a development deal with Sega to create Aliens: Colonial Marines. Towards the end of the talk, Pitchford spoke about the painting that had formed the reference point for the image of George Washington on the American dollar bill. "That artwork that it's based on is not even finished, and that sort of betrays a challenge that we all face when we make games. Whenever we dream about making the best game ever, whatever the image might be, it's not going to be the game you ship. It's going to have a lot of compromises and that's really cool to remember because as long as you prioritize the right things, that's okay."

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