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Gearbox's Pitchford: Magic, Video Games Have A Lot In Common

Are game design and magic similar? "It's the same business. It's entertainment. It's smoke and mirrors," Gearbox Software co-founder and former pro magician Randy Pitchford
October 12, 2009
Game design is a field all its own, but it also draws from many other creative enterprises -- including magic, according to a notable game industry creator who has roots in the latter field. Talking to Gamasutra, Gearbox Software co-founder Randy Pitchford recalls his days as a professional magician, and explains how he believes magic and game design have similar goals, as well as similar techniques to achieve those goals. Some multi-game series, like the Call of Duty games, says Pitchford, need to be careful they don't tread too heavily on the same well-worn path, or the crucial elements of surprise and novelty will be lost: "Because we've played so many Call of Duty games, we've all figured it out. And so we're starting to see -- like when Neo saw the Matrix instead of seeing the people -- now we've figured out that they're cheating. I think that in Call of Duty 4, if I stay in the same place for too long, they'll actually spawn a grenade at my feet. No enemy threw it there. They'll spawn a grenade to make me move out of the way. But people are figuring it out. And now they have a problem because the gamers are saying, 'Hey, dude. We hate monster spawning.' And the designer knows, 'No you don't. You love it. That's why we're engaging you.' But now the designer knows that you're onto him, so he's like, 'Fuck, I need to come up with a new trick.'" Pitchford, who has been running the Texas-based developer behind franchises like Brothers In Arms and Borderlands for over a decade, adds: "I used to be a professional magician. A magician can create wonder by creating a set of logic, and then proving that the logic is impossible and false. Now if I repeat the same trick over and over again, as long as it's still surprising, it's fine. I've got you. But as soon as you start understanding how the trick works, you get bored and you lose interest. So, I've got to create a new trick. I've got to hit you with new magic. So, the Call of Duty guys have an interesting challenge there. They have to solve that, because we are starting to understand that. The customers are starting to understand how their game design actually works. And once we see through it, it loses some of its charm. I've seen some things -- I haven't played the game yet -- in some of the interviews they've done with the new Modern Warfare that [suggest] they understand that. They're making some promises there. I'm curious to see if they've adapted to that at all or if they've done it in a way that helps their game because the games are brilliant. They're fun. They're just fun rides. I like them, so we want them to keep being able to do that." In the end, according to Pitchford, game design and magic are one and the same: "It's the same business. It's entertainment. It's smoke and mirrors. These universes don't exist. They're virtual, but we want to immerse you in them. So, a lot of the same skills apply. Misdirection, too. We'll like attract your attention and then surprise you with something." In the full Gamasutra feature interview, Pitchford touches on many other topics, including game pacing and other more specific design concerns of Gearbox's upcoming shooter/RPG hybrid Borderlands -- and why the game trends closer to the shooter side than the RPG side.

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