DICE 2010: Gearbox's Pitchford On Borderlands, Perfection, Money
"Perfection is an asymptote," said Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford. An asymptote is a line next to a curve that can be approached infinitely, but never touched -- it's just a programmer's way of saying that perfection is unattainable.
"We can visualize things very quickly and very perfectly," Pitchford told games industry colleagues at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas. "We can visualize perfection and our goals very quickly. However, we, and the things we create, can never be perfect."
But while most game developers recognize that, it doesn't keep them from trying to make a perfect game. And in an industry that is as much about business as it is about art and entertainment, an unchecked pursuit of perfection can drive a company into the ground financially.
"The moment we say it's 'good enough,' are we compromising [our art]?" Pitchford asked. It's the artist's dilemma that rears its head constantly in games and other creative endeavors.
"At the end of the day, we are a business."
Pitchford recognized early on that Gearbox is about entertainment, but that it's also a business. He still has the studio's first dollar bill that it earned from 1999's Half-Life: Opposing Force, its first game, and he says he looks at that dollar on a daily basis to remind himself of the fiscal responsibilities that come with creative and entertainment-related responsibilities.
Fortunately, he believes, all of these components go hand-in-hand. There are three objectives for Gearbox, he said: creativity, happiness, and, lastly, money. "At the end of the day, we are a business," he said. But that doesn't mean game developers need to sacrifice their creativity or happiness. To Pitchford, if Gearbox can entertain gamers, and if the studio's employees can entertain themselves at work and life, the money will come. And with money, Gearbox can continue to entertain. It's cyclical in nature.
Pitchford said he makes sure to invest heavily in employees, and that pays off monetarily because they feel empowered to do quality work that has a better chance at commercial success. One of the main points of the studio's business model is an aggressive profit-sharing plan. For every calendar day an employee works on a game at Gearbox, the employee gets a pre-determined share of a pool. That amount is the same across the entire workforce, including president Pitchford himself.
He said 40 percent of the studio's profits are paid out to employees, and the rest is put toward growing the company. "I have everyone in the studio thinking like a [business] owner," he said. When one industry friend asked him why he gives away so much of that profit, he replied, "Because I'm greedy."
"Mike, I knew you were wrong."
One way Gearbox was able to entertain and make money was with November's co-op shooter/RPG Borderlands. "This was truly a labor of love for us," he said. That's why it was tough for Pitchford to hear Wedbush Morgan's prominent industry analyst Michael Pachter declare, prior to Borderlands' release, that the game had been "sent to die" amid big competition from Bungie's Halo 3: ODST, Infinity Ward's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and other major holiday titles. Pachter argued Borderlands had little chance of competing.
"We were sandwiched between the two biggest first-person shooter franchises ever," he said. "And the guys at BioWare, who walk on water, were releasing Dragon Age around the same time."
But Borderlands sold around 3 million units, Gearbox continues to invest in the franchise through new downloadable content, and the title became the best-selling new property of 2009. "It was tough for me, because it's Mike's job to analyze these things," he said, adding, "You know what, Mike? I knew you were wrong."
Plano, Texas-based Gearbox, which is also behind the Brothers In Arms World War II shooter franchise, now numbers 170 staffers and has been around for over 10 years. Pitchford said the company has sold over 20 million game units and has generated $500 million in revenue, not including Borderlands.
But there's still more to do. Concluded Pitchford, "We feel like we're just getting started."