This is an interview with Randy Pitchford. This is the part where I ask questions. This is the part where he talks and this is the part where I listen. This is where I write what he said about the video game he has just made. This is the part where you read.
And if I’m lucky Randy Pitchford will say something crazy; maybe he’ll say something that makes you angry. I listen for headlines. I listen for something. I listen for a thread that’s different. I listen for an angle. This is what I do — I listen. I ask the questions. Then choose what to write. And what not to write.
Last week, on Eurogamer, Wesley Yin-Poole chose to write the headline “Borderlands 2: Gearbox reveals the Mechromancer’s “girlfriend mode.” In that story, Randy Pitchford’s employee John Hemingway referred to a new skill tree being developed as DLC for Borderlands as a ‘girlfriend mode’. This made people angry. It made me a little angry.
Two weeks ago, on Kotaku, Jason Shreier wrote this sentence: “If game makers talked more, we’d like them more.”
Some people made the connection. This, they said, is why Game Developers talk less.
This will be my first question: ‘Do we have some sort of problem here?’
“This is how we do things baby,” Randy Pitchford laughs.
Three days ago Brent Freidman, a programmer at Gearbox, was at work in Dallas, Texas. Three days ago he had never left the United States. Two weeks ago Randy Pitchford walked up to Brent’s desk and asked him to come to Sydney. Today, one week after John Hemingway made the ‘Girlfriend Mode’ faux pax in front on the world’s press, Brent, a young developer with zero media training is sitting in front of me, waiting for a question.
“This is the first interview that I’ve done,” he says. “At least, it’s the first interview I’ve participated in.
“My prep was just two minutes ago. Randy said, ‘hey do you wanna participate in the interview?’ I said, ‘Okay’. That was it!”
“I’ll probably say some things I’m not supposed to say,” continues Brent. “But I think we’re all ready for that.”
“I’m excited,” laughs Randy, “I’m excited! Not only is this Brent’s first interview — but he’s also feeling the effects of jetlag. So if you ever wanted to get in there, he’s weak! Attack!”
The team at Gearbox, at this precise moment, probably have every right to feel as though they are under siege. But despite this, Randy Pitchford is not on the defensive. He isn’t peeking from the safety of a public relations parapet. He is the same Randy Pitchford. Ask Randy a question and he answers. I want to know why he is so comfortable in this situation. Why does he remain so open with the press when so much could go wrong?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I just work here man!”
“I tend to always have a policy of transparency and, you know, sometimes there are consequences to that. But I think, in general, our species benefits from the sharing of information as opposed to not sharing information.
“One of the reasons I tend to do the things I have, is that I don’t have a lot of fear. I’m comfortable taking risks. The only people who can fire me are the customers.”
“Me specifically? I don’t recall dodging a question of any kind.”
I look at Brent. I ask the same question.
“Maybe because this is my first time, and I’ve never been burned, so I’m not afraid,” he says.
“Yes!” Says Randy, and pumps his fist.
According to Randy, it doesn’t matter what Brent does, it doesn’t matter how much damage he causes the Gearbox brand — Randy will take care of him. Despite the ‘girlfriend mode’ controversy, despite the tinderbox issues that surround gaming, he wants his staff to remain open. With the press. With everyone.
“You know what, Brent can say anything,” says Randy. “He could create all the damage in the world. Brent is an awesome developer and I’d get his back.
“There are other guys in the studio that step in it all the time and if I know their intent was good it’s fine. Sometimes when we take risks we stumble. When we try to run, we stumble. And you don’t beat a guy for trying to run. You say, ‘get back up and keep on running!’”
Brent’s lack of fear comes from the environment he works in and the people he works with. For better or worse, that’s the attitude Gearbox brings to interviews like this one.
“We’re always open with each other. And that’s how I want to be with the press. That’s how we all want to be. We want to be real and share what we’re doing.”
But what should I be doing? Right now. Listening for news tidbits? Typing headlines internally while Brent Friedman talks? Should I challenge the answers? Should I simply let Randy Pitchford talk? Should I ask him about the brand new product he is selling?
It’s a delicate process. It’s a relationship and sometimes relationships are difficult. Sometimes people get too close. Sometimes they say things they wish they hadn’t.
“The deal we make is this,” explains Randy. “We put a lot of effort into making these games, and our hope is that they reach as many people as possible. And because of how the world works there are outlets that have a voice and can reach many people.
“For example, you with Kotaku, you can write a story and a lot of people will read it. That creates an opportunity for an interaction. Maybe I want people to learn about Borderlands 2 or to consider it as a gaming option, and you have people I can reach. So maybe we have a discussion and you can make them understand what the choice is.
“My agenda, of course is trying to make people understand there is a choice,” continues Randy. “‘Hey there’s this thing, and you can consider playing it, and if you think that sounds interesting then please check it out.’
“And I think that part of the journalist’s agenda is about collecting readers, getting people to notice what they have to say versus all the other places they can go to read things.”
“So we don’t always have the same agenda,” continues Randy. “But it’s also kinda convenient, because it would be difficult for me to try and talk, individually, to a million people. And I’m not going to put effort into maintaining a structure where I can talk to a million people. I’m going to make my game. If someone else already has that infrastructure then it becomes a convenient kind of funnel.
“But if the journalist’s goal is to get more readers, and the developers goal is to tell people this entertainment option exists, there’s definitely some compatible goals there — but they’re not identical. And it’s those differences that often make things go off the rails. That’s where the temptation arises. That’s where journalists get a little like, ‘aha’!
“They’ll say, because he’s said these words, even though he might have meant something different, I have these words in quotes. If I say these words in quotes, framed with some other stuff — maybe a fun headline — I can make readers think this other thing. And if they think this other thing, that’s going to be controversial. And if it’s controversial they’ll tell other people about it.
“Then people will be outraged, and more people will come to my site, and I win as a journalist.”
Brent, as someone less used to dealing directly with the press, feels a little differently.
“The way I see it,” he says, “is that I really think it’s your role to bring out the truth. That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to challenge us, there’s absolutely value in that. But if it’s not the truth, then you’re not doing anyone a service.”
“That’s awesome,” says Randy, nodding in agreement. “And each person in the chain has a responsibility towards that truth, it’s my responsibility to communicate clearly, it’s the journalists responsibility to pass that information through in a way that is useful, and then there’s the responsibility of the audience to sort of filter through that.
“So there’s responsibility at every level.”
So who’s responsible when that chain spirals into chaos?
Obviously the ‘Girlfriend mode’ issue was the direct result of a single developer saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, in front of the wrong people — but could things have been dealt with differently? Many readers believe it was wrong to leave the ‘girlfriend mode’ statement unchallenged.
I ask Randy, does he wish someone had challenged John Hemingway?
“I don’t know. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t present when that went down, but I know his intent,” says Randy.
“I know what Jonathan was trying to communicate. He’s got this new character class that he designed. One of the skill trees is for a really advanced player where skill is really important, whereas another skill tree is for the kind of player that’s going to come out after launch.
“He’s designing for two people, the first is the advanced player, the second is the kind of player who isn’t as good at video games but wants to have a path that allows that person to be useful.
“You can say it like that, which is kind of obfuscated, but instead he used a personal anecdote, which was ‘my girlfriend is not very good at games, but I want to share the experience with her’. Now is that an indictment of all girlfriends? Of course not. It’s ludicrous to suggest that. The design doesn’t discriminate against anyone.
“In this particular case I think about a guy like John — if you want to think about a designer who’s really championing the interests of a spectrum of possible players? Someone who is the opposite of discriminaton — this is the guy you really want on that team. To see him painted in that light is just not honest at all. It’s frustrating.”
What can we do to improve? Do we need to improve? How can the media change? Should we change? As writers we often demand that developers to do things ‘better’, but we rarely take feedback ourselves. And we certainly never ask for it.
“Well this isn’t bad,” laughs Brent. “This is a good start!”
Randy takes over. Now he’s asking the questions.
“I want to hear your take Brent,” he says. “I’m going to help you do this interview, Mark!
“You read stories about other studios, right Brent, and sometimes you’ll read something controversial. What’s that like?”
Silently I wish I had asked that question myself. Maybe we do need to do better!
“Well, when you read these stories, you always try and take it with a grain of salt,” says Brent. “You don’t know the exact circumstances of what’s going on, but I generally assume that the press is on our side. We’re in the same industry, we have the same interests. If the game industry dies, then Kotaku has nothing to talk about!
“But a lot of the time I see the press not challenging us in ways they should be, and then other times it’s like ‘Girlfriend mode’ — slow news days happen!”
I ask Randy, how would he have felt, from the inside looking in, had the Girlfriend mode incident happened to another studio.
For once, he’s speechless.
“I don’t know,” he says.
My final question: Gearbox and all developers have to deal with reviews. They have to deal with that fallout, they have to manage that pressure. We, as writers, rarely have to deal with that. I wonder what it feels to be on the other side of that criticism.
I ask Randy to review the interview I just gave him.
He laughs to begin with; but answers quite seriously.
“I’ll tell you what, I liked your approach,” he says. “If you felt like you were going to have to hit me on that whole issue with the girlfriend mode thing, your idea to kind of warm up on other issues — to make me believe you’re on my team — that was really smooth because it loosened up the conversation and it made me feel comfortable and confident talking about things.
So far so good.
“Of course, I knew what you were doing all along and I would have been comfortable talking about them anyway — but I liked that strategy!
“I thought that was brilliant, and it works on me because I’m transparent. So that was clever and I have a lot of respect for your technique!
“I also liked that, given that Brent was here, it was cool that you went right in there and asked him questions. That was cool. I give you some points for that.”
“But it feels like you’re asking me to give you a score, when you’ve just shown me a preview, and that’s impossible. When the article goes up, that’s the final code.
“I’ll give you the score when you send me the review copy.”