Before Randy Pitchford became the President of Gearbox studios, before he released Borderlands, before he worked on Duke Nukem 3D in the mid 90s — before all of that Randy Pitchford was a magician. A very good one. We spoke to Randy about his past, and how he somehow managed to transition so seamlessly from magic to game design.
“Can you do a perfect shuffle?”
Randy Pitchford, CEO and President of Gearbox software, pulls out a deck of cards. He splits them perfectly.
“The cut has to be right down the middle.”
And it is, 26 cards a-piece. A quick flick, then a flourish — Randy spreads the 26 cards into a fan.
“Pick a card, any card you want.”
Randy Pitchford is a game designer by trade, and a founder of Gearbox Software, but he’s also a magician and — if you ask Randy — sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between the two. It’s like two sides of the same coin, a perfect split, right down the middle.
“I just love entertaining people. There’s something in my DNA that makes me need to create experiences for others and magic is a lot like videogames. We create a sense of logic that is untrue and then we break that logic. I love that surprise — the wonder we feel when we see the impossible.
“It’s a special feeling.”
Randy Pitchford is five years old. His house is a little different. Most kids his age have bedrooms littered with toys, with GI Joes and Meccano — but the Pitchford household is cluttered with tech, the groundbreaking, cutting edge kind.
“When I was a kid,” begins Randy, “I was really fortunate because my Father, in the 70s, happened to have a job where he was involved in technology – he created computers. So in 1975 we had a computer in my house that was this really powerful machine. People just didn’t have home computers back in 1975, because they didn’t really exist.
“But we had one because my father built it. He worked for United States intelligence, like the NSA, he was the guy that built gadgets!”
Randy Pitchford’s Father was, essentially, a real life version of Q.
“Well, that’s like Hollywood stuff,” laughs Randy, “but yeah!”
In 1977, before the PC was even a viable commercial possibility, Randy was given his very first computer.
“He gave me my first computer when I was seven years old. He built it and he wrote the BIOS, then he gave it to me.”
And with that, something clicked. At seven years old, the young Randy Pitchford had a better understanding of BASIC than the English language.
“I learned how to program BASIC, and I always tried to copy arcade games, like Pacman.
“I quickly learned a lot about how computers worked, but I never imagined it could be a career. When I went to the Arcade that was like a whole different thing — with colour graphics, high resolution — it was awesome! It seemed like this impossible and inaccessible thing. I never imagined I could do it for a living.
“I just imagined there was like some chocolate factory with Willy Wonka and his Oompa Loompas making stuff!”
The Great Cardini
1973. Richard ‘Cardini’ Pitchford — legendary Vaudeville magician, and three-time President of the Society of American Magicians — dies. In a career spanning decades, Cardini had performed everywhere: on television, at the Copacabana. In 1938 he performed for the King of England.
He was also the Great Uncle of Randy Pitchford.
Randy was two years old when Cardini died; too young to remember meeting him, but stories from his Great Aunt — Cardini’s wife and long time assistant — inspired a lifelong interest in magic.
“Everyone,” begins Randy, “every kid at some point was given a magic set.
“But the fact that Cardini was related to me, and he was this amazing famous magician, it made magic intriguing to me, and it felt accessible. Someone with the same DNA as me could learn this stuff and do it.”
Randy borrowed books left behind by his Great Uncle Cardini. When he wasn’t busy trying to reinvent Pacman on his terrifyingly powerful computer, he practiced the sleight of hand his Uncle was famous for. He improved rapidly, built up a repertoire of tricks — he got the itch for entertainment.
“I don’t remember my Great Uncle — he died when I was really young — but I remember his wife, and my Grandpa’s brother would talk about him all the time. I had some books that his wife gave to me, because I had some interest and she figured it might plant a seed with me. So I studied magic, and it really became a fascination for me. I practiced all the time.”
“Magic kind of created that need to entertain in me, because when Cardini was on? Man, it was so cool.”
So Randy practiced, but he didn’t really know where he stood in the world of magic and magicians. He didn’t know how good a games programmer he was either.
Not yet at least.
Randy Pitchford grows up. He goes to UCLA, he studies Law. His Girlfriend, who would later become his wife, tells him to give it up. The Randy Pitchford she knows is not built to be a lawyer.
“She said to me, ‘You want to create, you want to entertain and you spend all of your free time on your computer programming or tinkering… or playing video games. It’s really obvious to me that’s what you’re built for’,” says Randy.
“From that point I kind of started taking video games seriously. I started looking around and seeing that there were actually people out there that created games for a career. I had uploaded stuff I had made for free, so about six months before I graduated I started making inquiries to some studios, and I got some interest.”
But while Randy waited for his dreams to gestate, he had bills to pay, and college tuition fees to manage. For that he turned to his second passion — magic.
“I actually paid my way through college performing as a magician in Hollywood,” says Randy.
“I never knew where I stood in the spectrum of magicians. LA has Magic Castle. It’s like the Mecca for magic. I had always known about it, and I always wanted to try and get in.
“But you can’t get in unless you’re a member or you’re invited by a member. So I worked really hard, and I honed my skills. I joined some magical clubs and I earned credibility with some other magicians and a couple of them were from Magic Castle — they agreed to sponsor me. So I got my audition.”
Where The Magic Happens
Magic Castle: it’s perhaps the most famous venue for magic in the entire United States, and also home to the US Academy of Magical Arts. This is where the elite magicians perform, but the barrier to entry is massive — you have to earn the right to perform there.
Magic Castle has one set of auditions per month; a maximum of 10 potential magicians can opt to go through a rigorous, Australian Idol style selection process — a process that has broken many talented performers in the past.
Randy was completely terrified.
“I went and there were nine of us that day. Because they did it in alphabetical order, and my surname is Pitchford, I happened to be the last one. One at a time the magicians went into this secret room and I couldn’t watch.
“They walked out looking dishevelled and broken. I had no idea what to expect.
“I strolled in and there were 12 old magicians, just sitting there with folded arms. They were just guys in suits. One was a creepy guy who had a weird long jacket with tails, another guy had a monocle. All these old guys were just looking at me, and the guy in charge said, ‘OK, you have 10 minutes’.
“I had this act prepared, it was an original routine. I had this piece of black felt — remember that movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I loved it. Remember the portable hole? Well my act was like, ‘imagine this piece of black felt is like a portable hole’ and I would pretend to throw coins into the hole! I had this whole thing. I was really proud of it.
“Some of the routine required interaction, I was trying to play with these old magicians, but they were having none of it.
“I was like, fuck, this is brutal!”
In the waiting room afterwards, Randy sat dejected as his fellow magicians received judgement.
“Every single one didn’t get in. I was the last to get called back, and I’m going back muttering, ‘this is a waste of time’.
“I sat down and they said, ‘you’re in’. And then they said, ‘we’d like to book you’. Right then and there they booked me to work in the Magic Castle. It turned out I was actually pretty good.”
“As an entertainer, there are definitely parallels between magic and video games,” explains Randy. “I loved performing magic, and it was so much fun, but it was limited. The nature of magic is that it’s really something you need to experience live. We can watch it on TV, but it doesn’t work. You have to see it live to really appreciate the value. To really believe like you’re seeing something impossible, it has to happen in front of you.
“As a magician, I was limited by the amount of people who were in the room. With video games we can create something and that can reach millions of people all over the world, and it’s such a thrill to be able to affect that many people. To add that much joy and happiness, that’s really what I’m in it for.”
Close to graduation, Randy Pitchford gave up his dreams of becoming a lawyer. He reached out to development studios online. He began to think seriously about becoming a video game developer.
And, like magic, the offers came thick and fast.
“I got a job offer pretty quickly from Lucasarts,” says Randy. “They wanted to make a first person shooter in the Star Wars universe. That game became Dark Forces. They were looking for designers and programmers, and at the time I was a programmer.
“3D Realms was also hiring, and at the time 3D Realms and Apogee were the same thing, and Apogee had just released Wolfenstein 3D. I thought that was pretty cool! I loved Wolfenstein, it changed things for me. I used to be an RPG gamer, and Wolfenstein was the first action game I really got immersed in. The guys that ran Apogee, they offered me a share of the profits of the games that I worked on, and I was like – I’ll bet on myself! So I moved out to Texas!
“The first game I worked on as a professional was Duke Nukem 3D. That game turned out to be pretty successful! I was very fortunate to work on a game that gave me a lot of credibility out of the gate.”
Magician In Trouble
“Is this your card?” Asks Randy.
My stomach sinks. The card is the Joker. I feel awkward. The joker was not the card I chose. My card was the three of clubs.
I feel bad because I want this trick to succeed. I want to be dazzled. I don’t know how to react if the trick goes wrong. This is the third time I’ve interviewed Randy Pitchford, but I don’t know him well enough to joke around if he fails miserably. My stomach tenses. This is one social faux pax I do not want to be involved with.
“No,” I say, apprehensively, “that wasn’t my card.”
“Well, you know,” begins Randy, “the joker is wild, so he can be any card.
He holds it in front of me. I fix my glare upon it.
“Why don’t you check the card again?”
Somehow, despite the fact I hadn’t taken my eyes off the card for longer than a second, the Joker has somehow transformed into my card — the three of clubs. Involuntarily I burst into a fit of strange laughter. It’s like a weird whoop — the release of pent up tension, the dissipation of worry. Randy hadn’t messed up. I had been dazzled.
“That’s called ‘Magician in trouble’,” says Randy. “It’s a very fun set up. It creates this weird, uncomfortable moment, but it also disarms you — which is useful for me cause I’m trying to get away with some shit, to get your guard down!”
That element of surprise, the worry, the relief — Randy knew precisely the feelings I was trying to mask, and he used those feelings to manipulate and, ultimately, surprise the ever loving crap out of me.
That’s magic. And, if you ask Randy, that’s game design.
“Magic and game design — they’re very similar skills,” insists Randy. “The parallels are really important. You really have to get into the head of the audience or the player. You have to imagine what they’re experiencing.
“It’s critical in magic — if you don’t know what the audience is thinking at any given moment, you can’t lead them to the spot you need them to be in, to make the reveal something special.
I quickly dissect Randy’s simple card trick: the pacing, the set-up — moments when I thought I was in complete control but, in hindsight, was clearly being led. It reminds me of the best examples of linear video games: Half-Life 2, the Uncharted series. I think about those perfect moments — when games stopped feeling like a sequence of crude inter-connected mechanics, moments when I simply succumbed to the experience.
“What we see on screen isn’t real, we know it’s not real — they’re approximations at best,” says Randy.
“When I do magic, there’s a deal I make with the audience,” he continues. “We don’t talk about the deal, but the deal is this: come along to where I’m going to lead you, and if you come along, you’ll be entertained and the experience will be worth it.
“We make this deal before we start. And I have to earn it. It’s the exact same thing in a video game. In the beginning when you start the game up, there’s this deal happening — the game is saying to you, ‘look, come along with me, follow my rules, immerse yourself and there will be a pay off.
“If we do a good job you commit yourself and along the way you get that joy, you feel the gratification of your successes, you feel the tension and pressure of the challenges you have to overcome and the surprise of all the neat things that unfold.”
Later that weekend, I play poker with a group of friends. The dealer chip slides to my position; it’s my turn to dish out the cards.
But first I have to shuffle.
“Can anyone here do a perfect shuffle,” I ask, cockily, imitating Randy. I’d been practicing at home.
“The cut has to be perfect… right down the middle.”
Incredibly, I somehow get the cut right — 26 a-piece — and my friends huddle round in silence; anticipation.
I try and shuffle them together seamless, like Randy had done just days before. Predictably, I screw it up — the cards fly everywhere, and my audience explodes into laughter. The wrong kind of laughter.
I hang my head in shame. I remember one of the last things Randy said to me before I left. I can’t remember whether he was talking about games design or magic.
“There’s mastery in all things,” he said, “we’re all striving for it, but we’ll never achieve it.”
I guess I’m no Cardini.