Gearbox, Colonial Marines, and Losing Trust

Gearbox, Colonial Marines, and Losing Trust

In a Develop keynote speech, Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford talks about angry fans and Aliens: Colonial Marines.

Game development is hard. Many times, a game isn't equal to the marketing put forth prior to release. If you're a consumer that pre-ordered or paid for a game based on that previous marketing, it's understandable that you'd feel angry and misled. You were told one thing and you received another.

For some titles, it's simply an issue of optimization: as a game proceeds toward a retail launch, things are cut to make the title run on multiple platforms. That trailer you see at E3, Gamescom, or PAX is usually a mocked-up vertical slice usually running on a state-of-the-art PC. The real thing is rarely going to run like that. I understand that, though I encourage developers to be more honest about the process. Simply saying, "No, the game doesn't look like it's original trailer and that's the result of optimization and cuts during development" is much better than, "No, there has been no downgrade." Honesty wins out.

Gearbox vs. The Fans?

Then there's games that have been completely misrepresented. One of those titles was Aliens: Colonial Marines, published by Sega and developed by Gearbox Software. Colonial Marines launched in a horrible state and owners were rightly angry about it. Jim Sterling, who is a big Aliens fan, was livid about the game, noting that early vertical slices seemed to have little to do with the final product. Sega and Gearbox were sued because of the disrepancy, but Gearbox was dropped from the suit in May of this year. Gearbox has developed other great titles, like the Borderlands series, but Aliens: Colonial Marines was a poor mark on the company.

Gearbox Software founder and CEO Randy Pitchford delivered the keynote address at this week's Develop conference in Brighton, England. Before the keynote, Develop decided to reach out on Twitter and ask fans for questions for a Q&A following the keynote. Being the internet, it did not go well.

In his speech, Pitchford decided to take on the criticism of Aliens: Colonial Marines.

"If you're making entertainment on a grand scale, if you're reaching millions, there will be tens of thousands of people who absolutely hate us, and some percentage of those will take it upon themselves to let us known how they feel," Pitchford said, according to reporting by The Guardian.

"I read it in this way: we moved those people, we touched them – even the person who hates [your game] so much, you've affected them. That's why we fight, we're creating emotion and experience - and some people thrive on that type of feeling, some people are sadists. There is always the person who's got to stand on the sandcastle, they must crush it. That's their way of relating to that. It's typically a less sophisticated mind."

Borderlands is one of Gearbox's biggest franchises.

I'm all about criticism as long as it's delivered in a civil manner. I understand your emotions can get the better of you, but I prefer honest discussion and that's hard when everyone's yelling at each other. Some of the questions posed to Pitchford were quite uncivil, but others were not. They were honest and frank. Pitchford did engage with some of those questions, but others remained unanswered. And some of these answers probably should've come years ago when the game launched.

No one has to engage with criticism. That is why I'm so big on it. If I write that I think Assassin's Creed should take place in the Sengoku era of Japan, that it should have more women, or that Ubisoft should treat the PC ports better, that is criticism. If you engage with a work and in good faith let the creator know that you disliked an element, that's criticism. It's not always good criticism, but I believe more criticism and feedback is better. That's how things improve.

Creators retain the freedom to decide whether they want to listen to that criticism. They have the right to listen to what fans and consumers are saying and decide not to act. They may revisit current project after listening to criticism - see Rocksteady's handling of Batman: Arkham Knight's PC port - or decide to take that feedback into account for future projects. The creator is always free. The market may make it hard to sell their product if you elect to ignore or listen to that feedback, but they always have that right.

Will the revival of this controversy touch Gearbox' Battleborn?

So, Pitchford and Gearbox do not have to answer for Aliens: Colonial Marines. What I argue is that they should. Sales are not just built on having a good, great, or excellent product. It's about building trust. People will buy products sight unseen if they trust the names on the box. By ignoring the Aliens: Colonial Marines criticism, Pitchford has built up bad blood. Some consumers won't purchase a Gearbox game again. That's not a mark of a "less sophisticated mind" or a "sadist", that's simply a sign that trust has been lost.

Every project is an act of building or losing trust. The best companies have crafted strong fanbases who trust that they'll deliver in the end. I'll buy every Brandon Sanderson book sight unseen; he has yet to truly let me down, so his stuff is an instant purchase. The Persona games from Atlus are the same. Trust doesn't even have to mean you think something will be great; I don't think every J.J. Abrams project will be great, but I trust him to at least make an enjoyable film. As a creator, that's what you want. Trust streamlines a purchase. Why would you want to hurt that trust?

"A mission to entertain the world is a good one because it's impossible to achieve," Pitchford said in his speech. "If you're going to take a risk, some people will like what you offer, and some definitely won't."

I applaud that, sir. Please take risks. But when they don't work out, don't dodge the criticism. Take it straight on. Honestly. Being honest about what went into your failures builds as much trust as your successes. Don't forget that.

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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