D.I.C.E. 2013 - Making Magic With Randy Pitchford

By Kevin Kelly

Gamers know Randy Pitchford as the president of Gearbox Software, but you might not know that he’s also a magician. He used to perform in Hollywood at a place called Wizard at Universal Citywalk, and was a member of the prestigious parlor of prestidigitation known as The Magic Castle … where he actually got married. So forget about experiencing the D.I.C.E. panel, instead we were treated to Randy Pitchford’s Magic Show!

Pitchford, while performing tricks, explained that much of the psychology behind magic tricks is the game psychology that goes into video game development. In the case of magic and the case of video game, you’re encouraging the audience to trust you and come along with you on a journey, and there will be a payoff at the end. With magic, the payoff is seeing something amazing, or impossible, and in video games, the payoff is a sense of accomplishment.

Making that happen involves several steps for the creator. They have to make the audience trust them, and then they have to validate that trust by creating an experience that lives up to what you have promised. “With a $60 video game, there’s a lot of expectation about how much time and entertainment comes out of that,” Pitchford said. He noted that you have to engage the audience early, or you will lose them.

In the case of “Borderlands,” he noted that the game has an awesome introduction, which is meant to excite the player, and they then get dropped into the game to see if the promise of the introduction comes true in the gameplay. They tweaked the beginning of the game by opening up things slowly for the player, but also by giving them loot early, which is an immediate fulfillment and reward.

Pitchford refuted J.J. Abrams’ argument from the opening keynote, noting that the choices the player or viewer makes don’t really matter, because the end result will be the same either way. He then explained that his opening trick, in which he produced a red and blue deck of cards and asked an audience member which one he liked, and then tossed him one of the decks. “I was always going to do the trick with the red deck of cards, regardless of his choice.”

This is known as a “force” in the world of magic. Had the gentleman in the audience chosen the blue deck, Pitchford would have tossed it to him and done the trick with the red deck. Had he chosen the red deck, he have said, “Okay, I’ll use this one for my trick,” and tossed him the blue deck. Video game designers use the same trick, offering what might seem like a big choice to the gamer, but nothing that things might play out the same regardless of their choice.

Pitchford doesn’t mean that developers should make choices be meaningless in games, but was underscoring the power of giving choices to the gamer. In the case of Borderlands, that was exemplified by their inclusion of “87 bazillion guns,” which gives the player nearly infinite choices when it comes to arming themselves. So in some cases, it’s about making that choice feel important to the gamer, but which ultimately don’t really sway the outcome of the game.

Sadly, we only got the one trick from Pitchford, which you can watch in the video above. But if things don’t work out at Gearbox, it’s good to know that he could always go back to the magic business.

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