“Randy Pitchford told developers that if they weren’t happy with the...system, they were welcome to quit....” - Kotaku
Gearbox, the developer behind the massively popular Borderlands franchise, under the publisher 2K games, is in the news once again and as usual in a not so good way.
I’m a few days late on reporting on this news, but I just heard about it from a peer in the industry.
Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford is no stranger to controversy, with lawsuits, accusations of awful work environments including but not limited to harassment. He is accused of pocketing a large bonus during a secret lawsuit. He also lost a flash drive with game builds, other corporate assets, and had questionable porn on it. 2K is also accused of sending, for lack of a better term, “goons” to the house of a YouTuber reporting on news leaks to intimidating them into silence. In comparison to the old man who uses a flash drive for porn, badgering youtubers, or all the other questionable things Randy, Gearbox, or 2K has been in the news for, this almost seems small in comparison. Almost. While it is not as crazy sounding, it makes up for it in just pure shocking corporate greed.
Borderlands 3 was a massive success. Publisher 2K described it as a “billion-dollar global brand”. It had positive sales, broke records, outsold Borderlands 2 which was also considered a massive hit. This why it may come as a surprise that Randy is coming out to say that the game “Didn’t make much money”.
To give some context to why this is such an important story is that Gearbox does something that could be seen normally commendable in the gaming industry if they actually went through with this. They offer their employees profit sharing. In fact, Gearbox highly touted this fact in a huge way for recruitment for the development of Borderlands 3. They hired so many people on the pitch that “people bought houses with their Borderlands 2 bonuses.” One thing about Gearbox is that they pay sub-standard industry wages. They pay their employees well below what they are worth, on the promise of profit sharing. They were frequently told how good the bonuses are, and many developers worked extra hard to make Borderlands 3 a success.
Massive AAA games like Borderlands 3 require unfathomable effort, expense, and time. Crunch is an industry term used to describe unrealistic and undesirable working conditions in the last part of a game’s development. I firmly believe the vast majority of Crunch occurs from unrealistic development time expectations set by greedy corporate executives who know full well the development windows they set are unachievable. I wrote about this in length criticizing the massive January round of game delays we saw. We see so many AAA studios who know full well how long a game takes delaying their games. Ubisoft had to delay Watchdogs 1 by over a year and here we are 5 years later, and they have learned nothing, having to delay Watchdogs Legions by some unknown long period of time. These studios know how long it takes to make a game and repeatedly set unrealistic goals at the expense of the working conditions of their employees. Obviously I am not referring to delays occurring now due to the unique global situation, this was long before that.
Crunch is a huge industry issue, a black mark on the industry. It wont be solved overnight. However, profit sharing could be a short term answer to the problem. If workers are to work extra hours they should be paid for it with profit sharing and over time, but it needs to be done right. It needs to be handled properly. Unfortunately, the negative press of this due to this situation is just not helping anything. Gearbox and 2K could be setting industry employee rights and health back with this greedy situation.
Borderlands 3 took Crunch. It took long hours. It took overtime. Developers worked hard to make it the amazing game that it was. Borderlands 3 made Game Infinite’s Top 10 2019 list, and was one of ours and many others GOTY noms. It was an amazing game with incredible value. The developers deserve praise for this game. When quarantine started I made a list of games I was trying to finish or 100% during all of this, and I had Borderlands 3 on there; topping a massive backlog list.
Now, despite the game being a critical and financial success, Gearbox is stiffing the developers on the bonuses they were promised. It is unknown by how much, but one thing the gaming news platforms know, it is no where near what was promised. Many developers who worked extra hours and took below average pays on promises of bonuses are being told they are not getting the promised bonus amounts.
I want to make the next point very clear. It doesn't matter if Borderlands 3 was a massive success or not. The fact that it was just makes it even more awful. However, If you are a huge profitable AAA studio and you hire employees and come right and say "we will pay you less now but just wait for those amazing bonuses", then you better pay those bonuses. Not because of "profit sharing" but because you are upfront about underpaying your employees. The term "bonus" can't obscure the fact that it really meant to balance out underpaying. Bonus almost sounds optional when in this case it shouldn’t be. This isn't about developers getting "extra"; it is about developers getting paid what they are worth in the first place.
What I mean is that even if Borderlands 3 was a financial failure, that wouldn't have excused Gearbox from paying their employees. Gearbox and and 2K are successful and financially profitable studio. They can afford to pay their employees. Randy Pitchford is accused of taking a secret 12 million dollar bonus last year. 2K has massive successes. The fact that Borderlands 3 outsold its massively popular predecessor just makes this more gut-wrenching.
(Source: Business Insider)
The reason I bring this point is that Randy’s excuse for all of this controversy is that he “claims” Borderlands 3 wasn’t as profitable as expected. He cites the added cost of the DLC and the added cost of a engine technology change mid-development.
The problem with this is two fold. Number one, both of those things are hugely leadership focused decisions that is incredibly unfair to make the developers pay for. If leadership decides to to make investments in new technology or down the road DLC offerings those are not the employees fault. If someone should be paying for investments it is the executives. That would be like your boss investing in new computers for the office and saying it is coming out of your bonus that he promised when he hired you.
His explanation is literally making the employees pay for his leadership choices. It should be the company absorbing the loss of those investments not the developers. Secondly, these bonuses were already promised, used in recruiting, and used to balance out low pay. It is like they gave these developers an IOU to accept industry sub standard pay. I can’t stress enough how bogus and greedy this is.
It would be one thing if Randy was diplomatic about any of this. He could tell try to promise the difference between what was promised and the current bonuses to roll in from the profits of the DLC. If any of his excuses were true, he could have stated he was also taking a pay cut to absorb the supposed profit loss. Unexpected costs were to be “spread around”. A good leader wouldn’t solely put this on his employees.
BUT that isn’t Randy’s style. This is one of the most talked about CEO’s in gaming and not in a good way. Porn Flashdrive Guy had the audacity to tell his hardworking developers who made his game a success that if they didn’t like it they could quit. That was literally his response to his employees who are being stiffed on promised pay. Pay they deserve. Pay they willingly went without because they trusted Randy Pitchford. Randy has said and done a lot of things, and I think it is time for gamers to say enough is enough.
I will reiterate something I said back in my January article about game studios and delays.
Gamers need to start demanding these games be completely finished, delivered on time, and with their employees properly paid with zero crunch.
If that means the executives don’t get as many millions in bonuses than they would have then so be it. I am tired of hearing critically and financially successful games ending with executive bonuses and employee layoffs or bonus denials. Activision, Blizzard, EA, and now 2K/Gearbox all are guilty of having massively popular games be followed by either lay offs or poor employee treatment. It needs to END.
I originally planned to stream Borderlands 3 today as part of my quarantine schedule. I am aware that Game Infinite’s still small twitch presence, and for that matter even this article, will have zero impact on Gearbox and 2K’s bottom line, but I just can’t in good conscious support a company right now that is showing such corporate greed, especially during this time. The coronavirus crisis has brought out so much corporate good from some, and unfathomable greed from others. I just can’t help promote Borderlands 3 right now. I may still stream at 9 PM Ct, but I may play something else, more to come.
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