By Brian Womack – Staff Writer, Dallas Business Journal
Oct 5, 2020, 9:22am EDT
Gearbox Entertainment’s Randy Pitchford is seeing interest grow in his video-game company amid COVID-19 – and is looking into some new territory for the future.
The Frisco company, which has more than 500 employees, has resumed hiring again as people snatched up titles while they stayed in their homes during the pandemic. It didn’t hurt to have a big-time name like Borderlands 3 hit the market just last year.
“From a business perspective with our products, fortunately, we make interactive entertainment – and it turned out that if everyone else in the world was locking themselves inside and saying … they needed more entertainment indoors,” said Pitchford, founder of Gearbox Entertainment Co. “It turned out that our sales spiked, and the demand on our business increased dramatically.”
Gearbox is another industry player that’s benefitting within the entertainment sector. While the pandemic brought serious challenges early on that had to addressed, Pitchford has seen growing momentum and sees opportunities with new platforms, including smartphones and new consoles. It’s also looking ahead to a new movie project that will include actress Cate Blanchett for its biggest recent title.
“I’m incredibly optimistic,” he said. “We’re just getting started.”
Randy Pitchford, Gearbox
In the U.S., total video game sales have shot up more than 20 percent year-to-date to nearly $30 billion, according to The NPD Group. In August alone, they jumped 37 percent.
And there is more growth slated for the future. The global games market is set to exceed $200 billion by 2023, up from $159.3 billion in 2020, according to Newzoo.
Gearbox’s Borderlands 3, the first update to the popular game in several years, came in September of 2019. It was a hit, claiming the No. 4 spot in the U.S. for the year, according to NPD.
Yet the company is at work on many projects. Pitchford expects to expand worker numbers by between 15 percent and 30 percent in the next six months to a year. It could double over the next two to three years, he said.
“We’re aggressively recruiting again,” he said.
Yet not everything was as clear in the early days of the pandemic as Gearbox had to fully embrace remote work.
This is a company that’s accustomed to collaboration – and constant interaction in real-time – as employees build games that create new worlds and characters for demanding customers. Gearbox uses tools that help track performance – and productivity capacity dropped to probably about 50 percent of targeted levels the first remote week in March, Pitchford said.
“It was quite an interesting adaptation and interesting shock,” he said.
Yet improvement came quickly. That jumped to around 75 percent the following week – and in April Gearbox was hitting its rhythm and got back to normal.
“We noticed that we also were able to adapt quickly,” he said. “Then later, we found that we were actually exceeding our prior performance – which was really astonishing to discover, and it shows how adaptable we are as a species.”
An approach that helped: A lot of connections with employees and executives. These were enabled by digital tools, key technology in a time of working-from-home.
“There was a point where we were surveying almost every single day,” he said. It included “do you have everything you need? How do you feel about your performance?”
Early on, that could include just practical stuff like webcams and physical cables, he said, though needs could be less obvious as well.
He said that he’s also met with his executive team daily. Sometimes the meeting can be five minutes. Sometimes they are an hour to help “each other out,” he said.
There were other adjustments. The hiring freeze was the first in the company’s history, and Gearbox pursued help from the government through the Paycheck Protection Program.
As company pushed forward, workers tackled projects head-on. That meant pushing out key content on time for Borderlands 3 that beat expectations. Other efforts performed well, he said.
While the Christmas shopping season is usually the high point for video games during the year, summer is typically quieter he said. During the pandemic, that changed.
“We fortunately did have a number of titles in that window,” he said. “And all of them outperformed expectations.”
And there’s more expansion to be had. A big event this year is the launch of Sony’s new console, PlayStation 5, and Microsoft’s new Xbox. Both are slated for the holiday shopping season.
“We've been in close collaboration with our partners at Sony and Microsoft with these platforms, and we have games launching with the platforms. So we're thrilled about it, and we already could see a huge amount of stimulation in the market.”
That include PlayStation 5’s “Godfall,” which Pitchford calls a “beautiful” game that shows what’s possible with new tech.
And then there’s growing use of smartphones when folks want to access video games. This year, 2.5 billion users will play on mobile, according to Newzoo, while 1.3 billion play on personal computers and 800 million on consoles.
Folks that use PlayStations and Xboxes also can like mobile, Pitchford noted. The company has been pushing more content to handheld devices.
“They're going to be waiting in line at a grocery store – they're going pull out their phone,” he said. “We can reach them there as well. So that's an opportunity.”
Another key area for Gearbox is movies. The success of the Borderlands franchise has caught the interest of the folks around in the film industry. Lionsgate is taking on the project and it will include Eli Roth as director and acting talent that will include Blanchett, he said.
It’s not a first. The company also worked several years ago with another one of its titles. The movie is in development and could come out in 2022, he said.
As that progresses, folks at Gearbox will continue to work from home until at least June 1, he said, noting that especially helps with parents trying to juggle school schedules.
Unlike some, Pitchford doesn’t see remote as permanent way of life at Gearbox.
“We're really good at kind of connecting remotely, but we are also really good at collaborating live," he said. "And there's nothing that can quite replace a group of designers and a group of talent together – when you're making entertainment, getting together in a room and banging something out together."