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‘Borderlands 3’ Brings Big Potential Profits, Big Potential Headaches to Take-Two

Video game maker Take-Two Interactive is no stranger to controversy.

In recent years, the publisher Grand Theft Auto series has had to defend itself innumerable times over that hit game’s often violent content. And now Take-Two must do so again over accusations against the independent company that is developing Take-Two’s highly-anticipated game, Borderlands 3, which is to premiere on Sept. 13.

In the past few months, Randy Pitchford, the head of Gearbox Software, the company developing Borderlands, has faced a number of accusations. Gearbox’s former general counsel filed a lawsuit accusing Pitchford of, among other things, taking a secret $12 million bonus that risked reducing the royalties that other employees ultimately received from the latest installment in the series. (Pitchford has countersued.)

Meanwhile, a former Borderlands voice actor has accused Pitchford of assault, saying he was shoved during an altercation at the 2017 Game Developer’s Conference. However, the actor never reported it to authorities.

Gearbox has denied the accusations, but the gaming world is still talking about them. And that puts Strauss Zelnick, Take-Two’s CEO, in an awkward spot. Borderlands 3 is expected to be critical to the company’s business this year, but even though Gearbox is an independent developer, Take-Two, as the game’s publisher, could suffer some damage to its reputation.

Zelnick, though, downplays the risk.

“Gearbox has said the complaints are without merit and we take them at their word,” he says. “The marketing of the game is all about the game, and shouldn’t be about the individual. … I don’t think a black and white perspective is helpful here. There are certain behaviors that, by their nature, are unacceptable and there are others that are less so. Allegations are different than facts. And everyone has to make their own decision.”

Zelnick says he “wouldn’t rule out” an independent investigation, but there are no plans to conduct one now.

“I think in the world of social media, everyone has a voice and there’s great power in that and I’d be the last to criticize it, but there are moments where reputations are unfairly tarnished,” he says. “I’m a big believer that allegations require a full hearing. … We stand behind what we do and that means we take responsibility for choices that are made on our watch.”

The troubles surrounding Borderlands 3 come at the same time the overall video game industry is facing calls for developers to unionize, amid concerns over the long hours they put in at the end of a game’s development (known as “crunch” in the industry). At the annual E3 video game conference in Los Angeles last week, proponents handed out flyers to attendees about their unionization push.

Zelnick says Take-Two prides itself on having a great work environment, and will comply if employees decide to organize, but says he doesn’t see it as a necessary step.

“Most people who work in this industry are utterly passionate about what they do and are devoted to working hard to create the very best outcome,” he says. “Sometimes there are challenging moments, where you really have to put in extra effort. All of us do that. All of us at Take-Two do that and all of us in the industry do that.”

Take-Two’s Rockstar Games studio (makers of Grand Theft Auto) have been in the center of the debate about unionization, with stories of extended working hours during crunch times. Zelnick did not address those complaints.

He did, however, discuss in a very roundabout way what could be next for the superstar developer. Take-Two never talks about any element of Rockstar’s upcoming games until they’re revealed. And with Red Dead Redemption 2 hitting shelves last year, it’s likely going to be a while before we hear about Rockstar’s next title.

Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V came out in 2013, but was still one of last year’s top sellers. The game’s multiplayer component, GTA Online, has been a tremendous profit driver for Take-Two, and has typically been the single biggest contributor to repeat consumer spending each quarter.

However, when asked if Rockstar’s current focus was on single player games or the lucrative online components of GTA Online and Red Dead, Zelnick hinted at a third, unknown option.

“Going forward, the Rockstar team sets the standard for recreating themselves and recreating everything that they’re working on,” he said. “And the last thing they are would be devoting themselves to slavishly recreating the past. To the contrary, I think they’re totally focused on anything they do, exploding expectations.”

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