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The Guts of Gearbox

July 23, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

As the generation has burned on and on, it does seem that fewer developers are thriving at the triple-A game. Gearbox, however, seems to have sorted things out for itself nicely. Borderlands 2 appears to be a significant upgrade from the original; if it's a hit, it'll cement the studio's creation of a lucrative new IP. Aliens: Colonial Marines, meanwhile, seems likely to be a major success unless developer or publisher fumble majorly.

How does someone make these bets? How do you stand out from the crowd and blend RPG mechanics with a shooter and comic book flair and surprise the industry and gamers? Randy Pitchford, president of Gearbox Software, says that it's essential, in fact, to try and surprise players -- the real risk is in not chasing something different.

In this extensive interview, Pitchford shares his thoughts on where to place bets, when and how to approach art and technology, and how best to achieve the goal of being one of the few triple-A independent studios.

How do you feel about being an independent studio doing the genre in this generation in 2012? First of all, are you happy with where Gearbox is and, technologically, where the market is for the kind of games you make?

Randy Pitchford: As far as where Gearbox is, I'm really proud of the things we've done and the things we're doing. I also always tend to feel like we're just getting started. [laughs] But I'm really excited about the position we're in and what the future holds.

Right now, though, a really huge percentage of our mindshare is dedicated towards delivering Borderlands 2, and our Aliens project comes out in February. We've got a few other things we're working on internally that are farther than that, that we're not talking about as much right now.

But I feel really good about the decisions we've made, and I feel really good about what we've been creating and what we have created. I feel good about what we're in the middle of, and I'm really excited about what's in front of us. I feel like all of that makes it even more possible for us to do even greater things down the road. It all kind of feeds into itself.

Borderlands 2 is so good-looking.

RP: Thanks. We're really proud of it. We've got some amazing guys. We're just getting better and better. As we developed our studio and we realized that our creative interests were going to carry us in a lot of different directions simultaneously -- like, on one hand we'll have something like Brothers In Arms, which is the very authentic, very gritty, desaturated look, very grainy kind of look.

And then over here we've got this, which is vibrant and kind of a non-realistic art style. We're taking really exaggerated characters and shapes. We're doing hand inking and doing outlining of things that are rendering side.

And then both of those things also look very extremely different from Aliens. When we knew we were going to be in a world where we're going to be having these really divergent styles to the games that we want to creatively involve ourselves in simultaneously, we knew that we were going to have to get really good at tech and at graphics. So, years back, even starting in the last generation, we started getting some guys and empowering the guys we already had to be able to focus and iterate.

Obviously, when Borderlands, the first game, took its aesthetic left turn and went for this comic book look, and rebooted the aesthetics, it was kind of a big bet but it really paid off, I think, with people.

At the beginning of this generation, you heard a lot of complaints, for example with Team Fortress 2 before it actually came out. People were so skeptical about this. But do you feel that placing these creative bets is actually the right decision for a company like yours?

RP: It really depends on what you're doing. I think for Borderlands, it started from a game design concept. The initial idea was about knowing that we could take the fun that we get from collecting loot, making choices about our character, making choices about our gear, making choices about our build of the character, and taking those things from RPG and blending it with FPSes, and we kinda knew that was going to work.

So that was the starting idea, and style and story kind of followed that. And for a long portion of the development, there was this mismatch... of the fun of the concept art, and the fun we were having on the conceptual point of view towards what we were actually building and rendering in the style of the game. So, that needed to break and get loose, because that just naturally fits with the game that we're making.

I think the game design of Team Fortress could go a lot of different ways, as evidenced by the gameplay that we had in earlier iterations of Team Fortress. If you kind of rewind, though, and you think about what Team Fortress Classic was, or what the original Team Fortress for Quake was, style was less of a defining characteristic, but when you think about the game play and what kind of things we were doing.

Even the designs of the characters in Team Fortress Classic -- the current Team Fortress 2 feels like a natural extreme hyper-evolution of where that was probably should've headed anyway. There was a moment where, I think, Team Fortress was going to go a different way after Half-Life came out and they showed us Team Fortress 2 and it was very realistic and very gritty, and I think that for anyone who imagined what they could be and wanted that, and they see this other thing, there's a kind of disconnect.

We had people with Borderlands 2, that when we were playing around with realism that told us, "I like realism. I like the realistic look. I'm afraid I'm not gonna like this." I think in the long range, after you play Borderlands, it feels like, "How could it be anything but this?" When you're dreaming about things, it's kind of difficult for some people to be as adaptable, I guess.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Kale Menges
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I've always admired Randy's passion for making games. It's always great to see the CEO of a successful studio like Gearbox still have that wide-eyed fanboy look on his face when he talks about his craft.

Luis Guimaraes
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I only have one question: when will we get to play a snow setting with white aliens?

JB Vorderkunz
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Best boss in the industry? sounds like it. Best place to work in the industry? sounds like that too. How many other AAA studios build what they love while being business-smart about it? Some for sure, but surely not all of em.

Ole Berg Leren
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"No one's stolen it yet. That's weird. We're in an industry where people do nothing but steal from each other."

Sounds like he's projecting a bit. Borderlands, to me, was a highly derivative title with a lifeless visual style. When they revealed the loot-system, I was a bit stoked. I imagined that a gun with the "acid/corrosive" modifier would actually shoot streams of acid. Maybe lay out pools of the stuff to make it a bit deeper, tactically. What I got was bullets that were also acid.

Playing the game on PC was horrid, as I am primed for 1:1 mouse-movement. Having played CS:S for well over 500 hours(conservative guess), it really bothers me. When any of my retained skills don't carry over because of lack of precision, I get frustrated and that colors my entire experience.

The cars handled like bricks with wheels, and I was tired of it 10 minutes into the first car-area.

The TK Baha plotline would've gained a lot if they had established him a bit more.

In the end, my expectations were smacked around by Reality and Uncle Shoddy-Port.

Joe Dyer
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The key to any game is playabilty. You have got to keep the player engrossed in the game. Borderlands does that. It hooks you in and is one of them games where putting down the control to live your life seems like a ridiculous idea!me and my brother played through the first game at least 3 times. The best part about it?just as our attention started to stray...DOWNLOADABLE CONTENT!and not shoddy downloadable content either!Full maps/missions/storylines that would hook us right back in again!

Gearbox knows what they are doing,they know how to make a game work and i look forward to Borderlands 2!

Barney Holmes
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Great to hear a CEO speaking up for the integrity of honestly crafting a creative work that brings something into people's lives. That's what is worth paying for rather than the focus on price tags and market share that tends to compromise creative directions AKA shooting yaself in the foot.