From 'Half-Life' to 'Borderlands': Gearbox rides the rocket

We talk to CEO Randy Pitchford about Gearbox's past, present and possible future
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We talk to CEO Randy Pitchford about Gearbox's past, present and possible future

Randy Pitchford likens Gearbox to a rocket. A rocket that can go really fast, and really high and that he wants to just light up and see what happens.

He tells the story of filmmaker Brad Bird, and how Bird helped reinvent Disney while working at Pixar. The director of Pixar classics like The Incredibles and Ratatouille - and the recent film Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol - knew the magic of Disney wasn't something based in the past, to be preserved under glass and never touched. He knew the magic was something that came from its use, that it was a living thing, not a relic. He believed the magic of Disney was a rocket, and he wanted to light it up.

Pitchford, CEO and President of Gearbox Software, sees himself in a similar role. Although Gearbox isn't yet the Pixar of games, Randy's studio, like Bird's, has been entrusted with the keys to a number of cherished kingdoms. Gearbox has been entrusted with the magic. And, like Bird and his Pixar colleagues, they've kicked the tires, lit the fires and rode those rockets skyward.

They did this, over and again, by shipping games.

We like shipping things

"Shipping is really important," Pitchford told Vox Games. "It is not about making the perfect thing. It is about sharing something that we've created with the world and getting feedback from that [...] We want that information as immediately as possible so it can affect us and help us do a better job next time. So shipping a lot gives us a constant stream of feedback and helps us improve our decision-making process and our craftsmanship.

"Basically, we like shipping things."

They also like taking something you think you know and turning it on end, making it something new.

Example: Half-Life: Opposing Force.

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SHIPPED BY GEARBOX:

Half-Life: Opposing Force, 1999

Half-Life: Blue Shift, 2001

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, 2002

James Bond 007: Nightfire, 2002

Halo: Combat Evolved, PC, 2003

Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, 2004

Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, 2005

Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, 2005

Brothers in Arms: D-Day, 2006

Brothers in Arms: DS, 2007

Samba de Amigo, 2008

Brothers in Arms: Double Time, 2008

Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, 2008

Brothers in Arms: Hour of Heroes, 2008

Borderlands, 2009

Brothers in Arms: Global Front, 2010

Duke Nukem Forever, 2011

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"HEY I GOT THIS IDEA. WHAT IF YOU WENT BACK TO BLACK MESA ..."

One of Gearbox's earliest projects involved working with Valve Software on expansion packs to Half-Life. Gearbox could have played it safe, tacked on a few extra levels to Black Mesa and called it a day; instead, the developers recreated the original game from the points of view of different characters you met along the way.

Pitchford describes the process of pitching his idea for Half-Lifeexpansions to the guys at Valve:

When I went up to Seattle, I sat down with Gabe, Rick Laidlaw and said 'Hey, I got this idea. What if you went back to Black Mesa or what if you were in Black Mesa at the same [time as] the events in Half-Life went down, but it is kind of like Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. You are doing it from the point of view of one of the soldiers that went in. Wouldn't that be cool?' And they were like 'That would be kind of cool, we never thought of that. Go see if Sierra will buy it!' Then I drove down the street and pitched it to the Sierra guys and they were like, 'Sounds pretty cool, can you guys build it?'

Pitchford was pitching Opposing Force, which cast players in the role of the soldiers storming Black Mesa to "find Freeman," allowing players to see pivotal events from the original story from a completely different point of view. The second Half-Lifeexpansion, Blue Shift, did the same, except this time through the eyes of hapless security guard Barney.

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"I remember going up to Valve on a couple of occasions to show them what we were doing with Opposing Force and what we were doing with Blue Shift," said Pitchford, "and we were working a finished system and a launched game and we were just having fun in their universe and making cool gameplay and cool puzzles and environments.

"[Meanwhile] they were struggling to wrestle with new tech that would take them years before it was manifested in what ultimately became Half-Life 2 and we were shipping stuff and making entertainment. We were having a blast."

Pitchford doesn't begrudge Valve their messianic, evolutionary ways. In fact, he adores them. They "walk on water," in his words. But Gearbox does not develop tech for years on end. According to Pitchford, Gearbox would go insane working at the Valve pace.

Instead, Gearbox ships.

The first games Gearbox shipped were the Half-Lifeexpansions. Then they shipped a James Bond game for MGM. Then a Tony Hawk game for Activision. Then the PC version ofHalo: Combat Evolved. They even had time to ship their own IP, Brothers in Arms, which you may have heard of even if you hadn't heard of Gearbox.

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But none of that is why we are here. We're here because of what Gearbox will be shipping this year: At least two highly anticipated triple-A games.

Not the kind of games you look back on and say "Huh, those guys know what they were doing," like the Half-Life expansions. Rather, the kind you wish you could play right now.

We're talking about a brand new chapter in the Aliens franchise called Aliens: Colonial Marinesand we're talking about a sequel toBorderlands.

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Borderlands 2

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Borderlands is the game Gearbox shipped in 2009. And they shipped a lot of it.

"I think the industry was surprised by its reception," Pitchford said. "It certainly did exceed our expectations."

To be fair, Borderlands exceeded everyone's expectations: Best-selling original IP of 2009, at two million copies. As of this writing, that number has more than doubled. Making 2009, for Gearbox, the year that shit got real.

Pitchford says the game was a safe bet because the Gearbox team genuinely loved playing it, as well as making it. They knew they had something special.

"Almost all of us went out there at midnight to buy our copies," he said, "so that we could go home right then and play the retail version on our actual gamer accounts and not have to wait a couple of days for our free copies to come in."

"I THINK THE INDUSTRY WAS SURPRISED BY BORDERLANDS."
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After playing through the midnight launch, Gearbox went back to work: making DLC.

"When we select things to get involved with and when we think about how our time goes there is a general nature to naturally let things we want to spend our time on be the things we are investing in," Pitchford says. "It is sort of this natural thing. Everybody who was working onBorderlands wants to keep doing cool stuff onBorderlands and that's just what happens. And it turns out when you do cool stuff, you just created value and ... a way to realize that value so that the time wasn't wasted so that you can at least get what you spent back so you can keep doing it and hopefully make something so you can do it better next time."

Passion is important to Pitchford. It's a word he uses freely, often in describing the games Gearbox is making, will make and has made. It gives one the sense that passion alone is what gets the Gearbox gears turning. Although Gearbox has and will continue to play in other people's sandboxes, they are not guns for hire. They work on what interests them as gamers and creators. Whether that's Borderlands DLC, a new Brothers in Arms game or a brand new chapter in the Aliens saga.

Aliens: Colonial Marines

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"I have probably watched those movies 50 times," Pitchford says. "Certainly people at the studio have been influenced or inspired by the work of those filmmakers."

The look and feel of James Cameron's Alienshas been aped by more video games than probably any other film. One of video gaming's biggest-selling franchises, in fact, is an almost direct rip-off of the Cameron film. And although Gearbox didn't create that game franchise, they've played in its sandbox, too, and so they probably know at least a little bit about how to create convincing space marines.

"THE SERGEANT FROM HALO IS THE SERGEANT FROM ALIENS."

"I mean look at Halo," Pitchford says. "We clearly love Halo ... Halo is cool is because it is the first time we got to interactively play Colonial Marines from Aliens. You can feel the influence, you can feel the inspiration, it is not just subtle, it is in your face to the point where the sergeant from Halo is the sergeant fromAliens. It is like the same exact character trope and all the designs of the dropships and stuff, it is all there."

Pitchford says he's been stealing from Aliensfor his entire career, so the chance to now give back to the franchise and create a new chapter of its mythology is kind of a big deal.

"With Aliens," he said, "when you think about what the Aliens fantasy is ... it's about playing with that premise of these kinds of characters, these Marines in that kind of situation, where they are facing something which feels no pain and has no fear and wants to turn you into one of them. It is going to come at you relentlessly, to do that in a horrifying and violent way. What is neat about that is you alternately get that suspense, fear, and horror, like ‘oh, God, is he going to pop out of the wall' and then you get all out action you are running and you can see them and you know they are coming and everybody is grouping up and working together to mow them down before they get to you."

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What Gearbox is adding to the mix, in addition to their signature writing and style, is a chance to immerse yourself into that Aliens world and share the fear and action with a friend.

"Whether the game was designed as a purely single player game or a co-operative game," Pitchford said, "your expectation and your wish is your feeling this experience where you're with a squad of marines, and every marine has a character and a role. If you can have that experience single player, and then you can take some of those fellow marines and replace them with other human beings, friends of mine who want to play with me, it not only works dramatically, it is kind of cool. Instead of that thing being driven by an AI, we can now strategize together and have that shared experience.

"When I first watched Aliens, the very next thing I did was get my friends to watch it with me so we could have that shared experience. Well now you are not just experiencing it or kind of witnessing it, you're participating in it. From the sequel, that's actually a video game you are participating in it, and if you want to do that alone great, you want to do that with friends great. We designed it so it works in both contexts."

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"IF YOU ARE CURIOUS, I STRONGLY RECOMMEND VISITING US AT PAX EAST."
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Another aspect of the upcoming game's design Pitchford hopes will represent a significant advancement is Gearbox's heavy investment in the Wii U. Pitchford says he actually believes the Wii U version of Aliens: Colonial Marineswill be the best version.

"The Wii U version has so much more to offer ... no other platform can do what the Wii U can do," he says. "If you love [Xbox] 360 games, you are not used to being in a world where you have this new interface. But once you get used to that, you imagine the possibilities; there are some opportunities that are just not possible on any platform that does not have that device."

Pitchford hints that using the Wii U controller as a motion tracker, or in other ways that evoke signature moments form the films will lure gamers to the Wii U for their Aliens fix.

"I don't want to give spoilers away on some of things we are thinking of or things we have actually implemented already," he said, "but a lot of cool opportunities with that device that are going to make a very unique and compelling experience on that platform. We have given a lot of attention. I think it will not be too long [before] Nintendo opens up their kimono a little bit more about that platform and where it is going, we will be there right with them talking about how Aliens is using it."

Pitchford was tight-lipped regarding details of the game's story, but he did say at least one detail will be revealed next month, in Boston:

"Competitive multiplayer is in the game," he said. "If you are curious about what we are doing there, I strongly recommend visiting us at PAX East."

Duke Nukem Forever ... again?

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There is another game that comes up when talking about Gearbox and which, technically, is now a part of the company's stable of franchises. That game is Duke Nukem Forever, the un-shippable game that Gearbox, against all odds, shipped.

"I took the risk to dive into the middle of that and be the one to finish it," said Pitchford. "I bought the game and the brand and said look, this is never coming out unless we do something. I thought it was a worthwhile thing to do and I am very proud of [it]."

Duke Nukem Forever was released in 2011 to mixed reviews. Critics and gamers alike either loved the game or hated it, and Pitchford believes this has as much to do with the game's tortured development history as anything else.

When Gearbox bought the rights to finish and ship Duke Nukem Forever, the game had been in development for over 12 years and Gearbox was the fourth studio to put their hands on it.

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"In the case of Duke Nukem Forever, there has been 15 years of expectations built up," Pitchford said. "There are a lot of people who were perfectly gratified by the game; they liked the surprises, the details of how the humor manifested itself or how the scenarios manifested themselves ... and there were other people, because of the development effort or because of the way it's been upsold throughout the years, there is just no possible way to meet or exceed such expectations."

Pitchford says that of all the games they've shipped, Gearbox gets more positive fan mail from players of Duke Nukem Forever. He believes this, above all else, is the indicator that Gearbox hit the mark in terms of quality.

"I TOOK THE RISK TO BE THE ONE TO FINISH IT."

"The true definition of quality," he says, "is not about things like fidelity or features, or you know production values, or anything like that. The true definition of quality ... is to what extent does the thing meet or exceed expectations of the customer."

Yet in spite of whether or not the game met anyone's expectations, Pitchford says that just shipping the game, long plagued with development and funding problems, is another feather in Gearbox's cap.

Whether it was perfect or not, Gearbox shipped it.

"We are so proud of that, you have no idea," Pitchford says. "It's like, it is a miracle. The game exists and we get to see that content with what those guys have been working on for so long. And I love the game, I think it is hilarious frankly."

2013 and Beyond

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Gearbox is growing. The company that Pitchford and his four co-founders built in 1999 is now so large Pitchford doesn't actually know how many people work for him.

Pitchford says that roughly 100 to 200 people are working on Gearbox games at any one time, but as for how many people the company now employs, his best guess is somewhere around 292, based on the number of certain software licenses the company owns. Although that number doesn't include people in HR or other support departments, so it could be much higher.

Pitchford is aware of the dangers inherent in growing too large or too quickly, but he said he doesn't believe Gearbox is quite there yet.

"I think that if you scale to a point where your cost of communication is outweighing the value you are getting from the manifestation of more effort, then you are doing it wrong," he says. "If that is because you are too large or because you are organized incorrectly, you should figure that out, but in our case, we have not seen that limit yet. It is not our ambition just to be huge, it is our ambition to create entertainment, and we want to do a great job at it."

"THERE ARE A LOT OF OTHER THINGS THAT WE WOULD LOVE TO BE A PART OF."
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Gearbox isn't talking about what lies beyondBorderlands 2 and Aliens: Colonial Marines, but whatever it is that Gearbox ships in 2013 and beyond will be exactly what they want to ship. No more, no less.

"What we want to do is probably the biggest driver," Pitchford said, "because if we do what we want to do, it's likely going to have some relationship to what the customer wants because we consume video games ourselves, right?"

So what does Gearbox want to do? Pitchford isn't saying, although he does drop some hints:

"As long as we want to make a game set in aBorderlands franchise, we will be doing that. As long as we want to make a game set in Duke Nukem franchise, we will be doing that. As long as we want to make a game in the Brothers in Arms franchise, we will be doing that. As long as we want to create new franchises we will be doing that to the extent that we can.

"There are a lot of other things we have our eyes on that we would love to be a part of."

Whatever those things turn out to be, you can be sure that Gearbox will love them, feel passion for them and, above all else, ship them.

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