Interviews

Randy Pitchford interview: 'For me, making games is like playing with amazing toys'

Gearbox boss on critics, Borderlands 2 and games as art

Gearbox boss and former professional magician Randy Pitchford started his career working on the 3D Realms games Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior.

In 1999, he and four colleagues founded Gearbox Software and they immediately went to work on Half-Life expansion Opposing Force, and the PS2 and Dreamcast ports of Valve's classic. Over a decade later, he's worked on Halo, Aliens, Brothers In Arms and Borderlands.

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Do you find it hard to retain Gearbox's independence?

From my seat everything looks great. We're the only studio that has somehow managed to both build original brands while also working with other people's brands. Most of the time you'll find studios only do original stuff or they are work for hires with other people's stuff. We have Brothers In Arms that we created, Borderlands that we created, and Duke Nukem that we acquired a couple of years ago. That helps us. At the same time, we've been fortunate to develop some credibility working with other people's beloved franchises; Half-Life was brilliant for us.

The fact that Valve and Sierra trusted us to dive in there and make all of the expansions and all of the console versions was a dream come true, and earned us some credibility. When Microsoft and Bungie trusted us with the PC version of Halo... I mean, Bungie walks on water, those guys are amazing. Now we're making an Aliens game with 20th Century Fox. I've been taking inspiration from Aliens for my entire career, and now I get to play in that space. I feel like we're in a very fortunate position, but I also feel like we're just getting started. We're just figuring things out, our future is going to be a lot more exciting than our past.

Is it the licenses that let you take risks like Borderlands?

Or vice-versa, sure. In some respects our success with Borderlands allows us to work in the Aliens space and really commit to it. When we work with other people's stuff we don't really think about it like a licence deal - we're always going to do our game. I mean, we got involved in the Half-Life stuff because Half-Life wasn't enough! We wanted to spend more time in that space, and we had ideas of angles we felt were worthy to explore.

When we did Halo for PC we did it because there wasn't going to be a Halo on PC, but after playing it on Xbox and knowing how great the multiplayer game was on a LAN I wanted desperately to play that game over the internet. We built a networking infrastructure that allowed it to be played online for the very first time. That was a really fun, difficult and interesting challenge and it was super gratifying to be responsible for doing that.

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People still play Halo PC today...

I know. Halo PC is the bestselling PC shooter of all time according to NPD. That's weird. I didn't expect that. It's such a powerful brand and such a great game.

Critics kicked Duke's face off and you spoke out to defend the game. How's your relationship with journalists?

I think really every critic has his own goals just like every entertainer has his own goals. All's fair in love and war. It's a big moshpit and we're all jumping around in it, trying to make our way. If I were a critic, I think if people are going to read what I have to say then it should help them understand something about their purchase decision.

Like a more academic review, for instance? You can watch a movie and read the review after it and learn more about the film you watched.

I think that's a different kind of review. In that case it's like those critics are trying to show their audience how good they are at figuring something out. I think there's a lot of perspectives one could take as a reviewer, and that's one of them. But if it were me I would think about why my audience is reading my review. I would assume they're reading what I have to say before they've seen the game themselves, and I would want to leave them with a good sense of the value they're going to get out of it. I'd want them to know that reading my review before going in means they could make a more informed decision.

Is it tough launching a new IP in this latest new generation?

It's always a challenge. Editors tend to want to cover things that they think their audience is already going to be interested in. On one hand it's easy to get coverage for something new because everybody wants the scoop, but there is some inertia you have to overcome when you build a new IP - but it's exciting, it's part of the challenge. I was excited to run around and tell people that I've got this great idea and it's called Borderlands and you're going to be excited about this.

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You've mentioned before that your measure of quality is meeting or exceeding expectations of fans...

Exceeding expectations is always a challenge. One thing we could've done for Borderlands 2 was a whole new type of game design. There might be some people who wanted that... Maybe create a whole new crazy type of art direction...

Was that on the cards at any point?

You talk about it for about five seconds and then you realise the only people who are curious about that question don't really want to play the game - not because they loved Borderlands 1, anyway. The people who would want a new look are the people who remember when we committed to that art direction and were excited because they were so surprised. For them the value wasn't in the game, but in this astonishing thing we did in the middle of development. I think the industry notices things like that, but for the customer who played and loved Borderlands 1, they're the guys you have to think about most when making Borderlands 2.

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