Randy Pitchford is a bit of a show pony. The man in the velvet jacket worked as a Hollywood magician while in college, and will happily perform card tricks for just about anyone who asks. But, it seems, he’s getting a little sick of people promoting Gearbox Software‘s many gaming releases as simply “a Randy Pitchford production”.
The reality is that I’m just one person on an incredibly talented team.
When we spoke to Randy recently, in Australia for the upcoming release of Borderlands 2, he admitted that part of the problem is simply the nature of his job. As president and CEO of the development studio, he spends weeks away from home, trying to “get people excited about the game” – a task he loves, and is very good at – but one which sees a lot of the work the studio creates attributed solely to him.
Games are not made by single people. Games are made by teams. The bigger and more complex the game is, the bigger and more professional that team must be – and the better that team must be at working with one another, leveraging each other’s strengths and mitigating each other’s weaknesses. We’re all people! We’re all human beings!
Each one of those human beings who work at the Gearbox Software studios in Texas (around 180 at last count), truly loves video games. Sure, all developers love their work, all game creators have a shared passion for gaming, culture, or interactive entertainment in some form. For Gearbox though, it’s been taken to new heights.
The games that come out of Gearbox are fan-letters written by a developer who just happens to have the money and resources to create a fitting tribute. This is the studio who brought Duke Nukem Forever back from the dead, the developer who watched Band of Brothers and was inspired to create its own WWII shooter, the company that is working on a game considered an official entry in the Aliens franchise.
Borderlands was the studio’s own invention, created as something a bit different – a space western, action-packed role-playing shooter. Its success was hardly guaranteed, launching into the crowded pre-holiday 2009 marketplace and targeting a single demographic. However, by early 2010, the game had sold more than a million copies, earning a sequel. Now, Gearbox wants to repeat its own success, hoping to surprise fans with the upcoming release of Borderlands 2.
So far, so good, says Randy:
I’m really pleased how well Borderlands 2 is doing. It’s breaking pre-order records!
It’s so weird for me, I’m always used to being in the spot where I have to scream from the tallest mountain to get attention, and it’s weird and exciting to be in a spot where – before the game exists – we’re entering the market where the fans and the customers are eager and excited to get it.
The fan response, says Randy, is gratifying. Like all of its other releases (starting with Half-Life: Opposing Force in 1999 and including 2008’s Wii interpretation of Samba de Amigo), Gearbox has gone all out on Borderlands 2, filling the title with “so much passion and love”, making sacrifices for the game – as Randy says – “all in the name of entertaining you!”.
While there was nothing inherently wrong with the original Borderlands, Randy explains the new game has moved ahead in leaps and bounds – and it’s taken a group effort to get there.
Working behind the scenes to make the new game so very, very great is an “incredible” art team, lead by Jeramy Cooke (who we chatted to at E3). Jeramy brought “so much vibrancy and life” to the game’s art direction, filling the new Pandora with a level of detail and complexity that Borderlands could only have hoped for.
…but it’s not just the skill of the artists – the software powering the sci-fi shooter has also enjoyed a significant revamp, with Randy singing the praises of Mr. Steve Jones, who leads the engineering team. Jones, the central tech group, and the core engineering team, worked together on “countless optimisations” that tweaked and nudged the engine to reach greater heights, including both faster rendering speeds and more complex rendering. That, combined with improving the look of the things being rendered, has a simple outcome:
When I play Borderlands 2, it makes Borderlands 1 feel like I’m in the Stone Age, frankly.
Adding to that feeling is Paul Hellquist, Borderlands 2 Creative Director, and – according to Randy – a man who can walk on water.
There were cases where [Hellquist] just put his heart and soul into things that only worked because he cared so much. There were other risks he wanted to take that I didn’t think were going to work… he proved me wrong! – they not only worked, but worked brilliantly.
One of these risks focusses on the mysterious assassin, Zer0. Hellquist and Borderlands 2 lead designer Jonathan Hemingway had some ideas on how to treat the character, which Randy didn’t necessarily agree with. The developers persisted and “knocked it out of the park”, giving Zer0 a complex, melee-based skill tree, which goes directly against what the CEO wanted.
The entire Bloodshed skill tree for the assassin is thanks to them ignoring what my experience would have informed would have been a risk, and ploughing away anyway and forcing it through and making some really great gameplay as a result.
Even with Gearbox working on multiple projects at once, each individual team can get quite sizeable, with members hailing from a variety of disciplines (including Steve Gibson, formerly founder of Shacknews, now VP of Gearbox and bringing a completely different perspective to communications). Randy explains that the studio’s success comes from working together as peers whenever possible, rather than enforcing a hierarchy.
Sometimes – as with Zer0 – that means the dissenting view comes from Randy, and the Gearbox democracy sees the CEO voted down.
Randy laughs: “I’m not a dictator!”
These guys are able to say, “I hear your point, and I understand what you’re bringing to the table Randy, but I really think I can pull this off. I want to try it because I’ve thought this through myself, and I’m looking at it a little more closely than you are, and I’m looking at some details that you’re not seeing.”
With Randy commonly quoted as “Gearbox founder and CEO”, many people forget that Gearbox was founded by no less than five people, back in 1999. It’s just that Landon Montgomery, Rob Heironimus, Stephen Bahl and Brian Martel don’t tend to give quite as many interviews, take quite as many press trips, or be quite so vocal about their opinions. These days, they may have faded from the spotlight, but Randy speaks about his partners in glowing terms (describing them as “brilliant artists and brilliant designers”), to anyone who’ll listen.
To this day, Gearbox management “aren’t suits,” Randy explains.
We became game makers before there was any money in this industry. Our reason? We were genetically built to try and create entertainment, to try and create joy and happiness for other people, and that’s what drives us.
Of course, he acknowledges that the team needs to be “responsible” (otherwise they won’t be able to continue making games), and these days they do need to be smart about the way they do business, but – after all that – he claims Gearbox is still, primarily, in it for the entertainment.
We’re learning so much, and I feel like I still have so much to learn – and so many things… I feel like we’re just getting started.
Thank you for staying with us, and I hope you stay with us for a long time, coz we’re going to get better and better.
Borderlands 2 launches for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 on September 18th in the U.S., and September 21st internationally.