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The Guts of Gearbox

How does a developer make strong creative bets and win? How do you stand out from the crowd and blend RPG mechanics with a shooter and comic book flair? President Randy Pitchford explains.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

July 23, 2012

21 Min Read

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.

Do you feel like placing these kind of bets creatively -- is it important for not just attracting an audience of consumers and getting the differentiating products in the market, but also attracting publishers?

RP: At the end of the day, it's really about entertaining people. If we want to isolate art, I don't think you can. I don't think that's really fair. I think a pitch, a piece of interactive entertainment, is a combination of style with story and with design. You can't really isolate art and say, "I'm going to place a bet on X art style and that's going to help me out."

If your art direction doesn't fit with the game play and the game design, and neither of those things fit with the story, it doesn't matter how awesome the art is, it's just going to fail. It all has to fit together harmoniously in a way that ultimately excites a customer. And then when we decide to choose a game and play it, we find that our expectations are met or even exceeded, and we're constantly having joy and surprise and fun, and that keeps us gratified. If those things are true, then you tend to succeed.

In terms of the studio itself, do you worry about publisher relationships -- I mean, of course you do. But do you primarily worry about the creative product and driving interest in consumers, rather than driving interest in signing deals with publishers?

RP: At the end of the day, we are here to entertain people. I am genetically built to create entertainment, and the people at the studio, our mission is to create entertainment. The metrics we measure ourselves by are how many people can we reach and to what extent have we gratified the people we were trying to reach. That's goal number one.

Publishing partners are awesome, because they're people in this world that love solving problems like manufacturing and distribution logistics, or love solving problems like sales relationships with retailers. That's exciting and to them -- or marketing, and all that.

That's great, because if I can partner with groups that are good at that, and love doing that, and feel really gratified when they do a good job at that, then it's a perfect symbiosis because we don't have a lot of experience being a sales force. We have no experience with manufacturing and distribution, and we don't necessarily want to have that experience. Like, we're not looking to try to build that experience. We want to create entertainment. So, that creates a really neat symbiosis.

The publishers that we tend to have the best relationships with are publishers that are really expert in those things and also really get -- when we set out to start, they get what we're doing and they commit to us and they commit to our vision and the publishing relationships that I think work the least are when publishers tend to... they kind of want to create themselves through us and use you as a tool to create their own things. I think there's a lot of studios that are happy being work-for-hires but Gearbox just doesn't tend to work that way. We tend to be the ones that create the value.

Borderlands 2

What about funding? That's also an issue, right? Funding large projects. It seems you need publishers for something on this kind of scale.

RP: Financing is always an issue. But if you're making a good decision and what you're creating is worth existing, then financing can come from a lot of places, and honestly, we shouldn't be doing things that, if push comes to shove, we couldn't really handle it ourselves.

The reason why I like publishing partners to be involved in the financing because it proves that they're interested in the game and care, and are invested in what we're doing. The other thing, too, is publishers play a much wider field. They're a lot more diversified than we are. They can afford a miss, where we cannot. So it's really a convenient relationship.

But there's a lot of equity in who's financing it, so when we do take financing from our publishing partners, they get a lot of value for their money. There's a cost of money, so they get upside from that. If you want to get financing from other means, whether you put it in yourself or you raise money in different ways, wherever that money comes from, there's value to that capital.

You just said "we can't afford a miss," which is a state of a lot of developers of PC and console games -- big games -- are in. The sense is that the business of it is a very tough business. How do you hedge your bets there, or control that situation?

RP: You don't want to take that comment out of context. That's in the context of, like, if I were to -- I always go into something where I would have the means to finance it through if I need to, but if I did that and it missed, that could be it.

But that's a very singular point of view. If I'm actually getting financing from other sources, some other places, and I have the capital to see any of it through on my own if I needed to, now you actually have a lot of liquidity and a lot of strength that makes it comfortable for you to take risks. Where you can then afford to miss. It's only when you can afford to miss that you're not afraid to take a risk.

And, in fact, if you fail to take risks, you might have a higher chance of missing, because the nature of entertainment and the nature of technology. You need to take risks if you're going to have a chance of succeeding. You need to try things that no one else has done before.

You definitely see studios get gradually ground down. They start with something high concept and it either goes well or doesn't, but somehow they end up taking lamer and lamer work and sort of grinding themselves out of existence. You know?

RP: Yeah. That's weird. I don't know. I don't know who you're thinking of, but there's a whole lot of examples of any particular outcome in this industry. [laughs] There's a spectrum of positions everyone's in, and some people are going up, and some people are going down, and some people are staying the same. Some people are coming back from a downswing, and some people are going down from an upswing. Some people are going away, and some people are appearing out of nowhere. It's kind of an interesting ecosystem.

I think, in general, what you want to do is make good decisions and you want to judge yourself on the quality of your decisions, not necessarily the quality of your results, because you want to learn how to always make good decisions. Sometimes the results are variable. You can make great decisions and have a poor result, or you can make a very bad decision and get lucky.

So you want to really get good at making decisions and then you want to make sure that, to whatever extent your decisions have risk involved in them, you've thought about all the failure cases and you've anticipated them and you've accounted for your recovery plan if you do bump into some of those scenarios. You should always be looking to mitigate your failures while betting on your successes.

What do you call a good decision in this context -- especially one that could potentially lead to a bad outcome?

RP: Well, there's decisions at every scale. In general, it's about alignment with the bet you're placing. If you think about what your limiting factors are in the context of either your vision or that scope, quality, whatever, or your schedule, and that's the marketplace and your own time or the budget. If you think about to what extent each of those are limiting factors and how much flexibility you have with each of those limiting factors, and it's making decisions with those constraints in mind towards your goal.

We're creating entertainment, right? So you have to really think about if something were to exist that doesn't exist before, and you can visualize something, what's the value of that thing? And then, okay, if this is going to be the value of that thing that doesn't exist, that I have to create, what can I responsibly spend to build it? And if I responsibly spend that much to build it, and I'm talking in terms of time and money, will I reach that outcome that I'm looking for, or do I have room for error there? Or do I have no room for error there?

If I responsibly spend this much to build what it needs to be, can it never achieve the result that makes it worth putting that into the beginning? I don't know if our English language is sufficient to articulate the kinds of things that we learn when we're in the seat where we make these kinds of decisions over and over again, but we get pretty good at it, and it's really about being able to visualize that end state, and knowing what it takes to get there, and having both of those thoughts be accurate to some reasonable degree.

Aliens: Colonial Marines

What's the end state?

RP: The game. The pitch. What're you going to promise the customer? If you were to promise the customer X, does the customer care about it? How many customers care about it? And if you deliver that, can you meet or exceed expectations? And when you do, what's the upside? And if it costs you more to get there than you can get out of it, or you could reasonably expect, then it's a bad decision.

And if the opportunity, if you do succeed there, is much larger than you put into it -- when we make a bet on development of a game, the most we can stand to gain is not just the peak of what we've ever seen in the market tested before, but even beyond that, because no one's reached everyone. So, it's near infinite potential. On the downside, the most we can lose is whatever we put in. So, we have a limited risk with infinite potential. The key is making those decisions that have as much or more potential than the risk we're putting in.

And, by the way, you can scale that. You can scale that decision. It goes from the guy who's deciding at a publisher what IP to build, down to the dude who's painting the material that's going to be the texture on a character's ear. How much time is he going to put into painting that character's ear, and how much is that going to affect the end result? There is an artist that will happily spend six months painting an ear. [laughs]

Now, that's probably not a good decision. And when you can get a team full of people where everyone's self-regulating their own ambition for the craft against the value of their output, then you get a really interesting efficiency in the creation of what is fundamentally artistic content.

You said going after the Call of Duty audience isn't a great bet. Obviously, Borderlands is quite not that bet.

RP: Look what JR [EA CEO John Riccitiello] is doing with Battlefield and Medal of Honor, where he's really saying -- he believes it helps him and EA to really go head-to-head with Call of Duty. Certainly, you can make a case there. If EA were to get a game that is almost the same kind of pitch, basically, as Call of Duty, but outsells it, I think that probably would feel good to the EA guys.

But to do that, you really have to put in a lot. You have to really go for it and spend a lot. You have to basically not only out-brute force the market leader, but you have to out-clever them. The game has to be better. The marketing and production effort -- everything has to be bigger and better, and then you might kind of match or come close.

If you do it over time, maybe you can start to change the trust equation, and get people thinking that they should trust your take on the same pitch more than the other guy's. Yeah, you can do that, and certainly anyone -- like, let's say there's the best boxer in the world, and you want to be the guy that beats the best boxer in the world.

You could do that. But there's a whole lot of sports. Why let our brains get beat in and put so much energy, when we're not even sure we can beat the best boxer? We can create new sports, or we can win some other sport. I think it's a saner approach to bring things to people that they haven't seen before and they don't have alternatives for.

It's kinda like Jerry Garcia. He said something like, "You don't merely want to be the best at what you do. You want to be the only ones that do what you do." If you're the only ones that do something that people find as valuable? You don't have to worry about competition. Like, Borderlands has zero competition. It doesn't have to worry about that at all.

I'm actually astonished that we're about to launch a sequel and no one's stole it from us. The formula's right there. No one's stolen it yet. That's weird. We're in an industry where people do nothing but steal from each other. That's kind of interesting, isn't it? Not that I want anyone to steal it, or I'm challenging people to steal it. When talking about Borderlands 1, it was really confusing, because on one hand we gotta scream from the highest mountain to get attention because it's a new IP. On the other hand, it's like, "Shit, we don't want to tell people our secret because then they're all gonna copy it because it's so good."

As a studio, do you ever want to put bets on smaller projects? I know you have done small projects.

RP: We do, we do. We have some things, and we've done some in the past, and we'll do more in the future. Again, you always have to make good decisions. We don't do it just for the sake of it. Usually the things that we get involved in come from some passion about something that we think should exist, and deserves to exist, and would not exist but for us doing it. Whether that's something we're doing with somebody else's property or some new property that we have to create or something we're doing with our own property.

Like, we don't sit around going, "Okay, guys, let's do a small game. What should that be?" It's kind of the opposite. It's like, something else will happen and we'll kind of be like, "This should exist!" And what is that? Doing Samba de Amigo really emerged from -- we're Nintendo fanboys, and we used to have Samba de Amigo on Dreamcast tournaments at Gearbox, and Nintendo tells us about the Wii. We get briefed about the Wii. When the pitch is, "Look, you're going to have these two things in your hand and you're gonna shake them and that's how you play games." And it's like, "Dude, this is the Samba de Amigo platform!"

That just seemed like an obvious connection with us. So, we called up Sega and were like, "You guys are doing this, right? You heard about the Wii and what it does and how perfect it is for your property?" And they're like, "What?" We're like, "You gotta be doing this!" I'm like, "I'll do it!" They're like, "But that's Sonic Team. You guys are a Western developer." I'm like, "Dude, I love the game. Let them trust us with it. Come on. We'll do a good job." And they let us go for it! And it wasn't a big investment, it was kind of a fun thing that we did there. But it made money and made people happy and it's a worthwhile effort for everyone involved. We had fun with it.

And that's how that kind of thing happens. It didn't come from, "We need to make a little Wii game." But because the Wii was a new platform and because we wanted to do something on the Wii, that actually gave it more momentum, like, if it had been just another thing on Xbox, that might -- I'm not saying it wouldn't have happened, but it wouldn't have had that extra angle to it. In addition to being this cool thing that made a lot of sense, it was also a thing where, "We could also get some action on the Wii, just in case." As that's going to launch, we're going to figure out what that's all about. And, this is kind of a way where we can play with another genre. And, we've always loved peripheral games, we play them in the arcades and that hasn't really come home yet. That might be something. What if that is something? Maybe we should try that.

And, of course, Guitar Hero blows up. We weren't wrong there. But it's also faddish. So, but what if that's a thing that it re-shifts to? We'll have a little step in there, so, if we need to we can shift more energy in that direction and we'll have credibility. So, there's a lot of other strategic things that made that particular decision make sense. And we've got a few things going on right now that we haven't talked about but that'll appear later. Different vectors.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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