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Desert Island Games: Gearbox Software's Randy Pitchford

We talk to Gearbox's Randy Pitchford (Brothers in Arms series, Aliens) about his Top 5 most beloved games, from Colossal Cave Adventure to Starflight and beyond, as he reveals his latent desires to work on a turn-based strategy

Alistair Wallis, Blogger

February 27, 2007

12 Min Read

For this week’s Desert Island Games, a column that looks at the top five games of some of our favorite industry personalities, we speak to Randy Pitchford, co-founder, president and CEO of Texas-based developer Gearbox Software. After working with 3D Realms on Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior, Pitchford co-founded Gearbox in January 1999. The company’s first title, Half-Life expansion Opposing Force was released later that year, and went on to win an Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences award for best PC Action Game in 2000. Following that, the company released a port of Half-Life for PlayStation 2, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, and a port of Halo for PC, amongst other titles. 2005 saw the company launch its own IP with Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, on which Pitchford served as Co-Director and Executive Producer. The title sold in impressive numbers, and was quickly followed by a sequel, Earned in Blood, just months later. More recently, Gearbox have been working on Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway, which is due for release on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 later this year, though Pitchford notes that the company will “start screaming loud about it” toward the end of this month. “Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway is a lot more accessible,” he enthuses, “it's not as hard and it's more about the experience than before. But it's even more real with respect to the environment and people and story. The team working on Brothers in Arms is super impressive. These guys are totally committed and they are all so talented. I keep getting surprised by them. Every one of them has a big future.” Additionally, the company recently revealed that they will be working on an Aliens project with Sega. While the game is still in pre-production stages, Pitchford comments that the development is moving quickly, adding happily that he can’t believe the company is “actually getting paid to make an Aliens game”. We spoke to Pitchford recently, and asked him about his desert island, all-time, top five most memorable games – in no particular order, of course. Colossal Cave Adventure (Will Crowther/Don Woods, 1976): "I first discovered this game on a CP/M machine my father built. He used to run a Wildcat BBS and offered this game up for download. I basically downloaded every game he offered. I could probably count them all on my hands and toes if I tried. Hack - predecessor to NetHack - was another of them. I didn't know anything about it other than the file name: advent.com. Back then, .com was an extension for a "command" file - a file that would execute, like today's .exe files. It's a text adventure game with 100+ rooms. The idea is that you solve puzzles to discover treasures scattered throughout the cave and bring them back to your starting point. It was a sort of pre-cursor to Zork. The game starts with a description of where you are. Something like, "You are standing at the end of a road in front of a small, brick house”. And then you can type instructions, like "Go North" or "Look" or whatever. Back then, this was a revolution! I was free to explore! The thing was witty and often surprising. I could type in a curse word and it had a response. It seems like the stone ages by today's standards, but back then it was magical. Today, the appeal the game has for me is purely nostalgic. Because of that game, I learned a lot about the basic tools of game making. I learned to use hex editors to examine the code; looking for the parser's vocabulary or other clues. I learned to read and then program BASIC so that I could make my own text adventure games. When I made a text adventure, I would design the entire game on graph paper, then I would plan out my software, then I would code it up. BASIC was extremely rigid with line numbering and I would always challenge myself leave as few gaps as possible in my line numbers... Looking back, one thing that struck me is that I always tried to "finish" what I was doing. One thing that interested me back then was to be able to create a character like I did when I played Dungeons & Dragons. I wrote was then was a large, complex program that would let me make a bunch of cascading decisions about what kind of character I wanted and then roll up statistics for it randomly. It was pretty sophisticated for running in 2k of RAM. To wrap that program into a game so that I could "finish" it, I made a simple dungeon of four "rooms". The player would start in one corner and each of the other rooms would randomly hold either a sword, a shield or a dragon. The statistics of your character would affect how you discovered and interacted with these things. Ultimately, you wanted to get both tools and then use them to pound on the dragon. If you managed to slay it, the game would say "You won!" and start you over again. Later, I built a text adventure game that had about 140 or so rooms. Once I worked out how to create dimensional arrays in BASIC, I had a lot of fun designing room-based dungeons and creating little puzzles for how to get access to them all. I made a bunch of little games. Most of them I kept to myself. A few I shared with my friends." Military Madness (Hudson Soft, 1989): "This was a TurboGrafX 16 game that was one of the earliest turn-based strategy games for console systems. It was simple and elegant, but with plenty of context. As turn-based strategy games tend to be complications of chess, Military Madness was unique in that it did not over-complicate the simulation. Turn based strategy games are omnipotent. I mean, they are all basically complications of chess, which is one of the most played games in the history of the world. Military Madness is amongst the best of them. It's accessible and usable, yet complex in options and results. I think it's weaker than Advanced Wars in that it's on a Hex map. I like hexes for strategy board games, but with a four directional d-pad or joystick moving cursors around, it creates interface problems that aren't worth the trade-off of the extra two sides per terrain space. But, Military Madness is also better than Advanced Wars in that the game considers flanking and surrounding when it calculates results. This is a super important military concept and it's neat how simply Military Madness simulates it and factors it in. It also considers a concept of veteran status with units - the more battles units have been in, the better they get at fighting, but they also get more and more worn down. Simulating unit experience in the way they do it makes the game more fun and helps me get more emotionally attached to the units that have kicked more ass than others. I believe the Battle Isle games were heavily inspired by Military Madness - although those started to go down a slippery path of introducing too much complexity. The confines of the TurboGrafX and Famicom consoles really helped keep Military Madness and Famicom Wars elegant and focused. I think I played Military Madness through about four times on both difficulties; there is a "hard" mode that is unlocked after you beat the game in the default setting. I played both difficulties again about a year ago emulated with my PSP. Shhh... I'm playing it again on my Nintendo Wii. It's offered on the Virtual Console. I love that game. The fun I had from this game led to a long-standing love of turn-based strategy games. From Civilization to Advance Wars, I'm there! I am absolutely going to be involved in developing a turn based strategy game - probably sooner rather than later. Keep watch!" Starflight (Binary Systems, 1986): "Starflight was a DOS game from 1986 and it was probably the first PC game I ever purchased from a store with my own money. The game was brilliant because it truly provided a sense of risk with adventure and exploration. The story was nicely imagined and the plot was well thought out and put together within the context of the game play. The humor in Starflight certainly affected the experience, but I don't think that was a selling point. The thing the game promised was to let us basically become a sort of Captain Kirk on a five year mission to explore new worlds and new civilizations and to boldly go where no man has gone before! When Starflight came out, there were plenty of people that were really interested in living that fantasy. I played the Genesis version for a few hours within the last year. It must still have value beyond nostalgia because my return look spanned more than one session. I found myself building strategies that I wanted to complete about venturing out hoping to find Endurium or Artifacts. I remember at about 1 or 2 hours into it loading up my ship with as much fuel as I could afford and just heading out into the unknown towards the nearest nebula, hoping I would something to make the risk worth it! I used to get the feeling a lot in RPG games when you leave the town for the first time and venture into the dungeon. I think new gamers get the feeling a lot. When it comes to video games, I've seen it all, so it takes something really amazing to bring these feelings out of me. I remember that when the game was being sold, it tried to promote worlds that were generated with fractals. I suppose that was neat, but it really came at a cost of load times and game play pacing. It wasn't necessary to the core experience. I think the thing that really impresses me about Starflight was how well thought out the plot was. There are big, super successful games today with 100 times the budget that are embarrassingly bad in terms of plot construction compared to Starflight. Starflight appeared relatively early in the history of video games as a storytelling medium, so this is impressive to me. Starflight 2 was great and the Star Control games followed in the footsteps a bit. But it's really been a long time since someone has done this well. I imagine that the fantasy of space exploration just isn't as important today as it was then. I have no idea why Starflight isn't being explored as a franchise. On a different path, we would be playing Starflight MMO's and watching the TV series on Sci-Fi channel." The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo, 1991): "I don't think I even need to comment on this. Zelda is like the Star Wars of the video game world. [Picking one] is tricky - Ocarina of Time was really put together well. It was about as good as one could hope for when bringing Link into the third dimension. But I really think that Link to the Past was the best. It's far beyond the scope of this interview for me to lay out an analysis of why it's the best one! But it's a tough choice for any of us because the whole series has brought us so much joy and fun over the years. The 8-bit Legend of Zelda game on the original Nintendo Entertainment System was the first Zelda game I played. I don't know how many times I beat that game. I actually liked the second game, too. Zelda was really the first time that action game play was balanced with adventure and RPG elements. The RPG elements were super simplified and accessible - about collecting heart pieces and money - so for many people this was the first game they've ever played like that. The adventure elements were deep and meaningful. The dungeons had the right combination of skill tests and puzzles. So you had tons of people playing this because they bought into the promise and you had a huge percentage of them being really gratified by the result. The quality of the games are such that the experiences consistently exceed most of our expectations. So lots of us have played it and most of us love it. We can share that with each other. We can talk about what we love and what we hate and what we wished would happen and what we were amazed by." Doom (id Software, 1993): "To me, Doom represents the real kick off of the first person action genre. Of course I played a zillion hours of Wolfenstein 3D, but Doom was magic. Doom did a few things better. It had lighting - we were afraid of the dark. It had an original context - we were treated to a spectacle of sights and sounds around us and we feared what was waiting for us around the corner. It had game play - a larger, more balanced arsenal combined with interesting tricks and traps from level to level kept us thinking as much as we were reacting. The guts were more easily exposed. We were able to really get in there and make our own worlds, sounds, bad-guys and game play using official and unofficial information and tools. Perhaps most importantly, it allowed us to connect our computers together and play with or against one another. The sum of this created a video game revolution - it spawned the first person shooter category. It was easy to play, it was very fun and it was astonishingly cool. Tom Hall - an id founder - once said it best, I think. He said Doom is "fast, dark, scary”. Every awesome FPS game to come later really owes itself to Doom. It is because of Doom that I not only decided to turn my hobby of making games into a career, but it was also the reason I am focused primarily on first person action games. I've been talking to the id guys about this for years, but I still hold out hope that some day they are going to let me do a Doom game for them. Of course I realize that the franchise is different and the industry is different from when Doom first appeared, but we have to accept that we live in a world where emotion affects many - if not most - of our decisions…"

About the Author(s)

Alistair Wallis


Alistair Wallis is an Australian based freelance journalist, and games industry enthusiast. He is a regular contributor to Gamasutra.

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