INTERVIEW: Gearbox

Ben Parfitt
INTERVIEW: Gearbox

You've just celebrated your tenth year with a big hit for 2K Games. Is this a good time to take stock at what you've achieved and where you're going next?

Randy Pitchford: I feel like we're just getting started. Generally, I've no interest in saying 'let's stop and look back'. But of course it's interesting to learn the lessons of the past and I know that I haven't done a good enough job of recording the studio's history. I think it's because we're just too focused on the future at all times. I mean, who has time to worry about all that?   We're just thinking about what comes next - short, medium long - and the next five minutes.

You just had a commercial and critical hit with Borderlands. What lessons have you learned from that project?

It's our second original brand, out first was Brothers in Arms, and that gives us confidence. It's really easy to look around the industry and say what's going to work and what isn't and we do that all the time too. But it's very validating to actually go out there and create something successful. I had the idea of taking what's fun about a shooter and blending in elements like growth and loot and discovery and choice. I knew that was going to work. it was just a case of figuring out a way to put all these concepts together and make it useable and fun. I was never afraid but it feels good to know that we got it right.

Obviously the game isn't perfect and we learned tons of lessons. It's always difficult when you are trying to do new things. The biggest lesson is that if your concept at the beginning is good then you're fine as long as you have the talent to execute. It's just about remembering all the time what you're trying to achieve and staying with that.

Oftentimes things get started where the concept is flawed from the beginning, or along the way people get distracted and they lose their way. Sometimes we miscalculate and we're forced to make compromises in places where we don't want to. Being forced to make compromises is a terrible spot. It's very frustrating and all kinds of factors can be responsible, like money but also the fact that this is a very vibrant market and it's always moving and changing. Sometimes there's a lot that happens that's outside our control.

How are publishers behaving these days? Has the economy made them especially ornery?

Publishers are a blessing to me. The last thing in the world I want to do is spend my time thinking about how to get boxes on trucks and send them to stores. I don't want to deal with manufacturing, I don't want to deal with sales, I didn't get in the business to do those kinds of things. I want to create and I'm thankful that there are publishers who like doing that and who are efficient. I'm grateful that there are people who are inspired by that stuff. I'd hang myself if that was my job.

But isn't part of that efficiency about taking as much value out of the developer as possible?


At the end of the day the content is the source of the value chain. Of course some exploitation happens and it's natural with humans but if we are worth more than we cost then everyone who is putting value in deserves to participate in the value that's resultant. We look for our fair share but if we ask for too much then the publisher doesn't want to go and it breaks down.

How do you choose your publishing partners?

It's a partnership, like a marriage. We choose each other and there is a constant dating process. That's part of what happens here at DICE, an infinite moshpit of courtship. It's amazing how much business gets done here. Maybe deals aren't closed but there's a lot of relationship management going on. It's like speed-dating.

Let's talk about the controversy last year over some comments you made about Steam. You had your say, and some people disagreed with your opinions...

I think people disagreed with the headlines. My view now is how astonishing it is how good gaming journalists are at understanding what the hot buttons are going to be and to pull those out to motivate readership. I'm so impressed with that.

That sounds like a gracious way of saying that there are a lot of hacks out there...

Look. Valve and Gearbox have had a relationship for a long time and it's incredible that anyone would believe there's a problem. All the Brothers in Arms games are on Steam. We launched Borderlands on Steam. We did a unique deal on Steam that we didn't do anywhere else. It was great and I'm happy to have access to Valve's customers.

You know, I love to talk about the business and I am happy talking to a developer peer or a publisher peer or a journalist. It's fun to talk about the business. Unfortunately, if a guy like me looks at the industry and some bit of it is anything less than respect, that little bit can be taken out and it becomes an attack.

Let's not even talk about the game industry for a moment. Look at iPod. I used to have to buy music from iTunes if I wanted to play it on my iPod, but what if I want to play my music on something that isn't an iPod. I'm fucked. So now I buy my MP3s from Amazon and I can load it onto my iPod and it's cool, but I can also play it elsewhere.

Wouldn't you like that as a customer? Who wouldn't? So that's what I was saying. I love Valve. Steam is very cool. They led the way, but there are some things that, if we weren't so afraid of keeping control of our silo, we could improve things and that would be better for everyone, including ourselves.

OK. Let's talk about Brothers in Arms.

We haven't said anything about Brothers in Arms yet. We launched Hell's Highway in 2008. I love the series. The subject matter is so interesting and, if we lose interest in the world outside videogames we can become cynical. There have been a lot of games that have tried to spend time in the World War II space, and a few of them have managed to do successfully.

To me a game is a form of media entertainment that's interactive and it can be defined in a lot of different ways - its story and its premise and its setting as well as its style and its design. Brothers in Arms has a really unique angle in story-style and design. The angle we took didn't exist before. There were fictitious shooters which were more Commando than Saving Private Ryan.  And that's great and it's fun. But when we immersed ourselves in the subject we saw that war is not about shooting, it's about soldiering.

Fire and maneouvre is a big deal in soldiering and so are squads and comradeship and working together and that's the angle we went with. We love what we've done in that space, and the angle that we've taken. But we're also learning that there's a ceiling. Are we comfortable with the point we've reached, with that ceiling, or do we want to do things that might help us reach more people with this promise? That's mostly a design conundrum because the story and the setting is accessible by most people. I think it's the game design that could use some attention. You can trust that we love that space and to talk away from that is not likely.

What comes next?


Borderlands took over Gearbox. We had so much fun working on that and when we finished we wanted to carry on and the DLC we've launched, two so far and a third to come which take us to a new level in every way. We had this idea of, instead of increasing the level cap from 50 to 60, we'll increase it by 11 to 61. It goes up to 11.

Also, we have an Aliens game with Sega and 20th Century Fox which we're really excited about. The thing I've been stealing from all my career, now I'm really working on it, but we've been quiet about that so far. There are also things we haven't announced.

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