Randy Pitchford, president of Texas-based independent studio Gearbox Software, knows what he likes and what he does not. He describes the studio's latest game, Borderlands, the company's first new IP since 2005's Brothers in Arms, as the game he's "been wanting to make for 10 years."
Pitchford based the design around marrying his favorite elements from Diablo with the shooter gameplay the studio was founded on. Perhaps even more importantly, all elements that don't support the central pillars of the game have been cut. The goal, then, is to deliver a game that can appeal to multiple audiences in an inclusive way.
Here, Pitchford discusses the design decisions that led to the game, and takes aim at the decisions other games and other genres struggle with, and whether or not they function as intended. He delves deeply into the illusion of game making -- and how his prior career as a professional magician informs his attitude toward developing games.
Chris Remo: How is Borderlands coming at this point?
Randy Pitchford: It's pretty exciting for us. Actually, it's a mixed bag. It turns out, it's really, really fun, so we're losing productivity right now because we're all playing the game more than we probably should be. But that's a good sign. That means we got something. Frankly, I think it's the best thing we've done. I'm excited.
CR: This is the first original game you guys have done in a while.
RP: Yeah, we launched the Brothers in Arms brand in 2005. We came pretty quickly with the sequel to Brothers in Arms, and then we worked a lot on Hell's Highway. It was actually that year, in 2005, when we got started on Borderlands, so it takes that long. It's been a four-year-plus project for us.
There's a lot of invention in the game and a lot of new things that we haven't done before and no one's done before, so that's what took us a while for us to work out. We started the game with layering Diablo-style compulsion gameplay -- like "Oh I want more loot", or "I want to level up", or "I want to develop my character and get more skills," the idea of choice, discovery and growth -- we wanted to layer that on top of a shooter. That was the original design intent. To do that properly and effectively and accessibly, we had to figure that out.
We actually felt pretty good about that in 2007 when we announced the game. And in 2008, we iterated it, showed some more people in 2008, and realized, "This is working." And then we decided let's go all the way with that. We added a character class. We took it from like a linear kind of shooter into a larger connected world with what we added, like 100 side quests instead of just only story missions. And that's when we said, "Okay, we're going to come in 2009. Now that we know what we have, let's bring it all the way."
Brandon Sheffield: Let's talk about the Diablo-style collecting in this game, in the form of weapons and whatnot. In the past I've called it irresponsible, largely because it feels like a huge time sink, because it preys on people's obsessive compulsive disorders.
RP: Yeah, yeah. Well, it's fun. It's interesting to make choices. Like in the context of Borderlands, one interesting, simple choice is, "Oh, wow. Here are these two pistols that just dropped. This one does more damage, but this one has a little bit more accuracy and a higher rate of fire. Oh, that's interesting. Do I tend to hit more frequently because my skill is good? In that case, I want the more damaging bullet. Or am I going to miss a lot because I'm more of a spray and pray kind of guy? Then I want that thing that improves my accuracy and gives me a better rate of fire. That's an interesting choice."
I know how this psychology works. I'm a game designer. I made games that employ this. I don't care. I still played Diablo for like 350 hours, and I loved it! And I don't care!
BS: Well, see, yeah. That's the problem. It will ruin your life forever.
RP: Well, we make choices. We can watch movies. My grandpa will sit in front of the computer and play solitaire, freaking Windows Solitaire, for like four hours straight. And then when he's done with his day the next day, he'll play for another four hours. That's his choice.
We make choices with how we're going to spend our free time and what kind of entertainment we choose. Sometimes we do kind of bigger glamorous things like travel to a foreign country or more simple kind of things like "Let's go out on a date." Most of the time, though, we're at home. So, what do we want to do? We want to do things that are interesting and have interactive experiences because they're a little bit more compelling than passive experiences.
Because however much we realize that there's a psychology behind that compulsion style gameplay, it's still more enriching making those choices, having ambition that drives you toward that growth. Because at the end of the day, it's an ambition that pushes us there. Even if it's simulated rewards, that's still, I think, a better entertainment life than clicking on the remote control and flipping channels.
BS: Collecting is very interesting as long as there's more emphasis on choice, because it can otherwise become a gameplay time extension device.
RP: We believe all three ideas of choice, growth, and discovery are relevant. We think that the choices make interesting strategic decisions and gameplay decisions, and it allows you to vary your gameplay style. The growth gives you something to build towards and strive towards, and it gives you a sense of power. When I grow a lot and go back to the beginning of the game where everybody's weak and I can just own anybody, I feel like a badass, and that's awesome, and I like that feeling.
Discovery is where we get surprised like, "Wow, I totally did not see that coming. That's crazy." And you laugh. Or you say, "Wow." That's pretty cool.