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The Illusions We Make: Gearbox's Randy Pitchford

October 12, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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.

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Eric Kollegger
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"The gameplay in a shooter is fun just in the moment-to-moment. It just feels good to move and to dodge and to aim and to shoot and to knock that guy down. It just feels good. Maybe it's because we're all hunters and we don't have that venue anymore -- you just go to the grocery store to buy the meat."

Beautifully put-- truest statement about shooters I think I have ever read. Really hits home why we (most of us anyway) enjoy the core gameplay of FPS games so much.

Robert D'Elia
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Fantastic article; honestly I think Randy Pitchford could sell sand in the desert... but the game does look interesting nonetheless. I am mostly impressed by the breakdown of other successful games in the two genres Borderlands is shooting for.

I agree with the sentiment that game "balancing" is BS and it's cool to feel powerful, especially at the end of a game - however, I can see how there is an argument to be made for rubber band AI and enemy difficulty. In Oblivion, Bethesda's game before Fallout 3, it was exactly as Randy describes - enemies leveled almost exactly parallel with you (at least on console - this could be modded on PC.) Players could still exploit it though, by leveling to the point just before the enemies scale up (I think it was on a 5 level soft cap.) In Fallout, the enemies ARE locked at their level after the first time you enter an area - but they do scale to your level when you first go in. Still, you can go back to earlier instances later on and own stuff - the specific timing and locations are just not as static as in Oblivion.

Also - great point about story getting in the way. I AM the type of gamer who will role-play a story, and found myself sorely disappointed my first time through Fallout at how short it was. There should have been a "teenage scouting years" section or something where you're encouraged by the story to explore - if a game doesn't nudge me that way I usually don't do it, and the world seems empty. The same thing happened in GTA4.

brandon sheffield
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This was my first time talking to him, and it certainly was a good discussion. Looking forward to a followup once the game is properly out and dissected!

Eric Kollegger
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Playing devils advocate on the subject of balancing;

if you end up with too many areas in an open-world title where you can simply "own" everything, the developers finds themselves faced with a serious loss of content, most gamers (casual audience aside) play games for a challenge through-and-through, and cleaving low level fodder is only fun for so long before its time to move on to the higher-end content.

As for the interview as a whole;

I really enjoyed the personal level this interview had; Brandon you did a great job getting the right questions in while avoiding that 'interview grille' territory that often causes developers to clam up and regurgitate mundane PR responses that you find in so many other interviews outside of gamasutra-- cheers!

Alistair Langfield
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I don't agree with RPs comments regarding dialogue trees.

I think dialogue in role playing games is essential. Playing the role of your character is all about altering the perceptions of those around you. Will you treat other characters with compassion, or with distate? Will you help them or hinder them? Surely it's what role playing is all about? It is often the reason you feel compelled to keep playing, to get that special item and to level up. You feel like you are making a real difference to these characters "lives" and the fact Borderlands rejects this feature gives me pause.

Tony Dormanesh
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Never read or heard anything from Randy before, but he sounds pretty cool. It's cool to have the head of a company using such foul language, not to mention a little 1337speak.. Way to keep it real. I imagine he was wearing jeans and flip flops too. I love our business for the little things like that. One day I hope to own a company and cuss in interviews.

He seems a little like a shooter-freak, but that's cool, especially at a company that makes shooters. I never liked Brothers in Arms, but am buying Borderlands.

Ohh wait, now that I think about it I have heard of Randy before.. Didn't he twitter that he would give people loot if they proved they pre-ordered the game. haha, he's crazy, I like. Keep it up!

Tim Hesse
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Great read. I'm really looking forward to Borderlands as it will fill the PSO/Too Human/Hellgate void I've been looking to fill. These fantasy MMOs are booooooooooooooooring me to tears.

Robert Ericksen
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Randy is my new hero and reading this interview filled me with inspiration! The part about designers getting over themselves was the best advice I have read on this site in weeks. When he said that part about COD4 engine "spawning a grenade" at his feet to get him to move forward to the next level made me laugh because I had the same thing happen to me yesterday in Uncharted people watch out if the game wants you to advance you better haul ass sea bass...but damn i was just admiring your great particle effects and lighting...cant i just chill on a level and soak it in? Hello ADD gaming!

Ruthaniel van-den-Naar
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Borderlands is grand game theft - stole Diablo system, Fallout enviroments, Fallout comics style graphic, cooperative multiplayer from old games, doomlike arcade shooters system. Nothing new, but good mix, its enough for mainstream gamers, but dont give Randy awards he is only good copyist and doorstep seller.