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DICE 2010: Gearbox's Pitchford On  Borderlands , Perfection, Money
DICE 2010: Gearbox's Pitchford On Borderlands, Perfection, Money Exclusive
February 19, 2010 | By Kris Graft

February 19, 2010 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

"Perfection is an asymptote," said Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford. An asymptote is a line next to a curve that can be approached infinitely, but never touched -- it's just a programmer's way of saying that perfection is unattainable.

"We can visualize things very quickly and very perfectly," Pitchford told games industry colleagues at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas. "We can visualize perfection and our goals very quickly. However, we, and the things we create, can never be perfect."

But while most game developers recognize that, it doesn't keep them from trying to make a perfect game. And in an industry that is as much about business as it is about art and entertainment, an unchecked pursuit of perfection can drive a company into the ground financially.

"The moment we say it's 'good enough,' are we compromising [our art]?" Pitchford asked. It's the artist's dilemma that rears its head constantly in games and other creative endeavors.

"At the end of the day, we are a business."

Pitchford recognized early on that Gearbox is about entertainment, but that it's also a business. He still has the studio's first dollar bill that it earned from 1999's Half-Life: Opposing Force, its first game, and he says he looks at that dollar on a daily basis to remind himself of the fiscal responsibilities that come with creative and entertainment-related responsibilities.

Fortunately, he believes, all of these components go hand-in-hand. There are three objectives for Gearbox, he said: creativity, happiness, and, lastly, money. "At the end of the day, we are a business," he said. But that doesn't mean game developers need to sacrifice their creativity or happiness. To Pitchford, if Gearbox can entertain gamers, and if the studio's employees can entertain themselves at work and life, the money will come. And with money, Gearbox can continue to entertain. It's cyclical in nature.

Pitchford said he makes sure to invest heavily in employees, and that pays off monetarily because they feel empowered to do quality work that has a better chance at commercial success. One of the main points of the studio's business model is an aggressive profit-sharing plan. For every calendar day an employee works on a game at Gearbox, the employee gets a pre-determined share of a pool. That amount is the same across the entire workforce, including president Pitchford himself.

He said 40 percent of the studio's profits are paid out to employees, and the rest is put toward growing the company. "I have everyone in the studio thinking like a [business] owner," he said. When one industry friend asked him why he gives away so much of that profit, he replied, "Because I'm greedy."

"Mike, I knew you were wrong."

One way Gearbox was able to entertain and make money was with November's co-op shooter/RPG Borderlands. "This was truly a labor of love for us," he said. That's why it was tough for Pitchford to hear Wedbush Morgan's prominent industry analyst Michael Pachter declare, prior to Borderlands' release, that the game had been "sent to die" amid big competition from Bungie's Halo 3: ODST, Infinity Ward's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and other major holiday titles. Pachter argued Borderlands had little chance of competing.

"We were sandwiched between the two biggest first-person shooter franchises ever," he said. "And the guys at BioWare, who walk on water, were releasing Dragon Age around the same time."

But Borderlands sold around 3 million units, Gearbox continues to invest in the franchise through new downloadable content, and the title became the best-selling new property of 2009. "It was tough for me, because it's Mike's job to analyze these things," he said, adding, "You know what, Mike? I knew you were wrong."

Plano, Texas-based Gearbox, which is also behind the Brothers In Arms World War II shooter franchise, now numbers 170 staffers and has been around for over 10 years. Pitchford said the company has sold over 20 million game units and has generated $500 million in revenue, not including Borderlands.

But there's still more to do. Concluded Pitchford, "We feel like we're just getting started."

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Borderlands was wonderful. It truly was a gem of last year along with Batman: AA and Uncharted 2. THAT is innovation in a super-saturated genre.

Chris Kaminari
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Borderlands concept was awesome. The RPG elements were awesome. Open world, awesome.

But for me, it was just was awesome at first, but about half way through I just couldnt play it just dragged on for me.

Even a friend of mine, who is a FPS junkie, liked Borderlands, but like me, he walked away from it about halfway through saying it was lacking too. seems extremely successful, and people love it. Good for Gearbox.

Jason Bakker
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Man, I thought the tagline 'how he knew a certain analyst was wrong when he said the 3 million-selling Borderlands was "sent to die"' meant we were going to hear *how* Pitchford knew that Pachter was wrong, not just the fact. He's rare among developers in that respect - especially with a new property, it's nerve-wracking not knowing whether your game is going to bomb or not, and hearing exactly what made him that confident would have been really interesting.

Minor gripes aside, congrats to Gearbox, it's great to see original IP faring well on the commercial seas, avoiding the storms of financial crises and harpooning the whale of financial viability... hauling in a net full of fresh and slimy positive game reviews... Er.

steve roger
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It could have been an even bigger seller if Gearbox could have varied the environments a bit so that it didn't get so darn repetitive. Even the download content is just too more of the same. That plus I think it woud have been a bigger seller if they hadn't trashed the beautiful art concept that they originally rolled out and then abruptly changed to the cell shaded concept. The trouble with the new art, I think that turns some people off, like myself, is the cartoon looking aspect of it. It often looks far too 2D and not 3D. Anyway, it is a good game, not great. I think that is the point that he is trying to make. I suppose the high quality art direction was something they really couldn't afford to really carry through so that cell shading concept was brought in. I am sure it saved on resources so to them it was very attractive.

Nathan Goik
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I'm completely in agreement with your assessment of Borderlands, though, I did play all the way through it. There is a certain point when you realize that the reward for picking up random weapons is not worth the resale value or the inventory space. It is roughly around this point that you also realize that while the game has all these great set pieces and huge worlds, it makes little use of them. Old Haven had the potential to be a great section that essentially turned into a handful of forgettable side missions.

While playing this game I couldn't help but begin to compare it to Phantasy Star Online. That game had very enjoyable gameplay and managed to vary it's repetitive (though randomly generated) levels with a constant stream of side quests to partake in. The DLC offered in Borderlands never addressed my concern about a vast world with nothing to do in it. In fact, it made them worse by adding new areas that became equally devoid of purpose once the side quests are complete. Nothing is worse than feeling that your actions have little consequence, especially when that carries over to character stats.

Nathan Hill
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Biggest problem? The price. It's a great new IP with a lot of good ideas that needed a bit more polish.

I'm from Australia, our dollar is strong at the moment. I purchase a lot of my stuff through steam.

I paid thirty something dollars for my copy through a steam 4 pack during the pre-order phase. Then due to what I can only determine to be publisher greed the price went up to $80 US PER COPY. So myself and a friend got it, the rest of my friends did not due to the price hike. I got my thirty something dollars worth but is the game worth $80 USD? No. Regional pricing has to go especially when 'adjustments' like this occur. The DLC has been pretty horrendous with DRM and again the price was inflated by region so I simply didn't buy any of it, nor have any intention to do so. Borderlands is a great game but has missed quite a few sales due to almost racial discrimination (post code rather than skin tone) on the business side of things.

Fiore Iantosca
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Borderlands was excellent. The first DLC excellent. The problem was the story in the game was told poorly, IMO and the ending just sucked. But it was an excellent game

David Semmelmayer
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Of course all this criticism seems nice, but if you read it together you quickly realize that these are the comments that make new IPs incredibly hard to produce.

@Steve Roger. The original art was bland and samish. There was nothing disctinctive about the world and it would have been just another game. The art ended up looking like the style. It fit with the humor of the writing and characters. The world was a charicature, why shouldn't it have been rendered like one?

The major complaints about Borderlands comes down to not being able to grind. In this post Blizzard world, any RPG type game with stats must either have finite leveling and heavy story, or nearly unlimited leveling and no cohesive story. There was no problem with the variance of the environments. Likely you guys never got to the coastal parts or snowy areas. While it was always an industrial wasteland..and perhaps that got tiresome to some, the color pallet changed and enemy types changed as often as Diablo 2.

Unfortunately the stats scaling was a bit off and doing the side quests meant that you would be uber powerful in the game once you left the main area. While it seemed like a choice to do the sidequests or not, gamers have progressed to the point where most of us are completionists and the game became easy. In my mind there should have been an option to start on Playthrough 2 and have some sort of altered xp system with a big reward at the end for those who were going to tough their way through it. Instead it is just a tougher version where you hit the level cap early and the novelty has greatly worn off.

The story was weak. I agree. The ending made you feel like it was hardly worth it to go through the whole thing. Maybe you would have the desire to do it again with a better ending.

Perhaps this is why I feel that L4D is a better comparison game for Borderlands than most RPG or FPS games.

Still I think the game's art decisions, writing, and game design were immensely more creative than most things in the industry today. Perhaps if the comments weren't so desperate for it to be Fallout 3 Diablo Edition or Diablo 2 Fallout Edition, there would be hope for other studios who wanted to try something new.