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The Illusions We Make: Gearbox's Randy Pitchford
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The Illusions We Make: Gearbox's Randy Pitchford

October 12, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

CR: Have you guys, either by way of that particular philosophy or other angles, looked at other games that have tried to employ this sort of Diablo-esque compulsion style? While Diablo and Diablo II are the reigning kings of that -- and I've certainly played hundreds of hours of Diablo II -- most games that try to do that end up failing.

RP: Borderlands is not Diablo. It's a totally different genre.

CR: I understand that. It's a shooter.

RP: It's a shooter. It's a first-person shooter. So, the real bet is... Because when you really break down Diablo, all of the value is in that compulsion. All of the value is in the growth, choice, and discovery. There's some like fantasy fulfillment, I guess, like, "Oh, I'm becoming a wizard", or "I'm becoming a warrior", or whatever. But from a game design point of view, where we're only breaking down the game design, it's the growth, discovery, and choice that that's all about.

When you think about a shooter, it's the opposite of that. Because the gameplay of Diablo, there's actually no skill in it. You take a cursor, and you move your cursor over an icon and you click it, or a location and you click it -- in fact, the skill to play the game is the exact physical skill required to launch the application. That's not what drives us.

Meanwhile, if you think about a shooter, it's the exact opposite. Master Chief and Gordon Freeman at the end of Halo and Half-Life are identical to what they were at the beginning of the game. There's no growth. Nobody leveled up. There's no discovery. And the choice is very simple. You have like, what, 15, 20 guns. In fact, in Half-Life, you collect them all. It's just like, "Which one am I going to use right now?" So, the gameplay is all moment-to-moment. Those games are fun. I've made shooters my entire career. I love shooters.

CR: You made a Half-Life game.

RP: Yeah, right. And Halo. We brought Halo to the PC. We did all the code to bring that to internet gameplay.

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.

It feels good on this visceral level to kill and to move and maneuver. So, in a first-person shooter, all of the fun is this kind of moment-to-moment experience. Whereas in the RPG in the Diablo style, it's the opposite. There's no skill in the game, and there's no moment-to-moment kind of thing, but it's the growth and the choice and the discovery that drives us.

I think that it's really interesting that both those genres work in themselves. And our bet was, "What if we took the compulsion stuff that's fun over time and compelling over time, and layered it on top of the gameplay that's fun in the moment to moment?" And that's the bet that Borderlands makes.

BS: How are you pacing that experience? Fallout 3 does it pretty well.

RP: Fallout 3 starts from a role-playing side, and they start to layer shooting on top. The shooting is okay. If the shooting was better, would that gave have been worse? I don't think so. I think that game would have been better. I thought that that system was cool -- I liked the presentation of it -- but frankly I hated the dice rolls. Like, "Dude, I shot that guy in the head. I had a 90 percent chance, and you rolled a freaking 7? Fuck you. I score a hit. I fucking shot that guy in the head. Fuck you," you know?

And I love Fallout. It's hard to say, "What's your favorite game?", but it certainly was one of my favorite games last year if not my favorite game of last year overall. But, you know, I also like Left 4 Dead a lot, too, because the co-op gameplay is so fun.

But anyway, I don't think that if the shooting was better, that would have been a worse game. I think that would have been a better game. Here's the other thing, too. If you want to compare Fallout to Borderlands, there are certain things that associate to RPGs that we didn't put in at all.

I think dialogue trees frankly are boring as shit. I think that the idea of like reading a few paragraphs and then picking one of three responses, and then based on that I get a few more paragraphs or one paragraph or whatever it is, and then I have more choice, and I've got to get to the right path to get to the object I need or get the door to open or whatever. If I play the flowchart wrong, I start it over, and it's like the character gets clever and they kind of change a few things, but it's still the same path.

Most of the time, it's the exact same stuff. I'm doing the exact same conversation again because it's so expensive to create that content and there's so much of it. You know what? I don't understand the fun in that, frankly. I just think that's boring and slow. Maybe that's why I like shooters so much. We don't have any of that crap in Borderlands.

But I think getting loot is freaking awesome so we invested a lot in our system to develop loot for us -- the procedural generation system -- because that's really compelling. But we're putting it in front of people, so when you ask how we pace it, it's a process.

We start with things we think work, and we actually created a group in October of last year called the Truth Team at Gearbox. The Truth Team. And The Truth Team's mandate is to tell us the truth. Where are we at? What do gamers, what do customers -- what do real customers, not developers, not even journalists. What do actual customers think right now about where we are at?

And so one of the people on the Truth Team, their job was to recruit gamers off the street. They go to the GameStops, they go to the local colleges, and they just get people. The other part of that is running these sessions, constant, continual focus tests where we can trend.

Typically, when a publisher does a focus group, they do like one in alpha and one in beta. And they really do it for themselves to see where they're at to decide what games to get behind, and it doesn't really get to the developer, and it doesn't really provide feedback that affect design decisions too much. It's really just for the publisher to get a gut check to find out what they've got their hands on there.

That's alright. I think there's some use to that, but we wanted something we could trend, so we do focus tests three or four times a week with the Truth Team. The first thing we do is collect the demographics like gender, age, what games have they played. Then we ask them, "What do you know so far? Have you ever heard of this before? Have you ever heard of Borderlands?" And then "Here, play some of it." Then we ask more questions, and then, "Keep playing."

And then we find out "What would you score this game? What did you like? What did you hate?" And we watch them play, too, and we record those experiences as well, and we learn a lot about what works. This guy just got bored at this point. This guy would have quit if it wasn't for the fact that he was here for these tests. That's really good information and we can do something about that.

Then we get to the point where we have people go for a four-hour session. When we're grueling them and they're mad that we have to kick them out, we know that we're getting there, right? We know that we're on to something. So, then we started running like weekend sessions where they go for eight hours on Saturday and eight hours on Sunday, like the same people. And they're volunteers. We're not paying them. These are just people.

And then when we get to the point where they're mad that we're kicking them out after they've had 16 hours, which is like in the way I play, that's two and a half Call of Duty 4 playthroughs. You know what I mean? [laughs] That's pretty hardcore. So, it was that process that I think we learned how to pace the game. Everybody has a varied experience, so your mileage may vary. But it's really compelling. We're having a lot of fun with it.

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