The Illusions We Make: Gearbox's Randy Pitchford

By Chris Remo,Brandon Sheffield

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.


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.


BS: How do you manage the pacing and the player dynamic and the emotional wave, when you've got something much more open than a typical shooter? Obviously with Call of Duty 4, you've got these great, specific, scripted events. They're so compelling that you don't feel like you're being forced.

RP: Yeah. I think with Borderlands, the trick is: what do you want? There's always a mainline mission path, and you can follow it. When you follow it, we take care of you. But if you want to get off that, you can. Usually, that's rewarded with something, something unique that you might have found that you discovered somewhere, some new mission path, some optional mission path for example, or some new pocket of bad guys or creatures that have something of some value, or just some interesting part of the world or a shortcut to a different part of the world.

The key is about taking care of the guy that needs to be told what to do next while also creating an opportunity for rewards if you were to go off your path. Call of Duty is a great example where the path is there, and when you follow the path, the moments are presented. But if you do stop and decide to try and go off the path, you realize very quickly that you're constrained. You're cordoned in, and you realize that very quickly.

And then you go, "Okay, the game doesn't want me to do that. There's no value for me to do that. There's a wall here preventing me from going over. I can't explore that. Alright." And then you just kind of keep going along with the ride. And it's a cool ride, and it's a fun ride, and it's a crafted ride... but I don't know. Would that game be better if my try to explore was rewarded with discovery? Would it be better? I don't know. I think it would be, and I think that's kind of the bet we make with Borderlands.

BS: Yeah, it definitely depends with an experience like that, where it's not necessarily spoken or text-narrative driven, but it's very scenario-driven. It might wind up conceptually ultimately being a bit silly if you were trying to fight these guys, and you just instead decided to go elsewhere.

RP: That's the trick. In that world, that kind of setting does not allow that kind of thing. In the Borderlands world, the character's motives and the way the world exists and is crafted and the population of that world, it makes perfect sense. So, maybe that's a factor, too.

BS: I was discussing Fallout 3 with someone, and they said that, realistically, if I'm getting out of this vault and I'm dead set on looking for my dad, am I going to like fuck around the rest of the map and be like, "Yes, I will go kill 10 enemies for you." It's like, "No, maybe I should go find my dad."

RP: Yeah, that's interesting.

BS: Do people actually even care if their characters are really doing what makes sense for the universe?

RP: And that's where games and narrative sometimes support each other, and sometimes actually fight against each other. We made a very clear decision at one point that the motives of our character should be supported by the optional things. So, we made our heroes fortune hunters, and there's a lot of ways to earn a fortune. They're motivated by profit -- and they're not like evil fortune hunters. They're not like mercenaries. They're like Indiana Jones.

We could've made some kind of emotional pull as the core plot, but that would be inconsistent with all of our decisions in the game. We made sure to pick a core plot and motivation where all the decisions you make in the game are still consistent.

BS: You mentioned earlier that you could go back and defeat enemies from before and be more powerful.

RP: Yeah. I hate when an RPG says, "Here's a game where you can level up. By the way, we're going to level up the world, too", so your leveling means nothing." Like, "Dude, I want to get to level 50, and I want to go back to the Level 5 area, and I just want to own the shit out of everything. I want to look at them and have them explode. I want to be super badass. I want to one-shot everything."

BS: Is that how you're controlling gating?

RP: One way. That's one way. Like you can get right out of Firestone, the first settlement in the game, and you can go to a place. You'll be like level 2 or level 3 when you first leave Firestone. And right around the corner, there are some dudes that are level 10 and this bandit boss named Bonehead that's got this little compound, and you can go in and get your ass kicked all day long if you want, and you'll discover, "I'm not ready for this." Fortunately, the game doesn't ask you to go there, but it's there and you're welcome to try.

So, that's one way. But the other way is actual gates. Like at first, this settlement of Firestone is locked down, and all the citizens inside -- the very few citizens that are remaining -- are all locked inside their houses. They're afraid because the bandits have taken over. So, until you clear those bandits out and accomplish a few missions there, you then get the ability to save these guys. That means you can interact with the NPCs, and they give you the tools you need to open up Firestone to the rest of the world that's beyond. And so there are other gates that are more mission driven.

There are instances that you can't get into without access. There are certain places that, "Oh, there's a cool area over there, but there's this huge ravine that I can't get across. But that looks like if I had a car, I could jump it." And then like a few hours into the game, there's a mission chamber where you can start to unlock vehicles in the game, and now you get a car and you can jump it and get a little aerial over there. So, we can layer it in lots of different ways, not just by the difficulty of the enemies.


BS: The enemy thing is still interesting to me, because it seems like most RPGs now are leveling enemies parallel to your levels.

RP: I think it's a terrible mistake. I don't know why they do that. I personally think World of Warcraft got it right. In the level 1 area, if I go back there at level 20, I can just [makes killing noises]. I know I'm powerful.

You know what feels great? If you reach the level cap, which I think now is 80, go into the Dead Mines, which is one of the lowest level instances in the world, and you can like pull the entire instance and just [makes killing noise], and you just feel like the biggest badass. And you look badass. You've got this incredible gear and sick weapons with shit glowing on them. You can just go in there and just own all the stuff. You feel like a god to them, and you are, and you're supposed to be because you've reached that level. I think that's great. That's part of what drives us there.

Remember Mario Kart? When you're playing multiplayer, do you actually feel good about the fact that you're ahead, but because the other guys are behind, the game cheats and makes him drive faster?

BS: Yeah, rubber banding. Not so much.

RP: I fucking hate that. I understand why they do it, especially in the multiplayer context, but in the single-player game? Dude, I'm winning, so fuck you. But if I'm behind in single-player, sure, give me a boost, give me some help. But if I'm in front, let me dominate. Let me own this because that's where I am. That's how good I am.

BS: In the Mario Kart example, it could wind up getting boring if you've figured out all the tricks to the levels, if you're just always just zipping around everybody.

RP: Then guess what? When you're that good, you've also figured out the rubber banding. If I'm playing single-player, I can game the shit out of that. There's a point -- they haven't eliminated that point where I will never lose this race. So, they haven't actually fixed that problem.

I think what they've done is they've made a game design where if players are close together in skill, they've kept the tension in a competitive match. I think that's not a bad design in that context. But if you're talking about a context of a role-playing game, especially where you're not playing competitively with other people, I don't think that's a good decision at all.

I think that because we've played Mario Kart and we know what that feels like, even if can appreciate the design value in the context of that competitive game, we don't feel good about it. We can imagine that if we applied that to other cases, we'd be really pissed. If there's gear at stake, I've actually leveled up and I'm powerful, and I've invested this to get that power, and the game robs me of it because it's trying to auto-balance me. It's like, "Screw you, game. Let me have my power. I earned it."

And we do that a lot as designers. When I say "we", I mean there are a lot of designers that do that. I think game designers need to get over themselves. A lot of game designers want to show gamers that they're in control of their world. There is a sad percentage of game design that is like, "This is my world and my rules. You're going to play the game the way I intended to play it." You know what? As gamers, we just want to have fun. Sometimes, we know the fun things in spite of the game designer, but the space designer is not letting us have it. Get mad at him.

BS: Though sometimes it can be too much of a sandbox. For me personally, once you let me loose in Grand Theft Auto, I actually stop playing. I'm just like, "Screw it," and then I get bored.

RP: One of the problems is if you don't have something driving you and compelling you towards a path, and you need that, then you're going to feel lost and without a motivation. So, I think that's where that falls apart. That's a different problem. That's the designer's fault, too, actually. That's the designer's fault thinking he made a world so compelling he doesn't need to help you understand what to do next and to motivate you to do it. And then he's failed there.


BS: Right. To the Call of Duty 4 example, the way I tend to play games is that as soon I tend to get a little bored, I try to break stuff and get out of the world. But I feel as though there's no point in that. It's like, "Well, pretty much what they're trying to get me to do, it seems like a fun thing that I actually want to do, so I'm going to do that."

RP: They have an interesting problem, because one of the reasons they're able to do that is because they're always able to keep the pressure up -- because they cheat. Unless you move forward and cross the trigger, they're going to keep spawning enemies and driving them at you.

But because we've played so many Call of Duty games, we've all figured it out. And so we're starting to see -- like when Neo saw the Matrix instead of seeing the people -- now we've figured out that they're cheating. I think that in Call of Duty 4, if I stay in the same place for too long, they'll actually spawn a grenade at my feet. No enemy threw it there. They'll spawn a grenade to make me move out of the way.

BS: [laughs] That's happened to me, but I never...

RP: You can't put it together. But people are figuring it out. And now they have a problem because the gamers are saying, "Hey, dude. We hate monster spawning." And the designer knows, "No you don't. You love it. That's why we're engaging you." But now the designer knows that you're onto him, so he's like, "Fuck, I need to come up with a new trick."

I used to be a professional magician. A magician can create wonder by creating a set of logic, and then proving that the logic is impossible and false. Now if I repeat the same trick over and over again, as long as it's still surprising, it's fine. I've got you. But as soon as you start understanding how the trick works, you get bored and you lose interest. So, I've got to create a new trick. I've got to hit you with new magic.

So, the Call of Duty guys have an interesting challenge there. They have to solve that, because we are starting to understand that. The customers are starting to understand how their game design actually works. And once we see through it, it loses some of its charm.

I've seen some things -- I haven't played the game yet -- in some of the interviews they've done with the new Modern Warfare that [suggest] they understand that. They're making some promises there. I'm curious to see if they've adapted to that at all or if they've done it in a way that helps their game because the games are brilliant. They're fun. They're just fun rides. I like them, so we want them to keep being able to do that.

BS: The magic comparison is interesting. The creation of an illusion could certainly be analogous...

RP: It's the same business. It's entertainment. It's smoke and mirrors. These universes don't exist. They're virtual, but we want to immerse you in them. So, a lot of the same skills apply. Misdirection, too. We'll like attract your attention and then surprise you with something.

This is another example: id's starting to be made fun of for the monster closet, like the idea of here's a monster that was hiding in this closet. The closet opens, and a monster pops out.

Back in the day, it was really great. I remember Quake 1, I think it was the second map where these little cubes come out. There was this doorway. These little cubes come out of the ground, and you approach it, and they float in the air. You plug into these two empty slots, and you're watching this happen, and you're just like, "Okay. I don't know what this means. I'm thinking that's going to make the door open."

And while you're watching this, they have a monster closet behind me open up, and one of those little dog guys jumps out and like just "Rrargh!" You jump and you turn around, like, "Oh shit! Oh shit!" It's misdirection. They got me. Well, because we've seen that trick so many times, we're starting to see through it, and we go, "Ah, monster closet. Busted." It's the same thing -- it's like, "Ha ha, you're palming the card" to the magician. "Ha ha, I got you. You're not fooling me anymore." So, we got to come up with new tricks.

[Minor Batman: Arkham Asylum Spoiler] BS: The monster closet thing is funny because I'm playing the Batman game right now, Arkham Asylum. That kind of fucked me up because they did this thing where they make the screen have some fuzz crap across it and makes it look like it's frozen.

But that is also an error that happened to me twice while playing Fallout 3. I was just like, "Fuck, my Xbox is red-ringing." Then a week later this happens in the game. I'm like, "Jesus Christ, don't make it look that real!"

RP: Well, they affected you, though.

BS: It made me mad.

RP: For a few seconds, you had a feeling, and then it goes away once they show you that they were tricking you. If you didn't like that feeling, then you resent them for giving you that feeling.

BS: I do, a little bit, yes.

RP: Some customers, when they have that feeling, they like the fact that something artificial was able to change them. And magic works that way, too. Everyone knows magic is not real. Or at least every adult knows it's all bullshit. But if I'm able to convince you that something impossible has happened and you know that's impossible, some people just have a hard time dealing with it. So, it's the same thing.

BS: For some people, there's wonder and "How did he do that?"

RP: And they're comfortable. I don't know how that happened, and I know that that's a trick, but the fact that that fooled me is interesting. Other people hate to be fooled. It's like, "Dude, you bastard. Why did you fool me?" You have to be able to deal with that, too. If you can entertain both customers with the same trick...

For me, when I was a magician, I had to develop my routines in such a way so that the spectators that are totally comfortable with going along the ride with me, they're easy. But the guys that aren't, you have to develop your routine in a way where you can engage them and give them entertainment as well. That's the challenge of the artist, the creator, the entertainer.

Return to the full version of this article
Copyright © UBM Tech, All rights reserved