Gearbox's Randy Pitchford

The Gearbox Software boss talks DICE, Borderlands, DLC and indie development

One of the surprise breakthrough titles of 2009 was Borderlands, created by Gearbox Software and published by 2K Games - a first-person shooter that successfully implemented RPG elements to critical acclaim and sales success.

Here, Gearbox president and CEO Randy Pitchford talks a bit about how that success came about, as well as explaining why he's excited to be part of the upcoming DICE event, why DLC opens up new options for studios and what the future holds for independent developers.

Q: What is it about DICE that compels you to take part?

Randy Pitchford: Well, it tends to draw a lot of folks that are really driving the industry. I love it, because it's not just an opportunity for me to connect with really important drivers behind the first parties - the folks at Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony - but also publishing partners and studio heads, pushing the craft.

It's very rare to have all these folks together in one place together to focus on the business and the craft, and how they're related. There are other events that touch on these things, but they tend to be diluted by a lot of other interests.

For example, I love GDC, but when I go there are a lot of people looking at how to get into the industry. At DICE we tend to focus on how to lead the industry, and where do we push moving forwards. That's a very important distinction.

Q: You're going to be delivering a talk - briefly, what will the subject of that be?

Randy Pitchford: It's actually the first time I've spoken at DICE, so I'm going to bring some thoughts about how I view the industry, and how my studio - Gearbox Software - has been impacted by its strategies and philosophies.

I'm also going to use the opportunities to explain a little bit about how we came to exist, why we do what we do, and how we've managed to do it. I think that by looking at my studio as a case study it might help other developers - whether you're independent or owned by a publisher - to understand how we've navigated the space.

I think it could also help publishing partners understand more of the mindset of an independent developer, and how we relate to one another. Plus the folks driving the platforms have an interest in those creating the content, so my goal is to speak to each of those parties that we expect to be there, and to help them understand how we think.

Q: How have you found the past year as an independent developer? Clearly Borderlands was a great success later on in 2009, but how was the period overall?

Randy Pitchford: It was a very interesting year - the entire world really contracted economically. In fact, it was probably the most significant downturn that I've experienced in my entire lifetime, and I think that's true for everyone in the industry.

The games industry had previously experienced incredible growth, and a lot of folks who were risking what they had in order to build the future could tremble at that growth. People were expecting more extreme growth, but while the industry did grow, it was by much less than what everybody expected. And in the course of making decisions and leading towards that growth there was a tremendous amount of fear.

At my studio we focus on making games, so we were doing something pretty cool. We have a few things in development, so as an independent we were reasonably well diversified in that we tend to have more than one project at a time. This is a function of creative interests, but also balancing the natural cycles of production.

For example, in pre-production you have a small team gearing up and imagining what the plan should be, while in production you have a very large team - and in post-production, while you're in certification, the team begins to shrink again. For a single team company that's a huge challenge to deal with the fact that your team sizes should vary over time, but when you have multiple teams at different stages, you can even that out - it's quite convenient.

So from our perspective it was really sad - we saw some of our friends, and studios we really respected, run into trouble, and some even shut down. In Dallas we lost Ensemble last year, and I think those guys were among the best RTS developers on the planet. The Age of Empires series was beloved to me as a gamer, and the studio that created that has gone - that was local impact.

We saw some astonishing things - one of the reasons I'm an action and FPS game-maker is because of id Software, they're my heroes. They made the decision last year to join up with Zenimax - and these guys used to be the model of independence to me... so I'm excited about the investment and the partnership, and I can't wait to see what comes from it, but it's also a reflection of how the industry is changing and how consolidation sometimes affects people.

And in 2009 our industry saw an unprecedented move when Bungie, one of the best and most respected studios on Earth, regained its independence. The fact that such a thing is possible demonstrates how much importance and leverage talent can have in our business.

For our part we focus on our dreams and mission, and the objectives of our games, and we have the resources and partners and passion to do what we need to do - so honestly, the economy didn't affect us in terms of the management and operation of our studio too greatly, but I can imagine if we were in-between things and looking to develop business, that it could have been a big challenge.

Q: There seems to be a lot more talk about studios which have the ability to scale up and down, more like film production companies.

Randy Pitchford: That's a good strategy, and in fact we have a concept at Gearbox called 'dynamic teams' - this is a method in which we use a number of great development partners around the world, some incredible talent that isn't all in one place.

There are times in a project that you know what you need, and you want to go to the best in the world to get it created in parallel as quickly as possible. By using dynamic teams we're able to do that, and it's very similar to the Hollywood idea - when Jerry Bruckheimer is interested in having the best effects in the world, he'll use one of the leading effects studios to do that for him, instead of having his own team that deals with that... so instead of only being able to do one thing at a time, you can work in parallel.

It's quite efficient, and can also help all of the industry to specialise and become better at its craft.

Q: How do you feel independent studios are changing as a result?

Randy Pitchford: It's a big soup, and in there you're going to find all kinds of interesting ingredients. The scale is increasing, and the folks taking the risk are learning that the bigger bets that customers are interested in can really pay off, but that smaller bets might not - because the promise isn't fulfilled... and betting on things that customers aren't interested in is a great way to lose what you've risked.

So conceivably, the consequences of that understanding will be that more of us will be working towards fewer, more important and more relevant things.

Now, in any project there are layers of responsibility, authority and vision driving it - so there will always be some kind of hierarchy in terms of the goal and creative point of view. You'll find going forwards that some of the greatest things will emerge from non-independents, but some of them will still come from independents.

Maybe the total number of games will shrink - but the quality and value of those promises will probably increase.

Q: We mentioned Borderlands in passing as a success - congratulations on that, the way the game's been received must have made you very happy?

Randy Pitchford: We're really proud of the game - we had a lot of fun making it, and put a lot of joy into it, and we created a world that allowed us to take it seriously when we wanted to, but also to be very whimsical whenever any of us needed and wanted to.

So it covers a lot of range, and we're really excited that our customers are enjoying it. At the same time, it's a new experience for us - we've taken all of our expertise in making an FPS game with a very tight interface and clean, comfortable control, and blended into it something that we've never done before in levelling up, loot, dealing guns and other motivations that are really compelling for us in games like Diablo and other RPGs - but they haven't really successfully been introduced into an FPS yet.

So it was pretty challenging, and there was a lot of discovery in the process, but we're learned tremendous lessons. Right now, we had such a great time making the game, and have such momentum, that we're focusing a huge amount of our lessons and passions in keeping it going with downloadable content.

We've launched two DLC packs that have been incredibly successful - much more so than we anticipated, and people are really enjoying playing. We just announced our third, and it's really rare as a developer when you finish a game... typically when I've finished a game I'm completely exhausted, and I feel that we've done what we set out to do.

But with Borderlands it's been a unique experience, because as we were finishing, we didn't feel done. The game was still surprising us, and the opportunity to continue developing and exploring the project were also exciting - so we just kept going. It's rare that that happens, but it's been a lot of fun. The fact that it's selling, and our efforts are paying for themselves, is exciting too!

Q: DLC is a pretty good business model if you can make it work - when you look at that, how do you see the nature of games changing? There's an appetite on the part of gamers for good post-release content, that's for sure.

Randy Pitchford: It's entertainment - as gamers, we want great entertainment, and we're really happy to spend money on the interactive entertainment that we love. The DLC option is about a convenient way to offer value to gamers that want it, and it's neat for gamers because if I love something, I'm excited when DLC happens. I can click a button, and a few minutes later it's there - I didn't have to drive to the store, it's not very expensive. It's a nice incremental add-on to something I already understand and trust, and had a great time with.

So it's nice for gamers, but it's great for developers too - it's something we can explore, and take risks with. There are things we've done in our DLCs that aren't the kinds of things we'd risk in the core game - because you know you're offering it to the audience that's the most dedicated and loyal.

You also know that if we sell 400,000 units of the DLC we're really happy, as opposed to if we don't sell 2 million units of this game we're not going to make our money back - so the economics of the relationship between the creator and the customer change. It gives us the opportunity to explore and take some risks, and it gives the customer a really convenient opportunity to get more of what they love.

Q: The pot of gold at the end of the industry rainbow today does seem to be that franchise that you can get repeat benefits from - is that something that the Borderlands world can offer you?

Randy Pitchford: We're certainly doing it right now using DLC. I think there are some games and brands out there where we trust the game design and the game maker to treat us well with the loot - the things that motivate us forward, and the pay-off that we get when we overcome the challenges.

And then there are other space that we love spending time in - so we've learned that, wow, the place we've created in Borderlands... people are really enjoying that. We love it, but you're never sure until you test it in the wider market - but they like the space, they like the characters.

We're getting a lot of people begging us to do certain things, more things in that space, and that's a really good sign - so if you have a space that people want to spend time in, and a gameplay loop that's really fun and one you can trust, it creates an opportunity to extend things, whether that's a sequel, or some kind of ongoing, continuously expanding experience... those are new ideas mostly coming from the MMO space, but can apply to all kinds of games.

It's pretty exciting to think how that can transform some of the offerings we make in the future - and now we're in a world that whether you're on a PC or console, you're connected. The platforms all have storage... that's really cool - we have a lot of options that didn't exist earlier in this industry.

Randy Pitchford is president and CEO of Gearbox Software. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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