Gearbox Software's Rise to AAA Success
Randy Pitchford on staying independent in console development and his excitement over billion-dollar budgets
This article won't be about Borderlands 2, though my inner gamer would very much like to talk about all those guns, and so would Randy Pitchford.
Gearbox Software's gregarious co-founder and CEO has heard every single one of the studio's projects heralded as a grand turning point, and while his excitement over its latest project is palpable, he regards it as just one more step on the way to bigger and better things. However, a casual observer might see things differently.
In the opening keynote of the Nordic Game Conference, Pitchford spoke in detail about Gearbox's 13-year journey to become one of the biggest AAA independent studios in the industry. The company's portfolio is both broad and deep, and its games tend to make money even when they give critics reason to grumble, and yet Borderlands 2 seems unprecedented.
Brothers In Arms was an original IP, but it mined an already tired World War II setting. When Borderlands sold 4.5 million units it was a genuine surprise, propelled by excellent reviews, ecstatic word-of-mouth and some of the best DLC yet released. With Borderlands 2, then, Gearbox arguably has its first true blockbuster; a game awaited with feverish anticipation even a full year before its release, one that would surprise few people if it sold 7 or 8 million units.
"In the cases where we've worked with licenses is we've really gone after things. We want to lead, and you can lead with licenses"
For Pitchford, the creative standards that Gearbox is achieving with Borderlands and its sequel is the culmination of progress made every day since he formed the company with Brian Martel, Stephen Bahl, Landon Montgomery and Rob Heironimus in January 1999. At that pointg, they successfully pitched the first expansion to Valve's seminal Half-Life, Opposing Force, and Pitchford was involved in practically every part of the game's development.
Today, Gearbox has almost 200 employees and Pitchford's role has changed dramatically, but to hear him tell it he doesn't miss the the focus and intimacy of those early days at all. As the company has grown it has raised its game in every area, replacing intimacy with mastery in each of the major disciplines of game production.
"There's actually multiple benefits from scale," he says. "Specialisation is the main one: the more people you have the more you can afford for individuals to become specialised in a very specific thread. It allows a potential for mastery, but it also creates a dependency on mastering everything else, because no one thing alone will result in a cohesive product."
Pitchford believes that Borderlands 2 is Gearbox's most coherent game yet, and that it will likely be its most financially successful is testament to how astute the company's leaders have been in navigating the increasingly treacherous waters of the AAA industry. Gearbox is a finely balanced organisation, with enough staff to deal with multiple projects in tandem, removing the need for knee-jerk redundancies as production on a game slows down. This is common practice in the games industry, but Pitchford believes it ultimately undermines the quality of the finished product.
"We've found that people have even more value on the next thing they're going to do, because the more we work together the more we understand each other's strengths and weaknesses, and leverage the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses," he says. "There's a real advantage to committed talent having time together on multiple projects over time. We don't like to do the churn. We have very little turnover."
But the freedom to grow in such a controlled way - adding only experienced people that the company needs and can sustain - didn't come from creating original IP. Brothers In Arms and Borderlands played their part, of course, but a key focus of Pitchford's talk was the importance of developing its skill with licenses. Even now, Gearbox is putting the finishing touches on Aliens: Colonial Marines as it polishes Borderlands 2, and the fact that it has a reputation in the industry for creative and professional work with established IP continues to be a bedrock of its business.
The difference, Pitchford claims, is that it has never treated licenses as inferior to its own creations. Developers that do so tend to simply ask publishers for work, take what they can get, and the result is often a poor product, devoid of passion. Gearbox, on the other hand, has devoted time and resources to selecting and pursuing specific licenses since its first day.
"What's different in the cases where we've worked with licenses is we've really gone after things," Pitchford says. "It's happened because we really wanted to be a part of that brand, or we felt we could really do something there that wouldn't have existed otherwise. That's a difference, especially with movie licenses. A lot of those are out day-and-date with the film, and the game is really ancillary; it just drafts off of the marketing for the movie. We don't want to draft; we want to lead, and you can lead with licenses.
"We're not even close to where it could be. Games suck, frankly. Compared to where they could be, all games suck"
"We're going to set ourselves towards making something, and we want to care about what it is we're going to make. It doesn't matter to us that it's built upon an existing universe and set of characters or something that we built from scratch; what matters to us is that we can be excited and passionate about it, and what we're trying to do is worthy of existence... From the very beginning we knew that. It's just part of our culture."
In the harsh conditions of contemporary AAA development a single miss can bring a studio to its knees. Gearbox is an independent company - a rarity in itself - and has no reason to let the world know every detail of its finances, but it's safe to assume that it has built the sort of success that even the failure of an important release like Borderlands 2 couldn't tear down.
Behind the scenes, Pitchford's team is working on several new projects. The days when five guys could make a Half-Life game are long gone, but the prospect of development costs rising still further only serves to widen Pitchford's grin. Of the myriad possible outcomes of the great Gearbox experiment, he finds himself on the brink of what could be his greatest success yet. The future holds nothing but excitement, and Pitchford clearly intends for Gearbox to play its part.
"You contemplate that the opportunity for complexity will expand with the technology, and we're not even close to where it could be," he says. "Games suck, frankly. Compared to where they could be, all games suck. It's going to be exciting to be part of a $100 million development team, or a $500 million, or a $1 billion dollar team.
"I'm excited about that. Can you imagine how awesome it's going to be when we can make a billion dollar game, and doing that's a great decision because that's where the market is. Think about how crazy these simulations are going to get. And then someday we'll be living in the Matrix, or the Holodeck, and I'm gonna be writing the software. We're not even close to what's possible. We're in the stone ages, man."