Gearbox On Exploring Licensed Games

by Jim Reilly on Feb 16, 2012 at 10:42 AM

(Heat, 1995)

The developer behind Borderlands and Brothers in Arms hasn't always been working on original properties. The studio, which formed in 1999, began working on Half Life expansions and other license titles like James Bond and Tony Hawk.

Gearbox Software got their big break in 2003 when they were asked to port the mega-popular shooter Halo: Combat Evolved to PC and are now known for being one of the most creative independent game developers in the world.

We sat down with studio president Randy Pitchford at DICE in Las Vegas last week to get his thoughts on Duke Nukem Forever's aftermath, licensed properties, and if there's room for comedy in games.

Game Informer: How big is Gearbox Software right now, and how many projects are you working on?

Randy Pitchford: We are about 200 people internally and in addition, at any given moment, there are between 100 and 200 other people outside of our studio that help us out, such as independent contractors and partner studios. We’re in development on a number of projects; I think there are some that have been announced. Obviously Aliens: Colonial Marines and Borderlands 2 are the most imminent projects that everyone knows about. We’ve got other things going on for the future.

How do you structure your teams working on so many projects?

We tend to have a very community-oriented studio. We don’t really have project teams. We have these leadership clusters that tend to care for a project, especially through [certain] stages of development. Sometimes we have a leadership cluster that will be with something from beginning to end.

It’s kind of like constantly rebuilding a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that are the same piece and sometimes pieces that are also reforming. We push attention around [to] where the value is.

Gearbox has a history of working on licensed games in the past.

We did a James Bond game with EA. That was the only game we’ve ever done that was a movie property that launched day and date with the movie. It wasn’t the game based on a movie; it was an original story. It was interesting to have that experience. It taught us what it was like to work with Hollywood. It wasn’t the first time we worked with someone else’s property, we worked on the Half-Life stuff and Tony Hawk, for example.

When I think of Gearbox Software now, I think of great, original designs and concepts, but as a licensed game, Aliens: Colonial Marines sort of sticks out of your current portfolio. What’s the future for Gearbox and licensed games once Aliens ships?

As a creative interest, we are gamers and game makers who love to play a lot of different types of games, so we will endeavor to make a lot of different types of games. Sometimes there’s awesome stuff in the world that other people have created that inspired us.

With Aliens, it’s a no-brainer. Part of the fascination with Halo is because it’s basically derivative of the Colonial Marines stylings. You can feel [director] James Cameron’s’ influences all over Halo. The sergeant in Halo is Apone. I’ve been stealing from Aliens forever; I’m not ashamed to say it.

What you’ll find is in the future is that Gearbox will create new things. When we do [that] it’s usually because there’s something that we might identify as a worthy bet that’s not covered anywhere else.  That’s where we’ll create new things. At the same time, there’s a lot of awesome stuff in the world that other people created. We will always keep that thread alive.

When we finished the first Brothers in Arms game, we made a list of these awesome properties that we’d love to get involved in, and Aliens was at the top of that list and somehow we managed to get involved.

What were some of the other names on that list for licenses that you wanted to work on?

I did a deal with New Regency and [director] Michael Mann for Heat. I think there needs to be a good heist game. I don’t think there really is one. There have been people that have made some attempts. Most heist stories in passive entertainment, like television and film, are usually about the elaborate plan and, if it goes well, there’s actually the absence of conflict. Heat had hockey masks and AK-47s, and that was a reasonable strategy, in that one case, to go at it face first.

Eventually other things started to cover it. Kane and Lynch tried some things. What I thought was great was basically the Heat mission in Grand Theft Auto IV. We had some other priorities at the time and I wasn’t able to do anything with Heat.

We also looked at Sin City, a couple other Frank Miller things, and Blade Runner.

What’s the status on the Heat game license? Does anyone own it now?

We did a deal so we had a license to create a video game based on Heat. I haven’t looked at that license in years. I’m sure there was a term on it. It’s probably expired. It was never a project, but there was intent. If the deal would have gotten done three months earlier than it had, that’s where our attention would have gone. I eventually told New Regency we missed the window after the deal got done.

I think it would be cool to play an awesome heist game. That property lends credibility to it. It’s a nice word; you can picture it on the box. Because of what that movie represented, it tells you this approach to a heist game isn’t going to be “passively work out the secret plan,” this is going to be an in-your-face action game, which is the way we wanted to approach it.

I also like how the movie Heat looked at it from both the point of view of the sociopathic killer and the law enforcement. It’s fun to use the safe medium of a video game to explore dark side kind of things. I’m always a good guy, too. I always pick the hero and go down the light path. I think that property would have allowed us to naturally make a game where it’s expected you’re playing in parallel the hero and villain sides of that conflict.

What did you learn about Duke Nukem Forever now that the game has been out for a while? You were excited about the game at PAX. Then the game came out with really low scores. But overall it seemed to have sold very well.

I don’t think I would have changed anything. I’m still so proud that we were able to make sure the game exists.  I’m always a “the glass is half full” kind of guy. At the same time, I knew what the game was. This was a legacy project that had been in development for over 15 years and had all that baggage.

With all the games we’ve ever made, we get both fan mail and hate mail. And somehow, Duke Nukem Forever had the most positive love-to-hate ratio of mail that we’ve ever gotten.

What it’s telling me is our industry is maturing and evolving and that game criticism is becoming a lot like film criticism where we’re holding this entertainment up as an art form.  When you look at a title like Duke Nukem Forever, it’s not created to be art – it’s created to be raw, silly entertainment.

When the game came out, on the Hollywood side, the biggest box office success was The Hangover 2. The movie got a 32 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie is hilarious. One of the things I think it was criticized for was that it imitated the formula of the original movie, but that’s what I wanted from it.

So you think there is room for that style of humor in video games?

I think Duke Nukem Forever is evidence that there is. There’s a spectrum with art. On one end of that [spectrum] is expression and on the other end is commercialism. If you get to the most extreme side of expressionist art, the audience does not matter at all. It only exists because the creator needs to get it out. Sometimes art on the most extreme side of expressionism finds no audience at all.

When you go to the full commercial side, it only exists as just pure entertainment. It’s designed for the consumption of it. For example, the best-selling book isn’t always the most profound book; it’s something like Chicken Soup for the Soul. Film is the same way.

So what I’m learning is that video games are starting to move in that direction – the critical reaction to them and that balance between expressionism and commercialism.

Double Fine started a Kickstarter project to fund a new game. I think this is a landmark event in gaming that we’ll look back in 10 years and say this was something special. Do you see a future for this type of funding?

What will be fun is the type of game that comes from that effort. I love Tim Schafer’s stuff. The idea of him and his team doing an old-school adventure game is exciting. If it took crowd source funding in order to make that happen, then so be it. The crowd is probably in a better position to take that risk than a publisher.

If there’s a model where the crowd-sourced investors actually get a return on that investment, that changes everything.

If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about game development, what would you like to change?

It’s always a challenge, but that’s what's so stimulating about this experience. We’re always a medium struggling with technological limitations and ambitions. Simultaneously we are an entertainment medium, which is all about heart and subjectivity. When you put these things together, there’s just an endless string of challenges.

Sometimes the job is very white collar and we get to feel inventive and academic, and sometime it is very blue collar. If I could get rid of anything I'd get rid of the blue collar part.