The popularity of vanilla ice cream is hugely important for the business, but some people want more flavours.
Randy Pitchford is clearly a busy man. His Gearbox Software studio is currently finishing up work on looting FPS sequel Borderlands 2, nearing the final stage of development on Aliens: Colonial Marines, and still working on the next Brothers in Arms game for Ubisoft. We sat down with Randy last week to discuss the highly anticipated Borderlands 2.
Q: I met you on the press tour for the first Borderlands. You were pushing really hard to get critics onside for the game, which felt like a roll of the dice, at the time. Then it turned out to be a big success. How do you feel now that the tables have turned, given the expectation that Borderlands 2 will be one of the biggest games of 2012?
Randy Pitchford: When I was running around talking to people about Borderlands 1, you could tell at the time that I very clearly believed in it. I was confident, otherwise I wouldn't have made the bet and invested so heavily in it. But it's nice to have the results exceed your expectations, even when you're confident. That's always very exciting. It's weird because we're always the underdog, and The Machine is kind of working in our favour now. It's an odd spot, I've never been in that spot before.
Q: The fact that you're not the underdog, that puts more pressure on you to be huge this time.
RP: I've been around, and I've been asked the pressure question a lot, under a number of different situations. Like, "Really? You're going to follow Half-Life?" "Really, you're going to bring back Duke Nukem Forever?" So I don't really... I just think if something's worth trying, you commit yourself to it. You don't worry about it. Worrying about it will just distract you.
Q: Coming at it another way... You mentioned Duke there. Is this an easier sell than Duke? There's less of a need to convince people, surely?
RP: Let's see... what are we convincing people of? With Duke it was really easy to get attention, because everyone in the world wanted to turn their head and look, you know? With Borderlands 1, as a new IP, we had to really hustle to get attention for it. With Borderlands 2, all the trust and confidence in the world now is with [us] because of Borderlands 1's success, so it makes it a lot easier of course.
But I don't know, I do the same thing every time. From my seat it doesn't really change much. I only do things I care about and get excited about, and I love talking about them. I get to come out, talk to people about what we're doing, and it just turns me on. There's really been no difference for me, from my seat, from any of the projects. This is the time when I get to come out and talk to people about it. It's cool when people like you say that people want it already. It's like everybody wants it, awesome! I'm just in the same seat we're always in. We do the best we can, try it, and it kind of works out.
I can't wait to launch the game. I'm really excited about it. One thing I'm really excited about is as an entertainer, the thing that gratifies is reaching people. If you're going to put your heart and soul into something and you're going to care and work hard, invest a lot, you want a lot of people to discover what you do. And we can certainly tell with Borderlands 2 that we are certainly going to reach a lot of people, and that's awesome. It kind of gives me even more ability to commit. Not that you ever don't commit.
I dunno. For me, it doesn't really change much. When I've made a decision to commit to something, I dive into it headfirst. And then after it's all over, after I've made the dive, I'll maybe come up and look around - but it's all over. Or I'm in the air, I'm falling into the water. I'm not going to change my dive, mid-dive.
Q: You're committed?
RP: Yeah, exactly. I'm processing this thought it real-time, and I'm not sure if I'm giving you what you want!
Q: No, that's fine! I'm just curious about how you feel at this point. Moving on, there's been a lot a talk lately about first-person shooters stagnating, and clearly one of the reasons Borderlands 1 did so well was because it felt like a breath of fresh air... and now we've got this sequel. Where's the balance between turning a game like Borderlands into a successful series and milking it too much? And how do you feel about the current state of first-person shooters in general?
RP: Okay, those are two big questions! As far as first-person shooters in general go, I found an analogy this morning. I've been trying to think about that, and I've found an analogy that really works: it's kind of like going to the ice-cream store. When you go to the ice-cream store, you want a lot of flavours. Every restaurant in the world, if they're just going to have one flavour, they're going to have vanilla. But if you eat a lot ice-cream - let's say you're eating vanilla every night - you're really grateful for rocky road! You know what I mean?
It's like that. And it turns out that if you're one of those people who eats ice-cream all the time - as many journalists are, as many hardcore gamers are - you kind of get to, "God, why is there all this vanilla ice-cream? Grah! Give me rocky road! I want rum and raisin! I need pistachio! Take two random things and throw them together, I don’t care! Anything but vanilla!" But if you're just a normal person in the world, it's like, "Oh yeah, let's have a bit of vanilla ice-cream! I've not had ice-cream in a while."
Q: There are a lot of people eating vanilla ice-cream...
RP: It turns out a lot of people like vanilla! On one level, as a guy who plays a lot of first-person shooters, I didn't play Modern Warfare 3 when it came out. I played it for the first time a few weeks ago and it was really hard. I played half of it in the morning, I took a break for lunch... and it was really hard! I had Diablo III. I'd just started that, and I would rather play that than finish it. And it's not that it's a bad game, I’d just had a lot of vanilla ice-cream. It's a great game. But you know what? A lot people like vanilla, it sells 20 million units. It's great for business. It's important for the ice-cream business to have vanilla ice-cream.
It's easy for us to get cynical if we play a lot of stuff, and I'm not sure that's healthy for the business - for us to be so cynical that we might destroy vanilla ice-cream! We shouldn't be calling for the destruction of vanilla, but we should be grateful that we can go to an ice-cream store and find that there's a whole selection of flavours. And that's great.
Q: There's a lot of cynicism directed towards Call of Duty because it's come to represent a certain kind of first-person shooter, even though there are a lot of shooters even within the military space. Do you think it's wrong to be cynical about CoD?
RP: I do, I do. I think there are a lot of ways to win. When you think about vanilla ice-cream... this is vanilla-bean, and sometimes they get little chunks of bean in there. You know what I mean? [laughs]
Q: I love how far this metaphor is being stretched...
RP: You know what I mean? [pause] I love the games that we're doing, and I love that other people are doing their other games, and I love other games, and I love the choice. I think I'd be sad in a world where there was only one game, and I think I'd be sad in a world where it wasn't possible to do something wild and be successful with it.
Let's say you were to ask me: "Would you rather live in a world where Borderlands was the best-selling video game...?" Borderlands sold... we're in Six Million Unit Land right now. Dude, that's a lot! That's way more than we'd have ever hoped or dreamed of when we started Borderlands. But if you ask me, "Would you like to live in a world where the game that sold six million units is the best-selling game?" No, I don't want to live in that world. I want to live in a world where the best-selling game sells a billion units. And I happen to have made that, great. But I'm going to make things that are exciting. At Gearbox we're all going to commit ourselves to things that we care about, that we can do, that wouldn't have existed unless we did it, and that we're passionate about, and that we think can have some relevancy.
Q: Apologies for bringing up a topic that gets raised a lot, but it's interesting to get your opinion. What's your view on the whole 'Too many sequels' argument? There's been a large gap between Borderlands 1 and 2.
RP: But there's a reason why that's happening: people want them. If two years ago I'd talked to you, and you'd said, "So, what's going to happen with Borderlands? Is there going to be a sequel?" and I'd said, "No, there's never going to be another Borderlands," somebody would have burned our office down!
Q: Okay, that's fair enough. But people have been waiting a long time for Borderlands 2...
RP: We didn't have to make it. We could have done a lot of things, in fact we are doing a lot of things. We didn't have to make Borderlands 2.
Q: Put it this way: if you were in the position to make Borderlands 3 in a year's time... Is the demand there? Is that too much?
RP: I haven't thought about that question yet. For now, we did say, "Let's do another Borderlands," and we decided it would be Borderlands 2. This is the approach we've taken, we've committed ourselves to that. So right now we're in this phase where we're landing it and we're about to launch it, so all of the mind-share in the universe is dedicated towards this, this game. It's irresponsible for us, for me or anyone to let ourselves worry about what happens. We don't know what that world even looks like yet. Let's launch this game, let's live in that world.
We have a lot of momentum and passion right now, but rationally where that will tend to manifest itself in the creation of value... It'll likely be in DLC, right? We haven't announced anything yet, we have to ship the game first. Once the game is in certification, what will naturally happen because there's so much passion and momentum, there'll be this effort to continue – and that will sort of congeal into DLC. Then we'll announce DLC, and it'll exist.
Q: There was that announcement at PAX – the idea of the fifth character.
RP: Well, that's something we did announce. That's something we did talk about, The Mechromancer. That's awesome. I had this idea, why should there only be four characters, and can we add more after we launch the game? We talked about it, and thought there were some technical challenges to that, but our lead programmer, Steve Jones, working with his engineering team, figured out how to adapt the software so that if we wanted to create new characters, it could accept them. The software can accept them as plug-ins, almost. They did the work to create those hooks so that we can make a plug-in of a character, basically. I'm simplifying it by calling it a plug-in, but I think it helps to articulate it without getting too technical.
Meanwhile on the creative side [there's] Paul Hellquist, who's the creative director of Borderlands 2 – awesome guy, so much of him in this game; Jeramy Cooke, and Scott Kester – who designed most of the characters in the game, the look of the characters, the visual design of them; Jonathan Hemingway, who did all of the skill design for the characters; and Matthew Armstrong, the director of Borderlands 1, who's on the design team, mostly prioritising weapons and stuff right now. And they all look at that.
At the beginning, when we were brainstorming characters, we made a list of 40,000 - stupid stuff, like 'Combat Confectioner'. It was crazy, random ideas. Obviously most of them were just silly, but that's how we get to the four we're going to commit to. And the idea that we have the ability to do more, it gets very exciting. So then we think, "Ok, let's not get ahead of ourselves". But Scott did a sketch... As a concept artist, he was one of the first guys who was finished with development work on Borderlands 2, so even a couple of months ago he was able to start playing with sketches of some stuff to come later. He came up with this sketch of this girl who was a gadget freak, and she could digistruct in this giant robot, Deathtrap. There was a word that was one of those keywords that was on that early whiteboard: Mechromancer. We didn't know what that meant, it was just a sticky word – playing with the idea of 'necromancer' and twisting it into something.
Those two things kind of fit together, so we decided, "You know, we've already committed ourselves with the hooks that allow us to do add-on characters. We're going to have to decide on something – I think this is the one we should build first, when we finish Borderlands 2".We talked to 2K about it and they were really cool. They said, "If you guys want to do that, that's awesome." But I said, "Here's the thing though: I want to test it first, but we haven't built it yet. I don't want to build it until we test it, which means I have to take the risk to talk about it, but if you talk about it before the game comes out, there's the whole DLC Day 0 problem. We haven't even crafted the thing yet."
So 2K said, "Well why don't you do this: it'll be done when it's done, but if people pre-order the game, let them have it for free." And so that was kind of a cool way [to do it]. I was able to go to PAX and say, "Ok, we have this idea – but it's a proposal. What if we added a character after it ships? Here's what we're thinking, we have a sketch, here's the idea. We haven't done any work on it yet, but if we do it it'll be done about 60 to 90 days after the game launches. It'll be DLC, but because we want your opinion on it and we know you'll freak out if you think we're going to milk you, why don't we offer it to you for free if you pre-order?" Because most people buying the game aren't pre-order people. There's going to be a lot of people pre-ordering, there already is. A crazy amount of people pre-ordering. People mad at us because they can't get the limited editions anymore, because they've sold out. But that was kind of the approach we took. I said, "Hey, what if we did this?" and the response was, "Yes please, oh my god!"
So once the game goes into certification, that's going to be one of the first things we do, and fortunately that doesn't take the whole team. It requires Jonathan Hemingway's neck-deep or animation team. I mean, it's a lot of work to add a character, because the character has to be balanced for the whole game. We're not just going to have one section of content, you can play the whole game with them. So it is a lot of work – it's character designers, artists, game designers, it's animation, programmers. There's going to be a team that, as the game goes into cert, they'll be the ones who will rampage through that, and see what we do. If it goes really well, maybe it comes a little sooner; if we run into problems, like if some of the designs need some iteration or whatever, it might take a little longer. I think the 60 to 90 days window is pretty safe.
Q: So I presume we'll see more characters, beyond that?
RP: I'd love to. That's kind of why we put the hooks in, I'd love to – but we'll have to see how it goes. We literally have no plans beyond the Mechromancer, but we'd love to make some. But the other thing too is that even just thinking about the Mechromancer as we did has been risky, as what we really should do is dedicate all of our attention towards shipping the game. But you know, since Scott was already done he was able to do some concepts there, and it was smart for us to put the hooks in. Just in the same way we put hooks in to allow DLC to be added on, we now have the ability to add characters.
Q: Just one more question on this before I let it go. Would you be more focused on the idea of doing new characters, or is there any chance you could bring the original four guys back? Obviously they're in the game already...
RP: Those are great ideas, you know? I can imagine a lot of things. I can imagine the creation of characters who are wholly original, and I think there's going to be some demand for the original player characters – again, knowing that we're all talking theoretical and hypothetical here. I think there are some NPCs we loved. Wouldn't it be interesting to play as them? I want to be Moxxi! What would Mad Moxxi be like as a player character? But we can't do it all at once, it's a stupid amount of work. Building a character in Borderlands is an absurd amount of effort, it's an insane investment. And the other thing is that we're going to know what that's like, in doing the Mechromancer. We're kind of taking it as a loss-leader, especially as we're giving it away for free to pre-order people, but that will also inform... if we do more, what do those need to be priced at so that we're not being irresponsible. Obviously our publishing partners need to not make loss decisions, they need to make profit decisions, and we always try to manage ourselves responsibly so that we make at least as much as we spend. So we've got to be responsible about that. But we can take risks where things worked out a little better than we thought – like with Borderlands 1, that lets you take some risk and explore a bit. Mechromancer is an exploration, we'll figure it out and see what happens.
Borderlands 2 will be released September 21 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.