Randy Pitchford worked on Duke Nukem 3D and is now the CEO of Gearbox - the studio behind Borderlands. More recently he's been in the news as the man responsible for saving Duke Nukem Forever. Last week we sat down to hear why Pitchford simply couldn't say "no" to taking on the most delayed release in the history of gaming.
Q: So, how are you feeling at the moment?
Randy Pitchford: You know, I can't believe it [laughs]. Every day I feel blessed. But when you're responsible for something like this, you've just got to figure it all out, and just focus on the mission. So there's a lot of that, a lot of focusing on the mission! [laughs]
Q: On a personal level, is this the biggest thing you've done?
RP: On a personal level, it's very big. I don't know what to expect when it comes out in America. I know I've got to do what I've have to do, and everybody involved feels the same way - like, we just have to do it. But on an emotional level, it's really big. It's kind of weird, if you think of all things you take a risk on and put money into, Duke Nukem Forever is probably the riskiest thing you could bet on! But I think you get a sense of the situation you're in, and the situation that unfolded, and how could we not? If I didn't get involved, if our studio didn't get involved, I would have regretted that my entire life.
Q: It's pretty amazing, given that Duke Nukem 3D was the first thing you worked on. I don't believe in fate or anything, but still...
RP: Well, when you look at it at the end it might seem like it's fate, but in fact it's that connection that enabled it to happen. It's not that it was random. If I wasn't there when we were building the brand, if Brian Martell and I weren't part of Duke 3D, I'm not sure that George [Broussard] and Scott [Miller] would have trusted us. I mean, George knows what I can do, he knows that I get Duke. I was there building it, you know? I remember how thrilled I was when he played my Area 51 map and he was like, "Dude, Randy, this is the best work you've ever done! This is so Duke. We've got to do something like this in Duke Forever." I felt a lot of pride, and I know that he knows that I get it. He knows I love it, that I'm in the character. I don't think he'd have trusted me [if it weren't for that]. I mean, he burnt his own house down so that it didn't fall into random hands.
Q: It's nice that the story has a happy ending...
RP: We're not there yet! But we're going to get there.
Q: Would you have been able to do this had Borderlands not done so well? Or would you have picked this up anyway, under any circumstances?
RP: We had closed the deal before I knew how Borderlands had done. Certainly the fact that Borderlands existed... we knew, several month before we launched it, that we loved the game. I've worked on a lot of games, and sometimes you feel like okay, you've finished it - you put it in a box and you don't want to see it anymore. But sometimes it's just like, "Man, I just want to keep [playing]." It's just fun. You can tell. When the people themselves want to play the game, and the folks at the publisher are playing the game... We were having a great time with it, we knew we had something special. We weren't sure what was going to happen - it's so tough to launch new brands - but we knew the game was good, and that was enough for us. So we had a lot of trust between 2K and Gearbox, and I think that had a big deal to do with it. Everything in this world happens because people do them, and when you have complex things that require lots of people that only happens when they all trust one another, and they can function with that trust. I think Borderlands helped Gearbox and Take-Two build trust, and if that didn't exist this wouldn't have been likely. If I'd just been some random, hadn't had any relationship with Take-Two and I'd acquired Duke Forever and I'd said, "Hey, we'd like you to settle your lawsuits and we'd like to make the game with you. You have the publishing rights, I have the game now, so we'd like this to go forward," - that would have taken years to sort out.
Q: And time was of the essence, I guess.
RP: Yeah, especially with the goal of following through on the vision that these guys have. Time is really important.
Q: I know you can't talk too much about the details of the game's multiplayer, but in general terms of what you're going for... The online shooter market is so competitive, dominated by Halo or CoD or Killzone, depending on the time of year. Without being too specific, are you going to go head-on with that, or are you going to go for something else? In a way this game comes from an era when shooters were quite different.
RP: Well, you have to think about what we want from a Duke Nukem multiplayer. What I want to do is, I want to get online with my friends, I want to have a fun experience, I want to shrink my buddies and step on them, I want to freeze them and break them into bits. I'd like that to be fun, and it'd be nice if there was some kind of meta-motivation too, you know? I don't want to just randomly kill time with it. But it needs to just be a fun game mode. That's the primary objective, to accomplish that. We'll see what happens, but it's not trying to say. "This is going to be the new online sport." And Duke 3D never really was. We all played it and we all loved it, but it wasn't like, "This is our sport". It was more like, "It's great fun to use these different tools because they're unique tools in the shooter space, and the environments were well put together for multiplayer, and it was just fun to get on with our buddies and beat each other up. I think if we succeed there then we've done what we need to do. It's not really trying to be a new sport, try to replace cyber sports. But we'll see what happens - you never know! [laughs] I have fun with it, I like it a lot and I think it's good. It does what it's supposed to do.
Q: Lately I've heard a few people musing about the future of triple-A games, given how hard it can be to turn a profit from projects with massive budgets. Do you think the industry will always have a place for such titles? You could argue that Duke Nukem Forever is a cautionary tale about this, in that sense.
RP: You know, there's a whole spectrum of games. There are successful games that people develop on no budget, there are successful games that people have spent $80 million on - the whole spectrum is within there. Ultimately if you think about your customer - how many customers are there, what platforms is that customer on and what does it take to reach them? - you kind of build a model. Sometimes you rationalise, "Wow, if we spend any more than $100,000 we're going to be in trouble." Or, "Wow, we can spend $50 million and we'll be just fine." And I think it will continue to be relative. I think the spectrum will just get wider and wider and wider, especially as our industry is growing. Every day more gamers are appearing. Non-gamers are dying off. All new people play games, it's one of their entertainment choices. And most new people choose games as their favourite form of entertainment, because they're interactive. It's just great. You know - you're a gamer too, so you get it! Old people don't play games.
The other thing is that most of the world is still not even in the industrial age, let alone the electronic information age - so as more of the world gets connected, more customers appear. So we're going to find that the top end of that scale is going to get larger and larger and larger.
Q: Do you think there's a tendency to either do something tiny or something huge? Hollywood seems to be heading that way...
RP: Hollywood does it too. Hollywood does middle of the road, it does. It's a spectrum, and there are end points. Often you'll look at those end points, but there's everything in-between. And that's why so there's so much awesome choice and variety in games. There's also a lot of crap, a lot of crap!
Duke Nukem Forever is scheduled for release in 2011 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.