Randy Pitchford is an enthusiastic guy. With an infectious smile and a limitless supply of energy, the man at the helm of Gearbox is always willing to tell you why he's so excited about his studio's latest project. But unlike most CEOs, he has a level of blunt honesty interspersed with all that energy that can reveal some interesting details about his work as a game developer.
"I've been stealing from the Aliens films my entire career," says Pitchford before showing us a demo of Aliens: Colonial Marines, the canonical sequel to 1986's Aliens. You get the sense that he's kind of joking, but kind of not. Whichever it is, simply talking to Pitchford tells you all you need to know about his status as a diehard Aliens fan.
"One of the reasons I was so excited to get involved with Halo--when Microsoft and Bungie trusted Gearbox with the PC version--is because Halo was the closest I'd ever got to playing an Aliens game with Colonial Marines," reveals Pitchford with no shortage of excitement. "The sergeant in Halo was basically the sergeant in Aliens! And the dropships were all Cameron's stuff!"
Pitchford is practically smiling from ear to ear as he tells us this, but the game itself is far from a bucket of sunshine. The demo Gearbox has in store is steeped in tension and bleak atmosphere. A marine boards the Sulaco starship, or at least what's left of it after Ripley's climactic battle with the alien queen. Everything here has gone to hell. Lights are flickering in the darkness, blood trails run the length of the floor--it's like a disaster zone that everyone besides you was smart enough to flee.
"The marines boarding the Sulaco don't know the events that you know," explains Pitchford. So as you explore the dark rooms and creepy hallways of this terrorized military vessel, you know that something has gone horribly wrong here, and you can bet there's plenty of terror left onboard.
The marine pulls out his motion sensor, looking at the blips on the screen to see if there are any aliens lurking in the dark. Sure enough, he's not alone. A few moments later, a stalker appears--one of the new alien breeds Gearbox has created for this sequel. It seems to enjoy tormenting the marine, running in and out of the shadows before finally falling victim to the marine's assault rifle and grim determination to survive. From here, the action ebbs and flows with a couple of large shoot-outs (including one that lets you take control of a smart gun with lock-on capabilities), some more creepy hallway crawls, and an explosive escape that threatens to jettison the marine into the vacuum of space.
Seeing this demo, we can't help but wonder how co-op is going to work here. This scene seems so focused on tension and isolation that Colonial Marines' support for four-player drop-in co-op could drastically alter the experience.
We ask Randy Pitchford and he agrees: co-op will probably affect the overall mood of large chunks of the game, to the point that some players will play it as more of a horror game and some as more of an action romp. But what matters most for Gearbox is giving you the means to create a variety of "shared experiences," because when you build a game around a beloved franchise like this one, you're always going to attract a wide audience of players.
"This does bring some challenges," Pitchford admits. "For some players, the minute that second, third, or fourth guy is in the game, we just start rampaging through it. And maybe the tension has softened a bit because we're not alone, but that experience is fun too! Just because there's one way to play, why would we prevent all the other ways to play?"
"Imagine if the Halo guys did that," he explains. "I love Halo as a co-op game. When I get in the warthog, I'm the driver! Sweet! And the second guy, cool, I'm the gunner! Oh, and we have a third guy in the game. Well, he's kind of in the passenger seat. And the fourth guy, he's all, hey wait up! Where are you going! So maybe you throw in another warthog or throw in a banding system that teleports you up. Look, those are just the technical realities of [the co-op] experience. But it's better that the fourth guy got to come in the game than not at all."
Letting players experience the game in distinctly different ways is something that applies to the competitive multiplayer side of things as well. Colonial Marines' online offering is unabashedly asymmetrical, with one side playing as marines and one side playing as the aliens. No matter which side you're on, there's a significant learning curve to deal with: those playing as aliens need to learn how to cloak themselves in darkness, run along ceilings, and attack only from short range. Conversely, the marines have to deal with the fact that they're slower than their enemies, can't see through walls, and must travel as a group to survive.
There's a huge difference between the way those two sides play and feel, and in a lot of ways, it's one that echoes the audience as a whole. Pitchford acknowledges that there's going to be a mixture of diehard Aliens fans playing this game, those who are simply in it because they enjoy shooters, and even those who are attracted to the Gearbox name after the success of Borderlands.
Aliens: Colonial Marines, then, is a game that needs to be a lot of things to a lot of people--hence the reason for letting players build their own experiences. Want to play multiplayer purely as a xenomorph? Go ahead. Want to play the story campaign by yourself the first time around and then with a full four players the second run through? Feel free.
Ultimately, Pitchford wants us to know that while Aliens fans like him are the top priority, they're not the only priority. "As creators, yes, we can commit ourselves to the narrative and the crafted experience," he explains. "But let's let our players enjoy it, too. They'll manage their own fun."