Pitchford opens up on Gearbox, Borderlands a '3-million-unit game'

DICE 2010: Studio president talks success of "looter shooter," outlines the philosophy and profit-sharing that helped his company sell 25 million games worth $500 million.

LAS VEGAS--As the last day of the DICE Summit kicked off, the vast majority of attendees were still recovering from the previous evening's 13th Interactive Achievement Awards. However, at the tender hour of 10 a.m. (by Vegas standards), Red Rock Casino's Summerlin Ballroom was again near capacity for a presentation from Randy Pitchford, president of Borderlands developer Gearbox Software.

Gearbox president Randy Pitchford.

To kick things off, Pitchford gave a little personal background, discussing his stints as a Universal Studios tour guide and a professional magician while studying law in Los Angeles. Now in suburban Dallas, Pitchford dropped out of law school and relocated to pursue a job making video games. To prove his gamer cred, he showed off his Xbox Live gamerscore, which is nearly 89,000 points.

Pitchford's first gig was at 3D Realms, where he worked on the original Duke Nukem. He left in 1997, though, so his involvement in Duke Nukem Forever was "limited," and he quickly skirted the subject. He then founded Gearbox with five other colleagues and still has the first dollar the company ever made framed on his office wall. The dollar bill would become a motif in this presentation, which emphasized the challenges of balancing artistic ambition and economic realities.

FROM HALF-LIFE TO BORDERLANDS
Gearbox's first dollar came from a Sierra Entertainment check for the expansion pack Half-Life: Opposing Force, which became the nascent studio's first hit in 1999. Pitchford said that even though he often worked 18-hour days and slept under his desk, it was one of the happiest times of his career, because he was actually building games. He said that he personally created about two-thirds of the game's levels himself.

Opposing Force was a hit for Gearbox and won an Interactive Achievement Award. By the time the game shipped, the company's payroll had grown to 13, and they enjoyed further success with the expansion packs Half-Life: Blue Shift and Half-Life: Decay. (The studio also contributed to the development of PC shooter phenomenon Counter-Strike.)

Opposing Force was critically hailed upon its release in 1999.

With money in the bank, Pitchford took Valve Software head Gabe Newell's advice and branched out to console development. "He told me there might be something in this PlayStation 2 thing that was coming out," joked Pitchford, as Gearbox would port the original Half-Life to the console in 2001. The developer went on to work on a series of games with major publishers--the PC edition of Tony Hawk: Pro Skater 3 with Activision (2001), James Bond 007: Nightfire with Electronic Arts (2002), and the PC port of Halo: Combat Evolved with Microsoft (2003).

Having enjoyed success working on existing intellectual properties, the company decided to make an original IP, the World War II shooter Brothers in Arms. Pitchford is very proud of the series, which has been published by Ubisoft. Although 2005's Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 and Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood were successes, the long-delayed third installment, 2008's Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, was considered commercially disappointing.

However, the second time was the charm for Gearbox's original IP efforts, thanks to last fall's Borderlands. Pitchford took a moment to call out Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter (who was not present) for predicting that the action role-playing "looter shooter" would be effectively dead on arrival. The game had a tough launch slot last October, coming in between two top first-person shooters: Halo 3: ODST in September and Modern Warfare 2 in November. Pachter also believed that Dragon Age: Origins--which shipped just two weeks after Borderlands--would suck away RPG fans' dollars.

"You know, Michael, I knew you were wrong. Because I like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup--it's got chocolate and peanut butter," he joked, referring to Borderlands blending of role-playing and first-person shooter elements. (In press materials, Gearbox refers to the game as a "role-playing shooter.")

Borderlands went from being marked for death by analysts to a "3-million-unit game."

When the NPD Group's 2009 US sales numbers were in, Borderlands was the top new IP in the US. "We're now looking at a 3-million-unit game," declared Pitchford. It was unclear if he meant lifetime sales to date of the game--which had sold at least 2 million units worldwide as of December--or potential lifetime sales of the game. Gearbox reps had not responded to requests for clarification as of press time.

Gearbox has also enjoyed success with the game's two expansions, the critically acclaimed Zombie Island of Dr. Ned and the coolly received Mad Moxxi's Riot. However, Pitchford promised the next expansion, the upcoming Borderlands: The Secret Armory of General Knoxx, would be bigger than the two previous expansions combined. He also said that, in a move of Spinal Tap-ian logic, the expansion will raise the level cap by 11 instead of the 10-level bump common to role-playing game expansions. ( GameSpot previewed the Secret Armory of General Knoxx this week.)

GEARBOX'S PHILOSOPHY
With Borderlands' success, Gearbox has now sold 25 million games that have grossed $500 million since its founding. With its expanded bank account, Gearbox has itself expanded. The company has gone from occupying half a floor in a Plano, Texas, office tower to three full floors, including the penthouse.

As for its future plans, the company is working on two games, code-named "Cedar" and "Oak." The two projects were on an internal schedule slide that Pitchford presented, and he was somewhat alarmed that they could be clearly read on the large screen. "Good thing we code-name all our projects after trees," he said, laughing nervously.

Pitchford then went on to explain Gearbox's corporate philosophy. First and foremost, the company is about entertaining people--both a general audience and themselves. "I want to make sure that everything we do at our studio are things we want to do," he explained.

As a studio, Gearbox has three goals:
1. Be creative: "Be inventors and solve problems," as Pitchford put it.
2. Happiness: A harmonious workplace is key, so Gearbox applies the "3D policy" when hiring--"No drama, no dicks, no douche bags."
3. Make money: Game development is a business, so profit is key. Pitchford said the biggest challenge is that often creativity and happiness cost money. So it's important to always think about money, since that can help with the other two goals.

According to Pitchford, this studio's core mission is grappling with what he calls the "artist's dilemma." He says that as artists, the creative minds at Gearbox can visualize perfection very clearly, but nothing they--or any human--will ever do can be perfect.

He asked the audience, "So the question is, when do you stop [going for perfection]? How imperfect is 'good enough?'" He held up the example of the Mona Lisa, which is considered one of the greatest artworks of Western civilization. "It isn't perfect."

As a former programmer, Pitchford uses math to look at the world, and believes "Perfection is an asymptote." An asymptote is a line that forms a curve that approaches but never touches zero, instead going on infinitely.

After showing the asymptote curve in abstract, he shows the asymptote curve as Gearbox sees it: a curve between game quality vs. money. The curve won't ever touch perfection, but it will continue to cost the developer money as long as they can work on it.

"So where is the sweet spot? When do we stop [working on a game]? That's the dilemma we all face," explained Pitchford. He then went on to show how time skews the graph and accelerates costs. This problem brings up an obvious--and infamous--example.

"Now, this is where I could talk about Duke Nukem [Forever], but I'm not going to," Pitchford said. "I owe George Broussard…my career, so I am not going to say anything bad. I just want to make that clear to all the journalists out there."

SHARING THE LOOT
How does Gearbox determine where the "sweet spot" is? Pitchford says an aggressive profit-sharing scheme instills a sense of ownership in all Gearbox's employees. Through a combination of profit sharing, milestone incentive payments, stock options, and discretionary merit pay, Gearbox returns 40 percent of its profit to its employees, retaining the rest for its future development.

When asked by a former colleague why he gives away 40 percent of his profit, Pitchford said, "It's simple. I'm greedy, and having this system makes everyone work harder and allows other people to want to make good decisions…It makes every single person in the organization want to create a great product with maximum profit…and allows them to be team players. It allows us to say 'Oh yeah, this is the sweet spot,' and stop."

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Discussion

99 comments
iNsaneMilesy
iNsaneMilesy

I'd like to know the status of the brothers in arms series. are there still plans to finish it with a fourth title? HH clearly leads you on. just been thinking after replaying it again atm.

Neosword
Neosword

Gearbox is one of the most underrated developers, but hopefully Borderlands has shown more people their talent. Can't wait to see what they do next, but whatever it is, you can be it'll be good.

Azuki
Azuki

@justin Fair enough, but your idea would cost a few million dollars and a good few months of extra work for the studios art team, not exactly a 'feasible' option. The mass effect setting you mentioned is a very basic screen filter, what you are suggesting would require complete remodeling and re-texturing of the entire game. So yeah I get what your saying, but a studio like gearbox couldn't pull it off without magic money falling from the sky.

justin_smith77
justin_smith77

@Azuki. I think my comment is misunderstood. I do not mean the graphics should be permanently changed with an update. I mentioned in my comment that I do appreciate the graphics. Please do not misquote. Where did I say I did not like them? I do know a lot of people who shy away from this game, and some refuse to give it a chance, simply because they don't like the cell shaded look. Borderlands is one of my all time favorite games. I think it would be a good idea to expand the game's market base by adding a GRAPHICAL OPTION... similar to the way you can have Mass Effect either sharp or grainy. I'm not talking about changing it altogether. But for those who like a more realistic game why not have an option?

schesak
schesak

...This article just makes me bummed that someone who self-admittedly works 18 hour days and sleeps under his desk has a higher xbl gamer score than me. I suck. :-/ In all seriousness though, this is the kind of guy that I wish ran the bigger publishers too..just think of what Activision and EA could accomplish with someone like him calling the shots instead of the brain-dead accountants they have in charge.

SicklySunStorm
SicklySunStorm

totally not related to this, but what the hell is that awful advert on the front page today Gamespot!? Every time I go back to that home page, I get this annoying weird floaty screen thing... far too intrusive for a simple on screen advert... what were you thinking!?

Triton
Triton

Great job Gearbox. Love the Brothers in Arms series. Really they have 4 goals, #4. Keep as much out of the launch game and make DLC for the masses every month...

i_have_skills
i_have_skills

I say the biggest reason it sold so good is what most game makers fail to do, they made it to where..hmm..you know.....IT'S FUN TO PLAY end of story :D

Virtual_Erkan
Virtual_Erkan

Borderlands is such a great shooter. I just love shooting those psychos "in the face!"

grimms2
grimms2

Boderlands is worth every single penny plus taxes accrued. It really is one of the best games I have ever played. I just beat it 4 days ago, on level 30. Single player unfortunately... But still fun. Can't wait for Colonial Marines!!!

game_overdose54
game_overdose54

I love Gearbox. I'm still hoping for a new Brothers in Arms the most.

jadefury27
jadefury27

cant wait for the new dlc and potential sequel. i want an explaination for that green claptrap in firestone that you cant get to...

yoshifett64
yoshifett64

@KimCheeWarriorX Was there a point to your comment?

FidelSarcastro
FidelSarcastro

Congrats to gearbox, with someone like that making decisions I really hope that their future is a prosperous one. I would love to see a Borderlands 2 but only after giving us Aliens fans Aliens: Colonial Marines.

Fumanchu2
Fumanchu2

I would vote this guy to be a senator. He sounds very level headed.

AdamWriter
AdamWriter

Gratz to Pitchford and all his other hardworking colleagues!

awyoung
awyoung

@justin_smith77: Are you serious? MW2 had the worst graphics out of everything I tried from that block of releases. The character animation is smooth and they look alright. Spend 2 minutes looking at the environment and terrible, low-resolition/color depth textures.

Never3ndingLife
Never3ndingLife

come on borderlands 2... seriously come on though lol

KimCheeWarriorX
KimCheeWarriorX

Ok, I know I'm a minority here but I noticed a few people on here talking about the Bioshock series and (like Halo) although I don't think it's a bad series, it's just overrated and yes I've played and beaten Bioshock. I'm not even gonna go into detail here but let me just leave it at that, I'm probably already gonna get burned at the stake just for saying that.

Hercules321
Hercules321

I hope Gearbox makes another Brothers in Arms. Judging by the ending of Hell's Highway, it would most likely take place in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. I also hope they ramp up the visuals and return somewhat to the gritty difficult yet also rewarding difficulty that Road to Hill 30 and Earned in Blood had. The health regneration system Hell's Highway kind of sucked. Oh yea, and Borderlands is an awesome co-op game.

KimCheeWarriorX
KimCheeWarriorX

It's also impressive that Borderlands managed these sales despite tough competition from Halo 3: ODST and Modern Warfare 2.

gruoch1
gruoch1

To Flowjo69 Don't fix what isn't broken, some people still like single player.

flowjo69
flowjo69

i really like this guy hes willing and ready to keep pumping out original games the industry needs more devs like them. imo borderlands would have been even better as a small scale mmo

robj414
robj414

good to see that some people in the industry have theirheads screwed on & not up their own asses. Just saying

Jak_Napier
Jak_Napier

wow, 3-million units. Borderlands has had some tremendous success in its short time since its release last year. Congrats to Gear Box

Toropore
Toropore

@redReckoning The new DLC is actually about what happens after the vault. it looks pretty sweet, go watch some footage on it. Also, I guess we wont be seeing Gearbox ever work with activision due to the "3-D policy" (Not that I care)

RedReckoning
RedReckoning

Borderlands 2 would be awesome. But how would they pick up after THAT horrendous ending!!

dmonee
dmonee

cmon Borderlands 2!!!!!!!!!

gruoch1
gruoch1

I don't understand why people didn't like BiA: Hells Highway. IMO it's one of the best WWII games I've ever played, And I've played a LOT of them. I also thought the "health system" they used was incredibly innovative, yet no one cared.

ryden14
ryden14

great guy and he is good for the industry. The idiot that runs activision should take a few notes from Pitchford

twztid13
twztid13

@PixelAddict wish u would've said that the first week of release cuz then i may have kept the game.

mark_webster_87
mark_webster_87

Gearbox how about you get to work on Aliens Coloniak Marines instead of DLC after DLC of Borderlands.

True_Chaos_UK
True_Chaos_UK

Love borderlands, I hope they get brothers in arms back on track I know is WW2 but how many decent squad based WW2 fps's are there.

PixelAddict
PixelAddict

For those of you who complain that it isn't fun if you don't have a coop partner and need someone to play with... add me on XBL: ShoEmNear

PixelAddict
PixelAddict

Man, I love this guy. When Gearbox puts him in front of a mic, good things happen. I'll buy anything that Gearbox releases as long as he's in charge.

chico129
chico129

@azuki It's an opinion chap, he prefers a realistic art style and feels it would make the game better for him, explain how that would make it a worse game? I mean don't get me wrong, I prefer the cartoony-style graphics of Borderlands, wouldn't like it in most games, but I think it fits into Borderlands very nicely... But saying "People like you are the reason we have so many horrible realistic games on the market ffs." Is just a stupid thing to say, plus it's not an opinion, it's just baseless abuse. In relation to this article here though, this guy sounds alright, sounds like a regular guy that's just working with some close friends instead of the boss of a multi-million pound company that cares only about profit.

NoAssKicker47
NoAssKicker47

Pitcfhord sounds like a really cool and down-to-earth guy.

dakan45
dakan45

Yeah i would prefer normal graphics instead of art style too;) But it really depends on what you mean art style. Bioshock has art style and graphics at the same time, not some cell shaded comic look. Besides the new graphics style was not the reason i wanted the game. When they changed the style i did not like it at all. So its not the best part of the game, infact i cant believe that so many people bought the game just because of that. Still a great game, but i am just saying i would have liked it more if it retain the old graphics style. Or allow us to mod the pc version. Anyway the new dlc will be out soon :)

tracerhank
tracerhank

@Toysoldier34 A little bit of both. "Profit sharing" usually means bonus of some sort: It could be additional money to employees' hands or added to their 401k.

Azuki
Azuki

@justin_smith77 So basically you dislike one of the BEST parts of the game and feel it should be replaced by the bland, overly common art style that is realism? people like you are the reason we have so many horrible realistic games on the market ffs.

tracerhank
tracerhank

@earlthecannibal For what it's worth, Gearbox clearly stated that their objective was to make a "shooter first. RPG second" game, as opposed to Fallout. The intention was to take those addicting ranking system of Rainbow Six: Vegas and Modern Warfare to the next level by adding in even more RPG elements. This keeps the game simple and faster paced. Gearbox succeeded at that. Borderlands simply wasn't meant to be a micromanagement of your characters, but more about the easy-to-pick-up addicting fun.

justin_smith77
justin_smith77

I hope they have an alternate graphic update for Borderlands 1, or at least make it an option in part 2. I appreciate the artistic style. However, I was playing Modern Warfare 2 the other day and thought... what if Borderlands looked like this? Real life-like psychos charging at you with cleavers... wow. And the guns, if Borderlands guns looked as real as Modern Warefare's. It was originally designed to look similar to Fallout 3 anyway so it's not that much of a stretch.

Toysoldier34
Toysoldier34

When a game sells really good does that extra money go to employees as bonuses, or does it stay in an account to support future costs?

ValentineRain
ValentineRain

I really like their 3D policy. If I ever run my own game studio we shall adopt it, hanging it on the wall in obnoxiously colored neon lights. Yeah, I wouldn't want to work for me either.

Phafnir
Phafnir

To earlthecannibal: "How can a game with only 4 classes be good?" You ever heard about Battlefield 2142 and now Bad Company 2 (of which is the most downloaded demo and is already getting rave reviews)?

Jipset
Jipset

I can't wait to see what they do with Borderlands 2.