Gearbox keeping Heat on ice

Q&A: Randy Pitchford gives the behind-the-scenes story on the adaptation of Michael Mann's 1995 crime movie, explains why Al Pacino was almost on board, three top publishers were interested--and why the IP is now up for grabs.


Many headlines came out of the 2006 Electronic Entertainment Expo: Nintendo's first unveiling of the Wii, Sony's final dating and pricing of the PlayStation 3, and Activision buying RedOctane, a company that had displayed its then-little-known title Guitar Hero in Kentia Hall just the year before.


Though it didn't have the same long-term implications, the announcement that a game based on the film Heat was in development was also big news at E3 2006. The epic crime drama, written and directed by Michael Mann based on his own 1989 made-for-TV movie L.A. Takedown, was a critical hit and moderate box-office success when released in 1995. However, since then, it has attained a devoted following for its icy portrayal of methodical criminals and a blistering bank heist shootout in downtown Los Angeles.

The intensity of Heat's gun battle made it a touchstone for game level designers. Rockstar North has made two explicit homages to it, in 2002's Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and 2008's Grand Theft Auto IV. However, when the Heat game was announced, it was a crime-game novice--well-regarded shooter-focused studio Gearbox Software (2005's Brothers in Arms)--that was named as developer.

Whether the Heat game would be an open-world game a la GTA was unclear at the time of its announcement. However, the hybrid entertainment company behind the project, Titan Productions, announced that it was in "advanced stages with representatives for [Heat stars] Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Val Kilmer to be part of the video game sequel."

Sadly for those anticipating the project, the next three years saw the Heat game disappear from public view. Suburban Dallas-based Gearbox went on to develop a Samba de Amigo Wii remake and Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway. It also announced that it was partnering with Sega on Aliens: Colonial Marines, a shooter based on the classic James Cameron film Aliens (1986) and its predecessor, Ridley Scott's Alien (1979).

Now, Gearbox is hitting the press circuit to promote its upcoming "role-playing shooter" Borderlands, due out October 20. With the developer in the public eye, GameSpot took the chance to ask its affable CEO Randy Pitchford what has--or, more accurately, what hasn't--been happening with the Heat game.

The iconic bank heist from Heat [WARNING: clip contains violence and profanity.]

GameSpot: So what is the current status of the Heat game?

Randy Pitchford: In a nutshell, we're nowhere. We have passionate game makers that would love to do it. We've got filmmakers that think it's a great idea that would love to see it done. We have publishing partners that would love to publish it. But we have no time. That's the limiting factor.

Because of the situation, we're not keeping the IP locked down anymore. So if somebody else were in a spot where they could do it, and everybody was comfortable with that, then conceivably that could happen.

GS: You mean an offer to pick it up?

RP: Conceivably. Sometimes some folks in entertainment will lock something down even if they don't have the ability to do anything with it. They'll just lock it down so somebody else can't, and I think that's kind of crappy.

GS: Like cybersquatting, basically.

RP: Yeah, exactly. My interest is the same, I think. I mean, I want to be a customer of such a thing. I want something to exist because it should.

GS: Well let's move onto the past, then, now that you've laid out the present. Now, the Heat game was announced at E3 2006. That announcement outlined that Gearbox had struck a deal with Regency Enterprises, the film production company behind Heat's 1995 release.

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RP: Let's rewind way back. When we started Gearbox...obviously, we make video games. We wanted to be able to position ourselves so that we can go from a couple of different angles. There were things that we wanted to do that were original IP, but there are a lot of things that other people have done.

So, we started with licensed property. We did some stuff with Half-Life [expansions and its 2001 PlayStation 2 port] and some other things. It took us a while to launch our first original brand, which is Brothers in Arms. When we launched it [in 2005], people seemed to like what we'd done there, so we put more action there.

But, coming off of our Christmas break of 2005, we said to ourselves. "Wait a minute, we haven't worked with somebody else's property since we brought Halo to the PC [in 2003]." We thought, if [we] don't get back to doing licensed, that door might close.

So what we did was we make a list of properties that we would love to be a part of. Certainly Aliens was on that list, Heat was on that list, as were a number of other things. We narrowed it down to 10 things, and we pursued them all. And in fact, we were able to get our foot in the door with all of it, so it was really exciting.

Then, though, we had to make some tough choices with a guy named Brad Foxhoven. He's been on the Hollywood side. He's been on the comic book side and kind of connecting brands together. I think [he] had something to do with John Woo and the Stranglehold thing. He visited Texas to come out and meet with us and tell us he had an in with a few of the properties that we cared about. Three of the things on our top 10 list he had an "in" to.

And sure enough, he did. He was able to get us to sit down with Ridley Scott--and Ridley Scott wanted to sit with us; we were able to talk about things to do together.

GS: And that was about Alien?

RP: Yeah, yeah. And that's crazy, right? I was sitting with Ridley Scott, and he pulls out this dusty old book that looks like it hasn't been moved for 15 years. He blows the dust of it, and he opens it, and inside are his personally hand-drawn sketches that were the original storyboards for Alien.

GS: Wow. That came out in 1979

RP: Yeah! Then he goes through these things telling you what he was thinking. He tells you of the backstory behind some of these things that inspired us when we were younger. I kept thinking, "Holy crap, I can't believe I'm sitting here." It's one of those cool life moments. We were there because we wanted to do something awesome with this property he created that nobody was really doing anything with.

GS: So what about Heat?

RP: Well, it was the same with Michael Mann. So what ended up happening there was a deal that I've done with New Regency with Sanford Panitch to license the brand--to make it a video game. He was the president of New Regency. I don't think he is anymore. I don't think that's because he did anything wrong, but just...

GS: Hollywood movers and shakers, right?

RP: Some people move around, you know?

GS: Yeah.

RP: So the end state of these conversations was a deal with him and New Regency to be able to make the game based on Heat. It was really fun because we were able to get together and have multiple meetings with Michael Mann. We talked about the film and about the kind of game we should make; what kind of story we should tell. He told me thoughts of a prequel and thoughts of a sequel, and he had already imagined things in both directions.

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GS: Nice to hear he was into the concept. I remember Francis Ford Coppola protesting in the media when The Godfather game was announced.

RP: The very first thing I told Sanford is I'm absolutely not doing this unless it's blessed by the people that created this brand. I'm not doing it unless it's legitimate. There's a love that I have there for the brilliance of Michael Mann's filmmaking and his approach to the heist film in Heat that we haven't seen before. And, frankly, we haven't seen since.

I remember, one time when all the freakin' suits got out of the room and I'm alone in Michael's office, I told him, "Hey, listen, you got all these agents here, and you're one of the best filmmakers ever. I'm guessing, and I don't want to be presumptuous here, but I'm guessing you're not as hip to video game culture as I might be. My advice? Be sure that you have somebody you trust. Everybody's got people, whether their family or whatever, that knows games. Find somebody you trust that can help you get a good angle to take because these agents just want to make money off of it."

Now, I know agents have a function because we wouldn't even have been able to talk about the Heat game in the first place if those guys didn't exist. But at the end of the day, I mean, we care for our respective crafts, and when we have a brand that we've created, we care about that.

GS: Now, we've seen heists in games before. But from what I've read, you wanted this to be more than just an action game. Is that how you pitched it to Mr. Mann?

RP: There were a couple things that he brought that I [thought] were very interesting in a film context but also valuable in a game context. The first thing is the authenticity that Michael Mann brings. Sure, Michael Mann's film didn't box office as much as the latest Transformers film. But, you know what? It's real and authentic. That's the kind of stuff I want to do in the video game space.

So the authenticity of his work was a key component in the value it brought to games. Our medium is important, and what we're doing with it can both elevate it but also can demote it. You want to get in that nice spot where you're commercially viable, but you also want to do something that can elevate our medium a little bit.

GS: Right. Now obviously, there have been some pretty big game homages to Heat. There was the bank heist with the overalls and hockey masks in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City...

RP: You know there was a Grand Theft Auto IV bank heist, right?

GS: Yeah, I actually played that with that Brian Eno song "Force Marker" from the Heat soundtrack--the one they played during the bank robbery--on repeat, streaming from my iPod.

RP: That's awesome.

GS: Seriously, I did! [Laughs]

The GTAIV bank heist bears a heavy Heat influence. [WARNING: Clip contains violence and profanity.]

RP: Anyway, the other special angle, besides the authenticity of Mann's filmmaking, is the fact that the typical heist story is about sneaking in. It's about the plot. It's about kind of the setup. It's about the backstory more than the current moment. Heat was about the moment. The whole concept of the film is when the Heat is on, you've got to be able to make that decision. You've got to be able to walk away in 60 seconds if you have to from something you might have planned for months, or whatever. It's this really live dynamic situation, which is what a video game is all about. It's not sneak in and sneak out with the spandex suit and the high-tech tracking tools. It's hockey masks and an M4 assault rifle and a duffle bag full of cash.

GS: Initial reports said that Val Kilmer had already signed on to the Heat game. How exaggerated were those? How far had the project progressed at that point?

RP: From a talent point of view, we had a lot of interest. Again, no deals were done, but we had a lot of confidence that, from my understanding, Pacino was into it and that Val would do it. De Niro wanted to, but there needed to be some more conversations with him. He's not a gamer himself. Michael told me he had dinner with those guys a couple of times to talk about it, and he believed it was all going to be fine.

However, these are really talented guys, and they've got a lot of things they could be doing with their time. So we needed to do more to show that there was going to be respect for their work and the game wasn't just exploitation. It was going to be an homage and an addition--and also a transformation of this creation into interactive material.

From a preproduction front, the objectives were to first get the license, then find publishing partners. And, a number were interested. At least three of the top 10 publishers were motivated to publish the game if we wanted to commence with the development of it. So that was going to be fine.

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There was some preproduction effort with some development partners starting to feel out asset creation and what the scope of the world can be. We also started to dream up designs and some really clever approaches to the gameplay. But it never reached production.

GS: I know a lot of people here were debating what it would look like, whether it would be open world or linear.

RP: You know, all of those things were on the table and being explored. It was the stage where all the things that a person who plays a lot of games could dream up are the same things we were dreaming up. But the project never got to a point where we made the decisions to lock it down a particular path.

GS: Well, with three of the big 10 publishers expressing an interest, I guess the big question is why didn't you guys build up a team to work on it?

RP: Well, I don't know if you've heard, but we've got a lot of things going on. [Laughs] We've grown really fast, actually. We grew a little too fast, frankly, between 2005 and 2008. And I'm proud of that growth in that we've gotten a lot of advantages and capability from that growth. But growing even faster than that would've...I mean, we're already at the brink of our capability.

GS: So, for the record, is the Heat game canceled?

RP: I think the correct way to categorize the status of it right now is "indefinite hold." It's an idea there's a lot of passion and a lot of interest toward, but it's not something that's being actively pursued right now. But if there comes a time where that makes sense to actively pursue it, it would be something that I believe could happen.

GS: Would Michael Mann be open to development on the Heat game being restarted? Whether it was Gearbox or any other studio?

RP: I haven't talked to him in over a year about the project. But based on the interactions I had, my guess would be that if we were going to liven this back up again that he would be open to that. I had fun with him, and I think he had fun with me. You know, when you're getting to the point where you're imagining what kind of story to tell; working through that together. There's something there.

So I'd like to think that that could be restarted and recaptured again. But I think that for that to happen he would have to be in a spot where that makes sense for him to spend his time there--same with me and Gearbox. I think that if either he or I wanted to pursue that, we would.

It's possible that he is, and he might be even pursuing that with somebody else. I don't know. That's cool because I'd love to play a Heat game, so part of me kind of hopes that. But another part of me hopes that it's waiting for me when I can have an opportunity to do it.

GS: OK, with Heat and Aliens, you were and are adapting two of arguably the greatest films of the last 30 years into games. However, a lot of games based on movies--I guess Terminator: Salvation and The Godfather II would be two recent examples--aren't very good. What do think the biggest challenge is for a developer to make a good game out of a movie?

RP: There are a lot of challenges involved. Some of them are economic. Some of them are timing related. Any time you have a situation where a game is going to come with the launch of a film, typically the development deals are done too late. When they're done early enough, it has an opportunity for the game maker to have the time necessary to make something of really high quality, and it increases the chances that it'll be great.

I think there's a fiscal component, which has an impact. For us, to do games based on properties requires a degree of love and passion because the fact is it's a property that someone else owns, and you're sharing that revenue with them. You're actually choosing to make less money than what you could have if you would've done something original. But you're trading that for the love of your craft and for the passion you would have in getting involved in those other brands. And that's something that's important to us, too.

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At Gearbox, we have three objectives we always focus on: creativity, happiness, and money. And a lot of businesses are only thinking about the money. We're driven by those other things, and that helps us make some of these kinds of decisions to be OK with sharing the pie, so to speak...with the opportunity to get involved in these wonderful properties--these things that have inspired us.

GS: So is that why you think so many movie-based games are crap, for lack of a better term?

RP: I think the bigger problem is the time pressure that the developers are under. There are so many talented developers at a lot of these studios, but it's hard for them to get the respect that they probably deserve because they're just working on the games that they're working on. They're under the time pressures and budget pressures that kind of constrain them as a result. There's also poor quality and poor design decisions, but some of these guys...I mean, they've got the chops; they're just in the spot they're in.

But the time thing I think is the big one. We did a game to ship day-and-date with a film, a James Bond game with EA, [the PC edition of] Nightfire. The game was original, which was neat, but the movie it launched alongside of was [the poorly reviewed] Die Another Day. But the game, Nightfire, was an original Bond story, which was challenging. But back then, we were fundamentally a work-for-hire. It wasn't our game. It was Eurocom's design and EA's plan, and it was kind of hard to do that. So I feel pretty bad for a lot of these developers that are involved in these games where they don't really get to drive the script, so to speak. There are things that have you say, "Man, this is bad, but if that's what they want, all right."

So the deals we're doing, like with Aliens and with the way the Heat deal was set up...we're in a seat where we're creatively invested in the result, and that affects the quality substantially.

Secondly, these films aren't launching. These are films that came out long ago, films that are just part of our culture now. So the time pressure can be balanced around what's right for the game, not about when a movie is going to launch.

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