In this exclusive interview, the founder of Gearbox Software explains how Borderlands has evolved, and how the PS5 and Xbox Series X are massive steps forward for gaming.
Borderlands is an explosive and brash FPS-RPG franchise that hangs its hat on crude humor and the largest arsenal of weapons in gaming. Despite its reputation for being a bit one-note and too loud for its own good, it's earned a massive following that continues to engage in the satisfying loot-grind to earn some rare guns and increase the strength of the core cast of vault hunters. Following Borderlands 3's one year anniversary, we spent an hour chatting with Gearbox Software founder and executive producer Randy Pitchford about the early history of the franchise, the ethics of running an evolving game, and what's to come with Borderlands 3 with the next-gen consoles on the horizon.
Editor's Note: This interview had been edited for clarity and readability.
Firstly, given that 2020 is a chaotic year with COVID-19, how have things been at Gearbox Software?
It's been pretty wild. We were kind of early movers in transitioning to a work from home, to follow that curve. We were one of those handful of folks back in the end of February that said, "Yeah, we're not going to go to GDC, and we're not going to E3." So we shifted early to work from home, and it was a culture shock. We have a really awesome studio space, and we're all used to working with each other and seeing each other every day, and interacting off of the live vibes of that. That is often what game development is all about. There's a huge amount that's collaborative, and it is a team sport.
We did take a hit when we were transitioning [to work from home]. We have some tools that we can use to get a sense of how productivity is going, and we noticed that on average we saw about a 25 to 30% hit during the first two weeks. But then we very quickly climbed up to about 90% of previous performance, and then, within a month or so, we were actually beating previous performance. So I think we're pretty grateful for our situation. There's a lot of people out there that are getting impacted by this [pandemic] in different ways. We kind of said, "Shit, now more than ever, the world needs us. We gotta get to work, you guys. People are at home. They're stuck at home, so they need something to do. We exist to entertain folks. We got to do this."
We just rallied around that vision and that mission, and we've just been jamming. Somehow we've been able to ship all of the DLC that we planned [for Borderlands 3]. All of it's bigger than we initially planned, so we invested even more energy into it, and we've done a lot of free content and post-launch content. We've got a zillion other projects that no one even knows about going on in the background. It's just been a joy [to work on this], and it's kind of made it easier for us to deal with the fact that everything sucks right now in the world. Because we have this game to work on, we can just say, "Let's just focus on the one thing we have control over," which is just trying to make cool shit and hope to God we somehow might have a chance at making someone feel something good.
Borderlands 3 has had quite a year with new updates, the DLC expansions, and the revised game modes like Mayhem, which is a far cry from where the game was at launch. People seem to be really engaged with it. Overall, how do you feel about the first year Borderlands 3?
Yeah, I'm pretty proud of it. It's been interesting, there's a paradox that I think lives in the minds of all artists and creators--especially now--where, on the one hand, we want to believe in the value of what we're doing, but at the same time, there is this fear and terror of all the things that are going to kill us and all the things that aren't good enough for us. That's one of the reasons why, from the very beginning of Gearbox Software, we've always thought of our games and our projects from a hobby perspective. We wanted people to interact with our games, not as something that you quickly play, consume, and put down, but that they can engage with and interact with over time.
I mean, even our first products when we were doing work-for-hire work on the original Halo, we released an SDK and all these tools, and we're having long-term engagement with the mod community to ensure that they could keep modifying the game. We did that stuff for Half-Life: Opposing Force as well. We were even involved with Counter-Strike for a time. So even from the very beginning, it's been part of our DNA [to create evolving products]. But with Borderlands 3, it's been really scary. Borderlands 2 was such a magical game for us. We had so much fun making it and it turned out that it just resonated with so many people, and to follow in those footsteps is a privilege but also quite scary. But we realize, on the other side of that, we seem to have been able to do something there that's interesting. We found that we collected a lot of new people along the way.
We have the data, and we can see how Borderlands 3 did from launch, and we're about 60 to 70% above Borderlands 2 [in overall players], which is just astonishing. It's way beyond what we hoped or expected. That makes us proud, but it's also really motivating because we're in there playing with the game and modifying the game. We're not afraid to mix things up a little bit, and sometimes things work better than others. We learn something from every step we take, and I love that process. I'm really proud that we've got some momentum with that process, and that there's people that are enjoying coming along with us, and other folks that are arriving and showing up [for the first time].
What's interesting about Borderlands 2 was that it seemed to have something of a longer lifespan than people expected it would. Just before Borderlands 3, you all released a final epilogue DLC to tie it into the current game.
Yeah, it was certainly longer than we expected too. I mean, in fact, it's still going strong. Every single day, there's still tens of thousands of players. I think it's on average like 50 to 100,000 unique users every single day for Borderlands 2 [on all these different platforms]. That's incredible. This community is playing at steady periods every month, and that's really interesting and compelling. We know that there's folks who are still engaging, and a lot of those folks are still engaging with a game they know in and out. It's crazy, that can't be ignored.
Right now, for example, I'm playing this indie game called Hades. Those guys [Supergiant Games] walk on water. I love that game. They managed to get up to like 700,000 units in early access, and 1.0 is out now and then they managed to break a million units. Like, holy crap. That's a big deal. A million players is a lot. When we look at Triple-A, sometimes we're just like, "Ah, this game's a failure because it only did 3 million units." Like, holy shit. Can you imagine doing anything that 3 million people get to see? It's any creator's dream, and as a person who's created content yourself, you can imagine how incredible that is. So it's just unfathomable that there's a million people a month playing Borderlands 2. That was why we made the final DLC for that game. That really was motivating for us to want to do something there. We knew where we were going to Borderlands 3, and we knew there could be some value in a little bridge there.
I think it speaks to how much the franchise has grown over the years.
Yeah, we could do a lot with this franchise at this point. Like before, we were thinking about what to do before the launch of Borderlands 3, we were like "Why don't we just do a whole prequel again? After we do Borderlands 3, we can go back and make that second pre-sequel." But then we thought, "Why don't we just do it in order? Why don't we make that DLC story now and do it in a way to give it to the people that are still playing Borderlands 2?" So we committed to that, and I think we also expected and knew that when we announced Borderlands 3, that it would create a lot of life with Borderlands 2 again. So yeah, that was crazy.
I remember when I went to the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences annual summit in Las Vegas, called D.I.C.E., in February of 2010, which was right after we launched the first Borderlands. Before the first Borderlands launched, the industry back then was super skeptical about the game, and we had to scream from the tallest mountain just to get any attention at all. A lot of folks were predicting it was going to fail. I went to D.I.C.E., and we were looking at what we were seeing, and we just couldn't believe it. I was like, "I don't know. You guys, I think that this title is on a trajectory where it might break 3 million units. It might. I don't know." Then the next day, I'm getting called from Take-Two corporate PR saying, "Oh, my God. You're making forward-looking statements!" And of course, that didn't matter, the game went on to do like 8 million units, and it became this big thing. So to get back up to 8 million people with a DLC that we launched from Borderlands 2 seven years after launching, and as a premium game, that's just incredible.
What was interesting about Borderlands 3 was that, compared to Borderlands 2, it was released during a much different landscape. There's a lot more looter-shooters out now, and it seemed like Borderlands had to adopt more ideas and concepts from other games that have a live-service element. Did you feel like you had to rethink Borderlands 3, since you were releasing it within this current landscape?
Well, you always look at what other folks are doing, but we don't tend to approach problems like that. Borderlands 3, I think, is a very natural evolution of the previous games. It takes advantage of where we've come with technology, including our own platform, our SHiFT platform that allows for connectivity, which we first launched with Borderlands 2. If you look back at Borderlands 2 we had DLC, events, and a long post-launch campaign. I do think what is different now with Borderlands 3 is that we've made things a lot more convenient for players with the online events, new content, and other updates. We did pioneer hotfixes back then, where we could do a patch without requiring you to do a download. That was kind of nice to push a patch to live in real time. But we didn't have a lot of the same infrastructure tools and systems that we have today, and we didn't have a dedicated team. So with Borderlands 3, we got ahead of that, knowing, "Hey, this is what we want to do anyway. Let's invest in the infrastructure, and the technology, and the processes, and let's also dedicate, budget in the dedication of talent that's going to do nothing but live in the game as a live game."
If anything, we went in the opposite direction from the business model [of a live service game]. It was extremely frustrating for me [to communicate that] because I felt that was what customers wanted from Borderlands. What they expected from Borderlands is a game where you can buy the game, and it's amazing, robust, and has incredible value. If you love it, then there are more experiences, campaign DLCs, for example, and we can patch them up into a season pass. I felt that part of the model worked from an economics of the business point of view, and it was also a very honest and comfortable way to have an interaction with the customer. You know what you're going to get. You can buy it, you can be confident that there's value there, and you don't feel like you're going to be nickel and dimed on microtransactions or get latched into a subscription model that's going to hit you up for loot boxes.
What was really frustrating for me was to see all the pundits and a lot of the critics decide, before they knew, that we were absolutely going that route. In Borderlands 2, we did have some microtransactions with some of the cosmetics, but we haven't done that in Borderlands 3. All we have is our game and our season pass that includes all the current DLC. Instead of getting credit for it, some people decided that I was lying. It's like they would rather paint me as a villain, and it can be easy to look like one. When we reach the number of customers that we can reach, the economics are fine. The budgets for Borderlands 3 and its DLC is over four times what we spent on Borderlands 2, and we didn't raise the price. The economics support it. That's because the game is reaching so many people.
A lot of the concern people have for games that adopt elements of a live service game is that it's often the norm to feel like you're being prodded to spend money. That expectation is there. Do you feel that more games should take a more relaxed approach?
I think it depends on the game. Look, at the end of the day, we want to live in a world where our best artists can dedicate their lives towards the craft. I was talking about Hades earlier. I want them to kill it, because I want them to be confident to spend even more in whatever they're going to make next. Those guys are creative and inventive, and I know the game's not art for everybody, and that's why they're still kind of niche-y, indie. But there's different business models [for these types of games]. Just because when we do a numbered sequel for Borderlands there's an expectation about what it's supposed to be, doesn't mean that the expected model is right for that game.
There are predatory businesses out there. The relationship that people like myself should have with customers is the kind of relationship that an entertainer should have with their audience, the kind of relationship where our goal is to create a lot of value for you. Our goal is to create a lot of joy, and happiness, and positive experiences, and that you come out of it, as an audience member, thinking you got the better end of the deal. Yes, you paid for it. There is enough vulnerability in human psychology where a person making interactive content can make it like a Skinner box, instead of the approach of being an entertainer. I tend to not admire that in other games out there. It's something I wish we wouldn't do as an industry.
Another thing that's going to be big this year are the next-gen consoles. There's a lot of excitement there, but there's still some apprehension from consumers about what to expect. How are you feeling about the new hardware?
Yeah, I always get so pumped when there's an ability to take a step forward with new hardware and new technology, and anything that's going to empower us. Gearbox's relationship with first parties, with people from Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, is pretty tight. We were so thrilled to be a part of their process as Sony and Microsoft were each imagining what they wanted to with the next generation. They would interact with a whole number of folks in the industry, including ourselves, to hear what we would imagine the new hardware would be like. I've always really enjoyed that process. I'm just so thrilled that it's less about buzzwords, and it's more about experiential stuff. Games are good and technology is good. We need to do a massive upgrade in just quality of life.
I think customers will realize how profound of a difference it is to have the throughput capability that these new platforms bring. It's just absolutely unreal. The leap there with PS5 and Xbox Series X is the biggest leap I have ever seen in the history of console generations. I'm saying, including the leap from 2D to 3D. It's going to change the way we think about every bit of our experiences. However, it's going to be hard to see that in the initial launch titles because a lot of the launch titles are games that were endeavored upon before. Frankly, there are a lot of ports, and games that have already [available] on existing platforms that are being reimagined with these new platforms.
Still, I am super pumped about what it means for Borderlands 3 on PS5 and Xbox Series X. We've expanded that a lot, with the upped resolution and framerate to 4K and 60FPS, and added in four-player split-screen, which is like rendering four copies of the game at once on a single console. It's fricking cool, man. I'm really excited for gamers that are going to get to experience Borderlands 3 on the next gen platforms. I think it's going to be a really big moment.
Another thing that was really noteworthy about the news of Borderlands 3 coming to next-gen is that it's going to be a free upgrade for existing owners on PS4 and Xbox One.
Yeah. I was really excited when our publishing partner, 2K, got behind that. It isn't cheap to make native versions of these games, which is what we're doing for next-gen. There's a huge number of really talented, awesome people putting their hearts and souls into re-engineering the parts of the game that must be re-engineered in order to have it function and sing on an entirely new platform.That cost is usually handled by the suits that care about business stuff, and that's offered determined by selling product. So for them to make the decision to give that effort away for free to people that have already come along with us was a really profound commitment to the fans of Borderlands 3, and also confidence that we'll have new players join us. That's a beautiful thing, and I'm really glad that we have a publishing partner that is in a position to be able to do that.
Our goal is to create a lot of joy, and happiness, and positive experiences, and that you come out of it, as an audience member, thinking you got the better end of the deal.
This topic in particular has been a point of discussion because other publishers have different approaches to their next-gen plans, and some of which aren't allowing free upgrades at all.
Yeah, you don't just press the "Make PS5 button" on your tools. It's a lot of work, and it's tricky. Some of that's about compatibility. How do you manage the entitlement? Fortunately, we have a really robust set of online tools and infrastructure that allow us to deal with that. And of course, anybody with a physical copy that buys a disk drive version of the new console can validate entitlement just because they're putting a disk in there. And what about digital people? Also, there's a real cost involved [to making these next-gen ports]. So I don't begrudge publishers and developers trying to find a way that works for them to give customers what they want. Also, we have to also acknowledge that a lot of this business is really living on the edge to try and make things happen. It's really tough right now to keep business going.
For Borderlands 3, we're going to see some expanded cross-play as well. Steam and Epic game store players can share games on PC, but in 2021, that will happen for console players.
Yep, it's happening, and it may come sooner on some platforms We'll see. What's interesting is that we're there technology-wise. We've been there since we launched Borderlands 3 on the Steam platform, which allowed cross-platform play between Steam and Epic. And the Steam and Epic guys hate each other, but we made that happen, and we managed to do that. It's so fascinating that there's still emotion in play, and I understand it. A lot of groups have spent a lot of time protecting their silos and building those silos, and we're not trying to destroy the silos. We're just trying to take the friction away from real people that want to find each other and want to have entertainment experiences with each other.
They found that they have a shared interest in the game, but just because they happen to have a shared interest in one game on a different platform, they're forever separated, and there's a divide between them. I hate that, and it's been my crusade to try to tear that down, and we've done it. We've done it, and it's inevitable. There's still some work to do, and some things to deal with from a policy point of view, but I think we're there, and that nut is finally cracked to the point where we've been confident enough to say, "Yes. This is done. It's happening, and you will have it."
So, just to clarify, for cross-play for Borderlands 3, a PC, PS4, Xbox One, and PS5, and Xbox Series X users will eventually be able to all play together?
That's the dream. That is the target. And to avoid the ambiguity, we're not stopping until that's true. We are confident enough that that will be true to say that it's coming in 2021. And, good fortune willing, it could happen sooner. We'll see what happens. There's still some work to do there, but it's on the brink.
Borderlands 3 still has a lot of content coming this year and next. I actually got some details on the Arms Race mode earlier.
Oh my God. Yeah, I am so pumped for this mode. People smarter than us are spending their time thinking about when the optimal time is to discuss certain details about it. It's not because they're trying to hold anything back. It's about balancing the relationship between what's done development-wise and to set the expectations of people. I cannot wait to share more about this. It's really fricking cool. It's a totally new game. The way it feels to me, when I play it, it's like, "Holy crap. This changes everything." I think it's going to be a lot of fun.
I don't know if it'll be for everybody, but I also think there's some people that may never have looked at Borderlands that are now going to go, "Wait a minute. That looks interesting." I have a feeling some Call of Duty folks are going to turn their head and go, "Wait a minute. What's this?" Even some battle royale people are going to go, "That sounds interesting. I want to check that out." But it's not a battle royale game, so we're not making that. But it's really cool.
Lastly, looking back on Borderlands 3, what are you most proud of with the game?
I'm most proud of the team. Borderlands 3 came a long time after Borderlands 2, and there are some people that have been with it for that entire period. There's some people that have been with Borderlands from the beginning, and I'm one of them.Some of the folks that have joined us along the way have become leaders, and folks that have been here since the beginning are like, "I want to follow her for a minute because she's got some great ideas." Or, "Man, they're really killing it over here. And let's see what they can do." Nobody gets to see that but us. The world gets to see the output of the team.
What I see within the team is that they all share this undying, unrelenting need to try to create joy for people and to like the fact that we have this vehicle to do it, and this thing that lets us somehow simultaneously be really serious when we want to but also completely not give a fuck, and break all the rules, and be just ridiculous when we want to. I mean, the whole idea of Borderlands is opposites. We smashed a shooter and an RPG together, took science fiction and a Western, and added drama and comedy. If you think what Borderlands is, it's nonsensical when you're talking about a planet. It's a place in a place. It's the unforgiving, uncomfortable place where two things that don't go together, go together. It's the part where the road, the highway, and the prairie touch, where it's broken bits of asphalt with grass growing between, where it's neither road nor prairie, but it's both.
That's what the borderlands are. And to have a place where we can smash things together that should never be smashed, and find something new that tastes kind of like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, it's kind of cool. It's kind of a cool place to play as a creative, and I'm grateful that we get to have it, and I'm grateful that there's people that enjoy it and want to spend time with us and with the things we've made. So yeah, that's how I feel.
For more on our look back on Borderlands 3, check out our year one retrospective of the game.