Interview: Exploring Borderlands with Gearbox’s Randy Pitchford

Speaking with Gearbox president and founder Randy Pitchford, you can tell he’s genuinely excited about the studio’s upcoming project, Borderlands.

He feels that the game is a take on a number of genres — first-person shooters and role-playing games, specifically — that just hasn’t been seen before. He laments that at this year’s E3, the studio was forced to put Borderlands into one genre, something they simply couldn’t do. He brags a bit about the A.I. system the studio’s designed, which generates what he says will be “millions and millions” of unique, playable weapons.

But he’s also admits that he’s “scared sh*tless,” because Borderlands — from its art style to its unique take on already established genres — is about as ambitious as it gets. 

We chatted with Pitchford about how the game blends genres, its massive gun and item collection, its rich world, and more. Hit the jump for the full interview.

DESTRUCTOID
I guess the main topic of conversation here is going to be Borderlands, because that’s what you guys have on the docket.

Gearbox CEO and President, Randy Pitchford:
That’s what I assume to be staying late every night for. [laughs]

You guys are getting close to finishing that one up?

Yeah, yeah. We’re in a landing phase right now; it’s pretty awesome. We’re basically, from now until when we’ll have to cert, we’re just polishing the game. We’ve been doing that for a bit now. We still have a lot of things we want to do to it, but it’s accounted for in our schedule, so I’m feeling pretty good about it.

Cool. So let’s talk some basics about the game. I didn’t get a chance to check it out at E3, but the folks that we sent out to see it, they really liked what they saw. They said it’s kind of tough to categorize, it doesn’t really fit into any one particularly genre.

I know, right?

I think you guys are calling it a “role-playing shooter,” or an RPS.

Yeah, because that’s kind of what it is. It’s a shooter and there’s role-playing stuff. Yeah, it was really tough. Going to E3, we had these boxes we had to fill out — little check boxes for the title. You know, there’s a check box for “racing” and there’s a check box for “action” and there’s a check box for “shooter” and there’s a check box for “role playing.” But we didn’t have a check box, so we didn’t know what to do there. [laughs] We were like, “We need to make a new check box!”

So did you write one in? Just write “RPS” in there.

It’s funny — obviously, when you’re doing something new, there’s a certain amount of fear that comes with it. But I had a great time at E3 showing people the game, because people really seem to dig it. It’s funny, too, because some of the folks that do the awards or whatever, some of the times we got “Best of Show” in the shooter category. In a couple of others we got “Best of Show” in role playing. So I think it is kind of confusing.

But you know, I think we’re seeing this genre kind of emerge, right? I mean, there’s some other games that started to blend the categories a bit. Mass Effect and Fallout 3 are other examples.

Yeah, I think a lot of people thought Fallout 3 was going to be that “role-playing shooter,” but I don’t know if it necessarily fits that categorization.

Yeah, they came from a role-playing vector, so they barely got to shooter, right?

Would you say that Borderlands is more focused on the shooter aspect?

Oh yeah, we definitely come from the shooter vector. What you will do is you’ll find tons of loot. There’s actually probably more loot in Borderlands than Fallout and Mass Effect added together. But the loot is focused on the gameplay stuff. You don’t find any, you know — “chicken leg!” — or whatever. It’s really into guns and shields, and storage decks and gears that matter for your gameplay. Hardcore shooter loot.

The other thing, too, is you won’t be doing any dialogue trees. You won’t be having conversations with people in Borderlands where it’s like, “Okay, I’m going to choose to say this choice,” or “I’m going to have a bad attitude or a good attitude.” That doesn’t even exist. We just want to get to the fun.

Right. Get to the action. How is the story told in the game? Is it told through cut-scenes?

A lot of different ways. There’s characters in the game. It’s kind of like how if you play shooters, how stories are told in shooters. It’s a more open-world game, though, so it’s not linear. But the characters will be there, and there’s a couple of cut-scenes. We’re not like a “movie” game where there’s a lot of passive entertainment, but there’s certainly some non-interactive moments to accentuate things.

So when you say “open-world game,” a lot of people immediately think of a Grand Theft Auto kind of game, like a big living world.

No, I think what it means is that it’s not linear. You can choose to explore and discover. It’s a large connected world.

How big is the world?

Gosh… the planet of Pandora! It’s pretty large. I haven’t measured it in square miles; I don’t even know if that’s really relevant when you think about it.

But there’s a lot of game there. If you want to think about it in terms of typical play times and how much content there is to kind of explore and discover. If you play it like you’re a shooter gamer, go through only the narrative missions, you can probably get through all of them in 15 to 20 hours, if you focus only on that. If you explore all of the content, if you’re doing all of the side missions and all of the challenges — just kind of exploring the world and doing everything there is to do — it’s dozens and dozens and dozens of hours.

In the game you can develop your own weapons, correct? How does that work — is it randomly generated weapons?

Yeah, so I don’t know if you’ve ever played Diablo or World of Warcraft?

Of course, yeah.

There’s a lot of weapons. So it’s like that, except this is a first-person shooter, so your weapons are guns — mostly.

In World of Warcraft there were a lot of cases where it was like “Okay, here’s a sword and it’s called this and it’s got these stats.” And then “here’s another sword and it’s called something else, and it’s got these stats … but it’s got the same picture.” We wanted to make sure that if there was a unique-named gun, it also had a unique look to it that matches what the intent of the weapon is.

For example, if you find a gun where the stats say it’s more accurate, when you look at the gun you’ll see that it has a longer barrel or something. When you get a gun that can hold more ammunition in its magazine, when you look at the gun you’re like, “Yeah, that’s got a long magazine.” Or, “Oh, it’s got a drum on it. That’s got a lot of rounds.” It actually looks like what it’s supposed to be. Or, “This gun has an electrical effect that will shock people and [it] shoots lightning rounds,” and you’ll see blue, kind of, energy emanating through components of the weapons.

From what I understand there’s an AI system you guys designed that developed these weapons?

Yeah, there are literally millions and millions of guns in Borderlands, more guns than we could have built.

I mean, there’s more guns in Borderlands than all of the first-person shooters on the 360 and all the shooters on the PlayStation added together. And if you took all the development teams and said, “Make guns the way you used to make them,” you couldn’t make that many guns. So what we did instead was, instead of trying to do that — which would have been an impossible task — we wrote artificial intelligence software and a gear builder system that actually built the guns for us. And we created all of these manufacturers and all of these materials, like metals and plastics and all kinds of different materials, and all of these components of weapons and all of these classes of weapons. And then manufacturers have their own styles.

We fed this all into our software and our A.I., and let that build the guns for us. It’s pretty wild stuff, man, and I don’t think anyone’s ever tried that. We’ve got some really smart folks on the software development team that worked  all that out. It blows my mind every day, man. Everyday I’m discovering things I’ve never seen before.

Yeah, that sounds pretty incredible. Are the drops random?

In a lot of cases. They’re random per what’s supposed to happen. So let’s say you’re in an area that’s generally supposed to be for a Level 5 challenge, so most of the creatures you’ll find there are Level 5 balance enemies, and the drops that will come are around that. And they’re randomized; when I say random, it’s using the procedural inputs picking from the possibilities. There are named bosses and named creatures that are more important or more difficult, and those guys we have specific loot tables for. There’s also unique guns, where designers have gone in an custom-crafted them, named them, and given them particular stats.

It’s nuts. I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of stuff comes out of that. So when you designed the A.I. to develop these weapons — it’s like Skynet for weapon generation — did anything it create blow your mind?

[laughs] Yeah, yeah, it does. Most of the weapons out of the millions that are in there, you know 95% of them, are things that it did on its own, not stuff that we asked it to do.

It’s like, “Holy crap, that’s a sniper rifle that has a revolver and instead of firing bullets it’s firing shotgun rounds and they’re incendiary rounds that will melt people’s faces.” It’s like, wow… I did not expect that. Or, a handle that’s made out of wood, so it looks like an Old West gun. It turns out when I try to sell that, it’s worth a lot, because there’s no freakin’ trees on Pandora, so it must have been imported wood. When things like that happen, it’s kind of cool.

There’s a manufacturer, Jakobs, that tends to use these wood materials — so when you find Jakobs’ weapons they feel pretty meaty and beefy, and look like Old West weapons. The Maliwan manufacturers are kind of high-tech, kind of lightweight components,  and they’re pretty inexpensive, too. But they’re good weapons.

So the different manufacturers we’ve come up with have these different inputs and it’s pretty wild. What’s neat, too, is when we’re able to show the game to people, and they see the guns, and feel and look as good as the stuff — and better in some cases – as when artists craft it manually, like the old method, how weapons are normally made for shooters.

When you talk about these manufacturers and the world, you speak very matter-of-factly, like, “Of course they exist in this world.”

Right, well it’s this world — like when you go to the store in the real world, or you’re going to buy something and you might say, “I like Smith and Wesson.”

Exactly, that’s my point. It seems like there’s a real living, breathing world here.

Yeah, we’ve thought through it. There’s a lot of backstory. We don’t beat you over the head with it, though. It’s kind of like, remember when you saw Star Wars and Han Solo said, “Hey, this is the ship that made the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs.” And you were like, “Wait a minute, what’s a Kessel Run? And parsecs, that’s not a unit of speed, it’s a unit of distance. That’s weird.” There’s some thinking there that maybe you’ll discover it, maybe not. But it kind of makes it feel, whether you’re exposed to all of that backstory or not, the fact that it’s there makes you believe in the world, I guess. And you believe in it because the characters believe in it, and I think that’s really important when you’re doing science fiction.

Like Firefly has been a huge influence. Did you see the Firefly series?

Uh, of course. Definitely!

Brilliant, man! The thing that sells that is that those [characters] believe it. There’s things that are part of that world that we don’t need to hear the backstory to trust that it’s there, because there’s references that help us understand that. And it also adds a bit of intrigue, and it’s kind of fun, like, “Hey, I wonder what that’s all about?” Maybe you want to dig into that backstory a little more.

Are you going to take that backstory outside of the game?

Oh, I don’t know. We’ll see. If we do a good job, if people really like what we’ve offered, it’s going to be hard to [ignore it], there’s going to be some kind of pressure for that. It’s really about what folks want and what we want as gamers, and what people want. Some folks try to make a brand by forcing things at us that we’re not even interested in. We’re kind of treating it opposite, more demand-side.

Right now, the call that we’ve challenged ourselves to, that we’ve invested so much in, is, “Wouldn’t it be freakin’ cool if I could have a game that feels as good as Halo or Call of Duty, but instead of my character being exactly the same at the end as he was in the beginning, I can actually develop skills and personalize the character, and build out a skill tree and have tons of guns and find better and better stuff?”

Whatever my play style is, if I like shotguns, I don’t want to be stuck with just the one shotgun that the one designer decided on. I want the whole spectrum so I can find the shotgun that feels best for me. I always use that shotgun example; if you’ve played a lot of shooters, what’s your favorite shotgun? Everyone’s got a different answer to that. Borderlands has ALL of the shotguns, and a whole bunch more.

So you guys think you’ve succeeded in making a game that feels as good as Call of Duty or Halo?

I mean there’s different choice, but in terms of the raw shooter stuff, yeah. When you move, and especially when you think about it in the context of the genre blending. When think about how good of a shooter is Fallout or how good of a shooter is Mass Effect, when you play Borderlands — if you’ve played any of those games — it feels right at home. When I move right or move left or rotate my view or pull down the trigger and look down my sights, it’s just totally natural. And this is because it’s our lineage, you know, that’s what we do.

People are like, “Hey weren’t you guys making Brothers in Arms?” And we’re like, “Yeah, when we do, we treat that with respect; that’s true story stuff, man.” So we go authentic there. But I mean, my first game in the industry was Duke Nukem 3D, so… there’s a lot of range there between those two endpoints.

How do you feel about the possible demise of Duke Nukem Forever — does that hit you close to home?

[laughs] Oh, well… that’s an interesting question. I could talk for a long time about that. I played poker with George [Broussard, formerly of 3D Realms] last night, you know. They’re friends of mine, they gave me my start in the industry. I think it was tough, it’s hard for them to make this game — they’ve done a lot of trying, went through a lot of different revisions and a lot of different teams. And every time I saw something there was brilliance there, but also the ambition was really really big. I think you can’t kill Duke, so Duke isn’t dead. I think what was going on there, that’s stopped.

Yeah, he needs a comeback.

Absolutely.

Let’s get back to your game, since I’m sure you can’t say too much about Duke Nukem Forever without maybe pissing off your friends.

I could talk about it, but I don’t know if that helps right now. [laughs] I like talking about the stuff we’re doing.

It might help me! But let’s get back to Borderlands. When the game was first announced, the visuals certainly didn’t look they way they do now.

Yeah, how many times do you see that where — especially through a big-budget AAA game — halfway through a game you reset your art style?

It was pretty nuts, because when the new look was revealed, it was before E3. When it hit us, we were all kind of like, “Wow, where did that come from?”

What do you think of it?

I think it looks amazing, I mean I love the art style. It’s like nothing else in the genre; it stands out.

Yeah, but we’re scared shitless because it’s such a risk, you know?

You shouldn’t be. Because I think the response to it has been really positive, at least from what I’ve seen and heard.

We didn’t want the story to break when it did. We did not expect it. We were scrambling, like, “Oh my God, oh God… what are we gonna do?” Then it was like, “Oh, they like it! They like it! Thank God!” I was scared, I was so scared.

I think it brought about a lot of renewed interest in the game, because you heard people saying, “Well I wasn’t really paying attention to Borderlands, but now that they have this new art style, I’m going to give it a second look.” It’s almost seems like it was your master plan all along.

[laughs] You know what it was, and this kind of came up when we were going through this internally — what is going on here? I can’t believe we’re actually doing this. And here’s the analogy that makes it make sense in how we kind of figured out how to accept it: You’ve seen concept cars before, right? And they’re freakin’ awesome. There’s this crazy concept car that looks freakin’ cool and it has all this style — how come we never get to drive those cars? Like, those cars don’t exist. Something happens, some designer or artist and some really clever people did something really awesome, and then when other people get a hold of it and turn it into this thing that they ship. Then we get, you know, a Ford or whatever. Why does that happen? Why can’t we ever drive the concept car?

So our team was looking over our own concept art, and we had some time because we made the decision that in order to realize our ambition with the gameplay and the game design — really blending the shooter and role-playing genres the way we wanted to — that we should take the time. We made the decision to move the game into ’09, and with that the artists just kind of took a step back and a few of them went back and looked at their original stuff and were like, “We should figure out a way to do this, because this concept art is freakin’ cool.” And it all of this style and all this character. And I didn’t know what they were doing, but they got some programmers and they got some artists together and they started building a prototype. When they were finally like, “Hey, we want to show you this, Randy,” I was like, “I don’t know what you’ve done, but we’re in the middle of production now. You’re crazy. You know I’m going to have to shut you down, right?”

Then they walked me to the room and they showed me this simple sample kind of environment with the character that they put together, with the concept art style and the rendering that they changed to make that happen. I was just like, “Oh my God, I’ve never seen anything like this. This is freakin’ sick.” I couldn’t help myself.

I think a lot of people have had the same kind of response. Since you’ve revealed the new style, has there been more hype or a renewed interest that you’ve noticed?

Yeah, the response was pretty loud and pretty positive. Like, really really positive. We had a lot of fans before, from when we initially made the promise. And some of them were just shocked by the change, so that they had to adapt.

But yeah, it was really gratifying to find that we weren’t crazy — I mean, we are crazy — but it feels like we made the right call. I mean, we haven’t shipped the game yet, so it hasn’t been tested against a larger audience. But it feels really good to just say, you know, “Videogames are supposed to be fun. Why are we all making the same looking game?” You know?

Borderlands ships in October?

Yup.

Well, I’m looking forward to it. Randy, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

Nick Chester