The one who resurrected Duke Nukem: interview with Randy Pitchford, magician from Gearbox
RUVDS and Habr continue the series of interviews with interesting people in IT field. Last time we talked to Richard «Levelord» Gray, level designer of popular games Duke Nukem, American McGee«s Alice, Heavy Metal F.A. K.K.2, SiN, Serious Sam, author of well-known «You«re not supposed to be here» phrase.
Today we welcome Randall Steward «Randy» Pitchford II, president, CEO and co-founder of Gearbox Software video game development company.
Randy started in 3D Realms where contributed to Duke Nukem 3D Atomic Edition and Shadow Warrior. Then he founded Gearbox Software and made Half-Life: Opposing Force, which won D.I. C.E in 2000. Other Gearbox titles include Half-Life: Blue Shift, Half-Life: Decay, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, James Bond 007: Nightfire, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, Halo: Combat Evolved and of course Borderlands.
The interview team also includes editor of Habr Nikolay Zemlyanskiy, Richard «Levelord» Gray, Randy«s wife Kristy Pitchford and Randy«s son Randy Jr.
Table of contents:
- Borderlands as a perfect hybrid. Randy and Nick
- Add-ons to Half-Life, or how we mixed protagonists. Randy and Nick
- Duke Nukem Forever — the game with no chance for release. Randy and Nick
- The talk of respected game developers. Randy and Richard
- Why to give up college and how to create a cool setting. Kristy and Nick
- The most important advice. Randy and Nick
- «How the heck is he doing it». Randy and a deck of cards
Hello, my name is Nick. I«m editor of Habr.com and today we are welcoming CEO of Gearbox Software. Hello Randy!
So Randy I know you«ve come here for DevGamm. Tell us about your keynote. You had your keynote yesterday or the day before yesterday?
Couple of days ago
Couple of days ago, yeah. Tell us about what you«ve told on a keynote.
I«ve talked about a few things. I thought that… You know, with this audience of russian game developers, many of which are independent developers just like Gearbox, that the best thing I could do would be to share some lessons that I«ve learned along the way, and some of the experience that I«ve had that helped Gearbox get to where it is, that might be have some use to the people in the audience. So I«ve talked a bit about the history of Gearbox, some of my philosophies about entertainment and the relationship we should have with our audience as entertainers. And talked about our values, and our mission and how those have been used by my company and myself as kind of a «North Star», so that we can always, you know, keep clear what our direction is, and what our goals are. And it«s served us. You know we«ve been doing this for twenty years. Gearbox have been around for twenty years, so… That is quite an achievement for a game development studio.
Borderlands as a perfect hybrid. Randy and Nick
Well, great, you know, I«m little surprised cause I read that you will be talking about Borderlands 3, but you said that you were talking about game development for young developers and it«s quite surprising for me
No, I mentioned Borderland 3, of course, I even showed our announcement trailer.
I was going to ask you something about Borderlands, but as far as you…
You«re welcome to ask me about Borderlands
As far as you were talking about the industry itself let«s start with it
I used Borderlands as kind of a tent pole in the story of Gearbox and you know because for many, in many ways Borderlands created transition for my company, allowed us to grow and try new things including publishing. So before Borderlands Gearbox was entirely dependent upon other publishers that would support us and help us reach customers with the games that we made. But after Borderlands we were able to develop capability and have the resources to reach audience directly, and help other developers reach audience through publishing. And that includes everything from marketing to manufacturing and distribution physical retail products in stores, to first party relations where is all of the platforms from Steam to XBox, and Playstation, and Nintendo, and also Apple and Google, and anywhere else games are played. And Borderlands is kinda like the centerpiece, as a sort of fulcrum, you know, in a lever that helped us achieve that.
Yeah Borderlands is great and I know it«s a milestone for your company, so… Tell me please did you make borderlands out of nowhere? Did you invent it all itself, all it«s world?
Well, It«s a team effort. The premise that began the project was an idea that it«s probably circulated not nearly a Gearbox but around myself and people that arrived at Gearbox for many years, and it was the idea that the fun of a first person shooter is moment to moment. It«s in the second you«re playing where it«s just fun to move, to dodge, the aim and hit the target and see the feedback on the target and it«s just fun in a moment to moment experience. So any given second is just a joy to play a FPS. But there«s a completely different kind of game, a kind of game I used to love, before Wolfenstein, 3D changed everything for me. I used to love role-playing games, and in a role-playing game the fun is never in a moment to moment. The fun is in a long range, right? The fun is in leveling up, in gaining experience and finding gear. When you think about, for example, a game like Diablo… Have you played Diablo?
Yeah, of course.
I love Diablo! And to me Diablo is sort of a graphical version of a game that I used to love before… It«s called «Hack». It was game that were literally text characters representing the heroes and the monsters in a dungeon. And like, the plus sign was a door, right? And when you open the door it became an equal sign.
It«s like next generation of text adventures?
Exactly! But if you think about Diablo, the skill to play the game, right? You«re moving a cursor around, and you«re clicking on icons, right? So the skill to play the game is the exact same skill that you use to launch the application, right? It«s just moving cursor around and clicking on an icon. It«s the fun of playing Diablo is not about the fundamental skill in a movement, it«s about wanting that next bit of loot, it«s about wanting to become more powerful, it«s about wanting to explore and discover the world. And here is what occured to me: the fun of a FPS, the moment to moment aiming, and dodging and shooting and feedback — that fun is not mutually exclusive with the fun of a role playing game, which is long-term. So you can blend short-term fun with long-term fun and put it actually together. And that was the beginning of Borderlands, and I think all games that i«ve ever worked on, the concept, the idea tends to have some of story, style and design, and usually it«s starts at one point. Sometimes the first part of an idea is a story idea, like we did in Brothers in Arms: «What if we could be soldiers in WW2 fighting alongside with other soldiers?» That started as a story premise and design and style followed. Sometimes a game could start with style.
Okay, let«s make a short pause and please continue from the principal that was in center of Borderlands.
So I was talking about story, style and design, and how a game idea can start with any of this things. There«s an example how Brothers in Arms started with story, and style and design followed. It started with an idea of soldiers in WW2. Some games started with style. There was a game called Mirror«s Edge… Did you play Mirror«s Edge?
I«m a huge fan of first part. I don«t like Catalyst. Catalyst sucks. But original Mirror«s Edge is so great.
I think, I don«t know, but I think that game may have started from a style point of view. The rendering of it and art direction lead that game, and design followed and story followed, I think. I didn«t work on a project, but it seems to me that it might be the case. But the point is that an idea could start at one point, and the others can follow. With Borderlands it absolutely started with a design point of view, and the design principle was the first person shooter blended with a role-playing game.
It was «Doom meets Hack» and in more modern games maybe «Halo meets Diablo» and this haven«t been done before. And there was something we thought we were capable of, and something we thought we needed to happen. So we started going for it. The universe, the story followed, the style followed. We made a game where you«re playing in a first person shooter and part of a game is about killing everybody and taking their stuff. We had to create a universe where you could be a good guy doing that. And a Borderlands universe affords that. It«s a blend of science fiction and western, almost.
Yeah, western. It«s what i«ve thought. Futuristic western.
In fact i«ve been asked why is a game even called Borderlands? It doesn«t make any sense. When we think what a work in english «Borderlands» means it«s not a planet, right? It«s like a part of a place. But we called it Borderlands, I named it, not because of a particular place on a planet that is a borderlands, I named it because of what a word means in a kind of a wider context. Because the story in a universe lives in a borderlands between science fiction and western. It lives between those things. It lives, in a game designer point of view, it lives in a borderlands space between role playing game and shooter. And even it«s art style lives between surreal and real. The art direction is this impossible, almost graphic novel style. Yet it presents in a way that it«s absolutely pleaseable for the rules of the universe. Once you get into it you«re like «Wow, this is the way like universe looks and feels».
What a Borderlands actually is, it«s this weird, uncomfortable place between two things, like if you have a road and next to the road is the grass, and there«s a point where the road is cracking and there«s like bits of asphalt and there are bits of grass growing between it. And that part in a middle not the road anymore — it«s the broken road, but it«s also not the grass anymore, but it has both of those things in it, and then some other thing. And that«s the Borderlands.
Oh. great! You«ve explained this so lively, so vivid. Now I understand more.
Maybe I should come back to Borderlands 2. To play it before Borderlands 3 come out.
It«s a lot of fun. We«ve definitely have created Borderlands 3 in a way that doesn«t depend upon you knowing what happened before. If you«re a fan of Borderlands series — yes, there«s a lot for you. But if you never played a Borderlands game before, we«re taking care of you. We«re letting people who have never played in Borderlands before enter Borderlands 3 as if it«s their first Borderlands experience. They should be able to catch up and feel good, and experience a new story. But if you played a Borderlands game before the characters and universe will have things going on that have deeper meaning for you. So… If you haven«t played Borderlands 2 I recommend it.
That«s a lot of fun. One of my litmus tests is actually my wife, who«s a gamer. But she doesn’t always like games that I work on. You know, it«s a team effort, and we«re all working together and there«s a huge number of really awesome talented people, and I feel privileged and humble to get to work with everyday. And we«re all work on a games together, and make things as a team. But sometimes that process comes from another end that not everyone likes — some people like that game, some people like other game, and I really felt like we had something with my wife — she loves Borderlands. She«s played Borderlands 2 from beginning to an end probably six or seven times. She just recently, just within the last two weeks went back and started playing Borderlands 1 again all the way through. She«s played back a few times.
Oh, she«s a fan.
Yeah! How crazy when your wife is actually appreciative of things that you«ve worked on with the team. It«s not always the case, I«ll tell ya. It«s not always the case.
Okay, let«s move from theme Borderlands to more conflict questions. I know you will release Borderlands 3 on Epic Store, and only half year after that it will be released on Steam. Tell me why did you decide to do that? Because as far as I know you can get much more sales on Steam that Epic Store. What were the reasons for you to make it exclusive for half a year?
Well, I hate to disappoint you, but it wasn«t my decision. So with Borderlands the game is published by a company called 2K Games, which has the publishing rights to the game. And 2K Games is a label for Two-Take Interactive, and my company Gearbox Software — we own Borderlands and we created the game, but we did a licence for publishing agreement with 2K, and 2K Games decides when the game is published, and they decide on what platforms. And they decided to do that exclusive deal with Epic. And I«m pretty sure, last time I checked, Take-Two is a publicly traded company, and we«re artists, we«re creatives, they«re business, they like making money. I«m pretty sure they made this decision believing that was the best way to get money. And also I think they believing they serving their customers. I think a business like 2K can«t succeed unless it cares for the interests of its customers, so there«s whole lot of things that I suspect they«re factoring in to make the decision.
For my part — I«m not sad about the decision they made, I remember when the Steam platform launched, and there was a lot of people that were very resistant to it. They didn«t like it. I remember that feeling when I bought Half-Life 2 and I couldn«t play it unless I installed Steam, and I had to go online! Change is difficult, the inertia is real. You know inertia? Inertia is a scientific term, it means: objects in motion tend to stay in motion, and objects that rest tend to stay at rest. And they like it that way! But inertia exists not only in physics, but exists in our characters, in our personalities and our emotions. And for many people changes is frightening. But change is how the future happens. So it«ll be fine. Everybody that wants to play eventually be able to play on whatever platform we can get it on. Franky, I remember when we did Borderlands 2, or Borderlands 1, the biggest controversy was «How dare you not to make a version that run on Linux?». And so with Borderlands 2 we took a lot of effort and we made a game on Linux! And… It was depressing — how many people played it. Very few people played it at Linux. I don«t know if that«s the case here, I think the people that want content will seek it out and find the content wherever it is, and people that don«t — they won«t.
But we«ll see what happens. I want everybody to play the game. On behalf of the creator I want everyone to be able to enjoy what we made, and that«s our mission — is to entertain the world. So I«ll have to play this kind of paradoxical kind of thinking where I can look forward and maybe be onboard with moves that motivate change, but also I just want everyone to have fun, have a good time. That«s really what animates us. That«s what gives me and my company purpose. So we want everybody to have a good time. But we«ll see what happens.
Add-ons to Half-Life, or how we mixed protagonists. Randy and Nick
So you«ve created Borderlands, you«re free to do whatever you want, but in the beginning of Gearbox you made two Half-Life games: Opposing Force and Blue Shift. And there are you were kinda restricted in what you are doing. You have a setting, you have a plot, I even think kinda close to being ready, and you have all the heroes of the game were ready, but you managed to do something great, and you«ve done it two times: you made Opposing Force, you made Blue Shift that was kinda similar, but people liked it anyway. How did you manage to do it in such conditions?
That was so much fun… The Half-Life game and story, art and content — it«s so wonderful. It was such a joy in privilege to work with that stuff. When we started that project I went up to Valve and I pitched the idea: «Hey, what if we played for Opposing Force? What if we played from a soldier«s point of view? And send it from Gordon«s, from scientist«s point of view, what would that look from the guy that went in, and we«re there to silence everything in and clean that all up. And they liked the premise, they sent me down to Sierra who at that point on the rights to Half-Life, and I had to pitch them… And they liked it, so we did the deal. And after that we were pretty much free to do whatever we wanted, we«ve committed to what Half-Life was. We loved it. We wanted to do something very correct in that universe. And of course someone on the other side must have been watching our progress, so I imagined if we didn«t do things that they liked or that weren«t consistent enough with Half-Life — they probably would have «pulled the plug» of our project. But in fact we had extremely little influence. They had very little influence over us during the development of those games. I also want to point out that there was a third game that we did called Half-Life: Decay.
That was an add-on that came with a PS2 version, and it was cooperative, and that one was also fun. Remember: in Opposing Force you played the role of a soldier, in Blue Shift you played the role of a security guard, and in Decay my idea there was… I don«t know… Did you play Half-Life?
Yeah, of course!
Do you remember when Gordon Freeman first got the HEV suit? And there«s actually three modules there, only one, the middle one have the suit in it, the other two is empty. Who had those suits? That«s what I was thinking.
So in Decay you played that two characters that have those suits. Now you know one of them — it was Gordon«s trainer, we called her Gina, and in a training she was the hologram trainer, but that hologram was a person. She was one of the scientists, she had one suit, and then the other one was a scientist named Colette Green, that we created. So Gina and Colette were this two characters that were the other two scientists that had HEV suits. And then Half-Life Decay you played cooperatively. So you and I could play together, and one of us played Gina, the other one would play Colette, and we have to solve puzzles together and fight through sceneries together in order to get through and get to the encounters in Half-Life Decay
It was on the same screen, yeah?
Yeah, you can play split-screen, «cause it was a console game. So you and I would have each other view but the screen will be split… Like that… I can«t remember if we split… I think we gave a choice to split it horizontally or vertically.
But one of the fun things is, you know, we did everything come currently. You remember at the beginning Gordon presses the sample, he pushes the sample in the reactor and it causes this resonance cascade which is what tore the rift between Earth and Zen, this alien world. And the sample comes up from the lift underneath, so in Decay you«re the scientist that deliver the sample to Gordon, you«re under there! And so as all this is happening you«re underneath, you«re preparing the sample for the thing, you roll it down, press the button, lift it up to Gordon and you hear all of that going on and all of the other noises that you«ve created…
So the story is variative from everyone«s point of view
We had a lot of fun integrating all of that, so you«re seeing the story from all of that different perspectives, and like all the story«s crossovers. And that was a lot of fun to do. And you know when we started Gearbox the first project we did was Half-Life Opposing Force, and we founded the company with just five people and by the time we shipped the game we were twelve.
But imagine twelve people and Half-Life Opposing Force I think ship with 45 maps, Half-Life had like 88 or something. So Opposing Force was an add-on, it was half the size of Valve«s game. Valve had a team of like 40 or 50 people, and they spent three years on that. We finished the game in three months, and we had 12 people. Think about that! Incredible effort. And all of us had to wear many hats. I wrote design, produced and directed the game, and I also about a third of the levels myself, as a level designer, and I even had really terrible code in the game, and shitty art, few of the textures I made myself. We had some great artists in the team that did most of the work, but other great guys like, you know, like Stephen Bahl built all of the soldiers and probably two thirds of the monsters, and all of the guns except for a couple Landon built some of the other guns, and built some of the other monsters and a lot of the textures, and Brian built a monster and a lot of the textures that we used. Rob did a lot of the sound effects that we used. And he was a level designer so he built I think about a fifth of the maps himself while doing sound and other things on the game. Like we all had to do everything, «cause there was so few of us for such a thing.
Okay. Indie studios are crazy in the beginning. Thinking about how many things one man does is always great.
Today there«s 400 people working on Borderlands 3, so like the scale is massive. And we«ve been working on a game… The first work I did on it was over five years ago. So the scale is totally different.
Duke Nukem Forever — the game with no chance for release. Randy and Nick
Let«s move to another title. Another old title… Duke Nukem. You know everybody was waiting for Duke Nukem, for the new part, after Duke Nukem 3D…
Same for me!
Everybody was waiting that the next Duke Nukem will come out soon, but only in 2011 Duke Nukem Forever came out.
It almost took forever, but not quite forever. Well it felt like it«s going to take forever.
So in 2011 it came out and it got «mixed» reviews…
Well I wouldn«t say «mixed»… I«d say they were pretty bad. They weren«t really mixed, yeah… That was an insane situation. I remember when I left, I left three realms in 1997, we had already started working on Duke Nukem Forever. Duke Nukem have already been in the development for months.
I joined another company, it went through its entire development cycle, that company collapsed, before I founded Gearbox. So that entire company was created, lived, and died before I even started Gearbox! I started Gearbox in 1999. I developed all of our Half-Life games, and the console versions of Half-Life, all those addons packs, we did a James Bond game, we did Tony Hawk skater game, we did Samba de Amigo, we did Halo for PC, we did Brothers in Arms, we did Borderlands, we did all of those things while 3D Realms was still working on Duke Nukem Forever. The creation and existence of Gearbox through all of those years, even after Borderlands shipped, 3D Realms was still working on Duke Nukem Forever.
I remember back when I was at 3D Realms in 1997, and there was another game that we were working at called Prey, and there was a new technology that was just emerging. It was the 3D graphics card. It was the card that you can plug in your PC that would accelerate 3D graphics. Before then everything was software, everything ran on CPU. And I remember when I got my first graphics card for 3D effects I was like «Ooh, this is incredible!» and we loaded something like Tomb Raider, the original. So like «Wow! It«s 3D graphic!».
I had a Matrox card, and I was running a version of a Quake on a Matrox 3D graphics card, because as a developer I was given this hardware, and I remember we were working on Duke Nukem Forever, I wasn«t actually on a team at the time. The team was working on Duke Nukem and George is like «You know what? We«ll do Prey on 3D graphics cards! But Duke Nukem is gonna come out first. We«re gonna keep it as a software renderer. And if you think about it like we«ve just got our first 3D effects cards, the Matrox cards. 3dfx came into existence, launched and pretty much effectively started the 3D graphics cards industry. It went through its entire existence as a company until it collapsed. 3D Realms no longer exists as a company within the span of Duke Nukem Forever«s development. I remember when I was, I think I just started Gearbox, in Wired Magazine… Do you know Wired Magazine? Do you guys have it?
Wired Magazine coined term, and it was «vaporware». Have you heard this term? Vaporware? So in English «vapor» is like «mist». It«s not really like there, it«s like a ghost. And «ware» is like «software». So they said «vaporware». This is a promise about software that«s just mist, it«s just a ghost, it«s not real. And somebody wrote an article about Duke Nukem Forever, and they called Duke Nukem Forever — vaporware. Now if you look at this term today «vaporware» is probably in dictionaries now, because this term in english is solid. The next year Wired Magazine created an article, they called it «The vaporware of year awards». And they did awards where there every promise software developers were making, and a lot of a software was in tech, like wasn«t even videogames, right? They would say «That«s vaporware! This is vaporware!». And they count it down to the number one vaporware of the year award… «Duke Nukem: Forever».
And they did it again next year… And then next year… And the next year… The next year… Every year Duke Nukem: Forever was the vaporware of the year! Ten years! For ten years! A decade! Ten years! And then, on the tenth year Wired Magazine said «You know what? This year we«re gonna give Duke Nukem: Forever a lifetime achievement award for vaporware. We«re never gonna speak of it again but it is the king of vaporware, never to be de-throned.» You know, Duke Nukem doesn’t do anything half-fast. Even in vaporware he«s gonna be the king. But it turned out…
Still it was released.
Yeah! It never should have existed. What happened is those guys ran out of money. Those guys shut their doors. They went out of business, 3D Realms.
What was the reason of such a bad acclaim?
Well I think it«s a bad expectation management, and I also think it«s about the game. The game itself was an evidence of its development history. I«m not objective, I think I owe Duke Nukem my career in many ways. When I joined the Duke Nukem team, the Duke Nukem 3D team in 1996 — that was my first commercial video game. When I worked on Duke Nukem Plutonium PAK and the Atomic Edition, which was the add-on and kind of bundle of the original Duke Nukem 3D, and that was the first commercial video game product that I«ve ever worked on. And it was a great experience. And I only was at 3D Realms for about a year, before I left and started my own thing eventually… I feel like I owe Duke a lot. So I«m not objective at all. When 3D Realms closed its doors and shut down and laid off all of the developers, they thought that was it. But the publishing company that had the rights to publish the game… We were talking earlier about how the publishes decide where to sell, and it«s their business, they need to make the money, so they had some risk there… They sued 3D Realms! They sued George Broussard and Scott Miller, they sued 3D Realms. Like «you can«t just walk away!»
What was the publishing company?
It was Take-Two. The same publisher that publishes Borderlands. And they sued 3D Realms, they sued George Broussard and Scott Miller. Like «You can«t just walk away! We have millions invested into this game! You obligated to deliver…
Ten years! Close to fifteen!
That«s right! It was literally…
We just leave guys, sorry…
It was literally fifteen years totally of total development time from start to finish.
And they just decided to go away.
They thought if they just shut their doors it would be okay. There was couple of problems. They had an obligation to deliver that game. They made a deal. And their promise to deliver it — they never did. And they also took out a loan with Take-Two. For a lot of money. They borrowed money from Take-Two, and Take-Two said «Oh, you gotta give that money back!», but they spent it, they didn«t have it. So they«re in trouble. They«re in real deep trouble. So we begin talking. And George and Scott talked with me.
At the time you were in?…
You said you left 3D Realms.
Oh yeah, I«m in Gearbox Software. This was 2009 or 2010.
What was the role of Gearbox Software in this situation?
Zero! We had nothing to do with it. From the moment I left 3D Realms in 1997 until the moment that George and Scott and I had a conversation after 3D Realms closed its doors in 2010, we obviously had nothing to do with it. George and Scott were in trouble. They«re getting sued and they needed help. And this is how it felt to me. Imagine you are driving alone on a highway through Siberia. There«s no one for miles. And you«re driving alone through Siberia. And as you driving you see up ahead some other cars crashed. There«s a wreck. And there«s fire, there«s blood, and there«s bodies. What will you do? Do you stop? Or you just keep driving?
Of course! Wow! They«re people! They need help!
Right. Okay. Obviously. Most people would stop. Now consider this! Imagine if you recognize the car, and the people that were in it were the people that you cared about. And you knew. Like your first boss that gave you a first shot to become a professional. And imagine that you weren«t in a car, but actually you«re a bunch of cars. You«re in an ambulance, and you have a tractor track that can tow cars, and you«ve got mechanics, right? And there«s nobody else around. So that was us. So the deal we did was «Okay. We«ll help you out.» And we did a mount to us. I took on a burden of their lawsuit. I stepped in front of a bullet. So now Take-Two is no longer suing 3D Realms, and they were no longer suing Scott Miller and George Broussard. They were suing me.
It was brave. I trusted two things. One — my strength with this particular company — Take-Two. Remember they also published Borderlands, and Borderlands was a massive hit. So I trusted the fact that I had a massive hit with those guys — so they would back off. I also know that they wanted the game. And I knew something else. Scott and George told me something else when we met. They laid everyone off. They fired the whole development team. But you understand that a lot of the members of that development team — they«ve been working on Duke Nukem: Forever for over a decade. Their hearts and souls and everything about their identity was tied up in this thing. It«s not their fault that George and Scott weren«t able to manage their money and had to fire them. It was a huge surprise to them when they were fired. They did not know that was coming.
All of them didn«t want to give up, they didn«t want it to end. They wanted to finish this game. But some of them had the means to keep going. Even if they weren«t getting paid. So one of the guys, the guy that was one of the original creators of Duke Nukem back when it was 2D scroller, Allen Blum. He and a producer, David Riegel and the bunch of the other guys on the team — they just kept working. They were fired from the 3D Realms, the doors were closed, they were no longer allowed in the office, they took their home computers, and they brought them all to one of their houses, and they set them all up in one house. And they just kept working on the game.
Just home studio, yeah?
About a half of the guys that were on a team did this.
I can«t remember the exact number. But they kept working. And you know what they did? They stitched all of the stuff they worked on together. They put it all together. And it was a game. And it had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and all of this content. And… I played it. They let me play it. And I thought it was pretty cool! I couldn«t even believe that existed! Because to me Duke Nukem was this great character and game that helped me to get into industry back in 1997, but I«m looking at this stuff in a whole game is there! I never expected any of it! My expectations, because I know something about how hard it is to make video games, and because I know something about how difficult a team of that size would have it to compete it to this market. My expectations was that this would be a complete disaster. But when I played it, there was some really fun stuff there. It was really cool! And it was Duke Nukem. And I couldn«t believe that I was even playing that thing. So me expectations were down here, and the game was up here. And to me it was like «Woah, wow!». And so, the way I got Take-Two to agree to let go off their lawsuit and to stop the fighting was that we could make sure that the game shipped. So we had our producers help out. And we did a deal with a team, that they were hired ike contractors to finish their game. And they did! And then our producers with their developers finished the game. And it was their game! When you fire up a game it begins and says «Gearbox presents a 3D Realms game.»
So it«s a miracle that it exists.
It«s a miracle that it existed! Now I think something happened when we went to the Penny Arcade Expo. Nobody knew… Everybody thought Duke Nukem was dead. Because the story was the studio was dead. And it was legendary at this point. People had been talking about Duke Nukem: Forever for over a decade. And we brought the game to the Penny Arcade Expo, had a big booth, had a black cloth over the booth so nobody can«t even see it until they should. The doors opened. The cloth was pulled away.
And there«s a video in the internet of people, of fans running into the show, thinking that they«re gonna see next Telltale game and as they run by they see Duke Nukem, literally slip and fall, double take to run back and try to get in line. And within fifteen minutes line to see it was eight hours long. The game became a number one trending topic on twitter. The trailer became the most viewed video game trailer of that year. And the marketing team, and everybody just got into a frenzy, thinking «Oh my god! This is… This is going to be a massive hit!». And the Kool-Aid tasted pretty good, you know. They all drank the Kool-Aid. I think if I could go back in time what I would do… This was something we talked about at the time, and I wish I was stronger. Maybe we would have done it if I was publishing the game. What should have happened was, «cause it was all about expectation management — the game is what it is. It«s a popcorn shooter. It«s like a B-action movie. It«s fun! And it«s mindless. It«s just ridiculous. The characters are ridiculous, there a point where you shrink yourself down and you«re running around a burger joint, a hamburger place, and you«re jumping on french fries — it«s ridiculous. It«s absolute absurd. And aliens invading the world, and Duke Nukem is the only guy that can stop them. It«s an absolute absurd game. But it is fun. But if your expectations are like the best game of all time, and you get «this»? It«s not «this», but if your expectations are here, and you get «this» that distance becomes punitive, and you go «Fuck that!», you mark it here. Remember, my expectations were down here, I got this, I was like «Holy shit! I«m feeling really good!». It«s that difference.
Yeah-yeah, I understand. It«s all about expectations.
Yeah, it«s all about expectations! So what should have happened, and I wish we were strong enough to make this happen was — it shouldn«t have been sold as a premium, triple A, full-price game. It should have come in like brown box. Like shopping bag. And like generic. It should have been called «Duke Nukem: Forever. Bootleg edition». Bootleg! This should not exist! Because what it literally was, it was all the pieces that were left when 3D Realms shut down, and the team that left behind stitched them all together and put together in a bootleg version of a game. And it should have been sold for like twenty bucks, and marketed as «Hey! This shouldn«t have even exist! But if you«re curious, you wanna see what happened over the last fifteen years — here you go.» And I think in that context it could have reset expectations down there, and maybe would have been appreciated more. I think if people went back today, and looked at that game, with the perspective and understanding what that team went through, and the reality of game development, and just took it for what it is… Like, it«s pretty charming! But it did earned itself. Like George and Scott for ten years couldn«t help themselves but tell the world «This is going to be the greatest game ever made!». And when you tell someone that, and it«s not — you«re dead.
But it had to happen. That game had to come out. It was part of the deal. And now when it«s out, that«s all done. And now we can do something with the character.
It«s great that it came out, still. Maybe I should replay it.
You should! It«s actually quite fun. Get the PC version, play it on PC, and check it out. It«s like cheap, «cause it was a disaster. You can get it for five dollars or something. It«s super cheap. It«s fun. You«ll enjoy it. I«ll promise that you«ll laugh, like «This is ridiculous!» and you«ll have fun. And then if you do play it through even five years later, ten years later, there«ll be things that happened and you will remember it. And other games that you will think of much better will be forgotten. There«s something special about it.
The talk of respected game developers. Randy and Richard
So Randy, it«s strange and pleasant to see you in Moscow.
What are you doing here Richard?
I live here.
It«s… I can«t believe. You went from that little place that we«ve worked in Garland, Texas, and you here in Moscow now.
Garland. Big city. Big city. So, yes, it is nice to have you and Christian and Randy Junior here.
I love it.
While you here I might ask you some questions, if that«s okay.
I«m interested in knowing… I«ve been out of a game industry for over ten years now. And you — big CEO and big Gearbox, I was wondering while i«ve been in summer retirement i«ve been playing with Unreal and Unity. And over the ten years they are the tools for making games that progressed quite significantly.
Where just almost anybody off the street can make games, and anybody off the street does make games now. All of the indie games. How do you feel about this?
I think it«s great! When I, and you might remember this… When I started out it wasn«t really accessible. You«ve had to have technology, and find some way to get access to tools to create your own tools. And today, I think, everyone can get access to some computing. Everyone has a phone.
And access to an internet. And that means that you have access to everything. And we now live in an age where all the information is out there, and if you can find it you can put it to work for you, and you can teach yourself! And that«s created more game developers than the world has ever seen before. And game development really is all about interactivity, and that«s really useful.
I would agree. There«s more games, and of course there would be more bad ones, but there«s gonna be more good ones too.
You can«t get good at something until you do it a lot, and almost everybody starts something that they«re gonna do, and they are gonna suck at it. And you do it, and then you learn what«s sucked, keep going, and eventually you get to a point where «Hey! I think I«m starting to get pretty good at this!». Yeah, it takes practice, it takes iteration.
The other question that I had, again, being out of industry for so long, in fact that«s the reason why I got out of the industry — because I«ve got old.
Don«t you start, that«s not an issue.
Well I know, we«ve both been in AAA titles. I like casual games now. But the games are so complicated now it seems. You were working on Borderlands 3 and…
It is true. The Borderlands 3 team has 300–400 people on it. That«s a lot! Remember when we could all fit in one room together back then.
Yeah, there were eight people.
And it takes a lot to organize ourselves, but you know what? Another thing comes from that — specialization. One person can get really focused on one thing and do it really, really well, because he doesn«t have to worry about all those other things. And the key is about trusting that everyone else has their lane. So we all can charge ahead, and it will all come together. It«s pretty cool. There are things about that I like.
It does sound interesting. That one when you say «specialization». Because my first feeling was «I wanna take control of an entire level. It«s my level. I don«t care if it«s your game. This is my level.» And having to share that first was uncomfortable. But then like you said, by the time I left, you had somebody doing the lighting, you had artist now doing half of the level with models, instead of normal geometry.
The whole job of a level designer is different than when you and I started out doing that. There are still level designers though, and some of them actually do some geometry. But when they get a lot of pieces that artists are building — it«s more about gameplay in general. Game space engineering. But now we bifurcated it into, like, the world building is like there«s level design, and there«s an environment art. And now there«s even more bifurcations: level design is now scripting and building, environment art is now set pieces, props…
And it just keeps bifurcating out into specializations.
I still think that I wouldn«t be happy…
But that«s cause you«re not a happy guy, Richard!
I«ve got too big of ego. I don«t wanna share my toys.
I get it though. The first game that my company did was Opposing Force, I was talking early, there was twelve of us on a team. And I had to do a lot. And there«s like so much of me in that game «cause there«s no choice. Today I«m one of four hundred dudes on a project…
Yeah, I know. Even though arguably I«m the most accountable, my role is one in four hundred. And it«s a team effort. So what we all did to the game is all divided. I get a few of mine: I designed Borderlands logo, I named the game, you know. Those are things that everybody knows, so…
That«s pretty cool
And a lot of my work is behind the scenes, and it«s not so easy. You know when you«re talking about core of design, or larger game design addon in specific level design that we built in. A turn or… «I put that door there!». I don«t put that door in anywhere. I can«t remember last time. But coming out with a larger pieces and systems and how they fit together.
The last two games that I«ve worked on as a manufacturer I tried to sell on my retirement was two hidden objects games. For three years I«ve made two games, and I«d say 98% of the game was me. I didn«t write the music, but I went out and bought, picked this music, and payed the royalty fees and such. And put all the thing together — that was to me the most pleasurable thing. I had no meetings, I had documentation, but only for myself, I didn«t have to explain…
It«s like commenting your own code. Just to remember.
I don«t have to explain some other idiot what I«m trying to do. Just doing it.
Yeah, I love that. We published, you know, one of the things that I was able to do, because of the success of Borderlands is start a publishing company, where we help other smaller games reach market. And we just published a game called Risk of Rain 2 — three people on that team! Three people!
I wanna play that.
And a game is amazing! It is so much fun! And I looked at it, I played it, and like «Oh my god, this is what Borderlands would be if Gearbox only had three people.»
No! We only had twenty people! That«s how good those guys are. They«re amazing.
I«ll have to try it.
You should check it out, it«s a lot of fun.
That«s on Steam, right?
I know where to get keys.
Oh yeah, you know the guy.
Okay, one last question. Last time we actually worked together was twenty five years ago? We were both… Well I«m still a level designer…
Well, technically we«ve worked together…
Oh, that true, that was just three years ago!
Yeah, but let«s go back to twenty five.
Yeah, but when you were down in the dirt with the rest of people. And you started as a level designer…
Well, I was actually a programmer first!
A programmer? Oh, that«s right, before you got to a 3D Realms and Duke Nukem. But as I knew you were level designer, which is very creative, and now you«re a CEO of a four hundred strong company.
I«m not saying it«s not creative, but it«s more business and management.
It«s different kind of creativity.
Yeah, it is creative. How do you balance those two? And do you miss the days of being more creative?
I«ve got to be honest. I«m not really a CEO. I«m not. I«m more of a chief creative officer, and in fact i«m technically not the CEO. We don«t have one. I just don«t argue with people when they calling me CEO, «cause I don«t want to slow the conversation down. I founded the company, I own it — okay. I guess it makes me something, but… No, I«m happy as one I«m creative. I have two offices! I have my executive office, and my development office. It depends of a phase of a project. Early in a project I«m very neck deep, «cause that«s one when we«re figuring out what we«re doing. But I«m not the best anymore doing it. People are much better than me at creating art, building levels.
Younger and faster.
It«s not about age. It«s really about specialization. I«ve had it divide my focus and keep my view to much higher level. So I«m not just as good at grounded skills.
As I would be if I was doing that all day. I«d like to think that if I was that I would probably be able to keep my skills up, «cause the things that I have focused on I«ve been able to keep skills growing. It«s all a trade off. And some of the coolest things about Gearbox, one of the things that I wanted to make sure, when we started the thing, is that our royalty system, or profit sharing system — it doesn«t care how high you are in an hierarchy. It«s about how much time you«re in there. A senior producer is making as much in a royalties per day as a natural level designer, which is crazy.
That«s good though. Keeps the truce.
But what it does is it helps us kind of position ourselves where we all believe we can be most effective. Because we«re not thinking about where we can make most money. Because we«re good. We«re all gonna make the same no matter where we are. So it«s kind of a trade off there.
Yeah. That Duke Nukem project that we just did together. It was 20th anniversary. That was the first, for people that might have not known, I was one of the owners of a company called «Ritual Entertainment», which is no longer around. But I«ve gone in a retirement, and then you offered to work on this project…
Pulled you out! I«m sucking you back in!
Allen Blum with Randy Pitchford, Doug Wood & Dirk Jones.
But that was so much fun working with Allen.
And I gotta say the work you guys did… Some of the best work we«re done frankly.
At Ritual we would attempt to make more money than we had put into a game, but I«ve never got a royalty check.
I«m so proud of that.
It was some extra money, and like you«re getting a bit some here and there. A lot of it went back to company. But when I«ve got my very first royalty check, and I think I«ve got four of them now… The very first one I«ve got, I thought «What is this?» — an email, It«s digital. I«ve got an email, and I«m in a Moscow, and you guys are back in Texas, I thought «What the heck is this? Oh my god, it«s a royalty check!»
«Oh what, you can actually get paid for being creative? What«s up!»
So then I printed it out and put it on a wall. That was a nice feeling.
It felt good too, when the accounting team told me «Hey, cross the line. The game did not lose the money. It«s actually profitable now!» I was like «Yes!». That«s one of the greatest things.
Let«s make another one!
We should! We gotta make more!
I have a pen right here.
Is there is a room for 6th episode of Duke Nukem 3D? Can we come up with something clever?
Oh, definitely. Definitely, yeah. There«s still a lot more than a world that he needs.
I know, right?
Oh, and thanks for picking up the London map. Remember when I started designing it on paper, and then I was like «I have no time for this!».
I tried to get everything in and you had two puzzles in there, that I thought were fine, and then your QA guys, and you played test yourself and said «These are too hard».
That was always my problem! I always made the hardest puzzles.
Level designers do that.
The people that like puzzles…
Well I«m one of them. «I don«t like it. Give it to me. I«m gonna shift things.»
I think back about the puzzles I put into the first mission of Shadow Warrior. I was out of my mind. Nobody gets past the first level, doesn«t letting them finish the game.
Yeah. I don«t like puzzles actually.
I loved them. I don«t know what my problem is, but I love them. I just wish I was here making Tetris. My brain just wishes everything to be a puzzle.
Yeah. What a game. A russian game… Well, designed by a russian… Was he in America when he?…
I have no idea.
I can«t remember. No, I think he was still here.
I just will never get the theme song out of my head. That«s all I know.
But it is probably the best computer game for me… is Tetris. And Colossal Cave.
Man, it«s so cool to be hanging out with you. I still can«t believe you«re here in Moscow.
No, I believe I«m here… No I don«t believe I«m here in Moscow… I still walk around and think «What? What? Okay, Kremlin… I«m here?»
It«s real! It«s first time I«m here, and it«s lovely. Thank you so much for showing me around, and talking, and handing out. I«m gonna come back. I gotta come back. And let«s do this again!
So while we«ve got you here I wanted to ask you also, because my experience is what happened to me, I have an image of Russia that was a lot different than that would real Russia is. I came here a little frightened of what to expect because of not propaganda, it«s a lack of information we have in a western world. But me included and everyone I know who«s come here, which has to be at least 30–40 people, leave this place saying «Russia is such a nice place!» The people are wonderful, the cities are fantastic. What are your feelings as you«re about to leave?
I«ll tell you — I love it. It«s a great city. But here«s the thing: the more I travel the world, the more I discover that everybody is the same, everyone! We«re all want to be loved, and we«re all just wanna have fun! We«re just want to join happiness. The more I realize that we«re all share this, all of the crap politics — that«s doesn«t matter. What matters is people, and we all want the same thing. We«re all want to have a good time, and we«re all want to be loved.
A roof, some food…
Yeah! We all want to be safe, we want to be comfortable, and we want to enjoy ourselves. And it makes me grateful, actually, that somehow I stumbled to being able to create entertainment as a job. Because entertainment is all about creating fun, creating joy and happiness. And I«ll tell you — I saw that better than anyone, when I was at the DevGAMM conference. To feel… All those young developers, the independent guys, they«re just starting out, I was just like «That was me!». And it doesn«t matter that we speak different languages. Like «You are me!» Like «I am you in twenty years, and you are me twenty years ago!». And it was beautiful. It was such a beautiful experience. And I can«t wait to have an opportunity to come back.
Why to give up college and how to create a cool setting. Kristy and Nick
And now we are glad to welcome Kristy Pitchford. Kristy is a CEO of Nerdvana game studio. Nerdvana Spirits bar, and Nerdvana coffee shop. Three companies. Hello, Kristy!
Hi! Thanks for having me here.
In your twitter I«ve seen that for 29 years of you living with Randy he didn«t have a sip of alcohol, though you have your own spirits, your own bar and your own coffee shop. It«s a sign of great respect to each other, but sometimes there is… I know you«re making some project together, you«re connected in a working process, and sometimes there are maybe some growing conflicts or some opportunity of even clashes. Your interests are crossing, and if this situation is coming — what would you do to solve it?
I think in a places where we clash he doesn«t drink coffee, he doesn«t drink alcohol, but I obviously do, both, and I like them, and it doesn«t bother him. You know, he loves my businesses because I have board games and I have video games, and where it is matches. But I think where we clash, I don«t even know if it«s a clash. We have different leadership styles, like, I«m really personally close to my staff, and he is all through he«s close to his staff, it«s less friendship for him and more friendship for me, I guess. But I don«t think we clash. I think it compliments just our different personality styles. The way that we run our companies. I think where it gets difficult is our travel. We both travel a lot. And there«s gaps of time where we don«t see each other, or he doesn«t tell me he«s going somewhere, and I make a plan, and then I«m like «I didn«t know!». So those areas maybe. But we have an assistant, and she tries to match our calendars together, and make sure that we know where each other are, and we don«t have conflicting plans. We don«t really clash… Too much.
I know that your latest project in your company, Nerdvana game studio, is a board game about Borderlands.
Can you tell me the story of that board game? I know people like board games, an in Russia as well, but why now? Why you did it now? As far as I«m noticed the boom of board games here in Russia was five to ten years ago. Why did you came to this now? Was this just an idea, or it was a plan? Tell me about it.
I think it was a natural progression because, you know, Randy has a videogame studio, and both of my businesses, my coffee shop… We have board games and in my restaurant we have video games. And I have a team that works for me that«s very passionate about board games. Collectively we play a lot board games. And we had this great opportunity to work with the Borderlands franchise.You know, my office is in a Gearbox«s office, and so it«s easy to me to consult with the artists and the writers, and I get draw from all of that, and I think i«m in a really unique position to be able to bring Borderlands to a tabletop. And I know it«s a struggle to work with somebody else«s intellectual property. For me — I worked on Borderlands 1, Borderlands 2, and I«m a fan. For me it was just a natural progression to be able to work on a project and bring Borderlands to table. My team have such a huge passion for board games, and tabletop games. It was a good fit.
What about the genre of the (both) your board games? What does it looks like?
This game that we did, we did it very fast, because we wanted it to come out on the same day that Gearbox announced Borderlands 3. So I had four months to get the whole thing done. So we actually worked with a company in Chicago that had this fun robot card game, and so we took this robot card game, and we changed it, and turned it into Borderlands card game, where basically you«re building different Claptraps. So you build like gentleman Claptrap, or you build pirate Claptrap, and they you try to stop the other person from building theirs. So you give them the parts that they don«t need, and you try to get the part you need. So it«s a very casual card game, that got beautiful Borderlands art, and you can play it quickly, and learn it very fast. And we did it because we just needed a very fast turnaround.
Yeah, starting with Claptrap was a great idea. Everybody loves Claptrap.
And it«s a Tiny Tina game. So it«s Tiny Tina, and it«s Claptrap, and it«s all the characters that everybody loves.
It«s just a set of cards in a small box?
Yeah, it«s a small box and you get your cards, and you get your action cards, and you get your robot cards, and that«s it. That«s the whole game.
Great! So do you have plans for future? Something in Borderlands universe?
I do! I can«t tease anything right now, but we are really excited to keep playing in that space, and keep bringing Borderlands to tabletop, because it«s my favourite IP. I love it, and i«m so familiar with it. But we definitely have future plans to bring Borderlands to tabletop.
Maybe we«ll get back in time when you were just studying this universe of Borderlands. Randy told me that he was into mixing an RPG and a shooter, but we also love Borderlands for it«s setting, for it«s great universe, post-apocalyptic crazy universe. And I know that you were the one who brought it to live mostly. Please, can you share with us? Do you have any secrets of making a great setting?
It was such a huge collaborative effort between so many creative people. My part was to bring dialogues to the characters. So I did a lot of dialogue early on in the original Borderlands for Tannis and for a lot of the early characters. A lot of what I did was not the most exciting part. Where you go out to an NPC and they have to give you direction, tell you what to do, but if you go back, and you haven«t done what you«ve done, they have to tell you: «Did you do this thing? Did you do this thing?» but you don«t want to say it the same way over and over again, so I write a spreadsheet saying it in forty different ways «Did you do this thing? Hey! Have you done «that»? and staying in character. You have to stay with character«s personality, but you have to create those tedious dialogues, so the player doesn«t get bored hearing the same thing over and over again. And so it«s really fun