GamesBeat

Aliens: Colonial Marines dev discusses the highs and lows of triple-A development (exclusive)

“I enjoyed almost all of your questions,” Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford says with a smile as we conclude our hour-long interview.

Those words from the outspoken Borderlands developer (who is apparently big on magic tricks) have left me wondering which question(s) didn’t go over so well. I always aim to take a tough but fair conversational approach, and Pitchford is particularly hard to read because, as he explains below, he’s almost always happy — to the point where he wonders if he’s “broken” and envies fellow developers who experience more dramatic emotional ups and downs during game development.

But Pitchford does have a lot to be happy about. Publisher 2K Games recently announced that Borderlands 2 has sold over six million copies worldwide, and Gearbox’s next title, Aliens: Colonial Marines, is now out. So I wanted to get Pitchford’s thoughts on a number of topics, most notably the state of triple-A game development and whether the role of publisher has become to help or hinder the creative teams.

GamesBeat: A discussion appeared on Twitter recently about whether the Borderlands 2 character of Tiny Tina was potentially racist. Someone asked lead writer Anthony Burch that if he felt it was inappropriate, would he go back and change his dialogue in the original game? Burch basically replied that it was technically impossible.

Randy Pitchford: You can, but the difficulty of that is –

GamesBeat: Maybe “improbable” is more like it? [Laughs]

Pitchford: And there are some people you’ll never be able to reach, because there’s physical media that’s in a box. It’s not connected to the Internet. There are people playing offline. We care about that guy. There’s nothing we could do there.

GamesBeat: My question is, if there was something larger — in any game, not just Borderlands — like an entire character that was instrumental to the story, do you think it’s worth a studio actually going back and changing it?

Pitchford: If you want to imagine infinite hypothetical scenarios, I bet we can. I’m a reasonably creative person. I’m sure you are, too. I bet we can imagine a scenario where everything should be on the table. I bet we can create a scenario where … “Who cares what is going on? Let’s change this!” Because the scenario we’ve created makes that the right decision. But we’re inventing a scenario. The reality is that it’s unlikely that we can create anything where some outside force would be so significant as to move that immovable object. Everything is on the table.

Borderlands 2

GamesBeat: I think Mass Effect 3 kind of proves that there are those scenarios, and gamers have — hopefully — started to feel that if they voice their opinions and band together intelligently, they may be able to make a difference.

Pitchford: I thought the Mass Effect 3 thing was really awesome and interesting. In one respect — I will confess, I didn’t finish Mass Effect 3, so I didn’t experience the ending myself. And I didn’t play the DLC. I’m not even sure if it came out yet. But I watched a bit of what was unfolding there. I thought, “Here’s a situation where, clearly, there’s a lot of love for this game. There’s a lot of love for this property, or else there would be no comments about it.

Here’s a situation where customers are saying, “I wanted something and I didn’t get it.” I think that’s a great position to be in if you’re a creator. Customers are saying, “I WANT SOMETHING FROM YOU AND YOU HAVEN’T GIVEN IT TO ME.” Well, fuck, that’s great! I can just give you something, and I already know you want it! Sweet! This is easy! I’ll just create that. Here, you can buy it. The hardest thing in the world is to try to imagine the thing that doesn’t exist yet that we can bet that customers will wish they had. If we can know in advance that they wish to have something, and all we have to do is manifest it, it makes it really easy to commit to manifesting it.

GamesBeat: It’s kind of like how dogs and cats can’t talk, so you never know when they’re sick or where it hurts. They can’t tell you how to fix them.

Pitchford: The fact that we’re increasingly in a world where creators and consumers of what we create can interact and entertain premises that we throw at one another, without necessarily accepting them — they can throw a premise out there and entertain what that would mean for a property or a brand or an experience or whatever. Customers and creators are doing this simultaneously. That’s really neat. The fact that, when we create something and put it into the world. It’s kind of not ours anymore. It becomes the world’s. The world’s position on what it is and what it should be almost becomes more important than whatever the creator imagined.

GamesBeat: Not everyone feels that way.

Pitchford: The old way, you couldn’t have that interaction. That’s why George Lucas happened. He grew up in a time when we didn’t have all these tools and these methods of interacting, but he created something we all passionately loved. It became ours. It was mine. Star Wars is mine, you know? But the creator feels that it’s his. We’re in this world now where because we’re having these interactions and we’re feeling that it works. It’s creating better results sometimes, when we’re interacting and we’re listening to each other. We’re offering stuff, and we’re hearing each other, and we’re letting that affect us. That creates better results than when we keep ourselves in the tunnel. The guy that stays in the tunnel gets punished for that.

Borderlands 2

GamesBeat: That perfectly segues into my question about the Borderlands 2’s level cap. I maxed out my Commando at 50 about halfway through my second playthrough.

Pitchford: You’re hardcore.

GamesBeat: That was before the game even came out. I didn’t sleep, I had a deadline! [Laughs]

Pitchford: Dude, that’s awesome. I like to hear that.

GamesBeat: And so I completed a quest right after that.

Pitchford: See, you did that before the game came out. Wow. That’s crazy. I don’t want to interrupt you, but I looked at it in December, and in December about 16.5 percent of all people who’ve ever played Borderlands 2 had a single character achieve level 50. I have some new questions from our data mining stuff that I’m going to get an answer to soon. The data is so much. We’re moving in this world where we have to start doing “big data” management. Sometimes we have so much data that to just answer a simple question, we have to dedicate a machine to processing the data and it doesn’t spit out an answer for days.

GamesBeat: Because there’s so much information?

Pitchford: There’s just so much data to parse. We’re collecting everything, but we’re not … it’s just stored as raw chunks of stuff. Google is fast because it can know exactly … it’s not fast because it can look at everything and find the right thing. It’s fast because it’s indexed itself and it knows exactly where to go for any given query. We have everything. We don’t know where the stuff is that we want. We have to look at everything and add up little bits along the way.

GamesBeat: Do you plan to make one of those infographics where it’s like 700 million Bullymongs run over … ?

Pitchford: That would be cool. Maybe we should. Would that be interesting?

GamesBeat: Of course! I love those. It’s good insight.

Pitchford: OK, cool. I’ll toss that up as something we should do. We’ve redone and re-architected the way we’re managing our data. We’re in a big data world, and we never anticipated that we would be. What we kind of did, but we didn’t architect for it, because our Shift stuff, which is the way that … it doesn’t matter which platform you play it on. There’s an interaction between us and the software. That’s a whole new infrastructure. Most people don’t have anything like that. Even the ones that do, they’re like in 1 or 1.5. This is our 1.0. Anyway, I totally derailed. You were going somewhere?

GamesBeat: Right, so I hit level 50, and I completed one quest after that. I got a ton of experience and it just bounced off, because if you hit the cap XP becomes useless. I was like, “Oh, my God. I don’t want to play anymore.” [Laughs] I felt like I’d be wasting my time or wasting that precious XP. I just stopped. I have the season pass, so I’ve downloaded everything, but I haven’t played any of it.

Pitchford: Experience drives toward leveling up. You want that to also be in the loop when you’re experiencing the new campaign content, so you’re holding off on the campaign content until you have that. That makes a lot of sense.

GamesBeat: Partially because I know it’s coming, but I don’t know when. It even says in the achievement, “Capped out … for now.”

Pitchford: Yeah, “for now,” right. That’s a good indicator. We did it in Borderlands one.

GamesBeat: Especially with my Commando, there’s all these skill tree combinations that I want to do that I just need a few more skill points to get to.

Pitchford: That’s by design. Some of those things start to become game-breaking. This has actually created a huge problem for us. We designed the skills really well this time, but we did, for better or for worse, make a lot of the decisions with the knowledge that there will be no more skill points available to put into any trees after you reach level 50. We knew the impossible configurations. Some of the design exploits that. Some of the impossible configurations, if they were possible, would break the game. Sometimes very literally. “Oh, that’s gonna blow memory. Your Xbox will crash.”

We, as customers and gamers ourselves, hear the fans. People want to level up more. It makes sense. We totally get it. We did it in Borderlands 1, so we have the precedent. And we’re gonna break our fucking game if we change the math. If we change it up, who knows what the balance will do? People don’t want to just level up. They also want the game to level up with them. If I’m level 55 and everybody else is level 50, it’s a walkover. I want to get level 55 gear if I’m level 55. I want to fight level 55 enemies. Then we have to make the whole game over again.

It becomes this really “Oh, shit, have we painted ourselves into a corner here?” Yes, the Achievement indicates that some of us, somewhere, wrote that Achievement and anticipated it, just as many customers do, because of the last game. But we’re now in this world where we’re confronting the reality of what it means to do that work, and it’s terrifying and challenging. It’s easy to imagine, when we’re playing the game, “We could just change the number, and everything would be fine.” No, dude, there’s a lot. This is the most fundamental thing about the game. It’s a big deal.

GamesBeat: Are you saying that you used the word “anticipated.” But you didn’t map it out much ahead of time?

Pitchford: No. When we finished Borderlands 2, everything that we imagined was in Borderlands 2. Once that was finished, OK, now what do we do? We had just started asking ourselves, “OK, do we want to level up some more?” All of us do. A lot of us have level 50s as well. It’s time to tackle that. We dug in, and we were like, “Oh, shit. This is really hard. This is going to take a lot of time. It’s going to be really expensive. Oh, my God.” And we’ve got all these other priorities and all these other things to do. So we’re in the middle of that. That’s the world we’re living in right now. We’re excited about the goal, both as gamers and as creators. But … I mean, I’m not gonna lie. It’s a big challenge. It’s a big undertaking. It’s not going to just turn on. It’s a thing we have to work ourselves through.

GamesBeat: How do you feel about–

Pitchford: By the way, I don’t know where the story ends, either. We’re in the middle of it. There might be things that aren’t going to work the same way. We might have to radically change the game. We have to think, “What’s more important? Do you we maintain these skills, or do we let people level up? What if we have to change skills?” We shipped the game with this shield that was totally broken.

GamesBeat: The Bee?

Pitchford: Yeah, the Bee. A player that’s spec’d right can just melt the hardest boss in the game solo in like four to five seconds. That’s obviously not by design, right? If you go in, and you can melt Terramorphous in five seconds because you’re using a Conference Call and a Bee shield and you’re spec’d with a Gunzerker for throughput, that’s clearly not any designer’s intent. That’s a bug. That’s the one nerf we’ve ever done, and we got so much rage.

GamesBeat: You nerfed Amp Shields in general, right?

Pitchford: It was a number of related things. The way we had divided up certain effects across weapons … . The shotgun, for example, we did the math wrong. Every single pellet was being affected instead of just the shot. Then, when we fixed it, we did the math wrong again. We did it wrong differently. It’s really complicated stuff, so I forgive us. [Laughter] The intent was beautiful. The intent and the commitment to improve was there. That’s really important. But I’m grateful. We were going fast, too. We do this thing, and we know people want it. It looks right, and it feels right, and we test it, and we deliver it. Then suddenly we’ve got 6 million beta testers. “Oh, we found something.” “Oh, shit, we didn’t see that.” We did a lot of testing, thousands of hours. But we didn’t notice that because the fans have done millions of hours in one day.

GamesBeat: I feel like a lot of people expected the DLC to raise the level cap. That was what they were waiting for, and then it would also help them get more out of the DLC and their season pass.

Pitchford: I think that’s a fair expectation because we did offer a level cap increase in Borderlands 1 in line with the third DLC.

GamesBeat: And then another one after that.

Pitchford: Actually, that one was just detached. We felt like we made a mistake when we attached the level cap increase to the DLC. The second level cap increase in Borderlands 1 was completely detached. You didn’t have to buy a DLC to get it. That was a different kind of mistake. We learned lessons from that step as well. We did fix the earlier mistake, but there are others.

GamesBeat: It’s a Jenga tower.

Pitchford: You try it differently. “Oh, there’s some things with that too.” So we learn. We don’t want to make … . We are taking risks, and we are in uncharted territory very often, especially with this game. It’s a wild game. We haven’t done it before. No one’s done this kind of game before. We will make big mistakes, and we’ll make them often. But I’ll be damned if we want to make the same mistake twice. Our approach on this one is to try not to repeat mistakes we’ve already been aware of, that we’ve already experienced.

At the same time, we don’t want to make new mistakes. They’re inevitable when you do things you haven’t done before. Sometimes you stumble when you push yourself harder and you’re trying to run faster or whatever. We forgive ourselves, pick ourselves up, and keep running. We don’t cry and stop running because we skinned our knee. We definitely do not want to repeat mistakes we made before. Sometimes we trap ourselves. We get painted into corners on things. It’s tricky. But we’re committed to it. But yeah, I think that’s a fair expectation, given Borderlands 1.

[In response to the controversy surrounding Pitchford’s above comments, he confirmed that a level cap increase for Borderlands 2 will be released “this year.”]

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