Interview: Gearbox Software's Randy Pitchford

You’re a very hands on CEO in your company. So how involved were you in Borderlands 2?

I got into this business to make games, and I guess I’m the CEO. But really, my job at Gearbox is just that I happen to be the most accountable. I’m in the seat where I’m the most responsible and the most accountable. But I’m a game maker, and we’re not publicly traded, and I don’t have to worry about a whole lot of the business stuff. I get to worry about the craft of making games.

Having said that, there are a lot of people we’ve got – our studio’s now over 200 people, there are a lot of talents (involved in Borderlands 2). So even I get to help on Borderlands 2 and did some things. I designed the Badass rank system, which is really cool; I don’t know if you noticed it in there but the Badass rank system is a system of leveling up for your profile. Instead of just leveling up your character, I wanted to level up ‘me’, the gamer, my profile. So every time you’re playing the game, whether you’re playing the character you’ve been playing the whole time or whether you started a new character, you’ll be able to get Badass ranks, which are like levels for you, the gamer.

Somewhat like trophies and achievements then?

No, it’s more like an RPG, where increasing your Badass rank will actually increase your playing capabilities. You’ll be able to improve the damage you’re going to do, or hasten the reload speed of your weapon. Now imagine I’ve leveled a Gunzerker to level 50. And in the course of that I’ve increased a lot of Badass ranks. So I’m really Badass, and I’ve got a very fast reload now, I’ve got maybe another plus ten percent to the damage I’m doing. And now let’s say I start a brand new Siren at level one. That level one Siren I created will get all the benefits of my Badass rank as well – that level one Siren will start with the 10% damage bonus I earned, because that’s attached to my profile.

And as I play that Siren, I’ll be going up with even more Badass ranks. So if I ever go back to my Gunzerker, who’s already level 50, he’ll get the benefits of whatever I’ve earned from my playtime with the Siren. And that’s a profile-centric kind of RPG. No one’s ever done anything like that before; it’s a new feature for Borderlands 2. I talked about it a little; maybe I should be talking about it more. It’s really exciting!

I designed the system. I’m pretty proud of it. It was the programmers and artists that helped implement it with us and I think we did a pretty good job, and it’s an exciting new feature.

I also did a bunch of other stuff in the game. There’s a character in the game named Crazy Earl. He was in Borderlands 1 and he comes back in Borderlands 2. I actually did the voice for Crazy Earl. That was fun. And I’m involved in almost anything – design and the story, and a lot of things.

But I don’t want to talk too much about that because I don’t want to take away all the great work (from my team). There are so many talented people: Paul Helquist, who’s the creative director of the game. And there’s probably more of him than any other single person in Borderlands 2. Certainly way more than me. And I love him for it because it’s great.

And there are so many great designers. Jason Reese did the lead level design this time. Just an amazing guy. And all the guys from the original game were working on it too. Such a great level design team. The art team is amazing: Jeremy Cook was the art director, he blew it away. Lauren and Scott on concept arts, Kevin Duke with the weapons – he just really took the weapons to a whole new level. I can keep gushing.

Are there any features that you would’ve liked to have added into Borderlands 2, but couldn’t?

It’s actually quite the opposite. It’s really rare too, because usually, when you make a sequel, you start really ambitious and you think: we want to do all this stuff. Then the realities of budgets and schedules start to hit you and you usually have to pare down and cut back.

With Borderlands 2, something different happened. We got started pretty early with the preproduction team and we dreamed pretty ambitiously. But we didn’t know how successful Borderlands was going to become at that point. And so while we’re in preproduction on Borderlands 2, Borderlands 1 was just taking off and it’s selling more and more and more, and so what happened was we’re finishing preproduction on Borderlands 2 and we’re able to come back to the table and you know what? We can actually double our budget!

And that’s actually a really good decision. And if we were going to be able to double our budget, what would we do with it? And that actually enabled us to add even more features and even more content and make the game much bigger than we ever dreamed about. I’ve never experienced that. I’ve made games for a long time, and I’ve made a lot of sequels, but I’ve never had that experience before. It’s really exciting to make the game even bigger than we dreamed of, rather than to compromise.

It’s rare to get in everything we wanted to. And that allows us to kind of take risks and try things we’ve never tried before, like the Badass rank system. It’s one of those examples; it’s just something we were able to add to the game, rather than cut away.

You guys have made some incredible shooters. Do you think Gearbox has been hemmed in by the need to cater to the shooter genre?

We’ve made a lot of shooters but we haven’t exclusively tied ourselves to that. For example, we worked with Sega and made Samba De Amigo for the Wii. Who would have put us on that, right? And we worked with Activision and Neversoft on Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3. And we’ve done some other things from time to time.

But I think when we start, we try to imagine this kind of nexus between our capability and our passion and what we think we can really bring to the table that wouldn’t have existed but for us. And it tends to be shooters, but it doesn’t have to be. I wouldn’t be surprised down the road if we’ll do some other things as well. But we love this (first person) perspective. It feels like virtual reality – when you’re in first person you feel like you’re in the world, so we really like those games.

Aaron Yip

Aaron Yip is an industry veteran with more than 15 years of experience. When not spending time on his gaming PC and consoles, he can be found in Hyrule solving ungodly puzzles and collecting gems.