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Interviews About Borders: Pitchford Talks Borderlands 2

"I’m the opposite of a tyrannical overlord"

Randy Pitchford is but one of many developers behind upcoming frenzied shoot'n'loot odyssey Borderlands 2, but as the garrulous bossman of Gearbox he's the natural guy to talk to about the game, its manic mood, its team, its sub-quests and, of course, the physics of the moon. No, I didn't ask about DNF, every other site in the known universe did that.

RPS: You must be spending an awful lot of times just sat in rooms talking to people at the moment. What has been your specific involvement with the game beyond obviously being at front of show?

Randy Pitchford: I am the most accountable. I am the most responsible. There’s always a few very specific creative things that I care about that I’ll tend to get involved in the specific development of. I always take an overarching role where I’m responsible for the intent, responsible for where the money comes from and how we’re spending it. I make myself responsible for things that I think are important.

For example, I really wanted to have a meta thing as Borderlands 1 became a hobby for me, the idea of starting a second character after I’d maxed that one, I hated the idea of having to start over. So having something that caters to that a little bit was really important to me, so I designed the Badass Ranks system and had a lot to do with it. One of the things about Borderlands 2 is that most of the core systems are iterated upon the designs we established in Borderlands 1, so with Borderlands 1 I designed a huge percentage of the core loop stuff, but with Borderlands 2 I’ve become a bit more surgical with the specific work. And then with the general work I’d say that wherever I feel that I can add value or wherever I need to attend to things.

The other thing too is when you work in a team, it’s a pretty big team of pretty amazing people that I’m very fortunate to get to work with every day. We tend to learn as we work together over time, we tend to learn about each other’s strengths, and we tend to want to leverage them. We also tend to learn about each other’s weaknesses, and we tend to try to mitigate them. So there’s a lot of awesome people that you go to because of what they’re strong at, and then there’s also some things that I’m strong at that people will just come to me to get that from. There’s also things I’m weak at that people want to avoid. We all have that.

RPS: Presumably you don’t want to tell me what one of those things is?

Randy Pitchford: I don’t know, I’m not a great artist. The Borderlands games are probably the first games we shipped when absolutely zero artwork came from me. I’ve had artwork in most of the games we’ve shipped.

RPS: I didn’t know that...

Randy Pitchford: It’s not great artwork.

RPS: I’m going to look out for it now.

Randy Pitchford: Programmers have artworks in our games, you know. Sometimes things just kind of stay in there, you build it to show what you want it to do, and it kind of just stays, it’s good enough and there’s other more important fish to fry. Brian [Martel] is one of my partners, one of the owners of the company, he’s an amazing artist. He’s got lots of art in all of our games.

RPS: Are you like a tyrannical overlord figure, do they have to come to you and say ‘we want to put in this homicidal thirteen year old girl, is that ok?’

Randy Pitchford: I’m the opposite of a tyrannical overlord.

RPS: But a tyrannical overlord would say that...

Randy Pitchford: Would they? Maybe I am. I think there’s a philosophy - a game like Borderlands happens because you have a whole lot of very passionate people that care a lot and that are empowered to put themselves into the game. So Borderlands is the sum of the team’s ambition and the team’s creative interests, the team’s flavour. There’s a lot of individual personality, there’s things I discover all the time that I had no idea were in the game.

RPS: I noticed you picking it up and playing it yourself earlier, and thought ‘that’s probably a good sign’.

Randy Pitchford: That particular build we had today, we were running the PC version, and I was checking some things. We have a custom version we’ve developed with NVIDIA, so if you have an NVIDIA card, especially one of the newer ones, you can get crazy awesome physics simulations, cloth simulation, fluid dynamics, really cool stuff. Mostly cosmetic but still rad to look at nonetheless. And then once I was in there I started looking at other things. I hadn’t looked at the full day/night cycle shading in that corner of that environment yet, so I was watching the moon turn.

I actually created the physics for the way the planet works, and the planet has this elliptical orbit around its star. The habitable side of the planet actually faces against the star, so you don’t actually see the sun, ever. Meanwhile the moon has this sort of geo-synchronous position in the sky, so it’s always in the same spot in the sky. The moon has a crazy fast rotation, it takes about 20 minutes for it to spin. One side of the moon is a furnace, like a nuclear furnace, where it’s reacting and it’s super-hot, and it splashes a lot of extra light onto the planet. On the other side it’s very cold and dark, and so when the moon spins, when the hot reactive side warms up the atmosphere and it gets hot, it feels lighter outside. When you get the cold side it’s not dark, because you’re getting the ambient light from the nearby star, but it gets dim, with a sort of cold feeling, and you can also see these beautiful auroras in the sky. From that particular position I hadn’t actually looked at the light cycle from the moon spinning, and I was checking that out, so that’s what I was doing down there.

RPS: Does playing your own games get to be like when an audiophile or sound engineer listens to a record but he’s listening for flaws rather than to the music?

Randy Pitchford: I see a lot of flaws, because you get so familiar with it. You mentioned music, it’s like sometimes it’s the space between the notes that matters. It’s like when you listen to Led Zeppelin, the drummer doesn’t have perfect rhythm, and that actually makes the music better. You notice all these human things, and I know who did everything, so I can feel the personalities of the developers coming through all the stuff, and its really pleasing, really rewarding.

RPS:  It must be kind of sad in a way that so many people who play the game will never notice the moon thing…

Randy Pitchford: It doesn’t matter, the core loop is so good. Everyone gets different value out of things. I like running and looking at rocks for twenty minutes because everything’s hand painted and I like looking at the brushwork, and the little details of thing. Pandora’s really an ugly-ass planet, but the art style makes it kind of beautiful, because it’s all hand painted, so it’s really neat to look at some of those little details, but I’m looking at it through a different lens of course.

RPS: What I really like about both Borderlands games is seems like a sort of a reaction to the fact that that sort of scenario could be brown dust essentially. The whole personality of the game seems bound up in the fact that you have to add colour and weirdness to it.

Randy Pitchford: A little bit. Certainly when we went with this art direction, part of that decision was that this is a way to take what was necessarily ugly if it was realism and bringing beauty to it in its own way, through the artistic expression of it. That was a cool, necessary consequence of the art direction.

RPS: Is there any sense of trying to rein it in, either in the look or...well, it’s quite manic in the speed and dialogue and the gags and stuff. Is it anything goes, or do you ever draw back?

Randy Pitchford: No, I think it’s the opposite. What we’ve learned through the experience is when something feels risky and a little out there, when the internal averaging forces try to suppress that, there’s like this counter attack, ‘that’s exactly what we need to do!’ That’s the personality of Borderlands. If something’s wild and somebody likes it because it’s wild, someone else is going to notice it and it’s going to be cool. If you don’t offend anyone because you haven’t done anything wild, you end up being not noticed, everything just feels blah and it just kind of disappears.

RPS: There’s different types of offense I guess…

Randy Pitchford: I’m not talking about like offensive, I’m talking about if a design feels outlandish, like ‘I don’t believe that that would ever be’ and somebody else says ‘I think that’s cool, so wild’, that’s what I mean. If somebody can look at something and go ‘that’s cool because it’s wild and different’, then there’s value to it, and if it’s not the obvious thing then that’s why it’s producing that result, and it makes it more valuable because it’s rare, it’s exceptional.

RPS: Especially with dialogue, you get so many games where it’s just there to advance things and people want to skip through it, but if they know it’s loaded with all this weird stuff they might actually want to pay attention.

Randy Pitchford: It’s actually part of the process. When we wrote Borderlands 1, we had all the lines accounted for, and I wrote a version where it really just attended to the information, and I’ve done this for a lot of games. One of the common jokes is something I did when I was working on the Half-Life stuff, a line in the script where the guy that’s leading you along says ‘good job doing previous stuff, get ready to do next stuff!’ And that wasn’t a joke, it was just a draft, a place holder, informing what the real line needed to be as ‘Ok, I need to acknowledge what he just accomplished and I need to present the next step, but I need to do that in a way that’s entertaining and in context to the situation of my character, but I was just trying to get through the information of what have you accomplished.

So I wrote this script for Borderlands 1 which had a lot of that and then Mikey went over everything and he made it crazy. I don’t know if you listen to the logs, Professor Tannis, she gets more and more insane. My first ones were very dry and scientific, in fact my wife did the first pass just hitting the information, and I went over them with some flavour very dry and scientific, kind of ‘Captain’s Log, Stardate 21/47’. We had bits of information that we wanted to get through in terms of back story that would give a sense of the planet and the universe and the situation, and then Mikey took each of them and rewrote them and first of all made a personality for her, listening to her descend into insanity, and crafted a narrative, so each entry was a step in this simple side narrative that happened, and in some of the cases, he lost some of the information. So I’d go back over it again.. we had that process a lot.

Even the intro that Marcus introduces, ‘You vant to hear a story, a tale of…’ we had this kind of back and forth where I would enforce the information and he would put the personality in there, and the humour. It really worked out really well, and shows the teamwork. With Borderlands 2, it’s even better because we’ve hired Anthony Burch - he owns it, he now can maintain all of those threads and influences. There’ve been a lot of influences from a lot of different directions, but now you have a single owner of the script, someone who isn’t also owner of the company, which is really helpful because it creates more peer interaction, and a lot more stuff can come into it. It’s a better story as a result.

RPS: Is it as focussed on getting the back story and the scientific elements right, or is it more sort of living cartoon now?

Randy Pitchford: It’s about entertainment. Context matters and you need to know where you’re going, and you need to care. There are side things, some things are just fun bits, that are non sequiturs and they become side missions. There might be multiple steps, and there might be two hours of gameplay there, it’s really just a non sequitur because this is just a cool clever idea, and it deserves some experience, because there’s some entertainment in it. It’s just something that happens on Pandora.

RPS: What comes first in designing that? Does Anthony or whoever say ‘oh I want to do this crazy thing’, or is there like ‘we have some content, we need to justify it?'

Randy Pitchford: Anyone does that, from any vector something could happens. Maybe a cool character design or a funny idea, or somebody’s created a little environment or they might have an idea to create an environment, but it’s worthy of something. There’s a little nugget of something and then that becomes a tent pole, and the other stuff gets assembled around it so that it can exist. It can start from any vector and from any person. That’s one of the beauties of how we work on this kind of game. It’s one of the nice things that you can get when you have a game as loose and as free where you own the universe, and you can arbitrarily play in it and define it as you’re playing in it.

RPS: Yeah, you’re not screwing with anyone else’s IP, which must have tied your hands in the past?

Randy Pitchford: And we love that too. When we play with other people’s stuff, it’s usually because we love it. And we actually find ourselves so deferential to it, we want to get as authentic as possible. If you look at the work we did with Halo and the work we did with the Half-Life series, we were terribly different [to this]. We entertained people, but we were exactly in line with what that universe prescribes. Whereas with Borderlands we’re defining the universe as we’re adding to it.

RPS: Do you end up with much left on the cutting room floor, or if someone comes up with something, it’s basically going in?

Randy Pitchford: There’s all kinds of stuff. Things of value always find a way. I remember when we first sat down and started thinking about what kind of characters we wanted to have as player characters. I don’t know where it is, but there was a whiteboard from somewhere that we just covered with everyone just arbitrarily writing keywords, sometimes with not any thought behind them, just random.

RPS: Like 'Crumpets'?

Randy Pitchford: Yeah, exactly. And Combat confectioner. What was that? You know, just odd things that don’t make any sense.  And some of them do, and you get this massive pile and we’re going to get four characters from that. But that’s part of the process, and that’s how you get the good stuff, and the correct stuff.

RPS: How do you find being personally so front of house now? Because when you were doing Half-Life, the journalists would know you but maybe the public wouldn’t, whereas now there’s videos of you all over the internet.

Randy Pitchford: I don’t know, whatever. I don’t think about it too much. I just do what I’m supposed to do.

RPS: Does it feel like a new discipline, like you’re trying to get on with making games but you have to go and do this performance stuff too?

Randy Pitchford: With publishers I was always kind of asked to get out there and talk, you can probably go back and see I did the same exact stuff during the Half-Life games that we made. I was the biggest evangelist for Half-Life Opposing Force, which is the first game we did at Gearbox, and Valve asked me to do that, they pushed me out, and Doug Lombardi took me around the world talking about Half-Life Opposing Force, and it was cool, and I had a good time doing it.

Some stages of development it’s tricky. Usually during an announcement, that’s when we’re right in production, when we announce a game, and that’s when I really wish I was spending most of my time at home working on the game. Right now’s a great time because we’re finished, we’re polishing, we’re getting into the certification phase, we’re really landing the game and the guys are really doing what they need to do. There’s really not much I can do but get in their way. There’s still things that bug me and I have the power... I might say something about it, and a bunch of people might stop and decide to do something about that, so I find I’d just better hold my tongue because a lot of the shit I might say at this point has no relevance on quality any more, we’re just talking about nitpicks that only I would notice.

RPS: But just could make someone’s life much worse in the next couple of weeks.

Randy Pitchford: Yeah, the problem is too… there’s a lot of people that I’ve been working with for a long time, and we’re all purists, but there’s also some newer people to the studio, and it’s always been the case that the new guy’s always like ‘oh shit, what’s Randy going to think?’. It’s like ‘Dude, just be yourself and do cool stuff, we’re all in this together. Sometimes you’re going to hit sometimes you’re going to miss. Just get good at throwing darts and the more you throw them, the better you get, the more bullseyes you’ll hit. If one bounces off and lands on the floor who cares? It’s all good. You’ve got to throw the dart if you’re going to get better. And you don’t want to throw one dart every two hours. You also don’t want to get a handful of darts and throw them at the wall. So get a nice rhythm and pace going, but throw the dart.

RPS: Are you able to know everyone at the studio?

Randy Pitchford: There’s a lot of people I know more than others. Pretty much anybody that’s been at the studio…the first sixty guys or so I feel like are my family, and there’s some people that have only been at the studio for a couple of years, but because of the nature of the work, I’ve had the luxury of being able to work with them more, and we feel closer to one another. But we’re all just people working together towards the goal of entertaining everybody. One of the advantages is specialisation, so everyone can kind of focus on what they’re good at, and trust that everyone else is focussing on what they’re good at, and that there’s a lot of good people, so it’s all going to work out.

RPS: It must be weird to basically be the public face of this, and everyone thinks ‘It’s Randy Pitchford’s game’, whereas you’ve got hundreds of guys.

Randy Pitchford: It’s frustrating sometimes, ‘this is Randy Pitchford’s game’ for example, I hate that, that’s like the worst thing imaginable, because it’s just such a disservice to the talent. There’s so many awesome dudes that have made the stuff, and it’s really not correct. But I’m not afraid of being accountable, that’s one of the reasons why I’m able to do the role I do. I will take a bullet for anybody, no matter how badly their darts miss, I’m totally comfortable betting on something if it’s worth betting on, even when they miss, and I’m totally comfortable with being accountable for everybody on my team. So, I’m really happy being in that role.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Borderlands 2 is released on September 18.

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Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.