Randy Pitchford, president of Aliens: Colonial Marines andBorderlands developer Gearbox Software, told the audience at Nordic Game 2012 this morning how he turned Valve’s Half-Lifefrom a single PC game into a franchise.
Founded in 1999, Gearbox’s first project was the Half-Lifeexpansion Opposing Force, and the studio would go on to produce another add-on in Blue Shift, as well as porting the original to PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast – the latter of which was never released, despite being finished and put through certification. Gearbox was also involved in development of Counter-Strike and its follow-up, Condition Zero.
After explaining that he felt like a fish out of water in Malmo, as a resident of Dallas, Texas – “the oldest thing in a 50 mile radius of my house is where they filmed Dallas; it was built in the ‘70s” – and enthusing about the Swedish Kroner (“I love the coins especially, I used to be a magician”), Pitchford explained how a brand new studio got its hands on such a respected licence.
“Valve was a new company, it had just shipped Half-Life,” Pitchford explained. “They wanted to be like Id Software, and wanted an expansion pack but had no capacity to do it themselves, and no-one to give it to either. So I flew up to Seattle and sat with Gabe Newell, and told him my idea.
“The pitch was simple: ‘Half-Life was awesome. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could play the same timeline from the perspective of one of the soldiers? Oh, and we can do it for you’.
“I wanted to spark Gabe’s imagination. Any time you get a creator thinking about something, they get excited about it too.”
With Newell won over, Pitchford’s next task was convincing Sierra, Valve’s publisher, that his new studio could be trusted. He, and several of his team, had experience in the field after working onDuke Nukem 3D at 3D Realms, but Sierra’s main concern was how much money he needed.
“I asked for $2 million, which was an insane amount of money,” he explained. “But I said, give me a day and I’ll do you a proper proposal. It came to $900,000 – the guy thought, ‘$#@!, this is [more] than half off!’
“Even that was $250,000 above our projections, there was a float in there. These are cheap tricks you can use on anyone. I used to be a magician, did I mention that?”
Working for Valve, Pitchford said, “was key in estabilishing credibility in working on other people’s stuff. It was five, six years before Valve put out a sequel; we helped them turn a game into a franchise.”
With its reputation as a safe pair of hands established, Gearbox went on to make PC versions of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 forActivision, 007 Nightfire for EA, and Halo for Microsoft. The studio then moved into IP creation, with Brothers In Arms and Borderlands – and Pitchford says Gearbox is hard at work on other new IP as well.
Gearbox has struck a fine balance, then: able to work on other people’s properties as well as create its own, the latter affording it creative freedom and the former able to secure licences like Aliens. Colonial Marines - a game that was delayed last week, slipping from its vague autumn slot to next February. Gamers might be disappointed, but Pitchford is adamant on making the best game he can, and his staff won’t mind either: 40 per cent of company profit is shared among the staff, based not on performance but on time spent at the studio or on the project that brought in the cash.