Gearbox Software's Randy Pitchford Talks Nintendo Switch, 'Overwatch' and Being Fearless

The outspoken Pitchford was told 'Borderlands' would fail, says 'Battleborn' is doing fine, and is excited about what's next from his newest studio

Randy Pitchford, president and CEO of Gearbox Software Credit: Bram Vanhaeren

Gearbox Software CEO Randy Pitchford can't seem to stay out of the spotlight. Just last week the outspoken creator of Borderlands stirred a hornet's nest of internet chatter on Twitter over his comments about the Nintendo Switch. It just might run in his blood.

Pitchford's uncle, Richard Valentine Pitchford, was one of the 20th century's most respected magicians, known by the stage name "Cardini." The family legacy inspired him to hone his own sleight of hands skills, toiling away in magic clubs to pay his college tuition at UCLA. Meanwhile, he continued to develop his coding knowledge on the side, a parallel passion ever since he first learned how to program in BASIC at the age of seven.

For Randy, video games felt like the place where his two loves met. In the Nineties, shortly after college, he launched his game development career as a programmer on Duke Nukem 3D at Apogee Software. He then quickly went on to pull rabbits out of hats at the game company he founded, Gearbox Software, by creating the beloved blockbuster franchises Borderlands and Brothers in Arms, and by releasing Duke Nukem Forever – a game that had been languishing in development hell for over 15 years. While critical response to Duke Nukem Forever was tepid at best, the release was nonetheless an event, surprising everyone who had long since written it off as vaporware.

Duke Nukem Forever exemplifies Randy's often quixotic path to success. Fairly or not, his misfires often draw as much attention as his headshots. Aliens: Colonial Marines garnered Gearbox near unanimous criticism, while its recent team-based multiplayer shooter Battleborn has been drowned out by Blizzard's Overwatch juggernaut. And not unlike Duke Nukem, Randy's bold personality (and even bolder fashion sense – he's known for his eye-watering patterned shirts), have frequently thrust him into the spotlight. We caught up with him to discuss his legacy, his unending optimism, and what he's learned along the way.

What's it like for you personally being a highly visible and frequently criticized figure in the industry?
I don't know what's wrong with me. I think like I must have been genetically built to want to create entertainment. It's why I became a magician too, I think. I've gotten feedback on every single game we've worked on from, "This is my favorite game. This is the best game ever made" all the way to, "I think you should be murdered because this game is so bad." Every single game.

All that tells me every time is I am so glad that these people care, because the worst is silence. That is absolutely the worst because that means we are just meaningless and irrelevant. When we kill ourselves to try to touch people and affect people, I am so much happier having praise or criticism than ambivalence.

When you define pressure, it's really about the expectations people have. I'm just so fucking humbled that anyone would have an expectation for something that we're going to create and put weight on that expectation, to the point where it's meaningful how we measure up to their judgment.

So it's the opposite of pressure. It's like encouragement. It's like fuel. It's food. It's water. It's life-sustaining. That's true for all ends of the spectrum. It doesn't matter what the feedback is.

It seems like in the Borderlands games, 9 times out of 10, some bad shit happens when people open a vault. But they still do it anyway. Why do you think people still open vaults knowing all the risks?
It's kind of weird. The way we've set it up in the universe, it's trying to exploit what we all understand about human nature. I mean, it's no accident that the name of the central planet in the Borderlands franchise is Pandora. You know what's going to happen when you open the box, but we gotta do it. We just can't help ourselves.

Who was it that said "Why do I want to climb Mt. Everest? Because it's there." It's like there's no real point. We could fly over the damn thing, but sometimes you want to try stuff because it's hard or because we're curious creatures. We want to know what's unknown. If there's a box, we're going to open it.

Is that how the idea for Borderlands began?
Originally, there was no title for Borderlands. Heck, we weren't even sure what the universe was going to be. The universe followed. It's like, if this game's going to be about shooting a lot of things, destroying them, and stealing their shit, we're going to have to create a universe where you can somehow feel good about yourself. So we created a universe where this behavior was kind of virtuous, where the "vault hunter" is kind of a celebrated idea.

Have you ever personally opened a vault or a Pandora's box that you shouldn't have?
Well, it depends on how I look at it. My nature is such that when I take a risk that turns out to have a result that's not as good as I'd wished for, I tend to come out on the other end feeling like I profited from the experience. I don't know if there's something wrong with me where I just can't feel like I lose even when I'm losing really, really bad. And I recognize like, "Wow. That was a disaster. That was a horrible outcome." But then I just try to go, "Okay, so what can I get out of that?"

So yeah, I fail all the time, constantly. I feel like if I'm not failing, then I'm probably not trying things that are hard. That's what stimulating to me. But I don't tend to look at those failures with huge amounts of regret. When I go into something that has risks to it, I tend to account for the possibility that it won't work out and make sure that I'm okay to take the risk, so that when it doesn't work out I'm not destroyed by it.

Borderlands never could happen without that kind of fearlessness.

You felt fearless creating it?
Well, I'm terrified the whole time. So it's not exactly fearlessness. So that's the wrong word. When we were first going after that, everyone thought we were insane. First of all, the art direction. There was no evidence that you can reach the audience level that we wanted to try to reach with a non-realistic art style in 3D action games. That was one big thing that everyone was predicting would be a disaster for us.

There's a perceived ceiling to all of that, plus the genre blend of RPG and shooter. Who's that financial analyst that looks at video games all the time?

Michael Pachter?
Yeah, that guy. He said, "Borderlands is a game that's sent to die. It's destined for failure. If people want an RPG, they're going to play Dragon Age. If they want a shooter, they're going to play Call of Duty. Here's a game launching between those two games. It'll never have a chance."

We've done like 30 million units on the franchise so far. He later told me how dead wrong he was on that. But when you look at it from that analyst point of view, if you're going to predict the future only by looking at the data from similar things in the past, you can't predict a success out of something like Borderlands. Fortunately, that's not how the future works.

...sometimes we have things that we think are successes and the outside world might look at it as a failure.

Entertainment has to challenge us or we will get bored. When entertainment successfully challenges us and entertains us along the way, then there's a new thing and we're excited about it and it's a shock and it gets to win for a while.

How did you have the foresight that the genre mashup in Borderlands would work? Because it's kind of a mechanically crunchy game for a mainstream shooter. Was it a precise calculation on your part to blend the elements that way?
Yeah, that was the bet from the very beginning. When I started as an amateur game developer, I only made RPGs and I only played RPGs. I'm a gamer that grew up with Ultima. Then Wolfenstein 3D happened. It was shortly after that I moved out to Dallas and I became part of Apogee Software. My first commercial product was Duke Nukem 3D. So there was this movement that happened when a 3D action game could be fun, fast, and there was a depth and a subtlety to it. That changed my relationship with interactive entertainment.

Contrast that with when I grew up playing Roguelikes and playing NetHack. Then Diablo showed up and you realize that the skill to play Diablo is about moving a cursor and clicking an icon. That's the same interface that I would use to launch the application. What was engaging about the Roguelikes and the NetHacks and Diablo back then is this long-range layer. These ideas of growth. Of developing a character. Getting more powerful by leveling up, gaining experience, and all that. Then finding gear and loot.

The thing that compels us towards that growth and that discovery and that choice in typical RPGs, that sort of long-range loop, it's not mutually exclusive with all the short term, visceral, base-level joy we get from the right kind of moving and shooting in a shooter. These two elements were just sitting there. Given that these two things aren't mutually exclusive, if we marry them together, there's a real opportunity there to pave new ground. That was Borderlands from the very beginning.

Where does that visceral, base level joy come from in a shooter?
I've spent a lot of time thinking about that. Why is the first person shooter fun? When I was working on Duke Nukem 3D, I wasn't just making assets and doing designs, I was staying up late at night and digging deep, with a lot of meditative thought about why is this working. Why is it fun to play Wolfenstein? Why is it fun to play Doom? Why is it fun to play Quake? Why is it fun to play Duke Nukem?

What I learned is there's this moment-to-moment action. The input and the visceral feedback when you aim at a thing and hit the target. It just satisfies us on this really primal, subversive level. It can't even be articulated well with language, but we can understand it when we're experiencing it.

Do you remember the first time you got that subversive feeling from shooting something?
I think I can trace it earlier if I really wanted to stretch, but I think the purest, most correct feeling of that was Wolfenstein – when you're holding down the mouse button with a gun in and you grind up that guy and he's just reduced to a pile of goo. It's violent, and to me, it felt like when the first audiences ever were watching Hamlet murder a dude in the Globe Theater. You know? It just felt like "holy fuck." This is us up against this most base level of humanity right now.

With interactive entertainment, we're able for the first time to experience it not from afar. For the first time, we are the protagonist and we get closer to that experience and that draw and it just reaches us on a more deep level than we've ever felt before. In my case, it actually makes me a better human being. Because I can simulate this stuff and feel it in a safe setting, I am absolutely less compelled to go anywhere near that in real life.

Gearbox games usually involve shooting and they have an "in your face," crass sense of humor. Would you define Gearbox's sensibility around this emotion you describe when you play those violent moments?
Well, you know, it's not purely about violence, but I think you're onto something there. It's more in line with dancing than violence. Like, everybody knows what a gun does. It's just such an easy shortcut to get to some of that stuff. It's not purely intellectual and it's not purely ego or just base stimulation. It's this odd combination of both. You know, letting the reptilian brain have stimulation while your rational brain is active. It's harder to get at with every other medium that our species has invented before we had video games.

Do you think that reptilian engagement will ultimately determine a game's success or failure?
No. I think there's a prerequisite. You have to get the fundamentals to have a chance at success. You don't even get to play unless you're there, but just because you're there doesn't mean you get to succeed. There's so many other factors. Context matters. The market matters. What's going on in the world? What other products are out there? All of that matters.

We've had, what, three and a half million people play Battleborn. Relative to Overwatch, we're a failure, right?

Yeah, that's the unfortunate consensus that's emerged.
It's strange how we frame this stuff. I don't think being there with the fundamentals guarantees success, but I do think it's a prerequisite. It also is about how success is defined. Everybody defines success based on what they risk versus what they're hoping to achieve by it, but the world defines success based on comparing things to one another. It's a relative thing.

If you think about the number of possible people we currently have playing video games... what's the population of the planet?

About seven billion, right?
Right. Every one of us is a dismal fucking failure. Like Grand Theft Auto, the most successful console game in history, has broken 60 million units. It's a dismal failure relative to the population of the planet. Forgive me for moving in to this existential question of what is success.

I'm glad you did.
Sometimes we'll have things that we think are failures and the outside world looks at it as a success and sometimes we have things that we think are successes and the outside world might look at it as a failure.

We did a game with Electronic Arts called James Bond 007: Nightfire. By our internal metric, Gearbox's metric, that was a failure for us. But when I visit the EA office, they have this wall of all of the games that have done more than 3 million units, with these really awesome plaques on the wall, and Nightfire is there. EA's proud of it, and yet we see it as something that didn't go the way we wanted it to.

We had our own hopes and dreams trying to do a James Bond game and ended up getting stuck in this weird work-for-hire loop with them, with the film people pulling in one direction, and the publisher pulling in another. It just compromised our vision. So it really depends on how you look at things.

I remember when Blizzard announced 'Overwatch,' we were already committed. We were announced. We had our date. We were running for it.

I can see how that would be a useful contextualization, but for Battleborn specifically, could you go back in time to a year before it launched and what your specific goals or metrics of success were?
I'll go back even further, actually. A year [ago], we were just in polish and ship it mode, right? If you want to go back to when we were dreaming about what the goal was and the target was, I realized there was an opportunity to have a shooter that focused on characters – a console and PC game, but mostly on the console.

Two generations ago, the way to pitch a first-person shooter to the audience was about what the hero's capabilities were. Like in Bioshock, the hero can have a normal FPS gun in one hand and then basically cast a magic spell with the other, and you can do this seamlessly.

Then there's the universe and the story, which is amazing in Bioshock, but when you reduce it down [it's about] what the hero's capabilities are. That was the angle on it. So the bet was, man, we're getting really good at creating characters, what if the game didn't just stick you on one, but you could play it with a lot of these different types of heroes and abilities? You could take their capabilities and create a wide spectrum and then pit them against one another.

When we first imagined this target, it felt as revolutionary to us as when we thought about how role-playing games and shooters aren't mutually exclusive and could be blended together. We bet on that, partially because of the popularity that was happening with the characters in the Borderlands game. Also, partially because of what was happening with MOBAs.

Those kinds of things came together and gave us our goal: let's create the hero shooter genre and let's develop this online infrastructure and this technology. Let's put it together in a cool game that people can have fun with. By that metric, with those goals, I feel fucking awesome because we have this technology now and at the same time, holy crap, there was so little new IP in 2016. If you think about new IP at the blockbuster scale, there's just two. It's Overwatch and Battleborn. They're both the hero shooter. They're both that same pitch.

Meanwhile, Blizzard, holy shit. Those guys really proved it, right? They're on a plane that we all aspire to. Frankly, I think what helped them is they were a little more disciplined than we were, so they had a more narrow focus. They really just kind of honed in on the kind of iteration of [Team Fortress 2] and that allowed their polish and quality to just go through the roof. Whereas we were tackling so many different fronts, with campaign play and competitive play, and really inventing a lot there.

What was the mood like internally the day you found out that Blizzard's doing Overwatch? Were you afraid?
Absolutely, because you notice really quickly that, holy crap, the launch dates are going to step on top of each other. I remember when Blizzard announced Overwatch, we were already committed. We were announced. We had our date. We were running for it.

I went over to Take-Two. "You know, Activision's going to outspend us every day of the week. They're just going to brute force it. We can't overcome that. There's nothing we can do to beat the brute force part of the fight." So we took the attitude of, "Look, it's not a fight, man. Let's just focus on our goals and make the game that's fun and the game we want to make and trust it'll work."

Because what else could we do? We're committed at that point. The only thing that I think kind of hurts is that it's impossible to avoid the comparison. People that have spent a lot of time with both games might argue how different they actually are, but from a surface level, they look like they're really going after the same angle, and in many respects they are. There's just no avoiding that.

It's kind of a bad strategy to try to be the best of a thing. The better strategy is to be the only people that do the thing. The wisdom of that is when you're the only people that do the thing, so you can really only be compared against yourself. But once Blizzard showed up, well, that jig is up.

So how was your return on investment for Battleborn been so far?
I can't talk about it because we have a publishing partner and they're publicly traded and so that's kind of off limits for me, but we're okay. I'm not freaking out. We're fine.

How are things with your publishing partner Take-Two? Do you still have a good relationship with them?
Absolutely. They're an incredible publishing partner. In fact, yesterday, the president of the publishing label of 2K Games, Christoph Hartmann, was at Gearbox all day. We had a great talk. We have a number of projects going on together.

Christoph said to me, "Look, man. This is our business. We took some risks and they were great risks and we got a lot out of it. Let's keep going."

It seems like you owe a lot of your successes to calculated risk taking. It doesn't always pan out, but when it pans out well for you, it pans out well. Are there risks you plan on taking with Borderlands 3?
I hope so. It looks like it. That's what's stimulating about this business. When I play games, if I play the same exact thing over and over again, I get bored. So I kind of like taking things that I can trust and know work and push them in new ways. I think all of our games do that.

That's a good thing, right? I think doing good work requires iteration. You have to first venture into the void and the unknown and then learn your lessons and take your licks and try it again.

What it would take for [Nintendo] to guarantee that we exist on the Switch would be better spent by them doing the things they're best at. 

You've been in the news this past week about your Nintendo Switch comments on Twitter. What happened with you and Nintendo? Because it sounds like there was some initial enthusiasm on your part.
I love Nintendo and I think the Switch is awesome. I can't wait. I've been a Nintendo fan my entire life, and literally the first game my wife and I played together when we were teenagers was on the NES. One of the things I've struggled with with Nintendo is I've always loved their portable experience, but I've always hated that the best Nintendo has to offer goes on their console. From the moment I had a Game Boy up through the most recent iterations of the DS, I've loved having that Nintendo portable with me that I can game with, with a really high quality game experience wherever I go. But I've hated that it's always felt a little compromised compared to the big bets Nintendo would make on their console platform.

Well, now that's one and the same. The very best that Nintendo has to offer as creators will exist simultaneously in console and portable versions, which I think is amazing and exciting. A bunch of people mentioned to me that I've gotten some attention for something. Sometimes, when I go to the bathroom, I'll get on Twitter and I'll just kind of look at what people are tweeting at me and I'll sometimes respond to some of them.

Somebody asked me, "Hey, is there any chance of Borderlands coming to the Switch?" and I said "Probably not." I don't remember my exact words, but [I said] we were talking to them, but I think they have other priorities. And it's not a slight, they've got to drive their business. Nintendo tends to be at their best when they're giving us their best experiences with their properties. I think there might be some scenarios where if the Switch becomes a place where there's a huge number of customers, and it doesn't compromise the experience that we're making – there could be a scenario where us or Take-Two and 2K decide to take the effort to make it happen. But we can't really think about that right now. And Nintendo, I think wisely, can't prioritize forcing that to happen. I think they're better off. What it would take for them to guarantee that we exist on the Switch would be better spent by them doing the things they're best at. It wasn't meant as a slight, it's just the reality of priorities.

Does that mean you felt like you weren't able to get an arrangement that was mutually beneficial between both of you? Is that why the talks kind of petered out?
Some of that depends on what game you're talking about. If you're talking about the big franchises we have that Take-Two has been publishing for us, a lot of that business-level stuff is out of my hands. When we commit to Take-Two to be a publisher, it becomes their mission to figure out what arrangements are made with various partners for how it reaches the world.

Nintendo, in my opinion... they're more awesome toward third parties than I've ever experienced them, so I'm afraid anything I say here's going to sound like a slight. But it's still not enough of an engagement to force things to happen, that wouldn't happen just naturally. If that makes sense.

It totally makes sense. Ever since the Super Nintendo days, it feels like third parties haven't been a huge priority for Nintendo. They're off doing they're own thing.
And, look it doesn't matter. There's probably a handful of people that would really love to have a great Borderlands experience that you can have on a screen about that size, that you can carry around with you. But most of the people that want the kind of big stuff that we're doing are totally happy to do it on their television with their PlayStations and their Xboxes. And Nintendo's not going to win by trying to take people away from that. They're going to win by offering something that those guys can't offer, which is exactly what they're doing and should be doing. That's where they should dedicate their resources. And I think they're really smart for doing it, and it's kind of what I want from them as a gamer.

I don't know if I'd call it a mistake, but sometimes, I'll let people in on a little point of view, and then somehow everything gets misconstrued as this, like, horrible competition, or this Game of Thrones scenario. It's like Jesus, man, we're all just trying to entertain the world and everybody's just doing the best they can. Everybody tends to get along on the industry level, especially when we have means of collaborating. It bugs me that I can make a random reply to a random guy when, I'm just saying, "No, they have other priorities." And they should. Anyone who's smartly looking at it thinks that makes a lot of sense. But as a consequence of folks reading into that, somebody probably distracted some people that are probably pretty busy at Nintendo for a minute to think about this and wonder what I meant by it. We shouldn't be spending our mindshare on that. That's what fucking politicians should be doing. Not gamemakers. We should be focused on what matters, which is creating good experiences for people.

It looks like you've assembled some really good talent at the new Gearbox Studio Quebec. What are they working on? We haven't heard anything since the studio was announced.
That hasn't been announced yet, but they're over a year into it. It's very possible – you asked me earlier what things will happen by the end of 2017 – it's almost certain that by the end of 2017, what's going on up there will become publicly known. Hopefully what we're doing there is exciting to people. I'm extremely excited by it, and I don't think that surprises anybody. I get crazy excited by everything we do, regardless of what people on the outside think about it. I think that's why I do the things I do, because I'm excited about them right? Those guys are super awesome and I feel so fortunate that we get to work with them. When I meet up with these guys, I'm just inspired by their passion. And their commitment on top of their talent. I love it.

Is the Quebec team's work going to take a more experimental direction than the stuff coming out of the main Gearbox studio?
They definitely have their own flavor to them. There's a number of things going on. The big bet is about an existing franchise, but their take on it is totally unique and awesome. But it makes a lot of sense. You know, I don't wanna spoil it, and it'll get announced soon, but I'm just in love with their approach and I think when people see it, they're going to be like, "Okay, I get it, this is familiar, but holy crap, this twist on it, that never occurred to me, but it makes so much sense." They still have a lot of work to do. It's going to come down to how they bring it all together. But it also comes down to what the tastes are in the market and what else is going on. But I have a lot of confidence and I'm really excited to see how it all unfolds. And I'm really happy to be partnered with those guys.

This interview has been edited and condensed.