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Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford on Aliens: Colonial Marines and the future of game consoles

Randy Pitchford had a good year. In the thirteen years since founding his studio, Gearbox Software has never had a hit quite like Borderlands 2, one of the best selling and widely praised video games to come out in a very crowded year. What’s more his studio’s long labor of love, Aliens: Colonial Marines, is just three months away from release after a nearly six year development. Where some game makers are itching for the next console generation to start so it can ramp up the declining console market, Pitchford and his team of creators are sitting pretty.

Digital Trends caught up with Pitchford at a recent event to talk about the prolonged development of Aliens, the unique technology powering that game, and the future of how we play video games.

Aliens: Colonial Marines uses a new engine. Why? Why not use something simple like Unreal Engine 3 to speed up development?

We haven’t really talked about it much, but we made a proprietary lighting engine for this game. Even though we’re at the end of this console generation, because this is a deferred rendering engine it’s going to give us a good sense of what next gen games are going. Deferred rendering is the future. We do leverage Unreal for the architecture and the data sets, for a lot of the under the hood stuff, but in terms of graphics, that’s the stuff we created just for this.

The Aliens films, to do that authentically, we needed deferred rendering. We needed dynamic lights and shadows. In the current generation, for games without a non-deferred renderer, all of the lighting is sort of baked into the environment which means it’s static. Things can’t move. Now take the scene in the Sulaco: There are so many things shifting around, with crates sliding across the room, ship rocking and lolling. If things move, the lights all need to work. When stuff’s blowing up, when you’re on the surface of LV-426, the atmosphere is alive. We needed that to feel natural, so we needed the lighting to be rendered in real time with the game. If you think about some of the other stuff we’re doing like Borderlands, it has a totally different look and feel. Our Brothers in Arms franchise, it’s a totally different environment and feel. Aliens has a very unique art direction, so it demanded custom technology.

You said the team met with Ridley Scott to discuss doing the game before it went into production. When did that meeting happen?

I think that was May of 2006. Maybe 2005.

At what point in the past seven years then did you decide to build this unique technology?

The meeting was 2005 or 2006, but the deal didn’t happen for another year or so after that.

gearbox software presidentThat’s when Sega announced it had the Alien franchise license.

We hadn’t even written the first line of code and Sega was so excited that they and Fox had to turn around and put out a press release! (laughs) It was a business statement, but if you’re an Aliens fan like me and you hear, “There’s going to be a sequel to the movies as a video game and Gearbox is making it!?” suddenly there’s this expectation. I want that now! Usually when we make a game, we’ll be all the way through pre-production and into production before an announcement is made.

It was after our prototype, after our pre-production, that John Cavanagh, one of our programmers, took on the task of building the new renderer for this game. I believe we’ll be using this technology for a while. It’s going to be very useful in the future.

So that was the end of 2008 when we started making that technology and it was probably finished by the end of 2010.

Speaking of 2008, that was when you announced that Battlestar Galactica writers David Weddle and Bradley Thompson would be working on Aliens: Colonial Marines. What role did they play?

Those guys are awesome! We had a framework and sketches of characters when we started the game. Those guys came in and wrote all of this material that brought the characters to life for us. So now we don’t have to think about what we want the characters to be, we think, “Okay, in this situation, how would Bella react to this? What would Winter say?” We know the answer because those guys helped us flesh everything out. Amazing, amazing work. They wrote enough material that we could have an entire series of television, honestly. I loved working with them. [Gearbox writer] Mikey Neumann was able to work very closely with them, and he was able to adapt what they did and write it to a video game, which is very different than writing for a passive movie. The quality that we’ve gotten in the narrative was the result of that iterative process and David and Bradley were instrumental in that. It was so cool to work with them.

I’m not sure if you’re office is still like this, but I saw a picture of it once and the game console collection on display in there is impressive to say the least. You clearly love this old, devoted technology. Aliens, Borderlands, all of Gearbox’s games really are clearly built as multiplatform games, both PC and console. My question for you: What’s the future of the console? Do we need them anymore?

How far in the future are we talking about?

Say fifteen years.

Obviously power is great. There are two components to this. One is energy drawn from whatever source you get it from. In fifteen years, wireless power still won’t be ubiquitous. We’ll be experimenting with it in fifteen years and some people will probably have appliances in their garages that allow their cars to charge wirelessly, but we won’t have ubiquitous wireless power for all devices. So in fifteen years, we’ll still see an advantage in things that can plug into a wall, a devoted power source, and draw a tremendous amount of energy.

The more energy we can draw, the more fuel we have for computing power. Computing power takes energy. Computing power will always allow us to simulate things, whether it’s visuals or gameplay or logic or physics. The more computing power we have, the more robust that simulation will be. Within fifteen years, we’ll still be using our senses—touch, sight, sound—to consume that simulation. So the processing power we’ll be using will still be simulating something that reaches us through our normal senses. We won’t be at a point where our senses can be tricked into something that’s like the holodeck or when something’s plugged right into our brain, where there’s no interpretive layer between the simulation and perception, that’s not going to happen yet.

Within that construct, power will still be a factor and power will let us do all kinds of things. We’re going to see some new fronts in the next fifteen years that are kind of difficult to imagine when you just think, “Okay, I’ve got a dedicated machine, I’ve got a portable thing that uses a battery like a phone or handheld, I’ve got large format stuff like in a movie theater.” You’re going to see that whole spectrum, and it will largely be the same. It will be an iteration of how we understand entertainment, but it’ll be a massive iteration. You’ll see between twelve and twenty-four times the complexity possible on today’s machines.

Today, though, what does having your game on a console give you? What’s the benefit of the technology?

One of the advantages that consoles have for a customer is that you can trust it. It’s a simple price, an entry point that’s accessible, and you can plug it in and it all works. It rides this balance where one step up is a PC that draws a lot more power and a big step up in visuals, but a lot more complexity since it’s a moving platform. That makes it not so comfortable. The dedicated platform is fixed, though, which lets us developers make tremendous assumptions about what the customer is using. Because of those assumptions, we can commit ourselves, we can be very efficient in what we make.

Consoles let you make those assumptions. Look at the iPhone. Because there are now several generations of iPhone, in creating software we can either choose to eliminate a percentage of the potential user base by making our game only compatible with the iPhone 4 or 5 or we can hold ourselves back and cover the whole spectrum. Even that fragmentation changes our efficiency and quality from what it would be if we had a single, unchanging platform.

Because the phone cycle is ramping up so quickly, our only choices are abandon our software, iterrating it, or making new software. With a long console cycle, we can really commit ourselves to that single fixed platform and be super optimal. You can feel it in the results. We’re doing things on these platforms that are a lot more incredible than what we saw at the beginning of the generation.

It really doesn’t matter, though. At the end of the day in the entertainment business, what you care about is how many people can I reach and to what extent can I satisfy them. Our mission is to make people happy. We want to entertain people wherever they are.

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