All Your History: Gearbox Software Part 1 – Low Gear
Even with only two original IPs to their name, Dallas-based developer Gearbox Software has carved out a reputation for exciting, innovative, and addictive video games. Along with Brothers in Arms and Borderlands, Gearbox has also tackled some of the industry’s most revered gaming franchises, including Half-Life, Halo, and Tony Hawk. But in the path from where it started to where it is now, it’s impossible to ignore the relationship between two people: Gearbox president and CEO Randy Pitchford, and the one and only Duke Nukem.
So where does the cigar-chomping, stripper-loving symbol of gaming in the ‘90s fit in to the story of Pitchford and Gearbox? To find out, let’s shift into…
Randy Pitchford grew up in a house filled with computers in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a time before personal computers were a staple found in every home. Pitchford’s father worked for military intelligence and built computers both for the government and for his family. It was on a homemade, CP/M-based computer his dad built that Randy first learned to program in BASIC. His father’s creation was but one of many home-computing experiences that prepared Pitchford for a future working with computers to make games. In fact, according to a 2011 GameSpot interview, Pitchford reminisced about trying to replicate one of his favorite video games at home with some primitive tools:
“We had this one computer, this fun little kit-thing that was called a Timex Sinclair 1000. It had 2K of RAM—I don’t know if anybody knows that one. My brother and I, we wanted to play Pac-Man at home, right? So we’re trying to write Pac-Man with 2K of RAM on a Timex Sinclair 1000, big huge blocks. You had this really ugly maze. It was turn-based: you’d make a move and the screen would update.”
But even though Pitchford appears to have been destined to work in the game industry from the start, for a time it seemed as though he might never go into the game-making business at all. While studying law at UCLA, he worked as a performing magician at Wizardz nightclub on Universal City Walk. In a 2009 interview with Machinima’s Lawrence Sonntag, Pitchford explained that it took some gentle nudging from the woman who would become his wife for him to leave law and follow his true passion:
“…my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, helped me realize that what I was doing with all my free time at home was what I was doing as a kid, taking computers and programming them and creating games or entertainment using software. She said, ‘Hey, what are you doing this law thing for? Clearly you should do what you’re built to do, which is entertain people and play with computers.’
That was enlightening. […] It never occurred to me back then—and this is the early ‘90s…even though I was buying them, [it seemed like] games were something that someone else did. Like there was a chocolate factory somewhere with Oompa Loompas in it and games came out.”
Eventually, Pitchford stopped pursuing a law degree and began to study computers instead. Of course, his years spent programming at home with his father’s homebrew machines had better equipped him for the field than any class could.
After graduating from UCLA in the mid-‘90s, Pitchford started looking for a job in gaming, garnering offers from LucasArts and 3D Realms. While Lucas tried to woo him with the promise of working on Star Wars: Dark Forces, ultimately Pitchford’s interest was piqued by a new game that had been generating a lot of buzz for 3D Realms: Duke Nukem 3D. He explained his decision to GameSpot in 2011:
“I had a tough choice to make, and I ultimately decided to move out to Texas and join the guys at 3D Realms and I worked on the Duke Nukem stuff, and that was my first real, professional gig in the industry.”
And as far as first gigs go, Duke was a doozy. He reflected on his time with 3D Realms with Wired in 2011:
“Duke Nukem 3D was amazing. The game was a lot of fun and had this really cool balance between action and puzzle solving. The pacing was really something rare and special and we’re really not seeing games anymore with the kind of pacing and variety that you find in a Duke game. I felt really honored and humbled to be able to join the Duke Nukem 3D team and work with people like George Broussard, Richard Grey, Allen Blum and Todd Replogle along with so many others who I have taken influence from and have learned from during that period.”
Duke Nukem 3D was released in 1996 to rave reviews and monster sales. But in 1997, Pitchford and other 3D Realms employees left the company to strike out on their own, forming a new independent developer called Rebel Boat Rocker. The start-up had support right out of the gate from publishing giant Electronic Arts. EA had committed to the developer’s first game, a first-person-shooter called Prax War 2018.
But over the next two years, the start-up’s promising beginnings weren’t enough to sustain it. Pitchford explained Rebel Boat Rocker’s rise and fall in a 1999 article he penned for Loonygames. He and the development team wanted Prax War to turn the first-person-shooter genre on its head with 3D environments inspired by Super Mario 64 and Tomb Raider, scripted animations to give the game a cinematic scope, and computer-controlled allies who helped make the game world more immersive and epic-feeling than what had come before. But a new game, Valve’s Half-Life, had come out in 1999, becoming a critical darling. Valve’s success caused EA to reevaluate Prax War 2018’s chances in the marketplace:
“Half-Life turned out to be a huge success which begged questions from our publisher about whether or not we could compete. Considering that at the time of Half-Life’s release, we had tons of quality content and some great rendering features, but no actual game, I must assume that some worried that we could not. Without ‘the game,’ our talents in game-play design could never be effectively articulated or, better yet, proven to EA.”
By 1999, EA had lost confidence in Rebel Boat Rocker and Prax War, pulling the plug on the project. The studio closed down shortly thereafter.
Pitchford and four other colleagues at the now-defunct company—Brian Martel Landon Montgomery, Stephen Bahl, and Rob Heironimus—didn’t take the defeat of Prax War lying down. The five banded together to form yet another video game startup: Gearbox Software.
And ironically, it would be Half-Life—the game that helped kill Prax War and shut down Rebel Boat Rocker—that would lead to Gearbox’s first in a long string of successes.
In a Verge article from 2012, Pitchford described how Gearbox sold Valve’s Gabe Newell on their idea to bring gamers back to the Half-Life universe from a new perspective:
“When I went up to Seattle, I sat down with Gabe, Rick Laidlaw and said, ‘Hey, I got this idea. What if you went back to Black Mesa or what if you were in Black Mesa at the same [time as] the events in Half-Life went down, but it is kind of like Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead? You are doing it from the point of view of one of the soldiers that went in. Wouldn’t that be cool?’ And they were like ‘That would be kind of cool, we never thought of that. Go see if Sierra will buy it!’ Then I drove down the street and pitched it to the Sierra guys and they were like, ‘Sounds pretty cool, can you guys build it?’”
And build it they did: the game that resulted from that proposal—Half-Life: Opposing Force—gave players control of one of the game’s enemies and presented the original experience in a whole new light. Opposing Force was released in late-1999 to great reviews, and the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences awarded it the title of best PC Action Game in 2000.
Opposing Force’s achievement set the tone for Gearbox over the next half-decade. In 2000, they helped work on the retail release of Half-Life: Counter-Strike, and followed that up a year later with yet another franchise expansion, Half-Life: Blue Shift. Later in 2001, Gearbox developed the first console port for the original Half-Life for the PlayStation 2. The company continued releasing ports of popular franchises, bringing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 and James Bond 007: Nightfire to the PC in 2002, as well as PC versions of Counter-Strike: Condition Zero and Halo: Combat Evolved in 2003.
After five years of constantly shipping games, Pitchford and the rest of the crew at Gearbox had clearly managed to shake the troubles that had sunk Rebel Boat Rocker in 1999. But even with their creative takes on the Half-Life franchise with Opposing Force and Blue Shift, Gearbox had always been relegated to playing in universes already created by someone else. After steadily releasing one or more products each year since the company’s founding, Gearbox didn’t release a single game in 2004.
That’s because, by 2005, they’d be shifting into high gear…
Tune in next time to head for the Borderlands…