All Your History: Gearbox Software Part 2 – High Gear
After only five years, Gearbox Software established itself as a reliable source for quality work on ports and expansions of popular games. The developer won awards and critical acclaim with its very first project, Half-Life: Opposing Force, and by 2003 it seemed as though the company could safely rely on a steady diet of porting other companies’ games onto different platforms. But no matter how easy that route might have seemed, the crew at Gearbox had no interest in playing it safe. That’s why in 2005, they decided to shift into…
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the gaming world was awash in World War II shooters. From EA’s Medal of Honor and Battlefield series to Activision’s Call of Duty, taking aim at the Nazis in a quality first-person shooter wasn’t much of a challenge. So when Gearbox Software decided to pursue its own World War II shooter, Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, the company took great pains to point out the ways in which its brand new intellectual property—its first—was different.
Randy Pitchford, the company’s president and CEO, explained in a 2005 interview with GameSpot that authenticity was one of the main factors that set Brothers in Arms apart from the rest of the pack:
“…the game is based on a true story, so the authenticity of Brothers in Arms is really unparalleled. The development team rebuilt Normandy as it was in 1944 to the level where you could go to the real places and everything will be familiar. You can recognize the houses, the roads, the battlefields. It’s quite remarkable.”
But beyond recreating Normandy as it was during the war, the story behind Road to Hill 30 was actually culled from real life events. On D-Day, the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division was accidentally dropped behind enemy lines. The game tasked players with carrying out the squad’s real-life missions, mixing a cinematic-style story and presentation with the true stories of the soldiers who fought and died in the war.
The high-stakes plot was one element that helped Brothers in Arms score with fans and critics; a unique twist on otherwise traditional gameplay was another. In creating its own entry into the world of military shooters, Gearbox emphasized tactics and strategy over the run-and-gun style that had dominated the genre up to this point. Instead of simply charging toward the enemy, guns blazing, players found success through effective squad-management. That meant flanking the enemy to gain tactical superiority, or using scouts to flush out the bad guys.
Published by Ubisoft in March 2005 for the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and PC, Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 was a hit, and signified Gearbox’s first success with an original IP. The game proved to be not just a winner for Gearbox and Ubisoft, but for the video game industry as a whole. Shortly after its release, the History Channel announced a two-hour documentary special inspired by Brothers in Arms, telling the real-life tale of the 101st Airborne Division, and bringing the world of video games into more people’s living rooms than ever before.
In October that same year, Gearbox and Ubisoft teamed up once again to release Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, a sequel that offered brand new missions and perspectives on what happened in Road to Hill 30 while also moving the story forward. And in 2006, Gearbox announced yet another sequel: Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway, the first game in the series made for next-generation consoles. A PSP-only installment of the franchise, Brothers in Arms: D-Day, appeared in late 2006, marking the third original title shipped by Gearbox in only two years.
It would’ve been easy for Gearbox to rest on its laurels by making ports and expansions for other franchises while pumping out Brothers in Arms sequels. Instead, the developer continued its course of innovation. December 2006 brought the announcement that Sega had tapped Gearbox to develop a brand-new first-person shooter based on the Alien film franchise.
Meanwhile, Gearbox had yet another all-new IP up its sleeve. In 2007, the developer announced that 2K Games would publish Borderlands, an action-RPG blending the gameplay style of first-person shooters with the leveling and looting of games like Diablo. Borderlands’ genre-bending premise represented yet another departure from the tried-and-true first-person-shooter formula.
Gearbox was gaining a reputation for defying conventions and expectations. The company’s partnership with Sega provided yet another opportunity to turn heads: in 2008 the two released a Wii-exclusive port of a cult-favorite from the short-lived Dreamcast, Samba de Amigo. No one saw that coming, especially given Gearbox’s nearly exclusive work on shooters. But as Pitchford told Kotaku in 2007 prior to the game’s release, Samba de Amigo was a labor of love:
“We’re huge Samba fans. Huge Dreamcast fans. We totally told Sega they had to let us do it. People want a Samba Wii game.”
Along with Samba’s 2008 release, Gearbox also shipped Hell’s Highway, which earned more accolades for the company’s first original IP. But the 2009 release of Borderlands for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, knocked critics’ socks off. Gamers responded well to the game’s tongue-in-cheek style and cel-shaded visuals. They responded so well, in fact, that two months after Borderlands’ late-October release, Gearbox announced it had become the “fastest-selling original property video game launch of 2009.” In December, 2K Games’ parent company, Take-Two Interactive, announced that Borderlands had already sold two million copies. By the following February, the game’s sales were tallied at three million. Gearbox’s second original IP was a smash.
By 2010, it seemed as though every project the company touched turned to video game gold. And then it announced intentions to do the impossible.
Gearbox would finish and release the most infamous piece of vaporware ever not-created: Duke Nukem Forever.
In the years since Randy Pitchford left 3D Realms in 1997, work on the sequel to Duke Nukem 3D slowed to a crawl. The project had been delayed continually for fifteen years, equivalent to several lifetimes in the video game industry. In 2009, Wired published a feature documenting the project’s transformation from promising hit sequel into the definitive example of vaporware. Most people believed the game would never see the light of day, and its outright cancellation was thought to be merely a formality.
But while everyone had written Duke off, there was one man in his corner: Randy Pitchford. When the development team behind Duke Nukem Forever was downsized by 3D Realms, Pitchford knew he had to step in. He explained his connection to Duke in a 2011 Wired interview:
“I didn’t want to live in a world without Duke. In many ways I feel like I owe Duke Nukem my career, given how working on the Duke Nukem 3D team in the mid-1990s was my first gig as a professional game maker on a commercial product. Conceivably, one option was to just start over, but when I saw all of the material that had been created at 3D Realms I felt it was important that it was shared with the world. It’s a very interesting and compelling video game for the history, the lessons, and the entertainment experience.”
Duke Nukem Forever was published by 2K Games in 2011. While 2K announced that the title had sold enough to be profitable, reviews were mixed. Lots of critics hit the game for its outdated design, long load times, and fragmented feel. Of course, the fact that it had been such a long time coming couldn’t help but color reviewers’ perceptions of the finished product, a fact Pitchford made sure to point out.
But despite the mixed critical reaction, Pitchford has said that the addition of Duke to the company’s stable of franchises as a net positive. After all, now that Gearbox owns the Duke Nukem license, the developer can keep doing what it does best: reinventing the first-person-shooter.
In 2012, Gearbox and Take-Two released the highly anticipated Borderlands 2 to universal praise and rave reviews. After more than six years of development, Aliens: Colonial Marines was finally given an early 2013 release date, while the company announced that the latest installment of its Brothers in Arms franchise, Furious Four, would be spun off into a stand-alone IP.
Overall, Gearbox has managed to string together an impressive number of hits in a relatively short period of time—a feat Pitchford chalks up to the developer’s talented employees. He explained to GameSpot in 2011:
“These guys in the trenches, the designers just blow me away. I don’t deserve half of the attention I get, but this is my seat, and this is my job, and it’s because of that commitment to each other and the commitment to the team that we’re able to do that. I respect guys like the Rolling Stones, guys that stick with it and understand that it’s not about them, it’s about them working together, and that’s why they’re successful. Because I don’t actually believe in talent, I believe that people get good at the things that they practice, and repeat, and care a lot about, and are committed to.”
No matter what the magic formula is, one thing is clear: Gearbox is a force to be reckoned with. In a little over a decade, the developer has carved out a reputation for breathing new life into some of gaming’s most important franchises, while turning tried-and-true genres upside down with innovation and creativity. And now that it’s in high gear, there’s no telling just how fast the company will continue to move the industry forward…