Interview: Gearbox's Randy Pitchford
We talk to the President and Co-founder of Gearbox Software to find out what makes Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway worth your attention.
The plan seemed so simple. In September 1944, after trouncing Nazi Germany at the Battle of Normandy, the Allies would airdrop tens of thousands of paratroopers in occupied parts of the Netherlands. These brave men, part of the biggest airborne assault the world had ever seen, would be tasked with clearing the way for armoured divisions that could then make a beeline for Berlin to kick Hitler's ass.
The planners behind Operation Market Garden, as the nine-day battle would come to be known, conceived of the mission as a way to rout the Nazis and bring a swift end to the war by Christmas. Instead, it turned into a nightmare, as nearly twenty thousand Allied troops lost their lives in the face of ferocious German opposition.
The story of Operation Market Garden is something that Randy Pitchford, head of Gearbox Studios and producer on Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, is well versed in. The reason for that is Colonel John Antal. While other World War II games tout their earnestness by wheeling out their military advisors at press events and slapping appropriate insignia on their boxes, Gearbox has gone a step further. Antal is based right in Gearbox's studio, with an office next to Pitchford's. His job is to help the studio head and his development team deliver an experience that goes beyond the visceral, gratuitous thrill of virtual warfare.
"He didn't just take me to the locations and didn't just impress me with what the knew," Pitchford recalls of Antal during our interview. "He made sure to introduce me to the people, and he took me to the graveyards. Just made me stand there for an hour in the middle of like five thousand tombstones. 'Just stand there. I'll come pick you up in a little bit.'"
"It just fucking wrecks you," he says.
Pitchford talks of another interview he had with a veteran who recalled the events of those violent days with stark clarity. The octogenarian remembered with acute detail the decisions he made on the battlefield, decisions that both saved and cost lives. When the veteran broke down in tears, Pitchford recalls saying to himself, "What the fuck am I doing trying to make a video game out of this shit?"
And that, really, is the big question facing designers of war games, the one that Pitchford and his team in Plano, Texas, have had to struggle with every day over the last few years. How do you build a game that is enjoyable to play while still maintaining the austerity and respect deserving of both the survivors and the victims of such enormity?
For Gearbox, part of the solution to this challenge comes from emphasizing camaraderie. In Hell's Highway you'll lead a diverse squad of specialists who need to work together to get the job done. In interviews with World War II veterans, the team heard time and time again how, when things got really tough, people fought not for themselves, not for their countries, but for the men standing next to them in the shit. Pitchford knew that this would have to be a cornerstone of the game.