People often when discussing Gearbox Software and its CEO Randy Pitchford talk about the mess that was Aliens: Colonial Marines and Duke Nukem Forever – but I haven’t trusted them since E3 2004 when they showed off Brother in Arms: Road to Hill 30.
Brief History of Gearbox
Gearbox Software was founded on 16th February 1999 by five members of the content team from the defunct developer Rebel Boat Rocker: Randy Pitchford, Brian Martel, Stephen Bahl, Landon Montgomery, and Rob Heironimus. Before Rebel Boat Rocker, Pitchford and Martel previously worked together at 3D Realms, and Montgomery previously worked at Bethesda Softworks.
They started with developing expansions to Valve Software’s Half-Life. Porting Half-Life to console platforms followed, building the company’s experience in console game-making, in addition to enhancing and building upon the successful Counter-Strike branch of the Half-Life franchise. Prior to Half-Life 2, they had developed or helped develop every Half-Life expansion game or port, including Opposing Force, Blue Shift, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, Half-Life for the Sony PlayStation 2 (including Half-Life: Decay), and Half-Life for the Sega Dreamcast (including Blue Shift). Branching out to other publishers, they pursued additional port work, each game being released with additional content, but this time from console to PC.
These projects included their first non-first-person shooter, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, and Halo: Combat Evolved, forging new publisher relationships with Activision and Microsoft Game Studios respectively. Additional new development, in the form of a PC game in the James Bond franchise (James Bond 007: Nightfire) for Electronic Arts, also occurred during the company’s initial 5-year period.
In 2005, they launched an original property of their creation, Brothers in Arms, with the release of Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 on the Xbox, PC, and PlayStation 2. Later that year a sequel, Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, was launched. In 2008 Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway was released.
2007 brought announcements of new projects based on licensed film intellectual properties, including the crime drama Heat and the science-fiction Aliens franchise. In the September 2007 issue of Game Informer, a new game franchise was revealed, the sci-fi shooter Borderlands, after which Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford mentioned in an online interview that development on the Heat game had not yet begun, as the planned development partner for the project had gone under. This was followed by an announcement by Sega that they would be creating a new version of rhythm game Samba de Amigo for the Wii, a departure from their signature first-person shooter titles.
In June 2013, 3D Realms sued Gearbox for unpaid royalties. In September 2013, 3D Realms dropped the suit with founder Scott Miller explaining it as a misunderstanding on their part. In July 2013, Gearbox announced plans to rerelease Homeworld and Homeworld 2 in high-definition for modern PC platforms, in addition to making it available through digital distributors.
In February 2014, Gearbox filed a lawsuit against 3D Realms for attempting to make another Duke Nukem game without the consent of the company. In July 2014, Randy Pitchford formally contested the Aliens: Colonial Marines class action lawsuit stating the game had cost them millions of their own money and the advertising was solely the fault of the publisher.
Note: Some of the Gearbox Software, Duke Nukem Forever and Aliens: Colonial Marines information is taken from Wikipedia.
Duke Nukem Forever
Duke Nukem Forever was in development for about 15 years and scrapped and redeveloped with different engines multiple times, giving to different people, and shifted to different homes like a foster kid. When it did come out it was a rushed unfinished game that didn’t understand what made Duke Nukem 3D good in the first place. Instead of letting the story be told through its atmosphere and setting like in 3D. Forever instead decided to force the story on the player, this meant the game featured linear corridors sections where you would just walk from point A to B as Duke Nukem.
Duke Nukem 3D was good because of the shooting and ironic style not for its character. When on Hollywood Holocaust the first level of L.A. Meltdown, Duke says after he’s space ships gets shot down, “Damn, those alien bastards are gonna pay for shooting up my ride.” this one line gives all the background and motivation you need. The look and actions of the character don’t sell it, it is the words that do.
While some say it was good Duke Nukem Forever finally got released. I don’t agree as plenty of games get cancelled and never see the light of day. Forever should have stayed in the dustbin of time as the game only sold well on it name and history, and not because the game was actually good.
In June 2011, Duke Nukem Forever was released and received negative critical reception on release, with most of the criticism directed towards the unfinished, rushed state of the game. Despite the criticism the game topped the charts on release and made a profit for its distributor, Take-Two Interactive.
Randy Pitchford did he’s usual thing of saying that he was a fan of the franchise, and over hyped how good it would be. Basically saying it’s going to be one of the greatest games ever made. While he had worked on the game previously and said “Duke can’t die” and decided that he was going to help “in Duke’s time of need.” it didn’t end up well. A demo was released for the game before the game was finally released that was different from the PAX one. Another potential example of misleading the public.
All Duke Nukem Forever had to be was like the recent Doom game. They just needed to concentrate on what made the game good, in other words the shooting and level design.
Aliens: Colonial Marines
In February 2013, an anonymous source reported to Destructoid that Gearbox had been taking people and resources off Aliens: Colonial Marines to put them to work on Borderlands and Duke Nukem Forever, and yet was still collecting full payments from Sega as if they were working on Aliens: Colonial Marines. When Sega discovered this misconduct they cancelled Colonial Marines, which led to the game’s protracted development; “At some point in 2008, Sega temporarily pulled the plug on the game… They caught wind of Gearbox shifting resources despite still collecting milestone checks as if the team were full size and lying to Sega and 2K Games about the number of people working on each project. This led to the round of layoffs at Gearbox in late 2008.”
The game drew additional controversy due to the accusations that much of the game’s development was not by Gearbox Software, but was outsourced to other developers in order to compensate for mismanagement on behalf of Gearbox. While Sega initially denied that any such outsourcing occurred, sources claimed that developers Demiurge Studios and Nerve Software were responsible for the game’s downloadable content, while TimeGate Studios was responsible for the majority of the game’s campaign, and were unable to create the planned Beta version on schedule despite several delays. This caused the game to be rushed through redesigns, certification and shipping, despite being in a largely unfinished state.
A class action lawsuit filed in April 2013 by Roger Damion Perrine and John Locke alleged that Gearbox and Sega falsely advertised Aliens: Colonial Marines by showing demos at trade shows, such as PAX and E3, that did not accurately represent the finished product. Sega and the plaintiffs reached a settlement in late 2014, wherein Sega agreed to pay $1.25 million to the class. A motion for preliminary approval of the class settlement was pending as of January 2015. Gearbox has not agreed to settle, and the plaintiffs continue to litigate claims against the company.
On 5th April 2013, Sega confirmed that the Wii U port of the game was cancelled due to poor reception of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game. Also in April, Gearbox acquired the Homeworld franchise from THQ during its bankruptcy auction. In May 2013, it was reported that TimeGate Studios filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Aliens: Colonial Marines was a complete train wreck for everyone involved – from over hyped, aggressive and misleading marketing to complete and utter broken gameplay. The AI was terrible and made to look even worse, when in 2017 someone found out that some of it was caused by a typo in the scripting. However even this fix didn’t improve the game much.
This is the game that shone the light on Gearbox as a bad game developer, or at the very least one managed and marketed poorly. To this day online stores for Aliens: Colonial Marines still show images for content that isn’t in the actual game, therefore continuing to mislead the public.
Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30
Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 is the first time I notice Gearbox Software and Randy Pitchford lying about their games. While the final product of Brothers in Arms: Road to hill 30 was good, it was quite different to the 2004 E3 gameplay demo they had showed off.
In this demo Randy Pitchford and retired Colonel of the US Army John Antal narrate through a gameplay demo of the game. Randy was actually playing the demo but it was obviously a scripted demonstration. They knew what was going to happen – from the US Airforce planes flying past, the death of a squad mate, and to the shelling of Carentan by the US Navy. All these gameplay mechanics and more I don’t remember being in the game.
The E3 2004 Gameplay Demo:
In Brothers in Arms if your squad mate happens to die, no one cares, your squad defiantly don’t stop to check on the body. In the demo a squad member gets shot, another one shouts out, “Damnit Obrieski is hit. He’s down!” and then Sgt. Baker shouts out “Medic!”. This doesn’t happen in the game. The developers are trying to pretend that your characters matter, but they don’t. They are just glorified lives, if they all die its game over basically. This is because when you complete a level they all come back alive. If a character is supposed to die in the game then the other characters and game will care – but otherwise they are oblivious to it.
Atmospheric effects like planes flying past to help, and towns getting shelled in the background I don’t believe even happen in the game. This was shown in the demo to give the impression that this is a war zone, and that you are just a small part of a massive campaign. Back then it gave me the impression that you might occasionally get random events happening like a few planes buzzing overhead or bump into a random squad, so the game levels wouldn’t play out exact the same each time. The game has quite a few scripted events that involved background elements but this went against the whole idea that other games are “scripted as a Disneyland ride and not as interactive” and this should be the opposite. They failed in not being a linear scripted game. You had to decide on whether you flanked the enemy left or right – but that was about it.
I may be wrong but to top it off the level in the E3 gameplay demo isn’t even in the game. Randy constantly talks how realistic the game is and how natural it feels. Randy says “you see this wall, I was actually there, I’ve seen it in aerial reconnaissance photos and in this crossroads, it’s exactly how it was to the yard, its been recreated”. He also says “I like to joke that if you memorize the game you could go to Normandy and become a tour guide. This all gives the impression that you will be fighting in real world locations exactly laid out and copied inch by inch, while that is true in some cases – but the game could take place anywhere in Europe and the player wouldn’t really notice. This is because the game doesn’t give you anything to compare it to and because the games levels don’t feel natural.
For example you have walls and fences in places that only seem to be there for the player and enemies to hide behind. They shouldn’t boast about how realistic the levels are if they are going to break that rule by putting in gameplay concessions. If this area was hard to get across in real life, I want that to be the case in the game. I don’t want it made easier because the developers think that players need a wall here or the game would be too hard.
Gearbox and Randy pulled this same stunt again when they were showing of Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway with their 2007 E3 demo. This demo is similar in appearance to the final game but they outsell the game once again by implying that all cover is destructible. While fences, tables, and the occasional set pieces allow the use of destruction to your advantages; most of the time the scenery is solid as a rock. This is expounded more by the fact that when you actually have a bazooka team in Hells’ Highway it is basically a fancy grenade launcher in practice. It’s good for clearing MG nests and the occasional tank but not much else.
An earlier demo release in 2006 was even more misleading as in some respects looks better than the actual game. It features details not seen in the final game such as squad mates making mistakes like tripping over, enemies helping falling comrades, more atmospheric set pieces, and civilians. In the demo the squad is in a toy shop in the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden when the street in front gets shelled. This causes all the windows to smash and fling glass and wood splinters everywhere. Sgt. Baker gets some in he’s arm and one of he’s squad mates pulls it out of him. John and Randy then go on to talk about how accurate and realistic their game is like before and show several impressive scenes. Once again giving the impression of a totally accurate and immersive World War II game. While the game featured some immersive elements, most of it was set piece related and not dynamic or random as the developers where portraying. Once again misleading the public.
Brother in Arms still has potential to be great. They should make a proper Brothers in Arms game and add all the advancements made in gaming from: AI, graphics, storytelling, and emergent gameplay, with no microtransactions and maybe I would be interested. As long as all the other corporate changes have been made first that is.
Overall Gearbox Software and Randy Pitchford have always lied about their games, even Borderlands copied their art style for the game from Ben Hibon’s short film Codehunters, despite earlier claiming they came up with it. Borderland 2 itself was a convoluted marketing mess, with multiple DLC, loot boxes and season passes. Also lets not get started on Battleborn which was badly marketed, released at the wrong time, and felt half-finished despite claims to the contrary.
While many developers in the video game industry over hype their games, many aren’t as consistent at lying as Gearbox Software and Randy Pitchford are. Even Peter Molyneux and Todd Howard 75% to 90% of time make good games in the end, even after they spilled their guts in overselling them. I always remember the Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 gameplay demo and how completely different it was to the final game. The demo is what made me want to play the game in the first place, and this demonstration has always stuck with me. This showed me that games are very often different while in development compared to their final release – but developers and publishers hardly ever make that clear.
Since then all the controversy around Aliens, Duke Nukem, and now Gearbox and Randy himself isn’t surprising. The fact that him and Gearbox’s former lawyer Wade Callender are in a complex legal battle involving contract violations, corporate irresponsibility, company secrets, and pornography is really the least of their worries.
I didn’t buy Aliens: Colonial Marines or Duke Nukem Forever. The last Gearbox Software game I did buy was the very first Borderlands.
Despite all this, I made this post because I have a fondness for Gearbox Software and Randy Pitchford still, in that they are different and feel like the rubbish indie band you like that no one else does. They have the potential to be one of the great video game developers. However They really need to change their organisation structure, planning, and transparency as before long they will be bankrupt. As even someone like me who is an outside fan have no inclination to ever buy their games until this happens.