Get cozy. This might be a long one.
Seven years ago, I joined Gearbox Software as an intern, working on the first Borderlands during its earliest incarnation. This was back when I was going to school at the Guildhall at SMU, back when the Guildhall had a dedicated internship term. That term aligned serendipitously with the end of Borderlands’s “greenlight” milestone, and I got to experience not a crunch, per se, but a concerted team effort towards meeting a clear goal. It felt real and meaningful and exciting, and I was hooked.
To provide some context, this was over two years before the oft-discussed art style change was proposed internally. Even then, the core promise of the game was visible: that addictive, compelling “shoot-and-loot” loop that has become a hobby for millions of gamers today. And while I’d attribute some of my enthusiasm to the rose-tinted glasses of a longtime gamer getting his first look at real game development, I think the success of the Borderlands series justifies my initial goofy fanboyism.
There was also a fire in the building on my first day. True story. http://www.gearboxsoftware.com/community/articles/160/extra–extra–gbx-fire
I interned for three months before going back to the Guildhall to finish my Master’s project and my capstone team game project. I interviewed with several game studios before graduation, but when Gearbox extended me an offer, it just seemed like the obvious choice to continue working on that game, with those people. In particular, it was the strong code team that attracted me, led by tech director Steve Jones, who’s been an amazing mentor to me throughout my Gearbox career.
I won’t document my entire development experience on Borderlands, partly because it would be a really boring read, and partly because I’ve forgotten most of the details. There were a lot of late nights and a lot of frustrations, but I never lost my optimism, and I never lost faith in the strength of our gameplay. When we finally shipped in October 2009, over three years after I’d first joined the team, it was clear our hard work had paid off.
In the meantime, I continued to do my own personal hobby development on the side. Part of the Guildhall programmer curriculum was to develop a 3D rendering engine from scratch, and I didn’t want to lose the momentum that I had built during school, so I continued to build and refactor my personal engine, which I dubbed “NERD” (“NERD Exhibits Recursive Definition”). In 2008, I harnessed this tech to develop my first indie game, Arc Aether Anomalies. It was a rewarding experience but also a sobering one, and it made me very aware of the time investment involved in making even a relatively simple game by myself.
Following Borderlands’s release, I worked for about seven months on the yet-unreleased Brothers in Arms: Furious Four before Borderlands 2 began to spool up. I spent most of the next two years developing BL2, with the exception of the three or four months in early 2011 that I spent helping Duke Nukem Forever make it across the finish line.
So yeah, that was, uh…that was a thing. You know, for whatever else it was (and I suspect most of us are probably on the same page in that regard), DNF and its beleaguered development was and continues to be a weird, integral part of video game lore, and there’s a certain perverse novelty in having my name attached to that. I mean, I remember when that game was announced. I remember seeing those early screenshots in PC Gamer. And somehow, fourteen years later, I got to have a hand in helping that thing ship. That’s pretty crazy. That doesn’t happen. So yeah. Rape jokes notwithstanding, I’ll take the MobyGames credit for that one. At the very least, it’s a story to tell.
And then there was Borderlands 2. It’s been just about a year since I rolled off that project, and I still don’t know if it’s been long enough to talk about it objectively. I can say with certainty that it’s the best game Gearbox has made in as long as I’ve been employed there, but it was also the most stressful, crunchy development I’ve experienced to date. I pride myself on my professionalism and on maintaining my composure in the face of frustrations, but BL2 broke my cool at least twice.
Somehow, in the middle of that cluster, I thought it would be a good idea to undertake my most ambitious hobby project to date. I’ve talked about the process of making You Have to Win the Game elsewhere, so I won’t go into detail about that here, but in the context of BL2’s development, having my own project where I made the rules was vital to my sanity.
Most recently, I helped ship Aliens: Colonial Marines. My development experience on that game largely mirrored that of DNF. It wasn’t as personal of a project for me as the Borderlands series has been, but it also wasn’t as easy to dissociate myself from as Duke was, since so many of my coworkers had been involved with it for so many years. The post-ship experience was pretty rough. I should mention I’ve never really subscribed to the “don’t read the comments” mentality. (I realize there’s a certain amount of privilege in that statement. I’m saving that for a future blog post.) I did read the comments. Most of them weren’t very nice, many justifiably so, and more than ever, I found myself frustrated by the voluntary gag our industry places on itself. I understand why we don’t talk, why we often can’t talk, but I don’t like it, and I don’t completely agree with it. I want developers to be able to have an open and honest dialogue with players. I hate to see an “us-vs-them” sentiment develop on the internet, but I don’t usually feel that I have the autonomy to combat it, because (despite what silly Twitter disclaimers might have to say about it), my personal comments do necessarily reflect my employer. I do have to censor myself a little bit sometimes. I don’t post on the forums nearly as much as I’d like. I don’t think I’ve ever posted on NeoGAF despite having had an active account for ages. I rarely talk about my job on Twitter except to retweet approved messages. It’s a bittersweet feeling to see journalists and bloggers starting to take note and report on the typical pattern of silence as a response to negativity, controversy, or hostility, and I’m curious to see whether that trend continues. I hope not. It’s probably naïve of me to say at this juncture, but when I’m able, I’ll do my best to facilitate positive two-way communication. And that’s going to be sooner rather than later.
This is really all just a long, roundabout way of saying I’m going indie.
So that’s a thing. Apparently I want my life to be about 300% more terrifying.
In truth, this has been a long time coming. I recall telling one of my coworkers back in 2007 or 2008 that merely being employed in the games industry at all was my long-term goal, and that all I really wanted to do was keep on making games. Since then, things have changed. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Gearbox. They’ve been a great employer for the last seven years and a wonderful group of friends well beyond the scope of my employment, and I certainly hope nothing I’ve written here would be misconstrued as negative or resentful towards Gearbox or anyone there. Working anywhere in the games industry for five years is an accomplishment; that I’ve spent over six years as a full-time employee and am by no means an outlier is a testament to the company’s strength. But for myself as an individual, it’s time for a change. Even ignoring the occasional frustrations of feeling like I must mute or censor my personal opinions on certain industry issues, I’ve increasingly found that independent development is simply what’s most exciting to me at this time. This came to a head a few months ago when my Twitter feed was blowing up about GDC, and I had the conscious realization that practically all the cool stuff that I cared about was in indie space. Games, and indie games in particular, are at the forefront of a coming social change, and I want to be a part of that. I want to be better. I want to help our industry be better.
It feels like the right time to do this. I’m not abandoning a team in the middle of crunch. I’ve just recently wrapped up a months-long project, and future developments are only just beginning to spool up. If there were ever a time when I felt like I could make a graceful exit, this is it. But more than any of that, I feel like this is the right time because I need to do this before I’m too old to take crazy risks.
Okay, I think I’ve dragged this out long enough. I don’t have any specific details about my future plans to reveal today, but those will be coming will soon. Stay tuned to The Twitters if you’re curious!
Oh, one last thing: I’m leaving my copy of Super Smash Bros. Brawl at the office. It’s pretty much Gearbox legacy at this point.
—J. Kyle Pittman, July 2013
[J. Kyle Pittman wrote this using sister site Gamasutra’s free blogs]