Gearbox talks Aliens: Colonial Marines

Randy Pitchford and chums on Vasquez, powerloaders, co-op and new Alien breeds

We've been waiting for Aliens: Colonial Marines for a Duke-Nukem-Forever-worthy eternity. Set following the events of Alien 3, the new shooter pitches players into the ass-kicking boots of a United Colonial Marine squad, dispatched to the drifting U.S.S. Sulaco in search of one Lieutenant Ellen Ripley. There's a preview in issue 75, which you can download in its entirety here.

Gearbox hasn't had much to say about Colonial Marines over the past three years. That ends now. Following an early showing of the game, which launches next year, OXM cornered studio founders Randy Pitchford and Brian Martel plus producer Zach Ford for a lengthy chat. Have you got something handy for close encounters? Yes? Then let's begin.

We're going to start with some really basic fan-service questions. Do you get to use the powerloader?

Randy Pitchford: That's a great question.

Which you're not going to answer?

Pitchford: Well clearly in what we just showed you, you can see the powerloader, the problem is if I answer that question then you're going to ask me other questions. So we wanna cover that later.

Brian Martel: But wouldn't that be great?

Pitchford: Yeah... that is a desire that we all have, and part of our mission is to fulfil our dream.

Next fan-service question: do you get to drive the APC?

Pitchford: Did you see them in the hangar?

Yes, I saw them up there, so they're definitely there.

Martel: And the lights work!

Pitchford: There's a lot of things about that APC that are really interesting, you remember where Gorman sat, with all the monitors?

That was going to be the third question.

Pitchford: There's a turret - we've never even seen that used. It's never even been shot before.

Martel: Did you know there are rockets, there are a few rocket pods that pop up?

Pitchford: I didn't know if you knew that.

I didn't know that.

Pitchford: And of course there's that gun on the front. But everybody's seen that turret, nobody's seen it fire. How does it fire? It would be awesome if somebody got to do that.

A snap from the 2008 build.

Zach Ford: If you look at some of the machines, they have a mount outside the door, or like inside but sticking out the door.

Pitchford: A lot of the fun about this game is that stuff, the fan-service stuff. We don't don't want to mire in specific features like that right now, we're trying to do broader strokes, but the game will launch in the spring of 2012, you can imagine between then there will be a number of - between screenshots and trailers and discussion more will be revealed and somehow we must ship and retain enough surprise that people have an experience that they're comfortable they haven't already had, so forgive me for being cautious, we don't want to spoil all the surprises. But the mission is to fulfil those dreams and have those experiences.

Watching the monitors and seeing the remote monitoring of the marines, that seems like it would lend itself to a squad-control tactical kind of thing, is that something that would go so far as to deny? Is it just a pure shooter?

Pitchford: I will tell you that while that's cool to see that idea of the status, your fellow marines when we know that they have the equipment to look at each other's cameras, the game desires to play with that in ways that - not as a top-line feature, but at moments in the narrative where it makes sense, just like the film did. There was just that one shot with Gorman where he's looking at all the monitors, the whole movie wasn't about Gorman's interface. It wasn't like "we're going to shoot this movie as if it's what he sees from that." And the game takes that same approach. In the game also it's about you being one of the marines, and your friends can be marines with you, or not, it's not an RTS.

More jollies from the 2008 build. Somebody's about to get the back of his head ripped open.

Martel: I would say that it's an easy leap to say, hey, these are the guys who made Brothers in Arms, they're likely going to have squad control and those kind of things, the issue with that is that it's really hard to flank an alien.

Pitchford: We actually wanted it to be a very accessible experience, the goal is not to have complicated interfaces, we're not worrying about having things like squad command, you don't need fire manoeuvres... there's no manoeuvring on an alien.

Martel: You want to have a great experience when you're by yourself and you want to have a fantastic experience when you can play with your friends and share that experience. And those are the kind of things we want to make sure are a part of the game.

Pitchford: Yeah, so if someone like tries to make the assumption that because we made Brothers in Arms there'll be like, squad command, that's incorrect.

In the demo, we've seen a lot of people taken down. Is that going to be a loss you feel? The movie has very distinct characters, you get attached to them, is that something you're going to do in the game as well, or is there going to be percentage of them that are cannon fodder that just get eaten for dramatic effect?

Pitchford: Character in development is important. The fiction allows - the way we've crafted what's going to happen allows for us to burn through a percentage of marines purely for entertainment value without worrying about emotional attachment, but at the same time the story and the sequences that exist and are planned also care to do those things that we remember from the squad in the film, we care about those emotional experiences as well. The fiction has been crafted to allow for both of those things to exist. Did you see the teaser?


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Pitchford: There was a shot with the names of the squad. That squad is going to be really important. When we met Cruz, who was the guy in the last stand area who was telling us about how we're going to have to use turrets to defend, when you play the full game, Cruz will have more important meaning. He didn't even introduce himself to Cruz, it just said Cruz on his thing, but by that point in the game you'll know who Cruz is and he will have a certain amount of respect and credibility that he's earned with your character based on the actions that have happened up to that point.

Ford: I don't know if you've noticed, but he's also got a prosthetic leg, there's a bit of a story behind that, so you get to know a little bit about.. those are the kind of things that as you get to spend a bit of time with a character, you get to care about them. You feel something for them.

Pitchford: So the answer is both. With this material, you wanna do just cool yoinks, you wanna see aliens get guys and rip them in half and you don't want to think about it too much, you wanna have more fun. The other time you wanna have this "oh my god, please don't let anything happen to X." And like when you're in the pivotal moment when that's in the balance.

Ford: And not only for story but also in gameplay when like, you don't want to lose your guys. They're kind of useful to have around. And when - if - they die...

Pitchford: Yeah, actually that's a really good point. It's AI-driven, so there is - the idea - sorry for interrupting Zach but yes I totally missed that point, thanky you.

Martel: They make a difference to gameplay, you don't want them to die, and if they do happen to die you will feel that loss. Just functionally and in story.

Pitchford: Some of those last-stand moments, this character might be a redshirt for the purposes of the story, but in this combat it is helpful that he has a gun and is killing those bastards. And as long he is doing that I can know that corner is covered. And if he's not doing that any more then oh s**t, this combat is hard.

Too close.

Ford: If you're by yourself, if you guys die, or something happens to them and you're split off, that's really scary. There's really a lot of tension there.

How does that work with co-op? If a co-op character dies, do you restart or do they stay dead, go into spectate mode, drop into another character?

Pitchford: That is handled. I don't think it will work if I describe it for you. I think that there'll be a time when we demonstrate that in a video or trailer and you'll play it yourself eventually, and when that opportunity's clear for everybody I think that's the best way to handle that, it's a new kind of thing so if I described it I think it would be interpreted different than what it is, and that could create some problems for us. So I'd rather you see it. Imagine before you saw how Left 4 Dead was handled, if someone tried to describe that just with words only. When you're playing, it is fine.

The film is known for its dialogue. Is that something you feel you have to recreate in the game, and if so are you bringing in external talent to help that?

Ford: Everybody has a favourite line.

Pitchford: The fun is, there's so many great lines in Aliens, we all say them in our lives, we can't forget them they're so great. The trick is - there's been times when we put in like exact quotes - it doesn't work, it confuses people.The trick is coming up with new ones. We have a bunch already that we know work. The game is bigger than the film, so we still need some more. Fortunately we've had some great help. Unfortunately there isn't - there are like just rent-a-writers, but you know, those aren't the best guys.

The famous siege scene, recreated with the 2008 build. Lots of blips on that guy's iPhone, aren't there?

Fortunately Aliens is important in the science fiction community so when we put the word out, a while back, years ago in fact, we had a lot of people, really awesome people, who were happy and excited if they could have gotten involved. Now they all couldn't get involved, but we did hook up with - I don't know if you've ever seen the series Battlestar Galactica? The lead writers Bradley Thompson and David Weddle on our fiction crafted - we could make a whole TV series out of the material they crafted for us.

Those guys are amazing, they totally got us - when they did Battlestar, we were all hooked on that show, they totally got science fiction, they entertained us and they convinced us that was real, they've added a lot of creativity and a lot of resources as well.

You gotta be careful with it, though. You can imagine when the characters belt something out and it doesn't work - it's like "here's where I look at the camera and say my classic Aliens line!" - it's like, c'mon. It's really delicate and it's really difficult so we're being very subtle and very careful with it, but when you entertain and you're in the moment, stuff naturally emerges. When you play Duke Nukem Forever and you'll see how we were able to handle that pretty well, I think. It's hard to do, it really is, but sometimes you get lucky. And the harder you work, the luckier you get.

In the demo the standard aliens go down after three shotgun blasts. Did you have to make the standard aliens less scary and introduce bigger ones? And what freedom did you have to introduce new ones?

Ford: They're not exactly fodder.

Pitchford: The marines are a squad of trained marines, with pulse rifles.

Oh, sure. It's a bit like the jump between the first movie and the second. From impotence to overpowered weaponry.

A gameplay snap from E3 2011, showing beefier lighting systems.

Ford: They were improving, you know, they create their own motion tracker and flamethrowers, and all those kind of things, so these guys, yeah, they were basically guys that worked on a refinery ship, so that's basically all they did, here they were able - at least one of them was able to survive. But that's the difference between -

Pitchford: And she saved the cat.

Ford: Yeah. But in the case of these marines, when they had the chance to have a stand-up fight with the aliens, they were able to be reasonably successful, but the thing is they were pretty smart, they were able to find ways around them. And then attack them.

Pitchford: Aliens don't show up on infra-red. And then they're coming out of the god-damn walls. And now you're in trouble. But the first part - the one thing that is true, though, and Cameron put a squad of trained marines with bad-ass military equipment against a horde, relatively speaking the individual alien felt a little weaker than he did in the first film. It's relative.

So that is true. In the game experience, and in fact Alien did it itself, Aliens did it too, when Newt and Ripley were locked in the place where they slept and there were two loose little f**king things', that was really bad for them. They had no weapons and like the tiny little weakest thing in the Alien lifecycle became the most scary and dangerous in that scene. So it's about context. So coming back to the game we have the opportunity for all kinds of varied experiences and pacing is designed to take you through that.

So there are times when - here at E3 it serves us to have the excitement of lots of aliens and you're gunning them all down, but pacing against some of that survival horror feeling, is healthy for a full game experience. That's absolutely designed in the pacing as well.

Some of the xenos have bulletproof heads. Oh dear.

The second part of your question was what other alien types are there -

Ford: We also present that in the demo.


Pitchford: Yeah - that is also a delicate thing. If we open right off the bat and start with a bunch of new s**t we're not familiar with, we're gonna ruin our sense of authenticity. So the way we introduce the new types of xenos and the way they're designed, and how they're introduced and the logic behind why they exist has to make sense, and once those conditions are true, it's really helpful to consider the different types of gameplay, different - like okay, if you have a guy with a pulse rifle and if I hit him in the head it'll pierce it, and that'll kill that bug, and that's like a typical alien.

Here's one, where my bullet can't penetrate its head. That's a problem. That changes everything. I have to find a way to get to its flank. That totally change the gameplay. How do I flank an Alien? Oh s**t. We have a problem. Ruunnn...

That's where the co-op comes in.

Pitchford: Co-op is great for that. Redshirts are great, sometimes that's how you're going to find out that's a redshirt. That's just one of the new xenotypes. There are a number. But I don't want to worry about that right now, because as a diehard Alien fan, I have to be sure I trust the experience before I'm ready to accept the idea that someone's introducing a bunch of new xenotypes to my beloved franchise. So we won't be talking a lot about the other xenos, we'll let that happen naturally over the course of consuming it.

A technical question. We did a cover on this in 2008. Now it's three years later, how much of the game remains from that? Is it still the same tech?

An Alien's favourite party trick.

Pitchford: What that story was based around back then, was that was the proposal. What's happened since then is that we've built the proposal. So it wasn't a game back then, it was a prototype - prototype content, prototype technology, and intent. And we shared that. And the response was "you nailed it." So we invested in building it.

I think if we had the ability to travel through time maybe we'd go back and tell ourselves like "you guys already know you have the right pitch. You probably shouldn't announce the game at this point. You don't need to test the premise." We probably announced it too soon. The first press release came out before the first line of code had been written, but the business deal got done and that's when the first press release happened, announcing the game existed, and that triggered demand: "tell me about this game. That sounds awesome. You're making fricking Aliens, the real authentic premise interactive."

And so we had all this prototype stuff, we caved to demand, we allowed some cover stories to happen, allowed some discussion to happen, revealed some screenshots from our engine and our content, but the game was not built. That was a pre-pre-production effort, that wasn't even an alpha. Now, we have a game. We are in production.

Aliens is the model for so many video games, and that model has been taken and interated on and developed. Is it not at the point where it's almost a restriction, because that basic germ has sprouted in all these other games, but you can't go beyond that because the fiction is there?

Pitchford: The fiction is the special thing about this. We have never had the authentic true game. We've had people riffing off of it. We've done it ourselves. We've riffed off of it, in ways we can get away with legally, where it's just enough that you feel like you're having fun with the things that Ripley and James [Cameron] provided for us, but not so much that we're going to get in legal trouble for it, right -

Martel: Sometimes those things are even parody.

Pitchford: That's what the whole industry has done there, but we've never had the true, honest, sincere authentic experience. So that's not a burden, that's a gift. That's the whole point. If that wasn't the point we just would have made random sci-fi again. I'm pretty sure we're going to see not only more games but more franchises where some space marines fight to save the world from aliens. But we have to honestly admit to ourselves that at the end of the day, every case where space marines save the world from aliens, it all started from this root. And we are now in that space, and to me that's the dream.

Ford: And that's the strength.

And it is such a great hook for a game - as you said, there are so many people that want to have this experience.

A shoe-in for Kinect functionality, that powerloader.

Pitchford: We've wanted it so badly, we've even at times stolen things when it doesn't even apply. Like in the first Modern Warfare the guy straight up pulls out the shotgun "I like to keep this for close encounters" - straight up lifting lines from Aliens in a fricking Modern Warfare game! It's like, you forgot to put the Aliens in your Aliens game!

Ford: And the guy's name is Vasquez.

Pitchford: Yes it is! Which is great. We've all done it.

Ford: It's a wink and a nod.

Pitchford: It shows how important it is, and I can't believe we're the guys who get to play with it. It's crazy.

Is it a massive responsibility?

Pitchford: Oh god, yeah.

Ford: But we revel in that, it's actually fun for us.

Pitchford: Yeah, sometimes it can get really f**king nerdy around our studio. We're like "but in the technical manual!" and we're breaking out the s**t, the schematics, and "but Sid said!" "I don't care what Sid said, in this..." Because sometimes what's interesting about it too, it's fiction. And there's three films.

Ford: And a fourth which happened way later.

Pitchford: And sometimes the fiction actually has some mutually exclusive 'facts.'

Ford: How did those eggs get on board?

Pitchford: Yeah, and it's like we've identified some of those and taken them to them and challenged and like 'can we come up with something that actually make sense?" So what we think is mutually exclusive actually makes perfect sense if you only had this bit of information. And we've actually solved some of those problems, those are the fun ones. We've actually answered some of those.

Here are 10 Aliens moments we absolutely, point-blank need in Colonial Marines. You're welcome to think of some extras.