Who made Aliens: Colonial Marines? “We believe in shared division of labour,” says Gearbox


Who made Aliens: Colonial Marines? I know one of you did, so somebody had better own up soon. In a strange reversal of how things normally work, over the last few days it seems everybody who worked on the critically slammed sci-fi shooter has gone dark amid anonymous reports that Gearbox had very little to do with the game’s single player campaign. Instead it’s now rumoured that time constraints meant most of the development of Aliens: Colonial Marines was in fact handled by Section 8 developer TimeGate, with other duties farmed out to developers Demiurge, Nerve and Darkside. These reports contradict claims by Gearbox boss Randy Pitchford that his company was responsible for no less than 80% of the stinky Alien bumplop.

So who dealt it? And were we misled? Last year I spoke to vice president Steve Gibson and cinematic director Brian Thomas about the division of labour at Gearbox, and how the company operates across multiple projects simultaneously. The truth, it seems, may lie somewhere between the rumours.

Whichever way it’s sliced, all signs point to Gearbox not having as much to do with Aliens as customers were led to believe. RPS were tipped off by a mystery former TimeGate employee who contradicts Pitchford’s assertion that TimeGate contributed only “about 20 or 25 percent of the total time” spent on Aliens’ development. “TimeGate definitely played a much bigger role in the development of Aliens than either Gearbox or Sega is letting on,” the source revealed.

A lengthy Reddit post by a developer claiming to have worked on the game for one and half years paints a damning picture of how Gearbox allegedly forced delays in order to focus on development of Borderlands 2 and Duke Nukem Forever. Then, when pressured to deliver under threat of legal action from SEGA, Gearbox outsourced a huge chunk of development to TimeGate while continuing to work on Borderlands.

Speaking to Gearbox prior to the game’s release, I almost asked cinematic director Brian Thomas the ideal question. Instead I missed, asking: “has development of Aliens’ multiplayer mode been outsourced to another developer?”

“Multiplayer is being developed in house by Gearbox,” Thomas states. No reports have contended that the game’s multiplayer mode was worked on by Gearbox. “We’ve been working diligently to ensure that we’re delivering a wide range of gameplay experiences and not just traditional deathmatch. So hopefully all players can find something that they enjoy in the experience and not feel they’ve been left out.”

We went on to discuss the structure of Gearbox as a studio, and how such a large developer can split its workloads across so many big titles: Aliens: Colonial Marines, Borderlands 2 and Duke Nukem Forever were all vying for the company’s attention at the same time.

“Gearbox has a really open structure,” explains Thomas, “we have about 200 people at any given time, and it’s really about everybody working on everything. We really believe in shared division of labour, nobody is above jumping in and getting their hands dirty on something. So you’ll see guys who are 20-year industry vets, and they’re perfectly happy to come in a dig into the data and do balance adjustments at two o’clock in the morning for an important show or demo or deadline. Then you’ll see guys who’ve been in the industry three months and just really want to make their stuff polished.

“So that’s part of what makes it fun to work at Gearbox,” he continues, “you know that everybody’s together in the trenches, everybody’s going to dig in and do work, even the owners. You’ll see Randy Pitchford, Brian Martel and Stephen Bahl still making check ins and still changing stuff in the game and making edits. That’s really encouraging as a developer, when I can see that those guys are just as invested as I am.”

Vice president of marketing Steve Gibson chimes in at this point, highlighting how Gearbox tend to actively spread themselves across multiple projects: “You had a week where — remember that week when we were bouncing between the Claptrap episode, ACM, and unannounced stuff? [Brian Thomas] is
on the cinematic, narrative stuff so he’ll bounce around three games in a day sometimes.”

“Yeah,” responds Thomas, “there have been times when I’ll come in one morning, make a check in on Aliens, go to lunch, come back and work on something for marketing a Claptrap episode, then I’ll get some dinner, come back and be working on a side project. Or maybe one of my buddies is a level designer or environment artist and needs some help with what they’re doing. It really is a cool group of people to work with.”

“There are no cliques,” adds Gibson. “It’s just a mish-mash. Hell, [the art team] now is just art, they don’t even do division between games any more. All art is just the art floor.”

There’s a sense that, in the context of recent accusations levelled at Pitchford and Gearbox around precisely who worked on Aliens, it might be impossible to ever quantify the division of labour between projects with any real certainty. Though where TimeGate fits into this division is still unknown.

“I would describe [Gearbox’s structure] as flat rather than a tower,” Thomas further explains. “I think it’s good because the valuable lessons that you learn shipping the last product helps you. There’ll be times when I’m sitting in a meeting and somebody will bring up an idea like, ‘I really want to do a vehicle sequence with this piece of technology’, and I can say ‘argh! Two years ago that totally didn’t work, so you need to go down the hall and talk to Chase, because Chase worked on the code for that and maybe he’s got some ideas’.

“So it’s kind of cool that the longer everybody’s worked together, you can sort of feel everybody out. Everybody has something they’re good at. So I’m terrible at lighting, but Chris is great at lighting. I can ask Chris to light something for me and then take something off his plate. It really creates a neat structure where you can learn from each other, you don’t have to be dependent on being given one task to do for eight hours.”

TimeGate aren’t as highly regarded a developer as Gearbox, so it makes sense from a marketing perspective that the most critically acclaimed studio involved should lead the charge at press junkets and in interviews. But at no point in our interview was there any mention of external studios being part of the development process of Aliens: Colonial Marines.

There was the firm impression that this was always Gearbox’s baby, it’s very own chestburster timebomb waiting to ruin somebody’s dining table. Now that the rib-cage has been shattered and we’re all covered in guts, it seems responsibility and blame are being readily and swiftly apportioned. Though in what measures remains to be seen.