x360a Meets: Randy Pitchford, Brother in Arms: Hells Highway, Part 1
Written Monday, August 11, 2008 By Geoff WhiteView author's profile
Here at x360a we are always trying to bring you insights into the latest games and upcoming releases. I set Mr Creech onto the task of trying to get an interview on Brother in Arms: Hells Highway, the latest game from developer Gearbox Software. Now normally when we get an interview, we get someone involved with the marketing or PR side of the game. However, this time we went one step further and got Randy Pitchford, President of Gearbox Software. It was a real pleasure to speak to someone who obviously had a great passion for the history as well as the game. And also a passion for achievement points, which is always a bonus for us!
Below is part one of our x360a exclusive interview with Randy Pitchford.
Happy to do it. My name is Randy Pitchford, I am the President of Gearbox Software, and the Executive Producer for Brother in Arms: Hells Highway. I was one of the people at Gearbox that created the BIA series, and cares very much for it, and has worked hard to make sure this one is the best one we have ever made.
Glad to hear it! The game is based around Operation Market Garden. Can you give a brief history lesson to those who may not know the background to the game, and how you came up with the name Hells Highway?
BIA: HH is the third chapter in the story of a squad of soldiers from the 101st Airborne. Baker Squad is a Recon Squad now. They were the first ones there; they were the first on the ground invading Normandy at D-Day. After Normandy, the paratroopers were able to get a bit of a break, and get in some replacements and then a bold plan was crafted to end the war. General Bernard Montgomery had this idea to use the paratroopers who were pretty effective in Normandy despite a pretty challenging mission. He wanted to use them to capture a series of enemy bridges in Holland, and then race his 30 Core tanks along this highway, and punch right through the German lines along this highway right through Holland, into German, across the Rhine and to go into Berlin and hopefully win the war by Christmas. That was the plan. So they took over 30,000 Paratroopers, which is the biggest airborne invasion in the history of the world, and they dropped them all over Holland to secure these objectives. This included the 101st Airborne, which included Baker team- which played a pivotal role in the whole base of that operation. Unfortunately there were some unexpected and powerful German units that they didn’t expect to encounter and the German counter was swift and violent. They counter attacked and surrounded this corridor that the Allies had created, and they crushed the corridor. To the Allies that fought there it became known as Hells Highway.
Overall, the Operation was actually a failure. It’s unusual for a company to select an Operation like this- normally we’re used to firing your last bullet, killing the last guy, ending the war and being the hero. Was this a deliberate ploy?
(Chuckles) Yeah it is interesting. BIA is a game about squad combat. It’s always about authenticity. We recreate the actual locations and the actual event, and it’s very, very authentic. But it’s also about the thing called the ‘Brotherhood between Soldiers’. We learnt when we spent a lot of time with the Veterans; talking to guys like George Koskimaki (who wrote the Hells Highway book), one theme that came up a lot, is when they’re there doing this and I can’t imagine what this is like, I’m not a Solider, I make Video Games! I mean, these guys are trained to kill.
They have to get up when the enemy is shooting at them, trying to kill them and they have to face this risk, and then they have to take their weapon and fire it at another human being with the intent to kill them and to do that is a very difficult thing. So when they’re in that spot, the thing we get a lot of, the thing that drives them to do it is not honour, and duty and country; it’s about the guy next to them. It’s about not letting your buddy down, because these guys become like a family. That’s where the term Brothers in Arms comes from- the bond in which these soldiers are, the most dire circumstances with the biggest possible risk. The relationships they build with each other are often stronger than blood family- so it’s a really interesting thing that happens to these soldiers. So this context, this strategic failure, becomes a dramatic backdrop for that kind of test.
We don’t shove the history down your throat, but it’s these types of situation that create a lot of deep tension. For example, have you seen the film titanic? Okay, so we know when we go to the movie that the boat is going to sink. But the fact that it’s going to sink creates a couple of interesting opportunities. First of all, we know it’s going to be hardcore, and we want to witness the special effects. We want to witness the horror, the drama and the tension of this traumatic event. Secondly, because we know that it ends in tragedy, it creates this very powerful background for a true character story. How the characters cope with these real human issues in this tragic event. Operation Market Garden provides this same sort of backdrop for us. Yes it is a strategic loss, but these guys down at the base of this operation; they had to succeed or all would have been lost. The German counter attack plan was to surround this corridor, and to completely crush it- killing or capturing every single person within the circle. The 101st Airborne had to recapture taken ground, and to hold off the Germans so that everyone could get out. If they hadn’t been able to do that, then everyone would have been lost. As it was, tremendous amounts of lives were lost. I mean, we can’t imagine the scale. It’s totally outside our realm of comprehension. More lives were lost on the first day of Operation Market Garden than the US Army has lost in the entire history of the Iraq war.
Okay, so first of all what we are creating is entertainment. Earlier I was talking about the Titanic. When you go to see that film, you know that the characters you are seeing are primarily fictional characters, and that the story you are seeing is something that James Cameron and his team created for us so we could be entertained. But you also know that some of the history helps to get it right. Like we heard a bit about how they rebuilt the boat and remodelled it as accurately as they possible could. They simulated how the thing actually broke apart and sunk, and we also saw some famous historical characters in there – Unsinkable Molly Brown who survived the thing, and the band that actually goes down with the ship and they just keep playing in spite of the fact that the boats sinking. That kind of helps imagine how we can treat historical fiction.
In our case, we care about the locations, we care about the events and the order of events, and we care about key historical features. In terms of the entertainment and the gameplay, we care about the context, the squad element and the gameplay challenges; and the tools that the player has to overcome all of these challenges. So these two things play together very nicely, but sometimes there are some decisions we have to make to prioritise one over the other. In terms of the locations, we start by studying the history involved. We go to the national archives and get the after-action report. We’ve walked the ground, surveyed the battlefields. We’ve interviewed many, many Veterans- the folks that actually fought in this war. We purchased aerial reconnaissance photos from the British Government- they had spy planes flying the area before, during and after the Operation. Every three hours we had snapshots of the battle, these really amazing high fidelity area reconnaissance photos that were taken during the war. We also used US Army Signal Core photos and stock footage. We take all of these and we start to figure out where the battles were that these guys were involved in, and we start to craft these locations. We actually take the reconnaissance photos into our tools and we build up the environments from them. Occasionally we have “Okay, this fields too big” and we compress it a bit, or “This wall, we really need to get through it”, so we make it a little shorter so you can climb it. You know, we make some small changes like that. But it’s amazing- the roads and the streets and stuff like that, if you memorise them (depending on how much they have changed in real life), you can go back and walk them.
You could probably get a job as a tour guide if you studied the game inside out!! There are YouTube videos of people who have actually done this with our past games. They’ve actually gone to Normandy and gone “Look, there’s Hooperville. I walked down this street, and that's where the tank came out- and that’s the church depot!” They really did a lot of respect to the team for showing how much work we actually put in to making sure that its right.
The other thing that’s really interesting is the characters. This is a big deal to us too. The rule in our series is that everyone with the rank of Sergeant and lower, we’ve given them a personality and made their name up. Some of these people are good guys that you’ll like, and some of them are guys you don’t necessarily want to like. Their real people and they relate to each other. Meanwhile, everyone with the rank of Lieutenant and higher, all the Officers, these are actual historical figures. So for example, if you’ve seen the TV series Band of Brothers, or if you’ve studied the history you may know a character called Colonel Robert Sink. He was the leader of the 506th Parachute Regiment, which was one of the four elements in the 101st Airborne. In Band of Brothers, he was played by an actor called Captain Dale Dye, who was the guy Spielberg first hired to teach the actors what it was like to be a soldier for Saving Private Ryan; and he gave him a bit part in the Washington DC part when they’re explaining to the brass the situation with the dead brothers. Then Spielberg and Tom Hanks cast him again to play the role of Bob Sink, and he had a big role and was in many of the episodes. He played this guy really, really well. And this character is part of the history, and was in Operation market Garden, so he is of course in BIA: HH. Now in real life, Dale played the role really well and I really liked him, so we cast him in the game! But here’s the thing- he doesn’t exactly look like Bob Sink. So this is one of the neat things we can do with video games- we can model the people to look like they were actually supposed to look like. Instead of having to use an actor who doesn’t quite look like the real person, we can go back to the WestPoint photos when they went to war college and see what they actually looked like. So when you meet Bob Sink in the game, he looks not like an actor, but like Bob Sink. It’s pretty neat to be able to use our understanding of history from when it’s recorded from the people that are alive today that can relay the information to us.
Another thing that's really neat, is that when we have been to the battle locations with the Veterans, Colonel John Antal (Gearbox’s Military and Historical Director) was able to introduce us to some civilians, who were young and there when the battle was happening ( they watched it unfold). So we got all these really interesting perspectives on the thing. And at one point we were walking this battlefield, an American Paratrooper from the 101st Airborne and a German veteran who was in the Fallschirmjager (German Paratroopers), and they fought against each other in this battle over 60 years ago. They were talking to each other about the prospectus of this. And today, their people are Allies. So it’s very, very interesting.