Having joined Gearbox two years ago, VP of Marketing Steve Gibson found himself in the middle of the studio’s structural change that allowed for daring and adventurous projects such as Borderlands and more recently the further development of Duke Nukem: Forever. We sat down with Gibson to talk about the upbeat atmosphere at the Gearbox headquarters, the catharsis of Borderlands and promoting Duke Nukem: Forever.
When Gibson entered the marketing team at Gearbox around the same time Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway was released, he found himself inside a studio that was going through structural changes. “I can’t speak for everybody at the studio, obviously,” Gibson admits. “But the impression I have is that for a lot of years Gearbox was working within the confines of the Half-Life universe. With the Brothers in Arms franchise, the confines were in making a new world plausible and authentic. So there was a lot of structure to the design, the characters and everything else.”
Witnessing the studio freeing itself from a strict structure demanded by the franchises they’d worked on, Gibson noticed that the Borderlands project proved to be more than just a creative change of pace. “Borderlands ended up acting as a catharsis,” Gibson argues. “I think a big part is the way Borderlands started and the way it ended. People were still rolling out of the strict structure of what they’d been doing for the past five-plus years.”
Having ‘the look’
Even though Borderlands started out with a strict mindset, Gibson noticed the development team gradually realized the potential of its new found freedom. “It got wilder and wilder,” Gibson recalls. “The art style bubbled up from this new freedom and everything started feeling like fun and games.”
Experiencing so many changes from a PR & marketing perspective might be hard to handle, but Gibson says otherwise. “It made my job a lot easier,” he admits, “It did!.” Everybody had to look. “One of the hardest parts of the job when trying to get people to look at games is having something that is interesting to look at. Just in the fact that we did a very dramatic change, which was perceived to be late in development, everybody was looking.” While the perception of rapid change got everyone looking at Borderlands, Gibson fully focused his efforts on showing the press and public the quality of the game.
During this interview, Gibson and Gearbox President Randy Pitchford were presenting Duke Nukem: Forever to the Dutch press during the Firstlook game event in Amsterdam, taking their first step of a long and tiresome press trip all around Europe. “I remember working on a website ten or twelve years ago and thinking that this game is going to come out one day soon,” Gibson recalls. “Ten years later, I’m still working at a website thinking this game is never coming out.”
Finding yourself managing the marketing of that same project a couple of years later was summed up by Gibson in one word: “Surreal”. “I think is a lot what we say,” Gibson admits. “In our department, we had a couple of guys work on the press release to announce it for the first time. Every few minutes we’d stop and be like ‘I can’t believe I’m working on this’. To be on that flipside, is just absolutely crazy. It’s hard to describe.”
Promoting Duke Nukem: Forever, Gibson found himself in the rare situation of promoting a legend that had already touched almost everyone he met. “Everybody had a story of how they interacted with this game, sometime, somehow,” Gibson says. “Different publishers, different developers, all kinds of people passed through it. It’s been really weird running into a guy that tells me ‘Hey, I worked on that concept seven years ago. It looks completely different, but I did want to do it in a stadium’.”
Gibson faced a big challenge keeping everything secret during this year’s PAX gaming expo. “We knew word was going to leak that it was coming,” Gibson recalls. “But we had this panel that was on Sunday, we had an investor call the day before. All those things would point that we would make an announcement.”
The big secret would eventually be preserved until the final moment. Duke Nukem: Forever would be hands-on playable at PAX. The revelation of not only its existence, but the actual witness accounts of it being playable resulted in the game’s title topping all Twitter trends and catching the world’s attention in one big blow.
Legacy of Duke
Gibson suddenly points to a random gamer trying out the Duke Nukem: Forever demo next to us during our conversation. “This guy was 4 years old when Duke came out. He’s enjoying it, he stood in line to play it!” The legacy of Duke seems to have continued on. “Star Wars also lived on through parents down to their kids,” Gibson argues. “There are some things that people talk a lot about, even if it was from a long time ago.”
Calling the atmosphere at the Gearbox offices ‘giddy’ and admitting to having to force his own colleagues from the marketing department to go home late at night to catch some sleep, Gibson is currently enjoying a rare commodity for many PR & marketing folks out there: promoting a legend.