Gearbox Studios celebrated its 10th birthday earlier this year. It's a major milestone in the life of any game maker, and one the Texan developer no doubt celebrated heartily. So how is studio head Randy Pitchford, the man who has steered Gearbox from its origins as work-for-hire Half-Life expander to today's multi-tasking operation, feeling?
"I'm terrified!" he shrieks. Advancing years can do that to a man. But Pitchford is terrified, specifically, about his studio's latest project, Borderlands. Because it's the biggest creative risk Gearbox has ever undertaken, an open-world FPS/RPG mashup with cel-shaded graphics and a sci-fi setting knocked up from scratch. And not just that, but it's sailing head-on into the Q4 maelstrom, which has sunk more than its fair share of worthy new ideas in recent times. Remember Mirror's Edge?
"When people take risks and it's not rewarded, in the case of Mirror's Edge, it's makes it harder for others to be comfortable taking risks," admits Pitchford. "We're taking a shooter and saying, hey, we think it's compelling to get loot, and we think it's compelling to level up, and we're going to put that on a shooter. That's a risk, right? And it's with an original brand, too, so it's even more risky."
The run up to Christmas is already enough to unsettle the sturdiest gaming constitution. And that's before you consider the game this year that - whatever they claim - everyone wants to avoid.
"We're all going to get Call of Duty this year, alright?" Pitchford concedes. "That's going to happen; so it makes it really scary. But there are those of us that play everything and we're begging for fresh stuff, so I'm hoping that helps. And if it's good, it'll get noticed."
Raise a glass, then, to creative bravery and publisher balls (don't go delaying it now and making me look stupid, 2K). But before we get too intoxicated, what of this "risky" endeavour?
Set on the remote planet of Pandora, Borderlands thematically blends the lawless wild west and Mad Max-esque industrial desolation with alien technology and creatures. And structurally, it seeks to merge the intensity of a first-person shooter with the customisable depth of an RPG and the exploratory freedom of an open-world adventure. Add to that random weapon generation (with hundreds of thousands of possible combinations), and you not only have an awful lot to get right, but also a fair amount that could go wrong. So, yeah. Risky.
Gearbox's previous games have typically been one thing or another. Mainly first-person shooters, admittedly, but not without the occasional sortie into unfamiliar territory, as with last year's Samba De Amigo update for Wii. "Brothers In Arms; Samba Di Amigo - I can't think of two things that are further apart," Pitchford chuckles. "But I'm a gamer. Look at your own collection and it's probably got things that far apart on the shelf, right?"
It's a fair point. And there's no doubting his gaming credentials, with an Xbox gamerscore currently in excess of 80,000. So having proved itself as a safe pair of hands with existing brands, and creator of a successful original franchise - within the relatively less risky confines of the WWII shooter genre - this time, for Randy, it's personal.
"On one level we're definitely coming at this game from the vector of a shooter," he explains. "When I play shooters, I don't really expect any growth." But that's not enough for a man who has sunk hundreds of hours of desperate grinding into Diablo. "When you play Diablo, there is no skill. You put the cursor on the icon, you click it and it goes. But there's a compulsion to it. I couldn't not. I wanted the next level."
Borderlands attempts to reconcile the two. The promise is a game that, if you're a shooter fan, you can rattle through in 15 hours to your taste, with 30-odd mission chains to the core story. "That part is about the length of a typical shooter," Pitchford adds. While for the buccaneering spirit, there's an additional 120 missions which are, he maintains, "optional", with all the rapacious, smack-head levelling-up that implies.
To sample the single-player, I am plonked onto Pandora near the start of the game as a Soldier (one of four available character classes, the others, Tank, Hunter and Siren). Character-customisation (appearance, name, and so on) is there if you want it, otherwise you can just skip on as the default character.
Before I have time to take in the apparently deserted, derelict dustbowl I've landed in, I'm joined by an amiable, jabbering droid whose purpose is to tutor in the game basics. And it does so in a surprisingly charming manner, redolent of C3P0 on Tattooine, which is a smart alternative to the bog-standard tutorial, sucking you straight into the world.
Progression at first is gentle and logical. Collect a weapon; kill bandits; venture beyond the town's perimeter to hunt for loot in the dangerous wasteland beyond; fight off packs of savage skags (alien dog things); take on your first missions from other mysterious residents for cash and kit; learn to use vending machines to stock up on items; gain enough experience to level up and explore skill trees.
Gearbox can make first-person shooters in its sleep, and so that side of the game feels immediately solid and satisfying (although aiming, especially when zoomed-in, feels ever-so-slightly off). The key difference is, when you shoot a living creature in the face, numbers magically appear above their heads in classic RPG fashion as health deteriorate towards "critical" and then, well, "dead".
It's certainly far less intense than Christian's E3 demo experience with a greater sense of desolation and uncertainty in the wilderness, rather than blood-curdling panic. It also reveals some of the challenges Gearbox faces in blending the two main gaming ingredients, with early missions serving both as a testing ground for basic skills and as means to coerce the player into ramping up stats from the off to kick-start the levelling-up process.
Grinding in the early stages can be as simple as wandering into the desert to find skags to slaughter, looting their remains for items. Its usefulness becomes blindingly apparent when I reach the first boss, a shady type called Nine Toes, who battles you in an arena-like setting flanked - utterly unfairly - by armoured skags. After repeated attempts I don't even come close to winning.
On the one hand, it's perfectly possible I'm simply rubbish and failing to spot the obvious required strategy. On the other hand, I'd likely have fared better with beefier stats. "Maybe we put some more training up about skills and how to optimise your gameplay through your character," Pitchford suggests.
"Because it's an RPG, you can go grind somewhere else. There are some people that have trouble with Nine Toes not because they're not good, but because they were just able to get there quickly and efficiently, and maybe they didn't take down as much other stuff and get as much experience."
This raises an important issue. While grinding is a routine pleasure for those hardened to the mechanic, as long as its served in an engaging way, what of the "typical shooter" fan who rattles on through, only to find he'd have been better off spending half an hour blasting frothing space mutts? For those who find that an unpalatable prospect, there are the side missions.
In this particular case, says Pitchford, "there's also an optional side-quest that you can do before, that if you can do that you tend to get enough experience to go up one level and that makes a huge difference."
What's abundantly clear is that for all the potential of the combat and skill systems, I'm barely scratching the surface here. So Gearbox promptly dumps me, and the other games hacks in the room, into co-op multiplayer at level 20. Given a blank skills slate and 20 levelling up points, plus a choice of character type, we can spend the points wherever we like - and here's where the game's tantalising promise finally emerges.
Special abilities can be selected and upgraded and skill trees nurtured to produce a huge range of outcomes that, from what I am able to tell, could easily make one person's experience of the game markedly different from another's.
In co-op this goes a stage further, and by working together (which, admittedly, we do with all the effectiveness of Newcastle Utd.), skills and abilities can be complemented to create a squad of fearsome destructive potential, bolstered by high medic skills that could make the difference in the many ferocious battles for survival. A lone assault on a giant spider ant, as I discover, is ill-advised.
Having romped around Borderlands in single- and multiplayer for less than an hour, it's still too early to call. The scope, potential and promise are all clear, and if the various diverse strands of action, RPG and narrative tie together in the compelling manner Gearbox is shooting for, this will not just be an experience all of its own this Christmas, but potentially a very good one.
The challenge in leaving so much to chance by weaving narrative set-pieces into what is in some ways a vast, freeform tapestry of deliberately random events, is in keeping the player engaged and motivated throughout. Some of the enforced back-and-forth gameplay I encounter in this small sample suggests this could prove an issue.
But Gearbox, aged 10, is long enough in the tooth to be well aware of all of this and more. And though it is a huge roll of the dice for both the studio and publisher 2K Games, Pitchford sees it as an important one not just for his company, but the industry as a whole.
"I think eventually [games are] going to be the dominant form of entertainment if we're not already," he states. "What's going to get us there is being able to take risks and being able to innovate. Because if we always do the same stuff we don't push ourselves forward anymore."
Commendable? Yes. High risk? Yes. Place your bets.
Borderlands is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 23rd October.