Train2Game Interview: Gearbox Software co-founder Brian Martel on starting in the industry and learning from failure

Gearbox Software co-founder and Executive Vice President Brian Martel has worked in the games industry for over twenty years, making him the most experienced member of the Texas studio. The Train2Game Blog recently start down with Martel at a Borderlands 2 preview event where he discussed how he got started in the industry, the importance of learning from mistakes and advice on getting into game development.

How did you get started in the games industry?

I’ve been in the industry now for about twenty years. I got my first start at Microprose, the first game that I worked on was Civilization and I’m the last name that appears in the credits, so I’m extremely proud of my time at Microprose and I learned a lot of valuable lessons from Sid Meier, how he starts and his approach to gaming and that’s really awesome.

I then went to 3D Realms, leaving to be a texture artist. There I met Randy Pitchford; we were paired up, he was a level designer and I was an artist and we really just hit it off. That’s kind of how it worked back in those days; you would just keep pushing each other. Then after that we decided to start Rebel Boat Rocker, which was one of the best miserable failures of our career, we learned a lot about what not to do in making games.

Then we started Gearbox Software and I think we’re going on thirteen years now and that’s been a fabulous experience. We’ve been working on things that we really love like the Half-Life series, working on some Halo, Tony Hawk, even the James Bond franchise; all of these things have been interesting and now we’ve got Aliens: Colonial Marines which is fantastic, a dream come true. And then owning our own intellectual properties, like working on the Brothers In Arms series and Borderlands.

So, it’s been a pretty cool ride, really love making games, we’re entertainers at heart and this is what we do.

You mentioned learning from mistakes there, how important is it then for young game designers to actually make mistakes and learn from them?

Yeah, you have to fail, you have to learn what works and what doesn’t work, and the only way to really do that is to not be afraid of those failures and kind of push forward and try and do and make new things and do stuff, that’s really what you need to do. I mean everything doesn’t have to be perfect.

Probably the best lesson in all of this, and it’ll sound kind of silly and base if you will, is you have to learn when things are good enough, and that’s sort of the trick. The customer doesn’t know the difference between you’re vision – which is far exceeding your capabilities – and what they get in the box, or on an app, or whatever. So just do it, make it, make something, make something they can feel and experience.

It’s like writers, right? You should just have to write, and that’s the same kind of thing, just make games. If you like programming, do what you love; if you like programming, you like art, just do what you love, do it. Just do it over and over and over again, find people you can work well with – they’re going to feed your passion and drive, that kind of thing.

So, would that be your advice to anymore aspiring to break into the games industry? Do programming, produce art, mod for example.

Yeah, exactly. Mods are a great way to start; because that way you can build a community, figure out what it’s like to work with other people. Its one thing when you’re on your own in your bedroom, garage, whatever, and you’re doing your own thing. But once you start working with people, collaborating and understanding how to make those compromises you have to make, sometimes some of the best things come out of those compromises, they come out of the discussion, because two different people have disparate ideas and you can’t get that on your own.

I think that’s where small teams are really great to do that, and even in large teams, having really great experienced leaders can help that, and the only way to get there is by doing it and getting through it and learning what to do.

Thanks for your time.

There’s more from Gearbox Software here on The Train2Game Blog, while there’s also plenty more advice from industry experts.

As usual, leave your comments on The Train2Game Blog, or here on The Train2Game forum.  

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