Dabe Alan

Why Gearbox bought Homeworld, and how they’re putting it back into the hands of those who created it

Why Gearbox bought Homeworld, and how they’re putting it back into the hands of those who created it

It seemed like an odd match: The developer of the ultra-successful Borderlands franchise buying the rights to Homeworld, one of the most beloved strategy games in the history of PC gaming? What the hell were they going to do with it?

In truth, not even they knew at the time, but the price was right and the company was enthusiastic about the idea of owning Homeworld. What happened next was good luck, or at least a very well-made connection. The good news is that the future of Homeworld now seems to be in very good hands. It will be funded with Borderlands money, and guided by the right people: Those who created the first two games.

“We're not vultures.”

“It wasn’t an option until THQ unfortunately went out of business,” Gearbox President Randy Pitchford (pictured in this story's header image) told me as we sat together at PAX.

I said that dissolution was a very good thing for a number of companies, and Pitchford made a face somewhere between a smile and a grimace.

“We’re not vultures, I don’t take any happiness with the fact that the industry picked through the pieces of their loss. But if there is some happiness to it…” Pitchford said, gesturing to the other men at the table. We’ll get to them in a bit.

In fact, it wasn’t Pitchford, but Brian Martel, the chief creative officer at Gearbox, who pushed for the acquisition. “He said we should take a swing at it,” Pitchford explained.

They were able to purchase the rights to the Homeworld intellectual property for around $1.3 million. That seemed to be the sweet spot, as the price was high enough to prove that other companies had interest and the name had value, but low enough that it would allow Gearbox to not only purchase the rights, but also spend a few million more funding a game.

“Our situation is kind of interesting, we’ve been fortunate to find success with the things we’ve done. Borderlands has obviously made a lot of money, and we’re neck deep in creating some new IP and doing some things with the IP we already have. What are we going to do with what we’ve earned?” Pitchford asked. “Brian can buy a few more cars, or we can do what we got into this industry to do, which is create shit and bring some joy and happiness in the world.”

“Once we got it we didn’t have a clear plan,” Pitchford said. “We didn’t know what the hell we were doing.” He was trusting in their ability to “connect some dots,” to figure out what to do with the game. They looked at the modding community, and they were building Homeworld ships out of LEGO bricks. It was clear that the name had a hardcore following, but the Gearbox team is working on a variety of games, including brand new titles. So now what? 

“We just trusted that we could do something great once we got the business part figured out,” Pitchford said. He saw the acquisition as a way they could “put their money to work” for them, and they could keep the Homeworld brand in their back pocket until something came up.

It didn’t take long.

The prequel that wasn't

Rob Cunningham is the CEO of  Blackbird Interactive, but before that he was a founding member of Relic, and the art designer of Homeworld 1 and Homeworld 2. Blackbird is home to many developers who worked on the Homeworld universe, but they were working on an RTS  called HARDWARE: Shipbreakers, a game that dealt with survival on a desert planet as groups of salvagers harvested the remains of crashed ships.

It was a prequel to Homeworld in everything but name. They just couldn’t legally say that. Gearbox’s acquisition, however, proved attractive to the team.

“It started when [Gearbox] picked up the Homeworld IP. We knew them from before, we were surprised, we thought it was amazing,” said Cunningham. The developers at Blackbird sent over a congratulatory statement and a few images from their personal archive to welcome them to the universe of Homeworld.

These overtures weren’t just friendly, as Shipbreakers would need much more money to be completed.

“We were looking for additional financing, because it needed a great deal more money to be completed in the way we thought it needed to be completed,” Cunningham said. “So we started talking to these guys.”

A meeting at E3 sealed the deal. “We said that you just bought this IP, and we have this thing, do you see any similarities? Maybe we should talk!” Cunningham said, laughing. “They were thinking the same thing. The stars kind of aligned.”

The deal was actually signed in front of an audience at PAX. The game will now be called Homeworld: Shipbreakers, and is an official prequel to Homeworld.

“It makes it way better, it’s authentic now,” Aaron Kambeitz, the chief creative officer of Blackbird said. Kambeitz was the lead artist on Homeworld, and now all that previous work could be referenced directly in the game. “It brings a lot more context and history to it, we can be referring to [Homeworld], and foreshadowing things and creating relationships with it. It’s a huge boost.”

Gearbox isn’t just lending the Homeworld IP to Blackbird, the developer will be directly funding the game. Why take teams off new projects at Gearbox when they have the budget to just write a check to the people who designed and created the original Homeworld titles? 

“I’ve seen what these guys are building, and I’m ready to invest,” Pitchford said. “Well, I have invested. I’m committed now.”

The Homeworld brand is still strong, but why not put it back into play? Gearbox is also working on a digital re-release of the original two games, complete with updated graphics, cutscenes, and soundtrack. You’ll be able to play the original game, completely untouched if you want the classic experience, but the updated graphics will also be available if you want to play a game that looks modern.

“This was actually part of the collaboration, these guys had the source, the original assets, there were cutscenes that were rendered out in 320 vertical lines,” Pitchford said. “So you get the source and now you can do a super-HD version of that. It’s pretty badass.”

So there will be the re-released versions of the first two Homeworld games, and those efforts will benefit from the work done by the men who originally created them. Then Homeworld: Shipbreakers will be released in the future. And then… ?

“My hope is that the natural next step is that these guys lead the future of what Homeworld should be,” Pitchford said, motioning to the Blackbird team. “These guys created it, they’re the natural caretakers.”

I asked if there was a binder full of ideas for what to do with the Homeworld universe after shipbreakers. “Yeah,” Cunningham said, with a giant smile. “Kind of.”

Playing without a net

This is all exciting stuff, but it’s interesting to note that the journey began with Gearbox writing a $1.3 million check for a game they loved, but had no plans to develop. It was a reckless move, and is the business equivalent of jumping off a ledge without a parachute.

Although, to be fair, Borderlands is always going to function as the official parachute of Gearbox. This also gives the company a chance to reclaim some of the respect it lost in the eyes of gamers after the high profile stumble of Colonial Marines, and the less than well-loved Duke Nukem Forever.

Pitchford admitted that Homeworld represented dice he was happy to pick up and roll.

“The risk is part of the fun,” he said. “If we’re not taking risks, we’re not going to move forward.”