‘Borderlands’ developer lands at Baylor, discusses modern gaming
By Tyler Alley
Gearbox Software creates some of the most popular video games on the market; the most recent success is the game known as “Borderlands,” an innovative role-playing first-person shooter that has sold more than 4.5 million copies worldwide. One the minds behind this important game took time to visit some classes here at Baylor.
Thibault works at Gearbox as the vice president of product development. He visits computer science classes as well as film and digital media classes at multiple schools, including Baylor.
“I love coming down here to speak,” Aaron Thibault said. “I’ve been lecturing to Dr. [Corey] Carbonara’s and Dr. [Michael] Korpi’s classes for years. This was a good time to do it. We just announced ‘Borderlands 2’ as well as have a lot going on with ‘Aliens’ and ‘Brothers in Arms: Furious 4’.”
“I love coming down and having a sounding board of students to talk to,” Thibault said. “You guys are gamers. You know about games in the market. I love to see your reaction and see what you’re thinking about and talk to you guys. That’s why I come down.”
He went on to say discussing video games was not his only reason for visiting the university.
“[I’m] also having discussions with computer science and FDM [film and digital media] about perhaps being more involved and seeing ways that I might be able to participate in a variety of classes that have to do with game development,” Thibault said. “So I’m excited about that and wanted to come down and piggyback some discussions about that on top of speaking to classes.”
Thibault has some experience in the collegiate academic world. He worked at the IC2 Institute at the University of Texas, where he helped created a multidisciplinary videogame R&D game program.
“Dr. [George] Kozmetsky, who’s both mine and Dr. Carbonara’s mentor, raised money to build an R&D program with games,” Thibault said. “I started with a research agenda of artificial intelligence, learning and online games. I built ‘Digital Warrior,’ which was a learning game for decision-making for the Army. I tied that in to other gaming projects that were happening around the Army. I did a number of very cool projects there.”
After a number of years at Texas, he left for SMU, where a graduate program had just been created in game development.
“I headed up to SMU’s Guildhall [graduate program in video game arts and sciences] as the deputy director and ran that program and taught there and continued my applied research for a time.”
Thibault grew up loving video games. His first system was the Atari 2600, and he says he played everything from “Pong” to “Battle Zone.”
“‘Pitfall 2’ [for the Atari] is still one of my favorite games,” Thibault said. “I loved the exploration and the shooting and adventure. I’ve always loved video games.”
Along with his love for video games, he soon found an interest in programming.
“I started programming games with my grandfather on a TRS 80. It came with a programming bible and had a lot of animation and small games that you could program yourself.”
Thibault went to UT for college and spent some time in sound production, engineering and animation. He also learned about programming for text-based online multiplayer games.
“I thought it was a lot of fun,” Thibault said. “It was actually some of the most fun I had in any of my classes in school. I was wondering at that time, ‘How could you add graphics to this and make a game out of it?’ So I remember having that in the back of my head while I was getting ready to graduate from school.”
While in college, he also worked in the music industry doing promotions and production. Eventually he was introduced to a person at Origin Systems, where he got his start in gaming as a sound designer and cinematic animator. Origin was a part of Electronic Arts, the big-time gaming company behind the “Madden” franchise as well as other popular games. Once EA began to downsize, he decided to move.
“EA had been laying off people at Origin,” Thibault said. “I left as a full-time person, then they hired me back as a consultant. They wanted me to go out to California because they were consolidating their operation at their headquarters. I wanted to look at other opportunities to stay in Austin.”
It was then he decided to work for his alma mater, UT. After teaching and researching at both UT and SMU, he wanted to get back into commercial gaming.
“I headed over to Gearbox software, where I still am,” Thibault said. “[They have] a great team there where I’d be able to work directly with the founders of the company, who are awesome game makers, having made some games I loved playing: ‘CounterStrike’, ‘Tony Hawk’, and ‘Halo PC’.”
Now Thibault says he enjoys talking to students about the current gaming environment.
“Right now’s a really interesting time. There’s a lot of room for innovation, lot of room for smaller efforts to have a big impact. You can pretty quickly create a game and publish it through iTunes, [Android], Steam, Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. I think that students who are interested in that have an opportunity to learn things and try things in the safe environment of school.”
Thibault also had some advice for students interested in the gaming industry: start learning now.
“Find ways to apply yourself and do hobby projects and actually do game projects,” Thibault said. “There’s a ton of pickup game programming. Think about what hobby projects would be really interesting to you; sort of unsolved problems or thing you think you could do better. “
Thibault has been employed in the gaming industry for 14 years.