Interviews// Gearbox on Borderlands 2

Posted 4 Apr 2012 13:00 by
It only feels like yesterday that the comic-book styled, RPG-FPS hybrid Borderlands was released to the world. It was, in fact, two and a half years ago. How time flies, eh? But Gearbox has been working to ensure that your time in Borderlands 2 is not wasted - far from it.

The last several years have been spent tightening gameplay mechanics and streamlining the story so that you’re not running from post to post in order to check in missions anymore. Gearbox spends time, so you don’t have to.

VP of Marketing for the studio, Steve Gibson, was at hand to talk about the evolution of the Borderlands series, the first game’s surprise success and what happens to a studio when it wants to implement new features. It all gets a bit philosophical, apparently. Read on...


SPOnG: Borderlands 2 feels very familiar. It’s like the 2008 game never left us. What kind of game mechanics have you changed specifically from the last game?

Steve Gibson: Yeah, we wanted to make it familiar to people who played the first game. You don’t want to break a winning formula, right? Borderlands is hinged on the ‘shoot and loot’ concept, and we had to make sure that we didn’t alienate the guys who bought the game on that basis.

So instead, we changed how that core experience is delivered. And we wanted to start rewarding the guys who are coming in from the role-playing side of things some more too. In Borderlands 2, your missions are dynamically changing - they’re a constant stream of objectives. That was impossible to do in the first game, because you had to keep backtracking and checking in missions or talking to NPCs.

The funny thing is, how it all feels so natural despite this change. A lot of people didn’t even notice that we had altered the level progression in this way when they played Borderlands 2 for the first time. You don’t realise how much that experience has dynamically changed because it feels so right.


SPOnG: There was one particular mechanic that I noticed - all the loot automatically gets drawn to you instead of you having to press X all the time to pick it up. Was a lot of that introduced by way of feedback from fans?

Steve Gibson: Some of that was, but that particular one came up during the design of the first game as well, actually. Implementing changes and tweaks to the gameplay isn’t always as simple as just thinking it would make things more convenient for the player. A lot of times, if you give people what you think would be better for them, it actually makes the game less fun.

So when we started talking about how we wanted to make a change, we thought about the psychology of gamers, and the impact it would have on the reward system. You really get into this weird nitty gritty of gamer psychology... before you realise, “well, fuck it, it actually is just better!” [Laughs]


SPOnG: You mentioned flow of the campaign mode of Borderlands 2, and that it was impossible to do in the first Borderlands game. Were there any other design concepts that had to be left out of the original due to similar limitations?

Steve Gibson: Not being a designer, that one’s hard for me to say. I can’t pick a particular example. Oftentimes we’ll talk to the guys and get really excited that we have a certain feature, but I wouldn’t know if that idea had a genesis in the first game or not.


SPOnG: Why do you think the mission progression was impossible to do in Borderlands 1?

Steve Gibson: That was simply based on experience on our part. You tend to realise what the game’s going to flesh out to be towards the end of a project. And so you tend to run into a situation where, because you now understand the tone and style of the game you wish you could implement a number of cool new features halfway through development. It’s a matter of getting more mature and realising what the game is, and figuring out what you want to do in this universe.


SPOnG: The thing that stuck out for me during the first Borderlands game, was the lack of a deep and involved storyline. The plot was there to simply drive players along and keep them going. That’s rare to see in a role-playing game. Do you think the lack of story is part of the appeal in Borderlands? Have you fleshed it out in Borderlands 2 at all?

Steve Gibson: Well, one thought on that is how we’ve tried to be really flexible with how our story is delivered. If you don’t really care and just want to skip all the dialogue, you’re never going to find yourself forced into a conversation with an NPC. You can just enjoy the action parts of the game, and you don’t have to think about it at all.

But what we’ve done in the second game, with the way the mission system now works, is deliver a far more involved story and a better sense of context on what you’re doing - without actually impacting the flexibility of the delivery of story from the first game. In fact, it makes it better - before, what you’re doing is almost held back in a way, because you’re constantly going back and forth. That doesn’t feel natural for storytelling.

The way this is set up, you can actually tell a story. And the writers would love for you to know, that the actual amount of storytelling and dialogue is six to seven times the amount that can be found in the first game. There’s just way more in there. But, again, it’s up to you if you want to experience that or not; you can just skip through it all if you like.


SPOnG: Of course, if you present a story in this fashion, you also avoid having controversies like BioWare’s currently having with Mass Effect 3!

Steve Gibson: [Laughs] Yes, the less story you have, the less risk you have too.


SPOnG: When you present something that’s both an RPG and an FPS - and I refer to Mass Effect because it is an action-RPG hybrid to compare with - is it a risk presenting a story that goes too far?

Steve Gibson: Well, I think if you look at Borderlands as a whole... the whole game was risky. We had a risky looking art style, untested genre with the option to have millions of guns out there - people liked only having one kind of gun. Not to mention the risky designs of the characters and their sense of humour.

That sort of stuff is not very common in video games. So we took risks all across the board in the first game. That’s what people rewarded us for - all those risks we took in design and style and all those other elements, so we’re happy to keep doing it. And we wouldn’t be averse to taking one more risk like that.


SPOnG: It could be said that developing an RPG at all these days is a massive risk, unless you can attach it to a sub-genre. Do you think the success of Borderlands is proof that you can take a risk?

Steve Gibson: We would love for people to keep taking risks. That’s how you forward an industry. You try new things. If you just keep churning out the same stuff, people will probably still buy it, but if you want your ‘art-form’ - or whatever you want to call it - to keep progressing, you’ve gotta try out new things.


SPOnG: Guess it helps to have a partner or publisher that understand where you’re going with things.

Steve Gibson: Yeah. 2K has been a wonderful partner for us. Actually, at the time we did the first Borderlands, those guys were also taking a big risk with the style and storytelling of BioShock. They had just been doing that, and that was bizarre too - and that did great. To us, 2K is a great partner for doing this - this is a huge, ambitious sequel, three-year sequel - that’s a tough sequel. We’re practically doing it all over again, and 2K has been great about it.


SPOnG: How do you feel the RPG genre itself has evolved? I guess these hybrids in Skyrim, Mass Effect, and Borderlands were massive risks, but are now par for the course and seem to be the accepted form of RPG today. Do you think that is the way forward? Is there room for traditional RPGs?

Steve Gibson: Not being a game designer, I couldn’t tell you what the next frontier is, but I like to think that we have not yet tried all the different possibilities - we can still keep pushing forward and trying new ideas. I’m sure as the industry keeps maturing, people are going to hit on different things. Like, the idea of an FPS - when that first happened, it was groundbreaking. But now, the first-person viewpoint is a foundation of a lot of games. That was a new frontier at one point. I look forward to the next one.


SPOnG: Borderlands 2 is an ambitious sequel, and lot of people weren’t expecting its announcement. Are you guys surprised yourselves? Did you have franchise ambitions for it, or did you intend for the first game to be a one-off?

Steve Gibson: Well, it was more than a four-year project the first time around. Heck, you’ll probably remember that we changed the art style a year before we shipped! There was a tonne of experimentation in that game. I think, towards the very end, when we really felt like we had a good formula, the confidence we had got a little bit bigger, but we really did not expect it to be the 4 or 5 million seller that it turned out to be. That’s shocking, for any new IP, especially a risky one like Borderlands.


SPOnG: Now that you are coming out with a sequel, do you see this running on and on?

Steve Gibson: Yeah. I hope so [laughs]. I hope everyone loves Borderlands 2, and I hope that we keep expanding on that universe and we are able to try new risky things all over again. We’ll keep pushing those boundaries on what that is.


SPOnG: What ways do you think you could see yourself pushing the universe?

Steve Gibson: I guess beyond Borderlands... well shoot, I dunno. If you start to think what we could do beyond the second game, you’d think we’d probably be looking at a generation shift. That’s likely to happen in the next few years, and that’s going to open up all kinds of new avenues of different control schemes, different perspectives and... in terms of the impact on gaming experience, that feels like it could result in anything.


SPOnG: Thank you for your time.

Steve Gibson: Thank you!
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