Borderlands 2: 'This is THE gun game'
18th Aug 2011 | 16:45
Borderlands 2 is a sequel that's already looking nail-on to top its predecessor.
Acknowledging that the first game - though brilliant - was chopped and repurposed in many departments, developer Gearbox has moved to rebuild for the sequel, introducing a deeper plot, more iconic and varied weapons, plus enemies and environments that feel more alive than before.
To discuss the studio's thoughts on the follow-up, we sat down with concept designer Scott Kester at GamesCom.
You said in the game presentation today that you feel GamesCom was fundamental to the success of the first Borderlands...
Yeah. It was the first time the game was ever announced and when we came back after we changed the art style it was sort of our second life. This was where we revealed that for the first time and yeah, this was the first time info ever went out on the game and it was received well. We really appreciated that. It was important for us to show this here as well.
Brothers in Arms aside, Gearbox has mostly made its name working on other company's IP (Aliens, Half-Life, Halo...). Does it feel good to finally have another successful franchise to call your own?
We're very fortunate with Borderlands and we're very happy that people accepted it. Maybe on paper it's a bit of a challenging pitch but people took to us and we're very happy that they did. It's very important to us as a company and it is ours. We're trying to care for our baby as much as possible, for sure. All of our games are important to us and all of the publishers we work for but yeah, we just feel really good about the position we're in with Borderlands 2.
Does Borderlands get any extra love then being "your baby"?
There's equal passion for all of our projects. Everywhere in the company I see people working 110% - we're definitely working the same on every project. We put our all in everything we do and this is no exception. It's special in being a sequel to one of our biggest successes and we're doing everything we can to make the sequel that many times better.
Do you think you have an advantage with the sequel going in fresh, where as the first game started off as something very different and was perhaps chopped and changed?
Definitely. So far in to the development of the last game we chose to change the art style. That was when I came in as one of the guys who went, 'this doesn't feel right'. It was a very dangerous decision on our part and we thank 2K for seeing the promise in it. It's made it so much easier leading into this next game because we're not going, 'oh my gosh, are we changing the art style?!'
It's been a big help, even in creating environments where we know better ways to create things. We know the road map for the game we want to make - it's way better than we had it last time.
Is that why the environments in Borderlands 2 look a bit more varied than the original's dusty deserts?
Yeah. There are still desert environments in this game - we're not completely jumping ship. In game development, particularly when you take a risk like we did at that time, it meant something was going to take a hit and one of those things was perhaps the variety in the environments and even gear... all those design decisions were done relatively fast and having a little more time to digest what we did right and what we did wrong -plus listen to feedback from fans and critics - has been very beneficial.
We've learned a lot. We're very happy that people have accepted it and we're going to do that much more to keep giving them something that they're going to enjoy.
One of the core systems shown in your original 2007 pitch was the random weapon generator. How has that evolved for the sequel?
That's actually one of the things that was a really difficult decision as we came in to the second game. It took a long time to create that tech, the way all the different weapon bodies and components come together. I personally don't even understand how it works... it's just a really complex system and going in to this we thought that the manufacturers' identities were a little weak in the last game. You couldn't tell one gun from another.
We've kind of gutted the system. The mechanics of how it works are still relatively the same but we've re-concepted every weapon across the whole board. Our game is about the guns; we have so many more components and attachments. When you take that and the character that we're talking about right now - Salvador the gunzerker - you can have a crazy rocket launcher in one hand and a minigun in the other.
If you take all of those guns and figure out how many different combinations you could create... to us that was a really important thing because this is a gun game and we really want people to understand that, and just see that we've gone all in to do the best we can and give them as many options as our play style will allow. We're doing our best.
For the sequel did you look at what fans liked best about the original and expanding on that, or are you looking to do your own thing?
Both 2K and ourselves both believe in the promise of the project - that's never changed. The core values and the core design... we listen to feedback externally and internally. The publisher really is like, 'we trust you to do what you're doing' and we're doing the best we can to meet expectations on both sides.
Obviously there's some pressure. We want to deliver. We're very honest with ourselves - we didn't want to create just an annual sequel that changed the textures. Very few components from the last game are being reused. We have some staples for certain enemies that we put in for familiarity but it was really important for us to just do more of what we did better, with as many things as we can put in there to keep players interested.
What facets of the original do you feel didn't turn out so well?
We're our own worst critic - I'm never really happy. We know the story wasn't the most amazing thing but we also took the decision to say 'this is about the gameplay' and we didn't want to override that. That's something we're really working on in this, getting the story in to the missions and presenting reasons for what you're doing rather than just fest quests and following your HUD dot.
NPCs and interactions with them are much better. That's one other thing... we're putting a lot of effort in to that to make the world feel alive. I felt the world in the original was a little static and we're now trying to get as much movement in there as possible and creating a little more realised world. And when we're creating an enemy it's about the gameplay first, plus the AI's improved a lot. Some things are appropriately dumb (laughs) but we've really tried to look at that and I feel like we're doing a much better job.
In a genre that's dominated by Call of Duty a lot of developers are now trying to create shooters that are a bit different such as Brink, Bulletstorm etc, but yours is one of the few that's seen success. Why is that?
In regards to us I really do feel it was that we didn't want to go overly RPG and we didn't want to go overly shooter . There was always a constant struggle over how may stats we showed and we tried really hard to make that balance palatable to a player who plays a more standard shooter. We tried to cater to those guys. That was really important to us, it wasn't just like 'oh I saw this feature in another game, let's put it in'.
There was a lot of effort behind those decisions. I also feel the co-op nature of the game really kept people coming back. From the single-player experience to the multiplayer experience it was just something that we really felt... there was just something about getting together with your friends. If you're grinding, doing a quest or whatever there's just this constant conversation. I think that kept people coming back.
And we really tried to support the game when we thought about the DLC. We really wanted to try and do our best, to create quality DLC and show support to the people that bought the game. I would say the multiplayer at the time and the old idea of what we were trying to put together... some of the titles out there do what they do great but we wanted to carve out our own area.
How have you balanced role-playing and combat for the sequel? Did you discover fans enjoyed one side more than the other?
It's relatively unchanged as far as the balance of that goes. There are certain aspects of things where we're looking at the player that's maybe a little more adept or hardcore about 'this is my character, this is my attributes'. We put a lot of depth into the skill tree of this one. If you don't care that's totally fine, but for the RPG player there's a lot of things to fiddle with in this game.
For the person that just wants to shoot things it's very easily spelled out, but the more that you start to dig the gear and how the characters interact with eachother... there's a lot of depth there. It gives everybody a little something I feel.
Gearbox is working on a lot of games at the moment. What would you say to fans worried you might be spreading yourselves a bit thin?
It's something we hear sometimes. We're fully committed to all of our products. We're doing everything we can. Our company is larger than it's ever been and we're putting as much attention as humanly possible into the things that we're doing. Everything has the same quality bar.
To the fans of our other franchises, we're doing everything we can to make sure the quality's there and not playing favourites to one or another. There are priorities at times but it's constantly shifting. We very much believe in our games.