Borderlands 2: Double the budget but devoted to its roots
13th Jul 2012 | 12:00
Randy Pitchford appears conflicted. When it comes to promoting his studio's projects, he's usually a force of nature; a smiley self-made man whose rhetoric lands comfortably between a hard and soft sell. Yet today at the final stretch of a comprehensive Borderlands 2 promotional tour, I get the impression he doesn't want to exercise such talents by taking part in an interview with CVG.
He doesn't say so in definitive terms, but one doesn't have to be a clairvoyant to get a sense that he was disappointed by something we published (this could, of course, be us at fault). In my attempt to chat with him before the interview, and in fact the first five minutes of our discussion, he's standoffish and a tad spiky.
One suspects he'd rather I'd just play the game and write it up. That's not completely unfeasible; Borderlands 2 is a funny and eye-catching oddity that can do all the talking for itself.
To describe the sequel as a check-list of enhancements over the original would be both accurate yet slightly unfair. The nucleus of the first Borderlands has not been tampered; it is still an open(ish)-world FPS with an immense capacity for character customisation. It still appears to work with a slow-burning, almost novel-length reward structure, where a sense of accomplishment is still gradually reinforced late into the campaign.
Borderlands 2's selling-point isn't the improvements to all its parts, but in fact how these enhanced elements mix together to create an effective overall package. The enemy path-finding and AI is particularly sophisticated for a game where combat is not pushed into corridors but spills across localised zones. Tricky and tactical battles punctuate the serene (and at times visually interesting) journeys across the landscape.
It's not perfect. Pitchford says he's proud of the game's animations, but in the interview over the page I explain my reservations. Face and body motions - at least in this build - are slightly jarring when set against the polish of the overall package. Time will tell whether this is improved upon.
Fortunately by the time I suggest to Mr Pitchford that the game's animation isn't exactly perfect, the tension between us appeared to have passed away, almost as though a subtle, unmentioned truce had taken place between questions. What shines through in the end, true to form, is his passion and unshakable pride for the Borderlands team.
You can read the Q&A for yourself on the next page.
Borderlands 2 is due for release September 18th in the US; September 21st across Europe; on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3. Developed by Gearbox in Texas. Published by Take-Two label 2K Games.
Interview with Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford
CVG: Analyst Michael Pachter infamously predicted that the first Borderlands was going to be 'sent out to die' into a highly competitive holiday season. Why do you think the game was such as commercial success?
PITCHFORD: Because it was a good game.
You think that's really it? There are many good games that don't sell well. Borderlands was a new IP, that shipped in a crowded shooter market, that some analysts said wouldn't sell well even before the first review came in.
Well, what else could it be?
I really don't know why it outperformed. That's why I'm asking.
People bought the game, played it, and told their friends about it, and it snowballed. That's exactly what happened, people thought it was an amazing game and recommended it.
You didn't even play the first Borderlands, Rob, yet you've just played the sequel for an hour and you said you liked it! You said you don't even usually like playing those kinds of games. Isn't that interesting?
It is interesting. You think the first game has sold about five million copies because of word-of-mouth.
That's the only explanation. There weren't television commercials after the first week [laughs].
I understand the DLC was also very popular and successful in terms of return on investment.
Yeah, it had the highest attach rate of any DLC.
Highest attach rate compared to other Gearbox games or...?
No, the highest attach rate of anything this generation. The guys at Microsoft told us that the Borderlands had the highest attach rate of any DLC. When people love something, they tend to love it a lot. And I'm really gratified by that more than anything else. It's what makes us fight the good fight. You kill yourself. You work day and night. You put your soul into something, and you hope that the outcome is that people will like what you've created.
When you find out that happened, it makes you want to work harder. So with Borderlands 2 there was incredible passion and momentum behind it.
Are you hoping to surpass the commercial success of the first game?
[Aghast] Of course we are! What, you think we're going to try to sell less than the first game?
Well, studios have internal sales projections and I was hoping to get an insight into yours.
Oh, I don't know. I'm not the bean counter. We're scaling for success, though we're doing so responsibly. I think we've spent about twice as much on development as we did in the first game.
That's interesting because game budgets for sequels usually go the other direction.
Yeah exactly, but think about what that means though! We do already have the sequel established from the first Borderlands, yet we're spending twice as much, which means - wow!
It's usually sequels that test the true commercial viability of an IP. If Borderlands 2 is as big as a success as its predecessor, do you feel you will have established a franchise that has a big future ahead of it?
Maybe. I tend to take each decision as they come. When we started Borderlands 2 I think we were making a great decision. I felt at the time that, if we didn't work on a sequel, then fans of the first game would have burned our building down [laughs].
We'll see where we are after Borderlands 2. We do have incredible momentum behind this series now. There is an incredible passion, and if it's a commercial success there will be hopes that we'll keep that going, so I do expect at least that there would be DLC for Borderlands 2.
We haven't announced anything - our focus is to ship Borderlands 2 - but as I say there's a great passion from the team and a great momentum commercially, so I do think this will lead to DLC.
Does Gearbox own the Borderlands IP?
That's a fantastic and often rare asset for an independent studio to have.
Er, really, is it?
Well I was a journalist at Develop for three years, and in that time I spoke to executives at numerous independent triple-A studios, many of whom said they regretted selling their IP.
Does it really matter though? I don't think we could have achieved what we did without the help of our partner 2K.
One of the things I love about working with 2K is that they don't push us into going in a certain direction with Borderlands. If a developer is told exactly how to make a game, they won't be fulfilling their creative passions. They probably won't try their hardest if they're forced to do something. In that sense, it really doesn't matter who owns the IP.
I imagine your team loved the chance to work on a new IP with the first Borderlands.
Well it needed to be a new IP for the unique type of game that it was. We realised that, to merge RPG elements within a shooter, we couldn't do that with an IP already in existence. We needed to create a universe that allowed the gameplay to fit naturally, and it probably wouldn't have with other IPs.
Is new IP something Gearbox will return to in the near future?
Well we own the Brothers in Arms, which we created, we acquired Duke Nukem, and that's a really powerful brand. I didn't just buy the IP to finish 3D Realms' game. I acquired that so we could build our own Duke Nukem games. So that's something we care about.
So we have lots of ideas, and some of those ideas will be best manifested in new things. There's also a lot of awesome stuff in the world that we don't own! I loved it when we worked with Valve on the Half-Life expansions [Blue Shift, Decay, Opposing Force].
So to summarise, it sounds like your main intention is to work on those three established franchises whilst perhaps signing contracts for IP owned by other companies.
Yeah, we have three great brands that are awesome and we want to do things with, and there's also new ideas that we have that the only way to manifest them will be to create new things - so that will lead to other original properties - and there's a lot of awesome stuff in the world that we like working on. Aliens Colonial Marines, for example, in our partnership with 20th Century Fox.
I want to always work on things we care about as long as our customers care about them. I want our studio to create new things, and I want us to have the credibility to be trusted with other properties.
Let's discuss Borderlands 2. What stood out the most in the play-test was all the great work that's gone into the AI. It was very impressive.
Thank you, yes we invested a tremendous amount in upgrading the navigation system. And also the behaviours have been given an overhaul. In the first game, there were only a few behaviours, whereas we have dozens now. It lends to a much more believable and dynamic gameplay system.
Most modern shooters appear to focus on 'instant gratification' gameplay concepts, where play is streamlined and rewards come fast.
And there's a lot of that in Borderlands 2, where if you kill someone there's loot that pops out, so there is that instant gratification that we're going for.
I got the impression that, generally, Borderlands 2 is going against the instant gratification model. It feels like the player gets out what they put in. It's more a slow-burner where time investment is more gradually rewarded, in a model similar to RPGs.
No I would honestly say that, if you start Borderlands 2 from the beginning, you will very quickly enjoy fast moment-to-moment gameplay. The difference is, with this game there is both a reason and reward to continue playing because things become more fun as time goes on.
My hope is that people who play Borderlands 2 will still be playing it many months after they bought it.
Yes and clearly there are indications that Borderlands 2 has player-retention features that you hope will build an online community.
That emerged from when we were playing the game at Gearbox. After we had finished pretty much everything with one character, there was this temptation to try things out with a different character, but the thing is you would have to abandon all the stats you built up with one character if you wanted to move onto the next.
Essentially you were asking players to make a sacrifice.
Yeah and now we have introduced a 'Badass Rank' system, which attaches a permanent score to how much you have played, so if you do move onto other characters you will be able to increase this score.
Mission objectives were generally displayed in text form in the first Borderlands. Now it is fully animated scenes. How much of a challenge has this been?
Oh, it's been a joy. We have this amazing animation team and we have a motion capture room within our studio, so we can use it whenever we want. NPCs were a little stiff in the first game so we really wanted to improve that. Also, because we have so much dialogue now, we have got so much more involved in the writing and we had a lot of fun writing loads of gags in there!
I was engaged in the game, though I did find that one element that wasn't so engaging was the facial animations. I found them quite jarring in the play test.
Yeah there's still some things we've got to do with that, it's not yet the final build and we're going to work on that, especially the lip-synching. Even without that, it's so many leaps and bounds above the first Borderlands.
There's also the sense that the Gearbox team has tried to retain the nucleus of the game.
Oh yeah. We found this formula that works, and I feel that if we try to change the core loop we'd be making a mistake. It annoys me when some studios completely change what's right about a game with sequels.
That's actually the reason why I asked you about sales projections earlier. Because clearly Gearbox is building Borderlands 2 to satisfy the fan base of the first game, so I wondered if you can expand an audience by focusing so much on the original customers.
Sure. So what we realised in the first game is that the best way to get more people to discover it is to make a game that people love so much they would tell others about it.
There's two ways you can buy in to Borderlands: The first is that you were exposed to the pitch - you saw an advertisement, you read a story, you watched a trailer, you read a review. The second way is that someone you trust tells you that you have to play this game. Those are the two vectors.
The best thing we can do is make a great game. So we hope that the positivity surrounding the game will therefore be extended through word of mouth.
I think we're going to hit a lot of people with our pitch too. The marketing behind this is going to be crazy compared to the first game.