Borderlands Interview, Part I: “Oh Lord, There Ain’t no Heaven” or “Zombies, Wereskags, Tankensteins, oh my!”
If you have never heard of Gearbox Software, insert a witty variation of the crawl back under the rock pun. Halflife: Opposing Force, some obscure title, Counterstrike, I think it my have been, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3, a little game called Halo, and more recently Brothers in Arms and Borderlands are just some of the titles Gearbox Software has produced over the years.
If you don’t know of Randy Pitchford, lift that rock you have been living under above your head… higher… a little higher… little higher still. Now let it drop. One of the four co-founders of the company, and the current President and CEO, his vision and leadership has made Gearbox Software a force to be reckoned with. With so many titles under his belt, one might say Randy is a magician. You’d be right, because prior to becoming a developer, he actually was a full-time magician in Hollywood!
I contacted Randy a few weeks ago for an interview regarding Borderlands, the upcoming DLC and the possibility of a sequel. Randy was nice enough to make time in his busy schedule (i.e. playing and making video games for a living – lucky bastard!), to answer some of the questions.
:: ON BORDERLANDS ::
Bronte (B): Borderlands is a lonely place. Aside from a few plot advancers and quest givers, even the main ‘towns’ feel devoid of human life. The bandit towns, on the other hand, seem brimming to the rafters with goons. Given the post-apocalyptic feel of the game, and the setting of Pandora, was this an intentional design choice?
Randy Pitchford (RP): From a story point of view, we did want the place to feel that the lawful side of things had completely degenerated. We wanted the towns to feel as if they once were much more relevant and populated, but when you finally arrive, few are left and their future is bleak. From a design point of view, we wanted the game to focus on the action and not on reading text or following character plots around. The most fun to be had in Borderlands is through adventuring, taking down bad guys and taking their loot. This is where we wanted much of the focus to be. As far as we felt, we could safely push that part of the experience so; we downplayed the NPC and dialogue which is often associated with role-playing games.
B: Gearbox has made shooters for a long time. In a prior interview with Xbox Magazine, you said that Diablo’s near-obsessive loot-collection mechanic was a heavy influence for the game. Yet it feels that even the loot that drops from bosses is scarce compared to the loot flood we experienced in Diablo. What was the rationale behind this decision?
RP: I don’t think scarce is the right word for describing the amount of loot that drops from bosses in Borderlands. A typical boss will spew a bunch of things and you will also typically find other valuables locked away in chests nearby. In Borderlands, however, we tried to be careful about finding that right balance; too much loot and you’re spending more time sifting through it and making decisions than you’d like; too little loot and you get bored and lose interest because you’re not having enough opportunities to find new and exciting things. I’m really confident we achieved the balance between those end points, especially considering how much we iterated the design and how much we tested it with test subjects. Still – there’s always room for improvement :)
B: Aside from Diablo, Borderlands is compared to MMO’s on occasion. Creatures re-spawn (in a logical manner, not materializing out of thin air, kudos on that BTW). There are dungeon crawls. You can grind the same boss for the perfect loot. It is almost as if Borderlands was an experimental foray into the treacherous waters of the MMO genre. Hint, hint?
RP: Yes, there are some MMO influences in Borderlands. While we’ve definitely done something in creating the first great shooter-looter, there are certainly things we can do even better through iteration. Expect some developments in the future updates and in add-ons in which we’re heavily invested.
B: ‘Shooter-looter’, I like that term. I also noticed you didn’t really answer the question! :) Moving on! Borderlands had a very harsh, unwelcoming feel to it. The music especially added to the idea of isolation and the overall mystique. How elaborate was the sound design behind the game and how will you improve on it in the upcoming DLC?
RP: I’m really proud of what Raison and Mark accomplished with the audio design; those guys are incredible. Raison took tremendous responsibility for the music and most of the audio effects in the game. He did a great job capturing the feel of both desolation and wonder, and wrapping it all together which is a difficult task to accomplish.
B: One personal pet peeve: why does my vehicle (at least on the Xbox 360) have two steering wheels? You accelerate with one, and turn with the other. Was there a reason behind this counter-intuitive implementation?
RP: The vehicle control was modeled after Halo’s vehicle controls. We made the assumption, for the Xbox 360 version, that most of our customers would’ve played Halo and would already be familiar with that method for driving cars. For those customers, who did NOT play Halo but are playing Borderlands, we figured they would be able to figure it out. Maybe, in a future iteration we will support different methods for controlling the vehicles, however, control is so closely linked to camera and physics which is really difficult and risky to do when doing more than one thing.
B: I understand the game was built using UT3 technology. Some of the levels in the world felt cramped and small, especially given claims of Pandora being a massive planet. There are speculations that the aging technology may have forced the wraparound designs and dictated the size of locations. Your thoughts?
RP: Reading this question, I’m not sure if we’re playing the same game. :) First, the version of Unreal Engine used for Borderlands is not aging. In fact, the engine development team has been supporting the technology with amazing improvements well into the generation to ensure that it is the best engine in the world for this kind of game. Furthermore, Gearbox built upon the technology with additional new features and lighting techniques that are as cutting edge as you can get; including, support for ambient occlusion on Xbox 360! Secondly, the huge variety of spaces found on Pandora, from the most open and wide, to the most linear and cramped, are more about variety in the layout than they are about a technology limit. The maximum size of the game spaces and the number of things within each game space are limited by the memory and performance of the platform. We decided to break the world into chunks in order to support the cooperative game play so that we can be sure that cooperative players are likely to be playing in close enough proximity of one another.
B: Why can’t we shoot the shit out of Claptrap? He is annoying!
RP: Claptrap is a character, to be sure. Although, a ClapTrap shooting gallery could be fun. :)
:: ON THE ISLAND OF DR. NED DLC ::
B: Zombie filled DLC a week after Left 4 Dead 2. Ballsy!
RP: Hmm… I didn’t really think about it like that. I think the DLC is for people who like Borderlands and want to see that experience improve and grow such as killing Zombies, Wereskags, Tankensteins and all kinds of crazy undead critters which have all been rendered like we’ve never seen before. Plus, you can play these 50+ new quests alone or with friends, all the while, collecting a ton of loot, leveling up and having a blast.
B: Dragon Age introduced launch day DLC’s that is only downloaded if you had a unique legitimate key. Would you experiment with something similar, at least for the PC, to ensure the rampant piracy on the platform is somewhat curbed?
RP: I don’t know. I’m not going to comment on what other people are doing, but I am happy to talk about what we’re doing. We released Borderlands worldwide in late October, but had to finish more than two months earlier than that in order to get through the certification, manufacturing and distribution process. As we finished the game and started going towards certification, the developers at Gearbox had so many cool ideas that we just went all in and started working on DLC in order to add new experiences that could be launched as soon as we get them done. Because of the passion, the motivation and the intense amount of effort the team has put in – between when the game was practically finished to now- we’re going to be able to launch the first DLC for Borderlands just a little more than a month after the first retail copy hit store shelves. We think that’s really awesome and we hope that customers who love Borderlands support us and our motivation to make even more DLC. The value is there! It’s an incredibly cool new campaign and is pretty large for what it costs. I think people are going to love it. There are some concerns that despite being a great game, at times it felt like more of the same. What are some of the environmental and gameplay elements unique to the DLC?
B: There are some concerns that despite being a great game, at times it felt like more of the same. What are some of the environmental and gameplay elements unique to the DLC?
RP: Check out the screenshots – it’s like an entirely new game with new places that are totally different than the environments in the original game. There are also new creatures and enemies that are really creepy, cool and just fun to fight and take down. I love the Tankensteins, especially, the ones that carry loot chests on their backs. Killing them and then looting the chest is really gratifying. :)
B: What about structure and storyline?
RP: You’re going to visit Dr. Ned’s Zombie Island, as the title suggests, but you’ll head out there and into the Jakob’s gun manufacturer’s facilities on the planet and get caught up in a cool and interesting adventure. There’s a nice set up for it that’ll kick off when you first fast travel to the area, so I’m not going to spoil anything for anyone. By the way, even if you haven’t unlocked the fast-travel network yet, we let you fast travel to the new area that comes with the DLC, right off the bat. And, we’ve done some scaling of the content so that when you enter the area you pretty much have a challenge, no matter what level you are in when you buy it.
B: Is Dr. Ned related to Dr. Zed? Neumann says no. I think he’s lying. That sneaky bastard.
RP: Nope, totally unrelated. They have nothing to do with each other. It’s all just a big coincidence that their names sound alike. :)
B: We’ll make that two sneaky bastards then.
(Continued in Part II… coming soon)