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To 51 and beyond: The unkown challenges of re-building Borderlands 2 for a new level cap

Borderlands 2

Your Borderlands 2 characters are all leveled up to 50 and you’re wondering exactly when in “early 2013″ you might finally see the level cap increase that was promised late in 2012. Does this sound familiar? If it echoes your own feelings, then you belong to the sizable chunk of hardcore Borderlands fans who care about such things. Gearbox is working on that, but the truth of the matter is, it’s a complicated process.

Pitchford“When we shipped Borderlands 2, we didn’t ship it with a plan of how the level cap was going to increase,” Gearbox founder Randy Pitchford told us. “We didn’t have any software built or strategy in place. It’s an idea that [we thought] would be cool to look at later.”

The thing that happened that no one expected was the universal success of Borderlands 2. Pitchford and his team knew that they had a great foundation to work with after the first game, but the success of the sequel took everyone by surprise. It’s a game that seemed to please both critics and fans alike, the sort of resounding success that happens only rarely in games.

“I’ve only experienced it a few times where you get to have a thing that simultaneously gets some critical respect, some critical success, while also having sales success. Sometimes you get one or the other if you’re lucky. I’ve had plenty of experiences where I’ve had a lot of financial success and pretty good critical [responses], but not over the top,” Pitchford said.

gaige-borderlands2

“It’s neat to be in a spot where both seem to be happening. There are incredible games in the [DICE Awards] Game of the Year nominations, and for some inexplicable reason that humbles me beyond belief, Borderlands 2 is the best-selling of the Game of the Year nominations. It’s a weird spot to be in. It’s sobering. It’s something that I want to not take for granted; I want to appreciate every bit of meaning from that.”

As successful as Borderlands 2 was, fans still want more. A precedent was set by the first game with rising level caps coupled to each new DLC release. That hasn’t been the case in Borderlands 2, but Gearbox revealed last year that a level cap bump is in the works along with a third playthrough option. Work continues on that update even now.

“We shipped Borderlands 2 as a complete manifestation of everything we had built up to that point. We kind of painted ourselves into a couple of corners on some things,” Pitchford explained. “We don’t just want the numbers to increase, we want the skill points. And some of the skill points are mutually exclusive; they’re designed so that you know what you can build in terms of the trade-off between different trees. You can’t fully build out two trees, but what if you could?

Borderlands 2 Handsome Jack

“Some of the combinations become game-breaking, and it puts stress on systems. Sometimes we get reports from customers of fatal flaws and crashes and things, and they don’t make any sense to us. Then we learn they’ve modified their game; they’ve actually broken themselves and they’re outside the bounds of what the programmers anticipated.”

It’s funny to think that fans who have the tech knowhow to cheat the system are, on some small level, also helping to poke holes in it that might have been missed before it was too late. It’s not encouraged or appreciated by Gearbox, but the unintended benefits are hard to ignore. When people cheat, you get actual test cases that demonstrate how the game breaks when certain limits are exceeded.

“It’s not just [a matter of] raising the level cap; we also have to design and build new iterations of the enemies that were challenges at [the previous level cap]. The game changes. Let’s say there’s no gear above level 50. You want gear too. That stuff doesn’t just magically happen. We have to create it. We do have procedural systems to help us create some of this stuff, but we still have to feed it parameters,” Pitchford stated. 

“Basically, we have to make the game again. We’re not even just making the game again; we’re making the game and all of the DLC again, and we’re testing it against every possible permutation. It gets more and more complex, and it’s a stupid amount of work.”

Borderlands 2 hands-on 1

Once the building process is complete, the work of testing everything for stability begins. It’s not like you can simply run a beta test, not when you’ve got users who might have to sacrifice earned loot and profile-specific upgrades that are the product of tens and hundreds of hours of play. The only alternative is internal testing.

“I was talking to [publisher 2K Games] and [they are] really stressed out outlining the potential test case of even the tiniest level cap increase. The test case is going to cost a ridiculous amount of money just to have the bare minimum of confidence that we can release something into the wild,” Pitchford explained. That’s also why it’s so difficult to really nail down a timeline for releasing this sort of content.

“Meanwhile we have a customer who believes they’re already entitled to it and doesn’t even want to pay for it,” he added. “So I’m in this weird kind of spot, and we’re figuring it out right now. We really want to do right by our customers and I think we’ve got some solutions there, but we’re in the throes of it right now. We are committed to it, but it’s not easy.”