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Borderlands 2 dev explains the art and science of ‘distilling fun’

Borderlands 2 charactersLast week 2K Games and Gearbox’s Borderland 2 arrived with a bang. Most people suspected that it would be a hit thanks to the pre-orders as well as the general popularity of the franchise, but we didn’t know that it would also be one of the best games of the year. We hoped it would be, but we had no way of telling until the copies were released from the protective clutches of the developer.

If you need more proof that the game is a hit (beyond our review), just jump on PSN, Steam, or Xbox Live at any given time and check out how many friends you have playing it right now. If the answer is none, consider investing in some new online friends.

Now that the years of work have concluded and the game has shipped, there is a slight lull in the game’s development cycle before the work on the DLC begins (as well as a probable sequel, although Gearbox will probably defend that secret bitterly until it is ready to announce one). So what does a Borderlands 2 producer do with himself in that time? And what was the development like? And while we’re at it, can we expect a Borderlands movie, and if so is there any way to make it not suck? We ask Gearbox producer Matt Charles these questions and more.

Matt Charles from GearboxHow long have you been working on Borderlands 2?

The full history: Borderlands 1 came out, did great. We turned a small team to focus on the DLC efforts – the add-on content. Once those finished, we started work on Borderlands 2. So it’s a gray area, it doesn’t happen overnight. But it’s about 2 ½ years.

Did you expect Borderlands 1 to do as well as it did, or did its success surprise you?

Well we certainly hoped so. I’d say we were pleasantly surprised. We’d been working on that game for a long time. Brand new IP, brand new genre — we felt it was a new idea, blending the best of first person shooter and RPG and turning it into what we called the RPS. It was very much our baby.

When you have a game coming out with lofty expectations, how do you deal with the stress leading up to the launch day?

It’s interesting. It’s a dash of nerve wracking; it’s a dash of calm before the storm. It feels like a shuttle launch, like everything is done already, and we just have to wait and see what happens.

After a game is done and released, not counting the DLC, do you have to go through a cool down period, or are you eager to get back to work?

There’s a nice break in the work flow, naturally caused by the certification process with first parties, such as Microsoft and Sony. We do continue to work on the PC version, bug fixing for patches during that time, but that’s generally less intense than preparing for that period when everything’s got to be done and flawless and perfect and ready to be printed on disc. So that’s a great time for people to take some time off.

We also then immediately come back and hit the ground running with DLC, so it’s a short break.

MechromancerWhat DLC for Borderlands 2 can you talk about?

There will, in fact, be a season pass. I look forward to seeing what we do there… [laughter].

I can also talk about the Mechromancer. She’s really interesting. At PAX East we announced that we had this idea, we had this beautiful little nugget of a word called “mechromancer,” that was really catchy to us, and she would come with Deathtrap, and that idea was really interesting to us as well — the polar opposite of Claptrap, essentially. Where he’s cracking wise, Deathtrap is about death and destruction, but obviously the friendly protector of the mechromancer.

How big is Gearbox now, including the other teams, like those working on Aliens: Colonial Marines?

Between 150 and 200 people.

Do you enjoy working in that type of larger environment, or is it more stressful?

I think we have a great organization. We’re obviously a multi-project studio, so there are teams within Gearbox, so no single person necessarily has to be worried about 200 other people. We have our own organizations within Gearbox. I really like the project cycles that we have at Gearbox as well, because it can go from a smaller, pre-production team to a very large team, and then back down a bit smaller team, as we don’t need to full force of the company behind it.

So it’s nice. I feel like I get to experience all parts of it.

borderlands-2In your opinion, what is it about Borderlands that makes it resonate with players?

It’s pure fun. It is distilled fun in every corner. That was actually the goal. “Ok, just make everything fun. We’ll figure out what that means as we start designing systems, features, and characters,” but that was always the goal. And I think that really touches everything in the game. When you start with that goal of “let’s make sure everything is fun, avoid frustration” it’s going to come through in a lot of ways.

Were there any technical limitations you hit?

It was interesting going from Borderlands 1 to Borderlands 2. We’re still releasing on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and the PC. Of course PC has evolved, but with consoles the entire point is that you know what hardware is going to be there. But our ambitions never stopped growing, especially with the sequel to a hugely successful game. So it was interesting balancing what can we do on certain hardware versus what we want to do, what we can dream up.

So are you excited for the next generation of consoles, or are you happy with what we have now?

I still have to wait and see. I’m still waiting for more concrete info, so I’m going to reserve my judgment for now.

Where do you see the industry going five or ten years down the road?

That’s an interesting question, and I think we’ve seen unarguably a large push towards mobile gaming, and a focus on that recently. I’m really curious to see new console hardware — how that impacts the future as well. I think that we’re getting more social as an industry and as game players as well. I like the fact that games are taking advantage of that in the sense that it’s easy for me to hop on a game and see what my friends are doing. I love that aspect of it. So if we’re going more mobile, but also more connected, we’re going to have this wide mesh of the world with gamers playing against each other, and I think that’s really cool. I hope it goes more in that direction.

How do you see the gaming industry’s growth compared to other entertainment industries like film?

So…. I gotta make sure to get this right or my film teachers are gonna wack me upside the head… We’re able to look back at the film industry and see how that evolved. And I’m very glad that we have that example because in a lot of ways it is very similar to ours, and we’re able to look at that and plot our own relatively brief history of the video game industry, and sort of chart where we are, relatively speaking.

There are a lot of differences, and I think we’ve figured out some of the variables that make us different, and why we’re not exactly following in film’s footsteps, so to speak in terms of industry growth. But at the same time we’re almost on the cutting edge of technology anyway, so I don’t know, I think we may sort of diverge. It’s hard for me to predict whether we will see explosive growth like film did, or whether it’ll be a steadier pace, or what’s going to happen. I don’t see it decline.

As games get bigger and more complex, are they getting more difficult to create, or do the improving tools make it easier?

Film is obviously still huge, but their models have changed and their delivery method, and everyone is still experimenting with the viewing experience. 3D is the obvious example. That’s the technology that could go wide and we could see more 3D games; Nintendo 3DS being a great example of that. I think it’ll be driven by technology and what’s cutting edge.

Honestly, it’s kind of both. Because as technology comes out, as new hardware comes out, our creative minds go wild and our ambitions totally soar. And then we have to build the tools that let us chip away at what we have in our head that’s possible with this new tech. And then over time those tools get better and better and better, and then it becomes much easier on a relatively small scale to do those things.

For example, I’m going to segue a bit and tie this into something we did for Borderlands 2. In Borderlands 1, everything was data driven, for example our weapons. 17 million guns, and that was all a combination of parts system, but it was very manual entry. The same was true for creating an enemy, or managing a player’s skills behind the scenes. In Borderlands 2 we doubled down and made this tool called “constructs” internally for ourselves that turns all that data entry into a much more visual tool. So you can say with this block over here, let’s tie it to this other thing and it should interact in that way. So we can actually see it; it was almost like a blue print for what we wanted to see happen in a game. So in that sense, that’s one of the things that helped us. We scraped all the old guns from the first game in order to make new ones, all the while offering a lot more creature type and variety. We wouldn’t have been able to do that had we not invested in a new tool set.

Yes it does get faster. At the same time, our production team is also bigger this time around because our tools help us do things faster, but our ambitions are always growing.

Borderlands comic
Image used with permission by copyright holder

It was recently announced that there is going to be a four-part Borderlands comic mini-series due out later this year. Any plans to further explore the Borderlands universe in other mediums? Maybe an animated movie like EA’s Dead Space?

That would be really interesting. I’d be very interested to explore all parts of the Borderlands universe, it’s huge. I think it would be great to see other mediums try to explore it.

Could Borderlands work as a movie?

[Laughter] That’s interesting.

Maybe a better question would be could any game really work as a movie?

Well I liked Super Mario Bros. [Laughter].

That’s a bold claim.

I say that while smiling very heavily.

claptrap and lilithYou may be the first person ever to say those exact words in that order.

I think I was 3 when I saw it, so my opinion may have changed since then.

Do you think there will be a day when gaming movies can get it together and reach the heights of comic book movies?

I think so. This is certainly just my opinion… The video game industry is still relatively new and the film industry has been around for a long time, and the comics industry has been around longer than video games as well. So I think comics and film have learned how to work together. I think we’re still trying to figure that out, the relationship – rather the translation between film and video games. But I think once we do understand the sorts of things we can do that translate very well and the things that don’t, we’ll start to see more of those.

With the Borderlands series, what is the single thing you are most proud of?

As a producer, shipping on time [laughter].

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Ryan Fleming
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Ryan Fleming is the Gaming and Cinema Editor for Digital Trends. He joined the DT staff in 2009 after spending time covering…
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