Pirates, ninjas, and robots: Expanding ‘Borderlands’ $10 at a time

Borderland 2 DLC Flamerock Refuge header
Borderlands 2 has continued to offer game add-ons infused with the personality of its developers ever since it was originally launched on September 18, 2012

There’s nothing in gaming that’s quite like Borderlands. Gearbox Software’s malleable world of Pandora amounts to one big, loving riff on geek culture. Pirates and ninjas, robots and dragons. All manner of seemingly unrelated fictions mash together elegantly in the game’s colorful co-op landscape. That’s all a product of the creative vision fueling it, an interactive experience that is unequivocally created by gamers, for gamers. It’s a perfect recipe, to the point that it’s propelled much of 2K financial success since the September 18, 2012 launch of Borderlands 2.

The publisher’s latest earnings call confirmed that nearly 7 million copies have sold-in to retail thus far, a pace that puts the game on track to become the highest-selling release in 2K’s history. In fact, earnings from the add-on content released so far for Borderlands 2 accounted for the largest chunk of 2K’s parent Take-Two Interactive’s first quarter income. More than half of the almost $150 million in the first-quarter revenues came from digital releases, and most of that was Borderlands 2 content.

We’re making this with us as the audience. If we’re entertained, we feel like the customer will be entertained.

To an outsider, it’s some magnificent blend of technical skill, creativity, and raw, unadulterated magic that breathes life into the $10 story add-ons that have been expanding the world of Pandora since the first Borderlands. For the folks at Gearbox, there isn’t a fully codified process, no secret formula that the team sticks to every time. It typically starts at the foundational level with a conversation.

“I think a partner walks into somebody’s office and says, ‘Let’s make a DLC!'” senior producer Mike Wardwell tells Digital Trends, eliciting a chorus of knowing chuckles in a room filled with some of the key design leads on Borderlands DLC. Wardwell waves away the joke and continues. “Each DLC started differently. The first three [for Borderlands 2] did start with that conversation, and that’s the boring part. Usually we just try to find a creative nest egg to start from.” 

For the first Borderlands 2 DLC, Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate’s Booty, the idea actually started with a story that would include proper, seafaring pirates. Gearbox boss Randy Pitchford signed off on it and work began. It wasn’t until chief creative officer Brian Martel came along a few weeks later and suggested sand pirates that everything gelled. Some backtracking on early concept work was necessary, but the idea of desert pirates and sand skiffs immediately felt like a better fit for Pandora.

When plans or directions change, one of the first responders is concept artist Scott Kester. In his office, Kester keeps a stack of sketchbooks that are completely filled with visions of Borderlands. To thumb through them is to take a chronological tour through the history of the two games and their attendant DLC releases. He knows this fiction as only a creator can, and as a result of that he’s invested in growing the universe in ways that make sense.

Borderlands 2 DLC Captain Scarlett
Captain Scarlett, the star of the first DLC for Borderlands 2, was originally meant to be a sea-going pirate.

“I think a lot of times, we look at a lot of the core tenets of Borderlands. One of the things that’s great about it is, really, anything can go. We’ve sort of opened up this framework that says, ‘Sure we can have robots, we can have pirates, we can have monsters, we can have whatever,'” Kester says. With so much potential, so much possibility to explore, it would be too easy to turn Borderlands into a nebulous geek culture collage. That’s why hooks are so important for each DLC.

Pandora truly is an anything-goes environment. It’s the characters – as bizarre as some of them are – that keep things grounded. From TK Baha to Tiny Tina, from General Knoxx to Mister Torgue, Pandora’s denizens help to define the flavor of each content pack. 

“DLCs were always about expanding the world and creating more depth in what we did,” Kester explains. “If you go back to the first game even, with Moxxi being the identity of [Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot] and General Knoxx and being the identity of [The Secret Armory of General Knoxx]… it was about either taking a character or introducing a new character to expand the world, not just scoop some new content on a pile. Anytime we were going to do this [the attitude was] let’s do this and make it important, put new stuff into it, expand the world and make it deeper.”

But as important as the characters are to fleshing out what form a DLC release will take, it’s the top-level idea, just a single word or two, that sets the wheels turning, as associate producer James Lopez explains. “The key word is the promise. What is the promise of the concept? If we do sand pirates but then wanted to do something that would contradict the concept of that, then we would throw it out immediately,” he says.

Senior producer Matt Charles chimes in here. “This is a lesson we carried over from the first Borderlands as well. We started with those sticky, memorable high-level key phrases,” he says. “For example, the first Borderlands DLC started with the word ‘zombie.’ And then of course we made the Zombie Island out of that. General Knoxx started with ‘Road Warrior’ as a general theme phrase. We learned from that and decided, ‘Hey, that kind of works for us.’ And that’s the same process we did for Borderlands 2.”

One thing that you don’t necessarily pick up on when you’re reading words off of an Internet website is the atmosphere at Gearbox’s home base in Texas. Sit in a room chatting with a group of Borderlands developers and you’ll spend most of your time there laughing. There’s a real feeling of family. These people don’t just work together, they’re in this together. And like any tight-knit group, that strong feeling of camaraderie colors all of the work that they do together. 

Borderlands 2 DLC Badassasaurus
The developer’s own personality – and humor – continues to flow through the add-ons for Borderlands 2.

“[The fan community is] very important to us, but we know that they’re also us to some extent, so it’s about just wearing your inspirations on your sleeve but also trusting your gut,” Kester explains. “We take chances that I think a lot of people wouldn’t do. There are so many creative people here with so many different things that, if you know the people on the team, you can go, ‘Oh man, I know who did that.’ That’s where I hope other people can grasp onto those pieces.” 

“It’s not just about… the rise and the fall and the laughter and the killing. It’s that interesting dichotomy that I feel is engaging to so many gamers, and to us. You see a lot of us in these games too. I think a lot of people create games that are projected toward who they think the audience is. We’re making this with us as the audience. If we’re entertained, we feel like the customer will be entertained.”

As important as job titles are when you’re talking about a team on the scale of Gearbox, there’s more to each person’s identity than job descriptions. People seed some of themselves into the various aspects of the games that they work on. Rob Heironimus fills a designer role at the studio, but he’s the “grenade guy” for Borderlands. Wardwell is a senior producer on paper, but he’s one of the chief cheerleaders and architects of the raid system in Borderlands 2. Captain Scarlett‘s Master Gee raid boss (Gee is pronounced with a hard “G,” we learned) is so named because Wardwell’s infant old son had latched on to saying “gee” while the DLC was coming together.

DLCs were always about expanding the world and creating more depth in what we did…

That positive team spirit is invaluable when deadlines loom and the crunch begins. Borderlands DLC development is a near-constant rush to finish. The timetable on a single content pack is measured in weeks. Even a large one like Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep came together in just 15 weeks. That’s an improvement over the month or two budgeted for each of the first game’s content packs.

The hardest decisions fall to the producers on each project. They’re gatekeepers, figures of authority that are essential for keeping the creative side of a team’s ambitions in check. It’s a difficult job to have in a team-oriented environment like the one Gearbox fosters. Producers feel the same enthusiasm for what they’re working on as everyone else, but they’re in the difficult position of having to decide where to cap off that enthusiasm in favor of getting things done.

“There’s a certain amount of objectivity that we encourage the producers to have,” Lopez explains. “But it is really difficult to not become passionate and excited about the project that you’re working on, to the point where you maybe fight for somethings more than you probably should. Mike [Wardwell] and I fought really hard for the raid system. The raid system took a lot of work to get in. We had to get it in for Scarlett, and if we didn’t get it in for Scarlett, we knew that we couldn’t introduce it later. There are moments like that on each DLC, where you wonder, ‘Am I losing focus on this?'”

It’s especially difficult when a large chunk of time at the end of a development cycle must be devoted to quality assurance. In truth, QA is happening all throughout, but there comes a point on every project where the feature pile-on needs to stop so that the testers can focus on finding fixable problems in what’s there already.

“It’s not good to ship something that hasn’t fully been vetted by QA, for a large number of reasons. That’s bad for the customer experience [and] it’s a lot harder to fix something once it’s already out in the wild,” Charles says. He points to a recent example in Tiny Tina’s Mimic monster. Fantasy aficionados are no doubt familiar with the Mimic: disguising itself as a chest, this powerful creature sits in a corner, waiting for some unfortunate hero to try looting it. That’s when it attacks.

“These [Mimic chests] can move around, but they’re also tied into our random-esque loot system. So you load into a map one day, there’s a treasure chest there. You load in the next day, it may not be there,” Charles explains. “The point of the Mimic is to imitate a chest. It’s no fun if you’re playing on playthrough two or three and you always know where the Mimic spawns are. They’re supposed to be blended in with the chests. So these two systems interacting will generate a large test suite. You need to play through every map and verify that all the systems are working together.”

It’s here that you start to see the elaborate puzzle that the DLC development process must solve. Not only are you creating a new piece of content, but you’re fitting it into a pre-existing construct, in this case the platform of 1s and 0s that vanilla Borderlands 2 sits on. Great ideas are often left behind because there’s no way to make them work; the Mimic was merely a fortunate case where the stars aligned.

Borderlands 2 DLC Orc
Each new DLC contains new enemies and design elements.

“It was just very, very tight. Fortunately, we have some kickass QA departments between Gearbox and 2K, and they were able to sign off on it in time,” Charles says. “It worked out, but it was almost too close for comfort to be honest.”

The obvious follow-up question here is: why even bother rocking the boat? Borderlands 2 runs perfectly well and Gearbox learned from the previous game that add-on content makes gobs of money, so why complicate it with new content that might retroactively break work that was completed a year or more earlier? The team views DLC as a “testing ground,” according to Lopez. It’s important to please a fan community that is constantly hungry for more content, but you’ve got to service a diverse group: from the casual co-op parties to the level-grinding fanfolk to the truly committed raid boss hunters.

“There’s people out there that want to collect all the gear [and] then there are people who want to kill all the toughest things in the game and like tough challenges,” Wardwell explains.  “I think there’s different levels of difficulty and different kinds of experiences, and we try to touch on them all.”

We recently paid a visit to Gearbox Software’s Texas home base for an up-close look at the team’s approach and creative process for DLC. Stay tuned for plenty more exclusive Borderlands 2 content this week, including deep dive looks at how the team assembles both add-on story content and new characters. And if you’re headed to PAX Prime, be sure to visit the 2K booth if you want an early hands-on shot at taking on the Pumpkin Kingpin. 

Check out the first article from our Gearbox tour, Exclusive: Upcoming ‘Borderlands 2’ DLC powers you up and sends you hunting for heads

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