Borderlands 2 Interview: Twice The Size, Twice The Badass – Randy Pitchford Speaks
Borderlands 2 is a leap over the original in almost every regard. Would you say that Gearbox has grown as a studio during development of the game?
Randy Pitchford: Well the first Borderlands required a lot of invention. We did things that we hadn’t done before – that no one had done before – in blending genres, creating a unique art direction, and crafting a new universe.
All of that invention is tricky. You try things and some of them work, but some things don’t, and you have to keep looping on that.
With Borderlands 2 we have the luxury of using the success of all that invention, and then iterating and polishing from it. The first Borderlands was very much a ‘1.0’, and a ‘2.0’ gets to focus on all of the investment going towards the creation of value within what we know works.
So on one level, Borderlands 2 is a whole new game in the sense that, all the place you’ll visit, all of the thing that you’ll do, the missions, the enemies – everything’s been built from the ground up. It’s more than twice the scope of the first Borderlands.
But what Borderlands 2 isn’t, is an abandonment of the game design loop that made the first Borderlands such a success. It definitely cares about and loves why Borderlands was great, and commits to those values.
It also expands and iterates on all of those fundamentals, right down to the core game mechanics.
One area for improvement that many gamers saw in the first game was the controversial ending. Are you aware of this criticism and would you say you’ve addressed the issue in Borderlands 2?
RP: Game endings are tricky. I was having a conversation the other day with some folks about trying to remember – in this generation – games that we felt had great endings.
We had a very difficult time coming up with any, and I think the first Borderlands had this same problem, mainly because the whole purpose that we set the characters out to fulfil was to find and open the vault.
But when you actually did that at the end of the game, two things worked against us. First, was that a lot of players – who reached the final encounter – found themselves to be too powerful, compared to where we expected them to be.
So there wasn’t much of a challenge, and the final battle was over as fast as it started. The second thing was context. At the moment you believed you were opening the vault to get a big payoff and lots of loot, we did a twist.
We thought this was a clever twist but of course, to interrupt your expectations of the vault. There is evidence in our DLC – The Secret Armoury Of General Knoxx – that proves we’ve learned something about setting up expectations, and deliver on it in the final moments.
I don’t want to spoil anything in regards to the ending of Borderlands 2, but I think what I’ve just said kind of exposes that we’re very self-aware, and are able to learn from our experiences to improve what we do.
You touched on DLC there briefly, and it’s fair to say that all of the Borderlands add-on content offered great value for the asking price.
RP: Thank you. I agree with you and we loved making it. We were very passionate and had such great momentum on the development side in that we just didn’t want to stop making cool stuff for the game.
Does this generous approach inform your DLC strategy in Borderlands 2?
RP: We consider ourselves to be entertainers, and this means that the most important thing we’re striving for is the gratification of the people who play what we’ve created. That’s where the value of our DLC comes from.
Our budget doubled as a result of how well the first Borderlands was received, and our ability to invest in the sequel increased, which made things get a little out of hand. Because we’re passionate, we’ll just make whatever we want to make and we’ll go crazy.
Borderlands 2 is more than twice the scope of the first, in just the volume of things that you do, and the locations you explore. Let me give you an example so you can compare them.
Go for it.
RP: In the first Borderlands, a typical average playthrough would see people finishing the game at between level 30 and 35, and it would take them between 20 to 25 hours, according to our metrics.
But when the guys who are doing the Borderland 2 strategy guide for Brady Games came to visit us, they planned to spend a week to play the game and get everything they needed out of it to write the guide.
Their approach was that they were going to start by taking a character and just playing through the game really fast, and then they would play the other characters, do second playthroughs, find hidden stuff and do all of the challenges.
That very first, quick playthrough took them 58 hours, so they had to extend the time here to more than double, and come back a second time just to see everything.
Part of why that happened is, when we were playing the first Borderlands, for most of us it became a hobby, just as it did for a lot of our fans. So we really took the idea that Borderlands 2 needed to be a hobby as well.
So there are a lot of things that extend the game beyond what you saw in the first Borderlands. For example, there is a new system that we call the ‘Badass Rank’ system.
Can you talk us through how the Badass Rank system works?
RP: Sure. It’s attached to you a player profile, rather than a single character. While you’re playing you will earn Badass points, which allow your Badass Rank to increase.
As your rank increases you will earn tokens that you can use to improve certain key stats incrementally. There are 15-20 stats that you’ll improve incrementally, such as a damage modifier.
For example, as I get these tokens I can spend one on a .05 damage increase, and this applies across the board, and over all my characters, as it’s attached to my profile.
So when I create new characters, they will all enjoy the same Badass Rank rewards. Lets say I’ve got a level 35 Siren with a 0.5 damage modifier, but now I want to play as a Gunzerker.
In the first Borderlands this would mean abandoning everything you had earned and would mean starting from scratch.
In Borderland 2, having your Badass Rank attached to your profile means that all of the benefits that you’ve earned will carry through, no matter which character you’re playing.
The other thing is that it’s not level capped. So a typical Borderlands 2 player that finishes their first playthrough will have gone up several hundred Badass Ranks.
Guys that become hardcore and build multiple max level characters are going to go up thousands of ranks, and there are going to be Borderlands 2 hobbyists who finish multiple playthroughs and see everything. They’re going to rank up tens of thousands of times.
Even just the name ‘Badass Rank’ underlines just how playful the Borderlands 2 series can be. Do you see the franchise as an alternative to straight-faced military FPS games out there?
RP: I think there are a lot of different tastes and flavours out there. As someone who plays a lot of games, there are times when I like getting serious, and there are times when I like cutting loose.
To get really objective let’s take ourselves out of the games industry and think about movies we watch. You can imagine a moviegoer who is really excited to see a Harry Potter movie, and then the next day he might go home and watch Saving Private Ryan – and that’s fine.
The style and universe that we’ve created in Borderlands 2 really allows us to allow our personalities to come through. We’ve all put so much of ourselves into it and you can really feel it.
I love being a creative in a spot where we have the capability and the credibility to be able to do that, but I also love being a consumer of entertainment – whether it’s a game or a movie.
Now, if you’ve had a lot of one thing, you tend to wish for some different flavours. If you eat ice cream every single day and all you have is vanilla, and suddenly you get offered some Rocky Road – I think that’s what Borderlands is.
And you know, a lot of people like vanilla ice cream, and there’s a reason why everyone is buying Call of Duty, which is just great.
We saw earlier this year, coverage of what appeared to be Borderlands 2 running on a Tegra-3 tablet, which of course turned out to be false. But is tablet gaming something that interests you going into the next-gen?
RP: I think there are a lot of cool things we can do. I like playing games on my tablet and on my mobile device – I think there a lot of people out there who also do that.
Games like this tend to be more distracting experiences, and I don’t know how this affects all gamers, but I tend to play games on my tablet like a secondary thing.
Like, I have my tablet next to me when I’m watching TV – where I’m not really immersing myself fully in it – but it’s kind of there. Or if I’m in line at the store I’ll deal with a few minutes by playing around with my cellphone.
There are certain games that are really well tuned for that mode of play, and I love that we have those options now. Once again – to use a different medium – I really love passive entertainment, such as television or when I’ve watched things on my iPhone for example.
For example, I will watch an episode of The Office on my iPhone – I’ve done that before, and it works because the show is only about half an hour long, which suits when I’m waiting at the airport or something.
But when I want to see the Avengers, I’m not going to watch the f**king Avengers on my iPhone [laughs]. I want to go into the biggest screen imaginable, with the loudest speakers possible, and I want to immerse myself into that in a big way.
Watching the Avengers on an iPhone seems like the completely wrong way to be experiencing that. I think we can make the same allegories for the spectrum of videogames we enjoy.