Creating anything, you hope the whole will be better than the sum of its parts, and it’s no different in the gaming industry. This perhaps partly explains the current trend for creative genre blending, best exemplified right now by Gearbox Software’s stylish cel-shaded FPS and RPG hybrid, Borderlands. Part Wild West shooter, part loot-driven space RPG, Borderlands puts you on the colony planet of Pandora, fighting a plethora of alien creatures with up to four players, questing for experience to level up your character’s abilities in a hostile world.
A compelling combination of character customisation, quest-like boss battles, and a Diablo style random weapons generation system – all wrapped in beautiful yet gritty cel-shaded graphics – Borderlands is quite unlike anything we’ve played recently. We got the chance to speak to Randy Pitchford, CEO and president at Gearbox Software, about the inspiration behind its hybrid shooter, and the unique challenges faced by a new IP in a industry geared towards sequels.
NowGamer: Borderlands was originally meant to come out in 2008, what made you decide to delay and re-tool it?
Randy Pitchford: We made the decision last year to make the game bigger, and with that we decided to push the game back until 2009. The promise was working; the idea of adding loot, levelling up, and skills to a shooter was working, and we wanted to invest in that, to kind of ‘double down’.
NowGamer: Borderlands’ graphical style is very unique, how did that come about and did that have an influence on the direction of the game?
RP: It’s all based on hand-painted art work, but we’re using a very realistic lighting model, with realistic shadows and ambient occlusion… and you don’t usually see that. When games go for a hand-drawn look they usually go all the way, but we really like this hybrid look between realism and cel-shading because the game is a hybrid of a shooter and role-playing game.
NowGamer: How did you come up with the idea of laying an FPS with RPG elements, and how does that make Borderlands different?
RP: We set out some key words that we wanted to express from a design point of view; words like growth, choice, discovery, achievement. Think about classic shooters like the COD games or the Halo games – the player character is the same at the end of the game as they are at the start of the game. Master Chief doesn’t get any new skills or any more hit points. He’s exactly the same. What’s different is the story they go through, and I’m not saying that’s bad – I’ve made those kinds of games, and probably will again in the future – but we wanted to introduce character growth, and introduce choice.
NowGamer: What influence did that have on the random weapon drop system in Borderlands?
RP: There’s one shotgun in Halo, and it’s the Halo shotgun. There’s a shotgun in Half-Life, and it’s the HL shotgun, same for Doom, or Quake – pick a shooter. We thought, ‘What if you had all the shotguns? What would you choose?’ That led us down a path where 20 minutes later we’d designed 600 shotguns. But how do we build that, because it takes a full triple-A team a couple of years to do the work that goes into the 15 or 20 guns in a typical shooter? We couldn’t do it all, so we had to build software that would do it for us. So that’s choice – the discovery is in the world, it’s in the weapons, and the enemies and the loot. We wanted achievement, so we reward the player for the steps they take. Really what we wanted was Diablo!
NowGamer: What is it about the shooters and Diablo-style RPGs that’s compelling and made you want to tie those ideas together?
RP: Shooters are really fun. Just the feeling of the guns in your hands, the way you move, the feeling when you pull the trigger – there’s just something very visceral and accessible about the shooter. My career is building shooters, and I love that feedback loop. Meanwhile, when I played Diablo it was almost compulsory – it was so addictive, to the point where I was playing it for hundreds of hours. But when I think about the skill level in the game, I’m like ‘this is the dumbest thing ever’. It’s not the skill, it’s the rewards, and it’s the temptation of what’s beyond the rewards you just got.
NowGamer: What’s the reaction to Borderlands been like so far? How have traditional FPS expectations affected perceptions of the game?
RP: The challenge is to get it in front of people. What we’re finding is that when people see it and play it, they get it. When I showed Cliff Bleszinski the game at E3 he said it was like an accessible Fallout 3! But it’s a new [genre] branch, right? And the machine [games industry] says we’re gonna buy COD this holiday season, or we’re gonna buy Assassin’s Creed 2, and that’s cool. We’re in entertainment so you can still do really well with big promises, but we have to get the word out.
NowGamer: There’s a recent trend of FPS’s developers doing things differently; do you think that’s the future of the genre or have you taken a bit of a risk with Borderlands?
RP: The machine [games industry] prefers sequels. When it comes to the time to launch it it’s much easier to get the interest of buyers and people, because they tend to look to the successes of the past to judge whether they can trust a game… it’s a shame that [making an original game] is such a risk, because there’s so much talent doing so many amazing things. It’s kind of frightening. We’ve taken a big risk. The machine – buyers and retailers – prefers that stuff, but at the same time, as a gamer and as an industry, we’re demanding more originality. It’s so tough. I hope the risk pays off, because it will make us confident to do more risky things, and make others more confident to create more original things for the world.
From what we’ve seen, it’s clear Borderlands is promising a unique approach to the FPS and could be one of those games, like Fallout 3, that not only pushes genre boundaries, but helps change industry expectations. Watch out for our first-hand impressions of the game soon.