Interview: Talking Borderlands 2 with Gearbox's Anthony Burch and Paul Hellquist
Every year, we as gamers come across experiences that reaffirm our love for video games. Experiences that tug at our feelings and ultimately leave us up at night. Borderlands 2 was one of those experiences in 2012. Not only did the blockbuster hit receieve stellar review scores across the board, including a 9.0 rating from GameZone, as we deemed it "an absolute blast when all the chaos ensues." Months after the release of the second installment, we still have a number of questions that need answers - questions the community certainly wants answered as well, so to answer them, we had the opportunity to interview Anthony Burch, Writer for Borderlands 2, and Paul Hellquist, Creative Director for Borderlands 2.
GameZone: Perhaps one of the more distinguished differences between Borderlands 2 and its predecessor is the fact that the former is highlighted by a full-fledged story. How much of a challenge was it during development to introduce a story that resonates with the "shoot and loot" gameplay style, rather than detracting from it with balancing issues?
Anthony Burch: It wasn't necessarily a challenge so much as a goal we set for ourselves. We all felt that the story should never infringe upon the core gameplay. At its heart, we knew Borderlands was a game about getting together with a few friends and tearing some stuff up; if we'd made a game where you had to sit around watching unskippable cut scenes or doing big, linear, scripted sequences, then we wouldn't have been playing to the game's strengths. I never really found myself angrily screaming, 'argh, I wish I could just write this as a five minute cut scene and be done with it,' because we never considered those to be a viable option to make the game we wanted to make.
We always intended to make the story as unobtrusive as possible not just to account for those players who might not want to bother with the story, but also because we generally prefer games that use narrative mechanics unique to our medium rather than relying on those from other art forms (cut scenes, huge blocks o' text, etc).
GZ: On the topic story, was it a key point during development to intertwine the story with the intriguing and somewhat "wacky" characters to, once again, balance out the action Borderlands fans have come to know and love? I mean, it's pretty amazing how this over-the-top, yet somewhat relatable story wouldn't be as fun if it weren't for characters like Tiny Tina, Jack, and the beloved Claptrap. Would you even say that the introduction of an entire story – script especially – was easy with the characters in the game?
AB: The characters came about kind of naturally because of the plot's demands. We knew we wanted a strong villain, so we created Handsome Jack. We knew we wanted a demolitions expert, so we made Tina. We needed another vehicle-centric character who wasn't Scooter, so we made Ellie. Though the characters might seem really goofy – like they exist solely to spout jokes or whatever – nearly every NPC exists because they needed to serve a specific purpose in our story, whether that means moving the plot forward, or drawing light on some backstory about Hyperion's occupation of Pandora, or to draw attention to a particular set of mechanics (Sir Hammerlock, for instance, exists because we needed a guy who could explain how our creatures work and how you should defeat them).
GZ: Gearbox has always been known for its fan appreciation and its openness to fan consideration in its games. Sitting at the drawing board for the sequel, were there factors implemented into the game that were directly from fan "outcry," if you wish to call it that? Perhaps more environments? A story itself?
Paul Hellquist: When sat down and sifted out focus from Borderlands DLC to Borderlands 2 we definitely had a "Hit list" of features that fans wanted or critiques that we wanted to address. Among them were "weak AI", variety of enemies, variety of environments, and a more compelling narrative. On top of those high level things there were a bunch of basic features that players wanted that we had always intended for the first game but simply ran out of time during development. Among those were things like a bank for storage and a player to player trading system.
Now that the game is out and we've seen the reaction to our improvements we really feel like hit all of our goals in those areas. But don't worry, we still have a list of things that we think we can improve on.
GZ: "Millions upon millions" of weapons. This is what Gearbox was quoted saying before the release of Borderlands 2. Normally that would be a hyperbole, and maybe it is to an extent, but we all know that the game is filled with guns from every corner of Pandora – guns that are never alike in any sense. During development, did you guys begin with a larger number of weapons than what's in the game, and then dwindle the list down to what we see in-game? Or did every concept weapon make it into the game in some way? If there were cuts made, what was the team looking for in a Borderlands 2 weapon?
PH: In Borderlands we succeeded in our goal of making "bazillions" of weapons, so what do we do for Borderlands 2? The area we really felt we didn't achieve the first time around was making the guns look and feel as different from each other as their stats were. We wanted to maintain the statistical differences we had in Borderlands and add to it more feel in the way they fired and how they looked. We achieved this through really differentiating the manufacturers in fun and interesting new ways while maintaining the heart of what each manufacturer was about from the first game.
The main reason we were able to push in these directions was that the we no longer needed to build the technology that creates the weapons since we already had the system functioning. We made some updates and improvements of course but there wasn't years' worth of iteration on the system from the tech side which allowed us to stretch in the art and design sides of the equation.
The main "cuts" for Borderlands 2 was the removal of the Atlas brand of weapons. This decision was made for a couple of reasons. The first the identity of Atlas was that it was generally good at everything which actually results in a manufacturer with no identity that players can sink their teeth into and recognize. The second reason it was a natural choice was that our heroes had dismantled Atlas's presence on Pandora in the first game making its absence feel earned in the universe and not just a cut. Finally, removing Atlas from the list gave us more memory to put towards art for all of the other manufacturers allowing for the awesome variety we were able to achieve even within each manufacturer.
GZ: Alright, here's a related, yet detour-ish question. I must ask, who's idea was it to include the "Hyperion's Energizing Bane" weapon as an Easter egg? I don't think I've experience a more annoying, yet delightful (and powerful) weapon in all my years of gaming. Have to applaud you guys on that one.
AB: We actually all came up with that one together, to some extent. Matt came up with the final gag, though.
PH: The Bane was an awesome collaboration between mission design and gun design. Anthony and I really wanted to do a quest where there was a cursed weapon that everyone wanted but as soon as they got it the curse became apparent and drove the owner mad causing them to discard it and the story of the weapon went on. We wanted the stats or gameplay that the weapon brought to the table to be the curse so that players would naturally become part of the history and story of the weapon. This whole premise was inspired by the 1950 western film starring Jimmy Stewart called Winchester '73 which is a bunch of stories following this gun from owner to owner.
Ultimately, most of the gameplay "curses" we tried weren't fun and weren't giving the feeling we wanted. That was when Matt Armstong, our weapon designer, suggested that the curse be less about the stats of the weapon and more about the experience of using it. That led to him suggesting it make such an awful sound that, despite great stats, you eventually can't stand to use it anymore. It was definitely the right call.
GZ: Okay, moving on to post-release, what was the team's response to the overwhelming positive critical reviews? Were you guys surprised by any of the negative aspects listed? Perhaps shocked that reviewers and fans enjoyed a particular part in the game? I mean, having browsed a number of outlets' (including ours) "Game of the Year" list, it must feel wonderful to rack up such an extensive list of awards.
AB: I honestly spent most of my time being sad at any negative comments and effectively ignoring the positive ones, because the human psyche is stupid.
PH: It certainly feels great to get all of the positive reviews and awards. No doubt.
Speaking only for myself, I'm with Anthony. Missing a 90 metacritic average by 1 point is agony and just makes me say, "What could I have done to get that one additional point."
GZ: Staying with post-release, Borderlands 2 is an enormous game filled with countless activities to take part in, yet it's one of the least bug-plagued games in recent memory. Do you guys put extra emphasis on beta testing the game, or is there something you guys try to do to add extra polish? And on the topic of bugs, why are these nuisances plaguing games in such a momentous way? Are games just becoming so large that testers can't keep up, or perhaps are development times being squeezed shorter and shorter that glitches and bugs are being missed?
PH: Borderlands 2 is a huge game. Our internal QA and our QA at 2k Games did a great job with testing. Our production team also worked very hard to make sure that the team had a significant period of time where our only priority was to fix bugs. That said, there are still plenty of bugs in Borderlands 2. I think we just did a good job crushing the worst most obvious issues so that most people's experiences are not significantly impacted by them.
As far as the issue at large goes many projects don't get the time required to resolve bugs when nearing ship. Making games is really hard. Making games on some of the difficult deadlines we are given is even harder. Unfortunately making those dates that are important for the commercial success of a title sometimes results in a buggier project.
GZ: While many developers call post-release the quote-unquote "finish line," it's really only another starting gate for Gearbox when it comes to Borderlands 2 DLC. We've seen an unusual trend in video games where games travel to unexpected territories: Red Dead Redemption with zombies, Saints Row: The Third with outer space, The Matrix. Though Pandora is already a "fantasy" land, have you guys teased the idea in-house about tackling something similar to that in future DLC, in terms of unexpected territories?
PH: Yes, we entertain all kinds of bizarre ideas when thinking about DLC for Borderlands.
GZ: Lastly, anything you guys can tease us with when it comes to future DLC? What can fans come to expect with the last few add-ons for this spectacular experience?
PH: You just might see one of those bizarre ideas in the near future.
We'd like to thank Anthony Burch and Paul Hellquist for taking the time to sit down and answer some of our questions about Borderlands 2 and its downloadable content. We hope you enjoyed what they had to say. Look forward to more interview in the coming months with notable faces from the gaming industry.
You can follow Tate Steinlage's every day life of college, Sporting KC, and yes, gaming on Twitter, @SteinlageT.