We venture beyond the borders to talk Borderlands with Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford and Marketing VP Steve Gibson.
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“See with me, you get one question and it goes on for twenty minutes! I’m sorry about that.” Gearbox Software President, CEO and co-founder Randy Pitchford there, apologising for his less than succinct answers we’re given when we quiz him on the developer’s forthcoming RPS (that’s Role Playing Shooter, we’re told) Borderlands. Not that it’s really a problem when you’re talking to someone so apparently passionate about what he does, speaking rapidly and excitedly, going off on tangents and unwittingly answering queries that we’re yet to raise.
So, a planned ten or so questions quickly becomes whittled down to an incredibly insightful and entertaining six. Initially lead by VP of Marketing Steve Gibson, Pitchford takes over the interview, answering with infectious, freewheeling excitement, he’s clearly thrilled about the prospects for Borderlands, something that Gearbox has been building for three of their ten years as FPS specialists.
Strategy Informer: Are there any differences between the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of Borderlands?
Steve Gibson: All of the content will be identical. You obviously have advantages with being able to do higher resolution textures on PC, but the matchmaking will be different for all three platforms. The PC version isn’t much different other than looking better. We’re also still verifying whether we’ll be compatible with Games For Windows.
Gearbox CEO, President and co-founder Randy Pitchford.
Much is being made of Borderlands’ unique art style, which was a massive shift Pitchford initially knew nothing about.
Strategy Informer: Which games would you credit as the primary inspiration for Borderlands?
Steve Gibson: I think it’s pretty easy identifying some elements. For example, the items system where you see colour codes, like grey, green or purple, which is like the nomenclature these days for normal, rare (and) elite. So World of Warcraft does that, but tons of games do that, right? But I believe Blizzard were the ones who really created that system and everybody’s followed suit, because why reinvent the colours when you’re just going to confuse people?
So on that side, it would be Diablo, World of Warcraft but on the shooter side, the core mechanic and the controls, looking down the barrel, things like that, we get that from all the first-person shooters out there. Your Halos, Call of Duty and games like that. A lot of the things that we’re trying to implement in co-operative mode come from Brothers in Arms, with the squad stuff. But an RPG shooter is what we’re calling it, so it fits both those roles.
Diablo is certainly a huge influence on the items system with all the iterations of the things you can do there and certainly there are much bigger challenges involved with the system we’ve created because we’ve modelled millions of these crazy guns now. As you guys have probably seen, they’re all over the place and you haven’t even seen the alien technology, but there’s also a whole lot more still to come. You might pick up a quad rocket launcher that fires four projectiles that spiral towards their target if you’re lucky. But it’s random every time.
Strategy Informer: Can you tell us more about how the co-op and single-player link into one another?
Steve Gibson: It’s seamless actually. You take your character from single-player and you can go and join friends or have them join your game at any time. Your characters and inventory transfer back and forth, and you can play splitscreen, system link or online and it’s all persistent. That’s something that we found frustrating in Diablo, when you play with your character up to level 20 and I’ve got this frickin’ awesome warrior and I want to go online and play with my friends, but I can’t because it’s separated. We feel like we’ve solved that in Borderlands.
Strategy Informer: What brought about the radical shift in the art design?
Randy Pitchford: A mutiny is what it was! In 2008, we decided to make the game bigger, so we added another character class - the Berserker guy. We made some decisions internally to really blow this game up and with that decision, we decided to move the game to 2009. Our artists were pretty much done, and they were like, “What are we going to do?”
So, a couple of them - without me knowing about it - went back and looked at all the original concept art we’d done for the game and they found there was a lot of character and personality that was cool. They started tinkering, putting the concept art in (the game) running real time, working with the programmers to figure out a way to render it so it would look like that.
I got wind that something was going on after a couple of weeks, but I didn’t know what they were doing. Brian Martel, one of my partners and one of the owners of Gearbox said, “Let me work with them for a few weeks. Be cool, we’ll build a prototype and I’ll show you what it looks like, and you can see what you want to do then.” So I said, “Alright, I’ll give you three weeks, then you can show me the prototype.” And sure enough three weeks later, they dragged me to a conference room to show me the prototype and I’m thinking to myself, I’m going to shut them the hell down! Because we’re in the middle of production and all you guys are crazy, right?
Although it’s an RPG and FPS hybrid, shooting skill is still of paramount importance in Borderlands. Shoot these Spider Ants in their ‘ass sacs’ for a critical hit.
The four character classes are part of the meaningful choice you’re granted in Borderlands.
Then I saw it and I was just floored. I was instantaneously like, “Holy crap! What happened here?” On one level it still looked like Borderlands, but I’d never seen anything like it, so it just knocked me on my ass. I really loved it! It’s like when you see the people who make cars and when they make a concept car that’s frickin’ awesome and they’re really cool, right? But how come we’ve never got to drive one? Why don’t they just build the fucking concept car! Well now I know why, because we had the same thing with Borderlands where we had these awesome concepts for inspiration, but there’s something else that you’re supposed to give to the customer. With a bad ass car you have all the marketing people and engineers get involved and then you get like a Ford, you know? So, I thank God for our mutinous artists who said, “You know what? We’re going to give everyone the concept art,” and they did it, so I’m thankful for their bravery in making it happen.
Strategy Informer: Presumably there’s a knock-on effect when you change the entire art style too?
Randy Pitchford: Some of it is just changing the textures, but in fact all of the characters had to be totally rebuilt (and) there’s a lot of new animations, which actually loosen up the game a lot. When we started the game, we had these keywords that we used to guide us. I’ve never actually told anyone these, but they’re growth, meaningful choice, discovery and achievement. There’s also a fifth word that I’ll tell you in just a second.
Firstly, growth is about when you get more powerful, you want to feel that power and you want to have the opportunity to become even more powerful. In the case of Halo for example, the Master Chief at the end is identical to the Master Chief at the beginning in terms of his capabilities. We want to grow and feel like we do playing Diablo, where I become a bad ass and I can go back to the beginning area and I can kill people by just looking at them. We wanted meaningful choice like; do I want the more accurate gun or the one that’s got the fire damage? Do I want to invest in becoming a medic class of Soldier or do I want to become a heavy damage, infantry kind of Soldier? Then do I want to be a Soldier or do I want to be a Berserker?
Discovery is wanting a big world, so I can be surprised while I explore it whether I’m at level 5 or whether I’ve been playing for a hundred hours. Then there’s achievement. I want to accomplish things and I want to be rewarded for that sense of accomplishment.
The last word is ‘Verhoeven’ (as in Dutch action director Paul Verhoeven), whose movies are kind of dumb, right? You’ve got Starship Troopers, Total Recall, Robocop and there’s a certain personality in those movies, where they don’t take themselves too seriously. And that’s something that was missing when we had the old art style - the Verhoeven.
So, where World of Warcraft has elites we have bad asses, and we’re allowed to do that because videogames are supposed to be fun. We spent a lot of time doing Brothers in Arms - and we treat that with tremendous deference and respect - and it changes our thinking, but when we’re going to invent a place, create this radical world and do it with style and panache for Borderlands, we’re like, “Let’s go all the way.” And that’s really come through in the art style that’s affected the whole game, even though it was there from the beginning as a goal, the art style really cut us free and let us go for it. I’m thankful for that and the guys that do this stuff at Gearbox are just amazing. I wish there was time for us to go through all of these dudes and tell you what they do. The talent is just astonishing and I love coming into work every day just to see what these guys do.
Strategy Informer: Epic’s Cliff Bleszinski has said that the future of the FPS lies in becoming more like RPGs. That pretty much sums up Borderlands, so obviously you’d agree with that sentiment?
Randy Pitchford: Hell yeah, of course. I’ve just spent three years investing in that (laughs), so I’ve been thinking it for three years! I (also) think there’re a lot of vectors, but I think there’s something extremely compelling and compulsive about the feedback loop of RPG-style growth and when I think about how many hours I spent playing Diablo, the skill to play the game is pretty much the same skill you need to launch the application. You put your cursor over an icon, but then why the hell was I so taken with that game? It’s because of the compelling, compulsive feedback loop of growing my character and becoming a bad ass. Then there’s knowing that I can become even more bad ass if I get more gear and then I just can’t stop. No one’s really put that into a shooter properly, and coming from the shooter vector - when you think about it - they’re fast, visceral action. You’ll notice we call Borderlands an RPS - Role Playing Shooter, but we’re not fully RP, so you’re not going to run into a character and do a dialogue tree, which was a conscious decision because it just slows things down. That’s not Verhoeven, that’s like maybe the novel version, so dialogue trees are not a part of Borderlands but growth, levelling up and skill is.
Steve Gibson: Also from the shooter vector is not rolling dice on our attacks, so when you see critical hits, that’s based on your accuracy. Your critical hit on a Skag (Borderlands’ mutated, dog-like scavengers) is if you hit him when his mouth is open. Your critical hit on Spider Ants is when you hit them in the abdomen, or ass sac as Randy calls it.
Like any good shooter, Borderlands is all about the guns. In this case however, there are literally millions of them.
On the surface, Borderlands appears to be heavily influenced by Fallout 3. However, Gearbox cite legendary dungeon trawler Diablo as their main source of inspiration.
Randy Pitchford: It is! It’s an ass sac!
Steve Gibson: So that’s much more rewarding as a shooter.
Randy Pitchford: The skill of shooting is about your tactics, your manoeuvring and where you’re aiming on your target that matters. I always hate the games where you’re rolling dice to decide whether you’re effective or not and it’s like, “No dude! I frickin’ shot him!”