No one could have predicted the critical and commercial success of Batman: Arkham Aslyum and Borderlands, two of the last year's left-field surprises. Gearbox Software's decision to completely revamp the look of Borderlands ignited new interest in the co-op shooter with the promise of a billion guns and when the game was released in October, it only took a look at your friends list to realize it was a hit. To get a better sense of how Borderlands took shape at Gearbox, how the team decided to play with the art and what that means for the future of Borderlands, I spoke with Gearbox VP of product development Aaron Thibault, producer Stephen Palmer and game director Matthew Armstrong.
G4: When I went over Twitter and asked users for questions, people wanted to know if you were on Team Conan or Team Leno? We should get the awkward question out of the way first.
[laughs from around the room]
Matthew Armstrong: I'm on Team Conan.
Aaron Thibault: Coco's a rebel, man! He's an indie guy.
Stephen Palmer: I was impressed with him sticking it to the man.
Thibault: I'm pretty sure we have a Craigslist bid out. [laughs]
G4: Take me back to when Borderlands was pitched. Given how much has changed publicly and clearly internally, what was the original idea for this project? What was the core idea behind this project? Take me back to when that happened.
Armstrong: This came about actually [when] we were finishing up Halo. We were porting Halo to the PC, which was quite fun and it was really neat and it was really enjoyable to get to play around in Bungie's work and see how they did things. One of the things that they did, which is genius, is their weapons used a sort of data-driven system. Rather than building each weapon individually, they built the weapon systemically, which is a little different than how most games did up until that point. We looked at this and I thought a little beyond that surface area of how they did it to make it more convenient, let the designer have more control over the weapons, and I realized that if you did this right and you evolved it the right way, you could have a first-person-shooter that had literally millions of weapons all designed or built with a fairly small group of people using systemic design.
I go to one of our producers at the time and mention this and I say "I don't know what we do with this exactly" and his response is "well, you do Halo-meets-Diablo. You make that promise. That's sort of a promise that floats around the back of people's head." When he said that, we started thinking about how could we do this, how could we make a first person shooter that has the accessibility -- when I say Halo, I don't mean literally Halo. Halo brings to it a measure of accessibility and ease of use and anybody can play it. When you look at a role-playing-game you see something that's deep and more complicated and more tricky. What Diablo did was Diablo took the role-playing-game and made it accessible. Randy [Pitchford, president of Gearbox] often says that the skill used in playing the game is the same as opening an application -- it's mostly clicking, it starts very simple, it evolves and you learn.
We could apply a lot of these same concepts to a first-person-shooter and anybody that plays Halo can jump into and understand but can evolve into something with the depth and fun and variety of a kind of a nice fun action RPG. So, that was the start and that was the goal.
G4: Clearly the art style is something that's come up. A lot of people have said they were very interested in Borderlands but the tipping point for a lot of people where they, I don't know, identified the soul of Borderlands, was when that art change happened last year. At what point in the project did you guys identify this was something to work on?
Armstrong: I just want to say that for a lot of people at this company, that was also the tipping point for what this project was. The art style change really brought into focus what the game was. The art style finally meshed with the game's personality and the gameplay style and that really, really made it easier to develop and to work on it.
Palmer: As far as a specific timeline, that change didn't happen till very late [in] 2008. In fact, October. That marked a pretty major change in the entire project. Like Matthew said, I think that was a big catalyst for finally zeroing in on the personality of the game and making the game fun.
G4: But how did it actually happen? As the game was doing through the development process, did you just say "we're missing something"? That's not usually something you see so far into a project. That's usually something you see in a sequel.
Palmer: Yeah, there are lots of accounts of this floating around there. To sum it up, I think right around the time we made that change we applied a lot of new people to this project and there were just some fresh eyes. There were a couple of artists, level designers and even one of the owners of the company, [executive VP] Brian Martel, they looked at it from an art perspective and they had an idea they wanted to try. They put together a demo, a prototype of the art style that they had in their mind and understanding that change would be extremely risky and a pretty radical move, they got this art test to a point where it was very demonstrable running in the game and they got it to that point and got a meeting together with Randy Pitchford, myself and a few others to show it to us to see if it would work.
(The original look for Borderlands, as it was shown to the gaming industry for several years.)
G4: What was that meeting like? What the feeling in that meeting?
Palmer: It was pretty exciting. I think initially it was nervous -- the artists were excited, they were proud of what they did, but I remember that there was a long kind of silence while we were just soaking it in. That was kind of a nervous time, but then people started to make comments and then it just sort of escalated into a lot of very positive emotions about it. So, yeah, it was an interesting meeting, but that was really a catalyst -- there was a lot of excitement there and that excitement just built and we brought that to our publisher after the decision was made that it was really the right thing to do for the game, so we carried that full excitement to the publisher. They immediately latched onto it and said "hey, we can sell this, this is great." And from there it just happened.
I can tell you the team at large -- we tried to keep it quiet, but the demo got out and everyone was looking at it, either right before or at the same time Randy was looking at it and there was just a lot of excitement on the team because it felt like something really meaty that they could sink their teeth into and it was really a rallying point for the project. We were able to really capitalize on that excitement and enthusiasm when we got back and committed to it.
"The artists were excited, they were proud of what they did, but I remember that there was a long kind of silence while we were just soaking it in"
G4: As you describe the origins of the project -- weapon creation and Diablo-style looting -- this art style change is the other half of the story. Can you imagine what it would have been like if you had followed the original path and right now we were talking about Borderlands with the original art design?
Palmer: It would have been an uphill battle [in the marketplace]. In fact, a lot of the reviews made the correlation that Matt mentioned earlier that it feels like it matches the gameplay and it enables the gameplay to be a lot more fun and interesting because it's so over-the-top and there's a lot of freedom to it.
Armstrong: With the old art style, we had a gun and it shot people and it set them on fire, right? So we have this gun and we get people playing the game and their response is "where's my incendiary ammo? How do I load the incendiary ammo? How do I make incendiary ammo work with this gun?" We say "no, no, no the gun makes the bullets incendiary." [Then, they'd say] "How does that work?" That question kept getting asked. We changed the art style -- no one's ever asked that question again. Those questions go away because it's fanciful and it allows us -- [and] the player -- to make a certain leap of faith into an understanding that the crazier and wackier and more fun things can exist in this world.
G4: I was a huge fan of Fallout 3 when that came out and it is one of those games that was dark and dreary and if you're in that universe for too long, it can even be kind of depressing to play. One of the things that really stuck out in my mind when I played Borderlands, even though Borderlands has a apocalyptic feel, it has a very playful, colorful atmosphere to it.
Palmer: It ended up being one of the best decisions we ever made for the project and it became a pillar that the game was built on.
Thibault: I think it's awesome that we are in an environment where that kind of change can happen. We all come from different areas of development that have made our way to Gearbox over the years and at a more traditionally run studio, I don't think that sort of decision is possible. Because of the relationship that we had with 2K [Games, the publisher] and because of the vision that we were able articulate in the new art style they saw that this is something they'd be able to market, that would speak to the audience, that would differentiate us from Fallout or other games in the space that use more realistic art styles -- maybe even not photo-real, but certainly more realistic art style that tend towards having things be plausible in the environment. Getting away from an art style that was grounded in plausibility really opened us up to be able to play -- like you said, it's more more playful, so it enabled everybody to contribute on the team to the playfulness of the game and that really was sort of something that helped everybody rally behind the game and help us in landing towards the end of production. It kept everybody focused on what would be fun about this and looking forward to seeing this in the market.
G4: The decision that you guys made towards the latter half of development is something you often hear in postmortems -- "We wish we'd have done that, but..." To see this pay off, to this become a hit, must not only be encouraging because you decided to make that decision, but probably encouraging to make them going forward.
Thibault: Right. We're not afraid to make those kind of decisions if they're the right decision and we can see the ROI [return on investment] associated with the risk in making them. If it's the right decision, then we will favor making it. It's one of the things that's separated Gearbox from other kinds of companies is that we have the nuts.
Palmer: [laughs] We use the fact that we made that change and we tried to make a story of it because we thought it was an important part about the story of the game. As you're watching, I'm sure you've noticed we've started to talk about this, so we weren't afraid to approach that even with the public and make our case. Even reading a lot of the reviews there's a kind of a refrain that bubbles up that [says] "it was a risky move but I'm glad they did it."
G4: In the weeks before release, it seemed people weren't quite sure what to make of the game. Gamers were at least pretty excited about the art style, but analysts were predicting modest sales, asking why this company was releasing a shooter just before Modern Warfare 2 -- a lot of games got out of the way of Call of Duty. How were you guys feeling before the game hit and you could say certifiably, "we've hit a home run!"?
Palmer: I think generally the feeling was we weren't 100% sure even close to launch. Yeah, in the office everybody wants to try and make predictions about how it's going to sell or what's gonna happen. In the past, I think a lot of our games...we were able to do that pretty confidently before the game comes out just based on all the trade shows and the PR [public relations] rounds and all the stuff you do before it hits the shelves. You can sort of build a general sense of what's going to happen. Borderlands was a lot tougher to tag. Like, I would said "man, it could be anywhere from a complete failure to a smash hit." There's so much range of possibility there that it was really tough for us to predict.
Thibault: The way we talk about prediction of sales and expectations we set is we like to set very low expectations internally so we can be surprised by our success. It's sort of pervasive around the company. When we talked about what might we sell and how excited should we get we talked about "well, we could sell anywhere from zero units to 10-million plus, we don't know." Especially for something where we are launching a new IP, we don't know how it's going to be received. We had a number of demo sessions where we got great feedback from the audience that there was a good vibe, we felt there were good hooks in the game that would show us to be different and different enough from other titles that were launching in the same timeframe as us that we'd have something to different to offer, that we wouldn't be going head-to-head against, say, Modern Warfare 2, that actually we had something different to offer than what Call of Duty is offering their audience. As well as you could pick any other shooter or RPG -- we're offering a hybrid experience that you're not going to get in any other title. There are certainly titles that have elements of what we've done and we've certainly drawn inspiration from a number of titles as any good gamers would, but we always believe that we can do better.
We have the hubris that designers who are going to do innovative things should have, but at the same time, we check ourselves on the risk side of production and think about what would be smart to do. We have awesome people who have their pulse to the market and are able to inform the decisions we make, as well as the truth team testing we do, which is a new department for focus testing that we setup inside the company, where we bring in lots and lots of people who represent our customer base to give us feedback and allow us to trending of design implementation as we build, so we have a pretty good handle about design throughout the course of development and we use that to fuel some of our expectations.
Even so, it's a gamble. You don't know when you put it out there in the world, especially a new IP, you don't know how it's going to be received. So far, it's worked. We've been pleasantly surprised, having not set enormous expectations.
Palmer: I'd summarize our feelings about Borderlands...the team was very excited about what they created. We were very hopeful that it would be well received. We were having fun playing it in the office, our focus testing had gradually and continuously trended upward to where it was at a comfortable level of positive feedback. But even with all that anticipation, we were nervous because it's a new IP and a new idea and we really just didn't know how it'd be accepted.
G4: From my perspective on 2009, the game this happened to last was Batman: Arkham Asylum. It was one of those games where when I booted up my machine and as you looked at all your friends, everybody was playing it. People seemed to really rally behind it. Once you guys saw that, I imagine that must have produced a huge sigh of relief.
Palmer: Oh, yeah. We were watching every sort of input we could get -- our forums, Twitter, the web sites that aggregate player data. We were refreshing constantly in anticipation. It was very, very relieving and encouraging to see it take off so quickly.
Thibault: One of the things we realized was that this is a word-of-mouth game. It's hard to articulate in a marketing snippet what the experience of the game is that's really gonna get it across. It kind of requires that word-of-mouth.
Palmer: This was our first launch where you could watch Twitter and actually see people talking about it in real-time and see the word-of-mouth spreading, which is pretty cool.
G4: That's very new to games, too to get that real-time tracking, the idea of a "trending topic." It's not sales data but it gives you an idea where the buzz is at.
Thibault: Right, and we have people here who are all over Twitter. We're definitely fostering that community.
Palmer: As soon as Ice-T started talking about it, we knew. [laughs]
G4: One of the things you alluded to was the difficulty in getting the experience of the game across. How come you guys decided to not release a demo before the release?
Palmer: I think there's a mix of practicality and deliberateness that decision. It honestly would have been tough, particularly a pre-release demo. So that certainly motivated and influenced that, but at the same time, we aren't totally sold on the value of pre-release demos in general here. I don't know that it would have helped. It would have been difficult to create a demo.
We actually put a lot of discussion into it and tried to kick around some designs that might work and might be achievable, but at the end of the day, Borderlands is a difficult game to play half-an-hour of and really understand and get hooked. There's so much that we needed to train the player to do and the beginning of the game is deliberately slow and it rolls out a lot of these concepts very slowly, deliberately over time and it takes a couple hours before you really get into the rhythm of the game. We would have had to provide a very large amount of the game in a demo in order for that to be possible. Both practically in a design sense and in a time and space sense, it didn't make sense to do.
G4: Borderlands allows for both single-player play and four-player co-op. How successful do you guys feel you were at making the experience fun for both kinds of experiences? Would you have done anything differently to change that experience for each side?
Armstrong: Not a thing. I think that's one of our big successes. I wouldn't have done anything different. Now, we might do things different in the future, but when you look at something and think "this is one of the big successes of the project," it's kind of a risky thing to start thinking "what would I have done differently then?" In the future, we can change things.
"In the first two week so development, we were playing four-player co-op."
In the first two weeks of development, we were playing four-player co-op. It was thanks to the incredible skills of our tech and code team. We were stable and could play co-op for the entire development. Any day, any time, you could jump in and have a co-op game. It's significantly easier to balance a game in co-op if it's always there, if it's there from the start. From the very start of the game we said "we need to build and design this game so it's a cooperative game you can play by yourself. It needs to be fun by yourself, it needs to be lots of energy and excitement and it needs to have all the gameplay and all the story and all the elements together when you play by yourself, but we need to make sure from the very start that we're making a game that's especially fun when you play co-op."
Palmer: Going forward, from my reading of the critical reviews of the game, co-op was very successful and even single-player resonated with a lot of people. But I think we can do even better on the single-player front by doing a bit better on the storytelling aspect and focusing a little more [on] iterating on our AI systems, and I think by doing those two things we can bring even the single-player experience up to the level of the co-op play.
G4: Was the storytelling aspect of Borderland something that came later, not necessarily important on this project? Especially compared to other Gearbox projects like Brothers in Arms.
Palmer: It certainly was something we prioritized lower than making sure the core game was done and the co-op was fun. Overall, I don't think it's as important, particularly for the co-op experience. I mean, it's very clear that just the ability to jump in the game with three of your friends and explore in this world and have fun with the combat and everything -- that is almost all you need and it's so chaotic and so over-the-top, it's a great experience in and of itself. But when you're alone in the world, I think we do need more hooks there to pull the player through. I think we made the right decisions for Borderlands this time around and we'll just continue to improve going forward.
G4: Based on what I've read, some common criticisms leveled against the game by users was the sometimes unresponsive AI and the lack of a mini-map. Were you conscious of both of these potential criticisms while developing the game? Now that 2K Games is referring to Borderlands as a "franchise," I'm sure you're in the course of analyzing all these things at the moment.
Palmer: Yeah, absolutely. Going forward, I want to make sure that we understand what our customers like, what they didn't like and certainly in the case of the mini-map for instance, it was one of those things that we knew the game could be better if it had it and it was done correctly, but we had to de-prioritize it in the overall scheme of things and at the end we ended up not having one.
Thibault: There were some other reasons having to do with navigation, as well, and getting people to actually go through the menus and learn what was available to them.
Armstrong: Actually, it is true. Part of the training thing was we found that when we never required the player to go into the menus they had difficulty learning how to sue the menus. So that sort of tied into it a little bit. There were a lot of technical issues in trying to get the thing implemented and it wasn't the highest priority. We made sure that you can quickly access the map by holding the back key and it pops up really quickly and goes away when you let go, which is a feature we found a lot of people don't know about, so we did give you some quick access to map if you need it.
G4: I actually did not know about that.
Palmer: It wasn't trained.
Armstrong: It wasn't trained, but we have the functionality there, so we have something that is very similar to a mini-map in the game. Making sure that we trained people of all the things that are actually in the game better might be something we want to work on in the future.
Palmer: We actually had a radar of sorts for a long time, even from the very beginning of the game, where it would show you relative position of enemies around you. It didn't have a sense of the world boundaries, so it wasn't useful for navigation, and we went back and forth about including that or not, but I think at the end, we ended up saying "well, if we're gonna do this, we're need to do it right with a real mini-map." We just weren't able to do that.
Those types of things...we're definitely going to be listening to our customers. As a producer, I've been spending a lot of my time really analyzing all the reviews, all the feedback and trying to really bring into focus what expectations that were there that we did not meet that we should meet in the future and what expectations people had that we really did meet and just double down on the things that were very successful.
Armstrong: Making Borderlands was a great deal of invention. What we're doing now -- you can see in the DLC [downloadable content], you can see in The Island of Dr. Ned how the story moved -- what we're doing now is evolution. It's going to be much easier for us tackling problems understanding what the holistic view of how they felt and how they reacted and having a complete great to react to. So even as the quickly as the first DLC we ever did, you find a tighter story, a better story, a generally better single-player experience as you're travelling through the world and I think that sort of evolution will continue as we move forward in Borderlands.
G4: Do you have a very extensive road map for Borderlands? Do you have a six-month, year-long plan? Or because the game was something of a surprise hit, is that up in the air?
Palmer: We have a pretty solid plan right now in place. That came together very quickly as the game was launching. We're still learning a lot about DLC, this is the first title we've done that really leverages DLC, so we're also learning about results and how to think about that even earlier and plan for future Borderlands titles.
Armstrong: We've been listening to the player community. We said before we launched the game that we were going to listen to the community for what it felt like would be best received and most interesting and that's really what's fueled our efforts for what we've done so far, trying to cater to different parts of the community. There's a lot of different things in the game that different people find to be the most interesting hooks. That's part of it, as well. That combined with knowing the things we're really interested in doing internally and finding out where the best matches are has produced so far in some really well-received DLC from our perspective.
G4: One thing I really appreciated because I play a lot of games with my girlfriend on the same Xbox is the split-screen. That seems to be a rarer and rare commodity in games these days, especially shooters. Was that important to you guys to have that option?
Armstrong: It was actually really important to us because we recognized really early on that this was going to be a word-of-mouth game and a big part of what makes a word-of-mouth game worthwhile is you come in, you sit on the couch and you say "hey, come over and check out this game out and play with me." We wanted people to play with each other so other people would play the game and have that experience. Besides that, it's so co-op centric, that not having split-screen would have felt like a missing feature. Adding co-op feels like an extra feature, but on this project, I suspect it would have felt like a missing feature to not have it.
G4: As you're tracking people's experience with the game now and they're downloading the DLC and giving you feedback, what's been the thing that you didn't think people would latch onto? What surprised you most about people's response to Borderlands?
"Players almost feel like 'hey, you let me down a little because there's not more to do.' We gave you a huge giant game, we didn't even know this many people would want more to do."
Palmer: Matt's never surprised. He predicted it all! I think I was surprised, maybe less from a customer point-of-view and maybe from a critical point-of-view, just how the success of the co-op aspect of the game really buoyed the overall feeling and impression and enthusiasm for the game. We don't know exactly what percentage of our players have actually played co-op online or even split-screen but we suspect it's not very high. Overall, people embracing the game because it's such a fun experience and I think that really created that word-of-mouth, that noise.
Armstrong: I believe the biggest surprise for much of the team was how many people played the second playthrough -- how many people finished the game and then kept playing and played to the end. We got a lot of people saying "hey, I'm level 50 and I've completed everything, now what do I do?"
Palmer: There's a lot of people mad at us. How dare we not keep them addicted?!
Armstrong: There was a big debate if we'd even have a second playthrough.
G4: Oh, really?
Palmer: We had to trim that down. There was ambition to do -- what, how many?
Armstrong: There were three playthroughs. I put in three playthroughs. The reason [was] I kind of expected people would want to play more. But most people didn't. The thing is, like you said, Arkham Asylum's great, people get to the end of Akrham Asylum and they're not like "where the hell's my second playthrough? where's my third playthrough?" People really, really wanted more of an end-game, they wanted more to do. That is something you kind of expect if your game is good and well received and we appreciate that, but what was a bit surprising was how many people not only wanted it but expected it and almost feel like "hey, you let me down a little because there's not more to do." We gave you a huge giant game, we didn't even know this many people would want more to do.
Palmer: It's like we created a drug addiction and then we cut 'em off.
G4: That's a nice problem to have, though.
Palmer: It is a good problem, certainly something for us to ponder in the future.
Armstrong: It would have been nice for us to have understood that was going to happen ahead of time, but it's something we're still in the process of reacting. With Zombie Island and Moxxi, we're reacting. That Moxxi Underdome Riot is exactly that -- it gives you something to do, it gives you a big challenge, an epic battle. For those hardcore people who want more hardcore gameplay, we made a hardcore DLC.
G4: I do think it's interesting that you're getting push back from gamers about the level cap, but I can't imagine what the response would have been like with a single playthrough. Watching people's reactions to the game, a second playthrough seems essential.
Palmer: Yeah, it's a good thing we did that. [laughs]
Armstrong: It's definitely making us think about this game and the franchise that it represents for us now. It's got us thinking about that more -- the player reaction, how we want to try and cater to that audience going into the future.