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Gearbox's Anthony Burch and Paul Hellquist on the Future and Present of Borderlands 2
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 12:20pm 09/08/13 | Comments
AusGamers caught up with Gearbox's Anthony Burch and Paul Hellquist to talk about the future of Borderlands. Read on or watch for what they had to say...

Watch the full video interview embedded above, or click here for a direct link.

AusGamers: Ladies and gents, welcome back to AusGamers, once again coming to you from PAX Australia -- I can’t tell you enough how awesome that is to say. We’ve got Paul and Anthony, who have worked on Gearbox’s wonderful Borderlands 2.

Let’s talk, really quickly, and immediately, about what you guys have pushed forward, in terms of first-person, multiplayer co-op -- which seems to now be becoming a really big thing. Are you guys going to take full responsibility for that?

Paul Hellquist: [laughs] I don’t know if we can take full responsibility...

Anthony Burch: We invented co-op!

Paul: …I think that we were a little bit ahead of the curve, in terms of understanding what a fun and social experience co-op gaming can be, and I think we were one of the earlier ones that people really latched onto -- in this console-cycle anyway.

AusGamers: There’s obviously a big push now for persistent online stuff, and obviously next-gen is just around the corner. You guys have pretty much wrapped up the DLC season pass, and I’ll get to what else you might be doing content-wise in a little bit, but are you guys thinking at all about expanding the [Borderlands 2] world in that way?

Paul: We’re always thinking about all kinds of different things, but we don’t really have anything to talk about today.

AusGamers: But surely it must be exciting; you can tell me that it’s a really exciting thing!

Paul: Oh yeah, of course. The new hardware is going to provide a lot of opportunities for new and interesting experiences, so yeah, we’re excited about that.

AusGamers: Is there any reason you guys have kept Borderlands 2 capped at four players, and not actually gone with more.

Paul: It’s mostly for performance, to keep the network bandwidth down low enough that everyone can have a rich and fast-paced experience. Because Borderlands is a very fast-paced game. So if we went further than that, frame rates and all that kind of stuff would suffer.

AusGamers: We’ll get to content now, because the season pass stuff is pretty much wrapped up, but there’s talk that you might be just keep pushing out content. Can you kind of elaborate on that at all?

Paul: I can’t talk too much about it, but we are going to be announcing a few things tomorrow at our panel here at PAX Australia...

AusGamers: So I spoke to you at the wrong time?

Paul: Yeah, you were like one day too early [laughs]

[ed: Gearbox later revealed that at least two new downloadable content expansions would be coming by Halloween 2013 -- one of which will increase the level cap by 11 -- with more likely to follow.]

AusGamers: Anthony: from a writing perspective, can you talk a little bit about where the game began and where you’ve taken it. Because obviously with the first game, one of the criticisms was that it was a little bit barren. The story was quite good, but you’ve filled the world up now with a much richer cast of characters, and a richer background. Can you talk about the evolution of that?

Anthony: Sure. We kind of came from a place of really specifically knowing peoples responses -- like you said -- and going “How can we alleviate that problem?”. If the idea is that they like the world, and they think some of the characters are cool, but they’re saying that the story specifically is lacking, then what can we do to give that some more focus.

So we thought “Ok, well maybe it’s about focus in the narrative; that maybe just going after the vault was maybe a little bit too vague for them; maybe they need something more direct to hone their attention”. So we thought: “Ok, what about a really strong central villain? What’s something that can mock you the entire time you’re going through the game, and constantly be there as both something that’s reminding you that the story exists verbally (because they’re a character), and as an end goal, because you’re always thinking in the back of your head “Oh, I can’t wait to shoot that guy in the head”.

So it really started there, and then became “Ok, if the whole game’s just about kill this one guy -- really simple plot -- what else can we do that makes this character-centric world all revolve around that”, and then it was like “Ok, we’ll set it five years later, so we can have this impact on the world, and we can have you meet the original four vault hunters as NPCs, and then show how they have been changed by this one villain”, and just try and expand on that one nugget of an idea that this game is about a villain that you’re trying to kill, and try to make it all work around that.

AusGamers: Did you have most of the DLC story stuff mapped out before you actually approached it, or...

Anthony: God no; not even close. No, it came time to do DLC, and we were like “Ok, what do we want to do? Err, pirates maybe? ...and maybe like biker gangs mixed with wrestling, and then a big game hunt, and then tabletop I guess? But even that makes it sound like we planned them all at once; we didn’t. It was just “Oh crap, time to work on a new thing! What? Err, unicorns; I don’t know!” and then we’d just make the DLC [laughs].

AusGamers: Now, I Skyped with you a little while back, and we were talking about the tabletop stuff. Just for everyone else that didn’t hear that, the genesis of that story is really cool. Can you talk about where that came from?

Anthony: Yeah, yeah. Initially we had thought “Ok, what if Handsome Jack had a nephew, and what if this nephew ran a base of some sort, and he treated it like his own personal D&D module”, so like “Haha, you’ve fallen into my trap”, and the entire room would change around you, or whatever.

We just thought the idea of a character being in complete control of an environment, gave us a lot of narrative opportunities, but we were like “Oh, it’s more robots, and I don’t really care about Handsome Jack’s nephew, and that’s kind of lame”. So we talked around a bunch of other stuff, and eventually we got to the point that “Well, the reason we liked that is because he was treating it like his D&D module. What if we just actually did a D&D module? What if we made it all within a D&D world, where we can have a narrator just change everything on the fly, as suits their whim”, then we thought “Ok, cool”.

Then Raison Varner, one of our sound guys was like “Yeah, it should be Tiny Tina, because she’s super unreliable, and she could do whatever she wanted, and it would just be cool”. Then one we said that, the ideas started coming, like “Oh yeah, we could have a Game of Thrones quest, and we could have ogres, and we could do our own version of orcs”, and stuff like that, and it just really started to take.. it was like a snowball rolling down the hill kind of thing.

AusGamers: From a narrative perspective, what sort of stuff did you learn in creating that. Because as you say, stuff does change on the fly. It feels like it would be a really good opportunity for the player to impact what does change, as opposed to the characters driving the narrative specifically.

Anthony: I think I’ve learned that it’s important to -- even when you’re fussing around with the game world -- to never be unfair to the player. So there’s that boss fight at the beginning that you’re forced to lose, and we could have just been like “Haha, you’re forced to lose, aren’t we clever!”, but no, that would be really upsetting, so let’s make sure you can’t actually die there -- we just force you into a downed state, and then bring you back up. It was basically about trying to find a balance between having these characters fart around with the world, and also have the players feel like “Oh cool, I’m in on this joke too!”, rather than make them feel like the joke is being played on them.

AusGamers: What’s been the most positive feedback with the main game and all the content for you guys, and what’s been the most negative feedback? From players, and your peers alike.

Anthony: Negative feedback was: “Why didn’t Roland respawn when he did?”, to which I’m like “Fuck, you’re right!”, and that’s really the only possible response I could have, because I just fucked that up [laughs]. And probably the most positive stuff has come from... I’ve gotten some letters from people who... we had a letter from someone who’d gone to Iraq, and an IED had gone off near her head, so she basically had permanent stuttering issues from now on. She played the game, and there was a character in the game called Karima, who is the mayor of this town called Overlook, and she has this constant stutter, because we needed to give her a disease called the skull shivers that you can cure, so he stuttering would go ahead. Because you’re never going to meet her, we needed something audio that you could tell “Oh, something’s wrong with her”.

And this war veteran was talking about how she played through, and was waiting for the moment where somebody made fun of this character for talking with a stutter -- because she has to deal with that everyday and being in front of people saying “spit it out!”, and getting really impatient with her -- and when it never came, she was incredibly happy, and thought “Oh my god, there’s finally a positive stuttering character in a game, that I feel like I can relate to”, because she has this really cool arc. So that really warmed the cockles of my heart, to know that somebody out there had something addressed to them that really connected to them.

The same with Ellie: I’ve seen cosplayers that are like “I’m so happy to have this character that doesn’t look like the normal 36-24-36 female game character; who actually looks like me, and is also a positive character, and not made fun of for looking like that. To me, that’s been by the far the best feedback I could ever hope for.

Paul: Anthony of course goes for the story thing that people are annoyed by, so I go for the design thing that people are annoyed by [laughs]. So the one that we always hear on the forums and stuff, is that everyone is always complaining that the loot is too rare -- that they really want their good stuff, and they want it right now. So that’s an interesting one that we’ve heard a lot of.

I think the most positive stuff is just that people are still playing it, and we’re hearing from so many people who have played for so many hours, and have just consumed it and enjoyed it, and it’s become part of their daily life, which is really incredible.

AusGamers: My one negative feedback, if I may... [laughs] you’ve got all these great sniper weapons in the game, but it feels like stealth doesn’t actually really exist. Because as soon as you fire at someone, you just agro everything. Can you talk about the design philosophy behind that?

Paul: Yeah, stealth isn’t really a big thing for Pandora. It’s interesting that you’re equating sniping with stealth. We never really thought about it that way; we thought about it more as the character in the co-op group that is staying further back. So while the other guys are right in the middle there, and are dealing with it, you can stay in the back, and continue to have a major impact in the battle. But when you are by yourself, that can get... you get maybe one or two shots before you get guys on top of you. So that’s mainly about the co-op multiplayer design.

AusGamers: Loot is a really big factor in the game, and there are a lot of games out there that do loot, and do it really well. Obviously, players can be quite lazy and try and get loot from players who have already picked it up. Can you guys talk about whether or not it would be something that you do, in terms of getting something like and auction house happening, or anything like that in the future? Or just your thoughts on that type of stuff?

Paul: Sure. Our philosophy with Borderlands has really been about: it’s a shared experience. When you’re playing co-op, we really want everyone to share in the excitement of finding loot, so we’ve gone with the “you all see what you get, and work it out amongst yourselves model”, so that when something amazing drops, everyone has that sort of “Yeah!” moment, instead of the “Oh, this is awesome!”, “What are you talking about? I got garbage”, those kinds of things.

We’re actually really frustrated that on our loading screens, everyone sees a different gun, because it’s again, another moment where you can be like “Wow, look at that thing; that looks really cool; I can’t wait to find it”, and everybody else is like “What are you talking about, I have a grenade”, or something completely different. So for us, that decision is really about trying to bring players together and make sure they have a shared experience.

AusGamers: Now you mentioned this just before, that it was a performance issue that capped the players at four. Again, I know you can’t really talk about next gen stuff or what you’re doing, but at the very least, that must be an exciting prospect: that now that there’s enough horsepower. Obviously the PC can do it anyway, but the next-gen consoles and the networking side of that seems like it caters itself toward you guys expanding. Can you at least talk about the possibilities that might be running through your mind?

Paul: There’s obviously more power, so some of those performance things will diminish, but... [laughs] we are always filling up all of the performance we are given by the hardware manufacturers, so I’m sure we’ll have different challenges. But there is also a thing we’ve talked a lot about internally with going more than four, where we think that if we go too much more than four, the experience will actually start to break down; that four is kind of a nice sweet spot, in terms of enough craziness, and of all of these different personalities and character classes and everything, but you can still kind of keep track of what’s happening.

We do have a little bit of a worry that if we go to eight or sixteen or something crazy, that everyone will spread out, and you’ll kind of actually lose that more intimate “We’re working together” kind of experience. So there’s an interesting balance there that we’ll need to investigate.

AusGamers: I just want to end on transmedia, because like I said, the world is so much more rich now, and obviously the art style is one of the stand out things for Borderlands and the brand in general, and it seems like there’s more and more stories to tell each time new DLC drops. Is it something internally that you guys have thought about, that you’d like to do? And if so, how many more stories are there on Pandora? How far could you take it?

Anthony: Ideally there would be infinite stories. The thing to me that was always really cool about Star Wars, wasn’t necessarily the movies, it was reading Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, and that was just like “Here are all these weird extras and puppets: what are their stories?” that made the whole world feel a lot bigger; I would love to do that kind of stuff.

Like the Krieg video we did, the Meat Bicycle Built for Two short film that explained how he became a vault hunter -- or at least why he’s on the train with the other vault hunters -- that’s probably the most proud I’ve been of stuff I’ve written, in terms of stuff we’ve accomplished. I would love to do more stuff like that. We haven’t said anything concrete about what we would do, but it’s certainly... there’s no lack of excitement for doing stuff like that.

AusGamers: If you did go down that path, ideally, what would you like to see? Would it be like animated movies? Comic books? An actual movie? A TV Show?

Anthony: Anything really. If you give me a medium to do a fun story in, I will be happy to do a fun story for you in that medium. Ideally, it would be something I haven’t done before. So I’ve never written a TV show; never written a movie. I’ve never even written a comic, so anything is fun if it’s weird and different and new.

AusGamers: Awesome guys. Well I look forward to the information that I’m going to get tomorrow, and thanks so much for your time today, and enjoy PAX. Thanks guys.
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