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AusGamers Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel Interview with Randy Pitchford, Tony Lawrence and Joel Eschler
Post by RyanC @ 05:35pm 09/04/14 | Comments
AusGamers was fortunate enough to spend some time with Randy Pitchford, President Gearbox Software; Tony Lawrence, 2K Australia CEO and Joel Eschler, Producer at 2K Australia on all things Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel...

AusGamers: For you guys at 2K Australia, when you finished up on BioShock Infinite, was this something that was even on the radar at all, or were you guys approached out of the blue? And once that happened, how did the team react?

Tony Lawrence: I guess that we’re in fairly constant communication with 2K in terms of what our next project is going to be. This project came up as an opportunity for us to work with Gearbox on a franchise that we’re really big fans of within the studio. So I guess when we started talking to Randy and Gearbox, we came to an understanding of what we’d really like to be able to make in the Borderlands Universe, and hence we started making the game together.

As far as the studio is concerned, they were stoked. Essentially we were all fans of the Borderlands franchise to begin with, and even to the point where when they first started coming out here to Novato and to Dallas, one of the guys said to me ‘come back with some Borderlands’, and he could believe it when I turned around and said ‘hey, I’ve got some Borderlands’ [laughs].

I guess you couldn’t have had a better reaction from the studio, and particularly working with such a great team at Gearbox, it’s all good all round.



AusGamers: We just watched the demo presentation that you guys hosted last week, or quite recently, and Randy, you mentioned a few times about how much you’ve let 2K Australia run free. In my notes of the presentation I suggested that this is almost like a fanboy’s mod, with everything that’s going on.

Randy Pitchford: [laughs] I don’t know if ‘let’ is the right word; I’ve begged and insisted really. I’ve been playing content from 2K Australia for years -- especially in the BioShock games they’ve worked on -- and there’s just so much awesome talent there. They approach their work with the best understanding you can imagine for the space that they’re working in, but with a desire to push things and bring their own creativity to the table, and that’s just awesome for me; super exciting.

AusGamers: In the presentation, you mentioned that Gearbox has a bunch of rules, and 2K Australia don’t care about them. Could you elaborate on the rules you were talking about there?

Randy: I was speaking more hyperbolically there; there’s no actual rulebook [laughs]. We don’t have anything that resembles Leviticus. With respect to Borderlands, it’s totally fine for us to eat shellfish [laughs]. That said, one thing that’s a pretty distinct one that represents some information you’ve already got about the game is: since the first Borderlands game, I was one of the voices wishing for an ice gun. There’s always been an argument inside of Gearbox, a debate about whether or not an ice gun should exist. By ice gun, I mean I want to shoot bullets that freeze enemies into ice cubes, and then break those ice cubes up into little bits -- pretty much exactly what 2K Australia developed with the cryo element effect.

The argument had many vectors. Some people were -- rightfully and responsibly -- concerned about the potential challenges to game balance and the effort to create the stuff. Some people argue about its logic and reason in the Universe, like ‘how do ice bullets work?’. If we can imagine incendiary bullets, those exist in the real world. We can imagine a bullet that has acid in it, even though the effect that we produce in game is really exaggerated, we can imagine it from a logic point of view.

It was harder for people to imagine the ice thing, but I think what cracked the nut for the 2K Australia guys is they’re in this Moon environment, and they’re dealing with technology, and the idea of cryo-stasis is a pretty natural concept in a science fiction construct that gets as extreme as a Moon-base presentation Borderlands game. So the idea of having cryogenic freezing became the vector to make that just logically sound, but almost obvious and natural.

All I know from my point of view though is, Hell yeah I got fuckin’ freeze guns now! [laughs]



AusGamers: I hate to be that guy, but are you concerned that people will complain that the ice guns disappeared between Borderlands 1 and Borderlands 2 after appearing in the pre-sequel?

Randy: That’s interesting. I’m sure that’s not the only continuity hole you could find in the story of Borderlands if you pulled it apart.

AusGamers: Well they’re all still up there on The Moon right?

Randy: We just try to emphasise what’s fun and entertaining over… I don’t know if our Universe holds up to the same scrutiny as like Tolkien [laughs]. But that said, the technology is all technology pieces that just happened to be on that moon. So I guess, in Borderlands 2, if you can figure out a way to get up onto the moon, you might be able to get some ice weapons up there; so maybe it’s not a continuity problem whatsoever.

I think that when we love universes… all fictional universes have problems, and when we love them, we find ways to defend them; the fans will do the work for us. I can tell you why a [Star Wars] Kessel run is measured in terms of distance instead of speed -- 12 parsecs is a measurement of distance, not a measurement of speed. I can tell you why that’s true, not because the canon ever explained that, it’s just because I love Star Wars so much I wanted it to be true. I made up my own logic.

That’s what we do as fans when we like things, and when we hate things, everything bothers us. So hopefully we stay on the right side, in the good graces of our customers. In my career, I’ve been on both sides of that equation -- I know what it’s like when they turn on you, but I also know what it’s like when they love you. Our job as entertainers is just to commit to the work we’re doing and do the best job we can to try to make people feel good and have a good time. I think there’s all the evidence in the world that that’s what’s happening with this game, and with all of the Borderlands games.

AusGamers: You guys are talking about 2K Australia ‘helping out’, but it seems in the short amount of time we saw, that there’s so much Australian injected into this, including Red Belly, and all of the voices. I hope those voices aren’t placeholders, I hope they’re in there fully.

Tony: To tell you the truth, they are placeholders, we’ve got better voices to come yet.

Randy: It’s the placeholder stuff that helped my team fall in love with the idea of ‘You know what? The people on the moon should be Australian!’ Of course, that makes perfect sense.

Tony: With some of the voices we’ve got, we’ve looked at someone like Bruce Spence, who you might recognise from Mad Max with the gyrocopter. Well, we’ve got him doing the gyrocopter scavenging in Borderlands Pre-sequel. So it’s wonderful that you guys can bring it up, that yeah Red Belly -- Ned Kelly; red-bellied black snake -- and you get all of those references. We’ve had fun putting that in the game; it’s been good.



AusGamers: Can you quantify, in percentage terms, the split between both studios, in terms of work and input?

Joel Eschler: I don’t know if we really want to put percentages on it, but we’re totally co-developing, and everyone’s talking every ten minutes between the studios when the timezones overlap. it’s a pretty organic relationship at the moment.

Randy: And there’s a couple of Gearbox guys that have been down to your studio.

Joel: Absolutely. We’re swapping people around all the time. In fact, we just went out to lunch with some Gearbox guys and other Aussies who are over here working. So we’re kind of transplanting people every couple of weeks.

AusGamers: How much did things change, jumping from BioShock Infinite to this, both from a technical standpoint and from a design standpoint? Because it sounds more like, as you say, it’s a synergetic relationship here, whereas I presume the Infinite stuff was more directed.

Tony: Huge, I guess is the bottomline. Working on Infinite was a very different experience than working on this game, where we got to start from scratch basically. I think that’s probably the biggest difference. When we started working on Infinite, we came in when they were fairly full on into development. This time, we’ve had the opportunity to work directly with Gearbox from conception through to where we are now, and that was a huge difference.

As far as technology was concerned, we’re using the same engine, so that wasn’t too difficult, except that it’s a heavily modified engine for Borderlands: Pre-sequel. So it was just getting up to scratch with the new technology and how it has been used by Gearbox and then developing a game from scratch for the first time in a while.

Joel: Something cool about the modified engine that Gearbox is using, is that is allows us to prototype really quickly. So from the beginning, when we were starting to come up with ideas, we could just throw ideas in and get them working really quickly, and get eyes on them, then get opinions, and that’s been awesome on this project.

AusGamers: Is this the heaviest systems-based iteration of Borderlands? Because you’ve got so many different munitions types, and you’ve got the zero G and the oxygen -- which is flammable and explosive -- then you’ve got the butt-stomp which breaks everything apart. It seems like you can pile so much more on in this game.

Randy: From a technology, systems and features point of view, the starting point wasn’t scratch, the starting point was ‘ok, let’s iterate and build from the Borderlands 2 engine. So you have everything that existed in all of the Borderlands games, and then on top of that all of this new invention -- all of these new features, and technology, and capability and gameplay.

What’s neat about it is how elegantly the 2K Australia designers have approached it. Nobody at Gearbox came up with the idea of taking the logical idea that oxygen should play a role in a zero atmosphere environment -- taking that idea and turning it into a gameplay benefit of flying around, jetpacking, double-jumping. Then to take it one step further and add that ground-pound. I love smashing guys so much right now with ground-pound, that when I go back and play Borderlands 2, I feel like it sucks; I feel like I’m downgrading when I go backwards.

That’s really interesting; that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes when people take something that… sometimes there’s a brand that’s known, or there’s a game that’s known, and some people want to get involved and really turn things over and almost make it unfamiliar and unrecognisable so that we almost prefer the earlier versions. This has everything that’s great and familiar from the earlier versions and just adds cool stuff to it that makes it more fun. That’s really cool from the point of view of playing the game, when i have my gamer hat on.

Tony: Having the advantage of having the engine there to start with, and the Borderlands Universe to play with, already established, it just means that we can concentrate on creating content rather than developing the systems. It means we’ve had a great advantage to start the game with, and really had an opportunity to really go for it.



AusGamers: On the topic of jetpacks, obviously jumping or traversal puzzles were a huge part of the other Borderlands games. Has the addition of jetpacks and double-jumping created its own challenges there, and how do you go about solving them if it has?

Randy: It’s kind of news to me that jumping puzzles are a huge part of Borderlands.

AusGamers: Really? I jump off everywhere in both Borderlands games, just to see what I can find!

Randy: Maybe it’s how we define jumping puzzle. When I hear the word jumping puzzle, I tend to think that you have to figure out a clever order of overcoming an obstacle, otherwise progress is locked.

AusGamers: You guys have placed chests in places where you need to figure out some incredibly complex jumps to reach.

Randy: Yeah, there’s some skill tests there that are rewarding, but aren’t required. That might be semantics in how we think about it. There’s different games I play… like when I play a 2D platformer, there are very specific things that I might call a jumping puzzle, where I have to first solve the puzzle, then perform the skill test, and if I’m unable to do that, I can’t even progress in the game.

Whereas Borderlands tends to take the presentation of, if you want to jump around and go into weird places that you’re probably not even supposed to be, guess what? You might discover that the designer actually did that too, and he put a little goodie up there for you; he put some chests and other fun stuff to discover up there, or the hidden vault logos and stuff. We had a lot of with those kind of alternate game loops, to kind of encourage and reward that kind of exploration.

In my playing with the new verticality capability of jumping and jetpacking around on the moon, it’s even crazier. There’s sections I played through where I felt like I was breaking the game -- just going off randomly -- and it turned out that’s kind of what the designers sort of anticipated that I would do, and it turned out to be an optimal critical path.

So it’s really neat to both get those feelings of doing what you’re not supposed to do, but it turns out that there’s rewards built in for you because you’re so clever. I love that kind of feeling, and those guys are really putting it to great advantage.

AusGamers: From a design perspective of the actual environment, is it challenging populating the moon? I know one of the bigger complaints about Borderlands 1 was that it just felt a bit barren and lacked a bit of diversity in some of the environments and locales. You approached that in Borderlands 2, especially with DLC. Has that new philosophy for Borderlands 2 carried over this, or is it entirely its own beast?

Tony: The only kind of barren spaces that we will have are ones which are by design. There are plenty of new enemies, and creatures, and other kinds of obstacles that the player has to make their way around, all over the moon and in the other locations.

AusGamers: Has it been challenging for the the team to create a compelling reason for players to help out Handsome Jack, considering we already know he’s a dickhole?

Tony: You’re talking about Handsome Jacks end-state though, and not what he is in this game. This is really about developing Handsome Jack’s character to that end-state. So rather talking about him being an asshole in Borderlands 2, we’re not at that point yet, we’re finding out why he’s that kind of guy.



AusGamers: Does this feel a little sort of serendipitous for the 2K Australia team, and maybe even for you as well Randy, given how much Borderlands drew inspiration, even from an aesthetic point of view from Mad Max -- a quintessentially Australian movie that we loved so dearly that we rallied Mad Max game developer Avalanche to put an aussie voice in their game. Now you’re talking about having Bruce Spence in the game, and it’s being co-developed by Australians; that’s pretty cool.

Randy: I don’t think one could wish for a better scenario, if one could perform actual magic and change the nature of the world. I love the situation that we’re in right now, and all of the results that are coming in right now are verifying how wonderful it is.

Joel: This is definitely going to be the most Australian game anyone has ever played.

Tony: I like that you brought up the Mad Max thing, because I remember playing Borderlands 2 and they were my instant thoughts. The Borderlands world for me is a bit Mad Maxy. So I guess it wasn’t much of a stretch for us to think that way when we were developing this one.

AusGamers: You guys brought this up in the presentation, and you specifically Randy: can you elaborate on why no next-gen consoles? I know you clarified it with ‘we’re going to deliver the game where our fans are’, but by the time the game comes out, the adoption rate of those new consoles is going to be a lot higher…

Randy: Where do you think it’s going to be? How many units do you think each of the platforms are going to sell by the time we reach the end of the third quarter of this year? There’s a little bit fewer Xbox Ones and PlayStation 4s sold currently to people in the world, than there were units of Borderlands 2 sold to people in the world. So I can’t wish for an attach-rate of greater than 100%.

The other thing to that we know, is that with almost 100% tie-in rate, customers that buy PlayStaiton 4 or Xbox One, owned one of the earlier platforms, so we know they have 360s and PS3s. There might be a couple of people that have an Xbox One or a PlayStation 3 that don’t have the prior platforms or have gotten rid of those prior platforms; those people might exist, and there’s probably a few of them.

This might cause a little ‘oh man, I shouldn’t have gotten rid of that platform’, and that’s not my goal to create that feeling -- I’m sorry that that might exist for a few people -- but when I weigh that possibility against what it would mean to invest in bringing the game to next gen, the cost of that is way too high.

When i say cost, I’m not talking in terms of dollars, I’m talking about there’s a reality of time and people involved in the creation of anything. So there’s only so many people that are capable and available, and there’s only so much time between now and when it would be commercially responsible for this game to exist.

You as a gamer, and everyone who loves Borderlands, wants all of that effort spent towards creating awesome fun gameplay, features like the ones you’re first getting a glimpse of, and features you have yet to discover -- the new capabilities of new characters, the new capabilities of new guns, the new excitement and exploration of new environments -- you want all of the energy available to be spent on that experience, and none of that energy to be distracted in figuring out how to re-render the triangle on a new platform, or having to map over a whole different input paradigm on a new platform, or to deal with memory management on a low level.

None of that stuff has anything to do with the customer’s gameplay experience, but there’s a tremendous amount of technology work that’s required just to exist on those platforms. I would argue -- just roughly guessing -- that maybe a third of the entire budget would have had to have been spent, just on porting the game to next-gen.

Which basically would have meant, if we had made that decision, that the game would have a third less stuff in it, been a third less good, been a third as polished, been a third as robust. It’d just be a much less interesting game, and that’s not worth it, for the handful of people that might not still have access to a PS3 or 360 because they’re so quick to move to next gen. There’s 150 million Xbox 360s and PlayStation 3s out there. There’s less than 10 million Xbox Ones and PS4s.



AusGamers: If demand is high enough, once the product has well and truly shipped, is it likely that we’ll see it on next gen?

Randy: Anything is possible. You can imagine, if you’re Sony or Microsoft, how excited you’d be to have the best games in the world on your best platform, so those guys are always going to be motivated… in fact, I think the reason why Borderlands is even coming out on the PlayStation Vita next month, is because of that kind of thing: success of the game, fan interest, and Sony’s desire.

I said right up front: ‘I’d love for that to happen’. We don’t have the people, the time, or the money to do it, but I think it could be awesome, and look what happened, Sony came up and said ‘we think it could be awesome too, and guess what? We know people and we have money; let’s make this work’, and now we’re going to get to play Borderlands 2 on the Vita. How rad is that? So anything is possible, but in terms of what we can do, we’re doing the best we can here.

Custom demand wins. So if you guys show up, and everybody’s begging for this thing, then that’s a great way to get the people in the suits that like making money to motivate them to spend money and turn people like us on to make things happen. We’re just talent. We sit in front of our computers and just make cool shit.

AusGamers: Why is it called an Oz-kit? We were confused, because that’s oxygen, but they’re saying Oz-kit.

Randy: Because the Z looks like a 2, it’s an O2 kit. The Z looks like a 2 and why not?

Tony: It probably just started as someone reading it as Oz-kit, and then just happened.

AusGamers: What is the little kangaroo icon doing, the little symbol on the first screen?

Randy: That’s a skill; that’s one of the skills. I think it might be a kill skill. I can’t remember which one that is. But there’s other icons like that that are fun.

Joel: That particular one. Often when we have people from Gearbox visit for the first time, we drive them up to the top of Mount Ainslie, which is in Canberra, and they always want to stop and take a photo of the kangaroo road sign. So I think someone just said that we have to get that into one of the skill icons somewhere -- a little bit of Canberra in the game.

AusGamers: That’s the first time anyone has said that about Canberra.

Randy: I always joke when I go down there that it’s like traveling halfway around the world to go to Garland, Texas or something; it’s weird.



AusGamers: Is the 2K Australian team the same size, or have you guys brought more people on to help deal with this project?

Tony: We started this game working with the Infinite team… it’s a pretty big game to start up by yourselves. We started off with Gearbox with only limited resources, so yeah, we’ve grown the studio somewhat since that time, and realistically we’re still growing it, to make sure we get this game developed to its full potential by the time it’s released. So yeah, we’ve grown, basically.

Randy: Look at that: Borderlands, creating jobs in Australia!

AusGamers: That’s where I’m going with this, because there’s a really wonderful indie scene in Australia that is kind of looking after itself and fostering itself really well, while most triple A studios sadly died really quickly here. Do you guys feel that it’s your responsibility to show that there are equally talented people here that can work on big budget games and push out quality projects, to create jobs, and create new opportunities for guys that want to work on the bigger stuff?

Tony: Totally. I think that’s one of the great things about being the only triple A studio in Australia, is that you can start to bring some expats back to Australia who want to keep on working here, can work at home. The other thing is, is that we’ve had a lot of goodwill to us throughout the industry, to people who are supplying talent, when i say ‘look, we’re building a game that has an awesome fanbase, that’s well known throughout the world from its previous iterations -- Borderlands and Borderlands 2 -- and it would be great if you guys could support growth within the industry.

I guess the feedback that we’ve been getting is ‘yeah, we want to get on board and help you guys in any way that we can’, and that’s been fantastic. It means we’ve had the opportunity to work with some really great people that we might not have had the opportunity to do so. It’s been a really big push from every direction to succeed.

AusGamers: Thanks guys

Tony: Thanks a lot.
Read more about Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel on the game page - we've got the latest news, screenshots, videos, and more!



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