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Borderlands 2 [Interview] – The making of a role-playing shooter

17 Apr 2012  by   Paul Younger
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A lot is expected of Borderlands 2, and that’s something developers Gearbox are intimately aware. Our recent hands-on preview showed that things are moving in the right direction, but as with any game of this size and scope, it’s difficult to get a proper feel for things in a mere two hour session.
We speak to Gearbox’s Steve Gibson about that level of expectation, whether you should be plaing in co-op or single player and how you improve on a bazillion loot items.
IncGamers: Internally, how do you refer to Borderlands? Is it an RPG, is it an FPS?
Steve Gibson: That’s why we came up with the term ‘role-playing shooter’, because there’s no singular way of defining it as far as the normal genres are concerned. Borderlands is so much more of a hybrid than you usually see. You really do see both.
IG: Taking that role-playing shooter idea from the first game, what did you think was successful about it and what could be improved?
SG: I think that most of us [at Gearbox] agree that the core principles of having millions of weapons, individual skill trees and distinct character classes worked really well.
However, we thought we could deliver much more strongly on how the missions played out and how the story was delivered to you. Playing Borderlands 2 you’ll probably notice that missions keep changing when you’re playing them. So, between getting a mission from an NPC and returning to them to complete it, objectives will have changed or been added.
The idea is that we didn’t want you to just go from checkpoint to checkpoint and then return to the starting point, we wanted missions to change dynamically and be affected by what’s happening in the world. That sense of adventure, and the sense of the story being delivered through the adventure, is something we were keen to include.

IG: How do you balance a defined story with the provision of on-the-fly moments (such as epic boss fights) that take on significance among a group of co-op players? Some of those moments from the first Borderlands became more important than the main story…
SG: We still strive for those memorable moments and our hope is that you’ll run into a lot of those throughout the course of the game. One of the moments that we hope will fall into that category takes place at the end of the Wildlife Preserve section (see our hands-on preview), which we weren’t allowed to show you unfortunately. You’re there to rescue Bloodwing and… well, that’s all I can say.
Our hope is that the epic story moments will complement the epic action moments. Rest assured that we’re shooting for all kinds of memorable moments.
IG: Will the story change depending on which character class you select?
SG: The four classes all experience the same story. What we’ve done though, is bring back the four class characters from the original Borderlands and they all have their own storylines that will explore what has happened to them since the end of that game.
IG: Is Borderlands 2 a game you should be playing in co-op?
SG: Personally, I think you should be playing in co-op. I enjoy the social aspect of gaming, though. We know that some people like to play by themselves in a game like this so that’s still totally an option and we do try to support that route as much as possible.
On the co-op side, though, we have made some significant changes. For starters, mission eligibility has been changed so that you can reset and line up your missions with other people so you can all progress together. Second, we’ve added drop-in split screen which removes the need for you to back out to the menus and start over.

IG: Why choose to go with a new set of playable characters, rather than stick with the original cast?
SG: We wanted it to feel like an all new experience. People really rewarded us for sticking our necks out and taking the risk on this genre-bending game, so we felt like we wanted to make a really ambitious sequel and stick our necks out again.
We’ve gutted every major system and set out to make sure all of the classes feel fresh and new. That means we needed new characters to make it exciting again.
IG: Loot is a massive part of Borderlands. How do you expand on that? Increasing the number from however-many-million to however-many-million-plus-a-million isn’t really going to cut it…
SG: There were a couple of goals in terms of loot.
One was that we wanted to improve the visual communication of loot.  Whenever you pick up a weapon we want you to be able to immediately identify who the manufacturer is, what kind of effects it may have and also what class of weapon it is – i.e. is it a shotgun, a sub-machine gun etc.
Each manufacturer has a unique look. Jakobs has an old-world Western vibe with plenty of wood graining and detailing on the metal sections. A Maliwan, on the other hand, has a very sci-fi and futuristic feel. Those manufacturers concentrate on different results for their weapons so you should be able to know what you’re getting just by looking at it.
The other thing is that we took the procedural generation of weapons idea and applied that to other items such as shields, grenades and relics. So there’s now millions of possibilities with those kinds of items as well.
IG: More loot, different characters, new enemies… how do you balance of all that?
SG: It’s a lot of really boring math [laughs].
Still, a lot of it still comes down to simple play testing. Sometimes combinations pop-up in play testing that we’ve just never anticipated, and that’s going to happen when you’ve got so much stuff in your game. It’s a ridiculous job to get it right.
We have tons of guys sitting in rooms and looking over spreadsheets trying to figure it all out, it’s a monstrous task. It’s still ongoing.

IG: We’ve not seen any vehicles yet, any differences there?
SG: The frequency that you’ll come across vehicles is pretty similar to what we had in the first game, so expect a lot of vehicle combat. Although some areas, like the Wildlife Preserve, don’t have vehicles at all.
All vehicles are now four-player compatible.
Some players would get frustrated with the way the vehicles drove, so we’ve gutted the physics system on all of them and reworked it completely. Plus there are a ton of additional weapons and equipment you can add to vehicles, so it should be a lot better.
IG: It looks as though you’ve put a lot of effort into diversifying the environments…
SG: Yes, that was a huge thing for us. You actually see green now! [Laughs]. You never saw that in the first game.
There really was a massive focus on our part to communicate that feeling that you’re on an epic adventure. We needed it to feel as though you’re constantly travelling and exploring every part of Pandora.
We’ve got snowy areas, hot-springs, toxic caverns and a whole bunch of other colourful stuff.
IG: Some of the content is pretty crazy, do you have any self-imposed limits at all?
SG: I think that’s one of the great flavours of Borderlands, that it feels like you can do pretty much anything in that world and it fits. We can get away with pretty much anything; be it crazy skills to pop culture references. It’s a crazy game, so it all fits.
IG: With those pop culture references, do you see Borderlands as a satirical work?
SG: Some people think of it like that, or whether it’s a commentary on our social world. But it’s just a videogame, it really is just a videogame [laughs].

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