Crazy Town: Gearbox on making Borderlands 2

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How do you follow your biggest success, when that success was serendipity? Gearbox tells Polygon how they bottled the lightning of Borderlands.

It is late in 2008. A small team at Gearbox is designing a game in secret; a bold re-imagining of a triple-A game. The team, headed up by company Co-Founder Brian Martel, is creating a radical new direction in visual design that will eventually become the company's greatest success story to date. It will, perhaps, be the company's masterpiece.

The problem: The game Martel and his secret team are re-imagining hasn't yet been finished. It is the soon-to-be-released Borderlands, currently still in development elsewhere in the building. Martel is planning to rip that design apart and rebuild it less than a year from release, and the team building that game has no idea that its lives - and its game - are about to experience a radical shift.

It is 2009: Borderlands launches to critical acclaim and commercial success, propelling Gearbox from licensed title and add-on obscurity into the big leagues of triple-A design. A sequel is planned. The company expands. Martel's 11th-hour design change is hailed as a triumph of smart design. Everything is coming up Gearbox.

It is now 2012. Four years on from the days of redesigning the company's most ambitious project in secret, Gearbox's biggest challenge is not how to re-make a winning game in 11 months; it's the opposite. Gearbox is currently working on the sequel to Borderlands, Borderlands 2. It's had all the time in the world, and a mountain of cash (in a recent interview, President Randy Pitchford estimated the budget at $30-35 million). There has been no panic and no 11th hour design change. And that is the problem.

When your greatest success has come as a result of a headlong rush into death-defying crunch, how do you do it again, without that adrenaline? How do you succeed when everything is going your way?

The Challenge

We created our own prison.
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We created something special with Borderlands," says Kevin Duc, concept designer. "Part of that 11th hour rush gave it this looseness and vitality in the art work. And one of the things we're fighting is losing that."

Prior to 2008, Borderlands had been planned as a photo-real game, based on gritty sci-fi elements. The textures would look realistic. Characters would look like real people. It would be high-definition and authentic. It would be brown.

Three years into development, Gearbox decided that their game, following the original guidelines, had become too brown. Boring. And the 'Brown Effect' as the team called it, had spread beyond just the art and was infecting every aspect of the game design.

"We created our own prison, essentially," said Borderlands Creative Director Mikey Neumann, at the 2010 Game Developer Conference. "We needed to break our shackles and make a fucking awesome game and not worry about how real it is."

What Martel's secret redesign team created in 2008 is what the company now calls Borderland's "concept art style." Part photo-real - brown and gritty - and part comic book-inspired, colorful line art. It is messy, bold and unique. And it is a pain in the ass to replicate.

In 2008, when the Borderlands art team set about reworking the graphics for their then three-year old, unreleased game, it did so with passion and zeal, but some things were inevitably missed. Part of what made the eventual result so interesting was that it was artfully unfinished. Half this, half that, with one foot in the old style and another in the new. The resulting mix was somehow more aesthetically pleasing than the sum of its parts.

"I think Borderlands in general was a risk," says Paul Hellquist, creative director forBorderlands 2. "Because it was cramming two genres together and you don't know if you're going to get a peanut butter cup or whether you're gonna get ... what's a horrible combination? Like drinking orange juice after having a glass of milk or something."

The resulting mix of Borderlands was more peanut butter cup than milk with orange juice. The challenge now facing Hellquist and his team is how to capture that serendipitous mix and repackage it for Borderlands 2.

To do that, they had to first decide what it was that they had created, then bottle it..




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The Look

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The key to the Borderlands last-minute redesign was the look; the "concept art style" that fused cartoon quality hand drawings with photo-realistic computer graphics. For a small team, working in the panicked environment of 11th hour crush, seat-of-pants design is par for the course. For an expanded team, working on a sequel, there have to be rules.

Rule number one for designing Borderlands 2: Ignore the rules.

"Each artist brings their own craziness to the table," says Jeramy Cooke, art director. "In a lot of games I would be like: 'Well, this is World War 2 so this would not happen, so you're going to have to redo this.' In this game it's like: 'That's pretty insane, man. OK, let's do this!' It's a very different attitude because as long as it kind of points in the right general direction, it usually works."

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As art director, it was Cooke's responsibility to create the "style guide" for the look ofBorderlands 2. More of a set of loose guidelines than hard-and-fast rules, it contains suggestions such as "if you're making ink lines, and then you're putting [in] a highlight, it doesn't have to follow that ink line perfectly."

Cooke says that the visual vibrancy of the first game was a direct result of artists grabbing imagery in a panicked rush and not worrying too much about making things look "perfect." To carry that feeling over, minus the panic, he says it's simply a matter of allowing the artists to feel free of the restraints typical of working in games.

"I just try to encourage an artist to think about what it is they're making and try and have them capture what is interesting about that thing," Cooke says. "What is this thing's flavor? What is its personality? I hate to get too fine-artsy about it but ... you try to pull out a little bit of the 'essence' of the thing and put it in there so that it really pops. And I think that's what people connect with when they see these images.

"It's bright colors and stuff, everyone likes that, but you kind of feel that energy when you see the big, heavy dump truck and it's got big, thick inks underneath it, and it feels massive and metal and old and grimy. Our world is alive. It's fresh."

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Each artist brings their own craziness to the table
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"Dragon Boat" concept art

Sandbox_jeramy_cooke_300Jeramy Cooke

The biggest trap of game design, according to Cooke, is that elements tend to get "over designed." A character concept will get handed off to a committee, where each member will add their one or two cents and by the time everyone is finished what comes out bears no relation to what went in. It gets muted, distilled and made boring. Brown.

"Stuff does get worn down if it goes through too much process," Cooke says. "I think that's a classic thing you learn in art school that sometimes we forget when we get into the real world and start making business decisions. I think you see that in other games sometimes. Main characters that look like ... 'Man, have I seen this brown-haired normal-looking guy with some stubble and a leather jacket and some jeans?' How many times am I gonna see that guy?

"It's not because they don't have great artists at those studios. They do. At some point it just gets so worn down to the standard that there's no life there. I think we take a lot more risks."

Cooke says he tries to bring his experiences outside of the world of creating videogames into the videogames he creates. This, more than anything, is what he believes helps him make the best art.

"I feel like to design games, to make great games and great art, you have to have a wealth of experience to draw on," Cooke says. "You can't just live in a USA bubble. There's so much out there. There's so many amazing places, amazing people, different ways of thinking about the world. It's really easy to try and Google search your way to a videogame but in the end that's what everyone else is doing."

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Concept Designer Scott Kester agrees. Raised on skateboarding, he's used to seeing the world as a collection of strange shapes and angular surfaces. Banks and angles and handrails. Graffiti on the walls.

Kester is the guy who tests the boundaries of what's acceptable (or not) for a game design. Subverting the standard, tweaking his nose at the normal people. His biggest surprise designing for Borderlands is that nobody seems to mind.

Up to a point.

Even with the encouragement from upper management to break boundaries, the Borderlands 2 team nevertheless eventually ran into a wall of "No" with the design for new character "Zer0."

"We had some pushback even inside the company when we first started showing Zer0 as an idea for this assassin," says Cooke. "We pushed him way out there. He has no face. We stripped him completely down.

"The response was: 'where's the Borderlands?'"

IF YOU ONLY PEEK OUT THROUGH DIGITAL WINDOWS, YOU'RE MISSING OUT ON A LOT OF THINGS.

Zer0 is sleek, sci-fi and robotic. He has emoticons in the place of facial animations. He is different in an altogether different way. Higher-ups at Gearbox wanted to know where the adventure elements went. They wanted more straps, more pouches. More of the things the rest of the character have. They wanted it to look like what they were used to seeing. Not "normal," perhaps, but "Borderlands normal."

Cooke stood his ground.

"I was like: 'No, we need to go out into a new place. We could put some sci-fi in here and it will be OK,'" he says. "I think we saw when he was released, everyone was reacting to him. It's very modern, very high-tech but it's OK."

"You're looking at his body," says Kester, "and when you see that shape ... you just see it and you know you might not like that but you understand that. You just get it. We said 'dammit, that's what we're gonna do', and we just did it."

"That's the great thing about the inking style," says Cooke. "It unifies and brings everything together."

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Scott Kester

Kester and Cooke on making games

Scott Kester: The thing is all of us, we don't just like one game. That's what's beautiful aboutBorderlands. It's kind of open. Do you want to play as a straight up shooter? You kind of can. Do you want to get really heavy RPG with it? You can do that to. Depending on how much you want to dg in, we're cool with that.

Jeramy Cooke: There's balance too. We do think about the customer ... we try and figure out if there's a market. There's the opposite end of this industry where people make a game just for them. The audience is them and their family and their friends and no one else will buy it. So we do think about the customer a lot. When we designed all the [gun] brands, we tried to make something for everyone. And we did the same thing with the characters. Last time everything was so narrow. We tried to sort of widen that spectrum a little bit.

Scott Kester: It's about what's right for your product. We know what we want to see. In this industry, we're the people that can define what's the new thing and what's unique. And I understand there's a lot of money behind projects and there's risks and gambles, but Gearbox is very fortunate that we go with our gut a lot. And I think that it shows. We sit in our office and we sit next to each other and we're like 'This is cool,' but I forget that all these people ... there's a 4 1/2 hour line of people that want to play that thing and it feels sort of surreal. I think that's good because we're thinking about the, but we're also thinking about what's best for the product. We're not thinking about 'let's appeal to Joe Public Guy' all the time.

Jeramy Cooke: I think you can even see withAliens Colonial Marines, we're all huge Aliens fans, so we're not going to phone in this thing that just happens to have aliens and marines in it. We wanted this sort of spiritual sequel to Aliens. We've seen so many other people try to take that brand and just do ugly things with it and it's just not cool. In that movie, there's something really special there that zillions of people connected to and we feel that connection and we want to carry it forward. I think that's the attitude that we take with all of our projects. Do it right. Why are we here? We have 100 people spend $20 million dollars and we're gonna just phone it in?


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The Design

With the art style of the first game codified, it was time to look forward, to what Hellquist and team could do differently for the second.

"There were a lot of things that I think we all felt weren't quite what we wanted them to be in the first game," says Paul Hellquist. "This time we decided just to maintain that as well as we can, and smooth out and polish and add all the little bits and bobs that we wish we had gotten to in the first game. So there were a lot of really obvious places for us."

The first of these was design. The idea for Borderlands 2 was to make a game that would be familiar but new. The team at Gearbox experimented with the DLC expansions for Borderlands, taking risks, adding new enemies and challenges, creating new scenarios. Trying to find the limits of this thing it had created, and looking for ways it could make the sequel even better.

One example was the final boss in the General Knox DLC. Gearbox wanted to try something that would challenge players, but it wasn't sure if it would fit with players' perception of Borderlands. Turns out players loved the challenge.

"It was supposed to be super challenging, really hard," says Hellquist. "And people loved that. It's something that people still do on a daily basis."

Hellquist began his career as a QA tester. He made levels in his spare time, which eventually brought him to the attention of Irrational Games. His first major game as a lead designer was Irrational's SWAT 4. His second was BioShock.

"BioShock's success is something that no one can ever take away from me," Hellquist says. "But it's been different and interesting and cool in a different way to work on a game that everyone just loves for different reasons."

Whereas BioShock was attempting to be artistic on a very mature and elevated level, Hellquist says Borderlands strives for a different kind of art:

"BioShock is sort of a dark subject matter. And so we're in this horror space and psychological stuff and it's all deep. Borderlands is like 'woohoo!' It's sort of like crazy town. The things that we would have on whiteboards when we were working onBioShock were about like 'how do we generate fear?' and on our white boards [withBorderlands] are like 'what if we had a bandit who was a bearded woman with a turret in her beard.' It's fun in a very different way."

One of the earliest decisions for Borderlands 2 was to create new playable characters. The original Borderlands characters were seen as too similar and limiting. They didn't create opportunities for a lot of different kinds of gamers to fall in love with them.

For Borderlands 2, the team wrote ideas on a huge whiteboard covering an entire wall. Any suggestion was considered and written on the board, which eventually became a massive list of half-baked character ideas.

"If you are joking about something in the Borderlands space, it often ends up in the game," says Hellquist. "We had 'barber'; we had 'combat mortician'. Anything that we could dream of, we put up there."

The list was whittled down over time until the final four emerged: Salvador, the dual-wielding "Gunzerker"; Maya, the "phaselock"ing siren; Axton the commando; and the aforementioned assassin, Zer0.

With the question of the characters settled, it was time to decide what they were supposed to be doing. Hellquist says one of the "top things" players wanted from aBorderlands sequel was a better story, and that became a priority for Borderlands 2.

The story of Borderlands was a low-impact affair. A planet called Pandora. A vault, long-hidden for centuries, full of secrets. A scientist slowly going insane. A group of bounty hunters (that's you). A villain? A guy named Scooter?

One, having played the game, hardly remembers the details. This is one of the key areas where Hellquist wanted to add more bits and bobs.

"This time around we're really focusing on making sure that we've got a compelling plot line," he says.

Enter: Anthony Burch.

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Paul Hellquist

PAUL HELLQUIST ON HIS DREAM GAME PROJECT

Something that I hope to get to at some point in my career is the game that gives you just the loosest sort of situation and then the story is your story; it is you living and dealing with the situation. We start you in and seeing where your sort of digital life takes you. Not in a Sims kind of way or anything like that. But in a tense situation, how are you as a person going to deal with it? I hope that I could help people learn more about themselves through the situations that the game would present instead of going: "Here is your objective and here's exactly where to go."

The trick is I don't know how many people are actually going to want that game so ... that's why it's a "some day" thing. I think if I did it now, it would probably fail miserably because the industry right now is about holding hands and showing you exactly what to do and you can never fail.

That's why I really enjoyed my experiences onBioShock and love what those guys do. I think that art space is something that we could be - as an industry - exploring more. I like to think of videogames as art. If film is art, then I think that games can be art as well for sure. I think games have a unique opportunity because you can actually be making the decisions actively and learning about yourself. I think that's one thing thatBioShock did.

Borderlands is sort of like crazy town

I talked to so many people who said that they every time they play a game they pay the bad guy ... 'as soon as that little girl was in front of me and scared of me, I couldn't do it.' That really got to the heart of people and make them think that this was a little bit different. And I think they learned something about who they really are when they chose to save the girls instead of killing them. I love that we were able to touch people in that way.

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The story


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"We had some interesting issues to tackle," says Burch. "If you don't care about the story, we're not going to try to force you to. There is not going be a lot of 'sit down and watch this cutscene' kind of stuff. But at the same time, having enough story, having enough dialogue, having enough character to sort of fill out what people liked in the first game ... was just a matter of finding a way of getting more of that character in without killing what people liked."

Again and again, the game makers behind Borderlands 2 stress the challenge of improving on the first game without crushing what made it unique. In the story department, this challenge is acute. In a game where running and gunning without caring overmuch what happens is sort of the point, how do you please the fans who want more story without adding so much that the game becomes boring to those who don't?

Burch says it's a two-part solution. The first is to make sure the story doesn't get in the way. The second is to make sure it's interesting..


"Every time I run around in the game, I see something that I would never see in another triple-A game," Burch says. "There are just moments where [I say]: 'why did a bunch of guys who look like Val Kilmer from Top Gun come out and fight me shirtless after I set a volleyball net on fire?' It's fuckingBorderlands, I dunno."

The Borderlands 2 script is roughly seven times larger than the script for Borderlands, which only accentuates the problem of having to make sure it doesn't get in the way. When asked how he deals with the stress of creating a follow-up to the wildly (and surprisingly) successful Borderlands, Burch says his secret is:

"Frequent masturbation. Crying. Sometimes simultaneously."

He then pauses, gauging the quality of his own joke, and then laughs. Next he asks if we need a more serious response, but doesn't offer one himself. That, in a nutshell, is the creative process of Anthony Burch.


"WHY DID VAL KILMER FROM TOP GUN COME OUT AND FIGHT ME SHIRTLESS?


Burch joined Gearbox in 2010, fresh from a game journalism gig at Destructoid, where his video series, "Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin'?" earned him a rapid and rabid following. He is quick with dry, cutting humor that can sometimes cut to the bone. YouTube is awash with fan-made "Anthony Burch is an asshole" videos of melancholy scenes from television and film overlaid with Burch's braying laugh while on-screen characters die. And as obnoxious as it may be, when he laughs, you want to laugh with him.

It's fucking borderlands, I dunno.

"No matter how goofy something could get [in Borderlands] it's always got this hint of darkness to it," Burch says. "Even something like Scooter from the first game ... Scooter is the most loud, over-the-top, kooky character, but the heart of the character is that he's a murderer. He killed a guy because some dude had sex with his mom. He'll still make jokes and say 'catch a ride' but he's a murderer. You're running with a murderer. Deal with it. A lot of the humor comes from a dark place like that."

Burch says Borderlands 2 will have more story because fans wanted more story, but that story will not, at the end of the day, interfere with the core of the playing experience. Players who just want to run around and blow shit up will be able to do so and completely ignore the fact that story is happening around them.

"The heart of the game is finding progressively more ridiculous guns to blow up psychotic midgets," Burch says. "I wouldn't call it a comedy necessarily, but it's definitely not the 'slow-motion-people-dying-and-sad-violin-music-plays' kind of experience. The more we embraced that in the story, the more clear things became. There's still some dark stuff that happens in the story but it's mainly for the purposes of keeping you engaged."

At the same time, Burch and the Borderlands 2 team aim to subvert the medium of videogame storytelling itself by up-ending player expectations. Challenges will not always be what they appear, and in some situations, having a sense of humor may be just as important as being a good shot.

Burch describes one quest where the goal is to destroy an enemy's private gyrocopter in order to enrage him enough to come out of hiding and fight:

"We thought it would be funny if we had an optional objective here that would blow it up and [have you] turn away from the explosion so he'll think you're even more of a badass and he'll be even more terrified of you. I just wrote it into the script: 'If there's a just and loving god, this will happen, but I know there isn't so don't worry about it.'

"And then I checked the mission a couple weeks later and saw an objective that was called 'There is a just and loving god.' And then I played the mission and it turns out that ... if you blow up the thing and then don't look at the explosion and walk away from it slowly, then the bad guy that you're going to try to kill will be like 'Oh my god, he's such a badass he didn't even look at the gyrocopter exploding.' And then he's much more scared than he was before.

"This is a game that you can tell was made by people who really love videogames and everything that that entails."

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The Guns

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For a game about "shooting midgets in the face," having a variety of guns with which to do so is a must. The original Borderlandspromised millions of unique weapons, and so will Borderlands 2. The difference forBorderlands 2, however, is that those weapons will actually be unique.

"For the weapons [in Borderlands] we had this framework of manufacturers," says Kevin Duc, concept designer, "and it was for the most part just a framework. You had the manufacturer names, and then you had their basic abilities or definitions that made them unique. Our goal for the second one was really making players care about those differences, and pushing the visual art styles to visually show those differences."

Kevin Duc is a self-professed "firearms enthusiast" and former IDPA and USPCA pistol shooting competitor who, according to his boss Jeramy Cooke, is "a complete badass." He brought his lifetime of experience with firearms to his role as weapon designer for Borderlands 2, and the result is an array of weapons that not only feel more lethal, but feel different from one another.

"We thought a lot about how these things are actually working," says Duc. "What kind of ammunition is it? How would you reload this? Are the sights believable? The sounds that go along with that type of ammunition?

"When you make up something that's fictional, it always has to be based in reality. The design has to make sense and be familiar but also be different enough to look new. And to be exciting."


EIGHTY-SEVEN MILLION GUNS ISN'T REALLY THAT INTERESTING IF THEY ALL LOOK THE SAME.


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Duc focused on the unique manufacturers and made sure that each had a trademark style that might appeal to a specific type of player.

"You figure out your archetypes," Duc says. "You've got Maliwan hitting kind of that high tech, science fiction look. Players that are into the high SF games and movies might be drawn to those more techy weapons. Dahl is a little more modern military shooter. It's more real world. It behaves very realistically. You put a traditional clip into it and then rack the bolt and go and it's got all your accessory rails and camouflage patterns and a certain type of player will be drawn to that. We tried to make eight distinct looks and distinct flavors to hit all those different spectrums."

The manufacturer identities will also make it easier and more fun to play the game. When you grab a gun, you will know what to expect from it just by how it looks. In a game with millions of different guns, where they literally litter the ground after a firefight, the ability to quickly assess what will work for you and what won't is kind of a big deal. Akin to telling the difference between swords and arrows.

"You pick up a camo gun and you know it's burst fire," says Cooke, "because I've played with Dahl before and I know. Same thing with Tediore. We have a brand that's kind of our throwaway plastic, cheap brand. And you actually hurl the gun at your enemy when you're finished with it. And it explodes. And the more ammo that's in the clip, the more damage it does. In each class of weapon that changes even further. You might throw a Tediore rocket launcher and a rocket flame comes out of the end and it spirals out of control, like a booster rocket gone wild ... we didn't have any of that inBorderlands 1, or what we did have people didn't pick up on because it was so subtle. It wasn't big enough.

"Eighty-seven million guns isn't really that interesting if they all look the same, if they all act the same."

Sidebar: the gun brands


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Tediore

Tediore is known for being cheap simple guns that can be thrown away. They are the gun for everyman and when ammo runs out you simply toss the gun and it stuns/explodes and does damage based upon the amount of ammo left in the mag.


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Vladof

Vladof is known for its Russian flair. They are always brandished with the famous Red Star of Vladof. The guns have multiple barrels that start spinning slowly as soon as you begin firing. The longer you hold down the trigger, the faster they will fire.


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DAHL

Vladof is known for its Russian flair. They are always brandished with the famous Red Star of Vladof. The guns have multiple barrels that start spinning slowly as soon as you begin firing. The longer you hold down the trigger, the faster they will fire.


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BANDIT

Bandit guns are kit bashed from things all around Pandora. They are low tech but have high aspirations. Bandit guns are known for their incredibly large mag sizes which will keep players firing for long periods of time without reloading.


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Maliwan

Maliwan is the advanced and state of the art gun manufacturer for looks. They are smaller but bright and have a very high tech sci-fi feel. They have a strong focus on elemental effects.


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TORGUE

Torgue is a heavy and very solid gun manufacturer. Their guns always feel beefy in the hands of a player. The mag size on a Torgue is sometimes smaller than most other guns but every shot carries an explosive effect.


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JAKOBS

Jakobs is the old west of guns. They carry classic designs that are simple and have a wood grain flavor. Jakobs guns do not auto fire but are extremely high damage and can fire as fast as you hit the trigger.


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Hyperion

Hyperion are the rare, sharp, and efficient guns. They are high quality all around and are very simple. They offer extremely high accuracy and gain more accuracy the longer you fire the gun. Hyperion favors the color scheme of most Hyperion robots (including Claptrap) with the White/Yellow and Orange.



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The secret sauce


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"I think a lot of it comes down to passion and willingness to do whatever the game needs and whatever the team needs in order to make the game awesome," says Paul Hellquist. "Even as a creative director, my team sees me doing the same work that they're doing on a daily basis. I don't just [say]: 'move that move that, do this do that.' I do that all day and at night I'm actually building the game too. I still like to get my hands dirty."

Gearbox is a company of creators. How else would a game that by all accounts worked properly and was on course for an on-time, if mediocre, launch get completely derailed in order to overhaul ... the art? Where else would the lunatics be able to hijack the asylum in order to create a game filled with the chaos and exuberance of Borderlands? Where else would the keys to the game that launched the company into the big leagues of triple-A design be handed to a new team of new lunatics with their own, new lunatic ideas?

"One of the things that is pretty unique with Gearbox as a company is that it's very open to individuals' ideas," says Kevin Duc. "If you have a good idea and you talk to the right people about it and it catches on, the sky's the limit."

That freedom is infectious. And it works.

"Gearbox does a great job of cross-pollinating stuff between the teams," says Hellquist. "Some of the cool AI things that we're doing in Borderlands [were] actually stuff that they were using for Aliens: Colonial Marines. So we were able to take some of their code and consult with those guys and integrate some of their neat features intoBorderlands to get our characters moving around the spaces in more interesting ways. They're using a lot of Borderlands tools because we had a great tools programmer who created our toolset."

At Gearbox, the goal is to de-emphasize competition amongst teams. If Borderlands 2does well, it won't just be the Borderlands 2 team who benefits. At Gearbox, profit bonuses are distributed across the entire company, to each employee, regardless which game they happened to be working on. The result is a unified focus on making every game successful.

"IF YOU HAVE A GOOD IDEA AND YOU TALK TO THE RIGHT PEOPLE ABOUT IT AND IT CATCHES ON, THE SKY'S THE LIMIT."

"We all want all the games to do as well as they possibly can," says Hellquist. "We're all in the same building and are hanging out at lunches. Creative juices are continually flowing across all the games."

The "cross pollination" has another benefit: In an environment where ideas are free to flow, there's a built-in demand for them, and everyone gets to contribute. Developers feel as if their input matters, and as a result, they feel more personally and creatively invested in the product.

"The industry is so wrapped up in itself in a lot of ways," says Jeramy Cooke. "Everyone is copying everyone else who is copying everyone else. It gets very sort of watered down. Where are the new ideas? Who's really reaching? Every now and then you'll see these bright sparks show up and everyone is: 'Whoa what's going on?' And the machine is still in the background churning away and producing more of it.

"Gearbox has the freedom where we're like 'no we're gonna go do this' and whether it's a WW2 serious shooter or something as wild and zany as Borderlands, we dive into that and try to be true to that."

For the people making Borderlands 2, "being true" means both adhering to what worked in the first game and remaining true to themselves, as artists. Each team member brings something new to the table, and just as with the slap-dash, 11th hour art redesign, the various additions and subtractions combine into a whole that is more pure than the sum of its parts. More interesting. More real. And hopefully more fun.

"It's supposed to make you smile," says Hellquist. "That's how I think it will touch people. I hope it will bring some joy to people. I think people are just going to smile a lot.

"There's nothing better than making people happy."


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