Gearbox discusses the challenges of creating a 'true sequel'

Borderlands 2: More than a typical sequel?

Gearbox Software recently blasted sequels that lazily rehash the assets of their predecessors. So Develop asks concept designer Scott Kester how Borderlands 2 will be any different.

Gearbox insists that Borderlands 2 is something much more significant than a typical sequel. Isn’t that something any developer would claim?
From the start we wanted to make a ‘true sequel’. We really didn’t want to just re-skin environments and rework textures.

Of course there is a little bit of reusing assets; stuff that will make the game familiar in the right way. Characters like the psycho bandits make a return.

But what was really important to us when making Borderlands 2 was to take what we did with the first game and do more of it, give it more variety in every context.

There were so many new ideas for this from our designers and across our office; almost more than we needed.

That meant it was very important for everyone from the designers to us on the conceptual side of the design that – with so many ideas that we were all very passionate about – the game should not become a design clone.

But you must have to balance that devotion to new ideas with delivering a video game that is in spirit the same as the first Borderlands.
We do really have to be focused. Sometimes somebody from another internal project would come onto Borderlands 2 and do something or conceive something and we’d have to be honest if it missed the point of what Borderlands is. We’d just have to say no.

That said, one thing that’s really interesting from the conceptual side is that all of the guys here have certain things that they are better at, and in trusting in that there is a degree of freedom to what goes into Borderlands.

So, for example, I’ve concentrated on the characters and creatures and some environment stuff, and then there’s a designer I work with who can do anything but is really creative with guns, so he’s going to do guns for the game.

With that kind of focused talent, when we’re designing stuff, it’s not so much about designing something to fit into a box that is considered Borderlands, but about what we have designed that can go in there. That helps make the sequel its own.

And part of how we define Borderlands 2 is by letting the project be really personal if you’re a game designer or level designer or concept designer. We put in a lot of ourselves to the game.

So, for example I wear a lot of skateboarding stuff, so maybe I’ll try and take that personal style and make it influence the design of one of the characters I’m working on.

There’s a little more of me coming in, and it gives the character a little more; some more depth, and more the player can associate with. So letting aspects of our team’s real world style in is part of the consistency of Borderlands.

So that investment of personal style is actively encouraged? Is it part of the creative approach at Gearbox Software?
Yes, definitely. The first game had a very different style, and after that what we were seeing was people’s idealised vision of what they felt that style had to be. It was becoming watered down in its approach.

So when we really looked at the sequel, for example when we changed the art style and I took on doing the characters, it was a chance to do things from a completely different viewpoint. In designing the sequel, we decided it was better to shoot further and pull yourself back then take a design side step.

In the first game if somebody suggested an idea and it was seen as perhaps too ridiculous, it might have still been done and put in and it was realised to be awesome.

I’m not saying we’re these total rogues, as we still filter things for quality very carefully, but I hope it showed in the first game and will show in this one, that there’s a lot of little touches and nuances all over, that, within reason, show personal flair. We have to keep an eye on what is too far, but it’s there.

So what’s too far? How do you keep it under control?
It is hard to quantify, and there’s not exactly a rule set or anything like that. We try to encourage our team to always keep humour in there, but we don’t want it to just turn into lots of silly humour that just invalidates the seriousness of the gameworld, events and so on.

It’s kind of hard to say what works and what doesn’t, as sometimes somebody does a concept or creates something that clearly belongs somewhere else. A lot of the Borderlands aesthetic is that sort of ‘kit-mash’ mentality of finding things and putting them together, so it’s hard to say what works until you do it.

We have a slogan, and kind of joke about our design approach, that is ‘kit-mash the way to victory’, kit-mashing being the model making process of mixing-up and combining different model kits. You could say we take these elements that maybe shouldn’t go together, and through creativity make them work residing in the same space.

How many of the original Borderlands team is working on Borderlands 2? Is that even important to balancing making the sequel feel original with capturing the spirit of the first?
There’s people from the first game here, and new people, and they all have their own opinion. We’re not here to shoot down new ideas. People can always prove to us their ideas are good.

And it’s interesting to see how the team members influence each other in the development. We take each other’s concepts and add our own ideas, and maybe even take something too far in our direction, but then inspire each other through that process. That’s how we can find that perfect balance between something totally new and something that connects with the first game.

So a collaborative approach is important to Gearbox’s goal of making what you called a ‘true sequel’?
We’re very open with each other about ideas that suck and ideas that don’t work. That’s part of it. One of the things you learn is not to get attached to your ideas until they become a reality.

How does Gearbox’s approach to technology serve to help you distinguish a sequel from its predecessor?
We use Unreal Engine, and we do some things with Unreal that other people haven’t done. That is something everybody who uses Unreal probably does, and our tech guys spend a lot of time creating a distinct system. It’s a very intense set-up that allows us to do something new in each game.

From a concept design perspective the practice of differentiating Borderlands 2 from the first game must have been a interesting process.

It’s really interesting in that we were trying to take something that people know and show them something new that they still know and understand.

We want people to see a totally new character and understand that it’s Borderlands. We don’t want to just imitate ourselves, and I think sometimes developers paint themselves into a corner knowing people expect they will do something a certain way.

That’s why it’s really important to keep iterating on the subtle things in the building of a game that the general public might not even notice. There need to be constant evolutions of how you use your constraints creatively, and it’s an interesting dilemma.

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