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Opening Pandora’s box – How Gearbox evolved the Borderlands franchise

In a games market dominated by first-person shooters, Borderlands has always sat apart thanks to its irreverent tone, art style and RPG-like qualities.

It carved out a niche for itself, so when Gearbox set out to develop a sequel to 2012’s hit Borderlands 2, five years after the latest entry in the franchise (Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel), the developer knew it had to maintain this unique identity. Something that was surely key in ensuring the success that the title saw this week, both at retail at in digital sales through Epic Game Store

Gearbox’s Paul Sage

To achieve that Gearbox tried everything it could to maintain the franchise’s flair while trying to evolve it in a smart way, as creative director Paul Sage tells MCV. The first obvious evolution for the series is four new playable characters, with the introduction of Amara, Moze, Zane and Fl4k. The latter is an interesting one as Gearbox revealed that Fl4k is non-binary, with Borderlands 3 forum moderators adding that people who wouldn’t comply to the use of Fl4k’s correct pronouns (they/them) would be banned.

“Fl4k is our non-binary robot,” Sage says. “There’s a certain type of player that we think Fl4k will appeal to. Fl4k has pets and so the people who really like to nurture – you know people who play Pokémon or WoW hunters – they really get attached to their pets and Fl4k gets attached to their pets as well.”

What we saw as an effort from Gearbox to promote non-binary acceptance seems to be motivated by simpler reasons though, Sage continues: “I think it’s just when we’re thinking robot, we don’t think gender really applies. It’s something that I hope people can relate to and can identify with. And so that’s why they’re such an important character.”

This should certainly attract a new audience, and is not the only effort from the studio to make Borderlands 3 more inclusive. On a different topic, Gearbox is trying to attract a wider audience by introducing new co-op mechanics that should make it easier for people to get into the title.

“The philosophy from the very beginning was: what if we could just remove as many barriers as possible to people being able to play together?”

 

When playing Borderlands 3 in co-op, players will now share the loot (that will match their individual levels) and enemies will also match a player’s level regardless of their companions’ level.

“The philosophy from the very beginning of starting on the game was: what if we could just remove as many barriers as possible to people being able to play together? Levelling is cool because you get so attached to your character and you understand and feel this growth. But then on the other side, levelling hurts because if you outlevel your friends, if you’re playing more, then you can’t play together,” Sage explains.

“So we asked ourselves: can we get rid of that barrier? And we said yes, and did the maths so people don’t have to worry about it! So if you’re level 40 and I’m level 20 and you see a level 48 enemy then I’ll see it as a level 28 enemy – you’ll never have to think about it. You just get in and play. Then the instanced loot is important because it means that you’re getting the stuff that’s appropriate to you. So you’re not like: ‘OK, sure you did the maths but it’s a waste of time because I don’t get the right rewards’. Nope. The rewards are right for you based off your level.”

THAT’S MY SECRET

Characters and co-op mechanics are not the only evolution of the franchise, of course, as Gearbox wanted to go for a more contemporary approach. But overall, the studio didn’t want players to see a dramatic change between entries – which explains why the core loop hasn’t evolved, Sage says.

“I came into this from the outside,” he starts explaining, referring to the fact he only joined Gearbox in 2015. “And I love the core loop. So when I came in as this fan of the series it was really important to me to take what we had and improve upon it. I also play a lot of shooters so I was like: let’s find out what’s modern. Sliding. Mantling. Those things get added. But also how you control and how you move: does it feel smooth, does it feel good? Those were really important things to really hone in on. So the core loop, which I think is just something that is an infinitely playable thing, was really important to just improve and get right.

“Now, we’re going to different planets. We’ve added all sorts of different modes, we’ve added physics like exploding things, we’ve added damage types. We don’t bring that up as much I think because it should just feel good when people do it. And that’s one of the secrets: if people don’t mention those things and don’t see them as features but just feel like: ‘Oh, this feels better’, then that’s great. When they play the game, I don’t want them talking about features I want them to say: ‘Hey it was fun’.”

The same logic was applied to the evolution of the art style: Gearbox wanted it to feel seamless, barely noticeable, but still improved on.

Fl4k and one of their pets surround an unfortunate enemy

“It has evolved, but the way it’s evolved nobody should talk about…,” Sage smiles. “It was funny because our art director Scott Kester said: ‘I don’t think people will ever realise’, because you have memories of how things looked and how they felt to you at the time versus now. And he said they should get into it and it should just look like Borderlands, it should feel like Borderlands, but if you put the screens side by side then people start saying: ‘Oh my gosh this is a huge difference’! And really notice a lot of the details.”

He continues, saying he just wants people to see that it looks good and to be happy that it looks good. There is one change that he does want players to notice though. When we ask Sage about what the studio learnt from the previous Borderlands entries that influenced the development process of Borderlands 3, he answers: “I think we learnt how important story was.”

He continues: “I think it’s fair to say that [Borderlands 3 is more narrative-driven]. I love the previous entries, obviously, but I think the main story is a predominant factor of this one.”

He goes into further details, explaining why Borderlands 3 is a bit more than your traditional shoot and loot: “Story is important because it drives the context, it gives you purpose and meaning for what you’re doing. It’s one thing just to be able to shoot and that’s fun, but if you don’t have something to back that up with after 30 hours… The importance of that is to make sure that people feel compelled to want to see what’s going to happen next. So giving that context is important. Probably more important than that is the way we develop characters.

“I keep using the words ‘genuine irreverence’ and the reason is as we want our characters to feel like they’re genuine. Otherwise you can’t relate to them. So if you can relate to them on a human level – or a robot level! – then I think there’s something there.

“And then they have to have irreverence because if they don’t, there’s no surprise for you. One of the missions has a guy who gets stuck in a porta-potty by an AI,” he laughs. “So the AI keeps him trapped in there because he keeps cursing and so it’s a ridiculous situation but it’s completely relatable as in: ‘OK this is how technology would get abused at some point’.”

TRUE COLOURS

For Borderlands 3, Gearbox switched to Unreal 4, which Sage says is a “fantastic” engine.

“One of the cool ones is we got physically-based rendering, you see how light actually plays on different materials. That’s cool, but when your style feels like a comic book style, what does metal really feel like? We took some time, really sitting there thinking like: ‘OK how does this get developed? How does this look?’

“Some of the other things is that we have the ability to have HDR right out of the box. I mention HDR only because I’m nerdy for it and I love seeing the true colours. And honestly I think it’s beautiful. And since I didn’t have as much to do with the job I can brag a little bit about the team,” he laughs. “And I think they did a really nice job with the HDR.”

Sage does sound extremely proud of the Gearbox team throughout the entire interview, especially when he mentions some of the challenges met when they had to create different planets, as this time around characters are not limited to Pandora.

“The challenge is: what are different planets? How do we make it feel like a different planet? So that was a challenge, creating those art sets, creating new enemies that we find there, that are just completely new things. Creating all of those different assets was just a huge challenge and it’s one of those things again where hopefully the result that people should feel is that they don’t get visually bored but they feel like: ‘OK, cool, I’m seeing new things’. Because new things is what drives people to want to keep experiencing something. And pacing that out is really important. So I think that was the challenge and I think the team really came together and delivered on that and did a really good job.”

These type of technical challenge explains Borderlands 3’s long development cycle (it was hinted at as far back as 2015). What was refreshing though is the short period between the announcement of the title and its release: having been unveiled at PAX East at the end of March with a trailer, Borderlands 3 released on September 13th. That’s only six months after its reveal – a very short cycle by today’s standards.

“As a creative director, you always want more. But there is a time when you just have to say: this is what we set out to do, this is what it is.”

 

“This a decision that [publisher] 2K and Gearbox came to but I’m going to give you my take on this because I love this decision,” Sage says. “As much as you want to be able to talk about the game and get it out there early, I think the public can actually hear too much and get a bit like: ‘OK but when is it coming? When is it coming?’ And the anticipation can only hold for so long before somebody starts to lose interest. And so having these shorter cycles is something I really love as a developer because we can getting new information to people, that feels fresh every time we speak, and then it’s not such a long cycle that that you’re like: ‘I have no idea…’ You know! Even if the game has got a lot of different things to talk about, sometimes you’re like: how do you extend that when it’s two years at a time? And so a nice short cycle is just incredibly beneficial.”

On the topic of what’s beneficial to developers, Sage also addresses the rise of new platforms such as Stadia (that Borderlands 3 will eventually release on) and stores such as the Epic Games Store (with the title being exclusive to Epic for six months).

“Just on a personal level, I’m a developer: I want it to be everywhere,” he says. “We create something for people to be able to play and entertain them. And so the more availability we have, just for me as a developer, you get greedy to see people play your game. And so I want people to be able to play the game on anything, like I said. Six months on Epic Games Store and then it becomes available on Steam.”

Looking back, Sage is happy about what Gearbox has achieved – and is very much hoping that players will be happy too, he concludes: “As a creative director, you always want more. But there is a time when you just have to say: this is what we set out to do, this is what it is. So there’s always more to come from creative people but I hope people see that this is the game we wanted
to make.”

About Marie Dealessandri

Marie Dealessandri is MCV’s former senior staff writer. After testing the waters of the film industry in France and being a radio host and reporter in Canada, she settled for the games industry in London in 2015. She can be found (very) occasionally tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate, Hollow Knight and the Dead Cells soundtrack.

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