Borderlands Interview

Recently I got to speak with Chase Sensky, Borderlands Associate Producer about their highly anticipated game that made such a big splash at PAX. The game is scheduled to be released on October 20th and I want to thank Chase for answering our questions.

GVK: What is the background and setting for the game?

Our game is set on Pandora, one of the edge planets that comprise the remote territory known as the Borderlands. A largely desolate place, Pandora was only valuable to large corporations that sought its natural resources. However, legend has it that one of these major corporations, Atlus, discovered a mysterious alien technology on Pandora. Able to capitalize on this discovery, Atlus soon became the most powerful company in the universe. Understandably, this created a bit of a “gold rush” to Pandora, with other companies looking to find alien technology of their own.

As years passed, rumors of this alien technology and a hidden vault waned. With that, Pandora – a largely frozen planet – began to melt as the seasons changed. Deadly creatures came out of hibernation, and a once resourceful planet was suddenly barren and inhospitable. For the companies that could afford it, departure was the only logical choice; Pandora was simply too dangerous. Those that couldn’t make the journey were forced to stay, ultimately forming settlements or breaking off into hostile, bandit parties.
You, as one of four adventurers, arrive on Pandora looking for this mythological vault, attempting to piece together the broken story of this planet.

GVK: What are some of the locales gamers will see in the game?

Players will start Borderlands in one of the smaller settlements known as Fyrestone. This area is mostly arid hills and is largely under bandit control. This scene will be common to our heroes as they become more familiar with the planet before venturing out into the rest of the world.

From here, players can expect to dig deep into old mines, explore lost caves, and travel through industrial worn scrap yards. The player will visit newer, more civilized settlements, shipping docks, and see plenty of colorful greenery along the way.

Pandora is a big place! Without spoiling some of the more unique and exciting locations in the game, I will say we’re very proud of the variety! Borderlands is not your typical brown, post-apocalyptic shooter or RPG. We’ve got a lot of character, and it shows in the environments as well!

GVK: What are some of the weapons we will see and will they change between locales? And can you tell us about how they become customized?

Borderlands features over 16 million weapons! Clearly, you are going to see some wickedly cool and unique guns as you progress through the game!

To accomplish this feat, we developed an AI system, Gear Builder, to generate the guns for us. So, instead of creating individual weapons, we fed the artificial intelligence with data that defines a gun. We developed manufacturers, materials, weapon components, ammunition types, and let the software generate the outcomes for us based on various parameters. The result is nothing short of amazing! Every day we hear things like:

“Holy shit, that shotgun shoots rockets!”
“Check out this caustic sniper rifle – with a clip. It melts faces!”
“This combat shotgun is capable of electrocuting midgets until their eyes pop out!”
I’d love to give you a list of the weapons, but I haven’t even seen them all! Perhaps we can compare notes once the game is released?

GVK: What can you tell us about the RPG aspect of the game and character creation and how this plays into the overall game, as it seems to be a hybrid of RPG and First Person Shooter.

Right. Borderlands is a hybrid role playing game and first person shooter, so we’re calling it a role playing shooter, or RPS for short. For those players that have ever played a FPS, you’ll be able to immediately pick up Borderlands and feel right at home.

As we were developing Borderlands, we realized that first person shooter games are satisfying because of the tactile feedback. For example, when I aim my crosshair over a target and score a sweet headshot, I become as giddy as the next school girl. Role playing games often miss this mark by introducing dice rolls which affect my genuine ability, or skill. Borderlands doesn’t do this. We’ve removed chance when it comes to combat. With tight, responsive controls and honest first person shooter game play, it can be said that Borderlands comes from the shooter vector first.

However, we’ve layered several RPG elements on this solid foundation. From the RPG vector, players will have the opportunity to select one of four character classes at the start of the game: Roland the Soldier, Mordecai the Hunter, Lilith the Siren, or Brick the Berserker`. Each character has a special ability, strengths and weaknesses, and may be complimented by the guns and equipment acquired throughout the game.
When I select a character, I’ll be able to define how the character develops over time. For example, by selecting Roland the Soldier, I have the option of being a medic, providing healing support to my party. Alternatively, I can spec my character to be an ultimate badass, if I want to go in guns blazing. Maybe I want to provide team support with ammunition and party buffs, or perhaps I want to be a jack of all trades. Either way, in Borderlands, it is up to me to decide.

GVK: As a follow up, what options will players have as they gain XP and will players be able to trade and barter weapons and loot?

Borderlands focuses heavily on three main concepts, first, with discovery. As players gain XP and complete missions, they will unlock new and exciting locations to discover. The players will encounter more dangerous and threatening enemies, as well as acquire better loot and equipment to combat these challenges. And it should be said, Borderlands has a ton of loot! Apart from the millions of weapons, players will also be able to find shields, which are protective equipment that can recharge, heal, or even explode as defensive techniques.

Players will also find grenade modulators (for making everything from teleporting acid grenades to grenades that literally rain fire) to class specific equipment which can enhance character abilities.
So, as players gather all of this awesome loot, they are faced with the second concept, that of choice. Do I equip this item now? Do I leave this item and move on? Do I store this in my backpack and sell it to a vendor? Could one of my friends use this item? As you make these tough decisions, we provide players with the tools needed to make smart, informed decisions. You’ll be able to compare item statistics, buy and sell loot, and yes, even trade items with friends.

As the player gains XP, levels up, and acquires equipment, it builds on the last major concept of growth. Again, because Borderlands is an RPG, we want the player to feel like they are growing, becoming stronger and personalizing their character. We want this growth to happen in single player, as well as co-op!

GVK: How will vehicles be used in game and what will players be able to ride in?

Borderlands is a huge game, so vehicles will serve as the means to transport players across the large landscapes. But, don’t get too comfortable cruising on Pandora! Bandits have hoopties of their own! This, as you might expect, leads to inevitable, Mad Max-esque encounters complete with exploding vehicles and bandits that leap your way if you get too close.

GVK: Blending action with a detailed plot can always be tricky. How have you attempted to create this element, and will scripted events be a part of the game?

As mentioned above, Borderlands comes from the shooter vector first. As such, we don’t want the player to get stuck in intricate dialogue trees or many scripted sequences, because this takes the player away from the action. While we do have some of these key events, we tend to favor story delivery through mission objectives and general player progression. We want the player to unfold the mysteries of Pandora while keeping them engaged in game play.

GVK: What are some of the biggest obstacles you faced in creating the game and the biggest successes?

The biggest success of Borderlands is the amazing fusion of first person shooter and role playing elements, without a doubt. I’ve always been a huge FPS fan, so playing Borderlands is second nature to me. However, I can’t say I’ve ever played a FPS with the depth and value of Borderlands. There is so much to this game, but more importantly, it is accessible. The shooter fan will find a familiar friend in Borderlands, and the RPG player will find comfort in our systems and concepts. When combined, I think we’ve got a winning formula that will appeal to both sides, and indeed establish a new genre.

That of course, has been the very difficulty in developing Borderlands. Which elements do we take from the role playing side? What do we take from the shooter side? Can we provide the depth of an RPG but not overwhelm the FPS player that may never have experience with these concepts? Can we provide fun combat, even for the RPG player that has never played a shooter? As you can imagine, these are hard questions to answer! However, I think the team at Gearbox has done an amazing job doing just that! Combined with our publisher, 2K Games, we have been allowed us to take these risks and explore these questions.

GVK: What are some of the enemies players will face, and what characters will players be able to play?
Aside from the four playable characters, visitors to Pandora will encounter a slew of enemies. Much like the guns in Borderlands, the creatures vary in quantity and type. Players will cross everything from skags, which are dog-like creatures that have a nasty bite, to flying Rakk, and even armored spider-ants. Creatures are generated similar to our weapons, so they total well over a hundred different variations. They come in all shapes and sizes from weaker variations to the stronger, “Badass” versions, which may prove challenging to the unprepared!

GVK: What game engine will the game be using and what features will it bring to the game?

We’ve been fortunate enough to use Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 as the base to Borderlands. With that, we essentially get all of the next-gen features gamers expect right out of the box. From ambient occlusion, dynamic lighting and shadows, surround sound, to a fantastic art pipeline, it was all there.

However, to showcase Borderlands’ beautiful art, we modified the engine and added some really unique shaders and lighting models to compliment our concept art style. The result is nothing short of amazing! Furthermore, to accent our heavy cooperative influence, our engineers have spent a significant amount of time implementing full feature sets on all platforms for friends, matchmaking, and online play. We want players to get into games easily with friends and be amazed once they are there!

GVK: What forms of multiplayer does the game include?

The heart of Borderlands is four player co-op. It is important to note that Borderlands supports dynamic drop-in, drop-out play, in which the game automatically adjusts the experience to the number of players. Also, unlike a number of next-gen games, Borderlands supports split screen play. At Gearbox, we understand how important it is to play with a friend locally as remotely, and we want to encourage that type of play! On the other hand, for those that wish to talk smack, and go head to head, Borderlands supports PvP combat in the form of dueling, and more organized fighting in arenas across Pandora.

GVK: How will mapping and navigation be conducted in the game?

Borderlands tries to make it as easy as possible for players to stay in the action and stay in the game. Getting to the next location on Pandora should be the least of the players’ worries, so we’ve incorporated some really nice features to accommodate this travel.

First, all players will have a compass on the HUD detailing key waypoints and objectives. In addition, each character is equipped with an ECHO device, which functionality includes a complete map of the current area. As players complete missions, they even enable a fast travel network, which serves as a teleportation system to key locations in the game. Coupled with vehicle stations, players should have no problem navigating the world. After all, Pandora is a large and beautiful place. As developers, we don’t want the players to miss any of it!

GVK: Will boss battles be a part of the game?

Absolutely! I’d like to be a bit tight lipped here, but Borderlands boasts some interesting bosses with outrageous loot. You’ll be inclined to play some of these multiple times!

GVK: The game appears to have changed from what was first announced nearly two years ago. Can you talk about the changes and what lead to them?

Sure! So, late last year, we realized that Borderlands was becoming something really special. We understood the shooter component, and the RPG component was maturing quickly. We wanted to build on this, so we added an extra character class and expanded the world significantly. With that, most of the work relied heavily on the programming and design teams. Most of our art assets were already created, so the artists were chomping at the bit to contribute as well. The result was a revisit to the art style.

One thing the artists noticed is that we had all of this awesome concept art, much of which was not translated justly into the game. Truth be told, the concept art was cooler than the end result. But, to be fair, we see this a lot – just take the car industry. We’ve all seen these awesome concept cars, but once everyone is involved, it usually boils down to something more practical.

Well, the artists (and a few coders) set out to change this! Independently, and on their own accord, they created a prototype of the unique art style seen today. While a major departure from our previous effort, there was no question the end result was simply fantastic! The new styled oozed character, and reaffirmed the tone of Borderlands. Still, this was a huge risk.

Luckily, the redesigned art style resonated well at Gearbox, but we had to convince our publisher, 2K Games, that this was a good move. Admittedly, we probably couldn’t have done it with any other publisher. Not too far off Bioshock’s release, 2K was feeling more confident in a new, unique style, and in the end, they agreed to the change. Almost a year later, we have an amazing looking game with a unique, concept art style!

Skewed and Reviewed The Magazine Coming November 2009
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