It’s not every day you get to interview co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Gearbox Software, as well as Executive Producer for Borderlands 2 in a London gay pub, but that’s precisely what I was privileged to do just last week. I sat down with Brian Martel, and talked about midgets, gambling, psychotic teenage girls; the very spirit of Borderlands.
Jordan Garland: The question sounds a bit more existential than I’d intended, but to the uninitiated, what is Borderlands?
Brian Martel: Y’know it’s funny, it’s one of these games that’s just pure fun. When we mix the genres of RPG and shooter it kind of brings them together, it’s the best of both worlds. We call it an RPS, a role-playing shooter. Borderlands is about levity, it’s about having a good time, it’s about co-op, it’s about adventure, it’s about having a compelling single-player experience, it’s about growth, it’s about exploring a far-reaching planet at the edge of the universe [Pandora]. It’s a rough-and-tumble hard place to play and place to be.
You’re coming out there to do something special and that’s what gamers want to do. It’s a release, a way of getting over your problems and not having to worry about what’s going on, it’s not an overly dramatic game that’s serious. Get together with your mates and have a good time.
JG: I played Borderlands and loved it, but how do you build on the success of that? It’s such a good game, it almost would’ve been easier to have had a lesser game to to build upon, but how do you better Borderlands?
BM: Well, our approach was we looked at every single article we could find and treated it as constructive criticism. We listened to our own employees and post-mortem on the game, we listened to what they thought could be better and then we listened to our fans.
We took all of that information and created a foundation, that was sort of the base for our game. So we already had a great base, but we knew we needed more diversity in the landscape, more clarity in the weapons, to get the player to love particular manufacturers and expand on that.
We wanted the weapons to look better, feel better and be part of the core experience in a way that we didn’t quite achieve in the first game. And it was great, now they feel even better, I mean you got a chance to try them and you can instantly see they’re better than they were the first time. It’s in how they move, the colour in the weapons and the way the effects are done on them. So if it’s like the fire effect you can really see that it does that kind of thing. These kind of elemental effects were really important.
The creatures, we spent a lot of time making them just making them more diverse, having better AI. The skill trees, the Badass Points, doing all these things they help to expand the RPG side, but also make sure that the shooter side is that much more compelling.
Badass Points are a new tiered levelling system across all of your Borderlands 2 characters and playthroughs, a ‘profile’ rank if you will. Increasing your Badass rank unlocks points which can be used to improve core skills across all characters,. The most intruiging thing about badass points, bar the name, is that according to Randy Pitchford, there are ‘tens of thousands’ of them, although those sort of upper-echelons are only for the really dedicated player.
JG: So what are the key improvements from Borderlands to Borderlands 2?
BM: Awww shoot, part of the goal was in improving everything but I think Badass Points are something new that really lets you as a player feel like you’re levelling up, so not only are you levelling-up your character, you’re doing something that can also carry-along. That’s really important, that we do a better job of telling the story, and having a very complete experience all the way to the end. A rewarding, compelling, that takes you to the end of the game.
We needed to really make the world more alive, playing by yourself we didn’t want there to be this sort of dead experience. It was very hard for us to be able fill in everything we wanted to do, we couldn’t spend the time on NPCs and their animation system and that kind of stuff like we’re able to do now. That was a big deal, making sure we could do that. So I think really we’ve just don an across the board better job of improving everything and I think Paul Hellquist, as the Creative Director for the game, has really tied everybody together and kept us focused and motivated on just improvement, and making it a more compelling experience.
Jeramy Cooke, who’s the art director, I think really pushed the art direction this time. I was art director for the first game and he and I worked really closely for Borderlands 2 in deciding what characters were going to look like, we worked on creatures, environments and all that, and he has just led his team in a way that I think if you love the look and feel of Borderlands then this is going to be so much better.
JG: As an example, one of the enemies I encountered was the One Armed Bandit, a giant bandit with a one-armed bandit (i.e. slot machine) on his back that you can play as well. For me, that sums up Borderlands.
BM: You got a chance also to see the guy with the midget on his shield. Did you shoot the ropes?
JG: Errr, no?
BM: See, a lot of people’s first instinct is to just shoot at everything, and with the midget if you take your aim at the ropes, he will jump off and then sometimes he’ll be your friend, sometimes he’ll be mad. They have a real mental state where they like like to kind of be attached. But it’s really fun, you can get up to three midgets on one shield, and that kind of shows you some of the new systems that are behind the scenes and if you’re really paying attention to what’s happening to the enemies and what they’re doing, sometimes telling you if you really look close, what they’re allabout. And sometimes even if you don’t, you’re still having a good time shooting at them. It’s very fun in both of those regards.
BM: He’s extremely rich and he’s taken advantage of the fact the vault has opened and this new material ‘eridium’ has bubbled up out of the ground. He’s used that to make himself even more wealthy.
Handsome Jack is a bit of an ass, he’s both really hilarious and you want to like him, but other times he’s extremely rude and mean and he’s out to kill you. He’s this wacky little nemesis, and is just so true to Borderlands in that way of both having the really very funny and yet at the same time, be really terrible.
JG: And there’s another new character, Tiny Tina.
BM: She’s special. She’s this poor orphan girl, 13 years-old, and she’s found her calling in explosives, which is a bit strange for a 13 year-old, but out in the middle of the borderlands, where it’s rough, her way of making herself sane is by having tea-parties, and that sort of thing. She is just so hard to describe, if I described her to you before you probably wouldn’t have believed it, but when you play her she’s just so natural in her Tim Burton-esque craziness.
BM: Exactly, that’s the Borderlands way.
JG: In Borderlands, the nature of the hub towns and the subsequent loading periods between each one made it feel a little disjointed at times, but Borderlands 2 seems to feel more cohesive, like a true-er open world.
BM: Yeah, we’re trying to obviously make that and fill that illusion and make it work, but there are obviously still limits in the world. We still have to have loads-screens, but we’ve done our best to fill all the spaces we could fit in the memory with as much stuff as we possibly can. So some of our hubs are bigger, they’re more in depth, they’re more interesting than they were the first time and that’s where you get Sanctuary. That comes into the game at a pretty late mid-point, but earlier spaces are like, you kind of have these small towns, but you’re getting a good sense of how the game works. So yeah, it really does feel like a really open world, a really cohesive world, and I think we’ve done a better job as we learned what works and what doesn’t. It’s a natural progression as anyone improves in their craft, I think.
Borderlands 2 releases on 21st September in the UK, 18th September in US, for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC and I just can’t wait!