Borderlands Interview: Gearbox's 'Games Are Fun' Epiphany and Why It's Already Thinking DLC

"The art style...is the glue to everything," Gearbox's Mikey Neumann explains above the gentle hum of a crowded meeting room during E3. "It allows us to embrace what our game actually is, and man, when we had that epiphany, when it all came together, we were like, 'shit man, that's what this game is, this game is about having fun.'"

Neumann, whose job title today is "a guy who can get you things," is talking about the radical change that the studio's shooter-RPG Borderlands recently underwent, shifting from a gritty realistic aesthetic to something a bit more... stylized.

It was a risky move, especially considering that the game is nearing completion--it's hitting PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in October--and this is the first time that Gearbox has demonstrated the new art style, in real time, to most of the gaming media.

And though the game's not out until October, it needs to be completed much sooner than that due to the need for testing. "You can subtract two and a half to three months for certification time," he says. "Subtract three months off of October and you're...now."

That's why the team at Gearbox is already thinking about the future of Borderlands and dreaming up ideas for downloadable content. While some will be tasked with squashing the bugs that crop up during certification, others will have a bit more creative freedom.

"During cert, if you have a lot of level designers who have nothing to do--which is pretty common, you pull level design and art off first--they're gonna be making cool shit," Neumann notes hypothetically. "That cool shit, that tends to be what DLC ends up being. It's the stuff we couldn't add to the game because we're making it during cert."

Of course, those were far from the only subjects broached during our chat, with Neumann's full answers going into much, much more detail. So, instead of summarizing any further, I present Mikey Neumann. He can get you things.

Shack: It's the last day of E3. Doing well?

Mikey Neumann: Actually, yeah. It's been interesting. The first day, I walked in, it was slow. We had people come through. Wednesday, it got a little busier. Thursday, which is generally the quiet day, has been absolutely nuts. People have been begging to get in all day, which is fantastic.

We definitely gained word of mouth while we were here. It's tough, it's really hard to get noticed [in the chaos of E3]. Somehow we did, which is really, really awesome.

Shack: You think that stems out of the new art style?

Mikey Neumann: I think it stems out of a lot of stuff. We did that trailer, the E3 trailer, just before E3, and I think the art style is instantly grabbing. We wanted to make a trailer, even if it was just 15 seconds, that said "I want to see that at E3."

I think the art style is absolutely perfect at drawing people in, and then from there it's do they like what they see? The art style helped us embrace a little zanier, a little kookier side of ourselves.

There's not a lot of [E3] demos you can go to where midgets get lit on fire and their face melts off. And yet, it feels totally natural in our world. I think people really respond to that sorta... wackiness. The fighting is hardcore, it's actually real combat. You're shooting stuff, and it's dangerous and it can kill you, but we're not taking ourselves too seriously. In the land of people taking themselves way too seriously, I think it comes as a fresh air.

Shack: I'll say this much. I played the Van Helsing movie game--this goes somewhere, I promise. There was this part in it where I was in a small room full of midgets, just hacking them to bits. So the use of wee little midget enemies in Borderlands, it's cool, I haven't seen it in a while, but I've seen it before.

Mikey Neumann: Wow.

Shack: But dynamically-generated foes with baby arms? Have not seen that before.

Mikey Neumann: That's awesome. So there's something for everybody!

The baby arm, actually, does not come up that often. That was interesting. I've seen the baby arm maybe three times during E3? So I'm glad that you got to see it. You missed him throwing a grenade with it.

It's funny, the band of psychos, the midget psychos, they take enough damage and you leave them alone, they actually try to kamikaze you. They pull a grenade off and run at you. When it's like, baby-armed dude holding a grenade and running at you, it's pretty much... it's gaming bliss, really.

We're gonna get sued by every major organization. Dude, the people that are all about baby arm protection?

Shack: PETA might not come after you. I mean, the dogs come at you unprovoked, right?

Mikey Neumann: Yeah, a lot of the creatures, the initial stuff is pretty violent. Some of it's not [laughs]. PETA is welcome--it's more promotion. Throw red paint on someone walking out of the office, whatever.

Shack: One of the things that really grabbed me was the use of brighter colors in Borderlands. A while back, I was talking with someone about why Mirror's Edge was so refreshing and different. Part of it was the controls, obviously, but another thing was, with so many dark and gritty games, the look is so clean. That dark and gritty style can be kinda depressing--I'm not always drawn to it when I want to relax after work.

Mikey Neumann: I think Borderlands actually went through the same thing. Last time we were here, it was dark and gritty. Those games are fun to play, I have nothing against them, but I think as you play them, you start getting a little more depressed. You don't have the same kind of fun [as] when the game is laughing with you, if that makes any sense. Borderlands is definitely a game we want to laugh with you. We want you to enjoy the same things that we thought were funny and fun and different and new.

The art style, again, is the glue to everything. It allows us to embrace what our game actually is, and man, when we had that epiphany, when it all came together, we were like, "shit man, that's what this game is, this game is about having fun."

Really, as developers, when you have an epiphany that the game's supposed to be fun, you simultaneously feel like the biggest genius in the world and biggest idiot that has ever existed. Like, how did we forget this? How did we forget games are supposed to be fun? And we do! Walk the show floor! We forget!

Shack: As a gamer, I don't want to be, "oh, I need bright colors and purple shit to enjoy a game," but I see it in the Borderlands demo, and I'm like, "alright."

Mikey Neumann: It's self-aware. The fact that you can make Brick pink or purple, or the car pink or green or whatever--it's whatever a player wants to do, and then they sit down with their friends.

I didn't even know the colors were in the game [initially]. I can't remember what I said, but I was like, "go get a car, let's jump in." Then this pink car arrives. There's a lot of surprises like that in the game.

Read on for more on Borderlands' multiplayer mode plus talk of a demo and DLC. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: You can play the campaign co-op, but is there any competitive multiplayer?

Mikey Neumann: Oh yes. Within just the regular co-op mode, you can walk up to any of your friends at any time, let's say I'm playing with you, I walk up and I literally bitch slap you. And then it tells you that, "yo, that guy just bitch slapped you, what you wanna do about that?"

So you bitch slap me back, a dome comes down, and we go into a dueling mode. You use all your skills and all your abilities, and that's just the most basic thing.

Within the world, there's actually a lot of instances, you can walk into these things we call arenas. The arenas are actually fully hardcore, Quake style level design all about fighting your friends. It's part of the universe, not a separate mode.

Shack: Do you actually have to walk into an arena, or can you quick-jump from the menu?

Mikey Neumann: You can fast travel to anywhere in the game. The fast travel off of the menu is actually from the save stations, those are all over the place. You can travel pretty easily.

Shack: Okay. One of my major pet peeves with open-world games is when you have to manually walk or drive across the map, to a place you've already been, instead of just warping, and it's not really justified.

For example, Burnout Paradise. It's a wonderful game, but if I'm going to a specific event or race and I've been to that intersection before, why not let me choose it from a menu? I get the immersion angle, I can respect it, but sometimes I just want to play.

Mikey Neumann: I'm not mentioning names, but there's this weird--we [as game developers] almost make immersion a necessity, like "yeah, we're gonna immerse you in the world" and...really?

Again, games are supposed to be fun. [Gamers] don't want to be punished all the time to get to the fun stuff. I understand, there's always going to be a down [time], you can't throw explosions and all that stuff in the game all the time.

It's kinda interesting to find that balance where you want to make sure the player's always having fun, or at least understands what he or she's supposed to do, and we're letting them take shortcuts when he or she needs.

Shack: With Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, I can get an idea as to how the multiplayer setup will work on consoles. But what about PC? Is Gearbox doing its own thing there? Games for Windows Live?

Mikey Neumann: We are doing our own thing. It's gonna be lobby-based, we're trying to keep it as close to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 [offerings] as possible. We want to make sure that everyone can play our game and have fun, it's gonna be a slightly simpler lobby, we still have all the options you have on the other ones. Maybe more, PC people like their options. We're gonna try to keep it as close as possible.

Shack: Any plans for a demo?

Mikey Neumann: We talk about a demo every day. We would love to do a demo. There's obviously factors there. If and when we do one, I don't know if it'd be pre-launch or post-launch, because ...there's a lot of factors there.

We would love to promise a demo, we can't quite yet, we just want to get the game done. That's always the hardest thing for developers to do--you never quite know how the time's going to work out. We're doing really well, but I can't promise it.

Shack: I imagine it'd be tough to do a post-release demo, when those people could be working on Aliens or the other two projects at Gearbox.

Mikey Neumann: Anybody that wants to make this game sell more [would do it], which is everyone at Gearbox. We want people to enjoy our game. I don't think--nice segue into the other stuff going on at Gearbox--I don't anticipate we're just gonna have everybody not work on Borderlands [after release].

We have downloadable content to think about, we have the future of Borderlands to think about. I can't talk about DLC obviously right now because we haven't released the game yet, so that would be stupid to talk about what we're thinking about. We have a lot of really really cool stuff we want to add to the game, to make the universe that much better.

Shack: Is that stuff that was cut out of the game?

Mikey Neumann: Absolutely not. This is stuff we're coming up with like, right now. It's not like we're cutting it right now, we're coming up all these ways of--again, we had this really recent epiphany, this is like the last year, this epiphany about "hey, let's make this awesome and just a crazy, crazy sort of game." The ideas come out of that.

The stuff we actually cut out of the game was really small. If anything, we're adding stuff. Like, the last time we talked, it was 500,000 guns. Now, it's millions. We're adding as much as we can. We're gonna add new stuff, throw it out there, and be thinking about how to make Borderlands a better and better franchise.

Keep reading to learn why that DLC can't be in the retail release.. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: Can you explain why, even though you're coming up with this stuff now while the game is still in development, you can't incorporate it into the retail release?

Mikey Neumann: We're shooting for October 2009, so you can subtract two and a half to three months for certification time. Certification is what you go through with Microsoft and Sony, and to a lesser degree your publisher.

Certification is to make sure the games are bug free and shippable. Without certification, you'd have games that crash and not work.

Subtract three months off of October and you're, you know, now.

What happens a lot of the time is you finish your game and it's time for cert, and during cert a lot of bugs crop up that you have to fix, and a lot of them are really, really big bugs. You are certainly not adding any content to the game at all. A level? No way.

But, during cert, if you have a lot of level designers who have nothing to do--which is pretty common, you pull level design and art off first--they're gonna be making cool shit and want to make cool shit. That cool shit, that tends to be what DLC ends up being. It's the stuff we couldn't add to the game because we're making it during cert, which is impossible to get into the [retail] game.

Games are hard to make now. I don't know if people are aware of this, but they're really, really hard to make. So we're just coming up with cool ideas and setting them aside so we can do them later.

Let's say I wanted to add an elephant to the game [right now], which I know, your readers are going to be sad, now they just found out there's no elephant.

For the content path of the elephant, you start with the art, probably, do some concept art of what you'd want it to look like. That then goes into a turnaround, which is taking a few pictures of the front and both sides, and putting out a model on top of that. Somebody's gonna go in and make a high poly version, that high poly is gonna get tossed over or go to the same artist to make a low poly version of it with all the normals off. Somebody's gonna have to do the texture maps, and then that's gonna go into the game, you're gonna have to do shader work on that to bring it all together, spec map all that.

While that's happening, hopefully you have an animator rigging it, so that we can now have all the animators working on all the animations. I need the animation list for the programmers that you need handling the AI for that, then that goes over there.

You kinda have the AI and the animation going out at the same time, you're making sure it moves and does stuff. You're gonna have a lot of bugs there, a lot of impolish there. Go into game design, make sure it does stuff like shoot shit out of his mouth.

Shack: I've heard some crazy stories about some of the stuff they do during cert, like making sure nothing weird happens if you mash start and select simultaneously 11 times in a row.

Mikey Neumann: The best cert bug we ever got was in Half-Life PS2. Long time ago.

It was this very specific corner in the game, and if you went into this corner and you crouched, and you spun around 39 times, I think, and stood up, the game would crash.

It was replicatable. 38? No crash. 41? No crash. Those dudes are serious. The thing is, cert is so necessary for gamers to have the best experience possible, especially with a game like Borderlands where you can go anywhere and do anything you want. A lot of ways to potentially break that. We need to hammer hard as we can to make sure anyone doesn't get screwed in the end.

Shack: What about PC? Unlike the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, there isn't a big corporate entity to safeguard gamers there.

Mikey Neumann: Most publishers have a certification process for PC. You don't just go to a publisher and say, "the PC game is done, don't worry about it, just put it in a box." They hammer on it, they do it themselves for the most part.

Developed by Gearbox Software and published by 2K Games, Borderlands arrives on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in October.