Interview: Gearbox on Borderlands' End, Future

Gearbox's Mikey Neumann has been billed as many things. Sometimes, he's "a guy who can get you things." Other times, he's a creative director. Today, he's answering some of the questions I had after wrapping up my initial playthrough of Borderlands.

And before we got around to discussing the ending--rest assured that spoilers are limited to the third page--we chatted about a variety of topics that any fan of Borderlands should find interesting, including talk of downloadable content and a vow that "we'll look at what the community really latches on to or wants, and we'll move in that direction."

Shack: Before we get started, is there any service you'd like to call out as exploiting developers or a game you want to label as boring in comparison to Borderlands?

Mikey Neumann: No. I'm actually pretty agnostic there.

On the subject of Steam and Fallout 3, just so like, anybody can start quoting me if they feel like it, I think Steam is a really interesting thing, and I think Randy was [taken] a little bit out of context on some of that.

Obviously, that story got around. I understand what he's saying when he says there's a little bit of a conflict of interest there theoretically. To Valve's credit, I have not seen that [factor in], I don't think they're exploiting it in any way, and it's the best we've got right now, so we all use it.

I think they blew it out of proportion. Randy loves Steam. It was one quote that is entirely truthful--there could be a conflict of interest there--but I mean, they can take whatever they want and they they blow it up to whatever story they want.

Shack: So, on to Borderlands. Early in the game, I got a shotgun with bouncing pellets that really got me excited for other weapons with unique quirks like that, but it seemed like everything else I ran across in that playthrough was pretty standard fare.

Mikey Neumann: There's definitely some really really super rare stuff, that's the stuff that always surprises us--the spiraling guns, the bouncing guns, the guns that shoot things they're not supposed to shoot. Those are your yellow-level stuff or your super rare purples. If you dig around, you'll definitely find some, but you're gonna have to really try and find them. There's some footage in the next trailer of some spiraling stuff that's pretty cool--it just happened to come out during the playtest for the footage.

Shack: I stumbled across rocket launcher that fired three rockets at once in a spiral.

Mikey Neumann: Somebody here found a rocket launcher that split. Like, the rocket fires and then it splits into two and if it doesn't hit anything it splits into four, eight, you know. It keeps doubling, basically. So if you found an open enough area and fired it at a flat enough angle you could generate like, tons and tons of rockets in one shot. It was pretty cool.

Again, that's the stuff that surprises us. There's a bunch of little stuff that I think some of the designers hid in there that maybe we didn't know about, they're kinda the really really wacky [ones]. Those are obviously super duper rare when the game makes one of those.

Shack: How rare are those yellow-level [the game refers to them as orange-level] items?

Mikey Neumann: Those are the most rare in the game. They're above purple. They're supposed to be rare, like super-duper rare. Chances are you might see one in your travels if you just play straight through. Our hope is, when you start running through the same areas again, you'll start to find stuff. Like if you're that guy that wants to grind for the super insane ultra-rare stuff, that end game is definitely there.

We wanted at least one level of weapon for the people that really want to dig into the game over the really long-term. How many purples did you get?

Shack: A lot.

Mikey Neumann: That's good. That was intended. It sounds like everything's working pretty much by design. Hopefully you would've got one yellow, but we can't obviously control that.

Shack: I got some pretty nice weapons. A repeater with a fire rate of something like 40.

Mikey Neumann: So it's like a death stapler.

Shack: Yeah. I can just point it in a general direction and the spray will decimate anything in its path.

Mikey Neumann: I like when you've got a repeater that has a knife on the front that add like 300 to your melee damage. You can just run around and decapitate people without firing it. Those are awesome.

Shack: What happened on the PC with the one-week delay--something about optimization?

Mikey Neumann: Sometimes a week can buy you a lot. I'm not entirely sure what happened there, but we ran into a couple little things.

The thing with PC is that we don't go through certification the same way. We made sure that 360 and PlayStation versions, those are essentially done first, and then anything that's a PC-centric problem we put into a bug queue to be done while we're certing the other things. The schedule seemed like it was going to work out, but it was off by about a week.

Shack: I noticed the voice chat options were a little lacking in the PC build I got for review. As in, I was unable to turn off voice chat, adjust the volume, or even mute.

Mikey Neumann: Yeah. We noticed that and know what people want there. It has already been under scrutiny here at Gearbox.

Shack: Could split-screen be something that's patched in later on PC?

Mikey Neumann: If we find that it's something that people want, we can certainly patch it in. As of right now, it's not there.

Shack: Are you at all concerned that people can duplicate items and share saves? I understand that it's a player's decision as to whether or not they engage in such actions, but it could still affect the community.

Mikey Neumann: It's also PC-specific. On the console, the saved games are linked to the profiles. But because it's not Games For Windows, no profile, and yeah.

Shack: Any plans to expand on item trading beyond the "drop this on the ground and hope the right person picks it up" honor system?

Mikey Neumann: We were pretty careful there. We wanted free-for-all looting for now. Then we'll look at what the community really latches on to or wants, and we'll move in that direction.

I haven't had a problem with it because I play with my friends, co-workers, and sometimes random people and we'll agree to loot rules. A lot of times if we wanted something, we'd duel for it. That seems to be the best way. It's kinda the honor system. It is fun to fight your friends and show who's the big dog to get certain loot drops.

If people are clamoring for some trade stuff, or clamoring for some better trade rules, then we'll look at that moving forward. I mean, if you look at the first release of World of Warcraft, it had like, what, 20% of the features it has now?

Turn the page for more on post-release support, downloadable content and firemen.

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Shack: Were you to roll out some better trade rules, would that be on all platforms?

Mikey Neumann: Hopefully, yes. There's some technical hurdles there that we're going to have to look at, but obviously whatever people are clamoring [for], we're gonna try to make it all better.

Shack: That's what Randy was saying about downloadable content, that it'd be based on community feedback. But there's already some downloadable content in the works--how do you incorporate community response when they've yet to play the game?

Mikey Neumann: We have a plan for multiple downloadable contents, hopefully.

DLC 1 is an extension. It's something new that we wanted to give the players--a new area to play in, some new stuff to do. From there, I think [DLC] will be more reactionary.

We make decisions based on our own focus testing, which is listening to players, what they wanted more of, listening to people that played the game early, talked to some people that are reviewing the game. We're definitely listening to everybody we can at the time. Obviously, when the game comes out, we're going to have a whole lot more people to listen to.

Going forward, we're trying to take as much community feedback as possible.

Shack: On downloable content, what's the limit? Have you run into any technical hurdles--no new classes, no rocket ship etc.?

Mikey Neumann: We're finding out some interesting things that maybe we didn't realize before. So far, none of them have been game changers.

To be specific, we are making DLC for all three platforms simultaneously. We don't want any customer to miss out. I will say that our first DLC is an additional story, it's a tight little story that's pretty cool, a whole new area with all-new monsters and all kinds of stuff. It's definitely something that people are going to want, because it's more of what they are going to want to do--explore more, find new stuff, meet people. That's all there.

I think the limitations we're running into are under the hood stuff, that if we're did our job right you're probably not going to notice. Once they start seeing the new stuff, I think they're going to get where we're going with DLC specifically.

Shack: This comes up every time we talk. What are the odds of a demo?

Mikey Neumann: I haven't heard anything different than what we've been saying. There might be one post-launch. Again, we're going to look at what's going on. That's other resources that we need in places like DLC and adding things to the existing game. We'll see how we're doing, if people are picking it up.

A demo is essentially something that shows the players what they're getting in for. Unfortunately, our game is so big and so expansive that it's really really hard to cut it down. A demo for us could be a six-hour game.

We go back and forth on that. We'd love to do one, we'd love to give people something to look at, but there's a lot of other factors there.

Shack: I know some games just serve up their tutorial as a demo, but Borderlands ...those "learning to play" missions take a while.

Mikey Neumann: We thought we had a really good plan for a demo--"oh, that's perfect"--and it was like nine hours. In our heads, it seemed shorter than it was. There's just so much content, and it's so open.

It's a very tough game to demo. What we do is just put it in everyone's hands that we can, taking it everywhere, letting anybody play if they want to. That right now is the easiest thing that we can do. I think word of mouth is going to carry the game a lot when it comes out. You've got people "oh come over and play this, you've gotta try it" and they try it and "oh yeah I gotta get that because I want to play co-op."

As for a post-release demo, we'll do what we can, but it's still ...it's just as complicated of a problem as it was two months ago.

Shack: Speaking of the training, is there any way to skip those first few missions?

Mikey Neumann: The missions are pretty much locked. That's the mission system, you finish one, it does the next one.

Shack: They're not too bad the first time through, but if you roll a new character or play through again or hop in co-op with a friend and they're just starting out, the first few learning-to-play-esque missions are pretty dull. "Go here! Talk to this person! Yay!"

Mikey Neumann: I think that's fair. Given the time frame, it was the best we could do. I mean, again, if we find people are saying a lot of things like that, then we'll look into the problem.

Shack: To start wrapping things up, is there any particular criticism or concern that you'd like to address?

Mikey Neumann: Nothing's coming to mind. It's seems like everybody gets the game. They're like, "wow, okay, this is Diablo and Halo with a really cool art style." That's all we ever set out to make, so it's good that the end product is there and people are enjoying that.

People expecting some kind of Saving Private Ryan-level drama are going to be disappointed, but I think once you make it through that little intro at the beginning, you know what you're in for.

It's a game you can play by yourself and have a badass time, you can play with your friends--I think it's one of the most friendly co-op games I've ever seen. It's really easy to jump in, jump out. It's really fun to level on your own and come back and go "haha, I am five levels higher than you."

Shack: I think it'll be interesting to see where the online community is at here in a month or two.

Mikey Neumann: I'm hoping in a month or two they'll be like "we want this and we want this and this and this." I want everybody to be like, "yeah we love the game so much we want more." We'll give them more.

Shack: I wonder if a lot of the matches will be higher level players grinding for ultra-rare loot, and if those who haven't been playing since launch will be kinda SOL.

Mikey Neumann: I think people are going to start new characters, they're going to want to try all four because they're so different when you play them through the game. I would expect to happen that kind of organically take on its own idea.

I'm really excited to see what the Borderlands community becomes. It could be really big when it all starts rolling and it's going to require a lot on our part to really keep up with that, not with just DLC and additional stuff. Who knows?

Read on for a discussion of end game events, but beware of spoilers.

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BEWARE: END GAME EVENTS DISCUSSED BELOW

SERIOUSLY, DO NOT READ BELOW IF YOU WISH TO REMAIN UNSPOILED

Shack: During the credits, someone specifically thanks the Plano Fire Department for saving the server room.

Mikey Neumann: Yeah, we had a fire in an electrical closet at one point, and that's pretty close to the server room. That would've been bad.

[awkward silence]

There's not anything more to that story, really.

Shack: Nothing?

Mikey Neumann: We didn't cause it. It was just an electrical fire. It just happened.

Shack: Aww.

Mikey Neumann: I know, right? Actually, ninjas....planted C4 and ...no, I got nothing. It's kind of a boring story.

Shack: So, about that final boss. Was it the giant squid from the original Watchmen comic? Was it Cthulu?

Mikey Neumann: [laughs] It's not anything specific. It was just the vault boss monster thing. The whole thing was, we were trying to make this character interesting. "What are her reasons for driving us towards this vault? Does she really care? Is it actually filled with something? Did she want its power?"

We also wanted to have a bitching boss battle with something crazy huge that could devour you in one bite.

Shack: It was really mean to tease Ninja Claptrap after the credits and then not deliver.

Mikey Neumann: [laughter] Ninja Assassin Claptrap?

Shack: After I beat the game, I went back to Fyrestone, found Claptrap, and all he did was ask if I'd found the vault yet. Jerk.

Mikey Neumann: [laughter] The thing was, Borderlands is a bit open-ended obviously because we wanted to hint at some things to come. We definitely have a lot of ideas for the future in a lot of different ways. We wanted to make sure that the story of the vault finished--you definitely find out what's in there, you definitely solve that problem--but we wanted to be like, "oh by the way, we're not done here." There's a lot more to explore, there's a lot more to do, and we'll obviously reveal more about that in the future.

I was a little proud of Ninja Assassin Claptrap. I thought it was cute.

Shack: I liked it. I was just bummed that, when I went back to Fyrestone, Claptrap was just hanging out by the bounty board and not being a ninja assassin.

Mikey Neumann: Well, there's more than one Claptrap. There's a lot of them.

Shack: I thought it was the same Claptap in Fyrestone given the surroundings and such, but I could accept if it was a different Claptrap.

Mikey Neumann: We are going to do some stuff with Claptrap in the future. Don't worry. That one, specifically.

Shack: What about the Guardian Angel and the various corporations, like Hyperion? How do those factor in?

Mikey Neumann: Her motives are going to be explored further in the future and what she is and how she knows stuff. I mean, it seems like she's helping, but is she actually helping? Helping you?

But the companies, like Hyperion you mentioned, we're going to dive into those more. I will say that the first DLC involves one of the companies. It explores the history of what that company is. As we go further, we actually want to explore a lot of the companies and who they are. A lot is pretty funny.

The world of Pandora hasn't really been explored yet. We've introduced the companies and we've introduced what they're doing, but we haven't really scratched the surface of what's going on in this huge world.

Shack: Thanks Mikey.