Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel devs talk inspiration and iteration
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is far from a revolution, but it impressed nonetheless with some smart mechanical improvements to the tried-and-true loot formula. Franchise director Matthew Armstrong and 2K Australia studio manager Tony Lawrence recently explained to us just how their studios tweaked the Borderlands recipe without breaking it entirely.
For starters, the new environment helped solidify some of their ideas, including one that Gearbox had passed up in previous iterations.
"It's the main promise of the moon: there's lasers, and it's cold," Armstrong told Shacknews. "It was one of those things, we actually considered doing ice damage in a previous Borderlands game. It was just too hard and we couldn't do it. They [2K Australia] said 'well, the moon is cold, there's a reason to have ice on it, so we want to do ice damage.' We said: 'don't bother, it's going to be hard.'"
"We had a prototype in about two hours," Lawrence chimed in.
Armstrong pointed out that 2K Australia had worked on BioShock, so it only makes sense that the studio could get this mechanic working too. That ice power can also combine with the new weapon type, lasers. While lasers tend to be portrayed in a pretty similar way in most games, I pointed out that this was more like a proton gun from Ghostbusters. It arced wildly like electricity shooting from a Tesla coil.
"When you think of a bullet it fires in a straight parabolic arc. But in Borderlands you get shotgun shells that fire shotgun shells and you get curving bullets and arcing bullets," Armstrong said. "It would not be Borderlands if we did not treat lasers with the same level of disrespect.
"Somewhere in there you'll find the laser that fulfills your laser needs. Some people want a Star Wars 'pew pew' gun, some people think of a laser as a quick-fire, some people think of it as a beam weapon like Ghostbusters. There's many different thoughts and promises of what a laser might be and we tried to fulfill all of them."
Coming up with classes for a third game in the series was a little trickier. While the previous games fall into RPG arch-types, Gearbox actually modeled them after action-shooter types that happened to cross over with RPG standbys. Borderlands 2 iterated on that idea, but for this one 2K had a story to consider.
"We were a little bit constrained by the fact that we're telling a story," Armstrong said. "We didn't want to ret-con in a bunch of characters who weren't there. So we said, okay, who was actually there when Handsome Jack was having his rise to power? When it came down to it we know that Handsome Jack and Claptrap are actually enemies. Why would you have a falling out with a robot? Handsome Jack actively dislikes Claptrap, he says that. You could argue that the entire plot of Borderlands 2 is Claptrap wants revenge. From his perspective, that's what it is. So he has to have a reason, right?"
The two were cagey about Handsome Jack's appearance in the demo, in which he didn't seem to be wearing his usual mask. I have to think Claptrap had something to do with that. With the Handsome Jack plot established, it became a matter of finding some other characters who could comfortably fit the setting.
"We have Nisha, the Sheriff of Lynchwood, who is Handsome Jack's girlfriend and also this powerful deadly person. We have Wilhelm, who everyone says is this awesome deadly enforcer. So they were always there. For Athena, we've always had an idea of where her path is during the course of this period and it pairs well with Handsome Jack. Now we have these characters with skills and abilities, and they might not fit into these arch-types."
The other trouble with designing new characters is creating all-new skill trees for them. Borderlands has four characters, but it's really more like twelve. Rather than nerf classes during play testing, Armstrong said they find which one people are favoring and make the others stronger. The goal is to differentiate them so much that players can see another person using the same character, but in a completely different way.
I commented that I tend to pick my path by looking at the last skill and deciding which one I want the most. Apparently they're aware that this is a common practice, and plan their skill climbing around it.
"We're actually very careful to make sure the last ability is reflective of the abilities that come before it," Armstrong said. "When people make that choice, we don't want them to say, 'oh, this isn't what I was looking for.' So the last ability has to echo the previous ones, it can't just come out of left field."
Finally, though neither could talk about any downloadable content for The Pre-Sequel, the studios are very much aware of the series' history with plenty of post-launch releases.
"The trick to DLC is, there's a promise you make to your fans, because the DLC is really for the fans. A lot of people will say, oh my god you're throwing out so much DLC. We try to make sure we have huge amounts of content relative to what you might expect," Armstrong said. "We try to make sure it's something that hardcore players want. We want to see, what do our players want? It's a world we love and we want to give our fans something to play in."
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel