The Borderlands E3 Interview: Gearbox Opens Up on Its Diablo/Halo Hybrid

The Mission: It's the last day of E3, and a tired team of Gearbox Software employees are willing to sit down for an open interview. Your stomach is growling, and your schedule is tight, but there will be lunch involved, and the developer's

The Mission: It's the last day of E3, and a tired team of Gearbox Software employees are willing to sit down for an open interview. Your stomach is growling, and your schedule is tight, but there will be lunch involved, and the developer's upcoming post-apocalyptic co-op shooter Borderlands (PC, 360, PS3) was easily one of the most interesting titles shown at the expo.

The Reward: More information on Borderlands, which takes the best of Diablo--procedurally generated loot and instances, for small group online cooperation--and combines it with gory shooter gameplay and Halo-esque vehicles. And a great burrito.

The Cast: Gearbox president Randy Pitchford, and executive producer Marc Tardif.

Shack: So how long have you guys been working on Borderlands?

Marc Tardif: Two years? Two years.

Randy Pitchford: We did concept development probably March-April, maybe April-May of 2005.

Marc Tardif: Concept development started, and then a really, really small team of a couple engineers and a couple artists just to get it up and running and try to make a prototype.

Shack: And what was the original concept?

Randy Pitchford: It's what you see man. Halo and Diablo put together. We've been wanting to make that game since Quake/Doom.

Shack: What did you guys think of something like Hellgate: London?

Randy Pitchford: I like what they were trying to do.

Marc Tardif: I would love to have played that game had they been given another eight months to a year [of development time].

Randy Pitchford: If they had the [chance] to do it the way it needed to be done, that would have been great.

Marc Tardif: I think they came at it from a different angle though. We're coming from a first person shooter angle and adding RPG, they came from an RPG angle and were trying to make it first person.

Randy Pitchford: So there's a little bit of a difference there in how it feels I guess, how it looks, and how it's presented.

Shack: So I assume the basic level setup in Borderlands is similar to Diablo? You buy things in towns, take quests, then go out and fight?

Randy Pitchford: Similar. One thing that's different I'd say is that, in Diablo, there's a big difference between an area where combat can happen, and an area where it's totally safe. [In Borderlands], it's just a world. And I don't know if we've decided that we're going to create some havoc in the towns, but we could if we wanted to.

Shack: But the focus is on grabbing quests and running missions.

Randy Pitchford: Yeah, we call them settlements, because that's what they are, and that's where you get quests, buy and sell stuff, store your loot, mess with your skills, and kind of maintain your character, and figure out what you're going to do next.

Marc Tardif: It's very mission driven. You meet people throughout the world. Those guys will have things for you to do. There's also the high level mission objective, but then there's also kind of the random side missions that you can go on, as well as what we call challenges. So there's actually people in the world that basically say hey, I bet you can't do this. And if you do it, they reward you with something. And those aren't like required to finish the game, they're just added things that you can do on top.

Randy Pitchford: If we think of say like Diablo--Diablo was such that you push out into the world, and then each layer of the world was randomly assembled, and then you'd have to uncover all the black, so to speak. But which layer was next was crafted. That's how Diablo was constructed.

Whereas if you pick up say World of Warcraft, the whole world was crafted, and you can go wherever you want--but if you go somewhere that you're not ready to face yet, you're not going to last too long. If you choose to take quests, the adventure unfolds along those lines. If you choose to just wander.. I think Borderlands is actually arranged more like World of Warcraft, where you can just choose to go that way--maybe you didn't take a quest, or maybe there is no quest--but you're just kind of like, hunting around. But I don't want to mislead people, and I don't want to talk about World of Warcraft too much, because [Borderlands] is a shooter.

Shack: Was there ever a point in the concept stage where Borderlands was an MMO?

Randy Pitchford: No.

Shack: Would you guys ever like to take a stab at an MMO?

Randy Pitchford: No. Not any time soon.

Shack: Are you MMO fans?

Randy Pitchford: Yeah, but the thing is, what's more important is the shooter experience. What we're trying to do is add a persistent character to a shooter experience. It actually breaks down if there are a hundred people side by side. You can't actually socially interact. And have you ever been on a 40 person raid? When you do that in WoW, it's not as social of a game. I mean there's social interaction there, but the group strategy has to rule or you break down the entire system. So really you're just a rank in the line.

Whereas when you're playing four player co-op in a shooter on the console, anyone at any moment could become the leader for what you accomplish right there. And then when you branch off and do your own thing for a couple minutes, it doesn't break down the entire team. In WoW, when you're in a five person dungeon, one player leaves and you're screwed.

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Shack: So Borderlands is all about drop-in, drop-out play?

Randy Pitchford: Totally drop-in, drop-out. Your character is persistent. I can drop out of my game and join yours, and you might be farther along than I am.

Shack: Does the enemy difficulty adjusts as players join and leave?

Randy Pitchford: Kind of. When you're a bad ass, let's say--you saw Marc get to level 12 with the shotgun, that bad ass shotgun, that thing was awesome. Let's say you just started the game and he joined your game, and you're now at the very beginning, he's just going to melt through that stuff. That's cool, you want that, that's why you're building the power. But there is some effect that happens there, there is some math under the hood, we have to do something.

Marc Tardif: It's not like you're going ot be level 12 and start the game and the first thing you come across is a giant thing that's just going to own you. You will destroy that thing if you're level 12.

Randy Pitchford: You'll melt through the stuff. If you are much more powerful than what that was meant to be, you'll melt through it, and that's kind of what you want. You want to feel that power when you play.

Shack: Is there a system that balances the experience load based on level, so a higher level character can't "power-level" a lower one?

Marc Tardif: The math is very similar probably to what Blizzard does with Diablo, where there's a formula that says okay, characters within this level range are playing together, and this kind of stuff happens.

Shack: One thing that I love about Diablo is how immediately rewarding the click-based combat is. How much have you guys been focusing on basic combat mechanics?

Randy Pitchford: If you break down Diablo to its core roots, the skill, the gameplay skill required by the game, it's almost like playing your desktop. The same skills you're earning to play the game are the same skills you've earned to launch the application. You put the cursor over the icon, and you click on it, and then you click on other icons to kind of decide what happens when you do that.

But a first person shooter is a totally different root game when it comes to the skill test. It's about aim, target prioritization, tool prioritization, and it's about reaction time. There is a physical skill to playing a shooter. So all of the incentives and motivation in Diablo are outside of the skill test. Those are two separate concepts. No first person shooter has ever successfully--in terms of the skill test, this is absolutely a first person shooter, but we're taking all these incentives and motivations and we're laying them on top. Those are actually two totally separate things that don't really have anything to do with eachother, just nobody's every put them together before correctly.

Marc Tardif: The reward is basically what a slot machine is. Every single time you pull down a one-armed bandit you might get a reward; every time you click on a enemy in Diablo you might get a [good] reward. Or in Borderlands' case, sometimes you maneuver around and kill somebody with your gun, same thing, you might get a reward.

Randy Pitchford: It's something cool and meaningful that you can get addicted to. You know, my type of OCD, this stuff works on me like a charm. [laughs] I'm addicted to Achievement points on Xbox Live. I've played a little bit of WoW, but I'm an addict, so I have to stop, because if I actually played it the way I'm supposed to I would have to shut down the company or something.

Shack: I'm the same way. I can't play WoW because it would end up demanding all of my time.

Randy Pitchford: But even something as simple as Achievement points on Xbox Live, that's totally nailed me. All of us might grabbed to different degrees, but we all understand the psychology, even if we don't have a language to talk about it, we kind of understand why that affects us. It's just fun, it's just cool.

I want to be a bad ass--I want to get tougher. I like the crafted experience that we've always been making, and everybody's always been making, whether you're talking about some of our games from the past, or Halo, Call of Duty. But at the end of the day, the character is the same at the end as he was in the beginning, and the tools are just laying around the world, and it's just what I picked up at the time. You don't really get to feel that power growth, which is part of what motivates us.

Marc Tardif: And another great thing about Borderlands' reward system is, unlike a game like Diablo where you kill some random thing and it just drops a random sword, and it doesn't really make a whole lot of sense--in our game, if you come across a bandit, and he's shooting at you with this really bad ass submachinegun, and he's just tearing into you, you know that when you kill him, you get his gun. And all of these guns are procedurally generated. So you might come across a guy with a gun you really, really want, if you kill him, you get it. If you kill a guy with a really, really awesome shield, you get his shield.

Shack: The "drop" is seen ahead of time.

Randy Pitchford: Yeah. As a shooter gamer, my bar for plausibility is higher. We forgive so much when we play WoW. There's so much that, if we ever made a shooter where I press the action button and [my character] does this same generic animation three feet away from the object he's interacting with, we'd just get crucified. But we forgive it because of the kind of game it is and the way it's presented. But that plausibility is actually important. Why does it make sense that when I kill that Murloc he has a fin, but the other one doesn't? And why does he have a sword on him? He didn't have a sword when I fought him. That's weird.

But in a shooter, because of the way we're perceiving the world, and the production values, and just the way that we think that's supposed to be--it's like, that guy has that gun, and I'm gonna kill him and take that fricken gun. And when he dies, gold doesn't just fly out. [laughs] But that's what the chests are for too, because you don't know what's in the chests.

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Shack: So you do have some totally random surprises.

Marc Tardif: [The chests are] the true slot machine.

Randy Pitchford: Yeah, we'll be playing the demo sometimes and like--

Marc Tardif: Like just today I got the two crappiest pistols I've ever seen in the game. [laughs]

Randy Pitchford: Yeah, the first demonstration this morning, he got two chests in a row, he just got fricken terrible drops, and he was like, "Dude, how are we going to finish the demo?" [laughs] He was like, [adopts announcer voice], "Simon, I need support here."

Shack: That's when you start cheating.

Randy Pitchford: Yeah, that's why we have that in there.

Shack: Right, the emergency button.

Marc Tardif: Probably about 70% of the time there's a useful machinegun or submachinegun in that chest, but today for some reason it was the crappiest pistols in the world.

Shack: What is Borderlands going to look like after it ships? Will there be add-on content?

Randy Pitchford: Probably. I mean we'll see. You plan so that you can, and you know some things you want to do. And we also want to see what people want. If the world says, "Add more quests." That might be where we focus. If the world says, "Actually that's fine dude, but I need arenas, let's do some PvP." We kind of need to give ourselves some flexibility to kind of see where we all want to go.

Because ultimately, we're making the game we want to play, but we're also trying to be entertainers here, which means we want to make something that people want to play. I don't want to make something that nobody wants to play. And I want people to like what we have done. So we want to hear what they liked and what they want, and then we'll tune as we go.

Shack: Is PvP in the game right now?

Marc Tardif: Next question. [laughs]

Randy Pitchford: I don't know. I mean, you don't want to say that because I don't know where it's going to end up.

Marc Tardif: One thinks about what the system is in the game, and how it all works, and imagines what competitive multiplayer stuff could be. And you start dreaming.

Randy Pitchford: When we're done--after we're done, after people are playing, if there's a lot of value in that, we're going to hear that. But it's not going to help if we hear people who are like, "Wahh." Because if we listen now, you're never going to get it. So if you want the game, everyone should say, "Finish what you have, and then we'll tell you what to do next." That's the way people should treat us. If you like what you see, get back on, and then tell us what you want next. We'll do our best. That's the best way to handle us. [laughs]

Shack: Thanks for talking with us, guys.

Borderlands is due in 2009 for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

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