Interview: Talking Borderlands 2 with Gearbox's Anthony Burch and Paul Hellquist
Every year, we as gamers come across experiences that reaffirm our love for video games. Experiences that tug at our feelings and ultimately leave us up at night. Borderlands 2 was one of those experiences in 2012. Not only did the blockbuster hit receieve stellar review scores across the board, including a 9.0 rating from GameZone, as we deemed it "an absolute blast when all the chaos ensues." Months after the release of the second installment, we still have a number of questions that need answers - questions the community certainly wants answered as well, so to answer them, we had the opportunity to interview Anthony Burch, Writer for Borderlands 2, and Paul Hellquist, Creative Director for Borderlands 2.
GameZone: Perhaps one of the more distinguished differences between Borderlands 2 and its predecessor is the fact that the former is highlighted by a full-fledged story. How much of a challenge was it during development to introduce a story that resonates with the “shoot and loot” gameplay style, rather than detracting from it with balancing issues?
Anthony Burch: It wasn’t necessarily a challenge so much as a goal we set for ourselves. We all felt that the story should never infringe upon the core gameplay. At its heart, we knew Borderlands was a game about getting together with a few friends and tearing some stuff up; if we’d made a game where you had to sit around watching unskippable cut scenes or doing big, linear, scripted sequences, then we wouldn’t have been playing to the game’s strengths. I never really found myself angrily screaming, ‘argh, I wish I could just write this as a five minute cut scene and be done with it,’ because we never considered those to be a viable option to make the game we wanted to make.
We always intended to make the story as unobtrusive as possible not just to account for those players who might not want to bother with the story, but also because we generally prefer games that use narrative mechanics unique to our medium rather than relying on those from other art forms (cut scenes, huge blocks o’ text, etc).
GZ: On the topic story, was it a key point during development to intertwine the story with the intriguing and somewhat “wacky” characters to, once again, balance out the action Borderlands fans have come to know and love? I mean, it’s pretty amazing how this over-the-top, yet somewhat relatable story wouldn’t be as fun if it weren’t for characters like Tiny Tina, Jack, and the beloved Claptrap. Would you even say that the introduction of an entire story – script especially – was easy with the characters in the game?
AB: The characters came about kind of naturally because of the plot’s demands. We knew we wanted a strong villain, so we created Handsome Jack. We knew we wanted a demolitions expert, so we made Tina. We needed another vehicle-centric character who wasn’t Scooter, so we made Ellie. Though the characters might seem really goofy – like they exist solely to spout jokes or whatever – nearly every NPC exists because they needed to serve a specific purpose in our story, whether that means moving the plot forward, or drawing light on some backstory about Hyperion’s occupation of Pandora, or to draw attention to a particular set of mechanics (Sir Hammerlock, for instance, exists because we needed a guy who could explain how our creatures work and how you should defeat them).
GZ: Gearbox has always been known for its fan appreciation and its openness to fan consideration in its games. Sitting at the drawing board for the sequel, were there factors implemented into the game that were directly from fan “outcry,” if you wish to call it that? Perhaps more environments? A story itself?
Paul Hellquist: When sat down and sifted out focus from Borderlands DLC to Borderlands 2 we definitely had a “Hit list” of features that fans wanted or critiques that we wanted to address. Among them were “weak AI”, variety of enemies, variety of environments, and a more compelling narrative. On top of those high level things there were a bunch of basic features that players wanted that we had always intended for the first game but simply ran out of time during development. Among those were things like a bank for storage and a player to player trading system.
Now that the game is out and we’ve seen the reaction to our improvements we really feel like hit all of our goals in those areas. But don’t worry, we still have a list of things that we think we can improve on.
GZ: “Millions upon millions” of weapons. This is what Gearbox was quoted saying before the release of Borderlands 2. Normally that would be a hyperbole, and maybe it is to an extent, but we all know that the game is filled with guns from every corner of Pandora – guns that are never alike in any sense. During development, did you guys begin with a larger number of weapons than what’s in the game, and then dwindle the list down to what we see in-game? Or did every concept weapon make it into the game in some way? If there were cuts made, what was the team looking for in a Borderlands 2 weapon?
PH: In Borderlands we succeeded in our goal of making “bazillions” of weapons, so what do we do for Borderlands 2? The area we really felt we didn’t achieve the first time around was making the guns look and feel as different from each other as their stats were. We wanted to maintain the statistical differences we had in Borderlands and add to it more feel in the way they fired and how they looked. We achieved this through really differentiating the manufacturers in fun and interesting new ways while maintaining the heart of what each manufacturer was about from the first game.
The main reason we were able to push in these directions was that the we no longer needed to build the technology that creates the weapons since we already had the system functioning. We made some updates and improvements of course but there wasn’t years’ worth of iteration on the system from the tech side which allowed us to stretch in the art and design sides of the equation.
The main “cuts” for Borderlands 2 was the removal of the Atlas brand of weapons. This decision was made for a couple of reasons. The first the identity of Atlas was that it was generally good at everything which actually results in a manufacturer with no identity that players can sink their teeth into and recognize. The second reason it was a natural choice was that our heroes had dismantled Atlas’s presence on Pandora in the first game making its absence feel earned in the universe and not just a cut. Finally, removing Atlas from the list gave us more memory to put towards art for all of the other manufacturers allowing for the awesome variety we were able to achieve even within each manufacturer.