E3 2012: Borderlands 2 Interview

Borderlands 2 is probably one of our most anticipated releases of 2012 - the frantic, loot-grabbing co-op action and ridiculous weapons of the first game scratched our RPG itch whilst the integration of more traditional first person shooter controls felt fresh.

It was only right we went and got hands-on with it at E3 - and we also grabbed Jason Shields, a Designer at Developer Gearbox Interactive, to chat about how development was progressing and some of the game’s finer points. Borderlands 2 hits stores this September.

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RPG Site: You guys have been saying you've been going more in depth on the story without losing the ability to just jump in and out quickly; can you elaborate on how you're accomplishing that?
Jason Shields: So we really listen a lot to fan feedback at Gearbox. It's one of the things I'm very proud of. One of the things that came up consistently both in reviews and fan feedback was a desire for a more fleshed-out story. As such, that was a big priority for us in Borderlands 2.

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Now, then, we realize there's people who just want to get in there and just shoot things. We wanted to deliver the story in a very compelling, engaging way that'll hopefully get people to care about the story, but if you don't we want you still to be able to sort of bypass it.

The ways that we do that are things like 'more audio, less text' for lack of a better word - retention is a lot higher in players when someone's talking to you as opposed to having to read - or actually they just tend to skip reading.

That's an example, and we're really doubling down on the storyline to try to make it a really compelling, fun component of Borderlands 2.

RPG Site: Has anything you've added to the story then spilled over to help create new gameplay elements?
Shields: Yeah, definitely. One that jumps to mind is the new vehicle. The Runner is returning - the Borderlands 1 vehicle - but we've also added the Bandit Technical which is a four player co-op vehicle which is really neat.

If you're playing with your friends, all four of you can get together and hop in the same vehicle. So we wanted to use that in the story.

The way the mission works is that you have to get a vehicle, customize it to look like a Bandit vehicle and use said bandit vehicle to bypass bandit defenses. That's kind of an example of like - 'yeah, we have this cool tech of being able to customize vehicles, so let's use that in the story.'

RPG Site: We're coming up on the end of the console generation. How's it been developing for the PC and the current generation of console when the PC is presumably where next gen will be at? How's it been scaling between the two?
Shields: Heh, yeah. We're developing all three versions simultaneously. PC we can push a little more as far as textures and things - and we're trying to take full advantage of that.

There's definitely a big push there, but we want to make consoles look as good as humanly possible, certainly. We're pushing all three pretty much to their limits, their breaking points.

RPG Site: Were you designing more with Controller or Keyboard and Mouse in mind this time around?
Shields: It may seem like a cop-out answer, but, both. We really designed with both in mind. What I will say is that this time around we really put a lot into interface - into supporting PC better this time.

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Tons more options, tons of ways to customize the game if you're a PC player.

Tons of ways to tailor the game to your liking. For the menus - we've got a lot of the niceties of that - mousewheel scroll, drag and drop, we're doing a lot of those kind of things we sort of neglected in the first game.

For controls there's things like rebinding keys - all that stuff we really want to make really accessible for PC players - certainly not hurting any console experience but really giving PC gamers what they want.

RPG Site: You've got four players for co-op again. Was four always the magic number or were you ever tempted to go bigger?
Shields: Four always felt like a really comfortable number for us. It works as far as technology goes! There is a certain amount of stuff you can fit through the pipe!

Four is a good comfortable number where we can fit in the high quality visuals and still deliver a lot of that play with your friends, fun kind of co-op experience.

RPG Site: What drove your decision to stick with a few classes - four at launch with one more coming as DLC - rather than go crazy adding all sorts of new ones?
Shields: In Borderlands 1 it was sort of a technology issue. Without getting too much into it we couldn't sort of stream in different characters at that time with the way our game was built. With Borderlands 2 that was one of the things we wanted to solve.

We wanted to open the possibility of having additional classes later. Four felt really good - it was a four player co-op game so four still feels like a good number to ship with, but let's just leave that window open in case we want to add more.

As you're aware we're certainly talking about the mechromancer as something that's coming in the future right now.

RPG Site: And you may do more after that?
Shields: Yeah. Certainly, it's possible - we've left that open.

RPG Site: One of the biggest criticisms of the first was the boss battles. What steps have you taken to ensure these are more challenging and engaging this time around?
Shields: AI in general has been amped up across the board. Regarding bosses in specific, we really wanted more compelling bosses, more big, giant bosses - more bosses with sort of stages to them.

One problem is that our game is so dependent on balance. You pick up different gear and it drastically changes the sort of balance you give your opponent, right? Because of that there are possibilities where you can go in and one-shot a boss, right? We want to avoid that.

We can do that through staging, we can do that through dampening some of those numbers a little bit. We want to make boss battles as engaging as we can for sure.

Also, speaking a little bit about endgame content, we really wanted to make the endgame more compelling. So after you've played through the game once when you play through it a second time some of those bosses will be a little bit different. We might add, like, a raid boss at the end - some of that kind of stuff will make it into the game, too.

RPG Site: Borderlands has always been a strange mix, but what have you guys done to ramp up the RPG elements in this?
Shields: Role playing games are a big passion of ours, we love them. It's half of our big, interesting smashing of genres of shooter and role playing game, so it's important to us.

There were a lot of statistics that were hidden from the player in the first game. Even though there was a stat for reload speed, we just didn't show it the first time. We did that for a number of reasons, we just wanted to keep things simple, we didn't want stat overload.

This time, y'know, we decided to embrace that a little bit more and show more of those hidden statistics. Also, we've added more gear - tons more gear, tons more gear.

Like if you're a min/maxer - if you really care about optimizing your character to the nth you'll be very happy because there's a thousand ways to do it between skills, gear... there's so much depth for the role playing fans.

RPG Site: Is it going to be easier in general for people to share guns - be it through sharing codes or better trade systems or whatever?
Shields: We actually did invest in a trading system this time, so you can trade securely with your friends. You can also duel for loot this time, which is pretty neat. Let's say we both eye a really cool gun. I want it, so do you - we can duel for that gun and winner takes all.

RPG Site: Have you built in a greater sense of variety to quests over just 'fetch' and 'kill' quests?
Shields: That was another area we cared a lot about improving - really diversifying optional quests and even main story quests as well. We want to make them all feel a little bit special; unique objectives, things that aren't repeated over and over. We've definitely done a lot of that stuff.

We've also got branching this time. We haven't got full dialogue trees or anything like that, but let's say you've got - you're on a mission to find some cool item and you find it - you've then got a choice of who to turn that into. You could turn it into Claptrap or someone else. Depending on the choice you could get different rewards, you could branch the story a little bit... It's a very simple system, but things like that we're trying to do to add interest and intrigue and just make it more fun in general.

RPG Site: I was quite surprised that you didn't add some sort of crazy deeper twist on melee mechanics. Was or is there ever any temptation to make Borderlands about more than just shooting?
Shields: You never know! It's difficult to say with melee in particular - melee is pretty simple in Borderlands and Borderlands 2 in particular. There is some room to grow there, probably, but no plans yet.

The sky's the limit as far as DLC and stuff. We really wanted to make what we ship with have the possibility of expansion in a lot of different ways. You may remember that in DLCs prior you couldn't fast travel. That was a limitation of what we shipped with, and we're trying to eliminate some of those blocks.

We're not creating any DLC right now, but we're trying to leave those possibilities open so that if we choose to do something like that we can.

RPG Site: One thing I really loved about the first game is that you guys went really big on DLC. They were proper, full-on expansion packs. How do you feel that strategy went, and will it continue here?
Shields: That was something we were very proud of, and something that was very well recieved. We got a lot of comments about sort of being the high watermark of DLC which is really flattering and we really appreciate that.

This time - we're still tuning, we've got a few weeks left of balance and polish and bugs. After that we're going to look very closely at DLC and see where we want to go with that stuff. The mechromancer will probably be a part of that - also story content will probably be a part of that too.

RPG Site: Is there anything in particular you want to highlight about the game that you think not enough people are looking at?
Shields: Sure! Actually, since we're speaking to RPG people - customization is an interesting - We've added a more in-depth customization system.

There should be very little chance you actually look like the guy stood next to you in Borderlands 2 between heads and skins and how you can see your gear on you - your shields, your gun - it's a lot of customization options that you can find in the world and acquire in different ways.

It's a really fun mechanic that adds on top that makes you feel special compared to the guy next to you.

RPG Site: So skins and stuff will drop alongside loot? Is that custom body skins or in pieces like shoulders, chest etcetera?
Shields: Yeah, it drops. Right now we're just doing head and body, but you can make some really neat combinations. The variety is actually really huge. The combination possibilities are pretty large! You can see yourself in the menus now - so you can see your customization yourself, too.

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