on Feb 27, 2012
One advantage of running blog is that – unlike a major gaming site – I can spend time talking about three year old games, or ten year old games, or whatever else strikes my fancy. I am not obliged to be forever chasing the horizon with regards to new releases. In a recent post, Leslee Beldotti asked this about Borderlands 2:
Nooooooooo! For the love of all that’s only sort of holy, why on earth would you want more guns???
A reasonable question. I mean, there were millions of possible guns in Borderlands. Why add more to Borderlands 2?
Borderlands is a strange beast. On the surface it seems like your typical empowerment fantasy: You are a singular force of destruction, slaughtering your way through beasts and bandits that are so uncompromisingly evil that you can feel like your killing is a public service. See also: Serious Sam, Doom, Quake, Painkiller, Half-Life, Left 4 Dead, Homefront, Prey, Resistance, Killzone, etc etc etc. You can dominate like a badass and feel virtuous at the same time.
But underneath all the shooting is a game more like Diablo, which is a looting system that hooks into our hunter-gatherer instincts and drives players to search and hoard. You’re foraging for firearms, basically. It also hooks into typical gambling compulsions. (Which may actually be the same thing. I don’t know enough to argue about it. I’ll leave that to the behaviorists.)
Now, I am not a gambler, but I “get” the feedback loop that leads to gambling. I’ve never bought a lottery ticket, but I’ve played a few of those scratch-and-[not-]win deals that come free with fast food. I’ve never put money into a slot machine, but I’ve played them in videogames. There’s a very clear cycle of anticipation, reveal, resolution, and invitation to repeat.
With slots, there’s a build-up of sound, light, and tactile feedback that’s as carefully engineered as any Popcap game, to make the experience as stimulating as possible. The player pulls the lever and gets the welcoming sensory input as the game begins. Then the spinners are slowly revealed. Sure, the machine could just reveal all three at once. In fact, it could simply reveal the whole thing instantly as soon as you drop your coin in. But the slow reveal has the effect of building anticipation. Note that with both slots and scratch-off tickets, the player is never a complete loser until all of the pieces are revealed. Even if the first two are duds, the third can still lead to a desirable outcome, so there’s never a reason to walk away. After the resolution, the game might give some minor payout (even if it’s just a portion of what you paid to play) that can feel like a “win”. (If the game resolved as soon as you dropped your money in, then shoving in $2 and getting $1 in return would feel like a loss. But the game lets you mentally let go of the $2 before you get the $1 payout. You were down two dollars while the game was in play, so the final result is that you feel better off, not worse.)
If there is a huge space of outcomes, then the player can be left with the impression that they “nearly” won.
“Hey, I got two of a kind! Man, if only that last slot had matched, I’d be rich! I was so close!”
Of course, there are astronomically more configurations of matching-two than matching-three, but the feedback loop creates this sense of near misses, which invites the player to keep trying.
As I said: I don’t gamble, but I feel all of these responses even when playing the risk-free videogame equivalents. I can understand the desire to gamble, even if I abstain. Some people talk about gambling in terms of “I don’t gamble because I’m not bad at math.” While it’s true that gambling is a terrible way to make money (second only to burning it) it is still a form of entertainment for some. To boil this down: Some people are “good at math”, but gamble anyway because the activity is incredibly stimulating to their particular mental makeup. They know they can’t win, but keep doing it because it tickles the risk / reward areas of the brain.
Other people are completely immune to this system of action & response. It doesn’t create tension. It doesn’t release endorphin into the bloodstream and it doesn’t entertain them. They may or may not understand the math behind the activity, but it doesn’t mater because the activity doesn’t compel them to play.
This risk / payoff loop is also present in Borderlands. When discussing loot, there are several classes of weapons with increasing levels of rarity:
- WHITE: Utter trash. Fill your inventory up with this junk and sell it off. You find this stuff constantly.
- GREEN: Common, unremarkable. You find this stuff on a regular basis.
- BLUE: A bit rare, and generally a cut above green weapons. You’ll find a blue every few minutes.
- PURPLE: Now we’re talking. Danged hard to find, but usually purple stuff has very impressive stats. You might find purples about once or twice an hour.
- ORANGE: Very rare, but designed to have exceptional stats. Depending on your level, you might play for a few game sessions without ever seeing a single orange.
Every firearm has a number of properties associated with it: Fire rate, damage output, accuracy, magazine capacity, reload speed, recoil. Then there are other properties that only apply in special situations: Elemental damage, bonus melee damage, extra critical damage, ammo regeneration, and scope zoom strength. These numbers are rolled randomly, but based on the level and color of the item.
A slot machine could be engineered to deliver a simple, instantaneous win / loss response the moment you push the button. Even if it had the same probabilities of payouts, the game would be completely boring and flat. Likewise, Borderlands could make a bunch of same-y guns that all have a straightforward “damage per second” number. But by making all of these complex trade-offs, all weapons feel radically different to use, and most guns will have interesting properties that will make them seem like an “almost winner”. Oh man, the damage output on this gun is phenomenal, and the accuracy is really good. Too bad the magazine only holds 2 shots and it takes so long to reload.
This color-coding creates a pattern of highs and lows in the series of drops. If you recorded the colors of the drops, it might look something like this:
(As an aside: Who came up with this color-coding scheme? White, green, blue, purple, orange? Why not have them in some sort of rainbow order? Or follow the red, yellow, green “thermometer” logic? MMOG’s like World of Warcraft do this same thing, although their specific colors vary. It seems like it would make more sense to have a system of colors where the user could intuit “good” from “better” without needing to consult a list.)
How does this extreme-damage, low accuracy weapon compare to this precision weapon with moderate damage? Does this corrosive damage bonus make up for the low fire rate on this gun? Does the high recoil on this gun negate the bonus of having so many extra rounds in the magazine? The answer (of course) is, “it depends”. If you find an interesting weapon, the best thing to do is to blast a few mooks with it and see how it goes.
Every guy you blast is like pulling the arm on a slot machine. (Will I get anything?) Every drop is like seeing that first slot wheel line up in a favorable position. (Did I win something good?) And checking out each drop is like seeing the game resolve itself. (Dang. I didn’t hit the jackpot. But I came close! The next one could REALLY be a winner!)
Blam! Blam! Blam! What did I win?
So to answer the question of “Why would you need MORE guns?” is that it should make the looting mechanics deeper and more interesting. It’s like one of those lotteries that tout “There are so many ways to win!”
The key here is that these additional guns needs to look, feel, sound, and perform differently, which means adding more variety to the procedural gun generation. Borderlands doesn’t use the Diablo system of assigning random stats to the same-looking sword graphic. Weapons are generated from component parts, and each part controls some aspect of the weapons performance. From the Borderlands wiki:
|The red pen is mine. Think the misuse of the word “clip” is so universal that the new meaning will eventually supplant the old terminology. This isn’t like saying, “ATM Machine”, where most people are aware that they’re being incorrect but the wrong way just feels right. “Clip” is used in movies, books, and (most of all) videogames to such a degree that very few people are even aware that the term “magazine” exists in this context. You can correct people as much as you like, but language is shaped by the masses.|
This was a smart move on the part of the developers. By varying shape, texture, coloring, and behavior, you can get a lot of meaningfully different guns out of the system. The regular turnover of weapons keeps the gunplay fresh (by the standards of a shooter) and means you’re “winning” new upgrades on a regular basis.
This is one of the reasons they refer to “bajillions” of weapons. I can’t find a source for this, but I seem to remember that before launch they were actually attempting to quantify how many guns were possible. This gets into all sort of messy questions like “What makes a gun unique?” If I have two weapons made of the same parts, at the same level, with the same bonuses, and the same coloring scheme, but one does 550 damage and the other does 549 damage, is it really honest to count them as different weapons? If Baskin-Robbins had this giant tub of ice cream that began as chocolate on one side and gradually faded to vanilla on the other, how many “flavors” do they have? One? Two? A hundred? Rather than haggling over if “10% faster loading speed” is perceptibly different from “12% faster loading speed”, it’s better to just make up some huge (but fictitious) number and call it a day.
(I’m a big fan of “OMGillions” myself.)
Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone. Some people play Borderlands for the gunplay. Or the co-op. Or for the setting and humor. But if you’re perplexed by the seemingly endless shower of random guns that interrupts your gameplay, this might help explain why.
I have no idea what just happened, but I can’t wait to find out what I won.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.