Borderlands Part 1: Welcome to Pandora, Kiddo

By Shamus
on Jul 13, 2017
Filed under:
Borderlands

I love the Borderlands series. Nothing else offers this unique blend of hyper violence, off-kilter humor, comic book art style, RPG leveling mechanics, shooter-based gameplay, cooperative multiplayer, and Skinner Box based reward systems. According to Steam, the Borderlands series has devoured about 1,200 hours of my life. That’s a lot of life, and I enjoyed most of those hours.

I’m going to spend a lot of time talking about the behind-the-scenes stuff that happened during the development of the first game. My source for all of this is a video from the GDC Vault entitled “Behind Borderlands’ 11th-hour style change”, which was a post-mortem style talk given in 2010 by the developers. I think it’s only available to people with GDC access, but you can read an overview of the talk here.

The FPS and RPG Had a Baby

Click to see the original trailer.

Click to see the original trailer.

Borderlands began as a fusion of two different gameplay genres: First-person shooters, and roleplaying games. Internally, the team called this “Diablo meets Halo”.

The concept makes a lot of sense, in a “Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner?” kind of way. The two game styles operate on very different time scales. An RPG is good over the long haul: You level up, complete quests, and get new gear. These events are rewarding, but they only happen a few times an hourAnd if they happened more often, they wouldn’t feel so special.. Meanwhile an FPS usually has great moment-to-moment gameplay that’s viscerally satisfying, but gets to be a little monotonous over the long haul. By layering these two systems together, you could (in theory) make a single offspring genre that’s more consistently engaging than either of its parents.

The problem was that while the design was “Diablo meets Halo”, the art style was aiming for something that didn’t work with either of those: Brown, desaturated, and “realistic”. Internally the team called the style “Retro Future”. It was interesting in terms of the outlines of the models (the runner vehicles and the buildings in Fyrestone were both devised with this “retro future” style in mind) but the surface textures were gritty, dark, and industrial. This was during the Brown Age of AAA videogames, and the only thing worse than mindlessly copying fads is mindlessly copying terrible fads. Regardless of how they played, a lot of shooters of the time were visually dull and often indistinguishable from one another.

Worse still, the gritty realism was completely at odds with the madcap tone of the gameplay. This is a game where you blast a psycho killer in the face with a shotgun that shoots lightning and guns and money pop out of the exploding corpse while your character repeats one of their semi-charming one-liners for the 1,000th time. The team realized their mistake about 75% of the way through the development. At that point it was far too late to revamp the entire art style.

But they did it anyway.

The Revamp

This is a still from Codehunters. Like Borderlands, it begins with an important character getting off a bus into an arid wasteland. The bus even looks the same.

This is a still from Codehunters. Like Borderlands, it begins with an important character getting off a bus into an arid wasteland. The bus even looks the same.

The team was inspired by the 2006 short film Codehunters. And when I say “inspired” I mean, “they copied the entire art style”. That’s not a complaint. You can’t expect every team to invent a completely new art style for every game, so just about every game is based off of something that came before. Borrowing from a semi-obscure (but visually striking!) short film is far better than just aping what the competition was doing.

Now, if you roll into the office on a Monday morning and announce you’re going to throw away a bunch of game assets and start over, the development team will tear you apart and devour the corpse. Telling a beleaguered, overworked team that you’ve decided to throw away their work and not move the ship date is simply suicide. Chief creative officer Brian Martel realized that he needed “buy in” from the team, so he took a few people aside and made a demonstration build in secret.

When they showed off the proposed new look of the game, everyone was suddenly excited to be working on Borderlands again. I’ve said before that crunch time is usually a bad thing, but this sounds like one of those cases where those extra hours might be worth it, and people might work them voluntarily.

Saved From Obscurity

Not only was this a good move, but I actually think it saved the franchise.That might sound like an extreme claim, but as evidence I’ll ask you:

Remember Fuse?

Odds are you don’t. I haven’t heard anyone talk about Fuse since it was released in 2013. The game vanished a week after launch, and at this point it feels like it never existed at all. As of this writing, the Wikipedia page for Fuse is still filled with incomplete sections. Nobody cares.

This was not always the case. During development, Fuse was originally called Overstrike, and it had a slightly cartoonish art style somewhere between The Incredibles and Team Fortress 2. It presented itself as fun, playful, and bombastic. When the trailer came out, the gaming press was instantly excited by this visually unique and energetic presentation.

The original Overstrike trailer. Click to watch the fun.

The original Overstrike trailer. Click to watch the fun.

And then due to woefully misguided focus testing they dropped the fun art style and humorous tone in favor of gritty realismAt least in terms of marketing. Like most people, I’ve never played the game.. They re-branded it to Fuse and the world stopped caring.

If you haven’t played either one, then Borderlands and Fuse probably sound pretty similar: A four player co-op shooter with four playable classes. To someone looking for a new game, the major difference between the two comes down to presentation and style.

This could have been the story for Borderlands. Sure, the gameplay of Borderlands is pretty good. But if they stuck with the original art and hit the market with something that looked bland and same-y, they would have most likely met the same initial reception as Fuse: Bored indifference. I’m willing to believe that the Borderlands gameplay is more fun than whatever Fuse was, but that still means Gearbox would have needed to rely on post-launch word-of-mouth to sell the game.

Borderlands exploded onto the scene as something fresh and new, but if it had experienced a Fuse-like reception then it would have begun with a small launch and would then need to claw its way into relevance. And since it was a co-op game, the low player count at launch would have exerted downward pressure on sales. Who wants to buy a co-op game that nobody else is playing?

So yes, I really do believe that changing the art style 75% of the way through development was reckless, irresponsible, and ultimately the right move. If not for that, this may have been a game that was limited to a modest audience. 2K games might have decided to spend their money elsewhere, and we might never have seen a sequel.

Obviously I can’t prove this, but I do believe this to be the most likely fate of a gritty Borderlands.

Borderlands has also been helped by the fact that someone on the teamOr perhaps someone in marketing? is really good at making exciting music video style trailers that sell the game on style and attitude. There’s also the signature introduction scenes that do the same once the player hits the New Game button. Even if the Borderlands gameplay doesn’t always work, these scenes are really good at making it feel like you’re about to take part in something really cool.

Where Are We Going With This?

Borderlands 1 begins with our heroes arriving by bus. It`s not very exciting in concept, but the musical intro sells the hell out of it.

Borderlands 1 begins with our heroes arriving by bus. It`s not very exciting in concept, but the musical intro sells the hell out of it.

In this series I’m going to be covering the three core titles: Borderlands (2009), Borderlands 2 (2012), and Borderlands the Pre-Sequel (2014). All three of these games are full of interesting ideas, but they also have their own novel little annoyances and drawbacks. Every game has been notably different from the preceding one. This is not a series that’s afraid to take chances. Sometimes a game will make improvements in one area while faltering in another. Because of this, I think we’re still waiting for the ultimate realization of the Borderlands idea. As much as I love these games, it feels like you’d get an even better game if you could tear out the best parts of each entry and Frankenstein them together.

I know Telltale Games released the story-based Tales From the Borderlands in 2014, but that’s not what I’m interested in talking about. It’s a fine game with lots of fans, but it doesn’t have anything in common with the core titles in terms of gameplay, so I’m not going to be covering it in this series.

I’m going to step through all three games and look at how this RPG+FPS hybrid genre took shape. It’s obvious Developer Gearbox wasn’t sure quite how the various parts should fit together or what would resonate with the audience, so they were forced to make things up as they went. What we ended up with is a three game series where each game feels very different from the preceding one.

Also, I’m going to be spoiling the games as I go. I mean obviously. I don’t know why I feel obliged to give these warnings, but there it is.

Enjoyed this post? Please share!

Footnotes:

[1] And if they happened more often, they wouldn’t feel so special.

[2] At least in terms of marketing. Like most people, I’ve never played the game.

[3] Or perhaps someone in marketing?


20201757 comments. It's getting crowded in here.

From the Archives:

  1. Arkady says:

    … reckless, irresponsible, and ultimately the right move …

    Sounds like most of my relationships, to be honest.

  2. Droid says:

    “Every game has been notably different from the proceeding one.”

    It’s pRECEDing, with one E instead of both the O and the EE, right?

  3. MichaelGC says:

    The bland lands of Borderlands brought borderline doom by boredom.

    • Grey Rook says:

      I know what you mean. The neverending desert and interchangable scrapyards get dull pretty fast and don’t get better. Fortunately, the second game partially remedied this issue. Then the third game brought it back. You win some, you lose some…

    • Sleeping Dragon says:

      I somewhat agree, even with the new coating the first game was still pretty bland visually, especially in the overworld sections. I was actually superexcited when I got into the endgame and suddenly there was this huge vertical level followed by the snowy approach with these new and different enemies. I honestly never thought a snow level of all things would excite me.

  4. Echo Tango says:

    Man, looking at the Borderlands launch trailer, and the Overstrike concept trailer today, I’m reminded of how bad the gritty-brown decade was. Both of those videos are actually somewhat tame by today’s standards, but in the time of desaturated washed-out colors, they looked like pink flamingos wearing hawaiian party shirts.

  5. Knut says:

    BTW, creative director Mikey Neumann (who is no longer at Gearbox due to health issues) has an excellent video series on movies on YouTube, which you should watch immediately! (Movies with Mikey)

  6. Hal says:

    I’m sure this will be an interesting series, even though I haven’t played much of Borderlands; the Mass Effect series was interesting, and I haven’t touched those games.

    Still, I’ve only played a couple hours between Borderlands 1 and 2, and the reason is entirely structural, built in to the game. It’s a co-op game, entirely meant to be played with other people. So I played it with friends. Except, in playing it with friends, I couldn’t understand anything happening in the game itself; no audio cues, no narrator, no NPC dialog. This made the game significantly less satisfying to play, because now the game was entirely about following map markers and quest way points, and that’s been done so many times in games that it can’t be the only thing you interact with.

    So, I look forward to reading all of this, but I’m afraid I just never found the game enjoyable the way anyone else here did.

    • Zekiel says:

      I feel much the same. I LOVE Shamus’ game analyses, even of games I don’t really like.

      I didn’t much like Borderlands (and haven’t played the sequels). I think the art style is fantastic, and the character intros are fantastic. Unfortunately I found the gunplay repetitive, the enemies repetitive, the quests repetitive and the comparing-lots-of-weapons incredibly repetitive. But then again I also ha real trouble getting online co-op to work (thanks Gamespy) and if that had worked better for me the game would have probably been about 200% more fun.

    • Nixorbo says:

      Honestly, the best way to play would be to have two concurrent playthroughs – one with your friends for that kinetic balls-to-the-wall frenetic blasting through the game and one by yourself, so you can explore the world and story at your own pace.

      • Hal says:

        I tried the game in a two-player setting, and I just never found it to be “frenetic” in that way. The enemies all felt like damage sponges, so it seemed more like a slog than a crazy train, and he played the class that focused on sniper weapons, a weapon that focuses on slow, deliberate strategies by definition.

        It’s just such a strange game. FPS games usually focus on empowerment to be fulfilling, but the slow, incremental upgrade system of the game means you’ll rarely be tearing effortlessly through enemies. Frenetic action makes sense, until you spend a good chunk of your gameplay sorting/selling weapons. The aesthetics can be appealing, as long as they aren’t getting drowned out by the multiplayer focus.

        I dunno. It’s just so very strange to me.

        • Echo Tango says:

          The games[1] would have been a lot better if they had balanced the game around a faster pace, and had more variety of play. BL1 was sort-of grindy, and watered down my enjoyment of the game. BL2 had me quitting about 2/3 of the way through the game, because I’d gone through dozens of hours of gameplay, and I could tell the game was getting more bullet-spongy as it went on. There was also very little actual gameplay different as the game progressed. For example in Mario, you start out only needing to do basic jumps, and slowly they add enemies that can’t be jumped on, or when they are jumped on it’s something special, or enemies that fly, etc. In BL2 I’d started out sniping dudes in the head and ignoring flying crow-monsters, and when I quit I was still sniping dudes in the head and ignoring the crows. It just took 10 headshots instead of 1 or 2.

          [1] I dropped out of BL2, I skipped the pre-sequel, and thoroughly enjoyed the Telltale game Tales From The Borderlands.

          • Sleeping Dragon says:

            Not saying that you’d necessarily enjoy it more as the gameplay is pretty samey overall but imho sniper is a really dull class especially for solo play. It kinda works as support in co-op where the difficulty is increased and you’re trying to snipe out the critical enemies as your buddies take care of things at closer range or do that “just as the enemy is reaching a character his head explodes from a sniper bullet” but for solo it’s pretty meh.

            • Echo Tango says:

              I also played BL1 and/or BL2 (can’t remember which) as a Big Guy, Turret Guy, and Sub-Machine-Gun Girl, and they were all only marginally more fun. The games are balanced to be bullet-spongy, which makes the differences between the types of enemies a lot smaller. This undercuts the ability to have some small enemies, fast face-rushing enemies, flying enemies, big-beef enemies, etc, because they’re all sort of just bullet sponges that effectively act very similar.

    • djw says:

      I have never played Borderlands co-op, but I still really enjoy the game.

      The fact that a game has a good co-op scene does not automatically mean that single player is crap…

    • Fade2Gray says:

      I know what you mean. I loved almost everything about these games, but as a solo player I often felt like the games weren’t very interested in whether or not I was having fun playing by myself. That became especially apparent once dlc started coming out for BL2 that was ridiculously imbalanced for single player. That actually ended up killing most of my interest in the series. I never cared to touch the Pre-Sequel.

      • Echo Tango says:

        It’s got completely different gameplay, but I think you’d enjoy the Telltale game, Tales From The Borderlands. I loved it, because it has all of the cool world, characters, jokes, and stories, but ripped out the grind/slog gameplay of the main games. I liked BL1, quit BL2 at the 2/3 mark because of the grind and bullet-sponge enemies, and didn’t bother with the pre-sequel. Tales was a refreshing game for me, especially because I could finish it in a weekend (night?). :)

        • Fade2Gray says:

          I might have to get around to trying that one. I kind of burnt myself out on TellTale games after Wolf Among Us.

          I actually really liked the gameplay of the Borderlands games from a mechanical perspective. It was the balancing issues (like the bullet-spongy enemies you mentioned) that eventually killed them for me. After they doubled down on the balancing issues in the dlcs, rather than fix them, I lost confidence in the developers understanding what made their own games mechanically engaging and fun to play.

    • KarmaTheAlligator says:

      I think it’s a problem of marketing. The game is shown to be co-op (and it seems way too many people think it’s co-op only), but is in fact much better played solo because then it’s not just a mindless shooter where you rush everywhere.

      In solo you can take your time, explore, find the hidden stuff, listen to the story (what little there is in 1) and with just as much shooting as the co-op mode (and no need to share the loot).

      • SPCTRE says:

        In solo you can take your time, explore, find the hidden stuff, listen to the story (what little there is in 1)

        You can do that in co-op just as well. In fact, that’s the style of play the wife prefers when we’re playing BL2/BL1.

        We both couldn’t get into BLTPS.

        • KarmaTheAlligator says:

          Yes, you can, but only if all the players feel that way. Even one player wanting to rush the game when the others want to take their time will make the co-op a bad experience.

      • Hal says:

        I played BL2 solo, and that was an enormously frustrating way to play. Why? Because the enemies would respawn. I’d be poking around some location, seeing what there was to see after having delivered a proper cleansing to the place, and suddenly I’m swimming in enemies again.

        Even if the game is playable alone, it specifically denies you a leisurely experience. Its very structure pushes a fast-paced, run-and-gun style.

  7. Ilseroth says:

    Honestly, based on the end of Borderlands 2, I think your concept of the “Ultimate Realization” was going to be a Borderlands MMO. It makes sense; the quest based structure, equipment and leveling up, the focus on multiplayer combined with the end of BL2 which claims that there are hundreds if not thousands of vaults spread out through the System/Galaxy.

    However, just as they’d be getting ready to spool up development, the general malaise that people had been feeling over MMOs hit in full force. Pretty much every MMO other then WoW hit minimum subscriber counts. Ton’s of MMOs start dying or going free to play… and then dying. Considering that MMOs, especially big AAA ones like a Borderlands one would have to be, are one of the most expensive and time consuming games to develop; I’m guessing that they either scrapped the idea, or put it on indefinite hold.

    I know this is just speculation, and maybe it’s just that I’ve been waiting for a good MMO for a while now. But I do feel like they were headed in that direction, but the change in market really veered them away from it.

  8. lazybratsche says:

    It seems to me that the change it art style also improved the gameplay. How else do you have a bazillion weapon variants with functionally interesting differences? In the gritty realistic version, the only thing that can differentiate Gun A and Gun B is damage, rate of fire, etc. Maybe you can include some elemental damage, but to match the style that’s going to be limited to “the blue bullets do extra damage to the red enemy”.

    The over-the-top art style permitted over-the-top weapon design. That, in turn, led to more interesting shooting mechanics. Tired of doing the conservative cover based shooter approach? Use the bouncy electric grenade machine gun!

    More interesting weapons also made the skinner-box loop much better. It’s much more satisfying to beat the boss and get the SWORDSPLOSION!!! shotgun, instead of another boring generic shotgun that does 20% extra damage to a certain enemy type. Even if some of the wacky guns are just novelties, they’re good for a laugh and a few minutes of mixed-up gameplay.

    Similarly, with “realistic” art, there isn’t as much room to give enemies different personalities. All in all, I don’t think the core gameplay of the “realistic” Borderlands would have been anywhere near as good.

  9. Abnaxis says:

    I remember there being a Skinner Box RPG shooter a few years before Borderlands that got the Skinner Box wrong, but for the life of me I don’t remember the name of it. It was some grimdark future-punk shooter IIRC? There was crafting?

    I remember when Bordelands came out it was “Like X but actually good.”

  10. The Nick says:

    I just started a Borderlands franchise playthrough with a friend. Doing a little bit of the game from beginning to end through each game. It’s pretty neat. I’m a fan of the series, although it does have its problems.

  11. Borderlands exploded onto the scene as something fresh and new, but if it had experienced a Fuse-like reception then it would have begun with a small launch and would then need to claw its way into relevance.

    I remember my brother and I purchased the second game the day it came out. We were both playing it and really enjoying the cartoonist characters and RPG/FPS. The only time where I could have ever seen this game getting a dark gritty tone is if it were more like Metro, but this game had game and exploration mechanics to cover. Had they decided to make a gritty, realistic looking game, I don’t know if it would have been as fun.

  12. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Im so glad that you talked about diablo 3 before this.Because my experiences with the two games have been the exact opposite of yours.I enjoyed d3 so much,and while I didnt sink your 1200 hours into it,I spent at least 400 in that game.But borderlands,I hated.The combat was dull,the story mindless,the enemies uninteresting and the style bland.

    And the reason for that is:I played borderlands alone,yet d3 I played with other people.And these are randos I played with,not friends*,but even that was enough to vastly improve my experience with the game.

    The few friends I played coop games with werent interested in buying d3.

  13. Daemian Lucifer says:

    The concept makes a lot of sense, in a “Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner?” kind of way.

    Weeelll,they kind of did.Borderlands may be different when compared to halo style shooters of that era,but compared to older fps games like doom,quake,half lives and quake,its not.The only difference is that in those games you were getting different gear from time to time instead of collecting xp to level up from time to time.And instead of grinding monsters,you were hunting secrets.

  14. Type_V says:

    Borderlands has also been helped by the fact that someone on the team[3] is really good at making exciting music video style trailers that sell the game on style and attitude.

    That would be a lot of Mikey Neumann’s effort as lead editor for those. He’s talked about making the trailers in an interview as one of the best things about BL.

    Been very keen for this series to start for several years, I know I’ve dumped over 1000 hours into the series as well.

  15. Duoae says:

    I’m looking forward to this- I really liked the first game but 2 just bored me. I always right that maybe I’d just gone off the idea of the game but maybe there’s something more to it?

  16. Rariow says:

    I’ve been playing through Borderlands 2 for the first time (Just finishing up the quests in the Opportunity area), and whilst I really enjoy the gameplay and look of the game, the attempts at humor are really killing it for me.

    There’s a couple characters I genuinely like (Angel is sort of interesting, and there’s something about both Roland and Lilith that I find pre-eminently likeable in a very “straightforward good guy/badass” kind of way), and the actual story itself is fine for a game that clearly doesn’t put too much emphasis on it, and yet I just absolutely dread it when someone starts talking to me, because I just know that they’re going to regurgitate one of the three of four joke templates that most of the writing in the game is composed of. There’s nothing wrong with the jokes in and of themselves, but the game really does just repeat the same joke “ideas” for lack of a better word over and over and over. Exceptions to this are characters who have their own private joke that they keep repeating over and over (Moxxi turns everything into innuendo, Claptrap has dumb ideas that he’s overenthusiastic about, Hammerlock is hauty-tauty) It’s got to the point where I don’t want to play the game because of it, and whenever I do play it I find myself completing the jokes out loud as they’re happening, constantly rolling my eyes, and putting the game down soon after. I’m surprised, seeing as the reason I picked it up was that in the past few months I’ve gone out of my way to play every single completed Telltale game, and found Tales from the Borderlands to be my second favorite, largely because of how funny I found large chunks of it. Makes sense, I guess, it’s a completely different team, but the disappointment is still there.

    It’s been sort of an eye-opening experience to me, because I’ve never been put off a game that is clearly gameplay first due to problems with its writing before. I do genuinely really like the gameplay: It’s a real wonder how they managed to randomly generate so many guns that genuinely feel good to use and unique, and there’s a surprising depth to the single power you get, even single player (and even if, like in my case, it’s something that seems as one-dimensional as the Siren’s “I’m gonna hold you in the air for a bit”). I just wish I could play it without my eyes attempting to escape my head via the back of my neck. I’ve actually considered turning the voice volume to 0 in hopes of getting rid of the jokes, but there’s just something inside me that can’t be content with that.

  17. Dreadjaws says:

    Mmmmm… I haven’t played the Pre-Sequel yet and I was actually planning to replay 1 and 2 before tackling it, but I might have to change my plans. Any idea how long will it take to reach Pre-Sequel? Or are you just going to tackle them all at the same time, making comparisons?

  18. Isn’t Fallout 3 basically a FPS/RPG? (Or, you can play it that way, anyhow)

  19. This should be an interesting series. I’ve never really hated Borderlands, but the love it gets baffles me. The whole Aliens: Colonial Marines shenanigans have left a sour enough taste in my mouth that I kind of hate Gearbox as a result, which makes it hard to stay neutral on the franchise.

    What’s most fascinating is that the one inspired aspect of the game – the comic book art style – was completely stolen from someone else. So their idea was to steal from Diablo and Halo without comprehending what makes either game satisfying, and then steal visual aesthetics from Mad Max/Road Warrior before realizing they’d stand out better if they stole from a short film.

    And then they went and stole SEGA’s money for Borderlands 2 and Aliens: Colonial Marines happened.

    It’s enough to leave me wondering if Duke Nukem Forever could have somehow been salvaged if someone else snagged the rights and code to it.

    Gah, this wasn’t meant to be a bashing post. It’s just interesting that of all games you’re starting from a positive perspective on, Borderlands is that one franchise. Perhaps I’ll see something in it that I never got on a playthrough. It took Tales From the Borderlands for a game in this setting to come around that I actually liked, and that’s because Telltale actually has writing chops. It’s enough to make me want to play the main games again until I remember what they actually play like.

    Anywho, enough nay-saying from me. Curious to see what good you can glean from the titles.

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