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
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 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:
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.
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?
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.
 And if they happened more often, they wouldn’t feel so special.
 At least in terms of marketing. Like most people, I’ve never played the game.
 Or perhaps someone in marketing?
This Game is Too Videogame-y
What's wrong with a game being "too videogameish"?
Final Fantasy X
A game about the ghost of an underwater football player who travels through time to save the world from a tick that controls kaiju satan. Really.
Charging More for a Worse Product
No, game prices don't "need" to go up. That's not how supply and demand works. Instead, the publishers need to be smarter about where they spend their money.
Mass Effect Retrospective
A novel-sized analysis of the Mass Effect series that explains where it all went wrong. Spoiler: It was long before the ending.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.