Before talking about this madhouse of a game where you melt the faces off of psycho killers with shotguns that shoot acid and lightning, let’s talk about a bunch of dry technical stuff about what makes this game tick.
The Loot Loop
In Borderlands you kill dudes with firearmsAnd sometimes with melee attacks, grenades, and special abilities. But mostly firearms. 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 are based on the level and rarity of the item.
The loot in Borderlands is divided into several tiers of increasing rarity:
- White: The game calls this grade “common”, but “trash” is a more accurate term. Fill your inventory up with this junk and sell it off. The stats on these guns are garbage. You start the game with a white weapon, but you’ll upgrade at some point in the first hour and then you’ll never hold a white item again. You find this stuff constantly.
- Green: The game calls this grade “uncommon”, but that’s just not true. “Unimpressive” would be a more fitting descriptor. You find this stuff on a regular basis. You might rely on this stuff in the early game, but by the mid point a lot of your gear should be…
- Blue: (Rare) Generally a cut above green weapons. You’ll find a blue every few minutes. They’re not all great, but seeing that glowing blue sparkle on the ground usually feels pretty good.
- Purple: (Exotic) 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: (Legendary) 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.
- Cyan: (Pearlescent) Ultra rare. Only available if you’ve got the right DLC. And even then they only drop if you’re fighting rare bosses at high levels.
Also, there’s a layer of complexity over all of this that every weapon is from one of several in-game companies, and each company has their own touches they put on weapons. (And some companies are objectively better than others.) I’ve never studied this much myself, but the wiki can tell you all about it if you’re curious. Generally if I want to know how a weapon performs, I just shoot a bunch of people with it.
Since the individual item stats are somewhat varied, the tiers aren’t completely rigid. The screenshot above shows a pretty extreme example of how complex it is to evaluate the quality of a weapon. Here’s a white (trash) weapon that seems to outperform a purple (exotic) of the same level. On the surface, the white does 50% more damage. However, the purple holds more than three times as many bullets, while the white gun will need to be reloaded constantly. If we’re just talking about two players shooting static targets side-by-side, then the player with the white weapon will do well for the first few shots because of the extra damage, but then purple will outpace them over time because white spends so much time reloading.
However, in practice this isn’t how guns are used. Players tend to reload at opportune moments when seeking targets or recovering from damage. If you can drop foes in one or two well-placed shots and reload between fights, then the white might actually be more useful. But if you happen to be fighting a damage sponge or something that’s hard to hit then the white will be awful, since you’ll need to reload while still trading fire. In practice the purple might also excel in unlisted properties like recoil, and that burst fire mode might be really good.
The point is that the relative performance of two weapons is incredibly situational. It’s shaped by the level of the foeThe game gets overall more damage sponge-ish as you gain levels., the level delta between the player and their adversaryFoes just a few levels above you are very spongy, and foes just a few levels below you are tissue paper., the enemy typeSome foes have lots of armor, tons of hit points, small critical hit zones, or animations that make them hard to hit., your character classFoes that juke around are less troublesome if you’ve got a special power to lock them in place. Or a turret / pet with auto-aim., and individual playstyleLow accuracy weapons aren’t a problem if you tend to fight at close range..
One final explanation for the performance discrepancy between the white and purple above is that the game seems to greatly over-value elemental damage in general, and it REALLY over-estimates the value of slagSlag is an elemental damage type, like fire. Except, slag makes foes take extra damage from non-slag weapons. Which means you need to do a lot of weapon-switching to use slag properly. Not worth the effort at low levels when foes die in a couple of hits anyway. damage. This is particularly true in the early parts of the game when slag is basically useless.
If the weapon stats happen to have a lot of synergy, a weapon might really excel more than its color might suggest. Meanwhile, a couple of stats with conflicting properties might render a weapon useless. You might find a blue shotgun that has both a large magazine capacity and a rapid fire rate, making it better than the average purple. Or you might find a sniper rifle with an extra-powerful scope and garbage accuracy, making it basically useless. Sometimes you might be able to make use of an oddball weapon in unexpected way. For example, maybe that sniper rifle with terrible accuracy but ridiculous damage and rate of fire will turn out to be useful when fired from the hip like an assault rifle.
The point is that appraising the quality of weapons is a big part of the game. If you find it tedious then this game will drive you crazy. On the other hand if you enjoy looking for treasure, thinking about weapon performance, and switching up your play style to make the best use of your gear, then the procedurally generated weapons of Borderlands can keep you amused for a long, long time.
And speaking of looking for treasure…
The Dope Drip
I know it’s really obnoxious when people smugly reduce powerful human experiences down to simple brain chemistry. Like “Love is just hormones” or perhaps “You enjoy this thing because it triggers the release of endorphins in the brain”. Saying stuff like this is annoying because it’s dismissive and reductionist, and also because it’s hard to argue against without sounding like a complete sap.
But if you’ll allow me to be dismissive and reductionist for a minute, I want to talk about dopamine and the way it makes videogames fun. I predict some people will roll their eyes at this, “Ugh. Everyone knows this stuff Shamus. Stop trying to sound smart by reposting shit from Wikipedia and acting like you’re Bill Nye.” But the fact is that not everyone knows this stuff, and sometimes it’s useful to make sure the groundwork exists before you try and build on it.
Let’s get this out of the way: Dopamine feels good. Your brain releases it when you do something “good”. Catch the ball, solve the puzzle, or impress that attractive person, and your brain will give you a little dose of dopamine. It’s the brain’s way of saying, “Whatever you did to make this Good Thing happen, remember it so you can do it again in the future.” It’s one of the reasons mastering a videogame feels so good. Taking successful action keeps the dope coming.
There’s More than One Way to Skinner Box
B. F. Skinner was a psychologist, behaviorist, and social philosopher, and he did not like that people informally named the Skinner Box after him. In his own work he called it the “Operant conditioning chamber”.
Imagine if I want to prove that “We Built This City” is a terrible song. I’ve visited Aperture Science enough times to know how to science, so I stick a test subject in a soundproof room and play the song for them until they vomit. Having proven my point, I call it the “Corporate Music Exposure Chamber” in my academic paper. After that I retire in fame and riches, as so many scientists do. Then a bunch of people come along, read my work, re-name the chamber a “Shamus Box”, and begin building millions of the stupid things and climbing into them on purpose. This was probably not the legacy I was hoping for.
But Operant Conditioning Chamber is long and boring and “Skinner Box” is fun and pithy, and if the English language has proven anything it’s that convenience will win out over accuracy every time. So “Skinner Box” it is. Sorry Professor. To be fair, your assertion that “free will is an illusion” is exactly the kind of reductionist argument that really annoys people, which probably didn’t do you any favors.
There are a lot of different experiments you can do with a Skinner Box, mostly revolving around rewards or punishments delivered to your lab rat. But the one we’re interested in is where you link an action to an irregular reward. Say you put a lab rat in a box and you give them a button they can push. The button delivers food. If the subject gets food every time they push the button, then the button will not be particularly interesting to them and they will only press it when hungry. But if the button delivers irregular rewards – if you only get food perhaps 1 in 20 presses or so – then the test subject will press it even when they’re not interested in the food.
What’s going on here (at least, according to the dumbed-down pop-science version of this story) is that the random reward triggers the release of dopamine in the brain. “Hey! Pay attention! A very Good Thing just happened. Try to figure out how you made it happen so you can make it happen again in the future.” This means that pushing the button and getting food feels good to the test subject, which means they will want to keep trying to make it happen. They’re not motivated by the food. They’re motivated by the dopamine hit.
This is all well and good when the Good Thing is pouncing on a mouse (if you’re a cat) or finding a trash can full of delicious garbage (if you’re a raccoon) or finding a hidden Lambda stash (if you’re Gordon Freeman). You’re being taught to remember the motions, sensory patterns, timing, and clues that made this moment possible. You’ll keep getting those lovely doses of dopamine until you master the task.
But if the event is truly random, then the brain will keep rewarding you forever because there’s nothing to master. The brain will keep looking for a pattern that doesn’t exist. This is the key trick at work in slot machines. And indeed, this behavioral loop is at the core of gambling addiction. At the heart of it, gambling addicts are like self-dosing dopamine junkiesThat’s actually a scary thought to me. I’ve never known anyone with a gambling problem, but it strikes me as being kind of scary that a gambling addict is weak to a drug that they make for themselves. It’s like an alcoholic that always has a drink they can’t put down..
We all are, if you believe Skinner.
Like I said, it’s obnoxious and reductionist to distill the experience of playing a videogame down to seeking a steady drip of dopamine for yourself, and I think Borderlands has a lot more to offer the player than a Skinner Box, but this is part of the gameplay loop and I think it’s worth talking about.
The Loot Lottery
Humans are smarter than mice, and so something as simple and shallow as the button-box of the original experiment probably won’t work on us. If you want to build a button box for a human being then you need to add a bunch of sensory stimulus to tickle the pattern-searching parts of the brain.
For example: The classic slot machine is basically a button-box with a few extra psychological distractions bolted on. With slots, there’s a build-up of sound, light, and tactile feedback that’s carefully engineered 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 while also creating activity for the pattern-searching parts of the brain to monitor.
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. It keeps you engaged and looking for patterns.
After the resolution, the game might give some minor payout that can feel like a “win”, even if the prize is less than the cost of the game. 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 length of 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 instead of worse. This means that you might get a little dopamine. Even though you lost, you got a dose that felt like a win, which can help string the unwary player along.
More importantly, 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. On some instinctive level it makes you feel that there must be a pattern to find. Even if someone explains to the player that the machine is truly random and there’s no pattern at work, the brain will keep looking anyway. The different slot patterns and spinning shapes will still produce activity that you’ll want to watch, and you’ll still get a blast of dopamine when the machine pays out, because this whole cycle of analysis and reward is taking place somewhere down in the twisty instinctive bits of the mind.
The Button is Murder
The Skinner Box portion of Borderlands is like a slot machine, except instead of spending money to pull a lever you just shoot psycho killers in the head. Every guy you blast is like taking another spin. (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!)
Obviously the Skinner Box doesn’t work on everyone. Some people find the constant trickle of guns and loot to be an annoying distraction from the shooting. Instead of getting excited about the opportunity for new treasure, they’re annoyed that they have to stop what they’re doing and read some numbers to figure out if they should switch to this new gun.
The button-box only works if you consider the reward to be a Good Thing. If slot machines paid in sawdust, then nobody would care to play them, even if they were free. You wouldn’t get a dose of sweet, sweet dopamine for winning a handful of sawdust, and so there’s nothing to entice the brain to keep looking for patterns that aren’t there. And to some people, the constant sprinkle of guns is like getting handful after handful of sawdust. This particular Skinner Box doesn’t work for them.
But if it does work on you, then it really works, and it can sustain your interest in the game even if the other parts falter.
 And sometimes with melee attacks, grenades, and special abilities. But mostly firearms
 The game gets overall more damage sponge-ish as you gain levels.
 Foes just a few levels above you are very spongy, and foes just a few levels below you are tissue paper.
 Some foes have lots of armor, tons of hit points, small critical hit zones, or animations that make them hard to hit.
 Foes that juke around are less troublesome if you’ve got a special power to lock them in place. Or a turret / pet with auto-aim.
 Low accuracy weapons aren’t a problem if you tend to fight at close range.
 Slag is an elemental damage type, like fire. Except, slag makes foes take extra damage from non-slag weapons. Which means you need to do a lot of weapon-switching to use slag properly. Not worth the effort at low levels when foes die in a couple of hits anyway.
 That’s actually a scary thought to me. I’ve never known anyone with a gambling problem, but it strikes me as being kind of scary that a gambling addict is weak to a drug that they make for themselves. It’s like an alcoholic that always has a drink they can’t put down.
A programming project where I set out to make a Minecraft-style world so I can experiment with Octree data.
Silent Hill 2 Plot Analysis
A long-form analysis on one of the greatest horror games ever made.
Trusting the System
How do you know the rules of the game are what the game claims? More importantly, how do the DEVELOPERS know?
Trashing the Heap
What does it mean when a program crashes, and why does it happen?
Skylines of the Future
Cities: Skylines is bound to have a sequel sooner or later. Where can this series go next, and what changes would I like to see?