With Battleborn having been delayed by 3 months, some are speculating that the ambitious nature of Gearbox and 2K’s MOBA-like shooter has led to its fundamental design and technical decisions requiring a major overhaul before the game launches on 3 May 2016. Certainly, with the market already sown up with established genre titles, it’ll be interesting to see as to how Gearbox and 2K rise to the challenge of grabbing a piece of the pie that’s already dominated by the likes of Call Of Duty and League Of Legends. And with Battleborn already being criticised by some for its lack of identity, despite its distinctive art-style, there is the argument that the game could effectively be still-born upon release.
With genre titles already firmly entrenched in the mainstream player psyche, the only thing that Gearbox and 2K can do to grab mind-share is to make a game that, whilst drawing clear inspiration from the aforementioned titles, does everything better. But with 2K’s previous effort Evolve having already been branded a major failure, where the game attempted to commercialise free-to-play design principles as part of a retail package, it’ll be interesting to see as to how Gearbox’s full priced Battleborn does when it goes up against Blizzard’s own F2P Overwatch game that releases around the same time.
Despite all this however, there’s still cautious optimism for Battleborn as both Gearbox and 2K were previously responsible for delivering one of the finest shooters in years with passion project Borderlands 2. And with Chris Thomas (Publishing Producer at 2K) and Chris Faylor (former PR Manager at Gearbox, now Founder at Rocket Scientist) on hand to kerb existing fears, I got to ask them as to how Battleborn appeals to “every kind of badass”.
The notion of doing an MOBA mixed with a first person shooter… was it a concept originally devised by 2K or was it actually pitched to you by Gearbox?
Chris Thomas: Battleborn is actually primarily a shooter. What Gearbox did is they took a bunch of different inspirations and essentially mashed them all together like they did with Borderlands. We’ve got stuff in this game that’s from fighting games, from MOBAs, from RPGs… Originally when we first started on the project, the same team from Gearbox that was coming off from Borderlands 2, they really wanted to create a new universe and they really wanted to create a lot of new characters, because the sixth that we had in Borderlands was so much fun to play and it was so much fun to create for them. So they have this whole idea like, “let’s just make a game that’s just all about characters. Let’s crank that up to as many as we possibly can and then see what happens”. They were able to pull off 25 so we’re going to launch with 25 playable characters. Each one of them are totally unique. They have their own play-styles, their own abilities, their own weapons. Once they [the team at Gearbox] got to that point they wondered, “how do we actually make all of these characters co-exist in the same universe? How can it all make sense”? And that’s when they came up with this really cool story ideas about Solace which is the last star in the entire universe. So all the other stars have been destroyed and all of these Battleborn playable characters that we have, they’re all having to band together and fight this sinister evil that’s trying to destroy that final star.
So ultimately, Gearbox pitched the project to 2K?
Chris Thomas: Yes.
Even though Battleborn is being done by the same team that did Borderlands 2, I know that Randy Pitchford has talked about how he would like to make Borderlands 3 at some point. Do you think the same team who are developing Battleborn would be working on Borderlands 3, or would it be somebody else?
Chris Thomas: I imagine it would be the same team. Almost every time we’ve worked with Gearbox, they’ve used most of their studio for the games that we’re working on because the games that we put out tend to be huge AAA titles and that’s just generally their Mission Objective. They’re going to throw as many of their good guys as they can at it. I think Randy Pitchford said that they [Gearbox] were hiring for Borderlands 3, so I’m sure their team’s going to grow as well. So we’ll see exactly what that composition of employees and staff that they have, and what resource breakdown they have, when it comes to Borderlands 3.
When Borderlands 2 came out on PC, it looked phenomenal and was one of the main reasons as to why I upgraded my PC. But the difference in visual fidelity between what was achievable on a semi-decent PC and what was shown on the XBox 360 and PS3 was tremendous…. I know that developers often work with engines that are scalable, but given the high fidelity graphics of Battleborn on PC, to what extent can the PS4 and XBox One cope with the demands that Battleborn places upon them?
Chris Thomas: It’s definitely a lot easier for this generation of consoles to shorten that gap. Ultimately, we want the experience to be the same. We don’t want you to play on the PC or play on the PS4 and be like, “that experience wasn’t as good”. It’s more about a preference with whatever [system] you want to play. We’re constantly optimizing and we’re constantly trying to find ways to make the game look better and have it run smoother. Especially with this generation of hardware, I think that there’s not going to be that big of a gap when it comes to the final game. Because in Borderlands 2, we had the ability to just go crazy with physics and all kind of stuff, and that just wasn’t possible in the last gen.
Chris Faylor: When Borderlands 2 came out on XBox 360 and PlayStation 3, that was well into their console life cycle. That was at a point where PC gaming had far surpassed that hardware. If you look at the difference with the original Borderlands, there’s not as much of a disparity because that hardware was much closer together at the time.
You mentioned as to how Battleborn will have 25 playable characters, and that’s obviously one of the key selling points for how the game will go about distinguishing itself from previous Gearbox games – such as Borderlands and Brothers In Arms. But the thing is, those two franchises previously only had player character choices that spanned into the single digits. What challenges has Gearbox faced in ensuring that all of the 25 characters in Battleborn are both distinct and balanced?
Chris Thomas: The balancing part is actually extremely hard. I can touch on that in a second. But the whole pitch process for Gearbox was actually really cool. We actually loved it here at 2K because they opened it up to us as well. But they allowed pretty much anyone in their entire studio – from a QA guy, to a programmer, to the normal artists – to just come up with cool pitches for characters. As you can imagine, that’s hundreds of characters. So it was neat to see as to which ones floated and rose to the top. The 25 [characters] that we have were the ones that everyone thought were truly unique and felt really special and the ideas behind their powers and the abilities were really, really cool. So that was sort of how they got to the point where they could actually flesh each one of them out and make them feel fun and unique. Honestly, there’s so many possibilities out there. I never actually got a chance to make a character myself, but there’s so many that we saw that were pitches that were just awesome. You would totally love to see stuff like that in the game but these were definitely the strongest I think.
[Turns to talk to Chris Faylor] Was there anything else that you guys did other than that?
Chris Faylor: What do you mean?
Chris Thomas: As far as character pitches, or how you guys came up with that many characters. How they are that unique?
Chris Faylor: One thing that we did was we have something called ‘The Daily Art Challenge’. Everyday, our concepts artists would take five to ten minutes and sketch out a rough idea of a character; no matter how outlandish, no matter how blue-sky… just to get ideas. Every artist would do this and it would be put into a shared resource and reviewed internally. And then everybody could see these and start to concept on skills and characters. And some of our best characters initially came out of some very unexpected places and unexpected people, and pitches were combined, so it was a very collaborative effort across the entire studio. That’s how you get such a wide and diverse range. From the Gundam stylings of Caldarius, to the sharp angles of Rath, to a sentient mushroom who throws his own head. And some of the ideas that have floated around… I think the craziest characters are the ones that we’ve yet to reveal. I’m really, really excited to show off some of the other ones.
With regards to Gearbox’s Borderlands franchise, it took hundreds of hours to reach the maximum potential of a particular character. But with Battleborn, you’re taking the completely opposite approach by which a character can literally max out by the end of the match. Now, I understand that’s obviously a nice way to get more newcomers on board and to ensure that these newcomers experience less frustration amongst seasoned players. But looking at it from the perspective of the other side, how far can you go in ensuring that the game can be relatively dumbed down in order to appease new players without sacrificing the depth and skill reward systems that experienced players demand and expect from modern day shooters?
Chris Faylor: You’re asking as to how you can give somebody long term engagement whilst balancing short term gains…
Chris Thomas: That was all taken into consideration of course. And just to touch really quickly on the Helix System where you can level up from 1 to 10, it went a lot further than just trying to make sure that new players had a fair starting point. The idea was really to make sure that you could experience the complete progression from an ability stand point throughout one match for each character because there are so many of them. We didn’t want to be in that situation where it was like Borderlands where you said it was 40 hours or something for you to get through that whole skill tree. But in order to give it more depth and give the player who is going to come back and play a lot, we have several different layers of player character progression. So the longer you play a single character; that character is going to basically be gaining levels that are permanent. As those levels are gained, you’ll be unlocking a bunch of other stuff – like different skins for the characters, and different abilities that you can slot into the Helix Tree, so you’ll be able to actually change the way you play that character by changing your options. And then on top of that, we have a player profile rank. So you’ll be gaining experience through playing the Story Mode and through the competitive multiplayer. On the player profile rank, that’s going to be permanent, you’ll unlock a whole bunch of other stuff by doing that progression as well. So there’s a ton of stuff there to engage with and to unlock, once you start to really think about having 25 characters that you have to master.
One of the key attractive features that has been brought on board from previous Gearbox franchises [namely Borderlands] is the loot raid feature. I know that loot affects how you play in terms of stats, but after a match is finished, can you keep the loot?
Chris Thomas: Yes.
Chris Faylor: Your loot is a permanent inventory. It’s not burned. It’s not one use. You can equip up to 3 items per match, and then within the match, you choose which ones you want to activate.
Chris Thomas: And there’s also a rarity with those items as well, so you’ll have very common ones and then you’ll have more rare [ones]. It’s not exactly like the Borderlands system, but there will be different colours of rarities.
Chris Faylor: Yeah, for example there’s one in there called the Goodbye Grenade and there’s a common version of it that when you die, it drops a grenade and it explodes and hopefully takes out the enemy that killed you and does 55 damage. But there’s a rare version of it that does 170 damage. So even if you find an item that you really like and a mechanic that really jives with your play-style, there’s always an opportunity of finding a better version of that item; finding a more powerful version. Just like in Borderlands, you could find a gun that you really liked, and as you leveled up, you could find a more powerful version of that gun.
You get this with a lot of MMO games where people essentially buy their way into becoming more successful. Will there be in-game purchases, either via play-time, or where people can essentially buy the more expensive items and more rarer forms of loot?
Chris Thomas: The only way that you’ll be able to do anything in-game is just by playing through the stuff and gaining experience points and unlocking stuff that way. We do have an in-match currency called ‘shards’, so you can go around the match and collect these shards that will allow you to do a bunch of stuff within the match, whether it’s upgrading turrets or building turrets… But yeah, that’s the only thing that we have in the game that could be considered as currency.
Chris Faylor: Yeah, it’s not like a pay-to-win. Battleborn is a full price AAA game that’s coming out to retail and you’re going to have a complete experience with that. That includes 25 characters, Story Mode that can be played solo, split-screen or 5-player co-op. Competitive Multiplayer mode with matches of up to 10 players across 3 different modes, launched with different maps… So we’re a fully fledged game. We’re Gearbox Software… we’re not going to nickel and dime people.
There was another game published by 2K called Evolve. When Evolve was released, it had a certain surge of appeal, and then slowly but surely, it started suffering from diminishing returns in terms of popularity. One of the reasons as to why it hasn’t been as successful [according to consumers] is because it’s a paid-for product. With Battleborn also being a paid-for product, do you maybe envisage a future where products like this, which are inherently multiplayer in nature, will become free and will be supported entirely by micro-transactions?
Chris Thomas: Well definitely not for 2K and for Battleborn. We have a pedigree for making big AAA titles that are full priced and are full-featured. Battleborn has been completely designed with that in mind. Gearbox is really amazing at making DLC and I really hope that enough people love this game and that the demand is there so that we can support having that sort of thing post launch. Right now, both 2K and Gearbox are trying to get all of the [content] stuff straightened out and get it in the box. So hopefully we can finish that up as soon as possible and with any luck, maybe people are really into the game and the game’s successful and we’re able to support it post launch.
Chris Faylor: With new IP… with something brand new like Battleborn, it’s really important to get it into as many people’s hands as possible. We’ll be having an open beta at some point [this year]. For a lot of different reasons; for technical reasons to make sure that when the game launches, everything works as intended, that everybody has a smooth experience, but also because this enables people to get their hands on it and find out what it’s all about.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you mentioned that you want Battleborn in as many people’s hands as possible. If we look at the bigger first-person-shooter franchises, such as Call Of Duty, they inherently appeal to frat-boys. Can it not be argued that the personalities of the characters, and this has been mentioned by several publications, where they state that the taunts and personalities of the 25 characters, even though they’re all supposedly extremely distinct, they’re still very “BooRah” frat-boy orientated…
Chris Faylor: That’s really interesting to hear because we haven’t shown a lot of that. Each character has multiple taunts. Each character has hundreds of lines of dialogue. What we’ve shown is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction thus far. We’ve barely shown a thing. Our slogan internally is “For Every Kind Of Badass”. That’s because, we hope that Battleborn appeals to every kind of player. If you like Call Of Duty there’s a character for you. If you like Halo, there’s a character for you. If you like League Of Legends or DOTA 2, there’s a character for you. If you like Team Fortress 2, if you like playing with swords… we’re not trying to take on Call Of Duty and we’re not trying to replace anything. We’re trying to bring all of this together and make it a cohesive whole where all different kind of players can compete and cooperate with one another. And that’s the greatest thing. It’s not just cooperative and it’s not just competitive. It’s both. You can have intense head-to-head competitions or you can collaborate with your team mates. So if you don’t want to have an experience with somebody who you find to be irritating or toxic, you don’t have to.
You mentioned that you’re consciously not trying to take on the Call Of Duty crowd, and that you don’t want to steal CoD‘s crown and audience. But with players being part of an intergalactic campaign that is co-op or versus, do you not think that whilst there are distinctive differences in art-style, that ultimately Battleborn is manifesting itself in a round-about sort of way as being the equivalent of an “anti” Destiny?
Chris Thomas: No. I think we’re just trying to make a really amazing experience for people. There’s not a game out there we’re trying to take on. We are gamers ourselves so all of those games that you’re mentioning are games that we’ve played, that we’ve enjoyed, that we’re probably fans of. Ultimately, we love making great experiences and Gearbox has always been really great with that. Our only goal here is to make something that’s super high quality, and something that fans are going to truly love. We want people to fall in love with the story and fall in love with these character’s personalities and their backstories. And if we do that, I think that we’ve achieved our goals.
Chris Faylor: Before Borderlands came out, everybody was struggling to define it initially, because the world hadn’t seen a game exactly like it. And the best people could do is say “it’s Halo meets Diablo”. But that wasn’t really it. That was one mechanic, but it wasn’t the entirety of the game. I think Battleborn is the exact same way. It’s one of those games that as you play it, as you go hands on with the cooperative mode, with the competitive modes, as you start to see that player progression and the meta-rank that Chris Thomas was talking about earlier, it all starts to click into place. But it’s unlike anything that I’ve ever seen before. So Battleborn is very hard to describe without just putting it in somebody’s hands. And so up until that point, you get compared to other games and other frames of reference, because no one’s really played anything like it. That’s one of the fun challenges of creating this. We’re doing something that, to our knowledge, has never been done before.
Is that also one of the reasons as to why you missed the Christmas season and announced Battleborn for 2016, because it’s so much quieter and therefore the market will give a new IP with fresh new ideas a chance, as opposed to going up against Call Of Duty and Fallout 4?
Chris Thomas: No, it’s about the fact that we’ve just got a ton of stuff to do. The game’s still in development. We’re trying to race to the finish line to finish it up. So you can imagine that there’s a lot there for these [Gearbox] guys to work on.
Chris Faylor: Yeah. At the end of the day, it’s about quality. It’s about delivering the best possible experience.