Interview: Borderlands 2’s Sean Reardon
posted on 04.04.12 at 08:10 AM EDT by (@salromano)
Senior Producer speaks to Gematsu.

We recently sat down with Sean Reardon, senior producer on the upcoming Borderlands 2, to discuss the sequel’s inspirations, new features, and development.

Read the full interview below.

View new set of Borderlands 2 screenshots at the gallery.

What made you want to make a sequel?

In Borderlands 1, we felt like we hit on something that was really special and unique – something that the studio really had to flex and stretch to create in the first place. But afterwards we saw that, having created that, there was so much more room to expand, there’s so much more of that design to flesh out. In some ways, what we had made – like any artist – once you’re done, you’re really excited about what you’ve done and improving it and going on to the next thing. You really want to flesh it out and take it further.

It may be a silly thing to note, but early in Borderlands 2‘s development – I’m the senior producer on the project, I’m sort of the dick in the room – and we have the design director, who’s the good guy – he’s the guy fighting for design and pushing the creative side. So often times there is sort of a tension between these two forces. Get it done on time and on budget, and it’s going to be the best ever. So he was pursuing this path, and I stopped him and I said, ‘Are you really going to improve everything in the game? Can we not hold one thing in the game constant?’ And he was flabbergasted and said ‘Obviously, we will touch every bit of this design, we’re going to touch everything here.’ And that was sort of like, endemic across the time. Everybody was really excited about not letting anything go from the first game, even the stuff we agreed that was really good. We’re very excited about just touching it all up.

That was sort of like creative inspiration to be very excited about making a sequel.

The first game was received very positively by press. Was the team overwhelmed, or surprised, by the turnout?

I think we knew that it was good. Clearly, we were very proud of it. I think it’s more of a matter of being surprised that the world came along with us in that. It’s hard to bring a new thing to bear in the market that has a unique design, a unique look – and those things, I would be afraid, would alienate the world. And instead, it was something that allowed you to pick it up from the shelf, something that made you excited about seeing it in the first place. So yeah, I think we were sort of surprised it did as well as it did. We would of been proud or happy with it in any way in any sense, but yeah, we were a little surprised.

So Borderlands 2 – where are we now?

Story-wise, we’re five years later. Everything that happened in the first game happened – we’re building on top of that. The characters you played in the first game are visiting, we’re visiting them again in Borderlands 2. They’re not playable, they’re part of the story. The stuff that you did as those guys in the first game has consequences for the second game. You’re feeling the ramifications of what they have done – of what you did – in the previous game. And so what this game does is says that, there’s a guy, your villain, Handsome Jack, and he’s excited about stopping you from his ultimate plans. And your ultimate plans are to keep him from taking over the planet, effectively. He’s basically just a dick through and through. You’re going to be very excited at the end of the game, stopping him.

What power does Handsome Jack have that he can effectively take over the planet?

If you think about the creative inspiration behind this guy that I really love – if you think about, megalomaniac rich guy, and you pair that with a Lex Luthor sort of criminal mastermind – someone who has all the resources in the world and has the lack of moral stature to bring them to bear to actually do stuff. So his real power is supreme intellect and unimaginable wealth that he can bring to bear.

How far is Borderlands 2 taking narrative? Or interactive NPCs?

We read the criticisms, you know, we get that, and certainly you’ll see in Borderlands 2, both a response to fans and press feedback – we cared a lot about that. Truth be told, we were actually really proud of what we pulled off in the narrative for Borderlands 1. When you think about the narrative for Borderlands 1, we weren’t necessarily trying to tell a story – there was a story there that you follow through – but the thing that was really compelling was the characters, it was really about the tone and the humor. That vibe was way more important to us than trying to tell an intricate, delicate plot. We weren’t really interested in that at all. We were already blending role-playing elements with first-person shooter elements, and we were much more interested in making that design correct and work. If you’re a first-person shooter guy, you may be put off by the role-playing stuff, so we wanted to make it super snappy, super easy to get into, and just sort of get it and go.

We were afraid that a really intricate story might be a turnoff sense. So we really focused on the flavor and the character and the humor. And I think we pulled it off. We did something that we’re very proud of.

Now, in Borderlands 2, we take that tone – and that was something that was very sacrosanct, right in the beginning, we knew that was something that we really needed to have, we needed to do that very, very well. We hired an amazing writer, Anthony Burch, who’s written most of the actual dialogue in the game. If you though the first game was funny – if you thought the DLCs were funny – you’re going to love the humor that comes across in Borderlands 2.

It’s funny, that criticism was out there, and it’s probably a fair criticism, but it was never really our state or goal to have a really intricate story in that sense. Now that we feel – for Borderlands 2 – we had the gameplay understood, we understood the art style, we understood all of those things that were sort of foundational. That allowed us some range of motion. We were able to flesh out some of the story elements a little further. But still, our minds are around accessibility, making it easy to get into, making it fun – prioritizing fun over story. Even the guys on the ground who are really caring about story and nurturing it, they’re still on the mindset of, if there’s something that’s boring, you should be able to skip it. You don’t have to pay attention to everything that’s going on. If you just want to get a gun and shoot a thing, awesome. It’s really that game.

In terms of guns, what are we looking at? The first game had 87 bazillion. Are any of those returning?

The manufacturers are returning. The guns, themselves, are not.

So you made another 87 bazillion?

We made another 87 bazillion. Like, what a fucking retarded thing to do. As a producer, I had to be the first to say ‘Are you serious? You’re actually going to delete the weapons we built last time, over the course of many years?’

Just to clarify, those 87 bazillion guns, are there literally 87 bazillion different guns, or does each part shift classify a gun as a different gun?

There are literally 87 bazillion different guns. There are different parts, they mix and match. But the mixing and matching is both in aesthetic and actual gameplay. So, for instance, this is how the Borderlands weapons work. You have a number of classes – I think it’s like six different classes, or so – and then for each class – and that class, you’re going to have – and that class will be like a revolver, rocketlauncher, pistol, shotgun, or sniper rifle – something like that. Each one of those has a certain number of parts on that. It will have four, five, six different parts that assemble together to make that weapon.

So imagine a sniper rifle, and one of the parts of that body is the length of the barrel. So a longer barrel – not only does it look longer, you can see it on the ground, you can immediately see it’s a sniper rifle, that barrel is going to be longer than a regular sniper rifle – but it also is more accurate because of that. It actually plays to the stats. We present about five different stats. Again, along the lines of making it very accessible and very easy to understand. But there are actually a lot more stats that are very under there, that all come together to make that weapon feel unique and different. So we had made up a bewildering amount of art, and a bewildering amount of game design, and we tied it together to make the unimaginably large actual presentation of weapons that you see in the game.

Sort of a founding design for Borderlands 1 that we carried to Borderlands 2‘s weapons, one of the worries we had in creating a system that generates your gameplay, a system that generates your weapons is – you can have someone in the room saying ‘Well, what if that makes a weapon that’s overpowered? That breaks the game?’ So a founding ethic for the Borderlands franchise is: so what? If it’s fun, it’s correct. If it’s that one guy that gets that gun that’s going to destroy everything, then neat-o. If he’s laughing, then we’re cool. And that’s a different design ethic that you see from even our past games. We would care very much about that tuning and making sure it’s just right. This time, for this franchise, because of the tone, because of the art style, because of the flavor of the game, it gives us a lot of range of motion there – to really care about the customer having a good time.

It’s funny, we do a lot of focus testing, a lot of research, just an unending number of people coming to Gearbox to help us understand where we’re winning and where we’re losing. Sometimes we’ll see someone do something that we didn’t anticipate, that we didn’t design purposely, and so either, that’s a bug, or that’s a feature. So you first have to classify it as one of those two. If the guy is laughing, it’s a feature. If the guy’s frustrated, that’s a bug. And that’s kind of the way it comes down. We never intended for that to happen, but the guy is having a good time, so why not? And there’s not many franchises you’re allowed to do that with.

Are these weapons you have to hope to find? Or can you go in and customize parts yourself?

You can’t customize it. You cannot. That would break it, that would really really break it. Imagine if you go to Las Vegas and instead of pulling the slot machine, you could just set the wheels however you want.

That’d be great!

No [laughs]. You wouldn’t do that. You’d show up one time, put all the cherries, and then you’d leave. Part of the fun is that chance, that random chance, and as soon as you can modify it yourself, we’re really afraid of what that would do to the design. But it’s something that comes up all the time, both from our customizers and designers. A designer will come to the project and he’ll be thinking about stuff and say, ‘Ah, I got it. What if I could modifiy my weapon purposely in some way?’ I think that you want to do that is an indication that the system is working. And so long as want to do that, we win. That’s why Vegas works.

In Borderlands 1, you were able to leave areas and come back to respawned bosses and enemies. Is that carrying over in the sequel?

Yeah, we care a lot about replayability. It’s another sort of founding ethic of the game. So much so that in Borderlands 1, as the end of the game, you could play Borderlands 1 again the second playthrough. And then at the end of that, you could play it again, and then a further playthrough. We really care about that, that sort of over-and-over again essence of that. People are still playing Borderlands 1 – it’s still out there and people are still enjoying it today.

In a past interview, a Gearbox developer said the second playthrough of Borderlands 2 would “separate the men from the boys.” How is the second playthrough different from the first?

Our second playthrough is actually pretty radically different. In the case of Borderlands 1 is, you start as level 1, and by the end of the game, you’ve played maybe 30 hours, and you’re maybe level 32, 33. At that point, you can put the game down and you’ve had a good time, we’ve satisified our contract with the customer, great. But what we’re able to do is create a second playthrough where you take that same character and you start again, but at that level you left off. So you start again in Firestone at the very beginning of the game, but instead of being level 1, you’re level 30. And all the creatures are also leveled up to 30. So you play through the game again, and as you’re doing that, you’re leveling from 30 to 50. So, the difference between a creature that’s level 5 and level 6 – pretty indistinguishable. The difference between a creature level 49 versus level 50 is ridiculous. So it becomes a totally different challenge to be able to get through the game on second playthrough. It makes a lot of sense to say it “separates the men from the boys.” It’s a way different challenge.

Think about it in terms of a monster truck pull – how far can that tracktor go. The game kind of asks you to do that. And for the DLCs, actually, we expanded the level cap from 50 to 61 and then to 69, so there’s a bizarre length that you can go in leveling your character up and leveling the enemies around you.

We have a new set of characters in Borderlands 2. New classes, the whole nine. What are your inspirations behind creating these characters?

It’s a ridiculous challenge, honestly. We spent a lot of time spitballing different ideas for – we had probably a list of 30 different pitches for different classes that we cared about. It was sort of the fundamental question at the beginning of the game: do we take the original classes and continue them forward? Or do we make a new set of classes? And having gone down that path, it’s a very clear, crack decision for us, that sets up a future of both the franchise and this game that’s very exciting. We spitballed many, many different classes. As a player or novice game designer, it may feel like it’s very easy, like ‘Oh, I have a great idea for a class. I’m going to throw this out there.’ Turns out it’s really complicated, really difficult to balance them against each other, difficult to balance them in the context of knowing that the game really shines in a co-op setting. To make sure that any two pairings of any of these classes is a good pairing. Thinking about that in a three-player case, thinking about that in a four-player case.

Think about Maya. Her action skill is Phase Lock. in the case of the first game, the Siren for the first game is Lillith. In this game, we brought the Siren concept back and created a brand new Siren named Maya. We imagine there’s this set of people in the world that have been turned into Sirens, by one way or another. So each game is an opportunity for us to unveil a new Siren – what is her story, who is she, what’s her thing about? This one has an action skill called Phase Lock. It allows you to select an enemy on the battlefield, pull them in the air, and hover them there in an energy ball. The energy ball allows you to have maximal attack on them – you highlighted them on the field – and it puts them out of operation for the time that they’re in the air. And the animators have really gone above in beyond by having each of the creatures react in an interesting way when they’re bound up. Like the big guys that stomped – when they get Phase Lock-ed, they’re like a little rock. So that’s an opportunity for you to hit them. What’s really neat about that action skill is that it was designed in the contenxt of thinking about co-op. So if you’re a Siren and I’m a Gunzerker (Salvador), then what can happen is, we walk in the battlefield, there are a number of enemies, there’s one bad ass that we’re really worried about, what you can do is you can Phase Lock him, and now my eye sees amongst the battlefield that’s one guy that’s been raised up. It’s a cursed placed upon this game. Now everyone else can now in the game that he’s the guy we need to attack, that he’s in an especially vulnerable spot. And that’s the process we had to go through in thinking about the set of characters that we had.

So you would say co-op is always in mind during the game’s development?

Absolutely, and that’s another one of the founding ethics of the Borderlands franchise. And one of the things we took really seriously – from a development side this is a big deal, I don’t know if it comes through on the consumer side – but from a development side, it was really important to us that we didn’t have a naive separation between a single-player team and a multiplayer team. That very often happens in game development. You want to take a problem and turn it into two problems, separate it down. And what you find is that you’ve accidently created a culture of the single-player team and the multiplayer team, and those teams don’t really interact. And the single-player team will have a design, some ideas, something they want to do. And the multiplayer team will say, well if you do that, my stuff doesn’t really work, so let’s have two different areas, a campaign and multiplayer mode.

We didn’t do that. We said everybody is multiplayer, everybody is making a multiplayer game here. You’re not allowed to think that you’re making a single-player game. And that meant a totally different level of discipline for designers, totally different level of discipline for level designers. For example, you’re making a hallway, you want to make sure two people can fit. You’re knocking at a situation where one person can hold the whole game back. And for the coders, it’s a different level, entirely. Happily, our people are just amazing. Our engineers are phenomenal. So across the board, people leveled up and took the challenge.

A founding ethic of the franchise is that it’s always co-op. The game totally works in single-player – I play it in single-player, more because I don’t have any friends in anything else – but the game excels in co-op. When we’re thinking about co-op, we’re thinking that most of the time when you’re playing co-op in Borderlands, you’re playing with a guy on the couch. So we took split-screen really, really seriously. I think we really excelled there in Borderlands 1. And in Borderlands 2, we’re pushing that much further. We’re taking that same capability and making it way more accessible. The game is in single-player, it’s full screen, your buddy wants to join in, the screen auto-resizes.

It’s so much more fun when it’s on the couch. We all grew up playing GoldenEye.

My own esitmation is that of the people who play co-op, over half of them are going to be playing on the couch. And this is a game that’s co-operative rather than competitive, so if you think about the design decisions that have to go into that. If you’re thinking about a competitive game, you’d be thinking about so that one game can’t make another guy’s game not fun. In our game, weapons are really important. You kill a bad guy, he’s going to drop one gun. In any other game, you want to think about arbitration, you want to think about how do you make it so that the guy that’s the fastest doesn’t get there first and take all the guns – that’s not fun. In our game, what happens when one guy is being not fun? You slug him on the couch, he’s your buddy. You’re not playing with a random chump online, you’re not playing with some kid who’s insulting you. You’re playing with your friends, and it’s a totally different experience. Because of that, we really understood that, we really pushed for giving the player a real agency, making sure they could make a decision about being co-operative. Because we give you the option to be a dick – that you’re not being a dick – means you’re being a nice. If we took that away and said there’s going to be an arbitration system – you get this gun, I get the next – then you’re not really playing co-operative. You’re just playing to a set of rules.

What’s the limit on local players, split-screen?

Local players on split-screen is two.

Can they take that online and play with other players?

I don’t know that we’ve talked about that yet. But it’s much more fluid and much more accessible. We made a bet in Borderlands 1 that we found, and we’re doubling down.

Can players queue up multiple quests at once? If a quest has multiple opponents, will they all appear on the map at the same time?

Like in Borderlands 1, you can accept very mini-missions at once, and you’ll have a mission log, and that log, the map will display the mission you’re currently on. I’m probably explaining this poorly. You have ten missions, and you say I’m going to work on mission two, the mission two waypoints will populate the world. However, that is frustrating, like if I go into a map, and I want to do all the missions that are local to that map, that can be frustrating. So we’ve added some features to the UI that allows you to go to a fast-travel station, and as you’re there, you can look at each map, and it will tell you, here are the missions left to do there. And it really changes the dynamic. It allows you to complete the game, not in terms of missions, but in terms of spaces.

Will we still see things such as the legendary weapons and Teddiore weapons from the first game?

Last time, we did legendaries as almost an afterthought, we had just enough time right at the end to start doing these things. In this case, again, we found that that was a really good success point and we doubled down there again. We have one of our most senior designers putting together some amazing weapons that, on a day to day basis, this is what will happen: he’ll be working in a room on a legendary weapon and you’ll hear him giggle. And people around the office will stand up and say ‘Okay, Matt Armstrong’s made something amazing, let’s go over and see what he did.’ And dollars to donuts, it’s going to be something that tickles you and is just hilarious. Anywhere from that’s really funny to wow, that’s really effective and creative.

Considering you’ve been so successful with download content from past games, is that something you’re considering at this point?

Absolutely. Our attitude towards DLC last time was to enable it. You know, we got to that finish line – shipping a game so fucking hard, man. That’s kind of what I do. If I had a mutant superpower, it’s about shipping games. So coming down to that finish line, all we could really do in Borderlands 1 was to enable a future of DLC, but we couldn’t really put a lot of thought into it, but we wanted to make sure that we could do it. And as soon as that was off our shelves, then we can start thinking about DLC. And that will be no different this time. We’re going to put every ounce of energy we can into making Borderlands 2 the best game possible, and just enabling the opportunity to create DLC. We did find that it became a pillar of the first game, so you’ll absolutely see us going down there again. We’re really proud of where it went with DLC, and we will be more proud, I think, of the DLC for Borderlands 2. But we’re not putting any of our energy into that yet. We’re making sure we don’t screw ourselves.

What’s your opinion about the on-disc DLC debate?

It happens a lot, man. It comes down to this logistics problem – this production problem. Part of it is legitimately unfair – it’s legitimetly unfair for the community to argue whether it should or shouldn’t be on disc. There’s a lack of understanding how games are actually made. There’s a lot of time at the end of development where you don’t have anything else to do, and you can work on something. The other side of it is completely fair, and I totally see the argument. In Borderlands 1 and Borderlands 2, I can tell you as the guy who’s running it, we’re putting all of our energy and effort and umph into Borderlands 2. We’re not at all a studio about tricking our audience into buying something lesser and then charging them again for the rest of the experience later on. None of the game has been designed that way. We’re really excited about not screwing the customer. And that’s sort of our Gearbox ethic.

Those are our fans. We’re not going to do that to them. So for Borderlands 2, we’re enabling a rich future there, but we’re not putting our attention into that at all. We really want to make sure that on its own, Borderlands 2 is a completely worth-it experience. Should we have awesome DLC that follows it up, great, but I wouldn’t imagine we would have anything on disc, other than something that enables it to exist.

Thank you for your time!

Borderlands 2 is due for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC on September 18.

  • Rafi

    Nice interview and thanks Sal for your hard work.

    • Sal Romano

      @Rafi: ;-)

      And you’re telling me! 4,400 words = not fun to type, haha.

      • Finalshoryuken

        @Sal Romano: But, it was totally worth it right? Plus, it shows that that your website is starting to get recognized more and your getting more traffic! Everybody wins!!!!

  • Kobracon

    Great article. Congrats on getting to interview him.

  • Zero

    Took me a few days to read all of this.

    Just wanted to say thanks, Sal.

    I hope you can get more interview opportunity’s in the future. :)

    What he said about on-disc DLC makes a good point, and is often something people overlook.

    I really like what he said here.

    We’re not at all a studio about tricking our audience into buying something lesser and then charging them again for the rest of the experience later on. None of the game has been designed that way. We’re really excited about not screwing the customer. And that’s sort of our Gearbox ethic.

    Those are our fans. We’re not going to do that to them.

    It’s great to see some developers still utilizing DLC in a positive way. The way it was meant to be!