[Gearbox writer Anthony Burch and concept designer Scott Kester talk about how they view the direction they should be taking with the Borderlands sequel, touching on narrative, art, and design decisions that keep the game interesting for players.]
The first Borderlands took what was seen as a big creative risk in terms of its tone, art direction, and its blend of elements from the shooter and loot-based action RPG genres. There was also a big payoff: strong reviews and big sales.
The team at Gearbox reconvened to define the direction of the upcoming sequel. Of course, the expectation is "more, more, more of the same," but Gearbox's Anthony Burch, writer and Scott Kester, concept designer, don't quite see it that way.
In this conversation, they describe the reasons for setting the game five years after the conclusion of the prior game's final DLC pack, why they set the game in new types of environments and how they build them, and how the team keeps the writing for the game both dark and humorous.
In Borderlands 2, the writing is quite interesting because it's very sarcastic, sort of tongue-in-cheek. How big is the writing team on the game?
Anthony Burch: You're looking at it. [laughs]
AB: I'm the only person with the credit "writer". I mean, the overall story was hashed out by myself and Paul Hellquist, with some help from Jeramy Cooke, who's the art director; Paul Hellquist is creative director, and Mikey Neumann who is the... what's his official title? "Mikey Neumann" is his official title. And yeah, we hashed out the story over a couple months, and I am writing the script and all the battle dialogue.
Obviously I haven't seen too much of this one yet, but I've played the original. It's got a very specific character; the whole game is very much imbued with character. How do you keep everyone on the same page, creatively?
AB: It's usually like, I'll write something, and the parts that stick out as being right will go out to the team. I'm constantly going between different departments.
A lot of game developers will be like, "Yeah we have a writer; he's totally part of the design team!" and he writes the script and leaves. Every time we want to build a new location or something like that, we have a meeting, and I'm involved in all of that stuff. So it's kind of going back and forth on that stuff.
And the guiding light is always that Borderlands can be funny, but it's also got to have a hard edge to it. So if you look at the character of Scooter in the first game, he's like "Haha! Funny redneck guy!' and says goofy things, but at the end of the day he has you save a guy from being killed just so he can murder him slowly, off-screen, for having sex with his mom. So there's still a little bit of an edge there, and that's always the place we want to go to prevent things from being too silly.
And you, Scott, are the concept designer. What does that role entail?
Scott Kester: I created all the main characters. I'm an artist; I created all the main characters, a lot of the environments, props, and things. When we changed the art style, I was one of the guys that took the first crack at redesigning all the characters.
You mean during development of the original game?
It's a very distinctive game. I feel like people are afraid to try stuff like this. Still, it's good that you did.
SK: Yeah, and one of the realities of when we were doing the first one was we took that risk to change that, and a lot of people thought we were crazy. But we knew it was something that we really wanted to do.
And we felt the game, with its gameplay -- with the shooting elements and the RPG, the fusion of that -- we felt we needed something that wasn't the norm, to bring that triad together together. And it was a gamble, but we're very appreciative that people accepted it, because it's one of those things where people could easily go, "What is this?!"
AB: "Cartoon game?!"
SK: "This is all silly!", and we weren't sure how it was going to be taken. I'll be honest -- I was extremely nervous when the first screenshots were released; I was like, "Oh my God, they're going to hate what we're doing." There was a little bit of a mix, but overall it really showed that it was nice that we tried something a little unique and people took to it.
So we're hoping that maybe across the industry we see a little more, not just our game, but maybe people trying some things. But in this day and age, with budgets as what they are, it's a gamble to take a risk. So we stuck to our guns, and it paid off for us.