How Gearbox's culture makes Borderlands 2 work
To effectively design a game, you have to really understand it, says Gearbox's Carl Shedd, level designer on Borderlands 2. To create an environment for making great games in, you need a company where people are more worried about the games than anything else -- including their careers.
To understand a game, says Shedd, "You have to play it. That's something with Borderlands 2 that we're always doing, we're always, constantly playing it. Really, you have to do that -- experience it and understand where it's at, so you can get an understanding of where you stand."
The practical upshot of this is that "we all know what our goal is when we build the space. We understand what this space was created for. We understand what story beats we're trying to hit with it, and then it's just that kind of tug of war -- a friendly tug of war -- in accommodating combat, gameplay, and then the visuals." The team tries to be as collaborative, and accommodating, as possible.
Designers pass maps back and forth to iterate on different elements. Having everyone really understand what purpose each serves -- achieved via that constant gameplay -- makes accommodating each other much simpler.
But it can be hard to hew to the goal of constantly playing the game. "It's easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day and forget the big picture," Shedd warns.
And when you're not working on a sequel to a beloved game, it can be more of a challenge. "I can see where if you were creating something new there's that aversion to jumping in there and playing something that's not complete," says Shedd. "And then getting in that pattern of training yourself not to be playing."
The style of working at Gearbox, he says, is very "organic," and developers are empowered to make their own decisions -- key to delivering a good experience, he suggests.
"We can move quickly when we need to make a change. There's some fluidity and freedom. There's a lot of trust at Gearbox with the talent, to let them make decisions in an instant that need to be made to make the game better. There's not a lot of bureaucracy in the way."
In fact, he says, management is there to "mentor us, and they guide us, but at the same time, there is a large amount of respect."
The world of Gearbox is one in which developers move into lead roles due to their desire to make better games, says Shedd. "A lot of our leads have such interesting personalities that it's not about being a lead for the sake of only advancing your career. It's a position that you hold to help better the product."
"You have people who will be lead for a project," says Shedd. "Next project comes up, they say, 'I want to make some maps again. I want to get out of management and get my hands dirty,' and someone else will step in and take that. Everybody learns from that, and I think everybody can appreciate that lack of ego."
"It creates a comfort with your peers," says Shedd.
"I think Gearbox is great at listening to an individual's passion," he says. "They'll try to accommodate you, and if it's a fit, they'll go for it."
If people make decisions related to making good games -- and not career moves -- then it fosters the whole studio caring about how its games are made. If people get to do what they want, then they feel listened to, and they care more. "If you have a bunch of people who aren't passionate about a project, then what good are they?" Shedd asks.