When Borderlands 2 is released on September 18, it will expand on the comic-book wasteland setting of its predecessor in more than a fictional way. The first game, a combination of first-person shooters, role-playing games, and massively-multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft, set itself apart for offering players approximately one million guns to use. This was accomplished through a technique called procedural generation, in which individual gun parts are randomly mixed and matched to create an overwhelming number of mathematically unique fake firearms. The sequel sees a return to the alien world Pandora, and an emphasis on the fictional brands behind its truest personalities-the faithful guns that dangle before you on the screen.
Speakeasy caught up with Gearbox’s Design Producer Randy Varnell and Concept Designer Kevin Duc, who created the game’s gun designs, about industrial design and historical flavor.
Kevin Duc: We had a lot of wants to represent different ideas-very specific manufacturer flavors that we wanted to get across. We’ve got eight different manufacturers. How do we make all the different players feel loyal to a particular brand? I had to give that a visual style and describe that through shapes, through colors, make the weapons look like the way they’re gonna play.
Randy Varnell: And we did that for eighty seven bajillion guns!
How much would you say that the Texas environment shapes this fascination with guns and gun culture? How much of that appeal is in the atmosphere there?
Duc: I don’t know if it’s a Texas thing or an American thing, it’s just kind of…they go boom and it’s fun you know? [laughs]
Varnell: Gearbox has done shooters for a decade now. And I think that’s even more the pull for us than the gun fascination. We’re all gamers who love shooters, that’s in the DNA of the company. I think even more than the Texas thing it affects our ability-when we started [the first] Borderlands it was like, “How can we make a lot of guns?” And so coming up with a system where we’re not only designing ten, twenty, fifty guns, but they’re procedurally built. So when he talks about designing a gun, this dude is not just coming up with the look of one gun, he’s coming up with bits and parts and pieces that can be mixed and matched with all sorts of other guns. And they all have to look good!
Do you find that certain players develop attachments to certain brands within the game?
Duc: Yeah absolutely. We have an internal focus group that plays the game quite a bit; we always have fresh guys coming in and taking a look. And even in an hour or two hours they have their type of guns that they like to play with. And it’s really fun how excited they get about them; they’re able to describe them to us … it’s definitely making an impact really quick.
Varnell: It really comes down to, how do you like to play the game? I like to get up close with a shotgun and do big damage, I like to be the sniper, or I like to spray the battlefield with a submachine gun. We make sure that all those roles are represented-we made sure that every manufacturer and every big category of gun, there’s some player that love those. We don’t try to make every gun loved by every player. And that kind of variety in options really just gives you an ability to find those as a player-and there are millions and millions of combinations, so you’re gonna find your favorite guns. Probably more than one.
Duc: Well we’ve got the design team creating a very robust system. So you have all these systems underlying the game. And all art’s doing is delivering that content to the players in a meaningful and easy to read way. And in a fun way. So the two systems, I think they definitely do work together and they’re not damaging each other at all. If anything, they’re reinforcing each other. When you’re shooting a gun-say it’s an amp gun-you’re gonna see green numbers flying out, or purple numbers flying out. With electricity, blue-those visual cues are letting the players know exactly what’s going on. And then the numbers are telling them even more information.
Varnell: Pandora’s a fictional world. We love being in a place we haven’t been before, seeing things we haven’t seen before. And you certainly see that not just in the guns but in the creature variety, the places you go, and the characters you meet. Borderlands 1 was full of rich characters and a lot of those are coming back-Claptrap and Marcus and Moxie. Those are those great names [laughs] and over-the-top personalities.
The primary antagonist of the game is a guy named Handsome Jack, who is actually head of the Hyperion corporation. Hyperion is one of the major manufacturers of guns. They’re going to be a big part of the story in this game, and if you get Hyperion guns, not only do they look like these really sleek, stylized sci-fi guns, but even their names are sort of these corporate agenda-type names-like human resources. There’s a gun called Rapid Development, it’s almost like these development terms-project management-like, you know, the corporate element of the guns. And adding that as a flavor element draws you into the fiction of what is Hyperion corporation. Not only are the guns named like that; the longer you shoot with the gun, the longer its aim becomes, the more accurate the gun becomes. So if you’re shooting with an assault rifle your last few rounds are going to be hyper-accurate. You know they’re gonna kind of zoom in on your target. You know it’s the same thing with the corporation.
I think great games really do that. You can’t have that without good gameplay-but then they also bring you into a fantasy fictional world that you also don’t get to experience every day in real life. You get to do it, you get to experience this, it gets to be in your feet, your fingers, your hands. That’s just what we love about it at Gearbox.
Were you working directly with the designers on the mechanics for every gun, in terms of saying, “This is how the gun works, this is the style, this is how you extrapolate…”
Duc: Absolutely. You have the small seed of an idea-it could just be a couple sentences describing what they’re wanting to see. An artist comes in, our team of concept guys draws some stuff out, and we’ll go back with the designers, give it to the mesh guy, then the 3D guys are gonna put their bits there-everyone contributes to what the guns end up being in the game, from concept, design, animation-and then audio on top, there’s kind of the finishing touch. We start making these drawings; design might change their ideas on how that might behave. Or everyone might be introduced to mechanics they may not have thought of.
Can you give me an example?
Duc: A great example would be Torgue. Torgue was gonna be our Americana-I think the original idea was the kind of Rambo ’80s action movie star kind of gun. I started drawing and I started looking at influences from old chopper motorcycles. I was looking at 1950s warplanes, just engine blocks-started drawing some real big shapes. And as we got into these big shapes and we got into the 3D artists, the design guys were looking at these and saying, “These look like powerful guns.” And so they made the decision to make Torgue the explosives-they actually shoot a very specific projectile; they shoot gyro-jets, which are little rocket-propelled explosives. So art giving its influence spawned these design ideas. It was a really neat back-and-forth. And then audio came in on top and gave it a name…