Gearbox Software is no stranger to skepticism. When the company first started showing 2009's Borderlands to people, it was greeted with incredulity and the well-intentioned advice to "just do more Brothers in Arms." Now, millions of sales later, and with Borderlands 2 distinguishing itself as publisher 2K Games' best-selling title, few would question the wisdom of developing that madcap game. But doubters always persist, and their attention may be turned to Gearbox's first new IP in a long time: Battleborn.
If Borderlands was unusual for its combination of frenetic first-person shooter action with the more strategic elements of role-playing games, Battleborn is even less amenable to genre classification because it tries to also integrate elements of multiplayer online battle arena games. It's Mass Effect meets Halo meets Dota 2. Yes, that's as crazy a recipe as one for green pea guacamole, but dammit it sure seems to work. I tried Battleborn during Gamescom in Cologne earlier this month and it left me with a huge grin on my face.
A huge grin and a burning curiosity to know more.
This week, I caught up with the person responsible for safely steering the Battleborn ship from here to its February 9th release date, Gearbox president and CEO Randy Pitchford. Despite his lofty title, Pitchford is very obviously a game designer first and foremost, and his careful study of what makes games fun to play is immediately apparent. Battleborn has a comical aesthetic and doesn't take itself too seriously, but the design underpinning the game is the very opposite: thoughtful, deliberate, and beguilingly sophisticated.
The kernel from which Battleborn sprouted, Pitchford says, was Gearbox's belief that the joy and reward of role-playing games could be delivered in a more condensed form. Pitchford and his team set themselves the challenge of taking the RPG loop — win fights, collect loot, buy items, and improve your hero so you can win more fights — and tighten it from the 40 or 50 hours that might be required to max out a Borderlands character to something immediate enough to please gamers who might only have a half-hour to spare. The first game that gave him confidence that his goal was possible was Warcraft 3, where characters could be leveled up during the course of a match, and he then spent a lot of time playing the Defense of the Ancients mod of that game (which was to become Dota 2) and the ever-popular League of Legends. He saw how those MOBA titles recreated the satisfaction of developing a character in a format that didn't require days of committed, grinding effort.
Nonetheless, Gearbox's expertise is in making first-person shooters and Pitchford tells me that FPS is still his favorite interface for playing any game. So how did he hope to bridge the gap between his favored genre and this new class of multiplayer games? The answer, he noticed, was that there wasn't really much of a gap at all: the appeal of MOBAs isn't actually tied to their overhead view. The interface, he says, is "like the mouse pointer on a desktop," it's just a conduit, and what matters is the experience you're interacting with.
Pitchford's greatest insight, in my judgment, is to perceive MOBAs not as true multiplayer games, but as single-player experiences with multiplayer layered on top. In an FPS, he notes, "if there’s only one player left in the game, you win by default." There's no game left to play. But in a match of Dota, a solitary player still has minions and defensive structures to contend with. He or she can still level up and develop, independently of the other human participants. That's how a typical MOBA game is played: heroes feed on the cannon fodder minions spawning from their enemy's base until they're strong enough to attempt to battle each other. And ultimately, their goal is to destroy the enemy's base, not kill the enemy. Murder is just a convenient shortcut.
Armed with that understanding, Pitchford says you can take a first-person shooter and turn it into a much more accessible and varied gaming experience. You're no longer tied down to a narrow set of skills. Sure, you'll still need a fast trigger finger and impeccable reactions, but players that are able to farm and loot the map faster, gain more levels, and make better upgrade and item choices, will have a fighting chance as well. Equally important, the newbie thrown into a competitive FPS match is usually treated to a series of unhappy beatdowns, with no positive reinforcement. In a MOBA title, and in games like Battleborn and Titanfall, no matter how uninformed or unskilled you may be, there will always be lowly NPC underlings to crush and things to destroy.
Perhaps my familiarity with Dota helps here, but when I first jumped into Battleborn, the game was immediately intuitive and betrayed no hint of the contrast of styles that it was blending together. There's really nothing preventing hero upgrades and evolution through the course of an FPS match, and Battleborn makes this easy with a bifurcated skill tree that allows me to choose my next augmentation with lightning quickness. Not only is this extra element possible, it's also incredibly fun, and Pitchford stresses that "leveling up is awesome," and was always a fundamental part of the game his company wanted to build.
The modularity of competitive online multiplayer is embedded into a more connected, narrative-driven structure
Beyond the gameplay, Gearbox had to also think about how to present each match and battle so as to properly combine the depth of role-playing games with the kinetic immediacy of first-person shooters and general lack of narrative in MOBAs. The answer was to adopt an episodic structure, says Pitchford: "each scenario in Battleborn is kind of like a TV episode, you can play them in any order, and each one has a beginning, middle, and end. And they are super replayable." His team is taking the modularity of competitive online multiplayer and embedding it into the traditional structure of single-player, story-driven titles. It's a compromise between the two, of course, but it certainly adds more meaning to the team-based scuffles and clashes that you'll be partaking in, while also making the storyline feel more alive with the inclusion of co-op play.
MOBA games are famous for their infinite hero customizations and cosmetic items that players can buy — which has proven lucrative enough for Valve and Riot Games to support their games as free-to-play titles — however Pitchford stresses that Gearbox will not be "trying to make money by selling hats." He's fully conscious of the user demand for customization, and Battleborn will bring a new level of sophistication to how extensively hero models can be modded, but this will be a game that follows traditional retail economics. There's an undercurrent in his response that tells me he's more worried about completing and releasing the game on time, and mods and other downloadable additions will be things to address once the bigger task is completed.
There is also the fact that Battleborn will come with 25 distinct characters that not only look different, but also function very differently. Whereas in Borderlands every hero moved at the same speed, and fired weapons and crouched in the same way, in Battleborn each has his or her (or its) own unique physics. "Some can fly, some are only melee, each jumps to a different height," says Pitchford, and instead of a single hero-specific action skill, you have a whole plethora of abilities. And what's coolest about the whole thing is that those abilities will then either mesh or clash with your teammates' skills, adding an extra layer of depth and replayability to the multiplayer game and encouraging you to experiment. "The meta game design," says Pitchford, "is such that you'll want to play with more heroes," whether it be to overcome particular loot-granting challenges that are best suited to a given hero, or just to find the best synergies in a five-person team. And oh yes, winning matches will drop hero-specific loot, so that will be another nudge to get you to play with more than just space marine Oscar Mike.
"You have total agency to decide who you’re gonna choose and how you’re gonna play."
Paramount in Gearbox's design of Battleborn have been two things: accessibility and flexibility. The game should be easy to get into and it should adapt to your particular demands. Randy Pitchford summarizes it as an effort to make it so that "for the most part, you have total agency to decide who you’re gonna choose and how you’re gonna play." And if you have the extra time and inquisitiveness to delve deeper, "a lot of it is emergent from the experience you’re having in the game itself." You'll be drawn in to learn each character's backstory and skill set simply because the game is fun and well designed, and because it has enough variety to let you invent unforeseen hero and ability combinations. What else could you possibly ask for from a game?
Battleborn will be released on PC, PS4, and Xbox One on February 9th next year, and yes, there will be local co-op. Long live the split screen madness!