Gameplanet: I love Tiny Tina.
Randy Pitchford: Yeah, really great character.
Gameplanet: Incredibly clever characterisation. I’m hoping she’s not a single high note. What other cameos do you have lined up?
Pitchford: Well I don’t want to spoil anything! Tiny Tina’s a fun one, and I think people will get a kick out of Ellie. But there are a couple of others that have been hinted at. If you preorder the game you get access to Sir Hammerlock. He’s an interesting character as well.
There’s a whole lot of interesting characters that we’ve brought into the game, but we’ve also had a lot of fun bringing some of the characters from the original Borderlands into the story as well. Not just NPCs that we’ve liked – characters like Tannis and Scooter – but also the original heroes are now NPCs, which is interesting because we realised as we were interacting with them in Borderlands 2 that we never quite understood their personalities [before]. Some players spent hundreds of hours playing as Roland, but who is Roland? He’s got personality and his own morality, and he makes decisions. It’s really kind of wild to learn that.
Gameplanet: OK, to take it up a level, what to your mind makes a good videogame character, and is that different to what might make a good character in a book or a film?
Pitchford: I think it depends on the videogame. I think every game has its own rule-set for what works and what doesn’t. In the case of Borderlands, we like personalities that on one level are very plausible, but kind of skirt the edge cases a bit. They might be plausible, but they’re simultaneously exaggerations, and they’re exaggerations of extremities – extreme edge cases from the spectrum of personalities.
We hunt for those personalities, and the process through which those characters developed at Gearbox for Borderlands is not just one guy saying, “I have an idea!” It’s really a collaborative process. After some spitballing, there’ll be some sketches that go around to try and get a look; some thinking about the kinds of things this character might do or say. It’s really iterative. Each push on one of those fronts feeds into the other fronts, you know? So if something interesting develops in character concept art, it’ll affect the characterisation in script or animation, and vice versa. It’s this weird chicken-and-egg loop that iterates.
When it really comes alive is when you get to a point where you’re thinking about other situations and other stuff, and you can ask yourself, “What would this character do? What would Tiny Tina do here?” If it’s very clear what the answer is, and if a number of people around the studio all answer the same way, then the character has a life of its own, it’s a personality and it has its own identity in the world.
Different characters have different goals, and it’s those goals that inspire the spitballing, but also contain it towards the goals – that’s helpful in the process. But it’s really organic. If something feels sticky or interesting but it shouldn’t work, we almost want to dare ourselves to try, and we’ve done a lot of that.
Gameplanet: And outside of characters, that’s something that can be applied to much of the game.
Pitchford: Yeah, it applies to a lot of areas of the game, from story, style and design – absolutely.
Gameplanet: You guys have the bad-ass ranking system which is kind of a meta-device that applies to all the player’s characters. Have you guys thought about other systems that can sit above the game? For example – and thinking about randomly generated loot – Blizzard appears to be enjoying some success with its Auction House in Diablo III. Is that something you’d ever consider?
Pitchford: Yeah, I really like that they took that risk. I get to look at it, and play with it. Somebody at some point was going to do that, and I think it’s neat that it was Blizzard, they really committed to it fully.
I like that, and one of the reasons they could do that was because there was kind of an economy around buying and selling items in Diablo II, even outside the game. They kind of felt they were doing the community a service by securing that economy rather than just letting it be this risky, loose thing. There were a lot of people getting ripped off, and other bad things would happen.
I think for our game, there are some things that are required, and we’re certainly not ready to take that step with Borderlands 2. One of those things is: if you’re going to have a real-world economy come into play, all those items have to be really secure, and that virtual property has to be bulletproof, and what that required in Diablo’s case was a permanent online ecosystem, which means if you want to play offline: sorry.
I love that they took the bold move to do so, but I don’t think we could do it. We don’t have the confidence to just deny what we know will be a percentage of our user base in the use cases they’d want to use it in by making it online-only.
But I will say this: We are taking steps to sort of have our cake and eat it, too. We did create an online infrastructure, and if you do choose to play online, there’s a lot more there. There’s a deeper relationship between us and the user, a lot of telemetry. We can support cloud saves and other kinds of things, and we hope to expand on that. Conceivably, that could lead to a point where there could almost be two worlds: Here’s the real, online, secure version of the game, and this is where you can do something like an Auction House. But then there’s this other offline “hippy free-love” version that you can modify, you can manipulate and do whatever you want.
That’s a possible future that we’ve been heading towards, and we’re not committed to any [one] future, and there’s no plan to prioritise [any one future].
Gameplanet: You mention modding. That’s become newly popular again, particularly in the wake of DayZ’s success. Is that something you'd like to support?
Pitchford: There’s been a lot of mod support for Borderlands and we hope people have fun with Borderlands 2. I think that – I don’t know about resurgent – I think it depends on where you’re looking and how you define a mod. Overall, the number of people that are participating in our hobby has increased, and I think the number of tools that exist where people can be creators, not just consumers of content, has also increased. I think the number of people that are contributing to that creation has also increased.
But I think it’s measured differently. There was a time when, as a PC gamer, you could go to a single place, and the “only” thing that existed was Quake, and there were all these Quake mods. It was the focal point. Now there’s a whole bunch of different ecosystems that manifest in a whole different way, and Quake doesn’t really exist anymore – it still exists, but there hasn’t been a new Quake that has really followed in the same footsteps.
But to say modding has gone away takes something away from games like LittleBigPlanet or Minecraft, or guys just hacking stuff together like what they’re doing in ArmA, what they’re doing in Borderlands. There’s a lot of that going on. I see this happening, and I think it’s really neat. There’s a lot of cool ideas coming from that, and a lot of potential coming from that.
Gameplanet: It has to be a positive for the industry as well, right? It’s a good way to identify new talent.
Pitchford: Oh yeah. I really respect what Epic does as well, for example. You can go to their site right now and download Unreal Engine 3 and a development kit, and you can make not just a mod, you can make a game. Valve is doing the same thing. You can download their tools and make levels for Portal or make movies, and game modifications out of Half-Life. There are a whole lot of games like that, and I think it’s really cool.
Gameplanet: What do you consider to be is the most exciting new development in games? What has occurred that has made you sit up?