Ahead of its long-awaited release – the 22 million unit selling Borderlands 2 arrived seven years ago – VGC caught up with Paul Sage, creative director at Gearbox Software, to discuss balancing corporate and community expectations, the dangers of slipping into creative boredom during lengthy development cycles, and the importance of humour to the series, among other topics.
After reading the interview, check out our Borderlands 3 review round-up to see what critics think of Gearbox’s loot shooter sequel.
You have to take all of those pressures, put them aside, and focus on the game you want to make. It’s about the game first. If we create a fun game, then people will come. I know that sounds easy, but when I say internal pressures, I mean the constant, ‘what if we did this? What if we did that?’ We know what Borderlands is and we need to decide how we can make it better.
It feels like this instalment is well overdue. Is now the best possible time to release it though, with the console install base near its maximum?
I hope so. As a developer we want as many people to play as possible. That’s why you create a game, right? You want as many people as possible to go in and have fun. There’s obviously a fiscal responsibility side to that question, which is up to the ‘suits’ so to speak. For me it’s about working out how we can get this to more people – that’s always my goal as a developer and then you have to leave it to other people. We just create the game.
To extend that question, would you feel any pressure if you were going later than this year, with all the new platforms due in 2020?
We don’t talk about this very often but internally, most of the people you hire to be creative. What you don’t want to do is have them slip into creative boredom, where they feel like they’re a factory worker. So what you’re hoping for is that you get the game out where you had enough time to put the game out, with a lot of new features and yet it didn’t take so long to develop that your team members end up continuously changing stuff because they’re in this weird kind of boredom. That’s a real trick to get that timing just right.
How important is Stadia for reaching a wider audience?
That’s a Nostradamus question right there! I don’t know. It’s startling… probably the most startling thing I’ve seen in the games industry in the past ten years. The question is, how will everybody else react to Stadia? I’m excited for it and I’m waiting to see what the reaction is. I’m really curious to see how it will be accepted by players.
“There was a big name in movies who told me one time that entertainment is a risk: it’s like going to Las Vegas, with people putting their money in. I don’t want to seem like I don’t care, but at the same time you have to take a risk for something to potentially become great.”
Borderlands 3 marketing is everywhere this year. Do you not feel some nerves to deliver when you spot a gigantic Borderlands billboard?
You have to put that out of your head. Because if you take that pressure in too much, you get too worried and you’re almost stunned because you’re so worried about everything. Maybe it sounds a little bit brash, but you have to take yourself out of that situation.
There are two jobs for me; to create the best game possible for the players and secondly to represent a really great team. When you see people work as hard as the team I’m fortunate enough to be here representing, you just hope you say things that they would be proud of. I feel more pressure representing the team than I worry about marketing spend.
There was a big name in movies who told me one time that entertainment is a risk: it’s like going to Las Vegas, with people putting their money in. I don’t want to seem like I don’t care, but at the same time you have to take a risk for something to potentially become great.
How frustrating was the backlash to the Epic Games store exclusivity for the team?
For us, we’re out to make a great game and you have to trust that the other teams you work with, who might have any number of things that they’re doing at any time to make your game great. There has to be trust. That was a largely 2K decision.
I just want people to be able to play the game, that’s my goal. As long as people are playing the game and having fun, that’s where my consideration is.
“Honestly, I think now is a better time for game communities than it used to be.”
You’re experienced with working with big game communities from your time as creative director at Elder Scrolls Online developer ZeniMax. What have you learned from your experience about how you balance who you listen to?
Who should you listen to in the community? Everybody and nobody! It’s a weird thing. Let’s take our internal community, our team: you can ask our team, ‘what’s Borderlands to you?’ and you’ll get a bunch of different answers. So what you do is pick out the things that are commonalities. The audience is the same. Everybody remembers things slightly differently, but you do start to notice trends and things the community gravitates towards.
You have to listen to people but you also need to watch what players are doing. That’s one of the things that you take away: why is this appealing to somebody and how do we make sure that players are getting those things?
Is it more difficult to manage a community today, compared to the days when you just shipped a game on a disc and that was it?
It seems better now. For example, in the old days you could ship a game and never see anybody play it. The whole point of creating games is to watch people have fun and to drive that excitement for a little while, forget your shitty day and have a really good time and smile. I get to see that now and I never got to see that before.
We will sometimes get into a habit of concentrating on the negatives when there are all these positives out there, watching people playing and having a great time. It just drives you in such a good way to see that.
Yeah, there are always going to be people who don’t have a good time but that’s why you’re out there creating. You can’t create something that everybody loves: there needs to be some negatives to drive that passion. We even talk about our guns internally like, there have to be some guns that people don’t like so that there are other guns that people really like. Honestly, I think now is a better time for game communities than it used to be.
Borderlands is known for its comedic tone. Is it tough to create comedy in interactive entertainment? Why don’t we see more of it?
It’s difficult. It’s very difficult to get it right. I keep using two words: genuine irreverence. Because in the team we very genuinely develop our characters because we have to imbue them with things people can relate to, whether that be emotion, situational awareness or whatever. If you don’t have the genuine element to your characters, you’re missing the bit that people can relate to.
The irreverence is necessary because that’s how we get some of our humour and our surprise. These are terrible circumstances we put some of our characters in, but their ability to bounce back out of it with an irreverent attitude is what makes players like them.
The other point is – and I would love to see this be adopted more in games – is balancing the tension throughout the game, because if it’s always tense then eventually it’s like a rubber band that’s going to snap, and players are going to stop paying attention. Our humour allows us to break that tension with comic relief. I think that’s really important to drive home: the humour is one of the secret things that enables players to stick with the game for a long time.
But also, you run that risk of some players saying, ‘oh, that’s not my style of humour’. But we do have a lot of different types of humour in the game and hopefully that lands with people.
Do you think comedy-based games can have even more humour today in a world that’s not always very happy?
It depends on your point of view a lot of the time, right? We think the world isn’t very happy right now but imagine World War II, or the Vietnam era. We always struggle with our times so I think yeah, humour does provide that means of escape, which is exactly why I do what I do. Games give a means of escape to people who’ve maybe had a bad day and that’s the joy of what we do. I’m not a doctor, but I do think entertainment is important.