Gearbox boss Randy Pitchford knows what Borderlands 2’s enemies taste like. We chat about the co-operative writing process that brought Pandora to life, the possibility of a Borderlands film and a mysterious baconic controversy.
2K gave me the opportunity to talk to Randy Pitchford, so I did the right thing and asked him a lot of pertinent questions about Borderlands 2. Then I threw away my notebook and talked quite a lot of irreverent nonsense instead. It did more to sell me on the shooter-RPG hybrid than days of skill tree talk could ever do.
If you don’t know what Borderlands 2 is, you’ve probably been under that rock for quite a while; hype is sky high.
A shooter-RPG hybrid and sequel to the 2009 franchise debut. The original was something of a surprise hit and has proved lastingly popular.
Uses a timeless cell-shaded animation style; replete with humour.
The best bit is the guns. Randomly generated loot means squillions of possible boomsticks.
What was the most popular class in Borderlands 1?
It was really even. Roland was the most popular, but-
That’s really unusual.
It really was. We were actually kind of surprised by that. Especially when we placed our bets at the beginning before we put the game out there, we imagined that there would be some that would run away – but the least played character was played like 20% of the time. There’s only four, so that’s a fifth of the time; that’s pretty amazing.
No pet class this time, except maybe the Mechromancer?
The Mechromancer’s going to become kind of like the pet class. Some people talk about Maya as a pet class, Maya’s phase lock – you know, she can throw out the phase ball, and she has some other abilities.
That’s an interesting comparison.
The soldier’s turret was has some pet-like qualities. When we first imagined that, before we dreamed up the Mechromancer, we were like, we don’t really have the pet class. Wouldn’t it be fun if Axton the commando kind of thought about his turret like a pet?
He does talk to it, doesn’t he.
Yeah. We even took that a step further. No – he’s in love with it. It’s not his pet. It owns him. He refers to it like it’s his wife. “Have you met the missus?!” when he throws out the gun. He talks about it endearingly. Anthony [Burch] did a really great job on the script for that. That was an iterative chain of ideas that led to that.
Were there any weird class ideas that you had to throw out altogether?
Oh, yeah. At the beginning we had a whiteboard just filled. Everyone would come up and write like silly, crazy stuff, like “combat chef”. Just ludicrous kind of ideas. But through them they kind of inspired fun ideas.
I think combat chef would actually be quite cool. Combining ingredients
It would too, right? His melee attack is like a rolling pin.
Frying pan: that’s right.
You love coming to Australia, is the rumour that I heard.
I do. It’s awesome here. first of all, there’s things that live here that you can’t imagine – just weird animals that live here.
A wombat is a bit like a marsupial badger.
It’s probably the least weird thing we have.
Cassowaries, on the other hand? Yeah.
Uh. Do you mean, like … echidnas?
Yes. That is a bizarre creature. A wombat is just such a strange, strange thing. And there’s the obvious like koalas and kangaroos. I was talking about the emu the other day, and I was told about the cassowary. It’s like a badass emu. It’s got like, claws and a horn. It’s really interesting.
Borderlands 1 was really western-feeling, whereas a lot of the environments we’ve seen in Borderlands 2 go to all sorts of places. Are there any regional themed locations? Say, Australia-like? Can I find emus?
Oh I see where you’re going now. It’s an alien planet, so the wildlife there is also very bizarre, and it’s very specific to Pandora. Borderlands 1 we were in the wasteland, arid areas that are dry and dusty, and there’s a specific set of things that live there. When we went into Borderlands 2 and we imagined more of the world, we thought to ourselves, if Pandora is 30 times the size of Earth, and we imagine the diversity in environment and lifeforms just on Earth – imagine what could exist on Pandora.
That opened our minds to all kinds of interesting and new wild creatures. I don’t want to spoil anything, but one of our guys did kind of a map – not a map that shows geography. Imagine a print out or piece of paper and down here are the four hero characters and they’re about that big [a tiny gesture]. All throughout this sheet – it’s a profile look – populated with all the different creatures in the game. Imagine these different things all stacked up. It goes through these little creatures and giant things and stuff flying in the air. You see this array of all these creatures – and then there’s stuff on the end here that’s outside the scope. You just see the feet. It showed us that we have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of things to discover. It’s a beautiful artwork. I think that’s actually included in one of the limited editions – a physical copy of that.
So Terramorpheus – a colossal high-level raid boss shown to us in preview sessions – where does he fit along that scale?
He’s not the largest thing. He’s pretty big. But he’s not the largest creature. There are several things even bigger than him.
There’s at least one that makes him look tiny.
Excellent. I like big epic bosses. Like, “oh now we’re in trouble.”
Yeah, it’s pretty awesome. Especially when you are in trouble, and you have to figure out how to deal with it. Like, “oh you’re just for show aren’t you” – no, no, this is really gonna smack you down.
Are all the boss encounters straight out fights or do you have scripted parts? You know sometimes you get a boss encounter and you think it’s going to be amazing, but then you get a cutscene, or you hit a lever and you’ve solved a puzzle.
We really commit to the mechanics of the game. That said there are some situations where in addition to what you’d normally expect from fighting creatures, there are other environmental hazards and other things that can kind of add extra interest and complexity to certain situations. But no there’s none of that “you triggered a cutscene, which showed you a boss and now you’re doing a totally different kind of gameplay” by button combinations or whatever. That’s not the approach we took.
We do like to present things though, like in Borderlands 1 you meet Zed for the first time you get like a title card? We’ve done a whole lot of title cards for NPCs and monsters, and they’re a lot of fun. But that’s just presentation, and then that goes away and it’s a freeform kind of combat.
Is there a lot of voice acting in the game? Even just with the quips, I didn’t hear that many repeats.
It’s a lot. There’s over 120, 130 characters in Borderlands 2.
Do you use repeat voice actors?
Sometimes. For little bit parts, or you get talent with a lot of range. A lot of people at the studio do different voices – I play the role of Crazy Earl in Borderlands.
You got Ashley Burch [of Hey Ash Whatcha Playin’? fame] in for one as well, right?
Yeah, the Tiny Tina character. [Ashley’s brother] Anthony is part of the Gearbox team and he wrote the script for the game, and when Scott Kester imagined this character, Tiny Tina, and helped give shape to this idea that kind of started to lean towards a personality, and then it just sort of felt like – Ashley could probably kill this. So Anthony asked his sister to do it and then wrote some stuff knowing her voice really well, and it’s really clever stuff, really entertaining. I think a lot of people are going to enjoy it; you don’t need to know who Ashley is to enjoy it.
I’m sure they will; the quality of writing even in the first game was really high already. Why did you change writers anyway, from Mikey Newman to Anthony Burch?
Well, look: it was actually kind of a group process, the way we did it the first time. [Game design director] Matt Armstrong imagined the world and created a lot of the characters and personalities. Then other people created some of the other personalities and characters, and Matt and [producer] Simon [Hurley] wrote a bunch of stuff. And then my wife and I went through and did a full, complete script pass. With that in hand, Mikey went over it all and made it good, because my writing is very dry – I was just trying to accomplish the information part of it. Mikey made it fun and entertaining. Along the way, he amplified a lot of the personalities, and in some cases, created a lot of personalities.
In my run, Tannis – Professor Tannis – she was a really boring scientist type, and I created these logs that were her science logs that you needed for certain information to get through. But I wrote them almost like, [monotone] Captain’s log star date twenty one – really boring and dry and purely informational. Mikey went over them and created this whole new narrative, so when you listen to her story she’s like slowly going insane, and you’re a part of that as it happening. You hear it happening in her logs.
It was actually kind of a group process, the way we did it the first time. So that was a really cool process, but it was kind of a hodge-podge. With Borderlands 2, we really wanted a dedicated mind that was owning all of it. We wanted continuity. So that nothing was invalidating anything else; it all perfectly made sense because there was an awareness there of every bit of it from one mind.
So that was a really cool process, but it was kind of a hodge-podge. With Borderlands 2, we really wanted a dedicated mind that was owning all of it. We wanted – I don’t wanna say consistency, because the characters are so varied and diverse – it’s a continuity. So that nothing was invalidating anything else; it all perfectly made sense because there was an awareness there of every bit of it from one mind. Mikey reached out to Anthony, and basically said, “hey dude, you wanna write Borderlands 2?” and Anthony was like “uh, hell yeah”. So we worked it out really quick and he moved to Texas and joined the studio and gave himself fully to it. He did a great job and we already had a lot of shared philosophy and approach, and he really immediately grokked the style. I’m really proud of that.
He didn’t do it in a vacuum of course, we’re all working on this together. He had a lot of influence and input [from colleagues] and there there were a lot of times where we’d go over everything, from the top-line plot to certain nuances of the characters. Those of us who cared about certain things, and had memory of things from the original game, would go and work with him. For example it was really important to me that when you meet Claptrap, how that all goes, was just sort of right, that it went a certain way with how Claptrap’s supposed to be. I got really close with that and with him and really worked out some stuff – kicked lines back and forth. As a result it feels Borderlands through and through, but there’s a certain cohesiveness and a quality because of Anthony that is a whole new level compared to what we’ve done before.
I see there’s a comic series coming out.
Yeah, Mikey’s writing them all, he’s already written a bunch of them. It’s cool. Mikey did one with the same comic book publisher for Duke Nukem, and Mikey also did the ones for Brothers in Arms. He loves that medium and he does a great job.
Would you like to see Borderlands expand further into that transmedia realm? Like short films, or cartoons? A cartoon would be ace.
That would be cool. But I don’t know. The comic stuff happened because we love comics and Mikey loves writing them. Brian Martel, whose one of my partners, one of the owners of the company; he loves comics and he wanted to see that happen. And David Eddings who is our business dev and licensing guy, he loves comics and he wanted that to happen; he has a good relationship with the comic book guys.
We’re not really running around trying to license the property to other guys. There’s no agenda there; it’s just stuff happens because it can or it should or because the people want it to happen so they make it happen.
That’s how that happened. We’re not really running around trying to license the property to other guys. But we do love to have our fun, and we also respect talent that gets it and loves the space and we’ll work with people on that. But there’s no agenda there; it’s just stuff happens because it can or it should or because the people want it to happen so they make it happen. It’s kind of neat; everything in this world happens because people make it happen. This creation that we’re responsible for – when i say we, I mean humanity – so I can’t just say “oh, I’d love to see a movie” – it would be cool, but I’m in no rush to see a bad movie made.
I’d like to see a tabletop RPG source book made. It’s such a huge setting.
That would be cool. We actually like that idea and we care about that too. Brady Games does the strategy guide for Borderlands and Borderlands 2. For Borderlands 1 they did a limited edition strategy guide that was super thick and has a ton of exclusive content, and that happened because our guys, led by Brian Burlesan who is one of our producers, really cared about it, and just harvested all this material and put what could have been the source book into that strategy guide. That’s our vehicle. We did that again to an even larger degree in the Borderlands 2 strategy guide. The limited edition strategy guide just goes above and beyond.
Now it’s not a pen and paper RPG; it’s really just about the information. There’s so much information there, so much backstory, so many characters and so much detail about the stats of the characters and all the stuff, the enemies, how they all work, that one could conceivably derive from that a pen and paper RPG.
Plug it into GURPS, or whatever.
Conceivably. I’m sure someone has, actually. I would not be surprised. We’ve been approached a couple of times by folks, and like, I love board games, but there’s only so much time and space. You don’t wanna do anything half-assed. You’ve gotta prioritise. But if you know anybody who would do a great job and would really love to do any of those things, encourage them to reach out to us. We’re very receptive of that kind of thing.
The bacon question
PR: One more question.
Oh no, I hate the last question. I always panic and ask something really dumb. Like, is there any bacon in the ga-
There are some bacon references.
I don’t think you’re allowed to produce anything geeky and not put bacon in. There’s probably a law.
We’ve taken some risks there. I’m not gonna spoil it.
It’s not that big a deal.
It’ll be a big deal.
Just know this: [clears throat, leans into dictaphone, and speaks very carefully] the opinions of the characters in Borderlands do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the creators. In fact, oftentimes, we create character to lampoon opinions that we purposefully disagree with.
That sounds quite rehearsed. have you been practicing that?
How would I know that you would mention bacon? I was talking to somebody else about this the other day. It’s like when you watch South Park and you think about what a racist asshole Cartman is. Of course Trey [Parker] and Matt [Stone, creators] are not racist assholes. But they’ve written everything, they’ve voice acted what Cartman says, and they do that lampoon such behaviour and opinions so the rest of us can be like, “that guy’s an idiot; don’t be like Cartman”. He’s like the anti-role model. We have characters that are the same way. So, when you encounter bacon – it’s not that big a deal. I’m just messing around.
Do they even have pigs on Pandora?
No. They have skags?
No. I wouldn’t eat a skag.
They taste a little bit like chicken.
Everything does though. It’s a stretchy flavour.
Bullymongs do not taste like chicken. They’re very difficult to eat actually. There’s a lot of other things. Stalkers. You’d think that they would taste like chicken but they’re actually kind of – I imagine they taste like, if you could blend like, a shellfish – not a clam, but something more snail-like, that if you cook it too much it gets a little tough? Blend that with – have you ever had string cheese? Where it seems like it’s one thing but you can peel the little strings off? Take the texture of a snail stretched out really long and then wrap a bunch of those together. You can shred it, almost like shredded pork, but each little strand is more like –
Ha ha, you’ve really thought about this.
I mean, well, I’m thinking about it now.
You should release a cook book.
I’m thinking about it in real-time. I’m just trying to imagine how it would taste. There should be a Pandora cookbook. That would be good.
Do it. Just allow for substitute meats, in an appendix at the back.
PR: I think Stalker would be more like the flavour of crocodile, but with the texture of overcooked turkey.
The stringiness, yeah, that’s what I’m getting at. Crocodile’s not far off from snail. If you really think about it, it’s got that sea meat influence to it. There should be a cook book. That would be really cool. Bullymong stew.
Send the game to Jamie Oliver. Inspire him.
Someone would have to realise that there’s not actually a Pandora. You can’t actually get these creatures. What are we going to do?
We’re going to Pandora, of course; Borderlands 2 launches on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on September 18 in the US and September 21 elsewhere.