Gaming industry, you have Borderlands creators Matthew Armstrong and Jimmy Sieben to thank for making your next game a bit easier to manage. The ScreenBurn at SXSW panel “Systemic Development in Borderlands: 16,164,886=1", explored the design elements and the technical systems that made Borderlands possible. With the gun count in the game reaching into eight-digit levels and counting, not to mention all the fine-tuning one might expect from attempting to balance 16,000,000+ guns, these Gearbox Software wizards sat down with the gaming populace at large to set the record straight on how systemic development was the ultimate answer for Borderlands.
Borderlands stemmed from the idea of marrying two genres: the visceral action of the first-person shooter (FPS) along with the depth and choices of the role-playing game (RPG). This hybrid of genres would later be coined the role-playing shooter, but there were several roadblocks that impeded both Armstrong and Sieben from their vision.
“In a RPG, your identity is your character; you make choices, suffer consequences, and grow attached to your character as the narrative goes on,” Sieben said. “In a FPS though, your identity is your gun. The only difference between you and other characters is what type of weapon you have.”
The idea was then set in motion to have the gun become a part of your identity, and just as gamers have many customization options when creating characters in RPGs such as World of Warcraft, so too did Borderlands need to adopt this method in creating identity, or in this case the player's gun. 16,000,000 and counting guns to be a bit more exact, a fact that Armstrong admits was a challenge since conception.
“Obviously we couldn't test every single gun, even though all of them have their own attributes and stats just as a character would in a RPG,” Armstrong said. “Instead you build limits, rules into the framework, and a set of tools to test as many of the guns as you can.”
This way of systemic development had Sieben and Armstrong come up with Gear Builder, a system implemented where players first pick what kind of weapon they want, which in-game manufacturer of weapons best suits them, and finally the parts associated with those weapon and manufacturer options. Each weapon can be crafted to the player's imagination, giving way to the visual identity of the gun. But as is the case with systemic development, the dangers can lie in problems falling through the cracks.
“Because of our system and it's complex formula, when you've built one gun, you've essentially built them all,” Sieben said. “If we fix one bug, then we have fixed many bugs in all of the guns, but miss one bug and all guns have the bug.”
Other issues popped up aside from the guns themselves, from how to level up millions upon millions of guns to how each of the guns would react with the many character classes in the game. The solution? More systems for each major component along with its own complex formula. This synergy between all the game components ended up becoming a powerful system which allowed designers to create and drive the game rather than programmers and coders.
“We shipped a game with 15 million guns we didn't test, but if our system is right, then the million we did will be good enough,” Sieben said.
Critics and fans alike seem to echo Sieben's sentiments with high average scores through review collection site Metacritic.com and sales jumping off the charts. While system implementation solves classes upon classes of problems, Armstrong knows that the game can be quirky from time to time.
“We have guns that shoot bullets in the shape of happy faces, guns that have zero percent accuracy, and weapons that have two scopes on it that just wouldn't work in the real world,” Armstrong said. “But that's ok! This is Borderlands, we can get away with oddities cause it's meant to be over-the-top.”
ScreenBurn at SXSW never fails to bring together the brightest minds of the industry. Seeing an idea all the way through to completion, Sieben and Armstrong answer one last question that brings the panel home.
“Some people who have played through the game multiple times think it's a flaw that the gun they created is better than some of the boss rewards,” Armstrong said. “Then I remind them they played the game multiple times.”
“But that's the intention though, the gun is your identity, and when you come to a decision on whether you should drop your gun for another, it should be hard cause you wouldn't easily throw away your identity,” Sieben said.
Well played Armstrong and Sieben, well played.