E3 2015: 2K Games on Battleborn’s Creative Process and Future

Gearbox is very much known for making some of the most diverse and comical shooters on the market. Their breakaway hit last generation was Borderlands, and the Texas-based studio is looking to define this generation with Battleborn. We sat down with Publishing Producer for Battleborn at 2K Games, Chris Thomas to talk about Gearbox’s upcoming online-centric title.

Hardcore Gamer: Let’s start off with a general overview of Battleborn.

Chris Thomas: Sure. The whole premise is that Battleborn is set in this distant future where all of the stars in the entire universe have gone dark or have been destroyed and there’s essentially these five factions, all the remaining civilizations that had survived all this have either moved or some cases have travelled to the Solus system that is around the final star in the universe. In the wake of all that happening, a huge war broke out between these five factions and the Battleborn, heroes of the game, are a mixture of these factions, and they find out there’s some mysterious, dark evil force that is speeding up the process of these stars being burned out and essentially has their sights on destroying Solus and the last star in the system. So, the twenty-five Battleborn you get to play in the game, have banded together to fight whatever this mysterious evil is and save the universe.

Is there one core antagonist pulling all of the strings?

In the game you got to fight the crazy black creatures. Those are called the Varelse. That is just one of the big threats. You also saw in the trailer a guy with a really angular face who brought the ship down and shot out the glass, he was talking to you during the demo, he’s pretty much the main antagonist, at least as much as I can go into.

Gearbox has such a strong art team, with Borderlands and past games highlighting their strengths, but the plot of this seems fairly dark with the inevitable extinction of all life in the universe. Was there any consideration for Gearbox to do a visually gritty shooter as opposed to the artistically vibrant one Battleborn is currently sporting?

You know, like you saw with Borderlands, Gearbox is incredibly good with making characters, really cool environments and these stylized art styles, and it was kind of funny, we had a lot of discussions about how dark the premise the game seemed early on and the main reason they wanted to do that and the reason they fell in love with that story was because it allowed them to go crazy with their imagination. You can just imagine what the universe would be like if every living creature could survive it were packed around the same system. That’s why you got all this diversity among the characters.

As far as why they didn’t go grittier versus the stylized nature, it was just an artistic direction for the team over there, the same team that did Borderlands so, they love that stylized art, and it’s quite a bit different from Borderlands but also a little familiar.

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Considering the game’s heavy focus on multiplayer and cooperative modes, what kind of narration does the campaign hold? Is it more mission segmented, or is there a certain flow to the structure?

It’s more mission structured. There’s an overarching narrative that is told in the story mode but the way it’s played out is through these long missions. The one that’s in the demo is, I don’t know how long that mission continues forward, but there’s a lot more to it after where you saw it get cut off. But that’s a really cool structure for us from a being able to play all these characters standpoint, because you could play any one of those missions with any of the characters, not being locked into just one, and you’re going to level up from one to ten, go through the character’s complete progression every time you play a match.

Whether you play a competitive match or you play the story mode, you’re going to be able to start over from level one and go all the way down the helix and unlock the abilities. You get to try a bunch of different things and play styles and that feeds into the actual character’s progression. Each character you play, the longer you play it, those characters will actually level up, and you’ll unlock new skins for the characters and more choices along the helix tree. So you can get a different mixture how to customize your character for all the different play styles.

As you stated, every match you start from level one and make your way up to level ten. Why the decision to go with this level progression rather than a traditional skill tree?

It was mostly because [Gearbox] really wanted to build off these cool abilities and ultimates you get to use when you get to level 5. They wanted to give each character something fun a unique, and to be able to level up through that tree in one single match, you can see that entire progression in a short amount of time. In a lot of games, Borderlands is a good example, you’re not unlocking that final skill until 40 to 50 hours in (probably even longer for me), so they wanted to speed that up and get people in the game, especially when you see competitive multiplayer. It’s complete insanity having all those characters fighting each other and dropping their ultimates on each other. It’s a lot of fun.

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Gearbox is very much known for their loot system in Borderlands, with millions of random combinations of weapons and gear. Has this made the transition over to Battleborn in any way?

You probably saw in the demo that, all we’re showing right now is there’s these shards you can pick up and crystals you can shatter along the way. These are used for currency but you can use it for building turrets, upgrading sentries and a few other things. There’s a little bit more to the loot system that we’re going to be talking about in a little later.

Will you be able to store crystals after the match is done, or are they strictly confined within the mission itself?

The crystals are specifically just for the match.

It was announced there would be twenty-five characters at launch. How do you maintain such a strong diversity of characters among such a large cast?

It’s difficult. It’s very difficult. One of the things that Gearbox did early on in the development is they opened up the entire company for character pitches. They basically said, here’s a set of rules, we don’t care if you’re a QA guy, artist, engineer, production guy, and they even opened up to 2K as well, and they basically spent a part of each day for weeks, for a really long time, where people would be submitting character pitches. Like the craziest characters you could possibly imagine; stuff that would never make be put into real production. But, you’d go through all these pages and see all these pitches, and some of them really stood out. You see something like Rath, and they’d take him and flesh that character out even further. Those are the ones that made it into full production and ended up on the full cast.

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Do you have a personal favorite?

I do. Orendi. If you haven’t play Orendi, she’s the little Chaos Mage. Her VO is hilarious.

She seems a little crazy. Tiny Tina-esque.

Yes, and same actress. But [Orendi] is just insane. But her abilities are the reason why I like her, because she does a ton of damage and she’s also very mobile. That’s kind of my thing. I want to be running around, jumping, bursting backwards, and doing all these cool mobility movements. But also, I’m dropping insane pillars of magic on people… and she has four arms. That’s kind of awesome.

Considering there are a number of thrown away or shelved character designs that Gearbox and 2K employees pitched, can we expect to see future support for more characters or any forms of content?

Gearbox and 2K are right now solely focused on trying to pack as much as we possibly can into the boxed product. Each one of those characters are so unique and hard to put together; it’s literally taking the six characters in Borderlands and making them even more complex and then cranking that up by 25. So it takes a lot of time to create those types of characters. Gearbox and 2K are known for making really cool DLC and setting a really high quality bar, so while we don’t actually have the plans right now, we’d love to support the game in the future. If there’s demand for it, we’d absolutely want to continue to support it. So if it turns out people love the game, we’re going to do everything we can to continue to make stuff work.

On PC and oddly enough Xbox One following Microsoft’s Media Briefing, mods are getting a lot of attention. Do you guys have any support or thought about mods?

Not right now. It’s interesting though. I think that’s one of those things we always think about when we’re doing a game, lots of little things like that. But it’s not in the plan right now.

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Looking at the market right now, there are a lot of shooters with a strong focus with online connectivity that have been going free-to-play. Was that ever a thought or consideration for Gearbox, or are they solely dedicated to selling a physical good?

That’s the thing. Gearbox and 2K together, we have a long standing relationship at this point and they’re known for making super high quality AAA products and that’s what 2K is good at. Being there and supporting and creating those high end products. So it’s the same with Battleborn. We went into production and we had a pretty hefty goal to create 25 characters and a cool story and really an intricate back-end system to support it all. So free to play was never in the cards.

Is free-to-play something 2K Games or Gearbox have looked into at all?

I wouldn’t say we’ve looked into it any more than just academically. We don’t have any free-to-play products but you never know where the market will be in five to ten years. If that’s just where the market goes, then of course 2K will continue to evolve with the market. But right now we don’t have any plans for it.

Would we ever see characters from other 2K properties, such as Bioshock or Borderlands, enter the fray?

That would be so cool. But honestly we don’t have any plans for it now, but anything’s possible. The world and the universe is so cool and so diverse that any type of character from anything could potentially fit. But we haven’t gotten to that point where we’re thinking about that verse, we want to get the game out there, fill it full of these really cool characters, and hopefully get people to fall in love with this universe, this lore and these characters specifically, and see where it takes us.

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This is looking to be Gearbox’s next huge franchise.

Yup.

But how do you build upon something when the universe is reduced to a single star?

That’s a good question. You’ll have to play through the story to find out.

Fair enough. Is there any final comments you want our readers to take away from Battleborn?

Just that we’re super excited about this game. We’ve been working on it for a while. We’ve been wanting to get it into people’s hands for a long time. Gearbox talks about how each one of these characters is someone’s baby, each one is a unique snowflake. It really does feel that way when you’re playing the game, you can see how much love is put into this product. We’re just excited to get people in and play it. We’re hoping the guys out here who are checking it out right now are going to love it.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy E3 schedule to talk to us, and best of luck with Battleborn.

I appreciate it!