RPS Interview: Borderlands

This week we had a chance to put a few questions to the producer fellow from Gearbox’s upcoming sandbox science fiction shooter, Borderlands. Simon Hurley, for that is his name, talked a little about the game world, the vehicular combat, the four-player online co-op campaign, how the story will unfold in a non-linear environment, and the testing nightmares involved with having half a million weapons…

First of all though, there’s that obligatory origin story. Creating a science fiction universe from scratch is an admirable project for any development studio, and one that doesn’t seem to occur quite as often as it could. So how did the fiction of a defrosting far-future colonial hellhole came about? “The universe and story for the game have been discussed here at Gearbox for quite some time,” said Hurley. “We’ve always had a desire to make a game based in a gritty and rough sci-fi universe, so when we decided to start making Borderlands, the project leads came together and started to expand upon this theme. Over the course of our pre-production phase, we continued to mold the story into what it is today. A lot of people have influenced the story – it has truly been a team effort, and this has helped create a real sense of ownership and commitment from everyone.”

The story, you might recall, was briefly outlined in this trailer.

Colonisation of an alien planet isn’t going so well, and what’s more, the planet has a secret. Man, those distant planets are never straight with us.

From what we’ve seen so far, however, the story is one of the least interesting aspects of the game. What’s rather more enticing is the fact that Borderlands seems to be a remarkably open ended shooter with vehicles, bandit-dudes, wide-open environments, dungeons, and gigantic, roaming monsters. It’s ripe for that kind of wandering and poking about in virtuality that we love so dearly. So are we actually looking at it being a large, explorable game like Stalker or Oblivion? What kind of story should we expect? Something wide open and sandbox, or fairly linear? “The game can be played both ways”, says Hurley. “There is a main mission storyline that advances the story and the game, and there are large, open environments in Borderlands that are ripe for exploration.” Ah, sweet exploration, how we savour it in our games. It is too rare a commodity in these modern times.

Hurley continued: “You will come across all sorts of enemies, loot, and gameplay experiences along the way. We also have several vehicles to help you get around (in addition to doing crazy vehicle combat with) so you won’t be slogging along on foot all the time. Because of both the dynamic nature of the game, the size of the world, the randomization of certain aspects of gameplay, and game adjusting itself based on the number and experience level of the players, it’s a different gameplay experience every time you go through it. If you just want to go exploring, there is always new stuff to find and new enemies to fight.”

And nor should that exploration be solitary: there’s a chance to play through with a chum or three. How do Gearbox expect the co-op to work? Will PC players be hosting a game for others to join?

“We designed Borderlands as a 4-player co-op game from the ground up,” says Hurley. “Anyone who has the game can begin a game instance, and invite others to join that game instance (that they are hosting) at any time. Any player joining can either start a new character, or bring their character from a different game instance with them to their friend’s game, along with any experience, gear, loot, etc. that they already have. They can trade or sell their current gear, find or buy more, level up, etc., and then take their persistent character back to their own game.”

Science fiction FPS Diablo? Ooh. And loot is clearly a big deal too. Gearbox have talked about their random weapon generation which will cough up around half a million variations, something which sounds like a nightmare for anyone testing the game. In fact how can Gearbox ensure that nothing ends up being randomly overpowered? “Yeah,” says Hurley, “our QA guys have their work cut out for them. We have several game designers who are focused exclusively on making sure all the weapons, gear, skills, leveling are both functional and a lot of fun, and QA is constantly hammering on the game to make sure everything works right. Due to the nature of our system, there will be some weapons that are more powerful than others – those are the ones you are going to be looking for. There are some loose rules in place that govern how the guns are put together, how rare and powerful they are, and when and where you will find them. But there will be times where you might find crazy-powered guns that do mega-damage – when that happens, we say let it! It’s all part of the fun.”

Needless to say, you’ll be using that weaponry to shoot stuff, both bandits and other explorer types in the game world, and the monstrous beasts that are making life difficult for the human colonists, as Hurley explained: “Aside from the human enemies in the world, there are a variety of critters and creatures you will face. Some are big, some are a little smaller, some are ginormous. When the planet was first settled, it was in winter (Pandora has a multi-year rotational cycle), so most of the creatures were hibernating. Now that it’s heating up, the settlers are realizing this planet is a lot more hostile than they though, because the creatures are coming out, and they are hungry.”

Not that the beasts will be a match for good ol’ fashioned hardware, eh? And of course we’re big fans of vehicular combat here at RockPaperShotgun. Would Hurley tell us what sort of vehicles we’ll be fighting in and against in Borderlands? Will we be able to fight on foot as well as in vehicles? Answer me! “The game will have a healthy dose of both on-foot FPS action and crazy vehicle action,” says Hurley. “So far we have shown the Outrunner vehicle (kind of a futuristic dune buggy), but we have others in the game as well – right now we are having a lot of fun with the Salt Racer, a dragster-type vehicle that races around the Salt Flats, blowing up other vehicles, running enemies over, and getting run off the road by Scythids, one of the creatures in the game. Each vehicle holds at least 2 players, each has a gun the driver can operate (yes, drivers get to shoot, too) along with a gun turret, and each provides a different kind of gameplay.”

The maths of this, and previous questions, means that we’ll be able to do four-player exploration co-op with multiple vehicles. High speed battles ahoy! Is it me, or is this now looking like one of the most ambitious games currently in development? “I guess you could say that,” says Hurley. “We’ve had a lot of challenges with both game design and technology but have overcome them all, one after another. The team is incredibly ambitious, which I suppose shows in the game that we’re making. We set out to create something truly unique in the FPS genre. I believe we’re delivering on our goal. The game has been a blast to work on – we can’t wait to get Borderlands out there so everyone can experience it and play it for themselves!”

Yeah. Sounds okay, ‘spose. Borderlands will be released some time in 2009.



  1. Tom Armitage says:

    Pandora has a multi-year rotational cycle

    Boring physics pedantry time! Surely they mean multi-Earth-year, given that a year on any planet is the time it takes to rotate once around its sun. Ie: Pandora has a very long year comparable to Earth, but it is still One Pandora Year.

    Presumably, then, the time Pandora takes to orbit its sun is very long, but the time it takes to rotate on its axis (a day) sounds like it’s roughly comparable to that of Earth.

    That said: maybe the settlers are measuring time in Earth-units rather than local units, but that doesn’t seem so sensible.

    Of course, you could point out that this kind of pedantry based on a single word in a pre-release interview is inappropriate and besides the point, and I think you’d be right. Physics is fun!

  2. Tom Armitage says:

    Seriously, though: the game sounds fun, so far.

  3. Ben Abraham says:

    Gearbox cut their teeth on a number of ambitious expansions and ports of other games – here’s hoping their own IP is as awesomely stuffed full of Tech as their previous releases! (Remember load times on the PC version of Halo? No? I know – that was them apparently!)

  4. NuZZ says:

    I have been excited about this game ever since I saw those randomly generated guns and Mad Max setting.

    This game will be one of the few I actually BUY!
    Helll yeaa

  5. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    Yeah, it was the guns that got my attention the first time ’round, too.

    And… erm, yes, you should buy games. Especially if you mean to play them. Let’s be fair here.

  6. Flint says:

    I’m really waiting towards this, but what I’m worried about is the large role of vehicles in the game. I’m not exactly a fan of vehicles in FPS games because of a lot of times the vehicle sections tend to be the worst sections of the said game (due to the fact that you tend to drive things that have crap aim, horrible controls and large enough to be a large noisy bullseye for the enemies), and if they manage to bugger up vehicles in a game where they’re supposed to be really important…

  7. Hmm-hmm. says:

    This seems promising. Another game to follow to see how it turns out, I guess. Well, that’s only a good thing, right?

  8. Gap Gen says:

    Tom A: Maybe there are several normal modes of rotation of the planet, so there are different rotational periods? Actually, I’m not sure how you’d do that. Maybe if it were a gas giant.

  9. ghotto says:

    This and Rage look to have very familiar themes.

  10. Martin says:

    Sounds totally ace and I *really* hope that Gearbox pulls through.

  11. ortucis says:

    Meh! Randomly generated weapons just ruin the game for (the reason why I am more excited about Rage than this).

    I hope their story isn’t randomly generated :P

  12. Yhancik says:

    “Anyone who has the game can begin a game instance, and invite others to join that game instance (that they are hosting) at any time. Any player joining can either start a new character, or bring their character from a different game instance with them to their friend’s game, along with any experience, gear, loot, etc. that they already have. They can trade or sell their current gear, find or buy more, level up, etc., and then take their persistent character back to their own game.”

    Pefect ! Wonderful ! Yes ! Finally ! Someone got it !! Alleluia !!!

  13. Diogo Ribeiro says:


    Are you kidding? Randomly generated stories are awesome.

  14. Wurzel says:

    re: the ‘years’ issue, I think what they ment is that a rotational cycle isn’t equal to a seasonal cycle, so that it has been ‘winter’ for many years and only now is it starting to warm up. At least, that’s my guess.

  15. Little Green Man says:

    @Diogo Ribeiro:
    Man if only ALL games had stories that are randomly generated like that!

    On Borderlands, I like the look of it, but with this game I feel that if they don’t get it perfect the few imperfections will stick out against an otherwise great game. I’m hoping they get it the way they want it, but I’m not getting too excited.

  16. yns88 says:

    As others have said, this game seems like it could be a godsend if the stars align, but there’s oh so much that could go wrong.

    My prediction: a couple of gamebreaking flaws that all the reviews will rag on, giving it a mediocre score. Then, several months (and possibly a couple mods) later nobody will be able to stop talking about how awesome it is.

  17. Mark says:

    “Creating a science fiction universe from scratch is an admirable project for any development studio”

    Or you could just invert the premise from the film “Pitch Black” and be done with it. Either way.

  18. Jim Rossignol says:

    Paracelsus, he say “All games are Aliens, no games are Aliens.”

  19. Yhancik says:

    But creating a non-sci-fi, non-tolkienesque, non-WW2 universe from scratch… THAT would be an admirable project :p

  20. Fat Zombie says:

    Mad Max is the new Aliens, it seems.

    This game sounds quite fun.

  21. Leeks! says:

    How is a whole planet in winter?

  22. Lorc says:

    Maybe the orbit is highly elliptical?

  23. Martin says:

    @Leeks: Just get it far enough away from the sun or similar source of heat.

    Add Lorc’s elliptical orbit in order to warm it up at some point in time.

  24. Leeks! says:

    You’d think the orbit of a planet would be something you’d look into before settling it.

  25. Babs says:

    And then naming it Pandora is just asking for trouble!

  26. Optimaximal says:

    (Remember load times on the PC version of Halo? No? I know – that was them apparently!)

    Surely that was down to the fact the game was dumped on a device a damn sight quicker than the DVD drive in the Xbox rather than any special coding practices…


  27. CrashT says:

    That said the load times on the XBox version were far shorter than similar games of that era. Of course that was down to Bungie not Gearbox.

  28. Baines says:

    4-player online co-op? I know this article seems to be more about the PC version, but I hope they haven’t dropped split-screen co-op from the console versions. What with me being the kind of person that has friends that like to get together in the same room to play console games. Online has its advantages, but it isn’t quite the same thing.

  29. BorderlandsGuide.com says:

    This game is really trying to do something fresh. If they execute correctly, it could become huge. Hopefully they can hit their release date.

  30. Nick says:

    i myself dont see a single flaw in the games style. i just keep getting irritated at the ever changing release date! >_<

  31. Nick says:

    by the way baines the console version will have 2player split screen co-op and 4 player online co-op