What is Battleborn?
That’s the question Gearbox chief Randy Pitchford tried to answer via Twitter when news of the game’s existence began to spread, way back in 2014.
Popular wisdom holds that your game's pitch should be three sentences, max. Pitchford went for one, summing the game's design up in a single tweet (embedded below) packed with enough buzzwords to make a social media manager blush.
“There are a few people that really enjoy retweeting that and making fun of me for it,” he said, during a conversation at GDC last month. “I said something like...genre-blending. And I was trying to say that this game has Borderlands in it, it has first-person shooter in it, but it also has some MOBA in it. But I don't want to say MOBA, because that's misleading; if you think about what a MOBA is, it's not this. They're free-to-play, top-down RTS games. That'd be a bad word to use, because it would mislead people. And I didn't want to be dishonest.”
So if you peel back the buzzwords, what is Battleborn, really? From the game industry's perspective, it’s one of multiple MOBA-influenced, character-focused multiplayer shooters entering the market this year in a resurgence of the sort of “hero shooter” games (a term popularized by Gearbox) like Team Fortress 2 and Super Monday Night Combat.
Battleborn is: FPS; hobby-grade coop campaign; genre-blended, multi-mode competitive e-sports; meta-growth, choice + epic Battleborn Heroes!— Randy Pitchford (@DuvalMagic) July 8, 2014
But from Gearbox’s perspective, Battleborn is the product of repressed desires among many developers at the company to get back to designing the sort of competitive multiplayer games the studio cut its teeth on.
Battleborn aims to solve a Borderlands design flaw
"If you can play the character, feel the full progression, understand the performance of that progression, in a 20-30 minute session, then play another session, that becomes a really compelling and engaging loop."
Before Gearbox hit on a successful formula with the 2009 debut of its cooperative multiplayer shooter Borderlands, the Texan company put in work on games like Half-Life (for which they developed, among other things, the first commercial version of Counter-Strike), the PC version of Halo: Combat Evolved and the Brothers in Arms games.
Pitchford says the studio is keenly aware it hasn’t made a competitive multiplayer shooter in almost a decade, and Battleborn is an attempt to get back in the game -- one inspired, in part, by a glaring design weakness Gearbox perceives in Borderlands.
“The growth progression in Borderlands is such that you don't really get to realize the most fun version of any given character until you've invested about 40 or 50 hours into playing Borderlands,” said Pitchford. “So there's this weird thing that happened in the design of Borderlands, which is if you're playing the game and you're liking your character, and you progress some amount, you have this really shitty decision that starts to nag at you.”
The decision is predicated on the assumption that someone playing Borderlands for some time might like to try out different characters, because then they only have two options: Option A, the player can create a new character and flush all of their current progress (their accumulated gear, abilities and story progression) down the drain. Option B, they can stick with one character and never experience the game from another perspective.
Pitchford says Gearbox analytics data from the various Borderlands games shows most people go with Option B. Even if they enjoy their time with the game, they aren’t seeing a significant portion of Gearbox’s design work, and Pitchford thinks that’s a bummer.
“We can see most people didn't play different characters; very few played all of them, ” he noted. “A huge amount of the value of our development effort is in these different characters in Borderlands. Most of our customers aren't experiencing that value. They're paying for it, but they aren't experiencing it.”
A Battleborn player, presumably experiencing value
This is the genesis of Battleborn -- in Gearbox’s attempts to overcome what it perceives to be a significant design flaw, the studio has built its latest game with an emphasis on economy of design. Battleborn is slated to ship with a variety of ways to play (some earmarked as “campaign” modes, others as pure multiplayer modes), but each is designed to be played within 20 to 60 minutes.
Taking cues from good MOBA design
“If you can play the character, feel the full progression, understand the performance of that progression, in a 20-30 minute session, then play another session, that becomes a really compelling and engaging loop,” says Pitchford. “We're not saying invest in this character, and you're going to be in this world for 50 hours. We're saying you're going to be in this scenario for 30-40 minutes, maybe an hour, alone or with friends. But when you're in that scenario, there's some shit going down; there's a beginning, a middle and an end. The jokes are good.”
Prizing replayability in game design isn’t a novel idea, of course -- most multiplayer shooters live or die based on how much players enjoy playing the same maps and scenarios over and over, with different characters, tactics and gear (Valve’s Counter-Strike and Team Fortress 2 are both great examples of this.)
But for Gearbox, there’s something new in the room: the remarkable popularity of MOBA games like League of Legends and Dota 2. A core conceit of MOBA design is that players pick a character (typically from among tens if not hundreds of options) and then improve that character via either new abilities and/or gear in the course of a match. When the match is over, that progression is lost for good -- all the player keeps is the knowledge they gained about how to play.
Smart adaptation of that progression system can potentially add new dimensions to games in many extant genres, and Pitchford says it was a big influence on Battleborn’s design. Even outside of the MOBA-like multiplayer modes, Battleborn characters each sport a suite of reusable abilities (including an "ultimate") and earn experience points to progress from level 1-10 in the course of a match.
Every character has a progression tree they climb in every match, and the tree can change as the player spends more time in the game and unlocks new abilities
“A huge part of the [MOBA] is how you're doing in the XP game. How are you doing in terms of character growth and progression,” says Pitchford. “That's interesting to bring into a competitive [character-based shooter], because it allows Battleborn to test more skills than just reaction time. Which is vital if we want to bring something new to the table; I already have plenty of options that I can play if I want to do a reaction time skill test. I can play Call of Duty until the cows come home, if what I want from a competitive FPS game is a reaction time skill test.”
Pitchford acknowledges that since Gearbox has been out of the game for some time when it comes to making multiplayer shooters, and has zero experience in MOBA design, the Battleborn team frontloaded its focus on the MOBA-esque competitive multiplayer modes.
Pitchford believes that's why the public has focused on the MOBA aspects of Battleborn's design over the last year -- when Gearbox first began talking about the game, it focused on the MOBA design elements because that's where the most progress had been made. Now Battleborn has gone through both closed and open betas as Gearbox returns to an old habit Pitchford speaks fondly of: playtesting and balancing a multiplayer shooter.
“The key is to play it. There can be no sacred cows. You have to be always playing your game, and get as many objective eyes on it as you can, as often as possible,” says Pitchford. “You have to accept the reality of what both the data and the players are telling you. Some of what the players are telling you you can see in the data, some of it is feel, and you have to figure out how to divine that. So it's really about playing your game a lot, and accepting the reality of what you're learning from that experience.”