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When Gearbox set out to make Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, it was a big risk for the studio. After all, it had been working on the Borderlands series, and after four games, it would change up the formula. What was once a series known for copious amounts of great looting and gun shooting would now be set in a fantasy world inspired by TTRPGs like Dungeons & Dragons and need changes to match that new setting. It would need magic, melee weapons, a reworked skill tree, and a new character creator. More importantly, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands needed to stand alone from the rest of Borderlands, despite being a spinoff starring a recurring character.
In a live Game Developer Talks webinar last week called Beyond the Border: Designing for Tiny Tina's Wonderlands, Matt Cox, the game’s creative director, broke down the discussions the team had in designing this surprisingly different spinoff. It was a risky endeavor, but one of the keys was ensuring everything still remained within the Borderlands sensibility.
This was done by sticking with five guiding design goals. While all of them won’t apply to every game, these principles combined for Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands to help the team map out which features they needed to focus on, and how to execute those in a way that fit the game. Check out what Cox had to share about some of those goals below, or watch the full talk for free on the GDC Vault.
What’s right for Tiny Tina's Wonderlands?
The high-level goal for Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands was to create a “fantasy shooter IP born from the foundations and universe of Borderlands,” according to Cox. To do that, the team focused on the aforementioned design goals. The first one, and arguably one of the most impactful early-game, was allowing the player to express themselves through their look and their playstyle. This isn’t too different from what the core Borderlands series offers, especially in terms of playstyle, but the team wanted to go further.
This resulted in a more in-depth character creator than the team had ever made. It included cosmetics for the player’s armor and facial features (and yes, that includes makeup), along with choices for the character’s personality, voice, backstory, pronouns, and more. Since this was new for the developers, they had to figure out just how far they could go. Did Tiny Tina's character creator need to be on par with other character creators out there? Did Gearbox need to offer so many options that the player could create an abomination fit for Monster Factory or do they do the bare minimum? Cox said there were concerns among team members that they wouldn’t be able to do what other games could and that the game should just stick to the four characters Borderlands fans were used to, but he disagreed.
"It's not our burden to have the deepest, widest version of a common feature. It IS our burden to make the feature meaningful and fit our game.”
He brought up Nintendo’s Miis as an example. You can’t do anything with your Mii, but you can do just enough that it fits the feel of what Nintendo is going for. "They understand their own style and they have a creator within the goals of what they're creating,”
So what did Tiny Tina's Wonderlands players need? Since the game was influenced by Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop RPGs, developers had to include features like multiclassing that evoked that feel. Gearbox was also making a game in first-person, so the team had to think about what player-chosen cosmetic features mattered and how they could show off those choices in-game. Developers took advantage of third-person scenes to meet this goal, along with using the Overworld to show off as much of the player avatar as they could.
In the end, it didn’t matter what other companies or games did with their character customization. What did Tiny Tina's Wonderlands need? That’s all the players wanted.
"If our players can genuinely say ‘I had fun'...it eliminates comparison."
How to adapt Borderlands for a fantasy world
Other design goals combined for a singular goal: How do you change Borderlands without changing Borderlands too much? How do you capture a new audience without alienating the old one?
One of the big goals was a combat shift. Gearbox would be moving from frenetic gun-based combat to frenetic spell and melee-based combat that also included guns. While this might not sound too different on paper, it was huge for the developers.
“While it sounds like Borderlands blasphemy, we still wanted to lean into the strength of our gun pedigree but throw it into a world of fantasy combat,” he explained.
This proved to be a challenge, partly
because Tiny Tina's Wonderlands wanted to embrace fantasy melee, which was based on a lot of
swordplay, but the concpet had “friction with the core loop.” Developers also needed to
make spells fun to use, but had never used something like that in a Borderlands
game before. The team had ideas for how to make melee work in Tiny Tina's Wonderlands, and
the solution to the problem came back again to examine what the game itself needed.
“We didn't want the melee weapon to be the primary way of doing damage,” he said. "It would've slowed down the pace of the frenetic Borderlands-style combat that we love to create and it would've gone against the grain of everything else we wanted to build.”
Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands does a great job combining gun shooting, melee slashing, and spell casting to differentiate itself from Borderlands and make it feel more like a fantasy TTRPG, but it still feels like Borderlands.
"Wonderlands not being the 'gun numbers game' was key in defining its uniqueness and stake,” Cox said.
To learn more about the other design goals Gearbox relied on during Tiny Tina’s development and how it worked to balance creating a standalone game in a popular IP, you can check out more of the talk on demand.