Q&A: Producing a bigger Borderlands

Borderlands 3 producer Chris Brock explains to Gamasutra some of the guiding principles that have helped a larger-than-ever Gearbox create the largest Borderlands game yet.

This week, Gearbox Software and publisher 2K Games showcased the much-anticipated Borderlands 3. To find out what's changed about making Borderlands games, we spoke to senior project manager Chris Brock about the production process for Borderlands 3.

The below Q&A has been lightly edited for context and clarity. 

As a project manager, what did you see as a top-level challenge for a production team on a game like this?

I came onto the project about two-and-a-half years ago. I took over partway through. The biggest challenge of this game, honestly to me has's been a while since Borderlands 2. It needs to feel like Borderlands. It needs to be familiar. It needs to be grounding. 

It is a challenge, striking that balance, between new and being familiar. [It] is very hard. 

What would you say has helped you guide the team along to execute the creative leads' vision?

Some of the challenges we have run into have been due to our [increased] scale. I was also the producer on Battleborn. This team is over twice the size of the Battleborn team. I don't know where it was, but there was some number between 150 and 350, and we hit a threshold where it is much harder to communicate. 

You hit those thresholds, and it is much harder to get your message out to the team at large, and having all these silos working in a connected way was very challenging.

What else about making more content, scaling up to make more content, did you learn working on this project?

So in some ways, tools development has been huge for us obviously. Enabling the same person to do more with less amount of time. Streamlining, optimizing workflows, that kind of stuff. Obviously a stock answer that most of my counterparts at other studios would give...

But it's not a stock answer! Some studios struggle with their tools. 

It's something we had to do! We switched engines a little bit into the project, and did that largely so we didn't have to be an engine developer. We want to make games, and we're not a tech company. So, we definitely have been leaning hard into switching to Unreal 4. 

What's the biggest change for Borderlands 3['s production], compared to prior Borderlands games?

That comes back to tools. Something we have switched to more on this game is more self-contained teams that are themselves kind of fully functional. Prior to this at Gearbox, we had a more central model, kind of hub-and-spoke; you have people on projects dedicated to tasks, but this is the animation team, this is the effects team...

Now we're doing something that's more effort-driven, and less department-driven. So this would be the guns team, and the guns team contains artists, programmers, effects designers, animators. They're a self-contained group that can just do what they need to do. They're not as beholden to the entire team as you might think, because they're a full unit. So building more and more of those. 

What do you think Gearbox got right about making sure deadlines were meet-able, ambitious, but also made sure people could go home to their families with a decent amount of time? 

I think we realized early on that we're a game that has an irreverent tone and sense of humor. And a game that is going to have a sense of humor and that tone about it needs to be developed by people who are relatively happy. And it's hard to be happy when you've been driven into the core of the Earth. 

Quality of life doesn't also just mean hours worked, it means attitude and a sense of collaboration in the studio. Have you any thoughts about how that's improved?

One of the things I like most about Gearbox is, for a studio that's as big as we are, we're relatively flat. There's nothing stopping anybody from saying 'I don't think this is working correctly.' It doesn't have to be their discipline. If a coder wants to go talk about how he doesn't think a story beat is working, neat, they can do that. 

There's an open forum, they can come talk to me or creative director Paul Sage, or whoever, and we'll hear that. I think that's a big deal. I do think people feel they can put their thumbprint on the game. 

How do you create a feedback process that lets a coder comment on a story beat, but doesn't leave a writer feel like someone who doesn't know their expertise is trampling on their work?

Sure, it's not a free-for-all, right? It's more---it's still not a democracy. Just 'cause you've raised a point and there might be some people who agree with you that it's definitely worth doing. There's still a vision for the game, and like a lot of games, early on, we say 'this is our vision, these are the rules of our vision, and we check things against that.' 

We expect the studio to also check us against it, but you're right. It can be anarchy, I like to think we strike a good balance there, where people are confident and comfortable speaking their mind. But they're also comfortable being told 'that's a great idea, but it's not a great idea that we're doing right now.' 

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