Battleborn – Interview with Randy Varnell

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Back at Gamescom, Sean got to check out Battleborn, the new first person shooter from Gearbox that marries elements of online play and the MOBA character style with their unique design and vision. He was recently invited to check out how the game has moved along since then and also got a chance to sit down with Randy Varnell, the  Creative Director of Battleborn, and talk about the game.

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Sean Cleaver: I played this at Gamescom and at this stage it feels like it has a lot more of its own identity. At Gamescom it was good but it still felt like it was Borderlands. Since then, we’ve had the videos of the 25 characters, it’s moved on and it feels like it’s become its own thing now. Does that feel the same developing it as well?

Randy Varnell: Yeah I think so. I started this right on the heels of Borderlands 2, I was one of the six that rolled right on to this project and very early prototypes were using Maya and little miniature Axtons as the dwarf. We did that for some reason, but we prototyped a lot, we had some similarities in gameplay like the action skills. So we did some things and had some rapid changes to the engine, just to try and prove out the concept. There was a time we were even using psycho midgets instead of robots for the minions. There was a point where it really started to deviate and it takes so long for us as developers, we use proxy models and prototypes for so long, and then all of sudden you’ve got enough characters and enough art in.

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Honestly, it was Wrath that did it for me. The very first time we had a full on melee character implemented in to the game. He was our first and the one where experimented a lot of different ways. How do you make melee work in a first person game? How do you balance it, and balance it against ranged players? He was our character that we learned on and he got in at one point with almost a Zelda-esque melee combos. Almost like Zelda and a fighting game rhythm combat and it started to really satisfy us.

It took a while and you guys are now beginning to see it. I mean we were competitive for so long so when layered a campaign back on top of it, we got some really cool and weird characters to fill out the roster. Marketing has its own plans and wanted to emphasize campaign for all the right reasons, it’s one of the things that is unique about our game. I’m glad that you can finally see enough parts that it’s something new and expanded from Borderlands.

Three years we’ve had this and it’s been playable for tow. August/September 2012 was right around the time Borderlands launched. By the time that it did I’d already been working with this for two or three months so we were already putting the first touches on. I think we had a playable rough prototype as early as October/November 2012. I mean it was really rough, and it was pretty quick. It took six months for us to be comfortable with the game and then another for the big art stuff to come in. We were still working on other games at Gearbox, Borderlands DLC, and other things.

About February or March 2013 we had enough to do a Gearbox wide play test, with some folks at 2K and this was the first time that we knew we had a game. There’s been some changes since then but, it’s been a while.

SC: One of the things being Creative Director and coming from Borderlands in to this. I think a lot of people are interested in how the brain goes to the screen, from the writing and everything how it gets from the brain to what you see. What kind of processes happen?

RV: Well there’s a lot o different ways and, to give you a bit of an overview, those first few months Randy Pitchford was very instrumental. He sat down and helped us with the overall game vision. He helped come up with the concept of the fiction. The whole “last star” idea, it’s not been done a lot in sci-fi. That’s an extreme epic and that was a big moment, deciding that we wanted to express our characters through factions and taking some inspirations. We always loved what Game of Thrones did. There’s always fighting but sometimes people need to ally together and we wanted that kind of vehicle.

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When you get the art and start working on the character, I mean very early on it was gameplay first. We knew we wanted a melee guy, we wanted a ranged guy and we wanted a support. We started with those first. Thorne, Wrath and Miko and to an degree Montana was one of our early characters too. We called him the big guy, but was also playing with his size. In a first person game size makes a huge difference so when you have a big guy like Montana you balance him differently than you do a little scrawny character like Origi, who is tiny and thin and jumping about so much that he’s really hard to hit. So you have to do things with the speed, the health and the hitboxes to get through all of that.

Then you get to the art and go through a process of what we want the game to look like. We have our art director, Scott Kester who was one of the guys who was very intrumental for the Borderlands franchise. He came on for Borderlands 1 and was one of the guys that helped that visual style change of Borderlands, if you remember earlier the earlier screenshots from that game. So this is, I think his first full project as art director and honestly, I love Scott so much.

We said “This is a big vibrant sci-fi colorful game, what do you want to do?” so in that case I gave Scott an open ring and said “do something.” So he got a couple of concept artists and they went through a process of doing this and trying that and make the big art sheets and bring them all together. He started some stylistic treatments and some environment concepts and very early on he developed the language, he said “I’m going for Pixar meets Anime.” He wants that clean line kind of smooth rendered Pixar character, almost like the 3D model, but also the edginess and the maturity of anime. It still needed an edge to it, it’s not a kids game. I mean a lot of people are going to be able to play, but anime has that great maturity, it has a certain style elements that really exaggerate character features. And when he got the first few models, the first one we hated, the second one we loved. And then we started with the concept artists and started to go wide and explore.

One of the things I think is reflected in the art and playing the game is the tone, I suppose you’d call it a trademark Gearbox tone of “We’re not being completely serious, take it with some humor,” you know with things like Butt tactics which is one of the character’s videos.

You know quite early on with the heavy stakes of the last star in the entire universe, we were contemplating what the sky looked like. Well it’s black, there’s no stars. We actually contemplated for several months right at the beginning trying to be a bit more serious and dynamic, thinking this was going to be our sci-fi franchise. And I think it was Oscar Mike, our standard assault soldier who was originally named Chuck Abrahams. It was also the name of the developer who was making the character so it was weird and when someone suggested that, because he was a caricature of a soldier we should just call him Oscar Mike, like the military language for “On Mission,” it changed. And then he was the first VO test for the game and our writer Aaron Linney came in and started playing with that and writing, he’d have some dumb lines like “I’m going to air strike a pizza party” or something. And when he explained that he’s not really a caricature, he’s just very earnest. It became “Airstrikes are bad ass” and everything he said is in that tone of voice and acted in that way and we said “that’s really funny, oh we’re going to make a funny game again aren’t we?”

And then you get Montana and you start to go there and then you just go from there. I think it’s a great thing for us, we don’t get too dire or two serious on topic. I think we come out somewhere between Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Who, in the way that our tone and our humor works in there and it’s quite a unique place.

SC: What would you like to see really come out of the game between now and the February release date?

RV: I’ve worked on several big games now and one of the things that’s the most important thing is polish. You know I think you’re already feeling some of the promise on content. People are playing five or six or seven games and they’re not even able to play all of the fifteen characters we have on display today. So that’s not even a quarter of what we’re revealing that’s been played today. But polish is the thing that really goes from making it a pretty good game to a great game. And that’s a lot of things, like really telegraphing that you’ve been hit, adding that hit feedback, the messages, the sound and so on. And with having so many characters and being able to go back and see that it’s there really makes a difference between “that was pretty good” and “this experience was amazing.” There are times where we’ve got the effects and colour, we’ve got a who was an artist on The Iron Giant and that kind of Don Blume 2D animation style who came in and sat with our effects team and took the 2D hand drawn effects and mapped them on to 3D objects like the explosions and again, that’s another touch of stylistic effect and art on that.

And then we’ve loved it so much but there are times were there’s so much colour and you can’t see what’s going on so you have to expand and pull back, expand and pull back, and polish is all of those things, and those touches. And I think more than anything else it’s about having the time to go back and tune and polish and balance. We need to create the content and get it out there and make it as cool and satisfying as what you’ve seen tonight and I think the polish is what’s going to make it a really awesome game.

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