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Borderlands 2 Interview: Gearbox's Wes Parker and Steve Gibson

After spending a few hours playing Borderlands 2 in San Francisco, we sat down with Gearbox's Wes Parker and Steve Gibson, character artist and vice president of marketing and PR, respectively. Both had plenty to say about what they're proud of in Borderlands 2 and how fan feedback from the first game has influenced its development.

What can you tell us about your contribution to the game?

PARKER: What I do is I sculpt the characters, so a lot of the bad guys that you saw are actually my creation. I get concept art from our fantastic concept artists who, actually, some of them started in comic books, and that's sort of how some of our style stuff starts. Then I color. I texture the creatures or characters that I make, and I finally get it in the game. And then I hand it off to the designers and they do crazy stuff with it. And then I come back to the game two months later and I look at the monster that's in the game, fully animated and beautiful, and it's transformed into this awesome god/death beast of some type. And I'm like, "Yes, this is awesome!"

A lot of the monsters that you were shooting earlier are things that I've sculpted. … I started personally in DLC 3 [The Secret Armory of General Knoxx] … I made a few of the monsters in that one, and it was a lot of fun to work on, as all of Borderlands is fun to work on. And I think that's actually one of the things that makes our franchise something that resonates with the player, because the player can tell that we're having fun making it—well, I think they can. I hope they can. Because, I mean, it's obvious. It's written all over, everywhere that you look.

Do you feel like The Secret Armory of General Knoxx DLC was made to make amends to players who found the ending of Borderlands unsatisfactory?

PARKER: I think we've said pretty much that DLC 3, you go in, you get all the stuff that is Vault-worthy.

GIBSON: That was the attempt.

PARKER: I think we did a good job of that.

Do you think the feedback to the first's ending has changed the way you guys have thought about what you're creating for Borderlands 2?

PARKER: We learned a lot of lessons from Borderlands 1, and one of the big ones is story. I know that story is a big push for Borderlands 2, and I think we're doing great. I think the story has really come together and will be a really good surprise for the player.

The first mission we played started out as a simple quest, but then a lot of other plot points and dynamics pop up to prevent you from directly getting to your goal, but also add to the overall plot. Is that indicative of the way rest of the game will play out?

PARKER: You're going to see that a lot. I know that dynamic storytelling is something that we're really, really pushing on this time. So it's going to be an interesting experience, I think.

A lot of old characters popped up—Roland, Mordecai and Tannis, Marcus and Moxxi—but also a new one named Handsome Jack. Is he going to be the villain for the whole game or just this particular segment that we played?

PARKER: Handsome Jack is going to play a very important role in your quest on Pandora. 

GIBSON: [laughs] You can say he's the villain.

PARKER: Okay, he is the villain, thank you. I don't know! I'm new to this whole interviewing thing.

That was a very good dodge, though.

PARKER: You like that though? I was very proud of that. It just came like that. [snaps]

There were a lot of elements of Borderlands that were altered between when it was announced and when it hit stores. Have any of those—like the weapon discovery or customization systems—been re-introduced in Borderlands 2?

GIBSON: If you went to the South By Southwest presentation [Director and Lead Designer Matthew Armstrong] did (who is the weapons guy actually)—he just did a big presentation about how people actually want to discover weapons. About how the whole thing is about discover and things like that that. If a lot of people just build their guns, then what do you do? Okay, I built the gun. Game over.

PARKER: I built the best gun ever! Now I don't have to open any treasure chests.

As far as the story and characters go, what's changed in the five years since Borderlands took place?

PARKER: Well, the characters have obviously aged some. They all have kind of been scattered across Pandora, and they actually have built relationships with each other in different ways. I think that it's going to be something very interesting for the player to figure out. I do know that the characters are going to be visually different. But they're still going to be the same characters that you've grown to love as a player. I just think it's going to be very cool for the players to be able to talk to their favorite character from Borderlands 1 in Borderlands 2 and kind of check up on them and see what's happening with them.

Since we're going to be exploring new areas of Pandora in this game, what kind of new enemies are we going to see?

PARKER: There's skags. There's a ton of monsters this time around. In this demo, we saw Stalkers, which can turn invisible and throw spikes at you and jump everywhere and be very difficult to kill off when they're in a big swarm. There's also the Crystalik later on in the demo, which was that gigantic guy with the three feet and three heads. There's [mech] loaders. I mean, the designers who actually put all the behavior together, they've done a great job of making all the monsters have different behaviors and different ways in which they actually cooperate. Some of the monsters actually will fight each other, and some will cooperate. Like the loaders, for example, the probes that fly around and actually stop and heal a loader that's really hurt, and a constructer bots will actually build all types of robots to just trash you.

In what other areas of Borderlands 2 is the Gearbox team introducing more variety?

PARKER: I think we can safely say that we're really trying to build variety in pretty much everything that we do. Like the weapons, for example. You saw today that all the weapons kind of look very, very distinct compared to pretty much anything. All the different manufacturers have a different feel to them. When you pick up a gun, you know how cool it is because it's all shiny, or what material it's made of. We've definitely gone a long way to making everything feel kind of fresh, but still keep the original Borderlands core gameplay.

There's a lot of other improvements, like picking up ammo, money and health automatically, which is a godsend. I've also heard that the world is going to be more open and connected, and less disjointed. Has fan feedback played a big part in those decisions?

PARKER: Oh yeah, we definitely listened to the fans. You have to. I mean, our fans combined with our crew team back home, they really do a great job of defining what the fun is. The fans have requests and sometimes we can do them, sometimes we can't, but we definitely listen to them.

So what's your favorite enemy that you've designed?

PARKER: My personal favorite, hmm, that's a hard one. I think the Threshers, actually.

GIBSON: Dude, the Fire Thresher? That's crazy shit!

The tentacles popped out of the ground and I was like, "What is that!"

PARKER: The Fire Thresher! To tell you how awesome the designers are: I actually saw something I hadn't seen today, and a lot of our stuff—like, some monsters will spawn or different monsters will spawn depending on how you play the game. But today I saw a Grass Thresher, and it had like grass all over it, and, like, rocks, and it was buried in the mud and I was like, "Oh my god!" That was unexpected to me, because the designers actually play such a huge, pivotal role in how the monsters come together and how they cooperate. Who they like and who they don't like. They generally just don't like the player, though. That's the good thing to remember.

Thanks very much to Wes and Steve for chatting, and for Gearbox and 2K for having us out to play the game. We're looking forward to seeing more and more as the game's September release approaches.