The Big Game: Gearbox on Battleborn

Developer Gearbox has built up a reputation for producing some critically acclaimed online shooters.

This is, after all, the studio that brought us the blockbuster Borderlands series, a franchise that has shifted 26 million units worldwide.

Now the firm is on the verge of launching its brand new IP, Battleborn. This title is in many ways very much a Gearbox game, with a huge focus on online team play, colourful visuals and guns. But this isn’t just another online shooter.

Gearbox has been heavily inspired by the massive online battle arena (MOBA), games such as League of Legends and DOTA 2 which are wildly popular and draw massive viewerships.

There are a lot of inspirations, and likely as much innovation,” creative director Randy Varnell says.

We were inspired by both our Borderlands and MOBAs, and then added our own twists and refinements. We liked the role diversity and team play in competitive matches of MOBAs, but wanted to leverage the comfort and familiarity of movement and aiming of FPS games.

At the heart, though, our chief inspirations have always been character-led. We started Battleborn with some clear goals to do things with characters we had not done before. We had a big early focus on trying different varieties of melee-focused play, which is typically shied away from in other first person shooter games. We’re really happy with the results there, and have eight dedicated melee characters, and another three that feature melee as a key part of their gameplay.”

The team shooter genre is – rather suddenly – a very competitive space in the market. Perhaps inspired by the success of games like Valve’s Team Fortress 2, a number of companies are trying to enter this sector. Blizzard has Overwatch, while Epic is releasing Paragon and Cliff Bleszinski is working on Lawbreakers. Meanwhile, Smite studio Hi-Rez has recently announced Paladin and there’s a new Unreal Tournament game incoming.

Overwatch is also launching an open beta on May 3rd – the very same day that Battleborn is set to hit shelves. It is a fact that made Gearbox boss Randy Pitchford declare on Twitter: ‘Shit just got real’.

We’re very excited to stand those two games next to each other, and we’ve both come to the same conclusion that players are ready to see some new things in the first person shooter space,” Varnell says.

For years now, the gaming market has been growing, and there’s been plenty of room for big titles within the same genre. Starcraft and Age of Empires. Call of Duty and Battlefield. Both Battleborn and Overwatch have something new to offer players, but where the similarities exist, I think there’s room in the market for both.

While we may appear similar on the surface, though, the games are quite different underneath. Battleborn digs in deep with story episodes, growth, and customisation along with it’s competitive offering, while Overwatch reprises Team Fortress 2 with Blizzard’s great eye for polish.”

Being an online shooter in the year 2016, developers also have to consider the possibilities that lie in the competitive eSports sector.

"We’re very excited to stand Battleborn next to Overwatch. Players are ready to see some new things in the FPS space."

Randy Varnell, Gearbox

That would be an exciting development for Battleborn, and we’ve dedicated many resources to tracking and adjusting the game’s balance,” Varnell says. At launch, though, it’s critically important to us that Battleborn is fun for all players, not just the high-end competitive gamers. As we see that community develop, though, we are very excited to support eSports and work towards features required to treat that community well.”

Varnell insists that Battleborn is aimed at gamers of all varieties and skill levels.

It is built for a wide market of core gamers,” he says.

There’s a lot to like in this game, and a lot of entertainment. The character experiences alone are widely different. Time and time again, we’ve seen players dislike one character, but then fall in love with another, and love the game through that character’s eyes. I hate to just drop the ‘something for everyone’ phrase, but that’s where we’re landing with Battleborn. Single player, story episodes, competitive, challenges, loot, growth, characters and community. So there are many ways to enjoy this big new game.”

Many online-focused shooters in recent years – Titanfall, Star Wars Battlefront and Rainbow Six: Siege – have ditched a single player campaign to focus on competitive elements. But Battleborn is not following this trend.

Not everyone wants to dig in exclusively to a competitive game,” Varnell insists.

The games you mention are focused on that experience. But at some point, I don’t want to get beat up by highly-skilled random internet people, I want to play characters I like on my terms, at my speed. Narrative and setting help draw us into a more entertaining and immersive experience, as well.

Including story episodes that give players another way to play has been a real focus.”

But with so much competition in the market, what are Gearbox’s expectations around Battleborn?

Expectations are always hard to guess with a new IP,” Varnell says.

I love the game. I’ve played it for three years in all of its adolescence, and I’ve now played as much in open beta as I have in the last year and a half of development. I can’t stop. We built the type of game we wanted to play at Gearbox, and many of us are still going home at night, loading Battleborn, and playing the game. That’s a good sign, and isn’t something that’s guaranteed for all the games you make. You always hope you’ll like the end result but sometimes, as professionals, you’re not in the target audience for the game you’re making. Battleborn has reached more groups of people within Gearbox than I would have ever expected.

So I hope the world responds the same way we have internally. Battleborn is different, a little weird, and a lot of fun. I’ve seen hundreds of comments in the Open Beta from players who went into the game with few expectations and now are raving about the game, and can’t stop playing! I’m hoping that word of mouth continues to spread, and more people jump into the Battleborn universe with us.”

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