The Big Borderlands 3 Post-Launch Interview – Ft. Randy Varnell, Austin Malcolm from Gearbox
Tucked away in the business marketing hall of G-Star 2019 where regular attendees can't go was a small table and a chance to sit down with a pair of Gearbox members. The afternoon after they presented a panel on how the satirical narrative of Borderlands 3 was created, we had the pleasure of speaking to both Randy Varnell, currently known as the Director of Creative Development, as well as Austin Malcolm, Head of Games PR. Without the constant excitement of scantily clad booth employees and sugary sweet pop music, it was the perfect environment to sit down and unwind on one of the last days of G-Star 2019 to discuss the upcoming future for Borderlands 3, some tidbits about Brothers in Arms and more.
[By the way, Gearbox just revealed the Moxxi's Heist of the Handsome Jackpot DLC. Check out the debut trailer below, and find out more info on the official site.]
A brief introduction from both speakers.
Austin: To give you a little introduction, Randy’s here [at G-Star] to talk about the narrative process for Borderlands 3, so that’s going to be a good general focus for anything story and narrative related. Randy’s been around with Gearbox for around a decade.
Randy: I was there for Borderlands 1, didn’t work directly on it, and worked on Furious Four that never shipped, worked on Borderlands 2, was the creative director for Battleborn, and then came over to Borderlands 3. I’m now the director of creative development. I’ve changed that title five times this year, but basically it means that I run all of the writers.
Actually, I did get to see Furious Four when they were demoing it at E3 so many years ago.
Randy: Oh my gosh, my heart! Someone who actually remembers.
I loved the concept of everyone jumping in through the building from the various angles.
Randy: Did you come to the press demo?
Randy: You probably saw me demo then because I was demoing the project at E3 2011. Oh my gosh.
There was that and then the Texan who threw the branding irons. Those were the two things that stood out from the whole thing.
Randy: Yes! Crockett with the flamethrower and the branding iron. That game, ugh, I wish we could have shipped that game. It was tremendously good and it was, ah. There’s business reasons, it wasn’t any of the creative reasons. It was all that dumb stuff that happens in the back end that I can’t talk about. We were really excited about that game, but we paused it to work on Borderlands 2. Ultimately, I don’t think it was a bad decision. Borderlands 2 has done pretty well for us.
It feels like the whole Brothers in Arms IP has just been floating out there ever since.
Randy: It has, and it’s something that we’re very aware of at Gearbox. I can’t say anything, but we would love to do something else there.
How do you personally believe the reception has been [for Borderlands 3] after launch?
Randy: It’s been really great. There’s kind of two ways to interpret perception, actually three. You look at critical reviews; I probably shouldn’t but I spend a lot of time on reddit and social media. I love to see how people interpret and enjoy our content. Of course, there’s the sales numbers. I don’t know if you saw, but 2K has already posted that we did pretty well. Five million copies in the first five or six days, which is a very strong launch for Borderlands. We’ve known for a few years now that we have a lot of fans that are eager to see the game. We expected that if we did a game that was even halfway decent that people would sign up for it. What’s been really great for [Gearbox] is that the reviews and reception have been really strong. With a game that’s got so much style and humor, it broadens the range of sentiment because a joke either lands with someone or it doesn’t. It’s funny because reading reviews, you’ll see the same joke and someone’s like ‘this is the funniest thing ever, this is the best game, the writers are great’ and you’ll read the next comment down on Reddit and ‘these writers are the worst writers ever, it’s the worst thing we’ve ever seen, fire them all and start over again!’. You know, the truth is probably somewhere between there most of the time, but generally, [Borderlands 3 has been] very, very positive. People have really like what we’ve done.
We’ve been tracking, and I won’t drop numbers yet because I think it’s going to be cool, but we’ve been tracking completion rate of the story and it’s been remarkably higher than we’ve seen before. People are not just getting the game but they’re playing it through and that to me is, as a developer, what warms my heart. You can say that a lot of people buy the game because it’s hyped and they’re waiting for it and they’re building up [the hype]. We see how many people have put hundreds of hours already into the game. Streamers already did that right out of the gate with 48 hour marathons. We were watching a lot of those because it was the first time we’ve seen all of those moments.We were in several of the channels for the big story reveal moments where people went ‘Oh crap!’. There’s a buzz around Gearbox when that’s happening because we’re all watching streamers at our desk during the release days and when someone’s about to crest, we are all messaging and emailing one another. ‘Quick, tune into this guy! He’s about to get to this moment in the story.’ It was awesome to see that most of the big moments that we really wanted to see have impact did exactly what we wanted. There were some big story moments in Borderlands 3 and it had all of the reaction range we wanted.
It’s a lot of words to say that we’re very pleased and the game has done well. We’re proud of what we’ve done and we’re still working because we have DLC’s now.
You’ve been listening to the fans and the community feedback. How are you interpreting the community feedback into the quality of life updates for Borderlands 3?
Randy: You’re talking about UI and frame rates? There’s some design things like patches that we’re rolling out and we’re listening to every bit of it. We are absolutely committed to the live game to be sure that we monitor and watch it. We’re trying to find the sweet spot between too much correction and too little on those, but I think that every major criticism that we’ve heard from the community is in flight in some way, if it hasn’t already been addressed, like bank space that Paul Sage, our creative director, announced a few weeks ago. It’s longer work to get there, but that’s coming in a future patch. We’ve had some patches with the Deadly Harvest event. There were some moments before that where things didn’t work the way I want, so we’ve been tuning that to find what players really like. Our fans have been really great. I always tell fans that if you don’t like something, tell us and be specific. If you just say that you hate something and it’s the worst thing ever, it doesn’t help us and it doesn’t help you. We’re trying to be very, very responsive to what people want because of Borderlands 2. People played Borderlands 2 for a very long time and we supported it pretty aggressively for about a year and a half before The Pre-Sequel came out and we supported that pretty aggressively. We have certainly planned on supporting [Borderlands 3] like that. We like the loop of the fans. We are not so proud to say that we make the right decisions every time when we release something, but we’re committed to getting the best experience we can for fans over the longest periods of time. Keep talking and keep telling us what you like and what you don’t.
Austin: Can I interject too? Randy isn’t a part of these meetings, but we have a meeting every week (I think it’s every Tuesday). It’s the developers, producers, customer service, QA, and the community teams. We collect all of the feedback over the past week: what has a streamer said, what have Reddit and Twitter said, what have customer tickets been, what is QA saying? Basically every week, we collect that data and looking through to see what we can adjust this week to appease some of that and what can be in the major patches for that month. We take it very seriously because it’s every week and all of the teams are coming in and just relaying all of the information.
Here’s one specific one that I’ve been curious about. How do you plan to approach and balance FL4K? He’s probably one of the strongest characters for just burning down bosses and I’ve noticed there has been a lot of adjustment to his skillset [since launch].
Randy: I’m probably the wrong person to ask on that because again, I’ve already rolled into working on DLC story content and we have our creative director and other teams. We have a senior designer now that’s in charge of live [services], Graeme Timmins, who talks a lot on Twitter and he’ll say stuff about that. Do you know anything about the FL4K plans?
Austin: I know from when the game came out, we’ve done a lot of adjustments to try and finetune him, and some people were happy with changes while some people weren’t because you had a really strong build where you could melt a boss. Well, we realized there might be something broken there, so we reduced that down but I think at this point, we’re pretty confident that there’s not going to be any more nerfs, if you want to use that term. I think we’re happy where a lot of the characters are at. If there are any changes that need to be made, hopefully they’re positive ones and not reductions in damage or ability. If anything’s getting melted too much, I think there are good considerations to make that [enemy] stronger.
Randy: Borderlands has a lot of gear, a lot of guns, and a lot of ways to build your character. We and our partners at 2K sunk into I don’t know how many hours of QA before launch but it’s impossible to touch every possible creative combination that you can get. You have to do a lot of this tuning after launch and it’s really important for the longterm life of a game. We were talking to someone yesterday who worked way back on Borderlands 1 and worked with 2K. He enjoyed the game a lot when he could just get into the dev build and use the cheat tools to make your own gun. That’s really cool, and we do that all the time internally too, and it’s really cool for about 30 or 45 minutes. Once you’ve made the best gun you could possibly make statistically and there’s no growth, you kind of lose your desire to get into that cool loot loop of seeing ‘this gun’s a little better, this one’s a lot better and this one does something that I completely didn’t expect’. It’s that surprise that really fuels what people like there. We have to work to be sure that we maintain that surprise and that cool growth arc longterm for players. There’s two or three efforts in development all at the same time.
We’re certainly looking for those outlier builds and finding a way to either buff or nerf to make things close, especially looking at boss melting cases. But, we also have new content that challenges players in different ways. There’s the Maliwan Takedown coming out in just a couple of weeks. It’s basically a four-player, tuned for level 50, it’s hard content. You’re going to probably change your gear and change how you build your character to play it. We’re actually trying to put out content that extends that challenge even further. People may feel that they’re boss melt-y right now, but okay, let’s see how you feel when the Maliwan Takedown comes out. We want to continue to put out that kind of new content in [Borderlands 3] so that casual players playing on easy mode can just lay back and melt bosses with FL4K. You’re right, it’s a PVE game and have fun with it. We do want to be sure that there’s some part of the game that’s preserved for players that want that challenge and really to grind for that gear or find that perfect build and talk about it online and really achieve that content in a way that no one else can achieve. We aren’t doing these things in any order; we’re doing it all at once in a full-on attack. It will land at different times, but it’s all in development right now along with other bug fixing and optimization fixes and DLC which will start on November 20th, which is when the first information will go out on DLC 1, a story-based DLC with exciting details to come. We’re looking at all of the different players we have and trying to find a way to make them excited about where we’re going.
Have you thought about exploring the realm of cross-play for Borderlands 3?
Randy: Yes, we have thought about it. We desperately want to. If you ask any developer on our team, we want it just like every player wants it. It’s now more possible than it was years ago and that field has changed recently. A lot of the politics involved in cross-play changed very late in our Borderlands 3 development cycle, so it wasn’t a part of our development from the beginning. We are actively looking and talking and thinking about that. There’s nothing to announce at the moment, but it is definitely somewhere that we would love to go and know that our fans would be very excited about that.
What’s your experience with Google Stadia?
Randy: What is our experience with Google Stadia, Austin?
Austin: We’ve been working on that as well. The 19th is when Stadia is launching and we’re shooting for that, but we want to finetune it and make sure that everything’s perfect. It may be just a few days beyond that, but for the most part, we’re going for that. If it’s not a launch title, it’s a near-launch title.
Randy: I couldn’t remember if we announced that or not. I have played Borderlands 3 running on Stadia in a dev version on a mobile phone with a controller attached. I was actually shocked at how smooth it was. Of course, it requires a pretty smoking internet connection, but it’s a surprisingly good port of the game. I’m excited to see where that goes. It’s unexplored territory and no one knows what’s going to happen. I think it has a lot of potential for the future.
There are other titles on the Stadia platform that are exploring elastic computing and stringing together multiple instances to provide better power or physics and AI. Do you feel like Borderlands 3 might be able to explore something unique on the platform?
Randy: Again, I’m probably the wrong person to delve into that. I know we’ve had that conversation before and I’ve been in a room where someone’s talked about that and I’m trying to think where we’d include that. We’re not the type of game that benefits incredibly from that. The most you might imagine is hosting of servers on the cloud rather than a local host, but I don’t think we’ve done that because the game is still host and client based. Long-term future? Yes, absolutely, I could see us doing something like that. We would love to explore places to do that.
I think one of the places that I’m most proud [about] with our development is that amazing ECHOcast Twitch extension. It explored some new ways on Twitch where you could not only see the build that a streamer is playing but there were times that a miniboss would spawn and if you’re on Twitch, it pops up this interface and you can actually heal the miniboss or buff the miniboss or do all of these other things. You actually fight the streamer. I think statistically, the community won about 75% of those fights. Usually, the streamers are good players and they want the challenge. We also did this thing whenever you opened a red chest, one of our big loot chests, and with that ECHOcast, if you’re in the streamer’s lobby and watch, you have a chance to win whatever loot was in that chest and it just gets sent to your Borderlands account. We absolutely like to take advantage of new and emerging technologies and find a way to deal with our fans. I think we would look for opportunities like that where it does something new or does something that makes a lot of sense for our game and feeds into that idea of loot, growth and community in a way like that ECHOcast extension did.
Have you already started to play around with the next generation of consoles?
Randy: I don’t believe I can comment on that. [Robot voice]: We are aware of the next generation of consoles and will announce future plans at a future date.
Austin: I don’t know either.
Randy: I’m always excited about next-gen and where we go on it. We’re aware.
In line with that to follow up, do you think Borderlands 3 could be enhanced for PlayStation 5 or Scarlett when those land?
Randy: Could be? They absolutely could be. Possibility. The possibility is there and I think if you look at our history, you could make some assumptions.
I’m looking at the other questions our editor sent in and it’s a lot of next-gen stuff.
Austin: That makes sense.
Randy: Yeah, that’s where we are. We’re getting ready for that. It’s interesting because again, we’ve released a game that’s going to still be a live active title if it has legs like Borderlands 2 or The Pre-Sequel across the generation gap.
Austin: With the four DLC, we have the legs to last until then.
Randy: I know The Handsome Collection that we did in a similar situation was one of our best-selling SKUs for Borderlands 2 and it combined Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel together and 'uprezzed' that. I think it would be a mistake not to go there, but I’m not going to announce any plans right now. We’re definitely aware of that and we’d love to do it.
With Borderlands 2 VR out now on PC as well, do you see revisiting other titles like The Pre-Sequel or Borderlands 1 in a VR fashion?
Randy: That’s a great question. VR is kind of tricky. We just got Borderlands 2 on SteamVR and it’s now on basically all of the VR platforms now. It’s still such a hardware limited market that’s really cool and we wanted to do it. We did that and the Penn and Teller game on VR and it was a cool, fun little party game. F U U U U and U, I can’t remember how many U’s are there. We love exploring [virtual reality] but it really feels like the edge of the frontier right now. We have to be really careful because we’re a business and at the end of the day, while we want to explore the technology and stay relevant, we have to be sure that we can profit there. Any time that we go to a new platform on a port, we have to be sure that it makes sense and that we’re at least going to make our money back. Gearbox has a track record of exploring VR and we’ve got that in the studio.
We will probably see more Borderlands in VR in the future but nothing is set or certain there yet. I think we’ll continue to explore, but I don’t know. We’d have to see Borderlands 2 be widely adopted and accepted. Again, if a lot of people buy it and play it and if there’s a market there, absolutely. We just remastered Borderlands 1 last year because we know a lot of people wanted to play that again. It depends on the market because those aren’t free. They require work and a lot more money than you would think just to port something to a new platform.
I know there’s been a pretty big partnership with GameStop with Borderlands 1 being a retail exclusive, same thing with Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour as well. I’ve been curious if you have other plans to partner with GameStop for future releases.
Randy: I don’t know, do you?
Austin: I think in today’s landscape, these sorts of partnerships are for smaller things. If you get the game here, you get a trinket like a poster or a toy. Our mission is to entertain the world, so we want to do what we can to keep broadening our reach.
Randy: We like GameStop. They’re a local Dallas company, so we have a lot of friends there.
Austin: So partnerships, but not exclusives. Nothing’s set in stone, I guess.
Is there a possibility of seeing the Borderlands franchise as a whole, not just Borderlands 3, 1, 2, or The Pre-Sequel, coming to Nintendo Switch?
Austin: Entertain the world and the world’s a Nintendo.
Randy: I’ll go to my safe answer on this: we certainly recognize the Switch is a *very* popular and growing platform. I don’t own one yet, but it’s at the top of my Christmas list because I have to get Pokemon and Animal Crossing really bad. I need it so bad. Entertain the world, we’ll see.
Thankfully, you’ll have to wait a little bit longer for Animal Crossing because that’s dropping in March on the same day as Doom Eternal. That’s going to be a bloodbath in retail.
Randy: Ah, whatever, Doom. What’s that Doom game? Who makes it? id?
Is there anything you’d like to add to Borderlands 3?
Austin: The Maliwan Takedown [is coming] with all of the additional content inside that. Mayhem 4 and other stuff, that’s going to be a big content patch alongside that and is coming in a few weeks as well as new information on DLC 1 in a few weeks.
Randy: There’s new stuff in Borderlands 3 almost every month for the foreseeable future. If you like the game and you’re a fan, keep alert and pay attention. There’s a lot of stuff coming and if you have feedback, let us know. Yell at Austin and he’ll let us know.
Austin: If you’re yelling somewhere, I’m listening, that’s how it works.
One very last question: do you have any plans to add microtransactions into Borderlands 3?
Randy: No! We’ve said that from the very beginning. I think that one of the things that sets Borderlands 3 apart from other games right now is that we didn’t [add microtransactions]. We have a lot of the same things like skins. We branded the loot boxes. We’ve had loot boxes since Borderlands 1 but we’ve never charged for them. You just go and open them. If you can beat the bandits and skags away from them, you can have them. I guess we charge a blood sacrifice but yeah, it’s not money. We really love the idea that Borderlands is a big game with a ton of content that we don’t nickel and dime you for. We like value. We make big games and like customers that have it and want to celebrate that with you. The DLC content and story content are for pay, you do buy the season pass. That’s about as close as we get.
Thank you for your time.