This year, I had the pleasure to hear Gearbox Software’s Randy Varnell speak. Randy began his journey at Gearbox in 2009 and has served as Managing Producer of Narrative since 2018. In his speech “Building Borderlands 3 Narrative”, Randy discussed his role and how the narrative process has evolved since the first Borderlands.
Randy’s career makes for the perfect study. He is a 25 year veteran of Software Development. He always dreamed about being a Creative Director and was able to do so on Battleborn. He then went on to become Gearbox’s Head of World Development, where he was able to tie all the teams at Gearbox together!
With Borderlands celebrating its tenth anniversary, it is the perfect time for Gearbox to launch Borderlands 3. However, with Borderlands they have not been able to stop creating content. With DLCs, add-ons and even a Telltale game… Borderlands has provided nonstop excitement for fans.
Randy divided his speech into three chapters: Expand, Extend and Explore.
EXPAND: Building a Narrative Team for Borderlands 3
Prior to Borderlands 3, Gearbox utilized one writer per game. As you can imagine, that is quite a bit of work, thus for Borderlands 3 they created their first Narrative Department. The reason for this was:
• Dead writers do not write.
Having a team removes the sole burden from one person.
• Big projects have big appetites.
Working on the narrative of a game means that one has to work with teams from multiple disciplines… from Mission Designers to Artists.
• A writer’s room is super neat.
Having a room where one can bounce ideas off other writers is helpful. It also allows one to check if jokes are working for example.
Randy put it simply “Having more raisins in an oatmeal cookie is always good.”
The next step was to make the team bigger. This included a Narrative Department with Writers, the Voiceover Director and Pre-Visualization Team. Bringing in Senior Leadership: Cheif Creative Officer and Creative Director. Also including the creative leaders behind the project: Mission Design Director, Level Design Director and Art Director. And also including: Special Guest Stars!
One thing to take in mind is it is a difficult balance. Everyone has input, but is necessary to have the ability to make decisions. There can be several amazing ideas, but these ideas do not always work together. This is why good communication and a strong team that is willing to work together is important.
The Core Narrative Team included: the Writers, Cheif Creative Officer, Creative Director and Mission Design Director.
The first TASK was the kickoff and high-level development. Everyone needed to get excited and the brainstorming had to begin. More project leaders were brought in: the Level Design Director and Art Director.
The second big TASK was plot mapping. Each episode had a one pager and everyone had to commit to the details of it.
The third TASK was mission creation and review. This where missions were fleshed out. There for they brought in their special guest stars: the Mission Designers.
The fourth TASK was script table reads. They hosted table reads for each major mission and then asked for feedback. This was very important as the next phase is production, so there were a few reviews and a couple of iterations.
Another thing that Gearbox did was to have company gameplay starting at 5 pm. As things were polished, this led to user testing. The idea is to hone the story and make sure it is great.
EXTEND: Growing an Epic Saga for Returning Fans
This is a big challenge. There’s a lot to remember from the previous stories and that is a lot to ask fans. You have to remind people about particular elements and listen to what the fans loved about the previous games.
Characters are key and essential. The characters in a game are what people remember the most. People fall in love with characters and connect with them. The fans let developers know which characters they cherish. This can be seen in cosplay.
An example of fan dedication is shortly after the announcement of Borderlands 3, people began getting tattoos featuring the new Borderlands artwork and sharing the tattoos on social media. This is how committed fans are! So it is important to listen to one’s fan base.
With Borderlands 3 it was important to start with familiar faces. Naturally with Borderlands 3, Marcus and Claptrap were brought back! Additionally, some time has passed both in and out of the game. Thus, the characters needed to be updated. Tiny Tina is now in her 20s and Moxxi’s design has evolved.
Artists also wanted to make the game fresh. However, you can go too far. This was seen with the development of Lilith for Borderlands 3. Sometimes taking a character in a new direction that does not work can lead to new developments. They were not satisfied with the redesign with Lilith, but this lead to the design of Lorelei… so there was still a positive outcome.
Gearbox also wanted to give Borderlands 3 some new flavors. For the first time, Borderlands will include 3 to 5 minute long cinematics that will make the game even more exciting and help tell the story.
To amp up the excitement, the Narrative Team also worked with the Marketing Team and Partners to promote Borderlands 3. When the Mask of Mayhem Teaser was launched, fans were excited and starting viewing the elements for clues of what was to come!
Also to get the fans’ hearts beating faster, they made a DLC for a 7 year old game: Commander Lilith & The Fight For Sanctuary! This would also bring fans back into the game and refresh their memories as well as attract new players.
EXPLORE: Bringing New Fans Into the Franchise
This really gave the Narrative Team the chance to practice their professional craft. They had to reintroduce core concepts: Vaults, the Key, Vault Hunters, Pandora, The Calypso Twins, Bandits, etc. One could not assume that people would remember everything and that new players would be knowledgable about some of the core concepts.
It is also good to repeat core concepts often. With longer games, people can forget things by the middle of the game, thus it is important to refresh their memory. By hosting playtests, they were able to find gaps and holes, as well as polish the overall game.
The pacing of the content is especially crucial at the beginning. So it was important to provide players with the following information.
Who are you? A Vault Hunter.
What do you need? The Vault Key
In Borderlands 3, everyone starts fresh. You get to build and bond with a character. This is great for those just beginning to play the Borderlands saga.
It is also important to recognize great villains. Originally, they had thought about bringing back Handsome Jack. But in the end they decided to put the character rest.
New villains also introduce new conflict. So they decided to introduce the Calypso Twins. They are probably the world’s most vile streamers, who stream constantly in order to gain new fans or bandits.
When Randy spoke about the Calypso Twins, he said imagine if Ninja was trying to get his fans to commit crimes and rob banks.
What makes the twins great is they are relatable, because they are siblings. They are semi-realistic as they are Social Media Archons. Also, they are relevant as they have a cult of personality.
And of course, as soon as the Calypso Twins were announced… fans went wild. In fact, cosplayers are even sharing their renditions of Tyreen and Troy.
With Borderlands 3, they wanted to enable players to have a journey. This was done with the ability to travel to multiple planets. At first, they thought it would be great to open somewhere new such as Promethea. However, it just did not feel right. So they decided to start players off on Pandora.
Another essential part of the Borderlands 3 journey, is that all players get to share a key experience. Every player earns a spaceship homebase: The Sanctuary 3. This shared experience will be exciting for die-hard fans and those just starting with Borderlands.
Randy expressed it is all about the journey…. for me as a gamer and a marketing guy, I have to agree.
Having a well oiled Narrative Team that works together and communicates with the various departments at a studio is important. This allows for the right ideas to come to fruition and really polish a game before release.
Listening to one’s community is also very essential during the development phase, especially while creating a game that is part of a series. One has to listen to fans closely and discover what they want…. as well develop a few surprises for them.
I was truly inspired by hearing Randy speak at Devcom about how they developed the Narrative Team at Gearbox! And I do believe their hard work paid off, as the line to view Borderlands 3 was around 3 to 5 hours long! Alas, I was in meetings in the business area, so I will have to wait until September 13th to play the game myself.
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