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Gearbox Software
Spotlight Interview
Bart Carroll

It may be no surprise that certain elements of Dungeons & Dragons have appeared in game design at large—be it for RPGs or video games (just consider Grognardia.com's recent blog post: How Gygax and Arneson Changed the World). In today's interview, we spoke with one of the game designers at Gearbox Software, who helped create the shooter/role-playing game, Borderlands—set on the world of Pandora, featuring characters that could easily translate into D&D counterparts.


Wizards of the Coast: We were interested in the tenets of game design, the involvement Gearbox designers may have had with D&D, and points of crossover. So to start with, could you introduce yourself and your role with Gearbox?

Name: Jonathan Hemingway
Class: Game Designer for Gearbox Software
Notable Achievements: Built the Skills system for all the classes in Borderlands

Wizards of the Coast: Tell us about your experience with Dungeons & Dragons—when did you start playing (and what edition)? Do have any memories of favorite characters you played, or events from memorable sessions that you'd care to relate? Do you still play?

Jonathan: I started playing D&D while I was in grade school, back when it was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The game has gone through a lot of evolution over the years and I’d just like to take this opportunity to say that I’m a big fan of D&D 4th Edition. I was so impressed with the accessibility and streamlined nature of the game that I had my in-laws (none of whom are gamers in any capacity) make characters and run through a dungeon I created. It was a huge success. They all caught on and had a great time.

As for favorite characters, my most memorable would have to be a human wizard I played a few years back by the name of Sort. What made him stand out was that he had an owl familiar with a bladder problem by the name of Puddles. Puddles would communicate by releasing his bladder and Sort could tell what Puddles was saying by the characteristics of the puddle (size, smell, color, etc.). Also, due to statistically unlikely dice rolling, Puddles turned out to be our party’s most spectacular fighter and pulled us out of multiple dire situations.

And yes, I still play. (I’m currently a genasi swordmage.)

Wizards of the Coast: When it came to designing for Gearbox, what lessons might you have taken from the composition of D&D (things you found fundamentally sound with the mechanics, or areas you always wanted to change)? Did you play D&D with a fair amount of house ruling or generally with the rules as written?

Jonathan: D&D and Borderlands have some very similar fundamentals and so many of the principles that make a D&D work also apply to Borderlands, especially in the areas of cooperative gameplay and combat.

In a successful D&D group every player is able to contribute in some way to the fight, often in a way that is unique to your class/character. You might be there to tank (Defender), to perform crowd control (Controller), or take down dangerous foes before they can wreak havoc (Striker), but you’re there to contribute. One thing I really like about D&D 4th Edition is that everyone is fighting no matter what they’re primary role is. There’s no such thing as the guy who just stands in the back and heals while everyone else does cool stuff. Everyone, including healers, are flinging in damage spells or smashing faces with hammers.

Borderlands is a first person shooter, and we knew that for the game to work everyone had to be having a good FPS experience… so we applied that same philosophy: the different classes can contribute in unique ways… but everyone must be able to fight. All 4 of our classes (Berserker, Soldier, Hunter, and Siren) play very differently and can contribute to the group in unique ways, but they are all also fundamentally good with a gun. Everyone can score a headshot and take down a Badass.

When myself and my friends play D&D we skirt the line between rules as written and house ruling. I consider it to be the DM's job to help the players to do cool stuff, and so modifying rules to push the game in that direction is a great thing. But players also need clear rules so that they can make informed decisions. Nothing is worse than a DM changing a rule on you that ruins what your were trying to do. So we work hard to find a balance. In D&D, just like in video games, players need clear rules and feedback so that they have an understanding of what they can and can’t do, which empowers them to have a good time.

Wizards of the Coast: Beyond D&D, what other games did you play (or currently recommend)—RPGs, video games, boards games… and as a game designer, did you find yourself pulling apart and analyzing the mechanics and rules, to see how they worked and how you would have approached them? Do you still do so? Any discoveries, whether successes or things to avoid, that you came away with?

Jonathan: I’ve always liked figuring out and understanding how things work, but becoming a professional game designer has really pushed that aspect of my personality into overdrive as it applies to games. A game has to be really well done for me to just sit down and enjoy it instead of analyzing it to death. If anyone reading this is considering going into game development just know that the way you think about games will change forever once you start making them professionally.

Video game-wise I’m currently playing League of Legends, Defense Grid, and Demon’s Souls. All three of them have some very deeply satisfying aspects to them. As for board games I’m playing Bang!, Munchkin, and Cosmic Encounter.

While making Borderlands we pulled apart tons of games, both video and board games, trying to get to the core of what would make our game work. We looked at RPGs (like Diablo 2 and D&D) as well as a ton of first person shooters.

The most important aspect when building a game is to figure out what the core of the game is first. Then make design decisions that improve that core and shy away from anything that threatens it. The worst thing you can do is try to build a game to satisfy everyone. If you look back at games you’ve liked in the past I think you’ll find that those games had a focused direction and did a few things really well instead of trying to do everything.

Wizards of the Coast: Borderlands features the wasteland of Pandora; BioShock brings a noir-ish, alternative history sense of the world Rapture—did you ever experiment with these types of settings in any pen-and-paper games? Were there elements of storytelling or world creation you may have developed while playing D&D or other RPGs that transitioned to creating game worlds for Gearbox?

Jonathan: The biggest thing I learned about world creation during my time in the D&D universe that I’ve tried to directly apply to video game development is that the world is usually best fleshed out by the people who populate it rather than the world itself. Generally, a small number of characters with distinct personalities who interact with the players in meaningful ways have a much better chance of getting the players to emotionally connect with the story than describing the big picture.

Whenever I have acted as Dungeon Master and tried to get my players to experience some epic worldwide tale it failed… horribly. My players never connected to the world or anything going on. But my players all remember the time Lord Mear made them look like fools in front of everyone in the court. My players also remember the brilliant young artificer who invented things that were so effective as to be a horrible detriment to the user, such as the trousers of sprinting that made you run so fast and for so long that you took a significant amount of damage and chafed for a week.

We stayed pretty close to the idea of using a small number of interesting characters to flesh out the world in Borderlands. Scooter and Dr. Zed are good examples of Borderlands characters that focus on personality and telling their story to get the player to connect with the world. Scooter sends you on a mission to save his friend because Scooter wants to be able to kill him himself. Dr. Zed is a medical doctor who lost his license to cut on real people, so now he runs the medical vending machines on Pandora and eventually invents Zombies. They’re relatively simple characters with some over the top silliness to their personality and background, and that’s what makes them memorable. Our players have extrapolated a lot about the Borderlands universe from the little things that Scooter and Dr. Zed say and do.

Wizards of the Coast: In Borderlands, you can play as Fortune Hunters: Lilith the Siren, Mordecai the Hunter, Roland the Soldier, and Brick—are there certain character types or roles that you looked to create in Borderlands, and do you see parallels in the D&D classes (Roland, for example, would make a great cleric)?

Jonathan: There are many of us on the Borderlands team who play or have played D&D, so we were very aware of the archetypes that D&D had built up over the years. Good design is good design, whether on pen-and-paper or in a video game setting, so there are a lot of similarities in the design of our Fortune Hunters and the classes of D&D, some of which was certainly inspiration.

One of the things we wanted with our classes was for players to be able to drastically change their gameplay based on the Skills they get during the course of the game. For example, if Brick the Berserker gets skills in the Brawler tree then he becomes very akin to the D&D barbarian, relying on rage and sheer brute force to overcome enemies. But if Brick gets skills in the Blaster tree he becomes a master of Rocket Launchers and reigns down destructive force from afar, moving his gameplay closer to that of a sorcerer.

Mordecai with Sniper Skills is similar to a ranger, picking off targets from afar. He even has a pet. But a Mordecai spec'ed with Gunslinger skills becomes amazing with pistols and now plays more like a rogue; bringing light weapons to the fight, aiming for weak spots, and relying on his ability to kill enemies so fast that they don’t have a chance to counter.

Roland is certainly the cleric of the group. If he picks up Medic skills then he is similar to the cleric who focuses on healing and making sure the party survives, while picking up Infantry skills more him closer to being a paladin; an all around tough opponent who smites all who pose a threat to him and his loved ones.

Lilith lies somewhere between wizard and rogue. Assassin Skills effectively give her the ability to surprise the enemy and perform a "backstab." Elemental Skills turn her into a damage dealing wizard, while her Controller Skills make her more defense and turn her into a crowd control wizard.

Wizards of the Coast: Who would win in a fight—Mordecai or Drizzt? Brick or a Big Daddy?

Jonathan: That’s a tough one. I’m a little biased, but I’d have to go with Mordecai. The fight would probably go with it being relatively close until, in a show of drow speed and cunning, Drizzt finally lands a mortal wound on Mordecai, who would then promptly go to one knee entering “Fight for your Life” mode, draw an explosive revolver, and headshot Drizzt for a Second Wind… thus ending the fight. Drizzt, not being from the Borderlands universe, doesn’t have the “Fight for your Life” mechanic. Poor Drizzt.

For Brick vs. a Big Daddy I’d say it depends on where they fight. If they fight on dry land, then Brick is going to have the maneuverability advantage. But if they fight underwater it totally goes to the Big Daddy. Brick can’t swim.

Wizards of the Coast: Finally, any words of advice for aspiring game designers—are there lessons or experiments you would recommend for those interested in entering the video game industry? Did your experience with pen-and-paper RPGs help learn elements of game design?

Jonathan: My time with pen-and-paper RPGs has absolutely been valuable to me in the video game industry. One of the most valuable things it gave me was a safe place to learn from my failures. Creating an adventure that turns out to be a failure when you’re sitting with friends around a table can be a fun experience. It’s a pretty safe environment.

It also helped me to learn to talk fluently about game design with others. It’s one thing to have an understanding of something in your head. But until you can explain it to someone else, then your understanding is probably less complete than you think. D&D created an environment and a framework from which I could begin to discuss and think about deep elements of game design and what makes a player’s experience either positive or negative.

I’ll offer 2 useful tips to the aspiring designer:

#1: Practice Makes Perfect.
If you want to become a great designer you have to keep designing stuff. No one is born a great designer, it’s about experience. D&D is a great place to try out design ideas because you can go from idea to execution with relatively little work (at least compared to video games). Test out your design ideas on your friends and ask them directly for honest feedback on what’s working and what’s not. (I feel a little like an after school special writing this paragraph, but I believe the principle to be true)

#2: Get some technical skills.
If you really want to be in the video game industry then you need to get yourself some technical skills. Almost every day we get people applying for jobs armed only with really good ideas, and we have to turn them all away. Ideas are cheap, implementation is hard. I don’t know of a game company in the world that has people sitting around all day just wishing that they had someone with good ideas. To get hired you need to be capable of implementing what’s in your head. If you’re very logically minded then learn some programming. If you’re artistically minded then learn some 3D modeling and texturing. If you’re somewhere in between then learn some level editing software and make a few levels. There’s a lot of demand in the video game industry for skilled and talented people. If you get the skills you can get a job.

About the Author

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