Gearbox creative director Paul Sage — How we made Borderlands 3

Gearbox creative director Paul Sage — How we made Borderlands 3

It’s been a long journey for Borderlands 3. Borderlands 2 shipped in 2012, and fans naturally thought that Borderlands 3 would be coming soon after that.


But the wait was long. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel shipped in 2014. But fans — who have scooped up 43 million copies of the previous games — have been patient. The title is now slated to ship on September 13 on Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Google Stadia. We played the game at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the big trade show in Los Angeles, and we had a conversation with one of the leaders on the project.


When Paul Sage arrived on the project as creative director four years ago, he had simple marching orders. He had to respect the franchise, and he had to take the next game to different planets beyond Pandora. The team has delivered on the latter one — with a planet named Eden-6 — as it has a swampy, bayou-like landscape for one of the scenes.


The project was ambitious. The team switched engines and made the graphics better. Borderlands 2 was built on Unreal Engine 3, with heavy modifications
by the Borderlands team. Borderlands 3 is being built on Unreal Engine 4. They worked on improving combat and co-op play. And they created a couple of new villains with the Calypso Twins.


Fingers crossed, it will turn out well. Sage just hopes that player expectations stay under control.


Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. And check out our interview with Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Take-Two Interactive.


Above: Paul Sage is creative director on Borderlands 3.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi


GamesBeat: How long have you been on the franchise?


Paul Sage: I actually started with Gearbox four years ago. I went right into working on Borderlands 3.


GamesBeat: Were you at the GDC when they revealed it?


Sage: Yeah, that was when we were up there with Epic and the Unreal engine. That was the first little bitty hint of a look. I was there. I want to say that might have been two years ago? Maybe a bit more, two and a half?


GamesBeat: What drew you to Borderlands?


Sage: I was a big fan of Borderlands 2. My son and I got to play Borderlands 2 together, and that was one of the things that made me really like this franchise. There was an opportunity, and that was a big thing for me. Being a fan and then coming to work on the game.


GamesBeat: Where were you before?


Sage: I worked on Elder Scrolls Online. I was the creative director for that game.


GamesBeat: Was there an agenda set up for you when you arrived, or was it a matter of coming up with the inspiration yourself?


Sage: They were really great with me. I think the one or two mandates I had—one of them was going to different planets, and then another one, which was just unspoken, was to respect the franchise. But then my goal—I was really interested in making this the best cooperative experience that any Borderlands game ever had. Like I say, I played with my son. That was really important to me. That’s how we got level syncing in the game, instanced loot in the game.


The team was great, because the team had a lot of ideas for what they wanted to do as well. Really working on combat and making sure that combat felt smooth. We’d seen so many good shooters come out. Titanfall 2, a rocking shooter, and all these other games. We wanted to make sure our controls felt just as smooth. We added mantling and sliding, but it’s just as much about how I move that cursor around. Does it feel good? Do I feel like I’m a good player? There’s a bit of bullet magnetism thrown in there. If you’re off by a little bit, hey, we know what you want to do. Getting that to feel great was a huge part of our work over the years.


Big bot ... big bot chase me.

Above: Big bot … big bot chase me.

Image Credit: Gearbox Software


GamesBeat: I played the demo, and I thought—I can’t remember which gun I had at first. I was having trouble aiming. But the second time I played, I didn’t have any problems. It’s not a steep learning curve.


Sage: No, I hope not.


GamesBeat: In the demo, where we start, can you say where we are in the story?


Sage: The demo we’re playing on the floor is in a place—it’s called Ascension Bluff. It’s really close to the beginning of the game. If you saw the gameplay reveal, you saw Claptrap taking us through. Basically, the recruitment center for the Children of the Vault. Then there was a big area past that that nobody’s seen yet, and then there’s this, which is Ascension Bluff, which is where the holy broadcast center is, where you fight Mouthpiece. I’d say this is right around level seven to level 14? Pretty early in the game.


GamesBeat: Once you had that couple of mandates, what did you figure out you wanted to do?


Sage: Again, one of the things we had to concentrate on was story and characters. Story-wise, we wanted to introduce a villain. We inherited one of the funniest, coolest villains ever with Handsome Jack. That was the legacy we had. How do you top Handsome Jack, or at least build something as good as Handsome Jack? That was where we introduced the Calypso Twins.


That was one of the things that I remember being really difficult. We went through the process of—all right, they’re twins, but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad guys and it doesn’t necessarily make them interesting. They were conjoined twins at one time? That doesn’t really make them interesting yet either. They’re leading a cult? That still doesn’t quite make them interesting. They felt more like mustache-twirling villains. They still didn’t feel that great.


We hit on something where—what makes you not like somebody, versus what just makes them villainous? Not anything against streamers, but you can look at the worst of streamers, who are just totally in it for ego and things like that. Okay, how can we take that, something people can relate to? If it gets bad, this could be really bad, and then that’s how they build their cult. It all started falling into place. That’s when we hit on the magic. These are the villains that people want to not like. That was a big thing.


Borderlands 3 at E3 2019.

Above: Borderlands 3 at E3 2019.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi


GamesBeat: Can you talk more about the planets?


Sage: We just did a huge pitch from across the team. Here’s the different environments we want to play in. We talked about it a lot, and there were a lot that were awesome, but that we couldn’t do. There were some that didn’t fit the franchise, even though I thought they were cool. One person was talking about this big turtle island, where the whole thing is on a living creature. I thought that was really cool, but I don’t think we could have pulled it off in the time we have. It’s great to dream, but the time just wasn’t there.


We settled on Pandora, which is great, and then the city, which was a huge challenge, to make a great city in Borderlands. There’s a certain feel. Our art director calls it “the funk,” adding the funk to the franchise. That was important. You have to add things like graffiti, things that make a city feel like it’s part of this weirdly trashy universe. Then we’re showing Eden-6 on the show floor here. That’s like a bayou. We live in east Texas, and we’re right on the Louisiana border, so there’s some inspiration there. Some of the cool environments around there. There’s a place called Caddo Lake, surrounded by the bayou, and it’s really neat. We take inspiration from stuff like that to make these environments.


GamesBeat: What do you see as the main attraction of the gameplay?


Sage: For me, it has to be the moment to moment shooting. If you think about this as a circle that spirals out and gets bigger as it goes, the first little part is the moment to moment shooting, feeling that. Then that loop ties into a bigger loop, which is the drops you get, weapons and things like that. Great, now I’ve got those. But that goes into a bigger loop again, the RPG loop. You get experience points, your character grows, and you get new skills. That reinforces into fighting bigger things.


That’s the loop, the big loop that spirals out. Getting that gameplay right, getting all of those working in harmony, is really important. The story loop is the thing that drives you through that. That’s the motivation pushing you through that circle. Here’s what continues to make this interesting. If you’re going out and exploring and you don’t find something new, find something exciting, what good was the exploration? You always have to challenge someone with that.


Then there’s pacing. How fast does that story move you through? What new things do you see? What new events are you getting? Pacing becomes a part of that. More than ever before, we have these vaults. It’s vaults, plural, instead of just the vault this time. There are big vault bosses in the game, huge boss challenges that add to that pacing. You want to get this paced out exactly right, and hopefully we’ve done a good job.


Don't mess with Lilith.

Above: Don’t mess with Lilith.

Image Credit: Gearbox Software


GamesBeat: Do you think that’s a matter of slowing down your progress at times?


Sage: I think it’s more about, how long do you spend in that loop, the normal combat? What do you see that distracts you from that? What do you see that’s new, that’s a slightly different activity than what you were doing before? If you’re going to do a different activity than just shooting, even if it’s a simple activity, you can take a break, and then you’re ready for combat again. There has to be enough breaks in there so that you constantly feel like the game isn’t same-ey. It’s giving you enough different things to do that feel good.


One of the best things for me—I talked about exploration and I talked about that fog of discovery. We’ve talked about that a lot. We haven’t really talked about sabotage, missions of—we’ve added mantling to the game that allows you to climb things. We’ve added these crew challenges and we’ve talked about those, but sabotage is one that I specifically like, where you have to mantle onto things. They’re almost always placed up high, because it’s a satellite dish. You’re trying to go up there and change the signal from the Children of the Vault broadcasting. Remember, they’re streamers, broadcasting things. You have to change that into broadcasts from your side, working with Lilith and Crimson Raiders.


Changing those over is a small thing, but there’s so many different radio signals and things like that, things our sound team has created. The broadcast radio has tons of stuff on it. I really love hearing those. It’s a small thing, but it’s one of those details you get particularly—okay, this feels great. I love doing this. Just as a personal thing, that’s one I really like.


GamesBeat: Roses seem like a big theme, or a motif.


Sage: One of the interesting things—we had the art that you see out there, where it has the cover art. There were roses put on that cover art as part of it. I think the roses just became a thing where—when we saw the original part of that cover art, we said, “You know, wouldn’t it be cool—this thing is so detail-oriented. What if there was a little game just associated with this art?” They drew the characters in the roses, right? I don’t know how old you are, but I had magazines I played with as a kid where it was about finding what was wrong with an image, or finding something secret hidden there. The game was something like that.


GamesBeat: Where’s Waldo, something like that?


Sage: A little bit? Creating a game with the concept art, though, that’s how the roses started, with the concept piece for the cover art.


Borderlands 3' distinctive art style returns.

Above: Borderlands 3′ distinctive art style returns.

Image Credit: Gearbox Software


GamesBeat: What’s Claptrap going to do in this game?


Sage: [laughs] The question isn’t what Claptrap is going to do. It’s more like, what is Claptrap not going to do? I think Claptrap is—he’s interesting in that he starts you off in the game. He’s your introduction to the game. It would be a disservice to Claptrap to call him the comic relief. It would be better to say that he helps set the tone for the game, in a lot of ways. He lets you know that it’s okay to fool around a bit with the game and have a good time. That’s what he does.


But Claptrap is at his best when he’s at his worst, and he’s at his worst when he’s at his best. That’s the secret of Claptrap. When he’s feeling down, because nobody likes him or whatever else, that’s when you feel sorry for him, and that’s when he’s at his best. But when he’s feeling on top of the world, calling you “Recruit” and things like that, that’s when he’s at his worst, because he’s condescending. He gets a little too cocky. He has that balance that we have to maintain with him.


GamesBeat: This being the third game, does that inspire you to do anything special? Do you want to have a bigger ending here, something that takes these planets in a different direction?


Sage: To answer this as honestly as I can, I think that’s a trap. Not the question, but the, “Oh, it always has to be bigger and better. It has to be this.” People want a fun game. This team has busted their asses just to make this game fun. You want to stay true to the franchise, and yes, you want to have new and different things. They don’t always have to be bigger and better, some huge feature. Oh, great, we’re gonna add hang-gliding to the game! We’re not doing that. You can get too far into it.


Honestly, the big thing about taking on a franchise like this is player expectation. If you get too far afield of player expectation, you’ve done the wrong thing. I just want people to go in and have a blast and keep having a blast with the game. That’s the whole reason we get into this industry, for people to simply have fun.


GamesBeat: It’s been a long wait. Does that make it feel like it’s gotten more popular in the meantime, more anticipated?


Sage: Yeah, which is a double-edged sword, right? At one end you have to manage the player expectation. Yes, it has been a long time, but it’s not going to do everything. We can’t show every NPC that’s ever been in the franchise. But at the same time, yeah, it does need to be something that feels—I think that wait does lend a certain—I can’t wait to play it again! I hope it does, because I want people to get into the game and be excited about it, and then hopefully have their expectations met.


Borderlands 3 takes the action off Pandora, a series-first for Gearbox.

Above: Borderlands 3 takes the action off Pandora, a series-first for Gearbox.

Image Credit: Gearbox Software


GamesBeat: Do you feel at all different because you’re coming right after Take-Two released Red Dead?


Sage: Honestly, game development is one of those things where you can always chase the dragon. That’s bad. You have to be yourself and make the best game you can make. You have to be aware—I have worked with people who stopped playing games. For me, I’m like, “Why do you still do this if you’re not aware of other games, if you’re not playing games?” You just have to be the best game you can be. You can’t keep chasing everyone else.


GamesBeat: If there’s a level of ambition you settled on, what was doable here, where would you say you wanted to cut it off and then just start iterating and making it better?


Sage: I’d still say we were very ambitious. My tech team would say we were really ambitious sometimes. [laughs] There’s so much to the game. We go to these different worlds. The length of the game being 35 hours, if you just go through the main story—that’s not including doing too many side missions. I think there was a lot of ambition right at the beginning.


Getting the multiplayer systems in—if you went through the booth, you saw us talk about some things where we have the guns populated from vending machines. They’re just small things to a player, but again, they’re introducing and reinforcing bigger things. All of these things that feel small take a lot of time and a lot of energy to get done and get done well. I’d say cutting it off, where you cut it off—I think you cut it off when you say, “Okay, we have to ship. We know we have to ship.” Probably somewhere about a year before. I hate to set a timetable, but it’s like that. We have what we need in the game, now let’s finish making it.


Borderlands 3 villains.

Above: Borderlands 3 villains.

Image Credit: Gearbox


GamesBeat: I talked to Laura Miele from EA on Saturday, and I asked her about Anthem and Apex Legends. There was an easier development for Apex, because they were playing it almost every day for 18 months. Whereas with Anthem, there were so many systems involved that they all came together very late. They assembled the game at the end. At that point maybe they could have decided to keep going longer, but I guess things didn’t come together soon enough, and they had to ship. It’s an interesting comparison as far as how video games get made. I don’t know where would you fall between those.


Sage: We had the engine switch, as I mentioned. That’s incredibly ambitious. If you talk to anybody in the industry, if you switch engines, you have a long road ahead of you. There are people like our level designers and our mission designers who have to have the right tools. Those tools aren’t going to come from Unreal. As good as Unreal is, you still have to make your game. That’s super ambitious alone, to change engines.


I do think there is a discipline to it. That’s a compliment. Our producer, Chris Brock, he’s really good about—“C’mon, guys. We have to cut through this.” Our production staff really keeps us in line as far as, here’s how much you can take on and here’s how much you can’t. I think it’s one of the things I’ve done better as a creative director over the years. Yes, yes, yes to these things, and no to these other things. Sometimes that stings. You don’t want to just cut something out, but you realize that you have to. There’s definitely a discipline to shipping a game.