Why are we so crazy about Borderlands 2?
The original Borderlands was without a question a smash hit. A blockbuster. The new game in town. The Next Big Thing. But at the same time it confused the hell out of the industry. How did this FPS RPG game with cel-shaded aesthetics, thick borders, weird little tin can robots and nothing at all to do with “modern warfare” become so successful and popular? What did developer Gearbox Software do so well that it was able to rally a huge fanbase in a short amount of time around a completely new intellectual property? Did they just get lucky or is there something to be learned here?
Its the Sum of its Parts
Let’s first examine the defining aspects of the game itself. What really makes Borderlands uniquely Borderlands and not just some copy-cat FPS game?
- First Person Shooter with thousands of unique guns and gear.
- Co-op gameplay focus.
- Set in the future on a wasteland planet with lots of bizarre creatures and psychopathic enemies.
- Diablo-style loot system.
- Classes with varying skill trees. Each class has 3 sub-classes for skills.
- Cel-shaded graphics.
- An offbeat and often witty sense of humor.
- Huge open world to explore, conquer and loot.
- Dancing tin can robots.
What do all of these things add up to? Something quite unique. Something way different than anyone else is putting out there.
It Also Feels the Same As Others
But also there are a lot of distantly familiar flavors. At the time that Borderlands came out there really hadn’t been another Diablo game for a long time. In 2012, The Year of The Action RPG, its hard to remember that. We now finally have Diablo III along with upcoming Torchlight 2, Path of Exile and even a Kickstarter from those Titan Quest developers for Grim Dawn. The ARPG is back in a big way, but in 2009 it was long dead. Loot crazy gamers were basically all wrapped up in an even-then-it-was-old World of Warcraft. Along came Borderlands, which took the loot piñatas from other existing games and plopped them into a First Person Shooter. So right there we already have a formula for success: mixing 2 completely different genres that were wildly popular? Sold.
The Co-op was another key factor though. Co-op was just beginning to become a staple of FPS games with modes like Nazi Zombies in Call of Duty: World at War. And hell, Halo 3 had just done co-op in a big way by letting 4 people simultaneously play through the entire campaign. It was becoming standard fare to get a co-op mode in any FPS. But Borderlands took it a step further. It wasn’t just kinda neat to play with friends, it literally enhanced the experience with its 4 different classes. Somebody could tank with Brick while another could snipe off bosses with Mordecai. Lilith would come in and do some crazy AoE damage and Roland would act as an all-around DPS. Even people new to RPG games could easily understand the class distinctions and it made for a good time to have a role in a group of friends.
Why Look the Same When You Could Look Completely Different?
But what really carried Borderlands over the top was the style. This game was just gushing with style and aesthetic. Originally the game was to have a much more realistic yet still colorful look, but somewhere along the lines the developers thought that a cartoonier look and a hard black line around guns and characters would really bring out the vibe of the game. Looks like they were totally right. Its not just eye-popping, its also very distinct. You know right away when its Borderlands when looking at screens of the game. Ever try doing that with Battlefield or Call of Duty? Good luck.
The Big Takeaway
What are other franchises doing wrong then? Why isn’t there more original titles year-to-year? Well to be honest, there is, but most don’t enjoy the sort of runaway success that Borderlands does. The secret is a combination of both originality and familiarity, but with a distinct flair that you can still call “unique”. For Borderlands its the cel-shaded monsters and dancing robots, for other games it might be some funny hats you can buy or a unique take on the story of the apocalypse. Maybe its a new approach to stealth games. Every new franchise that comes out successful has had its share of uniqueness, but also its familiar feel to games that other people are actively playing. Sure, I might want somebody to make a sequel to Rez, but nobody is really playing anything like Rez right now, so it will probably not be a big deal. It needs something in there to hook the core audience who, and pay attention to this part, already know what they like. They know they like Diablo, they know they like Call of Duty, maybe somewhere in the middle there we can find something unique and wonderful that still feels fresh and familiar at the same time.
This is why Borderlands will probably be a huge release next week. Many of us are pre-ordered and ready to go. Many others will be goaded by friends to join in the action. Either way its not hard to see why this thing is so popular anymore. Borderlands is now in “franchise” status officially, with a big old TWO at the end, but my hope is that soon we’ll see more that can follow in its footsteps to bring us many more “new”, “unique” and “fresh” experiences.