‘Borderlands 3’: How Trusting an Algorithm Accidentally Built Gearbox an Empire

Tom Regan

It’s 2007, and Randy Pitchford must be nervous. After making a name for himself working on 1996’s Duke Nukem 3D , a decade later he’s the CEO of a far less prestigious studio – and it’s just about to unveil its second original game to the world. Taking the name Gearbox Software, for years, this developer quietly earned its keep optimising other creators’ work, until in 2005 it finally rolled the dice and released its own IP – Brothers In Arms.

It wasn’t until its second game, however, that Gearbox really found its groove. Despite achieving modest success with the WW2 strategy sim, with its next game, Gearbox wanted to hit the big time. So, two years later, this former porting studio tried its luck once again, ditching the drab for the colourful and trading the tactical for the tongue-in-cheek. The result? An oddball little shooter called Borderlands.

Four million sales, a sequel and two spin-offs later, we’d say it’s a risk that paid off. From its loyal army of cosplay enthusiasts to reams of high profile imitators, over the last 12 years, Gearbox’s pioneering ‘looter shooter’ has gone on to earn the kind of rabidly devoted fanbase most developers only dream about.

Much of what made the series such a success wasn’t man-made at all – it was down to its clever, gun-generating algorithm.”

Now, with the long-awaited Borderlands 3 only months away, we thought it was time to shine a spotlight on the franchise’s secret sauce — its alarmingly clever loot tech. We know what you’re thinking, there’s few combinations of words sexier-sounding than ‘loot tech’. Yet, while fans loudly praise the series’ eye-catching aesthetic and quirky, Joss Whedon-esque humour, Gearbox veterans reveal that much of what made the series such a success wasn’t manmade at all – it was down to its clever, gun-generating algorithm.

Embracing The Chaos

“I don’t know that any of it was directly on purpose,” shrugs lead weapon designer Kevin Duke, reflecting on the series’ addictive gameplay loop. “It was iterative steps to finding what worked and what didn’t, and steering our decision-making based on that… that whole formula coming together in the way that it did was just a lot of testing and a lot of exploration. It was really just us trying to adapt to the AI and make the right decisions as we went!”

The AI that Duke’s talking about is, of course, the mysterious algorithm that packages together the random combination of colours, stats and attachments into each tasty-looking firearm. And if you want to survive in Borderlands‘ brutal wasteland on Pandora, you’re going to need every last one of them.

Put in the shoes of a super-powered badass called a vault hunter, your mission is to travel the world in search of the ultimate loot. And luckily for twitchy shooter fans, there are hordes of psychopaths here baying for your blood — and danger and mayhem lurking around every corner. Funnily enough, though, it’s not just the fictional beats of this violent gameworld that encourage indiscriminate chaos – it turns out, the game’s entire code is built on it.

I don’t know that any of it was directly on purpose…”

“Whether [players] realise it or not, that’s where people find a lot of the fun and a lot of the variation that Borderlands has become known for,” explains Duke. “On a high level, there is quite a bit of us setting up the content and the rules [for the AI] and just letting it do its thing… you kind of have to just set the rules, trust the design and just let [the algorithm] work!”

It turns out, the best way to simulate chaos, is with actual chaos — and for the long-awaited Borderlands 3, the team is hoping to dial that up to 11. With the upcoming threequel offering a jaw-dropping billion different guns for vault hunters to play with, the studio’s AI friend is (unsurprisingly) leading the charge once again.

“There’s simply no way to curate billions of guns manually; we kind of just lift our hands up and say, ‘Hey, let’s see what it does!” laughs Duke.

Loot worth Scoring

But this time around, Gearbox isn’t the only studio relying on a friendly neighbourhood algorithm. When Borderlands first came on the scene, it was the lone pioneer in the looter-shooter genre, paving the way by making up the rules as it went. Now with high-profile competitors ‘borrowing’ Borderlands’ randomly generated secret sauce, the team has opted to take a slightly different approach.

“There’s simply no way to curate billions of guns manually… we kind of just lift our hands up and say “hey, let’s see what happens!”

Seizing the reigns of its wild algorithm, Gearbox is attempting to ensure that there’s a greater focus on player choice amidst all the pandemonium. As series veterans would expect, the game’s guns are produced by different manufacturers yet again, but in Borderlands 3, you’re far more likely to notice them.

For the series’ third entry, Gearbox knew that simply bombarding players with sheer numbers wasn’t going to cut it. While an AI can generate different stats ad nauseam, this time around, what really mattered to the team was ensuring that each weapon had its own feel — its own personality.

Borderlands is famous for the sheer amount of loot… but eventually, there’s a point where simply just upping the numbers isn’t that exciting, ” says Duke with a shrug. “So, we were like: ‘OK cool, what’s the difference between having, say, a million and two million guns?’ The answer was by really separating them by manufacturer.”

It’s not just PR fluff either. Aim down the sights of a ‘Hyperion’ forged rifle, for example, and suddenly a tiny shield will pop up, protecting the user from harm. If, however, you then decide to pick up a seemingly similar looking assault rifle produced by ‘Dahl’, looking down its sights will suddenly halt the rapid spray-and-pray fire you get from shooting at the hip and automatically turn it into a more controlled single shot.

“We started moving away from – this manufacturer has higher damage, this one reloads faster, etc because… that’s not really an identity, right?” adds Lead 3D Weapons artist Jimmy Barnet. ” You can always find a gun that does higher damage than another, so in order to improve on that, we were like, alright, what kind of tangible pillars can we make for each [manufacturer]?”

Bigger and better

It may not sound like headline-worthy news, but after spending a few hours with the game, it immediately makes a world of difference. In Borderlands 2 each new weapon would merely be a mish-mash of random stats and attributes, causing players to madly chop and change guns every few minutes. During our time with 3, however, we quickly learned to avoid aimless gun collecting by figuring out which manufacturer’s wares suited our play style.

“Exactly. [The idea here was] let’s find something that a player might enjoy using and give them that loyalty chase,” agrees Duke. “That’s how we kind of expanded on ‘more’. we tried to go deeper and sideways, instead of just up in count.”

That’s how we kind of expanded on ‘more’. we tried to go deeper and sideways, instead of just up in count.”

Each shiny new drop may still be the luck of the draw, sure, but for this trip to the wasteland, after just a quick glance at the branding on the barrel, you’ll instantly know whether this new shiny firearm has the right traits to make it that special kind of murder stick… one that’s worth holding and cherishing.

So what kind of weapon variety can players expect?

“The cool thing about the new manufacturer identity is, it’s not like, say, all ‘Vladof‘ weapons are going to have a spiny barrel on the bottom, it could have a grenade launcher, a shotgun — even stability rockets, ” explains Barnet. “It’s about providing not only that identity but variety within that identity. With Hyperion shields, for example, some deflect bullets, some absorb them and give you ammo… others absorb bullets and give you health! So, we’ve given the system all these different options, which ultimately gives each player a lot of different traits to look for.”

“The hunt is still very much there,” adds Duke with a nod. “Even if you decided you only like Hyperion weapons, the hunt is still incredibly deep if you’re going to find that perfect Hyperion.”

New Tech = Sexier Loot

Visually, Borderlands 3 gets the kind of facelift you’d expect from the franchise’s first current-gen outing. Sticking with its trademark vibrant cel-shaded aesthetic, Pandora’s colorful backdrops look more twisted and tantalising than ever. Yet, while players have been given noticeably prettier and more expansive playgrounds to play in, more importantly for gun-hungry vault hunters, the beefier hardware has allowed the team to create more complex weapons.

“In Borderlands 2, because of the console memory – the technological limits at the time — every manufacturer would make a weapon type and then those would all blend together. The system would use the parts to build the guns you played and know from that game,” explains Duke, “With the technology that we’re working with now though, we have a lot more room to expand on [each weapon] and try different things.”

“As a result, one of the things we’re not doing is crossing parts between guns anymore. Every manufacturer has its own set of parts and as we worked through it, it just ended up being so much more robust than the previous games,” he continues, “Borderlands 2 had around 250 weapon parts mixing into the system, making the weapons that you know. Last time I checked, for Borderlands 3, somewhere between 1300-1600 weapon parts go into this new system to make the weapons that you’re going to play with.”

Borderlands 2 had around 250 weapon parts mixing into the system… for Borderlands 3 we’re somewhere between 1300-1600 weapon parts.”

With so many factors left in the hands of what we can only assume is a now near sentient AI ( if you’re reading this oh code-y-one, please spare us during the robot uprising) there was one question left on our lips. When such a large part of the game is left almost entirely to chance, how do the team possibly make sure that everything still stays fair — and more importantly — fun?

“We have a robust testing team, and knobs and failsafes to make sure that it doesn’t go too far off the rails,” says Duke. “But the cool thing about our game is that off the rails is actually OK!”

“Even if you end up finding that god-like combo then hey, you got the god-like combo,” Barnet agrees. “In five levels it’s not going to work anymore, but… you’ll have a hell of a time for five levels!”

Unboxing a Legacy

Before Borderlands, the idea of incorporating a randomly generated, Diablo-esque loot system into an FPS made about as much sense as chocolate-coated cucumbers. Now, the looter shooter is one of the most profitable genres in video games. In fact, if you’ve picked up a controller since 2007, you’ll have almost certainly felt Gearbox’s hybrid shooter’s influence, with its golden child going on to inspire hugely successful clones like Destiny, The Division and, er, the ill-fated Anthem. They can’t all be winners, right?

While the team is hesitant to take too much credit for pioneering a genre (and even less keen with the suggestion that their loot system might have inspired the industry-wide pivot to microtransactions) the series legacy hasn’t escaped Gearbox.

“I hesitate to say it invented or spearheaded [the looter shooter] or any of that type of language but it was cool to see this gametype evolve, and the games that have come from [Borderlands] as well,” says Barnet.

I think [Borderlands] did a lot of cool things to pull different gameplay together into a package that maybe hadn’t existed in that exact configuration before,” agrees lead weapon designer Kevin Duke modestly. “It opened up [RPG elements] to a lot of players that didn’t know that this was the type of gameplay they liked.”

Now, after a seven years hiatus, the OG looter shooter is coming back to reclaim its throne. And thanks to its clever new tech, Gearbox’s latest is shaping up to be its most satisfying and addictive yet.

Tom Regan
Having written for everyone from Trusted Reviews to The Guardian, Tom is a London based writer who can't stop talking about games. Now he's joined the team at FANDOM as gaming editor, we have to constantly remind ourselves that he's not actually Ed Sheeran.