Inside the Box: Designing Krieg, Part 4 – Mania

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I’m Paul Hellquist, the Creative Director and Lead Designer of Borderlands 2, and since today is Wednesday (the middle day of the work week) it’s the perfect time to tell you all about the middle skill tree for Krieg — Mania.

In anticipation of Friday’s release of Krieg: A Meat Bicycle Built for Two — a video short that helps explain how the titular Psycho became a Vault Hunter — we’ll have a new Inside the Box and teaser image from that short (see above) each day leading up to it! Here’s the rundown:

Are You Sure About This?

The Mania tree is the tree that went through the least amount of change throughout the course of development. In fact, every skill in the tree that shipped was also in the first full draft of the tree when I started working on it in December. This fact is interesting because the Mania tree is probably the most risky tree we’ve ever developed for Borderlands. It is full of skills with drawbacks, encourages players to ignore their shields, and rewards the player for taking damage. All of these designs are the kinds of things that are usually rejected by players.

For example, in both Borderlands and Borderlands 2 we flirted with the idea of making “cursed weapons.” Cursed weapons were guns that were very powerful but had a significant drawback to offset the obviously overpowered portion of its design. Every time we made a cursed weapon no one ever used it because, despite the power, any negative was seen as a deal breaker when there were tons of other viable weapons available that did not have any drawback.

Now I’m making a tree where about half the skills are “cursed.” It was the tree that other designers looked during paper design and gave me a smile while shaking their head saying, “Are you sure about this? I like it, but…”

I have a saying that I often tell the designers I work with which is, “Every idea during paper design is potentially a bad idea until the game proves otherwise.” What I’m getting at when I say this is that no matter how good you think your idea is you need to be prepared to change your mind when you put it in the game and see how it actually feels and interacts with the rest of the game. The point being to remind designers not to hold on too tightly to any idea they believe is amazing before the game has proven its worth, as the game experience is the ultimate judge of whether an idea is great or not.

The Mania tree kind of took that philosophy and flipped it. This tree was an idea where the conventional wisdom said that it was going to be rejected by players. Even I expected it to fail miserably, but I really wanted to explore the idea as some part of me knew there was something really different and cool in there. We went into building this tree knowing the whole tree was a bad idea. Thankfully, this time the game proved how awesome the idea really was.

Light the Fuse

Light the Fuse was by far the most involved skill to make for all departments. We needed to completely replace Fight For Your Life with a new play mechanic. This goal was a significant effort for Daniel Algood (Lead Programmer for Krieg) as Fight For Your Life is a major element of the game and we needed to make sure that if you had Light the Fuse that you always were sent to the correct state. I give Daniel credit for bearing with me on this skill design while he worked out all of the issues. It was a lot of work. It required a whole new set of animations for the hands, it required new meshes, and it even required new technology to attach the dynamite to the hands because the dynamite isn’t a weapon like a gun. Prior to Light the Fuse, we didn’t have any way to attach arbitrary meshes to the hands that weren’t weapons.

Then, after we finally got it working…it sucked! It was the most boring thing you could ever do during a Borderlands combat and it was virtually impossible to Second Wind. It was dreadful. This skill was the perfect example of my saying. It was an idea that everyone looked at on paper and got excited about it. It had great flavor and sounded like a lot of fun. The game quickly proved otherwise and I needed to consider that the idea was actually lousy and should be cut.

Now, at the time you only had the dynamite bundle and you had to wait for the timer bar to completely drain before you would blow up. The first thing we tried to improve the skill was allowing the player to blow themselves up whenever they wanted. It still sucked.

The main issues were that you had nothing to do while you were running around, you had no way to damage anyone to weaken them, and you had no idea if the explosion would kill anyone. We talked about a bunch of potential ideas, but a lot of them were outside the realm of possibility for things that could be added via downloadable content. Daniel and I were running out of ideas.

Our last hope, which I was not excited about because I feared it would lose the “blow yourself up” feel of the skill, was to add the dynamite tossing. It was one of the few things the skill system could handle that we felt might make the skill better. We went into that iteration with the agreement that if this didn’t make the skill feel good we would have to cut the skill and come up with something to replace it at the center of the tree.

I was able to quickly give it a try and thankfully, even without animations for the toss, it was clear that the skill dramatically changed and became this really crazy and hectic psychotic charge. It fit perfectly with everything else going on in the tree to make the player behave in a crazy way and become the Psycho. Then it was just a matter of getting the numbers right. The only bummer was that you could revive from a kill with the dynamite instead of the suicide explosion which was less flavorful. That is why I added the movement bonus to the skill for getting a kill with the bundle.

I’m still not sure the movement bonus was the best reward but the other ideas I had for that bonus didn’t feel right from a flavor standpoint. Ultimately, I think the real reward using the bundle is the awesome and dynamic camera work that Rob Faison (Programmer) added which enhances the kinetic feel of the Second Wind moment.

Silence the Voices

Silence the Voices

Silence the Voices was a skill I came up with after Anthony Burch (Lead Writer on Borderlands 2) and I came up with the notion of the “Inner Hero” that is acting as Krieg’s conscience, trying to push the beast in the right direction. I wanted a skill that captured the conflict between Krieg and the Hero as well as adding to the flavor of inhabiting someone who is completely insane. So I decided a skill that provided a chance for Krieg to smash himself in the face to try and silence the voice in his head would fit the bill.

This skill is an example of “top down” skill design. It is something we do occasionally, but most skills are “bottom up.” A bottom up skill is one where we want a skill that has a certain mechanic or benefit for the class and then we try and flavor it with the skill name to seem in line with a character’s style or attitude. A top down skill is one where the flavor is the inspiration and then we find a mechanic or benefit that fits that flavor.

Silence the Voices is the skill that Matt Armstrong (Franchise Manager and fellow Borderlands 2 designer) kept telling me was a bad idea. I’ve worked with Matt long enough to realize that he’s usually right about these things, but I kept to my guns on this one. It is probably the most divisive skill in the tree. You either are willing to deal with a 12% chance of damaging yourself or that is unacceptable. It definitely the most obviously “cursed” skill in the tree. I think the jury is still out on this skill.

Here was my thought process on it why it is worthwhile. You get a massive melee bonus but Krieg can be his own worst enemy. But even the self-smashing is not as bad as you might initially think. If you have Fuel the Rampage the self-smashing charges your action skill. Also, once you get Release the Beast the damage you deal to yourself can quickly get you ready for a supercharged action skill. Also, I love the flavor and the opportunity for the Inner Hero and Krieg to interact. It is the only skill where the Inner Hero has a consistent opportunity to be heard.

Voices silenced!

I’ve seen some feedback on the forums wishing that hitting yourself was not random, but instead triggered if you miss with a melee swing. It is an interesting idea, but here is why I didn’t do something like that. From my perspective, giving the player control over that outcome would severely damage the flavor of inhabiting an unstable person. In the mania tree more than any of the other trees you truly are roleplaying Krieg’s “Inner hero.” If the face-smashing was predictable and avoidable the experience of becoming Krieg would have lost a ton of flavor. He no longer would have felt uncontrollable or irrational because you would have been able to detect the pattern. Sometimes flavor just has to trump functionality in order to provide the best overall experience in your game.

Final notes on Silence the Voices:

  • Originally the chance to hit yourself was 55% and each point you spent on it reduced it by 10%
  • It was hilarious to watch Anthony kill himself when he first purchased it with those numbers.

Thanks for reading about the Mania tree. I hope you gained a bit more insight on the tree. Check back tomorrow for a look at the Hellborn tree.