Inside the Box: Designing Krieg, Part 5 – Hellborn

Inside the Box serves as a forum for individuals involved in the production of Gearbox Software content to share personal motives, methods, process and results. Gearbox Software projects are created by a diverse range of individuals spanning a spectrum of different backgrounds, interests, objectives and world views. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Gearbox Software or any of its individual members outside of the author.

Each day this week, we’ve posted a new behind-the-scenes look at a certain aspect of Krieg the Psycho’s skill tree in anticipation of the new story video — Krieg: A Meat Bicycle Built for Two — premiering Friday morning. (Check out a new still from that video above.)

Today, I’ll be walking you through the Hellborn tree. In case you missed the previous articles, I’m Paul Hellquist — the Creative Director and Lead Designer on Borderlands 2 — and here’s the rundown:

Face-Melting Fun

As I mentioned in the article about Krieg’s action skill, the Hellborn tree started out as the “Face Melter” tree. After we removed the notion of the action skill lighting you on fire, the Face Melter tree quickly was rebranded to Hellborn since it was now the sole place to become a Hellborn style Psycho. But now we had the problem of a tree that wanted you to be on fire all the time with no way for the player to have any control over igniting themselves. The problem was solved by the only skill from the original pre-production treatment that shipped with Krieg: Burn, Baby, Burn.

From the point of view of a designer, Burn, Baby, Burn might be the best all-around skill in Krieg. What do I mean by that? Well, from a straight design point of view the best skills are the ones that can hit on many different angles of the design. These superstar skills are the ones that do all of the following:

  • Provide a bonus players will want
  • Are simple to communicate
  • Influence a player’s relationship to loot (the more types influenced the better)
  • Support the promise and flavor of the character

Burn, Baby, Burn has all of these. Additional Burn damage is something players will want in a fire related tree. It is also really simple to communicate in the skill text (something that a lot of Krieg’s skills are not.) It influences the relationship with loot as it causes players to want to find certain types of guns, shields, class mods, and relics. It also heavily supports the flavor of playing a crazy Hellborn Psycho since it lights you on fire!

For the same reasons that you can earn Bloodlust stacks from both Blood-filled Guns and Blood Twitch (for more info read the Bloodlust section) I also added the chance to ignite yourself to Fuel the Fire as well. Now our Hellborn tree was really ready to roll. Despite this solid foundation it still took a while before players were enjoying the bizarre notion of always being on fire.

Begging to Burn

The first problem that became clear was that you just went into Fight For Your Life…all…the…time. Turns out being on fire hurts a lot. Who knew? Players only had Numbed Nerves, which was called “Scarred Nerve Endings” at the time, to combat the damage. Also, back then it only reduced Burn damage, which was not a high enough percentage of the total problem to give Krieg survivability. At this point I decided to simplify the skill to “All damage received is reduced while you are on fire.” Despite being a more succinct and all inclusive wording for the skill I got a lot of questions from QA and Focus test about if that skill reduced the damage from the fire. I wasn’t sure how to be more inclusive than “all damage” so I just crossed my fingers that it would become clear during play.

At first I way over compensated with the damage reduction on the new version of Numbed Nerves to with the damage reduction starting at 50% and reaching 90% with five points spent on it. As the tree matured it became clear that 90% was a bit much and it eventually landed at the 10-50% we shipped with.

The next issue with the tree was that you didn’t really feel like being on fire mattered. The problem was simply that not enough skills cared about the state. So I added bonuses to Elemental Elation and Fire Fiend to get a larger critical mass of skills that cared about being on fire.

Obnoxious Automations!

The next challenge that became clear during extended playtest was that the tree was great until you got to the Bloodshot Ramparts when you are rescuing Roland. This portion of the game is where you first meet the Hyperion bots, who, as you all probably know, are resistant to fire. The focus testers were saying things like, “I guess I need to respec now…” when they reached level 15-17 at this point of the game.

Now, I had anticipated this from our previous experiences with other skills and trees that were heavily fire based. That is why Delusional Damage was in the tree. When I investigated this issue I was puzzled because I knew that Delusional Damage should solve the issue. The QA testers all reported that once you purchase Delusional Damage the tree was effective and fun against all enemy types. Now, at the time that the focus testers were giving this feedback Hellfire Halitosis was the mid-tier 1 point “game changer” skill. Delusional Damage was further down in the tree.

After thinking about it for a bit the solution was super simple. I just needed to trade the locations of Delusional Damage and Hellfire Halitosis in the tree. It was a perfect and elegant solution because you can first buy the mid-tier one pointer at level 16, the exact time of the game that players are exposed to the bots. Also, we have strong evidence that nearly every player purchases the mid-tier game changer. It calls attention to itself simply because of its location and reputation of being a powerhouse from the other classes. Let’s face it, Delusional Damage isn’t as exciting sounding as Halitosis. This reason is why it was originally not the mid-tier game changer. The game experience proved that Delusional Damage demanded that location in the tree to draw attention to it since it was so integral to the late game success of the tree. Thankfully, Halitosis sounds cool enough that people certainly don’t ignore it being 5 levels later in the progression.


Top Tier Troubles

By far the most difficult slot to fill in the Hellborn skill tree was the top-tier game changer at the bottom of the tree. It started out as this:

Arson Expert

Killing an enemy causes them to explode with a fire nova. If using an elemental weapon the nova matches the element of the weapon. Overkill damage is added to the damage of nova.

Sounds familiar, right? As the Bloodlust tree evolved (read more about that here) it became clear that this skill fit the kill skill theme of that tree much more than it fit the Hellborn tree so it moved into the Bloodlust tree and became Bloodsplosion. This move created a major gap in the Hellborn tree though.

The next revision was this:

Psychotic Fit

Pressing LB during Buzz Axe Barrage cause you to have a crazed psychotic fit of taunting your enemies. You cannot move and all enemies will attack you for X seconds. During the fit you cannot die and all your health is returned after the fit passes.

The idea here was to try and capture the box art where the psycho would be yelling crazy things and pointing at his face like on the box art. As you probably noticed while reading the above description this skill conspicuously has absolutely nothing to do with fire and therefore seems odd as the capstone for the tree about fire.

vault_huntersIt also suffered from the same symptoms as the early versions of Light the Fuse “>described in the Mania article). It was just boring as all get out. You couldn’t shoot, you couldn’t even move! It was a dumb idea but we liked the flavor. It stayed as this skill for a long time as we dealt with other issues and we didn’t have any great ideas to replace it.

When we came back to it the next idea was this:

Raving Rant

Pressing LB during Buzz Axe Barrage causes you to have a crazed rant of taunting your enemies for the remainder of the Barrage. During the rant enemies tend to attack you instead of other targets and you cannot die. When the rant ends your health is refilled and you burst into flames, constantly releasing fire novas in a small radius around you for X seconds. Duration of nova state and damage of novas is proportional to how many times you press LB during the rant.

Oof! That one is a mouthful. This revision attempted to fix the two mentioned issues of the last revision. We needed something for you to do during the rant and we needed there to be fire. So now you play a button mashing mini-game during the action skill to build up power for your fire novas. The goal here was to make the player go crazy during the rant by freaking out on his or her controller. The thought was that the button mashing would provide interest during the rant and then you get to have a Lilith like ability of running around the battlefield lighting everything on fire after the action skill ran out.

This version failed because there was no way with the limitations of DLC development for us to add the required feedback for the button mashing so players could evaluate their effectiveness. Without that feedback we knew the skill would fail.

Rob Heironomous (the Senior Technical Designer who was helping me implement Krieg) and I were at our wits end. Rob had tried 3 or 4 other quick prototypes that he almost immediately abandoned for one reason or another. By now we are running out of time. Voice over recording had already happened so we couldn’t get any new VO. We had told the animation department to hold off on the animations to capture the box cover feel because we weren’t confident in the skill. Now they were warning us they probably wouldn’t have time to make the animations. The Visual Effects department was also booked up with 4th campaign DLC and couldn’t provide any new effects. Our options were shrinking.

It is a commonly known adage among designers that “constraints breed creativity.” This situation was certainly the world Rob and I were living in. We needed a high impact, exciting, top-tier worthy skill that required no new animations, voice over, visual effects, or code.

It was time to evaluate where we were and what options we had left. I liked the nova idea but it was too short range and often wouldn’t hit anyone. Rob also rightfully pointed out that the skill had gotten way out of hand in terms of complexity. We had to simplify. I thought, “What if the nova turned into a projectile? We could probably cobble together something for that with assets we already have.” I think it was Rob who then suggested making the skill “just work “. No conditionals about when to press a button, in fact, no buttons at all. It should just happen. This idea was starting to come together into something. Now we just needed the trigger. It was kind of a “well, duh!” moment when we realized it should only happen when you are fire which really drives home the theme of the entire tree. We had a winner which became Raving Retribution!

Now we had to make it with whatever we could find. So the fireball mesh is the volley ball from the “Too Close For Missiles” mission with a fiery material we had lying around from other some of the other fire effects for Krieg. We already had the VO for the rants so I decided we might as well have him say those awesome lines during this skill. The name Raving Retribution helped try to tie all of the weird bits of the skill together into something that feels in flavor with its behavior.

Ultimately, Raving Retribution is a real tribute to the amazing tools and systems that we use to build Borderlands such that designers could make an ultimately satisfying skill in literally a day without bothering other departments by simply using the behaviors and assets that we had lying around from the main game development.

The Retribution fireball in our projectile creation tool.

That’s the scoop on the Hellborn tree. I hope you enjoyed our exhaustive coverage of all things Krieg this week — next week will probably be back to the normal one article pattern. But don’t forget to come back tomorrow for the release of Krieg: A Meat Bicycle Built for Two!