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Gearbox details the evolution of the playable Borderlands cast

Kevin Kelly

During a panel at the SXSW Interactive Festival, Gearbox franchise director Matt Armstrong and Borderlands lead character designer Jonathan Hemingway provided a behind the scenes look at how the developer evolved its playable characters from faceless archetypes to its four-person killing crew.

Each character was originally conceived to give players a point of comparison to other genres or game franchises. The accessible and easy to use "Doom Guy" focused on giving classic shooter fans their familiar FPS fix; the tactical shooter archetype focused on delivering more strategic options, like in Metal Gear or Splinter Cell; and a world manipulator character concept wanted to give gamers a James Bond-like, gadget-focused killer.

Eventually, these original concepts – crudely drawn in shapes – evolved into the four playable characters featured in Borderlands.

Gearbox previews the original heroes of Borderlands
The "block head" concept eventually evolved into Roland, the solider-class character in Borderlands.

Gearbox previews the original heroes of Borderlands
Gearbox's "cone head" concept evolved into the hunter-class character known as Mordecai. Images of Dan Aykroyd were nowhere to be found.

Gearbox previews the original heroes of Borderlands
The "sphere head" concept shifted more than once, evolving into a character known as Tannis – the name of a storyline NPC – and then changing once again to Lilith, the siren-class character in Borderlands.

With concepts that filled roles for medium range, long range and high-speed attack, Gearbox said they realized Borderlands required a tank class character – a class that could attract and withstand enemy attack. Thus, the character of Brick was born. According to Armstrong, Brick's character concept "always looked like" the Brick delivered in the final game.

Gearbox says that, according to its data, Brick was the least-played character in the game.
In the original concept for Borderlands, each playable character was going to have a unique skill tree interface. Roland's UI would have resembled a circuit board; Lilith's was originally meant to portray mysterious, alien magic; and Mordecai's skill tree looked like the layout of his sidekick Bloodwing, which players could modify.

Brick's original "Berserk Mode" would have had him slamming two syringes into his body and "roiding out." For that reason, Brick's specialized skill tree was designed to look like a series of IV bags and chemical beakers.

Gearbox previews the original heroes of Borderlands
Eventually the game adopted the three-tree skill system that it now employs. Despite Borderlands succeeding and evolving in a highly-rated sequel, Gearbox realizes there are new opportunities. Both Armstrong and Hemingway said that they love stacks – the risk/reward of shotgun ninja and anarchy – and that the series doesn't have a super-aggressive close range brawler.

The pair noted that they don't feel Borderlands has a character that appeals to players who lack experience in first-person shooters, nor a character that appeals to the hardcore. Armstrong and Hemingway left it unclear if the upcoming DLC vault hunter is meant to fill those roles. Gearbox says it remains committed to the series, and promises that future installments will continue to be character-centric, and contain plenty of guns.

Kevin Kelly is a writer and pop culture junkie with a fixation on video games, movies, and board games. His writing has been seen at io9, Film School Rejects, Machinima, TechRadar, Wizard World, and The Austin Chronicle. He lives in Los Angeles and does not know how to surf. Follow him on Twitter @kevinkelly.

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