Battleborn and the rise of the friendly shooter

"We are absolutely, deliberately targeting the idea that we want a game that people can just pick up and play," says John Mulkey, design director on Gearbox's new shooter, Battleborn (PS4, Xbox One, PC). His team's latest design, which favors collaboration, community input and a heavy focus on testing and tuning, couldn't be more different from the cult classic he built levels for – years ago.

Just how much community input and playtesting went into No One Lives Forever anyway, I ask Mulkey. "Oh, god," he says, briefly thrust back into a previous life. "None."

Propelled chiefly by the strength of its clever vision, a game like No One Lives Forever seems to be an outlier now. It was a game made without a steady stream of analytics, feedback and pushback, though meant to be consumed more succinctly, and for what was then a much smaller audience. "A game like this, we hope, it's not just this game that hits and fades away," says Scott Kester, the man in charge of Battleborn's look. "We want this to go. We want to keep making it."

Battleborn is a five-player cooperative – and sometimes 5v5 competitive – first-person shooter hinged on cartoon heroes obliterating enemies everywhere. The boldly drawn figures lead the way to over-the-top weapons and elaborate superpowers, but also add an inviting veneer, with not a smudge of grimness in sight. Drawn to the last glowing star in the universe, all manner of saviors join the fight against the big bad ... which sometimes comes in the form of cute little robots.

Waves and waves of evil little things keep five players in a frantic pace to rack up kills and points, while enemies grow more imposing and varied. Heroes become stronger too, though not on the scale you might expect: Your hero will start at level 1 each round, and reach maximum level by the end if you're a skilled shot. The leveling loop is contained in a bubble for every match, and Gearbox believes it will equalize players of varying skills. It could also, for those who like filling progress bars, turn the satisfying slow-drip of RPG progression into a torrent.

"You're gonna be able to do stuff and you're gonna be able to be successful, and it's awesome," Mulkey says. "And the more you dedicate to it, and the more you explore other aspects of it, you can ratchet things up as your skill with the game grows. The great part is that's not going to be a requirement."

Battleborn's idea of character augmentation is also simple and quickly communicated in a match. When you level up, you look at two possible upgrades linked in an elegant double helix and choose one. Left or right. Done.

"We don't want to get into those weeds of ... my shots fired 13 percent of half of them fired on the second clip will do 12.7 more crit damage based on which character you shoot, all that kind of crap," says Mulkey. "The stat-driven stuff is boring, that's not fun. Playing math is not fun for me. Some people love it, not me. So, what we want it to be is more like, big giant handles, the idea of: if I choose this augment, when I throw a grenade out, the explosion is bigger, so it'll cover a bigger area. if I choose this one, it's gonna be more tightly focused, but cause more damage in that tightly focused area."

Correct, that is a mushroom flinging kunai.

Mulkey doesn't spurn the idea of data, but wants to keep it well beneath the surface. Character changes should be easy to understand and tangible within the game's world, Mulkey says. The broad strokes of the heroes – what they look like and what their abilities are – should define what players invest in, rather than the ideal configuration of stats. "I hate the idea of having a best build, that makes me insane."

There's no escaping the numbers, really. Whether you're playing Destiny, Dungeons and Dragons, Borderlands or Battleborn, you're marching through an adventure built out of rules. The art is in hiding them, a belief that has driven Gearbox to paying special attention to its new heroes. And this, if you've read about Battleborn before, is where the "MOBA" talk comes from.

On the surface, Battleborn's heroes appear to be the most coherently designed out of everything in the game, in the sense that you can imagine seeing them on lunch boxes and bedsheets. There's Thorn, an archer with an unmistakable silhouette leaping like a deer, and Montana, a hulking gun-guy that aims his slam attack by looking through his giant pinched fingers. Rath is a twirling swordsman with a proclivity for close cuts, while Marquis is a robot and a gentleman with a dive-bombing robot owl hiding in his bowler hat. You'll be drawn to their personalities (care of writer Aaron Linde) and colorful appearances at first, but Mulkey assures me there's a practical depth to knowing them.

"So we've got this interesting thing where someone can think a single character is both the worst and the best character in the game," Mulkey says. "When we hit that, that's actually a really good spot to be in. We really like that." What he likes, as the game is tested, is to get simultaneously battered with claims of so-and-so being overpowered – and too weak.

"We have done what we can do to get an objective balance, where the data, the numbers, make sense, so that no character is numerically and functionally better than another character," says Mulkey. " But the thing that's awesome, is we still have that wide expression from the artistic perspective, of how that's applied. That goes into that subjective play, and then it goes back into that idea that we're making a first-person shooter. It's not a very deterministic gameplay, it's the idea of it's my skills, through the vessel of that character - how successful can I be? And that's the way we can get this thing where we have people falling in love with these characters and creating these rivalries."

As Mulkey explains the game, in the form of skills inserted into a vessel, I get a sense of Battleborn's shooter heart, complete with a co-op campaign, versus modes and some kind of persistent character management. When I look at it, though, I see a game that looks flashy and fun, with quick choices, super-speed leveling and a brisk get-going attitude. "It really is presenting things for everybody's tastes, or at least a wide variety of tastes," he says. "I'm hoping it's one of those cases where we actually are making something that will appeal to a lot of people instead of ... sometimes you can get dangerous and you can try to create that, and what you do is just piss off everybody."