Q: Who is Krieg?
Helquist: Ha! Krieg is our new playable character, obviously, his class type is psycho.
Burch: We’ve got a short film that will release shortly after Krieg does that explains why he’s a vault hunter. But basically, while we were writing him, there was this question we had to answer: he’s a psycho, but how is he different to the psychos I kill on a day-to-day basis? Why is this guy not someone I want to shoot in the face?
So we play around a bit with his battle dialogue, and in that film you’ll see, while 95 per cent of his personality is this kind of insane hulked-out butthole of hatred and aggression and violence, the reason he’s not quite insane enough to be a bad guy is that he’s got this little tiny voice in his head that’s trying to direct his aggression and hatred toward the right people.
Occasionally you’ll be fighting and you’ll hear a really calm normal-sounding sane voice will emanate from your character, and you’ll be like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ That’s his inner-hero voice saying, ‘If you’re going to be a scary sociopathic murderer, you might as well be killing the right people.’
Q: What were some of the challenges of designing and writing a psycho?
Burch: Because you’re making a much more specific promise than you are with the other characters, there’s a certain expectation that comes with that. We have psychos that say really weird shit in our game, so part of the implicit promise is that you’re going to be able to say really weird shit too!
So the first draft of Krieg was choc-full of references to, or extensions of, the crazy shit our psychos already say. Like: ‘Strip the flesh, salt the wound!, ‘I’m gonna rip your arm off and beat your baby with it!’, that kind of thing – it was like the Greatest Hits collection of douchey psycho one-liners.
After writing all that out, we felt that Krieg sounded like a mix-tape rather than a person. There was also a gameplay-centric worry: if you’re in battle and you hear a psycho say something but you’re fighting psychos, you don’t want to be saying, ‘Wait, which person just said that?’
Helquist: Yeah, you might be playing with somebody who’s using Krieg you might hear one of his lines and believe that a new enemy has spawned somewhere, leading to confusion in a co-op situation.
Burch: Especially if your friend has a skill that allows him to take friendly fire, and you kill him out of confusion! So we gave him a darker, more angry kind of personality. The psychos in our game are more goofy than really scary, they talk about mums.
The psychos are voiced by Raison Varner, one of our audio guys, and he’s got a much more high-pitched voice. So it was a matter of making Krieg’s dialogue more mean than silly, and then making sure the voice actor we got for Krieg, Jason Douglas, sounded really different.
Helquist: One of the goals was to find his own personality, and we went for a more feral, bestial kind of angle for him than the zany weirdness of the psychos that you fight.
Q: Was there a long learning curve, or did that become apparent almost immediately?
Burch: It took about two or three revisions, which is not completely out of sorts for writing a character. I think with the exception of Salvador – don’t know why – every character has undergone at least one major revision. Axton was really goofy and ‘Han Solo’, then we made him too military, then he ended up somewhere in the middle. Maya sounded too innocent and naïve, the Mechromancer sounded to old…
Helquist: Yeah, it took us a little while, but once we found a script we thought we liked, it still took a while with the voice actor to get the right tone and feel for that.
Burch: He was obliterating his voice every day!
Helquist: He’s really raspy and throaty, so it was tough on the voice actor to do all the lines because it would mess up his vocal chords. So we had to do as much as we could, then give him a couple of days off then have him come back.
Q: What were some of the references or touchstones for Krieg’s design, both visually, and for his script?
Helquist: Visually, we went to our character concept artist, Scott Kester, and said, 'We’re going to make a playable psycho'. He did a bunch of drawings and we knew Krieg had to be visually different to the enemies to avoid confusion in a co-op situation, but we of course needed Krieg to connect to the psychos visually, so that when we present him people can say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a psycho’, but know that he’s the hero version.
It actually didn’t take that long. He did one batch of sketches, but were were inspired by a drawing he’d done of a psycho in the first game that ended up on the cutting room floor, but we took a lot of elements from that drawing that we still had. He took that and touched it up, and added a few elements. That’s where he came from visually.
That went kind of smoothly. As to inspirations and touchstones, we talked a lot about the Incredible Hulk when we were trying to find the personality for him, and talking about the voice inside his head that keeps him on the straight and narrow. We talked a lot about how Bruce Banner is still inside the Hulk, you know?
Burch: Dexter as well.
Helquist: Right, yeah, we talked about Dexter as well, have you seen that show? [Yes.]
Helquist: Dexter is similar, but a little inversed, where for Krieg the Psycho is out in the open and the sane part is keeping him in check. Dexter is more like the sane guy is out in the open and the beast comes out every now and then, you know what I mean. So it’s a little bit the inverse, but we talked about both of those as inspirations.
Q: Why this character, and why now?
Helquist: The why now is mostly because we have time to do it! We were so busy launching the game then working on the campaign DLCs that we didn’t really have an opportunity to put time into creating him until after Christmas time. That was when we really started in earnest.
After we released Gaige and saw the reaction to her, and everyone was enjoying having new characters and new designs, we knew we wanted to do more. I started formulating the design for Krieg late last year, but we didn’t really have the bandwidth for development until about the first of the year. We’ve been working on him for a couple of months. It was more a production thing than a strategic thing.
Once we had a sense of when he would be released, we knew we could push the boundaries a little bit because the game is very mature, and people who are interested in new character DLC nine months after the game came out are our most invested and experienced gamers. So that gave me some leeway to make a more advanced character that we believe those fans who are still very interested in Borderlands 2 will be excited to explore. There are a lot of new concepts and a lot of more intricate skills.
Q: Gaige was both an introductory option for players newer to first-person shooters, but her Anarchy system could also be challenging for more experienced players. Thinking along similar lines, what role does Krieg fill in the character roster? Or, who is the ideal player?
Helquist: Yep, I know exactly what you’re getting at! He is the most advanced of the six characters to choose from. Each of his skill trees is very different in its own way, and none of them are blatantly obvious.
When I go and look at, say, Axton’s skill tree after working on Krieg’s for months, it’s kind of quaint. There’s nothing wrong with Axton, he’s great, and he’s exactly what he was supposed to be: the straightforward character for players to grab onto and understand how he worked, and what each tree’s role was, so that people new to the franchise could have somebody and get right into it.
As you say with Gaige, and her Anarchy tree in particular, we started pushing into some new experimental spaces we hadn’t explored before.
Krieg is the evolution of that Anarchy tree. All of his trees are experimental in some way, and that’s one of the fun things for me as a designer, and one of the things that DLC empowers: because we don’t need to sell nearly as many to have it be a success, it allows for some more experimentation in some elements of character design that might not necessarily have as much broad appeal.
I think there is something for everyone with Krieg but he’s not someone whose skill trees you’re going to read and immediately understand how they’re all going to interrelate to make an awesome experience. It’s something where you’ll have to get in there and try out a tree for a while, and see if it clicks. In tests, we’ve found that some of these trees click immediately with certain players and certain ways that people think, and others we’ve found that they just won’t understand but they’ll move on to another tree and that will click. It takes a little bit longer for it to come together.
Q: Can you go into some of the design behind each tree?
Helquist: The far left is called Blood Lust. It’s really inspired by, or exploring some of the ideas of the Anarchy tree that Gaige introduced, the idea of stack accumulation. We really liked what that tree did. It really changed the way you thought about combat, your relationship with the reload button, it changed your relationship with the gear you were using. It was really exciting in that way.
So I wanted to explore some other angles along those lines, but I wanted it to be new and different as well, I didn’t want it to be a rehash. So the Blood Lust tree is about stack accumulation. One difference is that in Gaige’s Anarchy tree, you had a skill called Anarchy that spent one point on and that enabled you to gain these stacks. We realised that after it was out, your first five points are predetermined essentially. You have to buy the Anarchy skill then your other four points have to go into the other skill before you can open up the rest of the tree.
I wanted to address that with Blood Lust. So the two earliest skills, if you spend a single point in either one, it allows you to accumulate Blood Lust. It still gives you the flexibility to point points in both, or just one, early in the tree. The stack limit is also not nearly as high, it’s just 100, and you accumulate them not with kills, but just by dealing any damage at all. So you accumulate them way faster.
In order to encourage players to play like a psycho and feel like a psycho, I really want all of his trees to encourage you to be aggressive and play in this very Go! Go! Go! style: keep attacking, keep killing. So these stacks decay, they’ll start to bleed away.
Similar to Anarchy, all the other skills get more effective, the more stacks you have.
Q: And the Mania tree?
Helquist: The Mania tree is all about maximising your action skill. Your action skill is that you pull out your buzz axe and run around ranting crazy things and smashing people in the face. You can also throw your buzz axe, I don’t want people thinking it’s a melee-only thing.
The Mania tree is all about pros and cons. A lot of the skills increase your damage, or increase your melee with some cost – something that you usually feel is negative, but something that you discover through the course of exploring that negatives can be turned into positives.
So we have skills that increase your health but increase the time it takes for your shields to recharge. So instantly, you think, ‘Man, my shields get worse?’ but as you start exploring the tree you’ll discover Krieg is actually stronger in this tree if his shield is actually down. So having your shield take longer to recharge is actually a pro.
There’s also a skill in that tree called Silence the Voices based on that inner voice we talked about. It dramatically increases your melee damage by a huge number but you also have a 12 per cent chance to melee yourself every time you swing. You might pull your axe out and smash yourself in the face to silence the voices in your head. That kind of thing.
Q: And the last tree?
Helquist: The last tree is called Hellborn, and this one was inspired by the enemy psychos we have in the game that run around on fire all the time. I always thought that was kind of funny, that these guys are always running around presumably being burned all the time and they don’t care, it doesn’t seem to bother them.
So I wanted the player to be able to getting the shoes of that kind of psycho. This tree is all about being on fire – something usually considered a bad thing, but for Krieg in the Hellborn tree, he enjoys being on fire. So he has skills that allow him to light himself on fire and then all the other skills in the tree are more powerful if you’re on fire.
Its got this really interesting loop of allowing you to use your gear or skills to light people on fire, then when they get ignited, there’s a chance it ignites yourself, which then powers up the skills again… It’s a cool feedback loop where you’re getting stronger and stronger the more you’re able to maintain being on fire. So it’s very different and wild and crazy. I want all the trees to put people in the shoes of that psycho.
Q: At what point in the creation cycle did you push too far, and how did you pull it back? Was there a moment where you thought, “No, that’s not going to work?”
Helquist: Yeah, there was one skill that I was really excited about but it was way too situational. It’s still in the game but it has a different to what it originally was. It’s called Empty The Rage, and it’s a skill that increased your damage with melee if your weapon clip was empty. This was one that I wanted to have in there because of a habit that I formed playing too much Left 4 Dead, where when you run out of ammo you use your weapon to smash the zombies. I do that in all FPS’s now where if anyone is near me I start melee attacking them instead of reloading.
But in Borderlands, whenever you melee it interrupts your reload so you have to start the whole reload animation again. That was always bugging me, so I wanted to make a skill to make it okay to do that – something you wanted to interrupt so you’re getting your stronger melee attack. But it was so situational, and most players didn’t really understand the game enough to understand the value there: “It automatically reloads, so how can I even use it?” Not everyone has the same habits that I did. The skill got changed to a simpler design: melee is better, but if you happen to do it while your clip is empty it’s stronger still.
So there are little things like that, but I don’t think we’ve really found the true edges just yet. That’s part of the goal I have with this character. I hope we haven’t found that, I hope Krieg comes out and people love him, and I still haven’t found the edge where people reject it, you know what I mean? You have to think about his skills on a second level of understanding of this game that we’ve never done before.
That’s a big experiment. I don’t know how people are going to respond. I love it. I think it’s really exciting, and I’ve got high hopes.