Post Script

Born this way


Bat­tle­born has an iden­tity cri­sis to deal with, and the prob­lem is twofold. When the game was an­nounced in 2014, Randy Pitch­ford tweeted his now in­fa­mous, and mostly in­de­ci­pher­able, el­e­va­tor pitch for the game. “Bat­tle­born is,” he wrote, “FPS; hob­by­grade coop cam­paign; genre-blended, mul­ti­mode com­pet­i­tive e-sports; meta-growth, choice + epic Bat­tle­born he­roes!” Pitch­ford clearly stands by this con­fus­ing mess of words – he re­peated the tweet in April this year, go­ing on to ex­plain each com­po­nent in­di­vid­u­ally in a series of sub­se­quent posts.

Bat­tle­born’s core is ac­tu­ally very easy to un­der­stand, even if it can’t be summed up in a straight­for­ward way: it’s an FPS that bor­rows ideas from MOBAs and ad­dresses the is­sue of drawn-out char­ac­ter lev­el­ling by cram­ming the whole arc into a sin­gle match. It’s a no­ble, and rather brave, at­tempt to carve out a new trib­u­tary in the first­per­son shooter genre, so does it re­ally mat­ter if there’s no pithy summary of its in­tent? Well, pos­si­bly.

Gear­box has strug­gled to clearly com­mu­ni­cate its of­fer­ing to play­ers, and as a re­sult the level of hype sur­round­ing the game has been no­tice­ably muted. And the fact that many peo­ple aren’t sure what Bat­tle­born ac­tu­ally is has led to con­tin­ual, and mostly un­founded, com­par­isons to Over­watch (not helped by Bliz­zard’s mis­chievous trolling of the game, which has seen a num­ber of Bat­tle­born an­nounce­ments flanked by Over­watch beta ac­tiv­ity). Bat­tle­born’s USP is fur­ther ob­fus­cated by the ex­is­tence of LawBreak­ers and Paragon.

In truth, it’s a wider prob­lem that the four stu­dios in­volved (Gear­box, Bliz­zard, Boss Key and Epic) have all ap­proached in dif­fer­ent ways. Epic’s Paragon is an eas­ier sell given it’s sim­ply a MOBA with a per­spec­tive shift. LawBreak­ers and Over­watch oc­cupy the other end of the spec­trum, at­tract­ing com­par­isons to MOBAs by virtue of their ros­ter of charis­matic he­roes but mostly steer­ing clear of pil­fer­ing me­chan­ics (Boss Key, on be­com­ing aware of the public’s in­creas­ingly hazy un­der­stand­ing of what dif­fer­en­ti­ates this new breed of so-called ‘hero shoot­ers’, di­aled down LawBreak­ers’ pal­ette to po­si­tion it fur­ther from what founder Cliff Blezsin­ski de­scribes as a “world of candy-coloured games”).

Of the four games dis­cussed here, Bat­tle­born is the most ex­per­i­men­tal, which ap­pears to have been its un­do­ing. In­no­va­tion is some­thing to be en­cour­aged and de­sign­ers shouldn’t feel the need to squeeze their ideas into forms that fit ex­ist­ing genre def­i­ni­tions, but if you can’t eas­ily com­mu­ni­cate why your bold new con­cept is wor­thy of at­ten­tion – not least when it’s part of a wave of ef­forts that oc­cupy a sim­i­lar space – then you risk it be­ing mis­un­der­stood, or worse, over­looked.

Pitch­ford’s bizarre de­scrip­tion makes more sense once you’ve played the game. It is, in­deed, “genre-blended”, and while that “meta-growth” term still sounds too much like some­thing you might hear dur­ing a mar­ket­ing meet­ing, it does more or less de­scribe the game’s multi-strata ap­proach to char­ac­ter lev­el­ling. And by “hobby-grade”, Pitch­ford is sug­gest­ing Bat­tle­born won’t soon be dis­carded by play­ers, who’ll in­stead strap in for the long haul. That am­bi­tion is likely to be de­railed by the game’s scat­ter­shot ap­proach to de­sign, in which com­po­nents fail to hang to­gether con­fi­dently and spec­ta­cle over­shad­ows game­play (even more so given the praise Over­watch’s beta drew for as­pects of the two games that can be com­pared, such as gun­play, char­ac­ter abil­i­ties and level de­sign).

But while there are plenty of lessons for Gear­box and other stu­dios to learn here, per­haps Pitch­ford will have the last laugh. In re­ply­ing to one un­con­vinced ob­server on Twit­ter, who sug­gested that Gear­box was faced with a fun­da­men­tal de­sign and mar­ket­ing prob­lem, Pitch­ford said, “I still have a hard time ex­plain­ing Border­lands to peo­ple. That seemed to go OK.”

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