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.”