It could become the never-ending game.
Released nearly five months ago, sci-fi shooter Borderlands continues to dominate sales charts and, much more importantly, the attention of gamers.
That's because the people behind the game, Gearbox Software, keep rolling out new chapters for Borderlands, extending the mythology and fun of the game $10 at a time.
"Our goal was to keep Borderlands on people's minds, keep interest in the title and talk of the title high for as long as we could," senior designer Paul Hellquist told Kotaku.
So the team set out to create and release three sets of game-expanding packs that players can purchase and download online. Each added new characters, weapons, gameplay and life to the game.
The result was surprising, even to Hellquist and the developers at Gearbox.
Traditionally, Hellquist said, a game sells really well for the first two months and then those sales tail off, slimming down until it's just a trickle. But Borderlands' tail has been surprisingly thick.
"We have been happy with the tail of the sales," Hellquist said. "They are strong even though the game is four to five months old now."
That's because every time Gearbox unveils and releases a new expansion for Borderlands, people go out and buy the game, sometimes rebuy it after completing and selling it back to a store.
In Borderlands, players take on the role of one of four playable archetypical characters as they strive to survive the harsh planet of Pandora while increasing their skills and discovering new weapons. The game nicely blends the best of a first-person shooter with elements of role-playing games. To date, Gearbox has sold three $10 expansion packs for the $60 game. The expansion packs added a zombie island, new places to fight other players and, in the latest expansion, a new plot and missions that adds as much as ten hours to the game's original 25 hour experience.
And all of the expansions have done well, Hellquist said.
"Borderlands' downloadable content has been in the top selling paid downloads since the first one came out," he said. "Every time another comes out the old ones come back on the list."
Hellquist said that when the latest expansion pack came out, The Secret Armory of General Knoxx, all three packs made Xbox Live's top ten list for game add-ons.
The ever expanding nature of Borderlands and the way in which it has expanded are both experiments of sorts.
The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned was a tongue-in-cheek way to shoehorn zombies, the popular antagonist in an increasingly diverse cross-section of games, into Borderlands. Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot, packed with new game modes and fighting styles, was the sort of add-on that one would expect in a first-person shooter. And The Secret Armory of General Knoxx expanded the game in the way that fans of role-playing games would expect, adding more story and more acreage to the game.
Those expansions have also increasingly drawn inspiration from massively multiplayer online games, like World of Warcraft, Hellquist said.
For instance, like many of World of Warcraft's endless stream of expansion packs, Borderlands' latest increases the maximum level a character can become in the game. The increase was something players were calling for despite only about 12 percent of them having actually hit the level 50 cap, Hellquist said.
The latest expansion pack also borrowed the idea of a "raid boss" from World of Warcraft, Hellquist said, an enemy you can only attempt when you hit the new level cap.
"We're not short on ideas regarding Borderlands," Hellquist said. "We've created such an interesting and rich universe to play with. There are not too many ideas where we would say 'That wouldn't fit in Borderlands.'"
That even includes the possibility of new character classes, or releasing less expensive packs of smaller content.
Despite Gearbox's successes with Borderlands' expansion packs, the team still hasn't decided how far to go with it. Could they, for instance, continue to expand Borderlands' universe indefinitely, transforming a traditional console game into something more akin to an episodic title?
Hellquist hesitates to say.
"We always try to not count our chickens before they are hatched," he said. "It's up to the public to set the expectations for the future."
Even with the release of the first three expansion packs, Gearbox was careful not to announce the titles until shortly before they were available. And Hellquist declined to say if they were currently working on new expansions for Borderlands.
Ben Feder, CEO of Borderlands' publisher Take-Two, was not so reserved, though, in a recent call with analysts.
"Borderlands continues to build on its success in the market," Feder said during the company's quarterly financial earnings call. The Secret Armory of General Knoxx was the "highest scoring in the series."
"We will continue to support the title with more add-on content."
Perhaps this will become the new face of episodic gaming on consoles.
Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.
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