unNOTICED Designs – Borderlands 2 on Teaching the Player About Environmental Loot Caches

Gun fire, sword play, magical explosions and story-changing choices!  Video games house some of the largest and flashiest moments in entertainment, but what about the small ones, the little and almost too numerous to count design choices by designers that add up to make the game whole?  Let’s give notice to these unnoticed designs!

Borderlands 2 – Teaching the Player About Environmental Loot Caches

I attended Pax South 2015 last weekend in which Gearbox had several amazing panels.  All the talk about Borderlands had me super pumped to go back home, download Borderlands 2, and wreck some post apocalyptic mayhem!
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To really enjoy it, I wanted to start completely over.  I probably spent nearly 20 minutes picking a character.   I was googling skill trees and trying to decide what persona I wanted to take on, almost choosing Gaige, the Mechromancer.  Her pig tails are F***ing adorable and the thought of her obliterating countless bandits amused me.  Ultimately though, her hands off approach to attacking with her minion became a turn off.   I then turned to my original favorite, Zero, a guy always about the up close and personal kill, even from a mile away with a sniper rifle; don’t ask how.
From the beginning, players start in a desolate and blizzard filled landscape.  Claptrap immediately introduces himself and motivates the player through his bizarre sense of humor.  After getting his eye ripped out by a Bullymong, the player must follow the blind bot through a snow filled valley in a cleverly disguised fetch quest.
After going through Claptraps hide out, old and new players alike were given a chance to explore loot crates and other objects that grant weapons, ammo or glorious cash.  The major visual cue to all these loot caches is a green light attached to them.  If there is a green light, it can be opened, and it can reward you with glorious loot.  In contrast to these very man-made looking crates, there are several less obvious loot caches placed in the level that blend in the with the environment’s design, the first one being a large lump of ice.  It does contain a faint green glow, but to players new to the game or just not paying attention, they might not notice that these lifeless lumps of frozen H2O contain valuable assets.
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Cue the every lovable Clattrap.  Immediately leaving his hide out, he starts spouting off about how even without his eye, he can still navigate the ice lands.  He then immediately runs into one of these ice lumps, effectively breaking it and teaching the player this mechanic.  It’s subtle enough that if someone knows about the environmental loot caches, they don’t feel the game is calling them stupid, while at the same time informing a new player of a simple, but important mechanic.
But wait, how does the designer know the player will always be looking at Claptrap during this part?  Well, to be honest, they don’t.  What they can do is create as many mechanisms as possible to persuade the player to look at the loot cache at the point of collision.  Take a look at the screen shot just before Claptrap makes contact with the ice lump (To the left).  Directly down Claptrap’s path is a large steel cargo crate with a bunch of yellow loot crates surrounding it.  The yellow sticks out in the white environment, naturally drawing the player’s eye in their direction.
On top of that, the player previously learned that these yellow crates offer loot.  There is absolutely nothing else interesting in this screen shot but those crates.  The player’s first thought will be “I want to get to those crates and get that loot”, effectively keeping Claptrap and the ice lump in view as the player progresses towards the yellow crates.
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Another small note – the ice lump itself.  The light green it radiates sticks out from the grey ice behind it.  If the player is aware and notices it, they may want to investigate it on their own, keeping Claptrap in view as they move toward it.
Path leading right
The overall path itself turns right, leading the player toward the ice lump.  The whole time Claptrap is also talking and as humans, we like to make eye contact or at least have a visual on the person talking to us.  Each one of these persuasion mechanics is just a layer added, each one raising the chance the player will be paying attention to Claptrap as he hits the ice lump.
What if the player is oblivious and still doesn’t notice Claptrap hit the ice lump though?  Well, that player may have just been exploring, wanting to see if there was an alternate path or if there were more hidden loot crates.  That’s completely fair.  Claptrap has one last trick to realign the players attention.  He screams just as he hits the ice lump.  The player is naturally on their toes while on the lookout for the Bullymongs that could attack at any moment.  Hearing Claptrap scream, alerts the player to the possibility of danger and, in response, the player turns to assess the problem!
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Sadly there is no Bullymong, just a Claptrap surrounded by still falling ice particles, a rough patch of ice that looks like it has been broken and now, loot just lying on the ground.  A conscious player will remember that something was originally there and connect the dots.  At the very least, a small clue has now been placed into the player’s brain that something was here and now in its place – loot.
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After recovering from his fall, Claptrap actually goes and waits for the player between two ice lumps, their green glow now in stark contrast to the very dark grey mountain side behind them.  That should be enough to draw the player’s attention even if they did not notice the lumps before.  Finally though, towards the end of the tutorial-esque section, Claptrap runs into another ice lump.  The player is listening to him talk while walking up a relatively narrow slope with only forward to look.  With the player’s focus directly in front, Claptrap runs into the ice lump one last time.
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So many mechanics are in today’s AAA games.  It is the designer’s job to teach these mechanics for new and old players alike in as eloquent a manner as possible.  Something as simple as hitting a lump of ice to reward the player with ammo or health doesn’t need a giant “BREAK THIS” instruction drawn on screen to get the player’s attention.  I gotta hand it to the Gearbox team for masterfully using a mix or level design, art direction, and narrative to bring this simple mechanic to the forefront of the player’s unconscious brain.
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