The next instalment of our new series GDC Gems* comes from Anthony Burch, Lead Writer of Borderlands 2, who at GDC 2015 explained why it’s more important to have strong characters than (strong) plot in DLC.

*) GDC Gems are micro mortems based on some of the most fascinating GDC-talks our editorial staff has witnessed over the last couple of years.

“Before we got started with Borderland 2’s DLC, I did some research on what our players want out of it and I found out that they wanted more story and more of the universe. Basically a sequel in the form of DLC. But you don’t want to create a lot of new art and gameplay and you don’t want to answer important questions about the lore. Big important plot DLCs are generally not feasible.

Captain Scarlett

So when we did our first DLC, Captain Scarlett and her Pirate’s Booty, we did a fun plot-centric thing because that’s what players wanted, right? A cool side story with sand pirates and a buried treasure and big monster fight at the end. But people didn’t seem overly enthusiastic about it. We got ‘Not bad’ and ‘Feels like a side story’.

Mr Torgue

Ok, that’s clear. For the next DLC, Mr Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage, we would give the story a bit more weight and importance. So apart from the story of the DLC we gave the players some lore nuggets. Little pieces of information that tied in to the overall lore of Borderlands involving the Vaults. This DLC was generally well received, although hardly anybody mentioned the lore stuff –but I just thought that was because I wrote it so cleverly.

Sir Hammerlock

We hit the lore stuff really hard for the third DLC, Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt. It’s the story of a swamp where you hang out with Sir Hammerlock and get to shoot things, but on another level we came up with even more lore nuggets involving the possible resurrection of Handsome Jack and Claptrap making a friend. But when it came out the reaction was underwhelming. Players didn’t seem to care much for the story.

What they did like however was Professor Nakayama, the wacky enemy character that falls down the stairs and dies during the final boss fight. And we thought, wait a minute that’s interesting. Players also didn’t mention the lore in Mr Torgue’s DLC but they really liked the character. And the main criticism on the first DLC was the character of Scarlett. So character was the one thing that was consistent across the reception of all DLCs.

What if we double down on character for the fourth DLC?

Tiny Tina

Tiny Tina’s Assault of Dragon Keep revolves around characters playing a game of Bunkers & Badasses, which is basically Dungeons & Dragons. It’s very different than the other DLCs because there is no big enemy, no advances in world lore or plot and none of the characters are in danger. This was kinda scary for us. Borderlands is a game about big guns that shoot stuff, it’s not about characters that deal with grief and such. Tiny Tina’s DLC had no epic plot, but it had some real character interaction and arcs.

It turned out our most critically acclaimed DLC and got a lot of reviews which is unusual for a fourth DLC in a series. And it sold better than the other episodes. So to make a more personal story revolving around characters didn’t hurt us. It actually worked for us.

DLC is the space where you should do that kind of stuff. It’s like you’re on the second date and now you get to do the weird shit. They already like you so you can be weirder and kookier. Fans love it and it’s so much fun to work on as a team.”