The Borderlands video game (and surrounding universe) is a great way to approach many current best practices in innovation, marketing, community management and overall entrepreneurship notions.
It’s been a few months since i’m dying to take an evening to write this article. I’m sure that procrastination is a personality trait of vault hunters (hero of Borderlands) and I found many excuses to avoid writing this tribute to Pandora’s designers…
But today, in addition to having discussed this gaming masterpiece with some friends in a very pleasant chat, the official page of the game just unveiled the preparation of a Borderlands movie ! The first article speaking of the matter highlights the ambition of Gerabox Software and Lionsgate to create the first video game adaptation capable of earning the status of Blockbuster, (or heavyweight of Hollywood industry) which no videogame based movie has achieved yet !
For me, that’s the sign my message must be heard (a Vault symbol just appeared in the clouds). This wonderful game that keeps innovating on many fields and disrupting the video game word since 2009 deserves one more night of my time.
What is Borderlands ?
I wish many of the future readers of this articles will be familiar with the borderlands universe, but for you, who clicked by chance here, prepare to be amazed. Discover a quick 5W1H story of one of the funnier, crazier, most violent & addictive game of these last years.
Clic on tabs to discover the quick story
Borderlands. The perfect mix of a role-playing and a first person shooting videogame (RPG & FPS), named shoot and loot. The game takes place in an agressive sci-fi post apocalyptic universe, full of scammer cowards loving juicy guns. The game was referred for a long time as a surprising UFO project.
Since 2009 till now, created in Plano (near Dallas) and spread worldwide
To be the deadpool of videogame, obviously.
By proving their greatness, selling more than 26 million copies of the game worldwide.
Yeah, we are talking about the video game industry… Big figures, originality and extended universe might not seem very impressive… But, for me, taking the risk of being very rudely original in an ultra-competitive field and succeeding in doing so is worth analyze.
How Borderlands is freaking innovative
Time to get some strategy XP without spending Eridium. Here are 7 reasons why some creative, entrepreneurs, marketer, community managers, businessmen and many more might be talking about this game. For some points, you will find theory first, facts second.
1-A Brick-strong vision
Starting with amazing ambition and great ideas
Power of Storytelling and inner motivation – Why you make something is much more powerful than how you make it and what it is. That’s Simon Sinek’s « Why before What » rule you may have heard of.
Nowadays, it’s one of the first rule we teach entrepreneurs.
Copycats and mashups are not really advised – Taking forces and inspiration from other’s projects is a great idea, but it’s hard to adapt it to your society or customers, and to succeed in creating your own identity. Also, most people will say you’re not very creative.
The only way to enter a competitive market is by taking risk – The business jungle law obliges you to take huge risks to get your piece of the cake.
At the time it was created, Borderlands was a new licence in video-game industry. While we kept seeing sequels and new sequels of old stories, only a few editors dared to try changing the game. More than a new licence, Borderlands is a full innovation : A game mixing RPG and FPS, dark humour and fine jokes, sci-fi apocalypse and fantasy stories. That full innovation is also a full challenge : a weirdly mixed mashup of everything people like with risky gags… all in a very codified market environment.
The Why – I suspect that many player loved Borderlands because it totally changed from their habits of playing the same type of game years after years. Even if it may not be the inner motivation of Gearbox, i’m sure this time frame without newness had a powerful impact on the game’s success.
Mashup – Who could dare to say »Borderlands lacks originality » ? Designers of the game surely created their own identity by taking inspiration from other games, movies, books… but they did great and managed to forge their own identity !
Taking risk – That’s one way to take over the market, or at least to get yourself a nice niche market ! That’s also the best way to accomplish something special and rise to the top.
2-The Purple Skag Law
Practicing differentiation by any means
Find your purple cow or your blue sea – Differentiation is one of the last advantage a company can have its your competitors (even if it’s becoming more and more transitory). Having a purple cow in a word of normal cows makes you more visible and attractive. It’s also always better to find a peaceful and hard-to-copy blue sea far away from the bloody red sea made by competition’s wars. ( Purple Cow by Seth Godin & Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne)
Underdo your competition – One interesting strategy can be to do less than everyone else, but do it better. Don’t try to always one-up your competitors, keep it simple and functional. (Build Less by 37 signals)
It’s on that Purple Slag Law (PSL) that Gearbox people tear other companies appart, disrupt the system and win badass levels. If we exclude the pitch of the game (which is a freaking Purple Cow surfing a UFO on a blue sea of strangeness), the first awesome PSL move Gearbox made was due to technical and financial difficulties. When the game was almost done but the design budget far from expected, the solution they found was to use cel-shading design (cartoon effect), and by doing so, move away from the classical Halo sober design they had planned.
From here, we can find many PSL or Underdoing-your-competition ideas inside Borderlands’ development strategy :
- Revealed during a super trend of Massive Multiplayer Online game, Borderland has a huge community, but you can only play by 4, max.
- Every other game allows player to have their head-to-toe customized avatar ? Well, Borderlands offers you the choice between 4 pre-made characters.
- Gearbox people can even find purple skags inside their own boxing : everyone expects a sequel of Borderlands 2 ? They create the first pre-sequel game.
3-The Moxxi home effect
Creating one of the rare at-home-good product
This one’s tricky : you remember that superficial thing you wanted so bad ? You were watching ads, catalogues, talking about it all the time. You finally went to the store and that thing was amazing : so many features highlighted on the packaging so much fun…
Of course, once at home it just didn’t delivered ! It’s not as easy to use as expected, is too complex or too simple, and remorses are coming up and down. You just feel betrayed and robbed.
This is very common, and that’s why strategy experts from Signal versus Noise advise here that firms must make a at-home good product (instead of in-store good or on-paper good) ! Borderlands designers should rename this concept the Moxxi Home Effect. Given how they made this character, there is no chance Moxxi will disappoint you once at home… In fact, i’m sure she will surprise you !
Create a product with a great Moxxi home effect and give people things they didn’t even expected ! What a pleasure to buy a simple speaker and discover once at home that it is waterproof, or to find that your vinyle album also contains a mp3 download code.
As regards my at-home experience with Borderlands 2, I would never have imagined that it could be so much fun with my vault hunter team of friends. Even after weeks of games, we still had nervous giggles ( especially with the so-called Ultra Clumsy Noisy Submachine Gun ). We also got many surprises and I can say with no doubt that the game has came above my biggest expectations. That’s how you want your product to be described.
4-Hammerlock’s species books
Learning from customers, cultivating their interest
Lean is the new black : The Lean Manufacturing strategy has touched and challenged almost every industry during past years. A deviated method, the Lean Startup strategy ( created by Eric Ries, upgraded by Steve Blank and Ash Maurya ), is no small subject. Here is the main idea as Ash Maurya claim it : »Life’s too short to build something nobody wants ». Old ways of checking people’s interest in your product used to happen after finishing your product. You can now easily change that nonsense : make a product or service come near absolute quality by testing multiple times its core idea and improvements quickly and accurately. Learn on your assumptions and choose the right path to success.
Being flexible is the better advantage you can have to adapt yourself to your customers’ needs. The process is easy : build something simple and not too expensive, test it to measure success, get feedback or insight, and learn how you could have done better. Repeat the process and try to reach perfect market-product fit.
As feedback listeners, Gearbox Software has performed many updates between the first and second opus, and even more between the second and Borderlands : the Pre-sequel. Customers asked for more character personality, they have now their own personal vulgar sentences. Other asked for more plateform-oriented gameplay, they answered with a game taking place on a low gravity bouncy world. The thing I found most impressive was how easy it was for them to give the development of an entire new gameplay and new game concept to a remote team in Australia, while they were improving the last game. Having a remote team with such responsibilities is usually a strong insight showing that the company is open-minded.
Many creators are afraid to give to their hardcore fans the complexity they ask for (like Pacific Rim’s director that were too afraid to push it’s exciting dream-sharing neural bridge concept forward). Borderlands’ designers did not hesitated to create a complete and complexe universe. With a backstory many players had to search on wikipedia, they did not took fans for fools (and that’s rare). For those who aren’t into scripts details can feel that the crazy battles and stupid missions they achieved were backed with a wisely engineered story.
Also, good knowledge of customers allows the game’s designers to insert pop-culture references by dozens, all hitting their giggles target !
Almost forgot : customers asked for more stories in the Borderlands universe, designers then created comic books, web-based TVshows, and teamed up with the famous interactive talles teller, Telltalle Games for a script-oriented opus.
Extend your universe with some new features or ideas, test if people are interested, learn why they are (or not) and be empowered to perform better next time.
5-Selling it better than Marcus’s Gun$ Shop
Making explosive marketing work
Most people I confronted on this subject tend to think that provocation, free violence and rule breaking are too risky for marketing strategies. I think those people would have a hard time working at 2K Games !
The marketing team behind Borderlands managed to make free violence and dark humour their trade mark. We have here a exception-which-proves-the-rule study case and you should look into it !
I just wanted to emphasize some advices/notions for this type of marketing that I found worth mentioning :
- Be yourself, stay natural. This may seem obvious, but we all tend to use too much politeness and loose time along with sincerity. Don’t ask yourself any questions : treat coworkers, customers and people like you would like to be treated.
- If you want to make a robot dance on disco while singing WUB WUB dubstep, go ahead ! Your ( weird ) choices defines your ( crazy ) brand identity.
- Don’t wonder about being too outdated or too original, just be you and celebrate your own way ( Game of the year celebration trailer )
- If you make a crazy marketing, expect to get insane customers… ( Google Search : Tattoo + Borderlands )
- Meme sharing is the new gold, especially when you have such badass characters to introduce ! (Borderlands on Gifphy )
- Break the rules every time it’s possible.
- Get a funny mascot and practice self derision, that might just work.
- Never miss an occasion to do some News jacking ! News jacking is making a special announcement (for the products or the company) every time a special date is spotted on the national calendar. Every holidays comes with its Borderlands’ headhunter additional content or exclusive in-game stuff.
6-Claptrap’s clan management
Creating a ready-for-fight community
Innovation inside community management is the kind of innovation your best community members will remember the most. The Borderlands’ community is so passionated that the manager must feel like a badass Vault Hunter.
The Borderlands’ cosplay community exists all around the word and use to make fan films and photo shootings all the time, quickly relayed by the official page. They even made a cosplay »come as your hero dressed for summer » (completely unprecedented !).
Also very reactive on customer requests and questions, the social network team even created a twitter account for Claptrap and Handsome Jack (not sure if official).
Besides that, the Borderlands’ site offers interviews from fans and blueprints to make your own cosplay costumes. Nobody is blamed for showing their love to the brand (contrary to some IKEA’s fans). Fans can share without troubles 3D printing files coming from merchandising scans. Some other sell Borderland themed posters and jewels on Etsy…
Let fans the possibility to easily express their gratitude or share community management innovations you make for them. Straighten your ranks and be up for the word-of-mouth war.
7-Gearbox people remain Hyperion Businessmen
Being aware that Eridium is vital for the company
Besides taking risks and having fun while designing products, exploring customers ways of thinking and preserve community’s amazing love, Gearbox people must also focus on profit. Turns out they also perform well on this matter…
- As we said, the original pitch of the game is enough to confine Borderlands’ customers to a niche market. That’s truth if we forget to mention that the mashup and copycat made on many things players like gives a stunning virality to their products ! Also, who doesn’t like to laugh while living great adventures with remote buddies ? No real niche here, just a growing customer segment to sensitize to Pandora’s world awesomeness. Word of mouth is nowadays business’ weapons of mass destruction.
- The game is REALLY better when we play on multiplayer mode. A lot of game try to do this but only a few succeed. This also gives a kickstart to Borderland’s world of mouth impact : you feel obliged to convince all your friend to buy the game and play with you.
- Of course, many downloadable contents are made available for addict players to invest in. That’s more money for the bullymong bank.(The season pass even allow you to pre-pay future additional contents)
- The players that may find too disturbing to not have it’s own avatar on the game can buy virtual wearings his friends don’t have to shine in Moxxi’s pub.
- And finally, there is the SHIFT code effect. Same feeling as looting Eridium on the game, getting a SHIFT code during the day is always a pleasure. SHIFT codes are simple 25 numbers/letter that can unlock special items on the game, and that get out-of-date after a few days. The thing is, in order to get one of these code while functional, you’ve got to stay in standby mode on Borderlands’ social network pages, or on websites made by community members. Anyway, if you want that tempting reward, you will be aware of all new announcement from the brand (including tempting awesome new products). That’s what we could call a locking strategy. (Plus, SHIFT code popping notifications reminds you it’s been a very long you haven’t played !)
Oh and of course, money is made on Merchandising ! With a community like that, it was a strategy no-brainer !
Why does this sh*#t deserves an article ?
I’m not sure. Have you read any of this ? Me neither. Forgot to compare Mad Max and Borderlands, to explain Deadpool’s coming disruption on superhero movies and to apologize for the usage of vault-hunters-only words…
Anyway, if you learned anything, I would be delighted if you dropped me a line on Twitter, comment or share this work.
PS : This Borderlands’ movie better be good !