Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands: A Game Designer’s First Impressions
I don’t have a progress update on games, unfortunately. I’ve had some health issues, and while I don’t want to blow them out of proportion—they’re unpleasant, not life-threatening (at least, that’s the going theory)—they make it a lot more difficult for me to do work on my games. This is mostly because I’m having difficulty sleeping, which is making it harder for me to work with numbers, which is the progress blocker for both Cybrine Dreams and Kenoma, though I’ve started kicking around some old project stuff from last year that might or might not become something.
I’ve also been working on a book (not game-related) that should go out to my beta readers next week (fingers crossed), so that’s been using a lot of productive time. It’s been a heck of a process, but people who’ve followed me for long know that cranking out tens of thousands of words in a few weeks is not unusual for me.
Because I’ve been so unavailable, I wanted to do a bit of game design crunch and maybe also get an algorithm boost by talking about Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands.
Now, my background as a designer is in tabletop roleplaying games, but that isn’t mutually exclusive with video games, and Borderlands has shaped my Hammercalled system and my philosophical approach to design and I want to talk about a few things.
So Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is an interesting game from the perspective of being a kinda-sequel. There are four mainstream Borderlands games (1, 2, Pre-Sequel, and 3), and they’re all looter-shooters with a lot of focus on action.
There’s a zany tone to them, which Wonderlands does better than some of its predecessors, but I’m not going to talk about the writing much here.
The most important thing for me is to assess it as a designer, but since I’ve also been a game reviewer, I want to bring up my thoughts in a brief review.
Now, obviously I like Borderlands. It’s one of those put-on-an-audiobook and play games I’m quite fond of, since it lets me keep my hands busy while thinking about other stuff.
Graphically, Wonderlands is a direct improvement, and I notice a slight performance improvement over Borderlands 3. I’m not sure if that’s just drivers and configuration settings, if there’s under-the-hood optimization, or what, but the system requirements are relatively mild and the output is fantastic.
Storybook fantasy lets the visual style shine in ways it didn’t always on Pandora and the other worlds of the Borderlands series, and the neat tricks involved in the meta-tabletop roleplaying storytelling framework (like things appearing out of nowhere as the “Bunker Master” figures out that she forgot something) pop.
Gameplay-wise, the first thing I noticed was that the character controller feels better. That’s really in the weeds, but it’s the sign of other things that ripple through the game. Movement is more fluid, and gunplay and other systems have incremental improvements.
Borderlands always experimented with its element systems, and Wonderlands has some cool iterations (“heal” barrels and dark magic). The replacement of grenades with spells on cooldowns improves balance (less incentive to save-and-spam) and feels better from a gameplay perspective because they can have more interesting effects.
Melee combat is a larger part of the game, with melee weapons that have distinctive effects. My favorite is vampirism—wade in and dish out some pain—combined with new crossbow-derived weapons (though I still go for the single-shot precision “critical hits bounce” weapons that have been my staple since Borderlands 1).
Skill trees are simplified, but character attributes give some opportunity for specialization. Loot has always done the lion’s share of the work in Borderlands, so this isn’t a major problem, but it feels lighter, especially if you haven’t unlocked multi-classing yet.
The over-world is interesting. Random combat encounters are mostly optional, and the ability to enter “dungeons” (strings of fights against set numbers of foes) lets players choose to pick a fight in settings other than the story-section world-spaces, which means less trudging and more action. Plus, the over-world and dungeons have meta-progression systems of their own (shrines you can collect pieces for to get buffs). Collectibles are back and better than ever, which is nice for someone like me who enjoys exploring the environments.
Writing-wise, it’s kind of aimed at people like me, who have both Borderlands and tabletop roleplaying game experience. It’s clever and witty but also heavily referential. Since I get the references, I may be the perfect target audience, but it improves on certain prior entries in the franchise, at least if you can tolerate Tiny Tina.
The Designer’s Promise
The promise of Wonderlands, as with Borderlands, is that it will provide players with an action-RPG derived looter-shooter framework. The basic loop here is: get guns, shoot things, level up, repeat.
Numbers go up, basically.
In creative writing, we identify stories as literary, upmarket, or mass-market. Wonderlands is explicitly mass-market from a game design perspective.
The skill floor is basically nil, and the reward for skill is larger numbers and fewer revivals. The world is very linear, with side-quests rather than exploration areas or open worlds.
And honestly, it works. If you don’t know what you’re getting into with a Borderlands game in 2022, I don’t know what to tell you, and Wonderlands is more Borderlands than Borderlands.
I’m not very far into Wonderlands yet—it only came out last night, and I’ve been doing work on other stuff—but the important thing is that it makes just enough incremental improvements and puts enough new coats of paint on things to be playable by people who have, say, burned themselves out with over three hundred hours combined in the series can still find it new and refreshing.
And one lesson that a designer should take from this is that Wonderlands is Borderlands. There’s no effort to change things just to change things, and where something would’ve lent a “fantasy” feeling but didn’t play better, they went back to the Borderlands formula.
There’s also something to be said about genre evolution here. The trend in shooters has been toward faster, more fluid action, and Wonderlands feels like it’s moving that way. Enemies feel more responsive, especially the skeletons who make up the first act’s chief enemies (and first impressions matter), who will lose limbs while quipping about how the player “doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance.”
You want rapid-fire technicolor looter-shooter action, and Wonderlands will provide it.
There are a few flat notes.
Borderlands has this idea of upgrading your inventory as a major money sink throughout the game, which always falls flat to me. Wonderlands kept it. Small inventory sizes mean a few early trips back to vendors, and it’s explicitly at odds with the fun-first approach. Likewise, the ammunition pool cap should encourage switching between weapons, but it really just means that some weapons are prohibitive unless you stop to loot ammo while others, like the Jakobs brand single-shot damage dealers in Borderlands (“Blackpowder” in Wonderlands) only run out of ammunition if you are allergic to aiming.
I know this may be heretical, but perhaps getting rid of ammunition (a-la Overwatch) would be a good idea for further installments. If you don’t need the realism, don’t invest the time and effort into it—it’s not in the looter-shooter spirit, and slows down play.
They carry the improvements to fast travel from Borderlands 3 over, but there are still a lot of places where one can wind up doing a lot of walking back and forth between objectives. The over-world is a fun mechanic. Random encounters and the dungeon sections feel like a less hand-crafted version of Doom’s gore nests, but it has the same walking problem and even recognizes this by offering players a speed boost for collecting stuff. It’s pretty enough I’ll give it a pass, but some players won’t.
A Solid Core
Wonderlands excels because it has a rock-solid core. Almost everything in the game focuses on a core of run-and-shoot gameplay. It’s not cover based, though you can be tactical or run in and start whacking things.
It’s not going to make you do stealth or platforming, at least not as part of the core play experience. Some collectibles involve a little light platforming, and it’s pretty solid (again, character controller improvements make Wonderlands feel better than its predecessor).
Because of this, some changes to secondary mechanics don’t matter as much. The class system is interesting, offering slightly more customization options at the expense of offering less individual definition on any character.
The Attribute System
The addition of attributes is cool as an homage to RPGs, though they don’t do as much during the ordinary play experience as one would expect.
The one distinctive thing they permit is a little more differentiation between the player characters, making them useful for playing up a class specialization or presumably helping multiplayer groups feel like each player has a distinct role. Other than that, they have a numbers-go-up function that doesn’t set itself apart from gear. The endurance stat that increases HP and shield values seems powerful to me as far as a feeling during play, but I could be under-estimating the effect of other values. Defenses need to feel beefier to players because investing in them and then getting wrecked is a frustration source, so this could be a feature rather than a bug.
My love of endurance could also blind me to a rebalance to a longer enemy time to kill compared to previous Borderlands games, which might line up with a move toward making melee viable, but I’d need more time with the game to make sure of that.
Using Everything Effectively
One thing that Borderlands has always been a little clever about is leveraging its core in clever ways. For instance, the guns are really comparable to five or six weapons from the Unreal Tournament arsenal, re-skinned and given enough variation in behavior (magazine, fire-rate, damage output, accuracy, special effects, etc.) to hide the fact that they’re often pretty samey because of the procedural generation involved.
And Wonderlands does that well. It has a clever ending to the first act that uses existing scenes and really opens them up for more exploration (including the over-world), and it gives a multi-path option for players. You can be a completionist doing all the side-quests and everything, or you can rush through the game, and either way you’re going to get a pretty much custom-tailored feeling experience because they have scripted content and mechanics that just work.
Some of this is being clever about math. You need exponentially more XP to level up, so going back and doing side-quests doesn’t push you too far past where you need to be for things to be balanced. A lot of the core stats level with your character, so if you’re like me and you’re hyper-preferential in gear you can really use anything you like for five or six character levels (for reference, I think the total scale is forty levels, but I could be mistaken and they will certainly expand it with future content) and still have the balance feel right.
And that’s something designers should learn. Besides being quite clever with some of its twists—when Torque comes back, he comes back with a blast—there are lots of places where Wonderlands does things that probably didn’t take a lot of effort (at least, not a lot of effort that doesn’t also advance other goals) but feel pretty darn good.
For instance, character creation almost certainly uses the same method Gearbox uses to assemble NPC models and simply makes it open to the players. It’s rich, has lots of collectible hunting tie-ins, and provides opportunities for players to have a degree of customization that is an RPG-genre hallmark (and works in a meta-reference about unpainted figurines, using a generic gray plastic as a default material until the player assigns another).
From the perspective of the player, a lot of this won’t come into center stage, but there are lessons here for designers.
Make systems that follow player behavior but have their own driving force.
Provide options for players with different styles, even within a tight genre.
Naturally, as a game designer who works on TTRPGs, there are some things that I’d like to bring over into that field before I send this off.
1. Core mechanics matter.
Make them as heavy or light as you should for your audience, then apply them everywhere. Don’t get bogged down in individual rules that require players to learn and master a lot of different content.
2. Good is deceptively simple.
Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is a mass-market game, but it’s got some serious design chops. Don’t underestimate the power of having a few clever mechanics interact repeatedly.
3. Put levers where they do things.
Resist the temptation to add things just to add them. Wonderlands has restrained game design, but it shines because nothing ever breaks. If you want to do something, you can take a few actions to make it happen and then it just works.
4. Have fun.
One thing Wonderlands does well is that it’s just straight-up fun. No messing around with loads of shenanigans, set-up time is basically optional (character visuals), and there are constant rewards for non-stop dopamine hits.