Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands Devs Talk D&D, Fantasy Worlds, And Expanding The Borderlands Universe

Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands Devs Talk D&D, Fantasy Worlds, And Expanding The Borderlands Universe
Contributor: Paul Verhoeven

Tiny Tina went from frenetic bit-player to the chaotic heart of the Borderlands universe after the superb D&D-themed DLC, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, was released. Now, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands becomes a standalone sequel, with Tina once again stepping up to DM another foray into her fragmented world. I caught up with the developers to pick their brains about how they’ve drawn upon the tabletop gaming genre to inform this bold, strange new title.

There are so many fertile storytelling opportunities nested within the Borderlands universe. So why the push to spin-off from the Tiny Tina DLC?

Matt Cox (Creative Director): Well, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep was a very easy sell to get the team excited about. So, the game-within-a-game set-up was a fresh way to tell a story, and we wanted to build on that. But instead of just making a larger version of Assault on Dragon Keep, we wanted to have features that were 100% ours. So the first thing that we did, obviously, in the spirit of tabletop RPGs, is we had a character creator. You can completely customise your look and your class, and you’re not tied to a specific bespoke character — we want you to be able to express yourself in both look and gameplay, just like in tabletop RPGs. And just like with tabletop gaming, where the table itself brings together players and friends, the game board is what brings together the game and the gameplay… so we wanted to dream up, what could this actually mean for a first-person shooter? And that’s kind of when the thought behind the overworld, the living tabletop table, was born.

Image: Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands/Gearbox Software

How’d you tackle that from a design standpoint, Adam?

Adam May (Art Director): Well, we’re huge boardgame, huge tabletop fans, y’know, we play D&D… I’ve got more board games than I know what to do with! So it was just a really exciting idea to try and connect all of these first-person, deeply monolithic and gothic fantasy worlds, with an overhead map that you get to traverse around. So we knew right away there were going to be some challenges around that — not just how to make it interesting, but how to make it feel uniquely our own. So we started off by looking at references, things we loved… I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the board game Heroscape? But one of the earliest explorations we looked at was that board game. Very hex-based, and very very… almost like LEGOs that you get to build the board out of. We even tried some things like that, where we had the whole map built out of coloured hexes and cubes. We also explored a bit more serious tone stuff, with an almost painterly, guache sort of style? But it still wasn’t quite hitting the flavour and the attitude we want, you know? ‘Cos Tiny Tina herself plays such a big role in this game, as our bunker master, the person running this game for us, so we wanted a bit of that personality reflected there.

Yeah, of course.

And a lot of our world is very dark and gothic, and we want players to take that fantasy seriously, even though there’s a lot of jokes in there… and there’s a sort of layering to what’s going on in the world, too. There are players at the board itself, and they’re playing the game, right? But then, down inside the board, there’s the actual fantasy world you’re playing at. So there’s this disconnect and this constant reminder that hey, this is a game inside of a game, inside of a game. So we got to play with that idea — the deeper you go into the game, the deeper the fantasy is.

So how do those layers work?

Well, we’ve got a tabletop layer, which is very reminiscent of the board you have in an actual board game. But it’s like halfway between the player’s fantasy, and the actual game world itself! So we get to do really cool and interesting things, where things that would start out as a tabletop element itself… something sitting on the table with them, like a can of soda or something, that would spill over onto the board… instead of just becoming a mess on the board, it becomes a river the players need to cross, to traverse, to manage! Or a giant Cheeto that falls out of the sky and blocks the path of players, and then they have to go on quests to figure out a way around it. But there’s a whole slew of things like that.

Gabe, could you talk us through some of those, as the lead level designer?

Gabriel Robitaille (Senior Level Designer): Well it was really important for us to have you never feel like you were leaving that game, that you’re always playing a game of Bunkers and Badasses. You’re hearing the characters at the table bantering, they’re never quite agreeing on what to do… but Tina will decide what to do in the end, ‘cos she’s the dungeon master. But the overworld is where you and your friends will travel from location to location. But you’ll travel around it using miniaturised versions of your own character! We create these bobblehead minis of your character to travel around the board, but unexpected stuff will happen along the way. You’ll meet new characters, get quests, explore optional dungeons, collect gear…

Matt Cox: Yeah, we’re very, very excited with where we landed on what the board looks like, and the living tabletop element… We went through several iterations. Like, very early on I experimented with tilt-shift photography, like, a way to actually take the 3D map and make the space look really flat and miniaturised. But we also wanted to hold onto letting you rotate the camera around the character. And I learned — the hard way — that turning in tilt-shift makes you very, very sick. Like, motion sick. We tried it out, and we got sick all afternoon. I was sick for four to five hours. I was done.

I mean, one of the things I’ve not done in a long time — thanks COVID — is actually game, in-person, in a basement or whatever. The touch of the dice, the felt on the table, the body odours, you know. Yuck. What have you put into the game to give people that authentic gaming mouthfeel, for lack of a better term?

Matt Cox: Oh, we have an odour system, actually! (Laughs) No, god no.

Tiny Tina's Wonderlands
Image: Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands/Gearbox Software

Adam May: One of my favourite things about tabletop is what a vast distance you get to traverse in your journey. One of the things we do here is make some very, very wild and diverse locations. Normally you’re going from first person map to map, you need to connect those in a way that makes sense, right? But this overworld gave us the ability to go from traditional Norman castles, D&D worlds, to insane beanstalk cities, deserts, mountains, all kinds of crazy places. Each location you discover on this big sprawling map is very, very unique. The overworld map really is like an amusement park map, you know? You’re trying to summarise visually what you’re going to get inside each of these places, without giving too much away exactly what’s inside each one.

How prominent is Tiny Tina’s storytelling voice? And to what degree does it dictate story?

Matt Cox: For me, designing for Tina is the greatest licence for designers ever. We’re not limited by reality! There’s a little bit of her in all of us — letting your chaos run wild, so from a design perspective, it’s a great excuse to do crazy things.

Gabriel Robitaille: If anything, we’d try whatever we wanted, and then we’d have to restrain ourselves afterwards!

Matt Cox: We also really did want to give players their own voice, too. Literally. You can choose your personality when creating a character. We have four personalities, with two voice actors each, and you can change the pitch. So if you want to be brave, you can choose the one that’s a little brave! We want to make sure you can express yourself and create a character who represents your voice as much as possible.

You can do that in real life too, actually just change the pitch of your voice. Boom. Bravery.

Matt Cox: (Laughs) Who knew?

Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands launches March 25, 2022 on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. For more on the game, you can visit the official 2K Games website.

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