So Long Battleborn, And Thanks For All The Fish: A Retrospective
It feels odd saying goodbye to a video game, but alas, here we are. Battleborn, the first-person-shooter-MOBA hybrid, developed by Gearbox Software and published by 2K Games, will officially shut down on the 31st of January 2021. While this middling game has had a rather tumultuous history, I can’t help but feel a little sad that it’s going. So, let’s have one final hurrah. Let’s revisit Battleborn’s ill-fated history and discuss the surreal nature of its departure from our Steam libraries.
Battleborn, A History: 2014 – 2021
July 8th 2014
Game Informer announced that Battleborn, the first original title by Gearbox Software since Borderlands in 2009, was in development. According to their article on it, the game was going to “take the minion smashing and fast leveling often associated with MOBAs and injects it into an intergalactic first-person battle arena.” Randy Pitchford, President of Gearbox Software, claimed that Battleborn was set to be “the most ambitious video game that Gearbox has ever created.”
April 20th 2016
VG24 7 release an article comparing the upcoming Overwatch, Battleborn and Paragon and offer advice on which one you should buy.
May 3rd 2016
Battleborn is released for 60$ to mixed reviews, achieving a Metacritic score of 68%. It also has a season pass available for 20$ that promises new story operations, skins, and taunts.
May 11th 2016
Battleborn’s creative director Randy Varnell announces that Battleborn’s sales are tracking just a little over those of Borderlands in its first week. He said that the “launch has been pretty good,”, comparing it to Borderlands, and expects it to perform in a similar fashion.
May 24th 2016
Overwatch, Blizzard Entertainment’s team-based shooter, launches across all platforms for $40. It launches to wide critic acclaim, scoring 91% on Metacritic.
May 25th 2016
2K cut Battleborn’s base price by $20 bringing the Digital Deluxe version down to $54.99 and the Standard version to $39.99. They also introduced a new character, and confirm four more are in the works.
Vice release an article comparing Battleborn unfavourably to Overwatch, one of the first in a series of unfavourable comparisons between the two games. They praise Overwatch’s simplicity, citing it’s lack of “complicated levelling or multiple objectives” as a positive, saying that “[i]t just gives you a target and then says go.” They also claim that Battleborn feels very much like it fits in with the “Gearbox style”, and that they were worried there were too many characters “for the sake of there being a varied choice.” In contrast, they found that the Overwatch characters served a more functional purpose, and are built to function within each map and game-mode instead of “just having a cool gun to kill people with.”
June 28th 2016
Gearbox announces its DLC plans for Battleborn. They intend to release or announce new content every two weeks starting in July. The DLC in question includes five free heroes, a broadcaster mode, gameplay and bug fixes, and some new free modes, all of which are to be released across the year. The aforementioned Story Operations included in the season pass are planned to release throughout Winter, save for a few that are due toward the end of Summer.
Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick admitted to poor sales when it came to Battleborn, saying “its performance in the market has been below our expectations.” However, he claims that they are committed to the game, and he believes that there is still a chance to continue building the game’s player-base over time. Zelnick goes on to claim that “[a]udiences love Battleborn. […] We’re not counting it out for a minute” implying 2K very much plans to continue Battleborn’s legacy into the future.
Battleborn’s player count reaches a new low with a peak player count of 657.
With the introduction of the free trial, Battleborn sees a rise in player count and reaches a peak player count of 1,561.
Battleborn’s player count hits its lowest peak player count at 363, an amount it will never surpass in the remainder of its history.
September 15th 2017
Randy Varnell, Creative Director of Battleborn, posts that “there will be no more Battleplans, and there is currently no planned content after the Fall Update.” He hesitates to say it’s over, citing “Never fear! Battleborn is here to stay. Nothing is changing with Battleborn, and the servers will be up and active for the foreseeable future.”
November 13th 2019
2K post to their support page that Battleborn has been removed from all digital storefronts; that as of February 24th, 2020 players will no longer be able to buy the premium virtual currency; that by 31st January 2021 the servers will be deactivated.
It cuts a final blow that will go on to devastate the remaining hardcore members of the Battleborn community:
“Once servers are deactivated, Battleborn will no longer be playable.”
January 31st 2021
Battleborn goes offline. Forever.
Why Battleborn Failed
I’m no Oracle of Delphi, I don’t hold all the answers, and I’m not even sure if there are conclusive reasons for why the game tanked as hard as it did. But I sure can speculate, and give reasonable answers as to why Battleborn may have failed.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room for a second: Overwatch, the ubiquitous first-person-shooter that everyone and their grandma have played. It’s an unbelievably popular game and for an excellent reason. It’s a title developed by Blizzard Entertainment, who had, before Overwatch’s release, developed other popular multiplayer titles such as World of Warcraft (2004), Starcraft 2 (2010), and Hearthstone (2014), among many iterations and spin-offs of those titles, as well as prequels (such as Starcraft 1 in 1998). Overwatch also had very little competition; in fact, it really only had one.
Team Fortress 2 was an extremely popular hero-based first-person-shooter developed and published by Valve back in 2007. It featured nine different heroes players could choose from, all of which had unique roles within the team, and a series of different modes played across various maps. Over the years it received a lot of support, from both Valve and its community, but by 2016 it had been out for nearly nine years, and people were ready for a new hero-shooter to play.
The fact that Overwatch only had TF2 to compete with, a game that had dominated the hero-shooter market up until that point, made it a shoo-in success for dethroning the titan. It was remarkably different in terms of visuals and character design, it featured 21 heroes at launch, which dwarfed TF2’s nine, and it was coming from a well-established company that had worn-the-trousers for online-multiplayer games for nearly two decades by that point.
Overwatch vs. Battleborn
So what did this mean for our scrappy little Battleborn and its eventual demise? Well, quite a lot. While Overwatch was contending with TF2, Battleborn, the self-titled MOBA-FPS hybrid, was competing with much fiercer competition. There was League of Legends (2009), Dota 2 (2013), Smite (2014), and of course the free-to-play Paragon which launched just shortly after Battleborn in August of 2016.
Not only were the titles mentioned above absolutely massive by the time Battleborn came out, but they’d not been out nearly as long as TF2 had been in comparison to Overwatch. They were still completely fresh, and players were still enjoying them. Add to that, Epic Games were releasing Paragon, also a MOBA, for free, and it seemed doomed for Battleborn.
Battleborn was also developed by Gearbox, who up until that point were only really known for Brothers In Arms, Borderlands 1, 2 and The Pre-Sequel, and their two flops, Alien Colonial Marines and Duke Nukem Forever. Suffice to say; Gearbox had nothing on Blizzard.
Battleborn’s marketing material was all about how it was by the people behind Borderlands, and you could tell. The character design, the game’s visual style, and the humour used in the dialogue were very similar. And while this was no Agent’s of Mayhem situation, Battleborn feels too much like a Borderlands game and less like a fresh new take on the MOBA genre. As much as Gearbox marketed Battleborn as being “by the creators of Borderlands”, not committing to the game being set in the Borderlands universe or being a sequel was highly detrimental to the game.
Blizzard could get away with creating a new IP and expecting it to be at the very least mildly successful; they’ve done it time and time again. But Gearbox hasn’t. They’ve made one, really successful franchise, and instead of using it to launch their foray into online shooters, they instead created a brand new IP but made it play and look so much like Borderlands to try and stay safe. Not only was it confusing, but ultimately pointless, as there were no recognisable characters, locations, inside jokes, or references to appeal to people, and as such Battleborn didn’t have that star power that it should have done.
It’s All About The Money
Battleborn cost $60 at launch, on top of a season pass that cost $20. That’s insane. It’s made even more insane by the fact that Overwatch, which had only a little less content (four fewer heroes), cost $40, and Paragon was completely free! Simply put, Battleborn was too expensive.
When pricing your game, you have to take into consideration what the market has to offer already. When Paladins released, it did so for free, as Hi-Rez Studios knew no one would play it if they charged money for it. Overwatch was too successful by that point (September 2016) for Hi-Rez Studios to even dream of charging for the base game. Instead, players had to purchase characters in-game to play as them but could access free characters on rotation.
Smite, Dota 2, and League of Legends, Battleborn’s biggest competitors, are and were at the time, all free. Therefore, it made little sense to buy Battleborn when there were established and arguably better MOBAs already out there.
Battleborn’s two selling points were that it was an FPS and that it was by the people behind Borderlands. Gearbox had proven they were really good at making Borderlands games, but terrible at pretty much everything else. And the FPS genre was already incredibly saturated, and the FPS hero-shooter genre was about to get a legendary game by a developing titan.
Word Of Mouth
On the 11th of May, Videogamer reported that Randy Varnell, the creative director on Battleborn, said during a Twitch live stream that he was “hoping that word of mouth is going to take [Battleborn] even further.”
Here’s the thing: Battleborn didn’t get great reviews. Bad reviews will crush a game. Even mediocre ones can do serious damage. Varnell’s hopes that word of mouth would increase the game’s player count was woefully misjudged, as the only real word of mouth that was spreading was that Battleborn was not nearly half as good as Overwatch.
I remember when Battleborn came out. I was with my friends, talking about what games everyone was playing, and one of them perked up and said “Battleborn“. My other friends turned to him and asked “Is that the one that ripped Overwatch off?” He shrugged.
Sure, it’s anecdotal, so you’ll have to take my word for it, but you get the general conceit. The word on the street wasn’t about how great Battleborn was, but how terrible it was compared to Overwatch. It wasn’t just my mates who were comparing the two games with each other. There’s the aforementioned Vice article, an article by VG24/7, and many more by games journalism publications. In addition to the countlessReddit threads all across the internet. And even when games journalists and Reddit threads were jumping to Battleborn’s defence, it seemed to do very little in its favour.
I’m not all convinced anything would have changed if Gearbox didn’t abandon Battleborn to go and make Borderlands 3, but it certainly didn’t help. The production of Borderlands 3 required a large chunk of the Battleborn team, including Randy Varnell who became the “director of creative development” on Borderlands 3, so only a skeleton crew was left behind to update the game when need be.
Gearbox abandoning Battleborn, a sinking ship, for a project that would likely make them a lot of money makes sense. And sure, I could bang on about how No Man’s Sky managed to turn from an ugly duckling into Ho-Oh, but I’m not convinced that sticking around would have helped much. Still, it didn’t do Battleborn any favours and probably hurt it in the long run.
What Battleborn Did Wrong
Some of the reasons I’ve outlined were behind the scenes, and not really Battleborn’s fault. But I’m not all that convinced it was all because of Overwatch that Battleborn failed. I think deep down, the biggest reason Battleborn failed is, well simply put, Battleborn.
Battleborn’s core gameplay is not fun. You can pick from one of a large roster of heroes and engage in either a series of multiplayer modes or the main storyline. The key, MOBA-esque, multiplayer modes include Incursion and Meltdown, and there are three additional multiplayer modes called Capture, Face Off and Supercharge.
In Incursion, each team is tasked with taking down the other’s two large Mechs, and upon doing so, wins. You have a team of continuously respawning AI-controlled minions that can help you, as well as upgradable turrets and devices which can buff and debuff depending on who uses it.
In Meltdown, each team must escort their team of AI-controlled minions to their respective furnaces, which alter locations every so often. Doing so nets your team points, but you obviously have to ensure the opponent’s team fails to melt down their minions.
Capture is capture the point, fairly bog-standard stuff. Face-Off sees two teams trying to defeat AI-controlled enemies, and collecting their masks for points. The first to reach 500 wins. Supercharge is a hybrid of Capture and Meltdown.
Right, now that the boring stuff is out of the way, here’s why the multiplayer doesn’t work. Firstly, the characters are just not fun. Each character feels unique but also overly complex and not in a good way. Every character has three abilities that they can use and a skill tree that can unlock various enhancements for their abilities as you play.
However, the skill tree is burdensome, and most of the time, I forget about it. Trying to decide mid-game whether or not getting +300 damage to an ability, or having the ability cooldown quicker, or have it heal, or have it deal damage from a greater distance is cumbersome at best. It feels ill-fitted for a game of this nature, which requires the player to be moving at all times, protecting their own mechs while also attacking their opponent’s mechs.
Furthermore, some characters have melee weapons, while others have ranged, which often results in unfair deaths as you’re unable to clear the ground quick enough. Combat completely lacks a tactical element too, resulting in characters wailing on each other with whatever weapon they have, using up all their abilities until one of them is dead.
It also doesn’t help that the MOBA type element means that, on top of player-controlled heroes to deal with, you frequently have turrets, minions, and giant monsters that either team can control, attacking you. The FPS nature of the game means that you’re unable to tactically plan your route of attack or react to a large swarm of enemies approaching from behind, which will frequently lead to cheap deaths. To add insult to injury, all the AI-controlled minions take forever to kill, and whenever you die the time it takes to respawn increases, meaning everything feels as if it takes forever to do.
It’s just far too complicated and hectic, especially compared to something like Overwatch, which is extremely simple and easy to play. I appreciate this is the nature of MOBAs, but in Battleborn’s case, its combat’s frantic nature is hugely detrimental to the overall experience.
The story mode sucks too. This is one of the most run-of-the-mill story modes I’ve ever played. It sees you, and friends, tackling eight missions set across a Saturday-morning-cartoon styled narrative. It has all the Borderlands trappings: unfunny and crass humour, tedious and overly long boss fights, waves of dull enemies to kill using the dull combat mechanics, and a simplistic, thoughtless narrative that’s neither original nor exciting.
The narrative is told through radio conversations, which is perhaps the least interesting way of doing it. It is predominantly just characters quipping at one another, trying to be the funniest kid in the room. While humour is entirely subjective, I found that it never landed, and often felt simplistic and straightforward. In Battleborn’s defence, it does have some sweet animated segments, and while they don’t tell the story very well, they are pleasing to watch.
The minute-to-minute gameplay is tiringly repetitive and involves you taking out wave after wave of enemies until you get to an ironically named boss that takes far too long to beat. Even with my sister, whom I play every co-op game with and who makes every co-op game fun no matter how bad it might be, this game was not fun. It dragged and dragged and d-r-a-g-g-e-d.
The Surreal Disappearance Of The Game in the Night-time
As must as I have talked about Battleborn’s faults, and as much as I almost certainly could continue doing so, it’s unfortunate and admittedly weird that it’s going. Even if Battleborn was, in my eyes, a failure on almost every level, there are a lot of people out there who genuinely enjoyed it. On top of that, there are a lot of people, myself included, who paid good money for it, $60 even! So, why on earth is it just disappearing? As much as I’ve talked at length, probably to no-one’s amusement, about why I think Battleborn failed, I think it’s time we discussed why it’s wrong it’s going.
The Great Game Robbery
When Battleborn goes offline on the 31st of January, that’s it. No more story mode, no more multiplayer against bots. Nothing. Battleborn will be completely inaccessible. This means that those of us who bought the game, either back when it came out or after, will no longer have access to any of the content we paid for. Isn’t that just a little, I don’t know, odd?
You wouldn’t buy a car that disappears two days later or food that gets taken away when you put it in your fridge. Why would you willingly pay for something that one day the developers can yank away from you? Sure, Paragon was taken offline after it failed to become a hit-success, but that game was free, and Epic Games released all the assets (reportedly worth up to $17,000,000) for other Unreal 4 developers to use. But with Battleborn, a lot of people bought it on day one. The free version wasn’t released until a year after launch, and even then you still had to buy the game to access the story-mode.
And Then There Were None
Even taking away the monetary aspect, it brings into question the longevity of our digital libraries. Now, I’m going to be a little hyperbolic, but hear me out for a second. A lot of my life has transitioned to digital media. For one, I now rarely watch DVDs, something I swore I’d never stop doing. Instead, I have Netflix, Prime, Crunchyroll, Screen Anime, Youtube, BBC IPlayer, etc. For games, I don’t have the clunky PC boxes of old. Instead, I have a nice, neatly compiled library on Steam, my PS4, and Switch.
But Battleborn’s disappearance from stores, both physical and digital, and now our very own libraries makes me wonder what if. What if suddenly Steam stops being a thing, or Netflix shuts down? Do I suddenly lose all my games from Steam? Will I still be able to access them, even if Valve goes bankrupt and has to shut it all down?
In 2016, Microsoft removed the ability to play the game Xbox Fitness, including any paid workouts. Nintendo announced that as of January 2019, it would be impossible to buy games from the Wii Shop and remove the ability to download games bought on the Wii Shop for good. That means that all that money you funnelled into buying WiiWare so that it didn’t take up space on your shelf, or because physical editions simply didn’t exist, will be completely wasted whenever they decide to revoke your redownloading privileges.
Most of my games on Switch are digital, as it’s predominantly filled with indie games that never see a physical release outside of the occasional Limited Run Games launch. Whenever the next Nintendo console releases, am I going to be unable to play those games? In fact, Nintendo has recently released two titles, Super Mario 3D All-Stars and Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, which are available for a limited time. It’s worth noting that outside of a physical edition that’s now going for upwards of £150 on eBay, the Fire Emblem title is entirely digital, so if you don’t buy it before the31st of March 2021, then you’ll never get to play it.
How To Get Away With Murder
Battleborn has a small player-base now, so perhaps Gearbox thinks they can get away with just deleting the title without repercussion. But if this keeps happening, especially if it begins to occur with singleplayer games like the previously mentioned Nintendo titles, players will have to resort to piracy to play them. Obviously, I don’t condone it, and I understand I’m being hyperbolic when I fear that Steam will all of a sudden crumble and fade into non-existence. Still, with the rise of digital sales across the UK, it is becoming very apparent that we’re all putting stock into the immaterial material.
It dawned on me that I don’t own most of the games I have in my digital libraries, which scares me a little. Sure, the big corporate isn’t going to come and take them all away any time soon, but it’s hard to believe that they’re going to stick around forever. It’s also true that physical games can get worn out, fade out of existence because they’re no longer produced, and end up on eBay for far too much. But that’s not quite what’s happening with Battleborn.
Battleborn didn’t get old and die. It was around for four and a bit years, and then the developers decided no one was allowed to play it anymore. I can still go and buy a copy of Ben 10: Ultimate Alien Cosmic Destruction for PSP for the low sum of £6.99 over on Amazon.co.uk, and that game came out in 2010. It’s not that Gearbox stopped producing Battleborn copies, they’ve actively decided to stop anyone from playing it. That means that people who still have functioning physical copies on console or PC, and people who still have it in their digital libraries can’t play it! It’s just not the same.
Thanks For All The Fish
At the end of the day, Battleborn is leaving us, whether I like it or not. I do genuinely believe it’s worth paying it our respects in its final moments on this planet. Battleborn may not have been a great game, and other, more competent titles may have overshadowed it, but it doesn’t deserve the fate thrust upon it.
When the 31st of January rolls around, it’ll be a sad day for the video game industry, an example of how little some developers care about you or your supposed property. Maybe, like the dolphins in Douglas Adam’s famous book, Battleborn was trying to tell us something all this time. Maybe, just maybe, don’t release your game alongside what is bound to be a prevalent title that’s similar to your own. And maybe, just maybe, don’t sell a product you’re going to steal back a few years later. Just a thought Gearbox. Just a thought.