Borderlands: Enemy Spawns

I probably don’t need to introduce Borderlands, y’know, the looter shooter game. I’m giving the complete series a playthrough from 1 to 3, including the Pre-Sequel but not Tales, unless I decide that some number of these games are actually Regrets. I like gun roulette and I like shooters, so probably even some really awful writing isn’t going to bring me down to Regrets, but I haven’t tried Borderlands 3 yet and the overall trajectory of the series’ writing is to get steadily more magenta over time, so we’ll see if it manages to cross the Regrets threshold despite its gameplay.

But today I’m talking about enemy spawns. Using the very early part of Borderlands as an example, the starting town is Firestone, the first villain is a bandit captain named Nine-Toes, and one of the first quests is to go and clear out a bandit outpost just across the road from the gate into Firestone. Perfectly good little quest with one problem: The bandits respawn, so if you ever revisit that outpost for any reason, it’s inescapable that you didn’t actually accomplish anything. On the other hand, you don’t want all enemies to never respawn, because that both makes maps uncannily safe as soon as you’ve cleared them (because enemies never patrol or reoccupy cleared territory unless you want to write in an entire AI for trying to take and hold territory) and it means you can’t have the fun of returning to an area you’ve overleveled and obliterating the opposition (something the Borderlands series is already bad at, since it has a nasty habit of leveling enemies in old regions after breakpoints in the story – but doesn’t even do that consistently, so sometimes you get sent back to an old area that you’ve out-leveled by 5+ but sometimes you’ll find all the enemies just got juiced up to about your level).

If I were put in charge of a remaster/make/boot of the series, I’d give it four types of enemy spawns based on two toggles: Story flags and character level.

Some enemies would stop respawning after a certain story flag has been set. This is reserved mainly for named boss enemies, and the story flag is killing them. Once you kill Nine-Toes, he doesn’t come back. Some unnamed enemies also qualify, if the story makes a point that you’re clearing them out to get some tactical or strategic advantage. Those outpost bandits, for example, would stop respawning after the quest to clear the outpost is complete. The story made a point of clearing that outpost in particular to stop Nine-Toes from seeing everyone who goes in and out of Firestone through the gate, so it stays cleared. The story flag doesn’t have to be relevant to the main plot, necessarily. Zephyr Substation is a wind farm that the bandits have overrun which you visit while acquiring a key to a stronghold that holds a key to another stronghold, which is not amazing quest design, but the important thing for purposes of this post is that there is a side quest to get the wind farm operational again and the bandits occupying it should keep spawning until the side quest to reactivate the farm is completed, not the main quest to fetch a key from it.

Some enemies should stop respawning after you reach a certain level, regardless of what story flags are flipped. Borderlands is already one of those games that cuts the XP given by enemies based on the level difference, and about 5-10 levels over the enemies they stop giving XP entirely (there’s no hard cutoff, it just gets cut into a smaller and smaller fraction of the default until it rounds down to 0, so it can be 5 levels for one enemy and 15 for another, but 5-ish is about the point when enemies stop being relevant). They’ll keep respawning if you’re underleveled even if the local plot is complete and stop spawning when you reach a certain level even if the local plot is incomplete.

This category is for patrolling bad guys, like the bandits and alien wildlife you find moseying around the roads and trails connecting points of interest to one another. If they’re not worth XP, that suggests they’re also not worth the players time, so stop respawning them. These enemies are now so weak that the player can walk right past them while ignoring their bullets if they don’t want to go to the effort of mowing them down, so just don’t bother. Most areas have a level range, so when you’re right on the cusp of outleveling that area, it’ll despawn the lower end of the range as you outlevel it completely, but leave the upper end of the range, which is only 3-4 levels below you, which organically gives a sense of areas starting to thin out as you progress. It’s not directly tied to how many of them you’ve killed, but it’ll feel that way.

Some enemies stop respawning only if you reach a certain level and flip a relevant story flag. For example, some patrolling enemies I would normally give a purely level-based despawn are required for a kill-ten-rats kind of quest, and while that is also not amazing game design, you definitely don’t want to make it possible to softlock yourself out of it by overleveling until the patrols stop spawning. Also, the bandits in various bandit strongholds holding bosses like Nine-Toes and Sledge should keep respawning until you have outleveled them by 5+ and you’ve defeated the relevant boss. If you show up to the boss dungeon ridiculously overleveled, you still have to fight the whole dungeon for pacing reasons, and if you defeat the boss at a normal level (or while underleveled) you can still revisit the dungeon for level grinding purposes and/or for funsies for as long as the enemies there are powerful enough to be remotely relevant. Only after the dungeon has served its purpose in the main plot and ceased to be remotely meaningful opposition does the general bandit population stop spawning.

Finally, you want a handful of stray enemies who keep respawning no matter how overleveled you get or how far into the story you get. The bandit strongholds, for example, might have one or two rooms that remain fully stocked with bandits no matter how powerful you get, and while some of the absurdly hostile wildlife moseying about the map might stop spawning when you get too high level, others might continue to suicide rush you when they see you walking or driving down the road. This allows a player to do the whole “obliterate some low level enemies to see how far you’ve come” thing without obligating them to do so whenever driving around lower level areas (especially since both the first and second game have a few quests encouraging you to return to much earlier areas of the game).

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