Past, Present, and Future of the ECHOcast – Borderlands 3 Interview

In this interview with Gearbox Software Developer, Scott Velasquez, I ask him what it takes to build the Borderlands 3 Twitch Extention. We look at where it came from and what we can look forward to. I also pitched a few ideas myself for the ECHOcast.
ECHOcast - Borderlands 3 Interview
ECHOcast - Borderlands 3 Interview

Who are you and what do you do?

Hey there, my name is Scott Velasquez and I’m a programmer by trade. Most recently I was a lead programmer on Borderlands 2, Battleborn and then the Online and Social Product Owner for Borderlands 3. I will have been at Gearbox 19 years this August!

How did you get started in the industry?

Just after graduating with a Bachelor of Science from UAT in 2000, I landed a job at Cinematix Studios in Tempe, AZ. It was here where I finally earned the right to call myself a professional game developer working on two PS2 titles (Hirelings and Renegade Zero). I was responsible for the audio and input systems as well as the 3rd person camera systems. I was so excited working on the camera systems I had to call my college Calculus teacher and tell him I was applying the things he taught us, ha!

Previously, I was big into modding Half-life, Quake and Duke Nukem 3D as well as working on my own personal projects. A friend and I wrote a Java 3D engine named Loco3D the moment 3D was added to Java. Our test data consisted of 3D models like Tie Fighters, buildings and etc. that we hand-built in a text file! Another friend and I wrote a C++ multiplayer checkers game which where we learned a lot about OpenGL and network programming at the Winsock level. In my spare time while at Cinematix I built a C++ game engine whose biggest feature at the time was being able to switch between Direct3D and OpenGL at run-time (something quite common to attempt at the time).

I made my way to Gearbox after Cinematix failed to land a publisher for either PS2 game and had to close up shop. It’s been a great ride so far!

I saw that you are the social product owner of Borderlands 3, what does that mean?

Product Owner is a term typically associated with Agile development in a typical software company. I believe this is the first time we’ve used this role at Gearbox, but the intent was to capture the role of a person who could design and direct a group of developers to build new online and social features for BL3. I’m a generalist and customer-focused at heart so this ended up being a great fit in my mind. On any given day I could switch between the following roles:

  • Programmer
  • Designer
  • Project Manager
  • Business Strategy
  • Customer Advocate
  • Consumer of the Coffee Beans

We drove the implementation of a number of features you are probably familiar with such as:

  • Photo Mode
  • Player Pinging
  • Vault Hunter Profile on Roster UI
  • Ask for Help
  • Rare spawn sharing
  • Dueling
  • Lost loot
  • Mail system
  • Takedowns
  • Twitch ECHOcast

What was the inspiration for making the twitch extension?

For years I was bothered watching Twitch hoping the streamer would open their scoreboard so I could see their stats in the competitive title they were streaming. Twitch visited us during Battleborn/early BL3 development and I urged them to consider building a product that allowed us to build interactions into the game to improve the quality of life for viewers and streamers. They must have heard this from other developers too as they officially announced extensions in 2017.

Nobody outside of Gearbox/2K knows this, but I had actually created my Twitch developer account in 2013. We had a vision for Battleborn that included many things had the game taken off. One of which was integrated Twitch streaming and an extension. My Twitch developer account and grand ideas laid dormant until I got the nod from our Creative Director of BL3 to move forward.

I asked around both the Frisco and Quebec studios to see if anybody had Twitch experience and got hooked up with my main man Michael Dube! As people joined the ECHOcast team they all offered ideas and feedback to help shape it was it is today.

The objectives for the extension were to:

  • Improve quality of life for streamers and viewers
      • No more asking the streamer to show you their “gear/build/stats”
      • Provide ways for streamer to foster their community and viewers a way to interact with their favorite streamer
  • Raise the bar for video games streamed on Twitch
      • Deliver new innovative and integrated experiences
      • Partner with Twitch and streamers early
  • Amplify BL3 milestones and reach new customers
      • Earn loot before the game ships
      • On-stream pre-order/purchase and continued updates alongside DLC and patches

How does the extension “basically” work, how much planning and programming goes into it, does the game get shaped around these features or do you need to work within the parameters of the game itself?

Great question. On the surface, it seems really straightforward, right? It is, but it isn’t!

The extension is essentially a web app running on top of the Twitch video player. The game communicates with Twitch and our backend service running in the cloud to send data and events to the extension. The extension communicates with Twitch and our backend service when taking part in an event or linking your SHiFT account. You’re talking about three distinct areas of work consisting of three different languages (C++, Go, Javascript/HTML/CSS) and product deployments! All the while keeping into account that the game needs to run as if no extra work was added, the backend service has to handle Twitch scale and do so cost-effectively and the extension has to work on a variety of browsers and resolutions. Oh by the way, did you know that the ECHOcast extension actually runs on a Tesla? How freakin cool is that?!

A lot of planning and programming went into developing the ECHOcast. We were really blazing trails for us at Gearbox and learned quite a lot along the way! We partnered with Twitch and a handful of streamers early so we could really good grasp on the technical challenges and what streamers thought about our designs. The ECHOcast was a huge team effort!

For the initial release, no the game didn’t get shaped around ECHOcast. One reason was that it was unproven, but more importantly, it’s because we wanted the work put into ECHOcast to be able to happen anywhere in your Borderlands 3 adventure. In other words, we didn’t want a feature to only become available in a certain location otherwise the chances of us making an impact would have dropped tremendously.

After the game launched and ECHOcast was out in the wild, people around the studio really started to take notice and they started stopping by talking to us about upcoming things where ECHOcast could be integrated. We have more big updates planned! 

I heard that my friend, lowlines, is helping out with the twitch extension. How did the team get established?

He sure is helping! He was actually the first person I reached out to when I got the go-ahead to develop ECHOcast. We met through his Borderlands and Battleborn projects where he developed all kinds of cool stuff for the community. I’d like to think we’re pretty good friends at this point!

MentalMars and Scott Velasquez at the Borderlands 3 Reveal Event

MentalMars and Scott Velasquez at the Borderlands 3 Reveal Event

Version 1 of the twitch extension was launched at the Borderlands 3 reveal event, how exciting was that and what did you learn from the process?

First of all, it was great to finally meet you in person at the event!

But man, as if revealing the game wasn’t enough we were like “let’s ship version 1 of ECHOcast and allow up to 200 streamers to stream it live AND earn rare chest loot!” That’s my kind of ambition! haha

It was very exciting and very humbling to the team who almost all made it out to Los Angeles to witness first hand. The game and ECHOcast were received very well and our first trial run at scale was successful.

We gathered a lot of feedback and telemetry from the reveal that allowed us to optimize the rare chest event and apply the lessons forward to the game’s release which included pinata and the badass event.

Since the launch of the extension, you guys kept working on it. Version 2 added mobile compatible. What can we expect in the near future? (V3)

There are some really cool and fun updates coming along and we’ll be talking about those very soon! Tune in to the next Borderlands Show on February 11 to learn more!

You work with Rick, the owner of DIM, an item management tool for Destiny. Now that Borderlands 3’s inventory space has increased significantly, do think it’s possible to see an online item management tool?

That’s right, Rick brought his expertise to help ECHOcast development as well. I would love to leverage more of Rick’s experience, but nothing to officially comment on at the moment. I think it is safe to say that we would like to continue pushing forward though! Like Lowlines, I think we all made a new friend in Rick as well. Thanks for the recommendation, Lowlines!

I personally had a few ideas for the twitch extension: While ‘fight for your life’ mode is probably too short to interact with the community. But what if a streamer goes down a bunch of times and the community can help him/her get through it by providing a buff, like extended FFYL, health boosters, or shield boosters. I think this could also give the viewer a sense of accomplishment as they helped their favorite streamer achieving a tough goal.

Ha, great minds think alike! It’s funny you should mention this was actually in our initial prototype by Mick aka Michael Dube, one of the badass game programmers helping with ECHOcast in our Quebec City studio. The ECHOcast team is world-wide!  I wish I could tell you more but you’ll just have to wait and find out 😊

Would a Community Slaughter Fest work? When the streamer enters a dome, the viewers can decide which type of enemies each wave has. Streamer VS Viewers.

Another great idea, we’re all on the same wavelength I think! We pitched this and I definitely think this could work. Given the schedule the game teams are working under it wasn’t something we could add in time and make sure not to break across the game. Definitely something I think we should keep in our back pocket for the future!

Is there anything my readers should know that I haven’t asked you?

Let’s see…well they probably already know how badass you are, so I don’t think that needs to be said 

I would just like to say thank you to everybody who purchased Borderlands 3 and checked out ECHOcast. We’re always open to feedback on anything we had a hand in so please feel free to tweet at me or whatever. Twitch just added a way for streamers to provide feedback about an extension so please consider using that for feedback too!

PS. Send tacos, all the tacos!

Do you have any advice for the folks that wanna get into the games industry?

You bet!

The very first step, before buying books, paying for an online course or signing up for college…

Make sure you understand the high level of what it takes to make a video game. Specifically, what roles are responsible for what in the game and what skills are involved.

Then think about what you’re passionate about when you take into consideration the roles learned above. Also, think about where you naturally excel…good with math? Art? etc.

Once you narrow down the role you can begin to learn and practice. Build up a portfolio and record notes on what you learned and are most proud of with each personal project. Hack and build mods on existing games that offer SDKs or user-generated content.

When you get to the point of interviewing, be yourself and allow your passion, experience, and ability to learn and work with others show. Don’t forget to ask your potential employer lots of questions too, you should be interviewing them as well!

Good luck, I’ll be playing your games before you know it!

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