The year was 2019, the date January 21st. After slipping on ice and fracturing my knee a few days before, it was looking like my trip across the US/Canada border was cancelled, but mustering up enough strength (and tylenol extra strength), I crossed the Rainbow Bridge from the Canadian to the American side of Niagara Falls with my friend. Eventually, after getting lost for a bit on public transportation, we managed to get to a small plaza just on the outskirts of the tourist town. In the plaza, sat a lone, unassuming Gamestop which we had been to before, and we went inside as usual. However, something was very different this time.
A small display stand sat towards the front of the store, with numerous Xbox One titles nestled in its shelves. A large, laminated sign boldly proclaimed: Xbox Games, 4 for $5. Among the many spoils were Ryse: Son of Rome, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, several older Call of Duty and sports titles, and in the very corner, in a poorly treated box, a copy of Gearbox’s once-upon-a-time next big hit, Battleborn. My eyes were drawn to the box-art, and I was blissfully unaware the game had ever gone free to play, so I picked it up and decided to buy it. For a sum total of $1.25, I was now one of the millions of owners of Battleborn, and then… I promptly forgot I even picked the game up.
In November of that year, it was announced that Battleborn would be taken offline in January of 2021. I truly intended to jump into the game, but if memory serves correct I was pre-occupied with Control and thus back into the backlog it fell. Eventually, I re-organized the games, and removed the disc from its sticky, poorly maintained case (remember, it was a used game) and placed it in a binder, where it sat mostly forgotten. However, a post on the ResetEra forums made it clear midway through this month, I had little time left to experience Battleborn. So, finally relenting, I placed the disc into my Xbox Series X and decided to play through the campaign once and for all and see what Battleborn had to offer before it was too late.
Now, this is probably the part where you’d expect me to say it was this underrated gem; woefully misunderstood by the general public that would have been a massive hit had it not released against the 1-2 punch of Overwatch and Paladins. Well, I won’t. Make no mistake, Battleborn has a ton of flaws. The character balance on single-player is messy, with some characters woefully inept in PvE situations, the always-online requirement is not only a needless decision that killed this game’s chance at a future, but also one that hinders its playability (I had to start a few missions from the beginning due to a lost connection), and the level design is a definite mixed bag lacking in enemy variety. However, there were some truly solid aspects to the game as well, including some decent gunplay, some truly witty dialogue and an excellent musical score. And yet, it is many of these same elements that are now lost to time, gone forever.
For those unaware, every aspect of Battleborn, including its single-player campaign and simulated multiplayer experiences with AI, are locked behind servers. When the servers were pulled on January 31st at 12pm EST, that was it. You could no longer access any part of the game. Even the credits, filled with the names of the people who poured their hearts into the game and gave loving dedications to their friends and family, were gone to time. In fact, if it wasn’t for the title screen, it was almost as if the game never existed at all, and that for me is the crux of my issue with how 2K and Gearbox handled this game.
Battleborn was not the game I wanted it to be, it was not the game my friend and co-worker Gareth wanted it to be in his review, hell, it probably wasn’t the game a number of you reading wanted it to be. But what it undeniably was was a game that a team of hundreds of people poured their hearts and souls into; a game that amassed an ultimately small but nevertheless loyal audience that put in – in some cases – upwards of thousands of hours, learning its mechanics and the ins and outs of every single hero; a game that with a patch could have been played offline in at least some capacity. Yet, after the servers went offline, barring a leak of the source code and a fan server initiative, it is likely that no aspect of this game will ever be playable again, and no matter how you slice it, that is a total letdown.
To put it another way, Battleborn fizzled out after less than five years because it struggled to capture the audience. There are several games that have delighted players this generation that 10, 15, 20 years down the line may no longer be playable. There are some that will die off earlier (Ninja Theory recently announced that they have pulled support for Bleeding Edge – a game I adore – but at least in the interim servers will remain online). These can range from small indie titles to games with a massive audience, budget and scope that simply saw their player bases die off as time went by. This is why I think it is important that consumers advocate for game preservation and companies listen to their fans. I understand not keeping the servers open – it can be an incredibly costly task for what amounts to a small player base – but allowing for fan servers and offline play can increase the lifetime of these games perpetually.
Think of it like this: especially as we move towards an all-digital future, there is no guarantee what will happen to the games we love. Heck, even current discs work less as a guaranteed store of data and more as a license that can be revoked at any time. So, what we need to do moving forward is two-fold. The first is straightforward: if you have a voice, use it. If a game you love is set to be sent to the great digital graveyard in the cloud, speak up, contact management at the studios and publishers, be respectful, but see if you can make a change to ensure these games live on for years to come. The second, more simply, is to enjoy the time you have. If a game you enjoy playing isn’t having the most success in terms of the player base, that may be all the more reason to play it. Savour these moments while you still can.
As for Battleborn, I can say I finally played the game, and regardless of my feelings on it, I only have one thing to say: thank you Gearbox. Thank you Randy Varnell, thank you Aaron Linde, thank you John Mulkey, thanks to everyone on the team. I know you put a lot of time, trouble and effort into this game that seemingly overnight just ended; I know that must hurt. Take solace in the fact that there are several fans that will never forget your work. As for everyone else, I implore you to watch the credits to Battleborn, as they are no longer accessible in game. Regardless of whether you loved the game, hated it or just found it okay, it was a project that involved the contributions of many people, and their work shouldn’t be forgotten.