Real Feelings, Real Successes: Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands Senior Producer Kayla Belmore on the New Borderlands SpinoffGames Features borderlands
Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands has a surprisingly rich legacy, and quite a bit is riding on its success. Gearbox’s Borderlands series is a modern classic-a silly, bombastic, M-rated combination of the FPS and RPG genres known as “looter shooters,” a subgenre which has proliferated across the gaming landscape with the rise of the games-as-a-service model. Yet Borderlands remains distinct and seminal. The games are not afraid to be obnoxious but they’ve seldom courted controversy in the way certain other games have. Still, they’ve evolved over time, ever more vibrant in their deployment of color in a barren wasteland, with cell-shaded graphics depicting a post-apocalyptic outer space. 12 years since the original game was released, there have been three sequels, a spin-off, and a bunch of heralded DLC. Two years after the last main release, a film is in the works and another spin-off, following-up on a fan-favorite DLC, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, is on its way.
Releasing March 25, 2022, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands takes place within the mystical world of “Bunkers & Badasses,” a tabletop RPG inspired by such real-life fare as Dungeons & Dragons, set in the timeline sometime shortly after the Borderlands 2 DLC Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep. In the game, the familiar Borderlands character Tiny Tina will play the role of the dungeon master, dictating the world the players will inhabit as she channels an outlet from the hazards of the planet Pandora. Unlike in past Borderlands games, players won’t be picking one of four Vault Hunters. Instead, they’ll create a character and be able to mix and match skills and traits for the first time. The character creator also exemplifies Gearbox’s attempts to prioritize representation; body type, voice, personality, and makeup will all be decoupled so players can mix and match, interpreting their characters however they would like.
Helping helm the project is senior project producer Kayla Belmore, a one-time GameStop employee and now a veteran of Irrational Games, FireForge, and Gearbox who likes to think of herself as “an air traffic controller.” Between keeping everyone on budget, advocating for communication between inward-facing development and outward-facing marketing, and occasionally weighing in on creative decisions, she’s managing a lot of planes in the air. She’s also a standout in a male-dominated industry still working to integrate itself, someone that transitioned from the administrative positions typically seen as more “female-accepting” to helping run a development cycle. She had a long path here, but has been guided by values instilled in her by her mother.
“All we had was each other and work ethic… she sacrificed a whole lot to make sure that my life was just a little better than hers,” Kayla Belmore said in an interview with Paste. “One thing she instilled in me, and it’s one of the most important lessons and really what changed my life and got me into this career, was to be the best you can be at any job that you’re at because you never know who you’re going to meet.”
The culture of videogaming seems to be in a perpetual stage of desperate soul-searching when it comes to the place and treatment of women in games, be it playing, streaming, developing, producing, or promoting. From walkouts and lawsuits responding to alleged abuse, discrimination, and harassment at major developers, to streamers and journalists having to call-out the abusive behavior of their own viewers, there’s a lot to be dealt with. Belmore realizes that at least 41% of people that play videogames are women, and she’s pushing for them to be able to see themselves in their entertainment, by being the voice in the room bringing up ideas and perspectives that men dominating these spaces wouldn’t otherwise think about, enriching the artistic experience for an open-minded art team willing to hear her ideas. She comes from a life of struggle, hard work and sacrifice, from having to leave school to work and help pay rent so her younger sister could stay in school, to dealing with 10:1 male-to-female ratios in an engineering school environment.
Kayla Belmore’s position as the senior product producer for a major AAA title is no doubt due to her own hard work, inspired by a mother that always leveled with her that determination and belief would be key to any success she or her sister would have. Fortune is when hard work meets opportunity, and Belmore’s opportunity—like most people’s—came through connections, though hers were perhaps unorthodox. Kayla Belmore is a Senior Producer for Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands at least in part because another woman was willing to hold the door open and extend the ladder to her. Among her influences and inspirations, Belmore credits Sarah Rosa, currently an executive producer at ProbablyMonsters, who worked with Belmore at GameStop in the mid-2000s, and helped her get her foot in the door at Irrational Games (where Belmore helped work on BioShock Infinite DLC) and later Gearbox Software (where she was an Associate Art Producer for Battleborn DLC before helping produce, and recording audio for, Borderlands 3).
Belmore was also able to bring a unique eye to Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands from her own personal experience. She’s a cosplayer that got the marketing team to work on cosplay guides in Borderlands 3 (and they came to her for more for this game), a former aspiring mechanical engineer that wanted to “change the world” and now wants to entertain it, the sort of person that advocates for team shirts for the developers to come in masculine and feminine cuts, and to encourage eager artists to add makeup and a variety of hairstyles alongside battle scars and tattoos in the new character creator for Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands.
She’s also aware of how times have changed since Tiny Tina was first introduced, and how the character today needs to have grown. Tiny Tina will be the same character fans know and love, but updated, and hopefully with less of a cringeworthy reliance on appropriating AAVE. As Belmore put it, “every game [Gearbox] make[s] is a new opportunity to evolve characters, and we’re making them in the time that we’re in now.
“We want to make sure that when Tina is representing us in the game, she’s representing in the best way possible, so given all of the things we’ve learned along the way and the fact that we continue to grow and evolve as a studio, we’ve definitely changed some things up a bit and worked extensively with our lead writer and [voice actor Ashly Burch] to keep everything that’s amazing about Tina’s spirit but maybe bring it up another decade.”
Part of Tiny Tina representing the team, the company, and the Borderlands franchise in the best way possible is as the orchestrater of the mystical interactive narrative inspired by tabletop RPGs, invoking the feeling of playing with friends even when you’re playing alone. A time-honored Borderlands tradition that Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands will continue is couch co-op, seemingly a dying feature in the online-forward world of shooting games. And online co-op is available, too, as is just playing through the campaign on your own. While player characters are traveling through the overworld with “chibi bobblehead versions” of custom characters and triggering random encounters in tall grass, or shooting, casting spells, and using new melee weapons in the first-person gameplay, Belmore said the team wanted players to always feel like they’re playing at a table with a couple of friends.
The team putting this all together for Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands at Gearbox, led by director Matt Cox, has been resilient working on a game during the supply chain shortages, global unrest, and mass social loss and angst of COVID-19.
“It’s been a very interesting development cycle,” said Belmore when asked about keeping morale high and avoiding crunch. “Because not only is it just intense at the end but we developed the bulk of this game during the pandemic, during multiple lockdowns. So, the production philosophy that I’ve carried with me is that people are people first.”
Citing “scientific evidence backed by peer-reviewed studies,” Belmore emphasized that “you get the best creative energy out of people, the best intricate coding, when everything else in their hierarchy of needs is met.” In her position, that means encouraging therapy, something Cox has also been transparent about, as well as advocating for her team when it comes to addressing work slowing down during snowstorms taking out the power in Texas (Gearbox is located in Frisco) or taking time off to be with family or otherwise address their mental health. She attributed the accomplishments of the team on the game—the first Borderlands standalone game set in a fantasy universe, the first where spells and melee attacks can be the basis for your player’s attacks and the overall gameplay loop—to knowing that “they had a safety net and [the] space to be a person;” to knowing that they worked in a place that tries to preserve a reasonable work-life balance, and a place where producers and middle management and executives “had their backs.”
From that very same current team, Belmore was able to spotlight two up-and-coming women to look out for in the development space: Lorien Meggersee, a Managing Producer at Gearbox Entertainment who Belmore said “just got upgraded to the lead of the entire production pipeline” for Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, a role Meggersee helped pioneer and develop; and Katelyn Pitstick, the World Building Lead on Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands—combining art, mission design, level design, and narrative to make sure level building is going smoothly. Belmore says it’s “thrilling” that there are three women in leadership roles on this game, acknowledging that the gap in employment numbers among higher-level positions reflects that women aren’t being given enough reason to stay in the gaming industry. Hopefully this group’s success serves as an example to other companies.
With this Borderlands spin-off following in the stead of the Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep DLC, one can’t help but wonder if success could lead to more Bunkers & Badasses campaigns with Tina. But, for now, Kayla Belmore, Matt Cox, Lorien Meggersee, Katelyn Pitstick, and all the other leads, developers, producers, and marketers are “just laser-focused on getting this game out the door.”
“We’re so excited for the world to be able to see it, to be able to experience all of this hard work that the team is putting in,” said Belmore. “This story is its own standalone adventure and a lot of the big feelings the team was having throughout development, those themes of isolation and wanting to be with people, wanting to fix things, wanting to change the world and control, some of that’s going to come out in the writing so I really hope the fans enjoy the emotional impact as much as they enjoy the gameplay and jokes.”
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter