Behind the scenes: Borderlands 2
Gearbox Software’s Borderlands used a bold concept art-inspired graphic style. Now Mark Ramshaw takes a look at the game’s sequel, which boasts richer visuals, more variety… and more guns
One inevitable consequence of the games industry’s starry-eyed push to emulate the Hollywood business model is polarisation. Indie developers scurry at one end, releasing their wares for ‘casual gamer’ platforms or else struggling for a foothold in the PC and console markets. At the other lie the tentpole releases: software assembled using huge teams and massive budgets, and launched – like blockbuster movies – with mammoth marketing spends. In the push for a high Metacritic score and multimillion sales, creativity, originality and good old-fashioned risk-taking are increasingly rare.
The success in 2009 of Borderlands was therefore cause for celebration. While not exactly a game shipped out under the radar – published as it was by 2K, one of the few heavy-hitters with a history of pushing original content – it was a game boasting a singular visual style and a risky genre blend. Best of all, its sales of around 4.5 million were arguably driven as much by word of mouth as by review scores and ad men. Now comes the inevitable follow-up, and the big question (as with any sequel) is whether lightning will strike twice. Can Gearbox Software break new ground a second time while still essentially giving fans more of what made them so passionate about the first one?
Seeing the potential
Over at developer Gearbox Software, art director Jeramy Cooke admits the runaway success of the first game came as something of a shock. “It wasn’t immediately apparent on the surface, though I guess we did have an inkling that we were on to something,” he recalls. “There was an interesting turning point around alpha, when it was finally possible to play a bunch of missions back to back. The whole company ended up playing it throughout the day, and even with all the problems present at that stage, everyone immediately saw the potential. It was a real ‘a-ha!’ moment.”
Cooke also admits that knowing what they wanted to achieve with Borderlands – to take the best parts of a Halo-type experience and enmesh that with the best looting aspects of role-playing games – and actually pulling it off were two very different things.
“The studio has always been shooter-oriented, and having played a lot of overbearing role-playing games we knew we wanted something closer to the Diablo experience. That game was all about being in the moment, and just mashing right through. But ultimately it took a lot of balancing between the two sides. There was a lot of stuff lost or changed along the way. The whole development was one long process of iteration.”
By contrast, that attention-grabbing visual style, one that owes more to concept art design than the usual cel-shaded cartoon style, was never even planned. Until midway through the development cycle (and seen in early previews), Borderlands rendered its post-apocalyptic action in a gritty, semi-realistic style.
“There was a sense among our art community that the graphics were good, but nobody was truly inspired by them,” says Cooke. “At the same time the guys over at iD were showing off their first-person shooter Rage, and we began to get a little worried about our game looking a bit too similar. And obviously they had some pretty incredible graphics! We thought, okay, there have been a lot of post-apocalyptic games, so just how do we stand out? Once everyone saw the prototype road-testing this new art style, it was like somebody had lit a match. It was really a done deal.”
“There’s a sense of cohesiveness and connectivity to the game world now, with the boundaries between the different types of areas blended, and geography that gives players a sense of where they are at any point,” says Jeramy Cooke
Refining the approach
Having effectively invented the ‘looter shooter’ sub-genre with the first game, Borderlands 2 understandably finds Gearbox building on the frenzied ‘quick feedback loop’ format rather than rewriting the rulebook. Fans of the original will doubtless feel instantly at home. Nevertheless, much time has been spent improving, expanding and refining game mechanics. These include better mapping, even more procedurally generated weaponry (“gazillions”, according to the Gearbox blurb), improved enemy AI and pathfinding, and a completely new UI for the PC version.
With a range of new character types available to the player, there has also been a conscious effort to connect these more directly with the game world. There’s less grinding, more inventive use of the play space, and quests have more meaning within the main story arc. Gearbox admits that the original Borderlands was quite experimental, and that much was learned – in terms of what worked, what didn’t and what needed improvement – from gamers spending an inordinate amount of time playing through it. (There will certainly be no repeat of the infamous bait-and-switch ending that capped off the first game.)
Much has changed under the hood, too, not least with an upgrade to the latest version of the Unreal 3 engine. This has facilitated the introduction of a new shadowing system (complete with self-shadowing), real-time radiosity, high dynamic range lighting and a full day/night cycle. Cooke says there’s also far more visual nuance this time around.
“A huge amount of effort went into the pixel shaders and other underlying graphic tech. Last time we were forced to keep things a bit generic. We just didn’t have the ability to put in as much detail as we wanted. This time around, I wanted enough detail that players would be able to pick up individual weapons and immediately recognise which of the several in-game manufacturers it comes from, for example.” Cooke says that, after rooting the first game in desertscapes, greater environment variety was also a key priority. “We’d originally planned for more variation in Borderlands, but after revamping the art style midway we just didn’t have the time,” he explains. “This time I was determined that we jazz things up. Of course, that meant generating three-to-five times the number of art assets…”
While the game engine has been upgraded and the visuals given greater clarity and a touch more realism, Borderlands 2 wisely sticks with the ‘concept art’ style formula. Cooke believes that the graphical style resonates with players, and avoids the pitfalls of many other cel-shaded games. “I think when other studios have attempted to go full bore into ‘drawing land’ they’ve ended up with something that can be off-putting and inaccessible to the general public,” he reasons.
Using the Unreal 3 engine facilitated the introduction of a new shadowing system, complete with self-shadowing
“They get hell-bent on making it look exactly like an illustration, whereas we realised that if it gets too much like a drawing then it just becomes overly fake. I think with the best concept art, you don’t even feel like it’s a drawing – you pick up more on the sense of colour and lighting. So we sort of split the difference, to create something that players would feel comfortable with. There’s an artistic maturity here, so they don’t immediately associate it with anime or cartoons.”
Choosing the tools
Cooke says the decision to utilise a customised version of the Unreal Engine 3 middleware solution was a natural one for Gearbox: “Pretty much all of our engines have been hybrids. We’ve worked with Epic since Brothers in Arms and they’ve been great at providing us with a really amazing base platform that allows for some very rapid prototyping. First with UE2 and now UE3, our code team has been able to go in and heavily modify them on both the game code and render sides to give us what we need.”
For a studio like Gearbox, Cooke says this mix-and-match technique makes more sense than building something from scratch in-house. “Making a game engine is no small task. I think our approach gives us a nice balance, while keeping us efficient and avoiding the need to reinvest our time in engine development.”
While the game engine has been upgraded, Borderlands 2 sticks with the ‘concept art’ style
Cooke notes that using Unreal Engine 3 also considerably simplifies the cross-platform development. “Even our assets are totally consistent across all three platforms [Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC], with the code team tweaking each to ensure the best performance on each.” While the PC always represents something of a moving target for game development (in contrast to the single-specification console platforms), Cooke says it’s actually been the easiest one to write for. “The specifications are generally so high now, and so far ahead of the consoles. Even a low-end PC is better, especially in terms of memory and hard drive. Instead, the big challenge with the PC has been to create a completely new user interface.”
The UE3 code base aside, Gearbox remains relatively tool-agnostic. “We use ZBrush, Mudbox, 3ds Max, Maya, Photoshop (obviously), and also a few of the guys worked with modo on this project – especially for translating the world geometry into a final mesh,” says Cooke. “It really is just about whatever gets the job done and what the artists prefer to use.”
Creating the art
While Borderlands 2’s visual style apes the look of concept art, Gearbox concept artist Kevin Duc says that he and his fellow concept artists didn’t worry unduly about generating images that would directly translate. “We just focused on making the images, using whatever approach felt right,” he says. “One of our guys would do incredible marker images, knocking out Syd Mead-style stuff really quickly. Another worked with a comic, edgy feel that was perhaps closest to the art style of the final product. And then I’d sometimes just create loose sketches or at other times would render the art. It was a very liberal approach.”
“I think that’s actually fundamental to the finished game,” Cooke chips in. “The game’s visuals have a lot of energy, which comes from all the artists on the project being left free to do what they want to do.”
Gearbox’s coordinated FX system can swap materials, spawn particles, drive material or particle parameters and trigger full-screen effects
Such a freeform approach can sometimes result in a non-cohesive art style, but Cooke says that was never a worry. “Rather than clamping down on individuality, they had the latitude to explore and see what works. We’d then review each other’s work and pick the best bits, and those elements naturally filtered through into each other’s pieces. As a result, everything naturally coalesced over the course of the project. It all ties in with our very organic approach to development.”
Cooke is proud that the company has managed to maintain a relatively relaxed approach to game design and development. “Things have changed here, and yet they haven’t. Certainly from a technology standpoint I think the studio has levelled up a lot. We’ve built an incredible art team, and we’re a much stronger studio now in terms of power and ability. And obviously when I got here it was much smaller. When there was around 20 people it was a tight-knit group, and it’s been a challenge to keep that as we’ve grown to around 200. But I think we’ve managed it.”
Vehicles feature once again in the interlude levels that connect the different areas of the game world
Despite its size, Cooke stresses that Gearbox maintains a flat hierarchy and surprisingly loose structure. “If people are excited about something then we encourage them to get stuck in – he who gets in there and does it, wins! We also work in peer groups, where teams of people can get together to make something cool or solve a problem. And even the owners of the company stay here working hard to get games out of the door. It’s that ‘get it done’ mentality, always pushing hard to make sure what goes into the box is the highest possible quality.”
“A lot of companies try to make a bunch of rules about what makes good videogames,” says Cooke. “We’re the opposite. We prefer to take a seat-of-the-pants approach, relying on gut instincts and then just working our hardest to get it done.”
This article is from issue 160 of 3D World – you may like to check out the other games-related features in the special issue…
3D World’s Games issue
Discover the secrets of Method Studio’s epic Halo 4 trailer, make real-time CG with Unreal and CryEngine, build low-poly buildings, game levels and more.
Find Photoshop tips and the best 3D movies over at our sister site, Creative Bloq.
on Tuesday, September 18th, 2012 at 4:10 pm under Features, Games, Showcase.
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Tags: 3ds Max, Games, Maya, modo, Mudbox, Photoshop, Unreal Engine, ZBrush