Behind Borderlands' 11th-hour style change

GDC 2010: Gearbox's Mikey Neumann and Brian Martel explain the studio's risky decision to scrap its popular shooter's art style three-quarters of the way through development--and how it paid off.

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Don't try this at home, kids!
Don't try this at home, kids!

Who Was There: Gearbox software cofounder and chief creative officer Brian Martel, VP of product development Aaron Thibault, and creative director Mikey Neumann.

What They Talked About: When it was first shown to the public in 2007, Borderlands had the same sort of dark, realistically grim graphics as many sci-fi shooters. Then, after a brief demo at 2K Games' E3 2008 press conference, the game disappeared from public view, leading to some concerns that it might not see the light of day.

However, in early 2009, Borderlands resurfaced with a radical new look that its developer, Gearbox Software, called "concept art style." The change was a big gamble, given the fact that it called for scrapping months of expensive work and betting on an art style close to cel-shading--a type of visual not often seen in the first-person shooter genre.

 Borderlands was originally going for a retro feel, which ended up being too close to that of Fallout 3.
Borderlands was originally going for a retro feel, which ended up being too close to that of Fallout 3.

The gamble paid off big-time, with Borderlands being called a "3 million-unit game" by Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford at last month's DICE Summit. Pitchford was to be the main speaker at Gearbox's GDC 2010 session titled "Borderlands & The 11th Hour Art Style Change (Don't Try This at Home)" along with fellow cofounder and chief creative officer Brian Martel.

While Martel was on hand, Pitchford had to drop out at the last minute. "He's off doing some cool business on something cool," said pinch hitter Mikey Neumann, Gearbox's creative director. Also on hand was Gearbox's VP of product development, Aaron Thibault. Over the course of the next hour, the trio outlined the origins and development of Borderlands--and what convinced them to give the game such a drastic overhaul when it was already three-quarters complete.

Work on Borderlands began in April 2005 with a simple concept: "Halo meets Diablo." Gearbox had finished the PC port of Halo: Combat Evolved three years prior and wanted to combine that sort of intense first-person action with "a game that had loot coming out of every orifice," as Neumann put it.

The style sheet for Borderland's original art concept.
The style sheet for Borderland's original art concept.

After a "religious debate" over whether the game would be, at its core, a role-playing game or a first-person shooter (first-person shooter won), conceptual work began. A small design and art team assembled several "style sheets," which featured conceptual terms transposed with examples of those concepts in other media. Several styles were considered, including a high sci-fi style akin to Mass Effect (which Gearbox hadn't seen yet), a macho style along the lines of Gears of War (which Gearbox also hadn't seen yet), and a Ghost in the Shell-esque, anime-style game (which Neumann urged someone to make so he can play it).

In the end, Gearbox decided to go with a style sheet (pictured) that bore the concept words "Serious," "Gritty," "Fantastic," "Retro," "Realistic," and "Mechanical." Work ramped up in October 2005, with the team increasing in size to fashion a prototype. Once that was green-lit a year later, development began in earnest in order to fashion a demo for the 2007 Games Convention in Leipzig, Germany. Then work really got under way, with demos at E3 2008 and Leipzig 2008 and a pre-alpha build.

However, by October 2008, Gearbox knew it had a problem. Internal reviews by the "Gearbox Truth Team"--a group of testers with psychology backgrounds--concluded that people found that the game's art style was too similar to that of the then freshly minted hit Fallout 3. The game was also drawing comparisons to another postapocalyptic game from id Software. "We didn't want to be considered a poor man's Rage," said Martel.

The psycho and his
The psycho and his "extreme pizza cutter of death" made it out of Borderlands' "Brown Period" relatively intact.

Another problem was the growing incongruity between the gritty, realistic visuals, which the trio called the game's "Brown Period," and the increasingly over-the-top gameplay. "The jump height was the real trigger," said Neumann, referring to how the game's vehicles--called runners--could catch massive air off of ramps, Dukes of Hazzard-style. Other exaggerated elements included exploding enemies, extreme bosses, and "crazy vagina monsters"--a reference to one hulking creature with a massive sideways maw. There were also issues with the game's skill tree, which had grown overstuffed with workmanlike powers and abilities that didn't capture the "fantastical" aspect needed for a solid RPG.

The hunter Mordechai was a lot brawnier, even after the art shift.
The hunter Mordechai was a lot brawnier, even after the art shift.

However, by that point, Gearbox had painted itself into a corner. To find a solution, they had to look at three factors: time, money, and quality. The game was 75 percent finished, and the suburban Dallas studio didn't have the deep pockets to start from scratch. Since there was a very specific release window they wanted to hit, the developers knew they didn't have any time. So that left quality, which they felt could be improved "with the right approach."

To find that approach, Martel started reviewing the concept drawings for Borderlands…and then realized the answer was staring him in the face. If his team could give the game the same sort of ink-lined, quasi-comic-book look as the concept art, they would have the fabled "Purple Cow," a business concept propagated by author Seth Godin.

The original character concepts were much more realistic…
The original character concepts were much more realistic…

"The idea is that you're driving through the French countryside, seeing these idyllic dairy farms in the sun," said Martel. "It's all astonishingly beautiful for the first dozen or so miles, but then all the cows kind of blend together. However, Godin says if you saw a purple cow, all of a sudden you'd say, 'Wow, that was cool!'"

So with the concept of standing out in the crowd in mind, Martel "went and hid in a closet" to make a secret prototype with the new art style. "It was so late in the process, we knew we'd have to show something," he said. He and the other Gearbox executives also wanted to prevent a "producer riot" among the employees who had worked on the game for going on three years.

When the prototype was revealed, almost everyone was enthusiastic for the project, including the 2K Games team, which backed the switch wholeheartedly. However, the original art director grew so disenchanted that all her prior work was being discarded that she eventually quit the project, left Gearbox, and got out of the game industry altogether.

…especially compared to the final characters.
…especially compared to the final characters.

With 2K on board, Martel said that Gearbox had a collective "Oh s***!" moment when they realized they now had to finish overhauling Borderlands in a very short amount of time. However, the enthusiasm for the new direction was so great internally that people working on other projects were clamoring to help out on Borderlands during their spare time. Martel said he also teamed together a comic book artist with Gearbox's lead character designer, resulting in the game's stylized but not overly cartoonish character models.

Borderlands' game design got a serious rework as well, with most of the "boring" abilities being scrapped. Neumann went to Jeremy Cook, one of his top gameplay designers, and asked for abilities that had the same fantastical element as magic in fantasy RPGs. The result? "Healing bullets!" shouted an obviously delighted Neumann, referring to the medic ability that lets players heal each other via gunshots.

The runner vehicles also looked much the same in both art styles.
The runner vehicles also looked much the same in both art styles.

Gearbox also saved time and money by importing technology from other Gearbox projects, such as Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway. They also used shortcuts to produce the results they wanted, such as creating a fiction about a stationary moon to create a single, fixed light source in the sky that yielded dramatic shadows.

Finally, Borderlands' graphical overhaul was sped up by keeping elements from the original design that worked. For instance the psycho enemy featured on the game's box art is nearly identical to that in the original art design. The open-turreted runners also remained largely identical, albeit under the new concept-art skin. There were also happy accidents along the way: The game's iconic claptrap robot started out as a random sketch created as a result of a low-level assignment made by the JIRA project-management software system.

The original claptrap sketch.
The original claptrap sketch.

In conclusion, the trio agreed that the key was to let Gearbox team members come up with solutions independently. "If we trust somebody and let them go off and do their thing, that's where the best stuff comes from," said Martel. "It's rare you get to the end of a project and people want to keep working on it, and that was the case here."

Quote: "I just stood in the back of the room, yelling, 'Zombie! Zombie! Zombie!''' --Neumann, on how he successfully lobbied for the first Borderlands DLC, The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned.

Takeaway: Neumann said it best when he paraphrased a comment by the absent Pitchford: "It's not management's job to say, 'No, don't take a risk.' It's management's job to make sure their team members are OK if it fails."

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