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.

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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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Avatar image for JusticeCovert

9 years and 1 month later, I got around to reading this. Good stuff Tor!

Avatar image for faizan_faizan


Avatar image for Dedchicken

sort of intense first-person action with "a game that had loot coming out of every orifice," Very, very, accurate.

Avatar image for namingmyself

To Trike22 4 DLCs will keep us all happily glued to Borderlands until No. 2 comes out.

Avatar image for 100proofsoco

Just bought this game last week and If anyone out there is on the fence about buying...Do It! I knew I should have bought this when it first came out...

Avatar image for AloeVera4

I don't know about any of you....but that first video...with their original hands-down WAY superior to what they came out with!!!

Avatar image for Tidal_Abyss

Granted most people play the mp, but even all the reviewers agree the sp is flat. It was clearly geared toward a mp experience.

Avatar image for Trike22

i would REALLY want a Borderlands 2. and soon!

Avatar image for Larzarus1

Best game I've played in atleast a year, hope they have a sequel or loads more DLC. More please Gearbox!

Avatar image for desert_eagle_8

i rented yesterday, played for awhile, and am now going to buy it. the graphic style and literally millions of guns is great, not even mentioning all the dlc!

Avatar image for jrrlaw

In my opinion, Borderlands is one of the best games ever made. Great split screen action and intense graphics. The General Knoxx DLC delivered what the original game lacked, a better story ending and lots of guns. Gearbox's Borderlands is a must play game.

Avatar image for megatrunks

Borderlands looking nice may I have to play it.

Avatar image for spongebob53186

i was not a huge fan of it but borderlands can pull it off cause it is essentially a parody of FPS and RPG games. had this been a serious/realistic game then the cell shading would have would have looked out of place. imagine playing a WW2 shooter with cell shading.......that would just be weird. :) i dont think the art style had much to do with the success of the game. the game itself was incredible to play no matter the art style chosen. proof is in the fact that i played it and all the DLCs despite not particularly liking the was still a blast to play.

Avatar image for Imsterminate

I'm so glad they changed the Art style. It's basicaly what made me buy the game!

Avatar image for chechak7

ya it's engine need to be more realistic ...that will make it be famous like LEFT 4 dead co-ob gameplay

Avatar image for PwNiShEr1216

@dean0586 lmao

Avatar image for ZakMcKracken

Surely one of the best games I have ever played. Immense fun!

Avatar image for johnnykev

It was a great choice of art design, but now looking back at some of the gritty, realistic look it could have been, I'm interested in that.

Avatar image for McDog3

The change was for the best, I loved the art direction that Borderlands took in the end....

Avatar image for dean0586

i like how the last three comments started with "i like the cell-shading"

Avatar image for Schym

i like the cel-shading, gives it a unique feel, and i think helps with the "we're not taking ourselves too seriously" feel of the game

Avatar image for clap-trap0095

i like the cell shading. it makes it stand out to over shooters which i like. its also one of the fewest games to pull it off aswell i think. its my favourite game and i heard there is more DLC coming :)

Avatar image for CyberPenguin88

I like the cell-shading, gives it a unique look and feel when playing. Hope there is more DLC on the way!

Avatar image for payne6705

wait they changed the art style because they thought it looked too much like fallout? omfg give these people a medal!!! in times where imitation is a form of flattery its very rare to hear things like this. Instead we have both 360 and PS3 stealing the motion control idea from Nintendo, Medal of honor is now "modern" like its competitor MW metro 2033 and fallout 3 etc etc. I enjoyed borderlands and now respect the devs a bit more.

Avatar image for jimmyccckotb

If you can put your characters from the first game into the next, I'm set for a sequel

Avatar image for Chickan_117

@podgod333 - I guess it's just a matter of opinion eh? :) I loved XII and thought it used the graphics quite well. I see your point about it not portraying the comic "feel" in gameplay but I guess I didn't really expect that. Was happy with it being a bog standard FPS with nice comic style bits for headshots, ledge knockoffs and the like.

Avatar image for podgod333

@Chickan_117 - cel shading looks amazing but XIII didnt really manage to pull comic style art and the comic style of action that it implies with the gameplay of a shooter.

Avatar image for TrueIori

I like how they where worry they where going to be compare to a game that not even out yet (Rage) -_-

Avatar image for VengefulCanuck

I, personally, really like Borderland's current graphics. It really adds to the style of the game that I think makes it so much fun.

Avatar image for Un4givingAsault

If the game stuck to the original theme I might have not traded it in after 6 hours of play

Avatar image for ZeerusX

I'd be playing Borderlands right now...if they hadn't of changed the graphics. It was going to be co-op Fallout 3 for the most part, and they turned it into an almost slap-stick version if itself. Yeah, 3 mil. people bought it. Imagine if they would have kept the gameplay intact and kept the original, more mature graphics. I bet they would have sold double that.

Avatar image for TechnologoDoom

after looking at the original graphics, i think they look way too much halo-esque - they look pretty but don't have the impact that, say Mass Effect 2 did or Fallout 3 for that matter. So i guess the change was good.

Avatar image for maverick_76

I don't know why the former art director would be so mad. I mean they had to scrap it because the game was looking identical to Fallout 3. I would not have been put off in the least.

Avatar image for Sky_Stifler

I wish borderlands looked like in first trailer, I prefer realistic graphics over cartoons...

Avatar image for abbnormmal

"Former art director later jumped off cliff"

Avatar image for raith616

3rd person cam option would be nice for this

Avatar image for drago9876

Hoping that the sequel will contain a bit more customization on the character, and hopefully on guns as well.

Avatar image for buzzguy

Great game, with a great artstyle! Looking forward to the sequel!

Avatar image for Trogeton

already ready for a borderlands sequel

Avatar image for im-a-roustabout

"However, the original art director grew so disenchanted that all her prior work was being discarded, she eventually quit the project, left Gearbox, and got out of the game industry altogether." Dang! That poor lady! And from the looks at most the comments below me, people actually preferred her art more!

Avatar image for AStriegel75

I feel what a lot of people are saying about the original graphics but they just don't say "Just have fun with it." The released art style says to me "Don't take me too seriously, just have fun playing" then I pick up the game and I have serious fun with it because it is a serious shooter (with all of the humor obviously but the shooting isn't over the top fake with silly things it's fun). The fun aspect gives people who don't like games like Fallout (I don't and like some people played borderlands for 2 hours I played Fallout for 2 hours and quit) it was just casual enough for me to not take it seriously and just hardcore enough to keep me interested. Underdome Riot DLC was a waste of 10 dollars but the other 2 have been worth the money sort of. I liked Zombie Island more than Secret Armory.

Avatar image for hotbodyboy_2006

Art style or not, this game was Boring and repetitive......

Avatar image for Entropy2k

I have to admit, when I first heard of the game I thought "Fallout 3 clone". If they would've stayed with the ultra-realistic style I may have ignored the game. Instead the different look roped me in, and now it's the only FPS I'm any good at lol. It just goes to show you that a random stroke of genius can be all the difference between making an also-ran title like Borderlands could've been and making chocolate-flavored crack like Borderlands is.

Avatar image for jadefury27

the art change was the best move they could've made. it fits with the comedic dialogue perfectly. i would have called it a fallout 3 clone too upon site as well. love this game and its dlc(minus mad moxxi) and cant wait to see whats next.

Avatar image for Megamanx266

Considering how well the game did and now knowing what they did to get there, Gearbox needs to give themselves a major pat on the back if they haven't already! GO GEARBOX GO!

Avatar image for Sins-of-Mosin

Best new IP and co-op of 2009. I hope for the 2nd game, they expand on the amount of gear like helmets, armor, boots, ect ect. Just give us more!

Avatar image for dspidermanboy

i know you thirsty

Avatar image for dspidermanboy

Open wide, I know thirsty SAY AHH

Avatar image for Fumanchu2

Borderlands is a top 10 game from this gen and they had to rush and take shortcuts to finish it. I have high hopes for the next game.

Avatar image for slainta

The first trailer looked much better than the launch one. I like cell shaded graphics, but for a couple of hours, then I get bored of it. I even have a feeling that it makes the eyes tired.