A Fine Line
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 11 (Nov. 2009)

A Fine Line

Gearbox creates a hybrid first-person shooter/role-playing game with a
concept-art style.

The just-released Borderlands computer game is not your average first-person shooter (FPS), nor is it the typical role-playing game (RPG). It is a bit of both: a role-playing shooter, if you will. The title also diverges from the often-used, near-realistic aesthetic found in both genres, and instead features a concept-art style that looks like a hand-drawn comic come to animated life.

After spending nearly three years developing Borderlands, Gearbox made a risky decision and changed the art style of the game.
(Click here for the video)

Yet, the game did not always feature this unique look. In fact, the team at Gearbox spent more than three-quarters of the title’s four-year development cycle (from concept to delivery) creating Borderlands’ assets in a photorealistic style. That is, until one day art director Brian Martel wanted to try something different. Randy Pitchford, executive producer and president of Gearbox, liked it. So did executives at publisher 2K Games. The development team changed directions. And, a novel game was born.

Borderlands takes place on the planet Pandora, where vault hunters from across the universe have gathered to find a mythical buried treasure. Sitting at the edge of a galaxy, Pandora is a rough, tough place where guns and outlaws (and monsters) are plentiful. Only here, mixed in with low-tech elements are advanced technologies left behind by an alien civilization, resulting in a “science fiction meets the American Old West” atmosphere.

“If you enjoy the over-the-top nature of a Halo-type game or Call of Duty—all that intense, crazy stuff—you will like this. But, it is also refreshing, with a humorous element. The game, simply put, is fun,” says Martel. “The RPG side has an addictive quality, where you want to see the next gun drop. You never know what’s around the next corner.”

A Mature-rated game, Borderlands is for adults; the action is intense and extreme. For instance, a character may leap onto a rock that is eight feet high. It was that exaggerated action which, for the most part, prompted the drastic change in the game’s aesthetic. According to Martel, having a realistic-looking character perform super­human feats without a logical explanation—say, the use of gravity boots or some other device or backstory—didn’t make much sense. Nevertheless, the group wanted to incorporate these types of excessive movements into the game while “making it almost plausible in its implausibility,” he explains.

The settings in Borderlands have an “American Wild West meets science fiction” feel; the artists created the environments in this hybrid first-person shooter/role-playing game by using a combination of mainly 3ds Max and Modo. 

“We also wanted to get away from what everyone else was doing, which is a pseudo-realistic look and feel; we wanted something that would make us stand out in some way. But more than that, we had this gameplay that was a bit over the top, and the look and feel of the game was bringing down our ability to make the game especially fun,” Martel adds. “We wanted to meet the gameplay with the art style, and for us, that meant focusing first on the gameplay, to let everything ‘zing.’ That, in turn, let the story go to new places and let the characters become more extreme. It became a huge snowball effect. Once we had that work done and the feel established, it enabled everyone—from designers, to writer, to artists—to create something that, at its core, was really fun.”

A Handcrafted Look

After months of development, Martel came to realize that the only way to fully realize the type of game that the group had envisioned from the start was to revise the aesthetic. “It was a pretty extreme decision,” says Martel, who, along with some artists and level designers, crafted a prototype, and won everyone over (see “Changing Gears,” pg. 16).

The style Gearbox shifted to is one that is “graphic novelish,” not cartoonish” (see “Game Art,” this page). During the changeover, though, the group was determined not to throw away the work that it had already done. “We had just spent a lot of time building all the assets,” says Martel. For the most part, the crux of the transformation involved retexturing all the assets the artists already had. “Then our world began evolving further, and we had to make new objects, each of which had its own look and feel,” he adds. “That led to the characters having a more extreme and cool look. Each change would beget another.”

While the revision was radical, overall, the processes to get from pseudo-photo­realistic to handcrafted were less daunting than one might think, contends Brian Cozzens, technical art director. Once the foundation for the new style was set, the implementation of the new direction occurred relatively quickly: Incorporating the necessary new technologies required approximately six weeks of development.


Gearbox’s investigation into the origins of Borderlands’ art style started with the concept art.Thegroupquestioned, says Brian Cozzens, technical art director, “What if we were to take our concept art and convert that directly into a 3D creation, with all its imperfections, exaggeration, and over-emphasis?”

Most concept art used for making assets is perfected upon creation—it is a more perfect product than what is conceptualized. “But with translating our concept art into the game verbatim, we can include ink splatter, softly traced lines, and imperfect ink strokes—elements that would never be perfectly painted and strokes that would never be perfectly connected,” explains Cozzens.

Concept art is usually meant to be drawn quickly. To communicate a high-level idea, it’s not about the perfection of the drawing itself, Cozzens points out. “But that’s what’s so attractive about concept art, it can be loose and free-thinking,” he adds. “So what happens when that becomes a three-dimensional scene of concept art that you can walk around in and explore? And you can see all the wonderful dirty and imperfect parts? It gives elements as mundane as a steel barrel, character.” –KM

“The machine didn’t stop during that time, and everyone didn’t have to pause,” he says. “It was an easy, gradual transition that made the game go from ‘cool’ to ‘holy crap, that is super awesome.’”

Martel describes the new look: “We have this outline that is introduced in the texture so there is an inked look to it that sits on top of what looks like a gouache painting—something like you might see in concept art, where a heavy line is used to outline the object you are rendering. But you also have all this detail inside that has a hand-painted aesthetic. So, it feels like a piece of concept art that has come to life. And every time you move around and inspect every little surface, you think, ‘Wow. Clearly an artist had some hand in this.’”

Pitchford draws a connection between this process and one used for a concept car. “When designers come up with a concept vehicle, it has all these curves and over-the-top style. Then you see the manufactured vehicle, and it never looks like that concept look,” he says. “Now I know why. In our case, we had these incredible concepts and artwork [in the beginning], and over-the-top attitude and style, but when we created the images, we built them faithfully and realistically.”

Pitchford was determined not to let Borderlands turn into that “boring-looking car.” “When I first saw the new look, I wasn’t thinking it through on what it would take to make it happen. I was just taken by how remarkable it looked. I was captivated.”

The game’s new art style gave the group newfound artistic freedom when crafting the assets. Some artists turned to pen and paper first, while others opted to design on Wacom tablets.  

In the beginning, the alternations proved less of a technical challenge than an artistic one. As Martel explains, the Gearbox artists, like most of their peers, had been trained to work in the same direction for many years—building accurate, high-­polygonal models that look as real as possible—and had mastered the technique. Then, suddenly, they were asked to go in a direction that, in a way, led them back to their artistic roots, where the style was very loose, based on interpretation.

“It was hard for them to get into it at first, to be free with the aesthetic,” Martel says. “They were almost too rigid in the beginning, but as they got used to the change, they became more free. Once we had established the language—the techniques of illustrating and painting on each surface—they developed a rhythm. It was probably the most fun they have had working on a game as an artist.”

Game Graphics
The team used the usual assortment of content creation software for the game’s characters and environments: Autodesk’s 3ds Max and Pixologic’s ZBrush for modeling the characters, props, and weapons; Luxology’s Modo and 3ds Max for crafting environments; and Adobe’s Photoshop for painting. “We could paint directly onto the models using Photoshop, which helped us a lot when we needed to highlight the edges in the new style or when trying to interpret detail in our style in a 3D sense,” says Cozzens.

Gearbox also used a heavily modified version of the Epic Games Unreal Engine 3 (UE3) to drive the title. Cozzens notes that the engine was brand new when the team began the project—so new that at the start, no developer had yet shipped an Xbox 360 or PS3 title using the UE3.

In addition, the crew turned to some unusual, albeit very low tech, solutions: pen and paper. To create the rocks in the game, for instance, a concept artist first drew them in ink; the images were scanned and then built in ZBrush, where the boulders were modeled in CG to look like the original sketch. “We did that for some objects here and there. It all depended on the artist. Some liked using traditional drawing tools for the base, others liked using the Wacom tablet,” says Cozzens. “One artist might work on the [Wacom] Cintiq to craft wood, and then jump to paper and add to it.”

The character animation was a combination of keyframing and motion capture, the latter done at the studio’s in-house mocap studio using Vicon cameras. The Claptrap robot character was all hand-animated.

Insofar as the new look was concerned, the biggest changes centered on the environment and character textures. The ink strokes in the diffuse textures, hand-painted by the artists, helps bring out the details and shapes of the models. For instance, a few well-placed ink strokes could help define wrinkles in a jacket or pores on a person’s face.

In addition to this base layer of ink strokes, additional hand-painted elements, color accents, and staining were added to increase the interest and overall detail to the textures. The end result would be lit with a type of realistic lighting model, which also contains normal map data. This normal map data helps provide the form and depth information on top of the inked strokes and painted elements, and helps them feel more realistically shaded.

The Gearbox group applied a mixture of motion capture and keyframing when animating the game characters. The mocap was done in-house in the Gearbox studio using a Vicon system.

In the case of the character Lilith, too much line detail adversely affected her look. The art team wanted her to be attractive, but the more detail—that is, lines—they added, the more it detracted from the smooth look they sought. “One of our major character components to the style is dirt and imperfections. We wanted her to have some blemishes, grime, and dirt to help her sit in the world better,” says Martel. “But for the most part, she was devoid of all that super-micro detail, because the more we inked her up, the less appealing she became.”

 Jen Wildes, who worked on Lilith, successfully made Lilith’s textures attractive but still fit within the aesthetic. But Brick, on the other hand, is a big bruiser type of guy, so the artists added more lines, more detail work, on him.

In addition to the ink strokes that were painted in the diffuse map, the heavier exterior lines that outline the characters and objects were procedurally generated in the UE3, wrapping around the geometry automatically in 3D. At times, though, the process of utilizing the procedurally generated outlines bogged down the frame rates, particularly in the beginning, but the team was able to settle on a solution that was fairly fast and aesthetically pleasing.

“The interior lines, along with the outside lines, gave us a unique look that I have yet to see out there,” says Martel.

In the Game

Aside from the textures, the asset creation process was the same as it would have been had the team continued along the reality simulator path. The goal remained the same: to continue creating high-quality art. The characters have a wide range of polygon counts, depending on whether it is an enemy or creature in the world (usually appearing at a distance) or a member of the squad (situated in the foreground). The main characters average 13,000 triangles; creatures, approximately 8000. “We are in the ballpark of all the current-gen shooters out there,” contends Cozzens.

The biggest reworks were made not only to the characters, but to the outdoor settings in the game, as well. For instance, originally the group used light maps on the vistas, so there was not a great deal of image detail or clarity. “Everything felt muddy and not well defined when attempting to use light maps on large vistas,” says Cozzens. “It did not read as ‘next gen.’ So that was one of the first things we decided to do: go in and change our light model to directional shadows, which have more definition and much more clarity. And it makes the scene just read better. Of course, we spent a lot of effort optimizing our shadow technology.”

As its main lighting model, the crew used directional shadows, along with some of the UE3’s built-in lighting with point lights and so forth for indoor areas. The artists also relied on other lighting solutions that are less expensive. When it came to the environmental model and characters, they used a system of lighting curves that enabled them to truncate the lighting on occasion when they felt it was aesthetically appropriate—essentially reducing the amount of precision the shading had on an asset, to enhance the style.

“We could have basically used this same lighting model if we had continued with our realistic aesthetic. It is part of the graphic novel flavor, a touch of reality mixed in with a stylized approach,”
describes Cozzens.

The lighting techniques, coupled with real-time ambient occlusion, help set the objects and characters into the environments. The silhouette outline also provided a sense of foreground and background for the imagery. “It makes things pop,” says Cozzens.

Backward Glance

As is the case with almost any current- or next-generation game, memory proved to be one of the biggest technical hurdles. “I wish I could have put another gigabyte of RAM in everyone’s machine,” says Martel with a chuckle. “But then again, memory is the biggest disappointment I have in the next-gen technology. Whenever you see the original art, it is so much better than what you can put out there on the console as the finished product. You can only render so much before you hit your limit. There was a time early on when we had everything turned on, and, my goodness, it was sexy. It was beautiful. I wish we could have maintained that the whole way through.”

The concept-art style of the game was accomplished with a dark outline around each asset, while inside, inked markings sit atop hand-painted textures.

While both Martel and Cozzens wouldn’t exactly describe the technology behind Borderlands as pushing the envelope, they do point out that a lot of effort went into creating some of the visual tricks required to execute the game’s style. “Though you might have seen some of these various components utilized in other games, it’s the magic mix of all these systems together and how creative we were with them that have given us our unique results,” says Cozzens.

Today, when a person describes a game as “stylized,” most players think of cell shading, where the palette is truncated with a limited number of colors and shades, Cozzens says. “That is not us. We have more precision in our lighting, we have a more diverse color palette, and we are somewhere between being cell-shaded and realistic. There is a realism to our aesthetic,” he adds. On one level, all the materials look hand-painted, but on another they are rendered with a realistic lighting model, and the shading, lighting, and shadows are realistic.

Without question, the look differentiates Borderlands from the many other titles now on store shelves. “Our game was not feeling like it was as unique as we had wanted it to be. We wanted to create something that felt generationally agnostic in a way,” Martel says. Because CG can age quickly, an art style like Borderland’s can hold its own for a longer period of time.

“Once we implemented the style change, it was so inspirational that it drove game design to new heights and allowed us to try new ideas. It created so much momentum for us internally that people were disappointed when we finished,” says Cozzens. “It is nice to see that art can still have such a significant impact on developers as well as players. These days, we are becoming jaded when it comes to super-realistic, high-tech visuals; everyone expects them. “But here, we were able to come up with this spectacular imagery without having to rely completely on frame-rate killing technology, and all these crazy bells and whistles.”
Indeed, the new aesthetic differentiates the game and suits the gameplay well. But there was also a desire to hark back to games from the 1990s. “Today, a lot of games are trying to be an embellishment of reality. Whereas when you look at games from the ’90s, such as Grim Fandango, you are entering this world that is very different from your own—rich, vibrant,” adds Cozzens. “You experience things you don’t expect because when you begin to have a wild tongue-in-cheek aesthetic, there are all these things you can do in that universe, and it becomes its own thing. We wanted players to remember the magic and mystique from when they first opened games like Full Throttle and saw this amazing, unique world.”

Nevertheless, change can be a daunting and scary proposition. But instead of opening a Pandora’s box, the transformation unleashed a new level of creative thinking that set the artists on an exciting path that resulted in a game that Gearbox hopes others will look back upon just as fondly a decade or so from now.

Changing Gears
It’s hard to believe that, with the high cost of game development, a studio would risk it all by doing a 180 after spending almost three years in development and completely changing the look of all its game assets. Even harder to believe is that a major publisher would go along with that decision.

Well, it happened, and no doubt both Gearbox and 2K Games will benefit greatly from that decision, as the redirected Borderlands began hitting store shelves recently.

So how did such a radical change happen? Three years into development, art director Brian Martel put a team together and did some R&D on the art style, which “is about 50 percent from what we have today due to so many people contributing to it,” he says. “The style just began to grow and evolve as we found solutions to crafting all this art. It was a huge collaboration between our artists and our outsourcing companies.”

Borderlands development began like most games. Artists generated concept art to imagine the world. As is typical, the concept art, done mainly by hand, was exaggerated because the artists wanted to bring forth certain character personalities. Then, when it came time to build the game, the team focused on making the world feel real.

“It was nice, but that is what everyone else does,” says Randy Pitchford, president of Gearbox and executive producer of the game. “After a while, all the titles start to look similar.”

In 2008, Pitchford says the group began to notice that its efforts to create a blended RPG/FPS was paying off from a game design point. “The game was fun, and it was working,” he adds. “So, we made the decision to invest more in the game—to make it bigger and fully realize the potential of what we were doing.”

Gearbox was already well into production when it changed the game aesthetic from that of a photoreal look (left) to one that is more like concept art (right).

About the same time, Martel led what Pitchford jokingly refers to as “an insurgency,” wherein Martel decided to try and make a real-time rendering of what looked like concept art. Martel asked for a few weeks to build a prototype. “I trust him. So I said, ‘OK.’ When it came time to show me the prototype, he knew I was nervous. I didn’t know what they were doing exactly, other than they were changing the art style and that we would have to redo all the art if we went with it.”

Complicating things was the fact that Gearbox had already publicly shown its earlier work. A lot was riding on such a decision—not the least of which was time and money for the developer and the publisher.

“They turned on the prototype, and it was amazing,” Pitchford says of his first glance at the new aesthetic. “I never saw a game quite like it. On one level, it was Borderlands coming through, but there was all this attitude, this personality and charm. It is a horribly ugly, violent world, and they instantly made it beautiful with their artwork.”