How Borderlands Went From Brown to Brilliant

How Borderlands Went From Brown to Brilliant

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A lot can change in four years, and nobody knows this as well as Gearbox Software, creators of Borderlands. Their game, born of the concept "Halo meets Diablo" in April of 2005, started life as "retro sci-fi" with a design direction decided on largely by committee, with almost everyone in the company allowed to weigh in. Yet in October of 2009, when the game finally saw light of day, it was wildly different having undergone an enormous 11th hour art direction reboot, sending the team into nearly a year of crazy, last-minute crunch.

The end result speaks for itself. Borderlands has been well-received by critics and consumers alike and a sequel is already in the works. But at the risk of sounding melodramatic, one has to ask "at what cost?" According to Gearbox's Brian Martel, the cost was pretty steep.

"Did [our] process work?" he says. "Well, kind of. The bad thing was it did demoralize our original Art Director."

Martel, one of the company's co-founders, stepped in as AD after the game's first AD resigned, largely as a result of the chaos caused by the committee-based conceptualization process. Martell says the team eventually settled on the retro sci-fi look with mechanical and realistic overtones but that the end result was something brown, unoriginal and uninspiring.

"We created our own prison, essentially," says Mikey Neumann, Creative Director. "As a developer, your dream project is one where you set your own rules and you do whatever the hell you want to and that's awesome, but the thing is when you start creating your own world, you start creating your own rules and bringing yourself into these little boxes."

Gearbox calls the period of time between October of 2005 and October of 2008 their "Brown Period," as a result of the overwhelming presence of the earthy tone in every aspect of the original Borderlands design which, according to Neumann, had spread beyond just the art.

"The 'Brown Effect' was actually all over the project," he says. "We needed to break our shackles and make a fucking awesome game and not worry about how real it is."

In order to do that, they'd need to make some hard, bold choices. So Martel headed up a secret design committee that created a new, secret prototype of the game "in a closet," in his words.

"The game was in trouble," he says. "I know that we need to do something with the game, but I'm not sure what."

So he took the original concepts back to the drawing board and, pairing them with the over-the-top gameplay elements, saw where the game's art direction needed to go. From there it was only a matter of getting everyone else on board.

"We were worried because if we were to suddenly go 'Hey we're going to do this!' Obviously everybody is going to freak out," he says.

Luckily, everyone, from Publisher 2K Games on down to the rest of the team, immediately saw the light, sparking a creative renaissance that carried them through the pain of the redesign and on to release and beyond. Although it worked, Gearbox doesn't recommend the process.

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The art style change was BRILLIANT.

Hell, without it, I probably wouldn't have played the game nearly as long.

I remember seeing some early gameplay vids from before the art change.

I'm glad they changed it.

wow. i love the art style, did not like the game ending.
but wow

i wonder if there ever will be a movie about a game company going through the process of making a game...

I like reading about the struggle of making games that turned out to be a success. It's really interesting, I hope you'll do more of those.

I'm glad they changed to game's style to better represent the gameplay. I remember the few things I read about the original Borderlands. It sounded like it was mostly about fighting bandits and giant insects on a distant planet. Which made me think it was just a clone of Lost Planet. I took another look at the game after seeing how much it's artistic design had changed. It was a lot more unique and appealing, which ultimately led to me trying to game out. And while it certainly is still about killing bandits and giant insects on a distant planet, it's fun to do so. But had they stuck with the original design I probably would have never bothered to try the game.

I'm guessing the story suffered as a result though. One of the things I can recall about the original game's details was that it seemed to be more story driven. Though this might not have been true for the final product regardless of whether or not they changed the design.

LTK_70:
I like reading about the struggle of making games that turned out to be a success. It's really interesting, I hope you'll do more of those.

It certainly gives us insight into just how hard it can be to make a good game. Makes a game's flaws seem more understandable.

Makes me sooo glad the game is as successful as it is. Cult game of the year maybe? I loved the art style, its what caught my eye and made me look at the game.

The art style was great, and the game was great. I cant wait for the sequel, but I just hope that they make modding guns harder.

My douchebag friends all use modded weapons now, so every time we play together it's about as difficult as hitting the broad side of a barn with a sniper and about as fun as..... Hitting the broad side of a barn with a sniper.

The artstyle was great, gameplay could've been better... Good on them for being successful, thought it was a pretty boring game after being so hyped.

I think it's still pretty brown... but maybe that's just the "brown is more real" unreal engine. Still, its definitely better then it would have been.

That's awesome. The hard work was definitely worth it, and they created a game they should all be proud of.

This article might lead people into believing Borderlands was a good game.

Mislead, rather.

I cuold see how this might damage your relationship with some of your team.

It was brilliant? I hadn't noticed.

I admit that the art design does look nice, but I really don't care about art design when all the environments seem to be open desert, slum, or military compound.

PopcornAvenger:
This article might lead people into believing Borderlands was a good game.

Mislead, rather.

Agree totally with you. Borderlands is a bug free, dumbed down Hellgate London for console players. That is why it works, not because of art direction.

Having never played the game myself, I had to go look up the differences in the "old" and "new" art styles, and I must say that it's about damn time that somebody took a few cues from the 2008 Prince of Persia art style.

Will this alone get me interested in trying Borderlands? Probably not. I already have enough shooters in my collection to make a full suit of armor, and I really don't need a plume on the helmet.

The art style of borderlands the way it was released was incredible. I actually remarked when playing it with a friend on how I was glad they didn't go with the gritty brown "realism" of most modern games.

Now I find out, they almost did.

I find that funny.

I thought the art style was the best thing about the game.

Regardless, I still can't get back into it because it's just no fun to play on your own.

The game stayed Brown. And not just in the visuals. I found it one of the most boring games visually since Crysis and Oblivion...

Eh, the art design was bearable, the rest of the game was not.
The boring repetitive game play is incredibly annoying, I mean i still plan to finish it but probably not for a while, haven't played it for a few months now.

Um, isn't this the upteenth time the Escapist has written an article on the Borderlands Development staff patting themselves on the back? I'm glad the art was nice, although I feel the rest of the game (although I enjoyed-ish it) wasn't so great.

Not a big fan of the art style change, to be honest. cel-shaded =/= instant win, especially when it stays brown in the transition.

I only played it for the modded weapons, after I beat the main game and got to 50; it was hilarious and awesome to use the Peashooter and launch people halfway across the maps and outside of the boundaries of the game. After they patched those, I sold it, because it was just boring.

This is the short film that appears to have inspired the style Borderlands ended up using:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmeP1YkaeTo&feature=player_embedded

PopcornAvenger:
This article might lead people into believing Borderlands was a good game.

Mislead, rather.

Last time I checked it wasn't. Funny how this kind of thing happens.

I'm glad they came to this decision. While it can still be a bit brown in the new game model, the cel-shading really brought it up from the pack for me, and I really loved the style. And I'm sure the desert planet setting didn't help it much, but it was just unique enough for me. One of my more played recent games.

Borderlands became brilliant? And when did it ever change from being really brown?

Don't get me wrong, it was fun, but still...

While its nice they're going to make another one... and its nice they chose the "hand drawn" look over the impossibly dull "unreal3" standard... perhaps they should stop jerking themselves off and put some effort into making a game worth playing.

While the aesthetic is nice... its completely hollow. The gameplay is utterly threadbare, the writing is non-existent, the characters are completely flat. They missed almost every chance they had to flesh out anything in the game... except the visuals.

I wouldn't recommend that process either. While the art direction of the game is really excellent, a number of elements in the game suffered from lack of polish. If they hadn't spent the 11th our implementing a new art design, then that time could have been used to:
-fine-tune the user interface;
-make co-operative leveling much more flexible (it's barely playable unless all characters are on the exact same plot mission);
-fine-tune and modernize some of the rendering techniques (my friend saw Mad Mel's arena for the first time tonight and the fire pit made him laugh out loud - it's a dome with an animated texture wrapped around it, guh);
-increased the character production value (walking through New Haven after playing Mass Effect is depressing, what with all the wax-museum people standing around);
-reduced the amount of grinding (another friend of mine hated the game because he was stuck trying to assault Bonehead and couldn't hack it. It's hard to convince someone that it's a good game when you're blaming them for not spending one more hour hunting skags.)

It speaks volumes that in spite of all those glaring flaws, Borderlands is one of my favorite games. I think Gearbox started with a great gameplay concept and graced it with a complimentary look and feel, between the two the game is a success. If they can take this formula, improve it and increase the production value of the experience, they're going to have one hell of a great sequel on their hands.

In the meantime, I'll keep looting Pandora with my friend and imagining just how mind-blowing this game would have been back when I was 12 and was still hooked on exploring the levels of Doom.

Now I want to play Borderlands and I'm going to have to make room on my hard drive and install it and everything :P

Despite all the problems they went through, and all the hardship, it does shine in the end. It was one of the best games I played last year, and, if I had to I would seriously rank it as mt Game of the year.

Had me totally hooked!

For those curious to see the changes

BEFORE

AFTER

It's interesting seeing how certain designs maintained, but were reintegrated into their new style. I'm really looking forward to a sequel, one of my few problems with Borderlands is that you only got momentary glimpses of that unique style because of it being a last minute change. A game fully realized in that will be even more fun.

It's not just the art shift that improved the game, it's the tone.

Slycne:
For those curious to see the changes

BEFORE

AFTER

It's interesting seeing how certain designs maintained, but were reintegrated into their new style. I'm really looking forward to a sequel, one of my few problems with Borderlands is that you only got momentary glimpses of that unique style because of it being a last minute change. A game fully realized in that will be even more fun.

If you look at the first video, it makes borderlands look like a bland, generic shooter. Not only in the looks, but in the sense of seriousness. The second video just makes it look like fun.

crimson5pheonix:
It's not just the art shift that improved the game, it's the tone.
If you look at the first video, it makes borderlands look like a bland, generic shooter. Not only in the looks, but in the sense of seriousness. The second video just makes it look like fun.

That's what the game was all about in the end: brainless, homicidal and trigger happy fun. Nevermind the bland story, I still haven't gotten tired of grinding bandits into mush.

Anyone got a link to footage of the original style?

EDIT:

Sorry, just looked up the page...

The goal is fun, and seriously, the first trailer makes me yawn.

Second trailer? More colourful, lotsa visceral guns and blasting and shooting, and firefireFIRE, craziness and more guns!

I don't know how much the gameplay changed from 1 to 2, but the style certainly did, and that was part of the appeal for me.

 

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