How Borderlands Went From Brown to Brilliant


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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