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Borderlands Interview

With Gearbox Software's Randy Pitchford

By Matt Cabral, 9/14/2009

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Before April of this year, the positive buzz surrounding Borderlands was minimal at best. But a drastic change in the RPG/shooter's visual style from a familiar realistic look to a more concept art-like approach ignited renewed interest in the title, putting it on the map as one of this holiday season's most anticipated titles. We recently spoke with Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford, who proudly compares Borderlands' refreshing presentation to that of a “high-quality graphic novel”, about the process of bringing the titles' daring style to gamers.


AtomicGamer: Borderlands began gaining lots of momentum when the visual direction was changed from a familiar realistic look to a more concept art inspired style. How important do you feel visuals are to the interactive experience, especially in a genre where graphics are sometimes overlooked in favor of gameplay?

Randy Pitchford: The game has to be fun, but there is a spectacle as well to consider. We want to be immersed and we want to feel we're inside of these worlds - particularly when we perceive them from a first person point of view like we do in Borderlands. To bring you into a fictional world with a bold and hyper-realistic stylized art direction requires a tremendous amount of importance placed on the graphics.

AG: Post-apocalyptic worlds are becoming increasingly common in games. Even with Borderland's bold style, how do you keep this them fresh?

RP: Borderlands has a look that certainly reminds us of the Mad Max style setting and it's certainly a cool place to set a game. It's a world of violence and madness and lawlessness where it feels really cool to be the strong hero type that can keep his cool and keep himself together to overcome the challenges and find the opportunity that is there. In fact, Borderlands isn't traditional "post-apocalyptic" in that the game doesn't take place on Earth and the despair of the setting wasn't caused by a nuclear holocaust. That is a little tired and passé, frankly. Borderlands is science fiction taking place on a planet called "Pandora" but the planet got the way it did through corporate greed, then neglect and abandonment. It's really a rich and believable world that has as much influence from Mad Max as it does from the TV series Firefly or even the lawlessness of the old-west.


AG: Can you describe the process of bringing Borderlands' visuals from actual concept art to final in-game?

RP: There is both technique and technology involved. The concept art provides the tools the 3D modelers need to mold the shapes of the objects and characters into three dimensional objects. The materials are painted by hand and there is a lot of detail and line work that goes into the painting of the surfaces. There are diffuse, normal and specular maps that are detailed and applied to the material as well that help to bring a lot of the personality out of every surface. The rendering engine takes the content and draws it with all of the lighting, shadowing and edge treatment technology that provides the look you're seeing. While there is a tremendous amount of artistry to the shape of things and the painted materials, a huge part of the sum value of the look comes from the software and the rendering engine and how places and lights everything in the scene.

AG: What sort of technology is being used to bring Borderlands' visuals to life? Is it new or was it used in previous titles?

RP: The base is the latest Unreal Engine 3 from Epic Games. It's amazing technology and the brilliant engineers at Epic have done some incredible things to make the technology even more impressive even since the launch of their terribly successful game Gears of War 2. On top of the Unreal Engine 3 code-base, Gearbox Software software engineers have added a tremendous amount of cool new tech in areas of both game play and graphics. From a graphics point of view, I think some of the more interesting new technologies include the addition of ambient occlusion. The specific solution in Borderlands is very remarkable because it looks amazing, but is very fast. From a game-play point of view, the Gear Builder system is incredible - it's actually a data driven environment and an AI that procedurally generates the weapons in the game. There are a lot of them!


AG: Are there any specific characters, environments or objects that you feel especially represent the art style? How about any that you feel show the technology at its absolute envelope-pushing best?

RP: I think every character in the game just screams the style that is Borderlands. One of my favorite aspects of Borderlands and the art direction and the technology is that you can pretty much go anywhere and look in any direction and take a screenshot that looks like it was planned and composed. I think there is a huge amount of attitude and personality in the main characters Brick, Roland, Lilith and Mordecai and that a lot about the meat of the game can be derived just from studying them, but I think the quality and the style extend far beyond just what those four have to offer and into the dozens and dozens of other creatures and villains and friendly characters you'll interact with during your time in the Borderlands.

AG: Is there anything big that you wanted to include but didn't have time to add it and still make the October release date?

RP: Ask me that question again when we begin talking about our plans for Downloadable Content. The game has a tremendous amount of value within it, but with the promise of DLC we can trust that there is still a huge amount of value to come. There are still some cool tricks up our sleeves that we'll be able to pull with the DLC, but we didn't hold back at all with the core Borderlands experience. In the holiday of 2009, Borderlands will be one of the best, if not THE best values in video games.


AG: What is the relationship like between the artists who generate the original concepts and those that actually bring the visuals to life in-game?

RP: Frequently, the concept artists and the builders are the same people. If they're not the same people, they're extremely close by - often sitting right next to each other or in the same room. The more substantial and important the asset, the more close the relationship between the concept artists and the modeler and the painter.

AG: What were some of the biggest challenges in creating the visuals?

RP: The biggest challenge by far was having the courage to go for it. There is a reason why every other game kind of looks the same in this space. Everyone seems to do the same colors and the same style of realism. The challenge was gathering up the courage to go for it and for us to have the nuts to see the value that came from the commitment of a few and to all rally together around it to make it happen.

AG: What was your ultimate goal with the visual presentation? What would you like players to take away from the graphical experience?


RP: The goal is always entertainment. To get lost in the world and to have an incredible and memorable and important experience is what it's all about. The story, style and design must all work together to be compelling and fascinating and ultimately, fun.

Thanks to Gearbox Software's Randy Pitchford for letting us grill him about some of the visuals in Borderlands. Expect to see the game on store shelves on October 20th for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.


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