GameCentral talks to Gearbox Software about why Borderlands 3 has taken so long to arrive and why it’s not games as a service.
For the last three or four years, Borderlands 3 has been regularly appearing in lists of games expected to be a no-brainer for an E3 reveal. It’s been five years since The Pre-Sequel and seven since Borderlands 2, which is an unheard-of length of time to wait for a new game in a successful franchise – at least as far as the logic of most other publishers go. But this year the predictions finally came true and not only was Borderlands 3 at E3 but it was the biggest game of the show.
We use ‘biggest’ in the literal sense of the word, as not only did it have the largest stand for a single game but it also had the longest queues, with those poor souls that had paid to get in, as members of the public, queueing up for hours to get 20 minutes of hand-on. And to be honest, we’d have to say it wasn’t really worth it. Not because the game wasn’t any good but because it was single-player only and 20 minutes wasn’t really time to learn anything that you couldn’t have guessed from the trailers.
It was nice to see that the gunplay was a little more refined than the original, with a better sense of weight to the weapons and some very satisfying headshots – but we already knew that from the reveal back in May. The combat still isn’t that different from the previous games though, and not quite up to the standards of Destiny’s action, but despite what many assumed this is a not a sequel that’s trying to compete with any other looter shooter. After all, Borderlands invented the concept and clearly doesn’t feel it has to play by anyone else’s rules.
What is different about Borderlands 3 is that there’s now multiple planets to explore, instead of just one, as well as four brand new characters and much more expansive skill trees. But the basic looter shooter gameplay is just the same as always, as is the distinctive comic book style art and the irreverent sense of humour.
We feel fairly confident that Borderlands 3 is exactly what fans have been waiting for and the reason a 20-minute demo seems so pointless is that that’s a flash in the pan compared to the hundreds of hours many will be spending on the game.
But if the hands-on wasn’t that enlightening the chat with art director Scott Kester was. He’s been working on the series since the beginning and has been party to all of the franchise’s major creative decisions, from delaying work on the new sequel to the iconic art style itself…
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Stadia
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: 13th September 2019
GC: I always wonder whether developers actually enjoy doing this sort of thing.
SK: This or art direction?
GC: This, interviews and the like! I assume you enjoy art direction of something’s gone very wrong.
SK: [laughs] I do, I do! But I do enjoy this stuff too. What I don’t like is just having to be a mouthpiece. But I like this because I try to represent my team, most of who are really awkward talking to people about the game. And I’m only sort of awkward. [laughs] So I kind of enjoying doing it just to try to represent those people on the team that are never heard from.
GC: In terms of your day job, it strikes me that you’ve got a very difficult task. Because Borderlands is famous for its very distinctive art style, which doesn’t seem to leave much scope for change in a sequel. How do you maintain that legacy with the previous games and still make Borderlands 3 look new and unique?
SK: It’s a pain. I worked on 1, I worked on 2. I was part of the art style change on 1.
GC: Oh, okay. So you were working on it when it was still photorealistic?
SK: Yeah, but I was actually a UI artist at that time. I was doin’ the interface as a few guys were starting to mess with the art style change and I was like, ‘That’s what I’d do!’ Because I worked in comics prior to that. So I started drawing character stuff and helped redesign the characters and moved on from there.
So I saw the rebirth of a game happen in… we rebuilt the entire game in like six months. Redid all the art and re-inked all the stuff. So from that point forward I’ve been a part of, ‘How do we push this forward? Where do we go with it?’
I think this game’s challenge is keeping the familiarity that people like but going to new places, showing you new things, without alienating people who like it for what it is. It’s a challenge. Because you could go, ‘Hey, look at this really cool environment!’ but it just doesn’t speak to the franchise at all. So you definitely have to walk that line to give people more but not go too far.
GC: Was there ever any thought that you would radically overhaul the visuals? Because with the recent HD updates the new game does look very similar to the old ones.
SK: So, we switched engines, in development of this game, to Unreal Engine 4 and it’s all physically-based rendering and a brand new lighting environment. And there’s a lot of difficulties in that because it started catching all the reflections and the sheen, and started moving away from this more comic book style matt feel.
So we really had to embrace that and what it meant to our style, we had to make sure that it didn’t touch our inks. Our inks are all hand done, they’re all done by humans so it’s very mechanical, it’s very painful. It takes twice as long to make an asset in this game as it would if it was a photoreal game.
SK: People think it’s a shortcut, it’s actually a much bigger challenge than one with… the only thing that’s procedural [i.e. that you can automate – GC] is the outline around them, but every interior piece of everything is all hand done by a human soul.
SK: [laughs] So yeah, it is madness. I ink things, the team inks things, we’ve got guys that are basically inkers and they go in and they take things and… it’s a very laborious process.
GC: I would’ve thought something that was photorealistic, the extra amount of detail would be more difficult…
SK: So, in today’s games there’s a lot of things like substance designers that generate photoreal textures…
GC: I was playing Watch Dogs: Legion yesterday and I stopped outside a random shop and it had these racks of clothes and it was so detailed but also so random. It almost felt like I was the only one that would ever see them. And I thought, ‘Who made all this stuff?’
SK: Oh my god, dude! Exactly. [laughs] There’s so many assets in games like that and there’s tons in games like ours and it’s obviously time consuming to create that content. But then it’s like… to do the style we do has a whole other step because there’s a lot of things that are using photogrammetry, which is capturing real-world elements, or they’re using materials that are like, ‘I need marble floor’ and they have a thing that systemically creates that.
GC: I get it, so you can’t take those kind of shortcuts.
SK: We can’t, we can do part of it but then we have to go back on top of everything. So we’re not applying a filter; our filter is hands and ink, basically. And on 4K textures, and larger than that, it’s time consuming. Now we have a lot more resolution we can show a lot more detail and that kind of bites us in the ass a little bit because it takes so much longer.
GC: One complaint about the visuals in the original games is that the animation was always a bit stiff, is that something you’ve been able to improve on?
SK: Yeah, oh my goodness, absolutely. So our rigs have so many more bones and we have physics, we’ve got cloth, there’s a lot more complexity in the animations – from the facial animations to just the amount of detail in these characters, they have a lot of gear and things on there. We use a mocap base for all our animations but we hand-key and tweak a lot of things on that. So the animation is absolutely levelled-up.
Visuals… I sound like a car salesman, but anything that looked the way that it did we’ve expanded it. There’s more surface to it, there’s more quality to it, it sounds like kind of a cheesy answer but whatever it is that we did we tried to take it that much further.
GC: Why do you think other AAA games are so scared to experiment with their art styles? It happens a lot in indie, but you’re almost the only AAA franchise that has anything other than photoreal visuals, which instantly makes it standout. You’d think that would be a desirable thing.
SK: [laughs] I don’t know why. I think people are intimidated by it. I think they’re worried that people won’t respond to it. In my opinion, as games have progressed, and graphics have got better, it’s typically related into how much more real it looks.
But my heart has always been with traditional animation and I feel – it’s not just my influence but the team around me – but we’ve always been more pulled into things that were less based on reality and I think… I guess development is just like, ‘We want people to relate to something so we want it to look real’.
But to me, I look at a movie like Spider-Verse and I go, ‘That’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, I love it, it’s just beautiful’. But some people go, ‘Ugh, it’s stylised, that’s a kid’s thing. It’s hard for me to relate to it.’
GC: That was quite an extreme style, I was surprised they went with that.
SK: That was very bold. I was so proud of that team and what they did. But I feel like we love our style because we want a signature on it, we do want to separate from the pack. Our game turned into this weird hybrid… I guess we were the first shooter looter, from a first person perspective, that made it popular. And then we just really wanted to put a signature look to that, because at that time nobody else was doing things like that.
GC: I think many assumed, because of the long wait since the last one, that Borderlands 3 would be a fairly radical departure, something that was probably influenced by the Destiny style of game as a service. But it doesn’t seem to be. Was that never considered?
SK: We built the game that should be what the game is. A lot of people were saying, ‘It’s gonna be a battle royale!’ And we’re looking at this stuff and we’re thinking, ‘That would be the worst battle royale ever, because it’s all about procedurally generated stuff’.
But we play everything, we look at everything. But I think for us it was important to be us, we wanted to take the tenets of this franchise and say, ‘If it’s got guns let’s make the best guns we could ever possibly make. Let’s make the most ridiculous systems that we can do.’ Because if that’s what our game is all about, that’s what we’re gonna dig into.
We went in and we didn’t say, ‘We’re gonna knock down the rafters and build something totally new’. ‘We said, ‘Let’s take this game, Borderlands 2, that we felt was a really good game and we wanted to… people still play it a ton to this day. We didn’t want to be like, ‘Let’s throw this out the window and start with something new.’ But we looked at the market, we know what’s out there.
GC: A Destiny style game must’ve been an option though?
SK: I mean, you talk about it but we honestly… Paul Sage, who’s the creative director, and myself and the others leads we thought, ‘We’re here to make a Borderlands game, we’re not here to make somebody else’s game’.
GC: It’s interesting that that whole sub-genre seems to have peaked already. In-between you inventing it and the wait for this new game the whole Destiny style of doing things already seems to be falling out of favour. Which is presumably one of the reasons why you didn’t want to follow it.
SK: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. It’s hard to do, it is a challenging thing to do and I think some of the other competition, the way they did it is they took their own angle and I think sometimes that works for some people and it doesn’t for others. I think for us, we put the flag down first and we’re here to re-establish it again. But I think we’re doing that genre in the right way, in my opinion.
GC: Do you class Borderlands 3 as a game as a service?
SK: No. We do plan to support it post launch but in the same way as we did before, so if that counts as games as a service, I guess… But some of those other games out there don’t have a great endgame, but we believe in the second and the third playthrough. We believe in a thing called Mayhem mode, which drastically tweaks the numbers of things… how hard do you want the game to be as you play through the second and third time?
We have guardian ranks that… once you beat the game there’s an entire whole skill system that becomes unlocked after you beat the game. Our endgame is really deep and we want people to keep playing it.
We do plan to go into DLC but I think we also kind of tried to put a stake in the ground for making DLC too. We’ve made pretty substantial, meaty DLC and we want to continue doing that. So if that’s games as a service then we will continue to do that, but we didn’t call it that.
GC: In that case, and I don’t mean this in a negative way, why did it take so long? Because for any popular game that is a very long gap between sequels.
SK: Okay, so we made 1 and we made 2 pretty back-to-back. I was on both of those games and we were tired. And we were like, ‘Should we make another one?’ And we didn’t want to, we needed a break. Because if we didn’t have a break I think we wouldn’t have made something as good.
GC: That makes perfect sense but it is very unusual, for this industry or any other.
SK: By the grace of the beautiful 2K they allowed us to say, ‘Hey, we want to try this Battleborn thing, we just want to kind of reset our palette, we’re gonna try this thing’. And we did it and… you know, if we didn’t make that game Borderlands 3 wouldn’t be as good as it is now. It made us think about things a little different.
I’ve worked on this game for over four years now, it’s been in development for a while. The second I finished Battleborn I essentially started going into this. To us it wasn’t about, ‘Hammer it out, hammer it out! Let’s punch it out, let’s punch it out!’ It was like, ‘Let’s make the right thing. Let’s get it there and then we’ll take our time’. But also, we’ve put so much junk into this game. It’s frikkin’ huge. It’s considerably more content than we’ve put into anything else.
GC: When designing the other planets, there must’ve been lots of obvious setting to go for. How did you pick out the themes for those, was it just by the kind of biome you wanted?
SK: Yeah, we start with, ‘Where haven’t we gone? What would be fun to do? What do we want to build?’ I actually want to push the team further, ‘Let’s make a big ass city! Let’s make more vegetated forest areas!’
GC: Again, it’s a difficult move because the whole aesthetic of the originals was that kind of Wild West in space thing, which is obviously difficult to do in a big city. It’s essentially the same problem as the prequels, where anything set in Coruscant just didn’t feel like Star Wars.
SK: It is and you have to be careful. To me it was like, ‘We have too much glass, we need more concrete for this city.’ It’s big, heavy industrial 1920s futurist shapes and architecture, not glitzy, Coruscant-y. We have a rule that wherever we go it has to be kind of… shitty.
SK: It’s just the universe that we’re in. [laughs] And I say that lovingly, by the way. And I think when that when we went to new places we had this forested area and we asked, ‘Well, should it be clean like Endor?’ And the answer was, ‘Nah, it’s a humid swamp, it’s disgusting’. Not in a, ‘I don’t want be here’ kind of way but in a way that feels cool and authentic to the games. You don’t want to jump the shark and go too far but you want to get that balance that feel appropriates.
And the lucky thing about this franchise is we’ve always said, ‘What do want to do? Where do we wanna go?’ I wanted a robot in this game, I got a robot in this game. But I couldn’t have done that in the first game, we had to get comfortable first.
GC: That should be the major design decision for every game, as far as I’m concerned: when do you get a robot?
SK: [laugh] Exactly! I wanted to put mechs in Borderlands 1 but they were like, ‘This is not the franchise that does that!’ DLC 4, I drew mechs and we put them in. Borderlands 2 starts, you’re fighting the Hyperion army that’s all robots – I got you! We try to make sure we don’t create bounds that don’t let us have fun.
I think we’re kind of ridiculous. I think, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re all a little stupid, but we know what’s cool and what’s fun and we don’t want to limit ourselves because our canon or our lore says, ‘No, it’s gotta be serious!’ Because the second we do that it just turns into a dullfest.
GC: Dullfest, I like that.
GC: Well, that’s great, thanks for your time.
SK: No problem, thanks man.
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