GameCentral talks to Gearbox Software about why Borderlands 3 has taken so long to arrive and why its 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. Its 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, wed have to say it wasnt really worth it. Not because the game wasnt any good but because it was single-player only and 20 minutes wasnt really time to learn anything that you couldnt 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 isnt that different from the previous games though, and not quite up to the standards of Destinys action, but despite what many assumed this is a not a sequel thats trying to compete with any other looter shooter. After all, Borderlands invented the concept and clearly doesnt feel it has to play by anyone elses rules.
What is different about Borderlands 3 is that theres 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 thats a flash in the pan compared to the hundreds of hours many will be spending on the game.
But if the hands-on wasnt that enlightening the chat with art director Scott Kester was. Hes been working on the series since the beginning and has been party to all of the franchises 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 somethings gone very wrong.
SK: [laughs] I do, I do! But I do enjoy this stuff too. What I dont 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 Im 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 youve got a very difficult task. Because Borderlands is famous for its very distinctive art style, which doesnt 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: Its 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, Thats what Id 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 Ive been a part of, How do we push this forward? Where do we go with it?
I think this games 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. Its a challenge. Because you could go, Hey, look at this really cool environment! but it just doesnt 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 its all physically-based rendering and a brand new lighting environment. And theres 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 didnt touch our inks. Our inks are all hand done, theyre all done by humans so its very mechanical, its 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 its a shortcut, its actually a much bigger challenge than one with… the only thing thats 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, weve got guys that are basically inkers and they go in and they take things and… its a very laborious process.
GC: I wouldve thought something that was photorealistic, the extra amount of detail would be more difficult…
SK: So, in todays games theres 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] Theres so many assets in games like that and theres tons in games like ours and its obviously time consuming to create that content. But then its like… to do the style we do has a whole other step because theres a lot of things that are using photogrammetry, which is capturing real-world elements, or theyre using materials that are like, I need marble floor and they have a thing that systemically creates that.
GC: I get it, so you cant take those kind of shortcuts.
SK: We cant, we can do part of it but then we have to go back on top of everything. So were not applying a filter; our filter is hands and ink, basically. And on 4K textures, and larger than that, its 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 youve been able to improve on?
SK: Yeah, oh my goodness, absolutely. So our rigs have so many more bones and we have physics, weve got cloth, theres 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 weve expanded it. Theres more surface to it, theres 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 youre almost the only AAA franchise that has anything other than photoreal visuals, which instantly makes it standout. Youd think that would be a desirable thing.
SK: [laughs] I dont know why. I think people are intimidated by it. I think theyre worried that people wont respond to it. In my opinion, as games have progressed, and graphics have got better, its typically related into how much more real it looks.
But my heart has always been with traditional animation and I feel – its not just my influence but the team around me – but weve 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, Thats one of the best movies Ive ever seen, I love it, its just beautiful. But some people go, Ugh, its stylised, thats a kids thing. Its 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 doesnt 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, Its gonna be a battle royale! And were looking at this stuff and were thinking, That would be the worst battle royale ever, because its 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 its got guns lets make the best guns we could ever possibly make. Lets make the most ridiculous systems that we can do. Because if thats what our game is all about, thats what were gonna dig into.
We went in and we didnt say, Were gonna knock down the rafters and build something totally new. We said, Lets 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 didnt want to be like, Lets throw this out the window and start with something new. But we looked at the market, we know whats out there.
GC: A Destiny style game mustve been an option though?
SK: I mean, you talk about it but we honestly… Paul Sage, whos the creative director, and myself and the others leads we thought, Were here to make a Borderlands game, were not here to make somebody elses game.
GC: Its 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 didnt want to follow it.
SK: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. Its 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 doesnt for others. I think for us, we put the flag down first and were here to re-establish it again. But I think were 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 sRead More – Source