Gearbox Software is best known for their work on Borderlands, a Sci-Fi, Mad Max-looking, crazy, and hilarious ride of a game series where the variety of gunplay options share the spotlight with a unique array of characters that steal every scene. But perhaps what’s most interesting is that the look of the series is different from what most of the industry goes for in terms of realism. It’s bright and vibrant like a comic book come to life. When Gearbox released their new multiplayer shooter, Battleborn, I set out to interview the Art Director, Scott Kester, about how Battleborn was away from the standard yet again. He and I talked influences and just how much went into the design choices for both Battleborn and Borderlands.
Alex: Scott, most studios are using cel shading to present illustration styles in motion and I thought you had used it, but Borderlands wasn’t actually cel-shaded. What was the specific look you were going for with Borderlands and how did you get there?
Scott: We actually hand-inked all of the textures in Borderlands. Each object, gun, character, item, etc has been hand-inked by a person to present the unique look the game has. It’s extremely time-consuming and a bit difficult to pull off, but we chose to do this to present a more hand-crafted result. The error and inconsistency in the human hand is not an easy thing for a filter or procedurally generated process to replicate. The game is meant to look like a moving illustration/comic and we wanted to ensure that it did. Keep in mind, we did use a post process just to add a black line around elements, but all textures and pieces are inked by hand.
Alex: Y’know more and more developers are pressured by the next-gen console powers to render games as realistically and as detailed as possible in order to net sales, but that’s clearly not what Borderlands needed to succeed. Do you think that if Borderlands would not have been rendered in hand-drawn inks that it would have seen as much success as it did? How different of a game would it have been?
Scott: Borderlands needed a look that was as unique as the genre mixing we did in the game design itself; it needed a visual voice. It did start more photorealistic actually, but it never felt right for how over the top the guns and gameplay were. It just felt off. It was stiff and had little humor, but as the art style evolved so did the character of the game. We let our guard down and started to create like the goofballs we actually are and then the art style loosened the game, the writing, and the overall vibe so that each of the elements fed off one another to make it what it is.
Alex: I know that inking in general is a very precise and difficult skill in illustration and you guys used it really well. Was there ever a time where it became cumbersome and you wanted to just toss it aside? What were some of the difficulties during that process?
Scott: YES, inking is a total pain! (laughs) For me, it’s not as hard due to my background actually inking in comics, but making art assets for a game and being an inker/illustrator are very different things! Some of the team caught on faster than others, and people’s hand and line control are very different to one another, so trying to keep the look of the lines and hatch-work consistent is a real struggle! I can look at an asset and tell you what artist inked it, due to their own traits and ink style while the typical fan just sees ink. Getting to that point helps unify the look of the game even if the inks are a bit inconsistent from artist to artist. It’s such a time-consuming process!
Alex: I’m still amazed you went through with it! What do you think the main benefits of it were?
Scott: I think the best benefits are the honesty of the artist coming through. That raw connection right there with the artist with no filter between the concept and the final product. The error and life the human hand has is a beautiful thing.
Alex: You mentioned your background in comics. What if any were some of your influences in terms of illustration, animation, and other games that used similar techniques? Were there any specific guideposts along the way that gave the team sort of an idea of what they wanted the final result to be like?
Scott: Comics in general were the number one thing. It was to make a thing, a scene, a place, that felt like you were moving through a graphic novel. Ben Hibon’s Codehunters was an influence, but for many of us, it was more just comics/Manga and illustrations. It was looking at the rough concept art we were making internally, and trying to make those things become what was actually in game, errors, blemishes and all. The whole thing was an experiment, and I feel like we came into our own more on Borderlands 2, where we started to refine the looks and techniques and get a tighter more consistent look.
Alex: How did this process help guide you from Borderlands to Battleborn and what did Borderlands teach you that helped you get to Battleborn?
Scott: I was the main character concept designer for Borderlands and Borderlands 2, and the Art Director for Battleborn. I love animation, I love hand-crafted, and much of what we started in Borderlands influenced this game differently. If Borderlands was the loose artist’s hand and the grit from that, Battleborn was the clean and way more stylized version of a Saturday morning kids’ cartoon from the ’80s.
Alex: You’re speaking my language! What are some of your favorite uses of illustration styles in games? Maybe some examples that made you excited to try something similar in Battleborn?
Scott: I love Anime and Manga and I love the flair and the life that the Eastern creators have. I think Okami, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and Killer 7 are some great examples visually. Rayman Legends is just such a joy, anything Vanillaware makes, Dishonored, and Mirror’s Edge. I mean more and more games are taking awesome chances visually and I love that! I grew up on cartoons and action figures from the ’80s and ’90s. Battleborn is a direct result of that. (laughs) We wanted Battleborn to be a crazy hybrid of CG animation and hand-drawn 2D animation, and it really is just a love letter to animation in general!
Alex: What do you suppose the future of stylistic approaches in gaming is and do you think more games will use illustration techniques the way you did? Do you think that the industry will continue to support the illustrated look in 3D representations or will it be replaced by something different?
Scott: I hope so! Many games are starting to explore different styles and looks which is really exciting to me. Granted, most of the risks are really happening the most in the indie scene these days. I really have no clue where games in general will head! (laughs) I mean, PBR (physically based rendering) and realism are all the rage these days, which is rad, but I hope more devs go out on a limb. Of course, it needs to match the game and its design and they need to feed off one another. For me, I want each franchise I work on to be different visually, mainly because I like the challenge of it, but also to give people something new in the process.
Alex: Battleborn is definitely new and different and loads of fun. And stylistically it’s different as well—even from Borderlands—why is that and what uses of your unique artistic prowess are we seeing at work here? Was it just as labor-intensive?
Scott: This game is point blank a love letter to my youth and animation. I mean, I wanted to make a game that took the best elements of 3D and 2D animation and smashed them together into a blender.
All of our special FX are hand-drawn key frames. There are over 18,000 hand-drawn frames (and counting!) alone in this game to create the FX look with over 3800 Particle systems! We had animation industry veteran Michel Gagne on board with us to give us that flavor and style for our FX and it’s an insane amount of work! We also have Seung Kim on staff, a former Disney animator, to lend a hand! We hand-key framed every character animation in the game, no mo-cap whatsoever, which for a modern shooter is a little crazy, but once again, there’s no substitute for a human hand working on each frame!
We put so many more bones on our character rigs to ensure more traditional animation techniques such as “squash and stretch” and “push and pull” that you would typically see in 2D animations to create wild distortions and style pushes. It was an absolutely absurd amount of work, I still have no idea how we were able to make 25 characters in time! (laughs) We have over 10 minutes of fully 2D animated cinematic in the game as well! The amount of time and effort put into the presentation of this game is staggering.
Alex: That is seriously a crazy amount of work! I gotta say, Borderlands is a masterpiece of style, storytelling, and just plain fun and Battleborn is equally exciting. What’s next on your plate and are there any new things you want to try out? How are you continuing to challenge yourselves as a studio the way you did with Borderlands to create such a unique experience and flavor?
Scott: After just finishing Battleborn, I’m headed back to the wastelands of Borderlands. Rest assured we have new tricks up our sleeves!
Alex: Any thoughts of doing hand-drawn Virtual Reality?
Scott: VR is something the studio is definitely interested in, but we will have to wait and see on that one, though!
Alex: And finally, a bonus question! If you could have any one book, comic, show, or movie turned into a Gearbox video game, what would it be and why?
Scott: Man… This is tough! Bladerunner? Akira? Ghost in the Shell? Time Bandits? Evil Dead 2? I’ll go with Krull. More people need to know about Krull, (laughs)
Battleborn is available now on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
The Borderlands Series is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, and Mac.