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Interview:  Borderlands 2  Art Director Cooke Brings Color To The Desert

Interview: Borderlands 2 Art Director Cooke Brings Color To The Desert Exclusive

September 20, 2011 | By Frank Cifaldi, Brandon Sheffield

September 20, 2011 | By Frank Cifaldi, Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Art

[Borderlands 2 art director Jeramy Cooke talks with Gamasutra about the first-person shooter's major visual design changes, from its colorful, varying environments to the revamped user interface.]

At this year's PAX Prime Expo in Seattle, Gearbox Software unveiled its first (hands-off) demonstration of Borderlands 2, the sequel to its much revered first-person shooter/RPG hybrid from 2009.

The sequel is making a few tweaks to the original's groundbreaking cel-shaded art style, adding more definition to its characters and additional environments that go well beyond the drab, brown deserts of the original.

Here, art director Jeramy Cooke explains how Borderlands 2 will sport a wider palette of color and present a "richer, larger world" that's more colorful, without making the player feel like she is slaying bandits on a pristine golf course.

The first game had a very distinctive visual style, but it was all very much that single tone. It looks like in the sequel you're trying to do a lot more color contrast, in a lot of different locations. Can you talk about how you went about filling those out and trying to keep them looking like they're within the same world?

It's pretty interesting actually, because back with Borderlands 1, we actually made this little graphic that was a top-down view of Pandora. I sort of pulled that into the style guide and I said "Hey, look, there's green on here. There's snow up here. This is part of our world, we can put this into the world."

And people were a little hesitant at first because they were like, "Well, is it going to feel like I'm on a golf course?" We found a way to make it harsh and imposing and dangerous regardless of what the palette was. It has been a game you kind of have to be like "Oh, maybe this is getting too saturated, too candy-like," so we'll pull it back a little bit.

One of our keywords is badass, so we never want you to feel like your kid brother should be playing this game. It's a mature game; we want you to feel cool when you play the game. We're not going for World of Warcraft or a candy-coated type of experience.

Run us through some of the high-level approaches you're taking with the art direction in this sequel.

I wanted it to have a richer, larger world. I felt like we were stuck in the desert a lot, and it got monotonous. It felt like you were seeing the same enemies too often. I mean, that's my personal experience. And we really wanted to just widen that and give you this sense of a huge space, which is why you can see the other maps from the maps you're in.

You look over there, and you see this dam off in the distance, and you know "Oh, that's where I was," and vice-versa when you're on top of the dam and you look down into zone 1 and see all of the ice spread out. It's about that sort of large-scale, large-scope experience.

Borderlands is not a rail shooter, it's not a corridor shooter. We want you to explore and have fun and go where you want and do what you want. The world's job is to be enticing, to convince you to go out there and find cool stuff, to dig around in the corner and find cool loot or a miniboss you didn't know who was there or whatever.

We felt like in a lot of maps, even inside of a map, it wasn't necessarily clear where you were a lot of the time because you'd see the same brown rocks. We're working really hard to have these really great landmarks as you go through the space. Changing the color values, if you're heading into a miniboss lair let's bring the saturation down and increase the contrast and pull out the reds or something like that. Really try to have a distinct emotional flavor inside every area. As you go through the ice world, it's not just ice everywhere. There's hot springs, there's open rolling hills and stuff. And that was part of our mission for every map.

Do you control the hue and saturation in software, or are you talking about the assets?

That's in software. We work with Unreal 3 tech, and they have some really cool tech that we've actually made some changes to as well. We can completely color control and color balance the screen at runtime, we can blend as you go from place to place so it's totally seamless. And also we added support for full day-night cycle on top of all that. So not only can we shift the palettes, but that can then also go to nighttime and still maintain its color. So that's all sort of dynamically blended on the fly.


Can you give an example of where you might change the colors?

It happens in the demo! It's a subtle thing, but you feel it. You start off in that really cool icy area, and then you kind of go down through the tunnel and out into the hot springs area we have, and you'll see [it go] from really cool, cold purples and kind of red purples, and then across into the hot springs it really gets warm and kind of becomes green and tan and beige, with a little bit of red thrown in there. A lot of that is the same assets, but what you're seeing is the post-process adjusting the color values and color tone.

You had a flatter, cel-shaded look in the first game, and this one is bringing a little more definition and detail to everything. What was the process there? How did you decide where more definition was necessary?

We've always called our game "concept art style" because we were really inspired by the concept art from early in development. If you see a great auto concept designer, they're often pulling real-world textures into those pieces, just compositing them in to add richness.

With Unreal 3, we have such a better command now of all the pixel shader stuff that we're able to bring in...when you look at the ice shader, it's not just a static 2D toon texture, it's constantly adjusting based on the angle of light and how you face the rocks and so on. So we're putting a lot more high end realism stuff on top of the style to give it a lot more depth. So it's not just like cartooned, it feels more like a sort of digital matte to some extent. It's got a lot of some of those elements.

How much of these very thick black outlines is stylistic choice, and how much of it is maybe necessary to make everything kind of pop?

It's all stylistic really, but it has the added benefit of making stuff pop.

What happens if they're gone?

It looks a little flatter. There's no doubt about it. These lines will really pull things to the foreground. Line weight and opacity changes based on depth. You're not seeing it here [in a promotional poster] since we render these so huge, but in the game we control line weight and opacity as it goes off into the distance to layer things properly, so that they read as in front of each other or behind each other.


In the demo we saw, there didn't seem to be as much kitbashing as the first game, building environments out of bits and pieces of other environments. Is that still something we'll see in the sequel?

Absolutely. We still kitbash the heck out of stuff. The whole top of the dam in the demo is really heavily kitbashed. That really belongs to the bandits in a lot of ways, although we do kitbashing all across the game. So when you go to [an in-game city], you're going to see a huge sprawling city, and all that stuff is kitbashed. So we absolutely still have that as part of our strategy for building the worlds. It's kind of part of the visual style of the game.

Can you talk about the UI redesign a bit? Did you scrap the other one?

Yeah, we completely scrapped the old UI. There are a lot of concepts there that carried over, but PC and splitscreen were like a huge focus for us. So we wanted to make sure that those users got the same awesome experience.

We're building an entire custom UI for PC, and the whole UI supports splitscreen. So we redesigned all the screens to be vertical and narrow so you don't have to do that weird pan-around thing from the first game. Nobody like that, including us, and we knew we wanted to do better. We knew we could. We kind of ran out of time last time, but this time we're going to hit it hard.

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