When Gearbox Studios’ 2009 game Borderlands landed, it took everyone by surprise. The critically acclaimed title looked unlike any previous Gearbox release, and immediately distinguished itself as a groundbreaking Unreal Engine 3 powered game with its unique concept art visuals and innovative gameplay. Now the game development studio is pushing Unreal Engine technology even further with an ambitious sequel.
“As a studio, we’ve been using Unreal technology for about eight years now,” said Steve Jones, technical director on Borderlands 2 and Gearbox Software. “So we’ve benefited from a growing institutional knowledge of Unreal Engine 3 and how to best leverage its features and updates to support our goals for our games. The new Unreal Content Browser has really made a positive difference for us in the development in Borderlands 2 – so much so that it would be difficult to imagine being where we are today without it. The official integration of Scaleform was a very welcome addition, as well.”
Jones said many of the improvements the studio has made to its rendering pipeline aren’t “visible” – they’re behind-the-scenes optimizations that reduce the cost of rendering things in their concept art style. This allowed the team to spend extra memory and performance budget in other areas, which ultimately resulted in gameplay enhancements, including more enemies on screen, better weapon visuals, and more “badassery” across the board.
“The Unreal Engine’s material system enabled our artists to add a significant of amount richness and depth to the materials used on the guns,” explained Jones. “Unreal Matinee is extremely valuable not just for in-game cinematics, but also as a critical part of our pre-visualization process. Very early on in development, we were able to identify new features we wanted to bring to the game, and Matinee was used to rapidly develop in-game proof of concepts that enabled the team to quickly evaluate ideas with minimal development cost.”
Gearbox employed Unreal Kismet extensively throughout the game, and Jones said that it’s the first stop for game designers seeking to add interactivity and life to the game world in a fast, flexible, and powerful manner. Jones’ team was also able to make use of UE3’s networking support to create co-op gameplay in the huge open world environments of Borderlands 2 without cutting back the amount of enemies and loot available.
“In Borderlands 2, we pushed the presentation and gameplay of our enemies, action skills, guns, and missions (to name a few features) far beyond the first game,” said Jones. “This is made possible by really leveraging what Unreal Engine 3 offers for a development environment, as well as the extensibility it offers licensees to tailor it to our particular needs.”
Throughout the development process, Gearbox utilized Epic’s Unreal Developer Network (UDN) extensively. Jones said UDN is an irreplaceable resource, a gathering of experts on UE3 technology assisting developers across a wide spectrum of issues encountered with game development.
“UDN has been helpful in a variety of ways, including initial framework planning, collaboratively working through an issue, proactively sharing solutions, and even documenting problems other people haven’t encountered yet,” said Jones. “It’s an environment that fosters continuously sharing knowledge and we all benefit from that. All of the other licensees and Epic personnel contributing to UDN and its mailing lists are a fantastic resource for getting questions answered.”
According to Matt Charles, producer of Borderlands 2 at Gearbox, the team had lofty goals heading into this second installment. Charles said one of the biggest challenges facing the team was meeting such high expectations – including their own – since the success of Borderlands.
The team took time to reflect on the original game before writing its own recipe for fun in the sequel. For the team, a desire to keep things fresh and avoid stagnation was important, but they also realized that Borderlands presents a large enough world that they could explore in many possible ways.
During pre-production, Gearbox spent time looking at fan and press feedback on the original game, which resulted in some very real and positive changes to the sequel such as the new mini-map on the HUD. In addition to expanding on character growth paths, the team also added more richness to the game’s missions.
Aside from its signature art style, open world environments, and those interesting characters, Borderlands is known for its massive amount of weapons. This time around, Gearbox has focused on bringing more personality to each gun, more distinction between manufacturers, and creating cooler visuals.
Gearbox has managed to showcase just how far UE3 can be pushed with the right art direction and creativity at the helm. PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 gamers will be in for a wild ride with Borderlands 2.