Image courtesy of Gearbox Studio Quebec

Unreal Engine streamlined the transition to a new engine for New Tales from the Borderlands

Brian Crecente
Frédéric Scheubel, producer at Gearbox Studio Quebec, started his career in the video games industry as an audio programmer when developers’ mental health wasn’t really a concern. He wanted to change that and went back to school, obtained an MBA with creative management in mind, and came back to the industry as a producer to try and create a better environment for his peers while making great games at Gearbox Studio Quebec. His favorite games are Tie Fighter, Final Fantasy VI, and Divinity: Original Sin 2.
Tales from the Borderlands was born of a universe resplendent with colorful characters, setting, and storylines; but also a bit of poker; Poker Night 2 to be specific.

The poker video game developed by Telltale Games featured among its diverse cast, famed Borderlands’ robot loudmouth Claptrap. It also kicked off behind-the-scenes conversations between Telltale Games and Borderlands developer Gearbox Studio.

Those talks lead to the concept for Tales from the Borderlands, an episodic interactive comedy game based on the Gearbox-created universe. While that 2015 game was overwhelmingly well received, a sequel seemed unlikely thanks to the unfortunate closing of developer Telltale Games in 2018.

But last year, 2K Games managed to buy back the Tales property, relist it on store fronts, and launch work on a spiritual sequel, this time handled by Gearbox Studio Quebec with a bit of help from some former Telltale developers.

The result, New Tales from the Borderlands, brings a lot of changes to the title, while working to retain the charm of the original which captured the hearts of many.

We chatted with New Tales from the Borderlands producer Frédéric Scheubel about the game’s shift in design, new, grittier look, single-date release cadence, and how shifting to Unreal Engine for development was both relatively seamless, and also helped maintain a healthy team as they worked to incorporate performance capture into the game during a pandemic.

What made you decide to use Unreal Engine when shifting away from Telltale’s engine on the original Tales from the Borderlands?
Frédéric Scheubel, Producer, Gearbox Studio Quebec:
Gearbox has long-standing experience with Unreal Engine and it felt natural to build upon that when creating New Tales from the Borderlands. The engine empowers game creators and gave us the means to integrate a large quantity of high quality data (such as performance capture animations) with a relatively small team for the greatest benefit of players.
How did Unreal Engine ease the transition into a new engine for New Tales from the Borderlands?
The transition was easy as both technical and art developers were familiar with Unreal Engine. The functionalities it provides allowed us to bring in large quantities of data in as few manual steps as possible.
What made you decide to make New Tales from the Borderlands a spiritual successor rather than a direct sequel and what does that mean to you?
Scheubel: Gearbox’s mission is to “Entertain the World” and as such, we always try to expand on the universes we create. After Borderlands 3, New Tales from the Borderlands gave us the opportunity to tell the story of what it’s like to live on Promethea for regular folks not gifted with Vault Hunter skills or endless money like the gun manufacturers. We get to connect on an emotional level with our three lovable losers Anu, Fran, and Octavio and share their aspirations amidst yet another invasion.
Image courtesy of Gearbox Studio Quebec
How did you go about deciding on the new, grittier, darker look for the spiritual sequel?
The Borderlands signature art style plays well in many different settings. With New Tales from the Borderlands, we can tell a more intimate story with tons of humor. One of our key artistic directions was using dramatic lighting for high emotional impact with environments and characters rich in details. Light and effects help us emphasize key moments and drive emotions home, while the pace of this type of storytelling gives the player the opportunity to notice these details in a way that adds both more dimension and feeling.
How did Unreal Engine help with the mo-capping and animation and getting that to work with a narrative-heavy experience?
Unreal provides an interface between the engine and our pipeline toolset via the Python plugin. This really helped us automate a lot of the logistics linked to the large quantity of game data, most notably the animations. New Tales from the Borderlands heavily relies on performance capture to drive emotions home. There are more than 12.5 hours of cinematics and automation was one of the keys to keep our team healthy.
What sort of internal discussions led to the decision to remove the hints about long-term impact choices in the game and how did you settle on that final outcome?
The use of modern day performance capture and the high quality of Unreal Engine renders allow us to rely on the performances of our great actors to drive home character reactions. Working alongside the performance capture, the game UI is designed in such a way that it reinforces the emotions and consequences of choice by allowing you to stay immersed in the scene, rather than the interface. We want every decision you make to feel consequential and, with five possible endings, players will discover how choices made throughout their own adventure alter the trajectory of each character.
Image courtesy of Gearbox Studio Quebec
New Tales seems much more interactive than its predecessor, with free walk exploration, an interactive environment, puzzles, and even mini-games. Why did the team decide to expand so much beyond a simple interactive narrative adventure?
Storytelling and humor are the two key features of this game and as such, players will feel right at home in the genre. We wanted to build on top of that and have fun with it ourselves. Not only is there great writing in New Tales from the Borderlands, but also great art. It felt just right to provide moments for the players to explore and look at the tiny and fun details the team carefully crafted which add to the lore, the worldbuilding, the humor, and ultimately to the player’s experience.
Why did the team decide to release the entire game at the same time instead of episodically?
We simply wanted to allow players to enjoy the game in whatever way they like. Having the full story available from day one allows you to decide if they’ll binge the game or consume it one episode at a time. It’s completely up to you!
Image courtesy of Gearbox Studio Quebec
How did Unreal Engine empower your development process, especially given that it occurred during much of the isolation created by the COVID-19 pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge for all of us in many aspects of our lives and that of our loved ones. On the development side, one of our strategies for the game’s development was to automate almost every logistical step in our animation pipeline.
Are there any particular design challenges you overcame that you’d like to walk us through?
A narrative and technical goal in New Tales from the Borderlands was to craft a seamless branching story while making sure the player’s choices felt impactful. We needed to make sure the impact of players’ decisions came through the character's body movements and facial expressions. To that end, we committed early on to performance capture, and then the pandemic struck. We had to rework the story to make sure people on set were safe first and foremost, including cast and crew. Restrictions for shooting allowed less people on set, and this challenge gave us the opportunity to refine the script and make it more poignant.
What tools and elements of Unreal Engine 5 are you most looking forward to in potential future game development?
There are many exciting animation features in Unreal Engine 5. MetaHuman creates thrilling opportunities for future exploration of how we approach storytelling in our games.
Image courtesy of Gearbox Studio Quebec
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I believe our game’s statement sums it up:  We developed this game because we love stories and how they bring people together. Stories show us our humanity—our flaws, our triumphs, our strengths, and our vulnerabilities. We made sure New Tales from the Borderlands is brimming with humanity (and robots—we love our robots, too).
Largely developed in quarantine, we're especially humbled to share this game with you. At Gearbox, we make games because we believe in them. We believe in the capacity of this medium to entertain, inspire, and create joy. That was never more true than during a global pandemic. We created the joy we needed.
From all of us at Gearbox, thank you for being a great human and joining us for this chapter. We'll remember that!
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. Where can people find out more about New Tales from the Borderlands and Gearbox Studio Quebec?
Check out the game’s website.

    Get Unreal Engine today!

    Get the world’s most open and advanced creation tool.
    With every feature and full source code access included, Unreal Engine comes fully loaded out of the box.