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GDC 2010, Day 3: Diversity Or Fragmentation?

Postmortem City: Uncharted 2 And Borderlands

It’s always fun to sit in on game postmortems. You get a real glimpse under the hood of the “sausage factory,” and it’s always illuminating to see just how much clever and creative effort goes into making really good games.

Richard Lemarchand, the co-lead game designer of the blockbuster Playstation 3 title Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, walked the audience through the effort to make the game. The overall vision was to build a game that felt like a blockbuster summer action movie. If sales and critical acclaim are any indication, Lemarchand and the team at Naughty Dog succeeded.

One of the primary goals was to make the story character-driven, rather than plot-driven, something fairly unusual in these types of action games. The pre-production phase took about six months, ending in the final “macro design” for the game. While many game companies create a big bible for the game, commonly called a design document, the macro design is really just a spreadsheet--and not all that large a spreadsheet. The macro design contained overviews of levels, encounters, enemies, and characters.

One of the intriguing tech bits was the use of hand-optimized code for the Cell processor in the graphics engine. In fact, unlike many PS3 titles, Uncharted 2 uses the Cell SPUs for vertex and pixel processing, while other shaders would run on the Nvidia-designed RSX GPU.

The one feature that did rise up and bite them hard was the action set-pieces, which Naughty Dog tends to prefer over QTEs (quick time events) prevalent in similar games. These set-pieces would play out similarly, though with some variety each time, and create memorable encounters during the game. However, they consumed substantially more time and resources than initially allocated, resulting in a long period of heavy “crunch time” in order to ship the game.

Borderlands Art Direction Postmortem

The initial vision for Gearbox’s first person shooter-RPG hybrid was “Halo meets Diablo.” Set on the planet Pandora, Borderlands is mostly a first person shooter, but incorporates RPG elements through a combination of diverse skill trees for each character type, plus hundreds of thousands of procedurally created guns, each with different capabilities.

The game started out as a realistic looking, Gears-of-War style shooter--what Brian Martel of Gearbox liked to call the game’s “Brown Period.” The color brown not only reflected the look, which was similar to games like Gears of War and Fallout 3, but the approach to the game--an entertaining, but somewhat by-the-numbers shooter.

The problem was that the game felt good, the various game systems worked well, but the over-the-top action seemed a mismatch compared to the gritty, realistic look. So, the graphical design was changed. The change to the new look--a cel-shading over texture map appearance that gives the game a graphic novel feel--came nearly 3/4 through the schedule.

A major alteration like this would have derailed many games, but Gearbox’s artists and developers took to it like a duck to water. When the “brown look” was washed away, the level and game designers also felt freed up to do crazy stuff. For example, the soldier has a wacky power where if they shoot their friends, they heal them. A shotgun blast might do some healing, while a headshot with a sniper rifle might restore all of their hit points. Animations, particularly death animations, are now over the top, with graphic gib effects, not to mention sometimes melting into a puddle of goo. Odd weapons, like the psycho’s “extreme pizza cutter of death” also emerged.

As one of the Gearbox artists noted, the change in art style not only made the game stand out from a crowd of gritty, realistic titles, but also allowed them to “break our plausibility shackles.”