Borderlands: PC version with crispest image possible
Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford delivers an interesting insight into the technical background of the forthcoming action game Borderlands.
Since the announcement of Borderlands in 2007 the visual appearance of the game has experienced a fundamental change. From the original, more realistic look, the developers switched to a new Concept Art Style, which looks a little bit like cel-shaded graphics. In the trailer which has been released in course of the Comic Con 2009 the Concept Art Style was quite impressive already. PC Games Hardware once again had the change to interview one of minds behind the project. Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford answered our questions about the Role Playing Shooter. Borderlands is scheduled for international release on October 23, 2009.
PCGH: Why did you decide to change the Unreal Engine 3 look of Borderlands to the Concept Art Style? What are the technical and optical differences between Concept Art Style and for example Cell-Shading? Do you had to modify the Renderer of Epics Technology for the new look?
Randy Pitchford: The unique Concept Art Style look of Borderlands combines a number of technologies and techniques. From a technique point of view, there is artistry involved - the materials are all hand painted, for example, and there are other authoring techniques that are specific to the art direction. But there is also sophisticated software underneath to render the content and that software significantly impacts the image that we're all seeing. I think a huge component of what makes the Borderlands art direction look so unique is the graphics technology and the blending of hand painted content with realistic rendering models. Starting with Unreal Engine 3 is a great place to begin as the software is very capable of a lot of flexibility with materials and shaders. Gearbox engineers added custom technologies to bring advanced realistic lighting and shading software to render with the hand painted surfaces.
PCGH: Do you heavily modify epics technology? If yes which parts of the Unreal Engine 3 were modified to tailor the technology to the requirements of the game? Which parts remained untouched?
Randy Pitchford: Most of the new technologies Gearbox Software engineers architected were crafted to layer onto Unreal Engine 3 non-invasively so as to allow us to continuously take new innovations and improvements from Epic's engineers during the game's development. The specifics on the sum of the new and iterated software that Gearbox is responsible for is non-trivial and far beyond the scope of this kind of interview.
PCGH: What do you think are now the graphical highlights of your game? Does the render utilize features like Parallax Occlusion Mapping, Soft Shadows, HDR Rendering, Screen Space Ambient Occlusion or Depth of Field?
Randy Pitchford: Yes - Gearbox Software engineers have developed all of these technologies (and many others). Although, Occlusion shaders turned out not to be substantially relevant for the Borderlands game and come at a great performance cost and so are not recommended on the consoles. That performance impact might be able to be mitigated by some powerful PC's, but it's not worth the trade-off in my opinion. Meanwhile, the Gearbox implementation of Ambient Occlusion is really interesting. It's extremely fast and looks great. There are some interesting side effects with the implementation as well when objects that touch other surfaces move along them and appear to leave an imprint trail of sorts. It's quite nice in some instances, but, I think, is purely an accident :) All in all, though, I am terrible impressed by the ambient occlusion in the Borderlands rendering. Additionally, I'm impressed by how dynamic day/night has been implemented in the game.
PCGH: You develop your title for PS3 and Xbox 360 too. Will your modified engine then be a pure cross-platform product or will there be an optimized version for the PC? If there is a special built for the PC what technical feature can't be realized with the console version - for example a higher texture resolution?
Randy Pitchford: Although the source content for each version of the game is largely identical (with very few exceptions), the image rendered for each platform is specific to the hardware's capability on that platform. The high-end PC version will feature the crispest image possible. Higher fidelity rendering of the content (including high resolution materials) is just one obvious advantage the PC version will have in terms of image quality. Having said that, both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 are capable of rendering the game in high definition to a fidelity where 99% (guessing here - I haven't done an actual study) of the general population would not substantially notice or feel the quality difference between the platforms.
PCGH: Developing for Console and PC usually requires an engine that is strongly multithreaded. Is that the case with your engine? If yes how does the engine profit from dual- or quad-core CPUs? What different calculations can be or are split up into different threads and what is the expected performance gain resulting from two respectively four or more cores?
Randy Pitchford: One of the neat advantages of using Unreal Engine 3 for the PS3, 360 and PC is that some degree of concurrency is accounted for out of the box. Gearbox engineers have threaded other systems, some stock, some proprietary, as performance gains were possible and stalls didn't have to be created to do it. The specific performance differences between various multi-core, multi-processor PC's are affected by so many other factors that impact a PC's performance that I would not want to comment specifically at this time about quantitative performance differences. I have contemplated Borderlands offering a command line time-demo feature for benchmarking with the PC version, like we did for the PC version of Halo, but I haven't talked to any of the graphics engineers about that yet because at this stage it could be a distraction. If we do that, it will be one of those things that go in at the last minute that's specific to the PC version of course.
PCGH: The PC version supports DX 10. Do you use advanced features of DirectX 10/Shader Model 4 like Geometry Shader, Virtual Texture Management or better Multisampling Anti Aliasing etc.? Can you please give examples how they are utilized? Will the DX 10 visualization differ substantially from the graphics that are rendered with DX 9 hardware?
Randy Pitchford: The DX 10 image will be comparable to the DX 9 image, but it's likely that users will see some performance differences. There are likely some differences in the image, too, but for most customers these differences won't be noticed.
PCGH: Vehicles especially vehicle physics play an important role in Borderlands and so you are using the Physx API. Are there other highlights as far as physics in Borderlands is concerned? Will there be a support for hardware accelerated physics (Nvidia GPU Physx)?
Randy Pitchford: Vehicles and a large number and variety of particles for effects are all over the game. There are also a number of character related physics simulations going on. So, I would expect Borderlands to offer some performance advantages for Physx enabled hardware, but we haven't benchmarked that recently (or, if any Gearbox engineers have on their own, I haven't seen the results). If we do the time-demo benchmarking feature, it will be interesting to see the actual performance differences that result from the various hardware configurations with respect to physics.