Pound of Flesh

Pound of Flesh

On the surface you would think this is old news. Around the release of the first Borderlands game there were a few murmurs on the internet comparing the art style to a short film by the name of “CODEHUNTERS”. Most of these articles were on some smaller, lesser known sites but the most well known online “news” source that ran the story was Kotaku. You can see “CODEHUNTERS” here.

This is the original Borderlands Trailer prior to the style release and here is a game play video from E3 2008.

While it was only brought to their attention by a post on reddit, they tried to contact someone to get more details. Kotaku, for whatever you may think of it, made an effort none of the other sources seemed to. Unfortunately the only person they apparently tried to reach out to was Gearbox, with whom they spoke to its president, Randy Pitchford.

The article leaned in favor of Gearbox and let Pitchford say his piece about this suspicious coincidence. He said that the case of “CODEHUNTERS” it was undoubtedly an inspiration to Gearbox’s artists and compared it to how Battlefield Heroes or Team Fortress 2 were inspired by Pixar’s “The Incredibles”. Pitchford went on to try and strangely give credit to Stateless Films’ “CODEHUNTERS”,

“Perhaps with more attention from gaming news sites and other sources, Code Hunters can be more respected and honored for their innovation and leadership in CG as well. Maybe I’m too optimistic to believe that Code Hunters can get as much attention as Pixar (with due respect I believe they deserve), but with the help of gaming news sites and others who care about great content, maybe more people can notice and recognize and, perhaps, be inspired by it.”

I knew of the comparison before Kotaku took their cue from reddit when I stumbled across a user exchange in a more open forum I go to, but beyond that never gave it anymore thought.

In that time I’ve become something of a journalist and when I decided to review Borderlands 2 holistically I would have to evaluate its art style. No one had contacted Stateless Films yet and I couldn’t properly evaluate it if I hadn’t heard the other side of the story.

MC: Thanks for making the time Ben. I know you’re extremely busy with a number of projects so I greatly appreciate you setting aside a spare moment.

Before Borderlands came out there were a few fans of “CODEHUNTERS” that immediately noticed its art style and a number of elements like set pieces and shots were used in Borderlands after it under went a tremendous visual redesign. The most in-depth reporting that came out on the similarities of your film and Borderlands was a Kotaku article that only seemed to have gotten a response from Gearbox’s President.

In addition to being the Director of the film you also were the one who designed the visual style, right? Did you have a name for it? How did you decide to go with that aesthetic?

BH: Yes that’s correct. I have a background in comic books and illustration – so designing the world and its various characters was very much the first step in creating “CODEHUNTERS”. I grew up in the 80s loving Japanese animation, French graphic novels and American ‘space operas’ all at once. Because we used toon-shaders and hand-painted textures, the visual style of the short film was a direct ‘reproduction’ of my original 2D drawings – so that became our style.

MC: Before I wrote you, were you or Stateless films contacted by anyone in the gaming press to get your side of this whole situation?

BH: The issue of ‘similarity’ between “CODEHUNTERS” and Borderlands has been well documented on-line but no-one has ever contacted me to talk about it.

MC: And neither you nor anyone who worked on “CODEHUNTERS” had been working with Gearbox?

BH: No – but I think most of the team that worked on “CODEHUNTERS” would have loved the opportunity to work on game like that – including myself!

MC: You produced and directed it for the MTV Asia Music awards and it premiered in 2006. Borderlands development team under the direction of Brian Martel changed their art style in early 2009. By virtue of time alone your film was first but despite that, the Kotaku article that had Pitchford’s response brushed it all aside as a matter of inspiration but never really owned the fact that Gearbox didn’t create the style.

Did anyone from Gearbox or 2K Games contact you before the release of Borderlands?

BH: I was contacted by Gearbox prior to the re-design of the game – in 2008. They asked me if I would be interested to direct/design some cut-scenes for them. We exchanged a few emails but the project didn’t materialize in the end. I didn’t think much of it at the time – until I saw the final game in 2009.

MC: How did you feel when you saw what clearly looks like your ideas and design style being used in the game after they said the project that you [would have] been working on would be scrapped?

BH: To be absolutely clear – I have never created or designed anything for Gearbox or Borderlands. Gearbox saw my work and decided to reproduce it – make it their own – without my help or my consent. The hardest part for me when this happened was understanding why they wouldn’t ask me directly. We were already talking about doing some work together – it made no sense.

MC: I know it’s been a long time since then but Gearbox is still making Borderlands and it seems there’s plans to continue the series all while continuing to use an art style that’s been credited to Martel as an 11th hour  stroke of genius. How do you feel about it now?

BH: I always think of the talented team of artists working at Gearbox – who could have created something original and bespoke instead of copying someone else’s short film… and I feel bad for them.

MC: Thank you again Ben. I look forward to your future work.

Even without Hibon’s interview it would be harder to argue someone at Gearbox hadn’t seen the short film made for a large, successful television company (MTV) and decided they would take liberal “inspiration” from it where they felt it was needed.

I contacted Pitchford to give him a chance to respond but he has not replied.

Without a response from someone at Gearbox I cannot say with complete certainty what happened other then that they were aware of Hibon’s film, had contact with him and a chance to do things legitimately but opted to steal his ideas instead. I know from documentation on GDC Vault that was made and by Brian Martel, Co-Founder of Gearbox Executive Vice-President, explaining the process of how it was supposedly developed and why there was a style change.

Martel’s PDF eludes to the idea the development team’s art staff was in trouble from the start. Besides being understaffed the Art Director also left because they were demoralized by the self described “Brown” style and for a “few other reasons”. It seems that while the team seemed to feel this retro look with a focus on vaults was good, it was inevitably brought to their attention by testers that it felt derivative of Fallout 3. Somehow no one who worked 8 or more hours a day for 5 or more days a week realized this. They immediately had to scrap it when it was labored by the testers and they found a lot of their currently implemented story ideas were in-congruent for the serious, gritty visualization. It was a clumsy jumble with no focus and direction.

I believe Gearbox did what they did out of desperation. There were three choices; stick with the current design style and be compared to Rage and Fallout 3, shut it all down and take the failure which would have undoubtedly been difficult for an independent developer like themselves or engage in this suspicious “inspiration” of an independent artist who would have little chance to speak out and gain restitution. They “borrowed” Hibon’s style and didn’t even give him word of credit. Hibon’s style resembles a graphic novel, it would lend itself to humor and these overly ironic bandits, vagina faced monsters and other ideas that didn’t fit in its previous coat of paint could now be excused as humor.

Those are high consequences and it would even been to their favor to have reached back to Hibon instead of ignoring him. He could have come on board as an art director. He’s certainly talented enough and has managed a respectable career on his own, but instead they overlooked talent like we hear happens all too often in the game industry.

What’s most disheartening about this is that the motives for this dishonest act are something the average person could understand. There could be redemption if Gearbox tried to justify their misdeed but it looks like not only will that not happen but that they’re just going to keep going

With Borderlands 2’s recent release and still no acknowledgement of what they’ve done, Gearbox has gone even farther and ripped off another artist. Olly Moss is another freelancer like Hibon and as a freelance artist it is important to maintain a good reputation so people won’t be deterred from hiring you. Moss was employed by Lucas Arts to make a number of clever posters based on the three original Star Wars films using silhouettes of the franchise characters to depict the setting.

This theme and concept not only was stolen for the reverse cover of the Borderlands 2 box art but the actual clouds Moss had drawn himself in one of the posters was placed into the Borderlands 2 image. For the detailed twitter break down check this Kotaku article.

Notice the zigzagging clouds in both images.

How did that all turn out? Moss expressed his disappointment on Twitter and attention grew after it was pointed out an actual element was stolen from his original work. Eventually Pitchford then approached Moss on twitter saying a lot of the same things that Hibon had heard. There was a promise of work to Moss and whether Gearbox will follow through with it this time remains to be seen.

  1. WC Pemm says:

    What a disappointing story. It’s even more disheartening to hear Gearbox isn’t doing much more than blowing smoke. Work as an artist is hard enough to find even when people aren’t jacking your assets.

    Here’s to Hibon, I hope this all works out in his favor.

  2. Troq says:

    There was actually a proper update on the Olly Moss thing on the very same kotaku article.


    Just sayian

  3. Delio Pera says:

    It blows my mind that other, larger sites, call themselves journalists and yet NO ONE reached out to Ben for a comment. That’s just ignorant. Excellent work, Mark.

  4. That’s disheartening to hear.

  5. serpen1 says:

    I’m not even mad. Just disappointed.

    • serpen1 says:

      Oh, and has it seriously gotten to the point where KOTAKU is the one telling the truth? This is a sad day for gaming journalism.

  6. SanderFuckingCohen says:

    Very informative article. I might just be blowing hot air, but I predict you guys are going to get a lot of traffic from this article and ActionPts’ video. Looking forward to it.

  7. nevers says:

    Oh boy… makes me sad. Don’t artist have it hard enough?
    Great article though, This is one I’ll prob be thinking about for a while.

  8. Yalyn V. says:

    Whoa. I was about to buy the Borderlands GOTY strategy book and Borderlands 2 artbook, but now I might want to save my money for something else.

  9. Marcus Puckett says:

    Well you were certainly right Mark, this is a big story. Good work man. I’m even more upset that I paid money for Borderlands 2 now.

    • Mark Ceb says:

      I wish it was good news I had been reporting because I feel bad at how much it’s upsetting people.

      • Delio Pera says:

        I’m glad I know this now. I’ll not be making the mistake of buying more Gearbox games if Randy is spearheading this kind of innovation.

      • Marcus Puckett says:

        Better to be upset and learn from a mistake than blissfully ignorant and never upset at all. Maybe. I don’t think this is the right venue for a philosophical discussion, however.

      • Darth Nikon says:

        Don’t feel bad. I’m not happy with Gearbox, but I’m glad I know not to be happy with them now.

        “Gaming journalism” has needed some actual journalism in it for a long time. Sites like Kotaku function more like extended PR apparatus for game companies; what they did for Gearbox wasn’t actual journalism, it was spin control.

  10. Teze says:

    This just in, gearbox has never innovated anything.

  11. Patrick says:

    I think people are making way too big a deal out of this. When an artist starts a movement in the world of paint, for example, no one asks if they can do the same thing. Do you think anyone asked picasso if he minded if they used cubism? A style is not copyrighted, as long as they didn’t copy characters or use his animations directly there is no foul.

    • Darth Nikon says:

      No foul except for that part where they were going to hire him to do the art direction and to bring his style to the project, but then just duped it and blew him off.

      Copyright isn’t and never was the issue. Dick move is dick move.

    • spddrcr says:

      have you seen codehunters? how can you say the characters were not copied from it, borderlands 2 makes it even more blatant with the addition of tiny tina.
      I love the borderlands franchise and knew after watching the original non cell shaded trailer that it would be a great game, but when this story first was discussed years ago my feelings towards gearbox changed. Since then i have yet to see gearbox come up with an original idea for anything, and continue to shop out the games they are supposed to be making and then blaming the other developers for the poor attempts at what are supposed to be games.
      thanks mark for bringing this back to light and letting us know how Ben felt about it.

  12. INeedAShower says:

    Ugh.. :c Was looking at Randy’s twitter, and saw all those fake accounts praising A:CM. I feel so dirty just looking at his twitter, and especially after looking at his pic. He looks so nasty.

  13. Alexandru Crudu says:

    This article got linked in a Forbes article yesterday.

  14. tz says:

    Mark has always been legit as fuck. Maybe a little too legit for my tastes.

  15. Cameron says:

    Am I the only one who sees it’s just cell-shaded? I’m not seeing much similarity otherwise.

  16. Saigi says:

    I just realized this, and I know others will say what they want about the whole thing. Borderlands does and always has made reference to other things, subtle or not, I mean BL2 has a mission where you kill Raph, Leo, Mich, and Don and they live in the sewers and eat Pizza, who does that sound like OH YEAH the ninja turtles. I don’t think the game really made out to rip off other artists but actually to show their “appreciation” and or “homage” to these references. However I agree that credit being given to the natural creators is due, I mean they reference a lot of things and I don’t think they even considered what it would mean to give credit do the rightful owners. I mean in the Newest DLC they have a mission where you kill that annoying king guy from Game of Thrones,(which I’ve never seen) but I have heard of the characters.

    However the similarities between both Codehunters and Borderlands is extremely close knit, they are still both different in their different aspects.

    I have to say I am a fan of both, and if Ben ever SELLS codehunters on a DVD or something I would most likely Want it… just wish he made more that would draw the attention back to him

  17. T. Bone says:

    Critical, biatch.

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  19. jerm gurnalizm says:

    Randy Pitchford is a scumbag , Gearbox is shit and Anthony Burch is a mangina. Nuff’ said.

  20. Chloe says:

    You do realize that even Codehunters was inspired by stuff the creators loved, right? Codehunters did not create cel-shaded graphics. They did not create dystopian western environments. There are japanese animes that strongly resemble Codehunters. On top of all this you cant trademark an arristic style. Gearbox did absolutely nothing wrong here. They created their own planet/universe with its own backstory. If they used Codehunters as inspiration that isnt wrong. This happens in art across every medium everywhere. Whats the point of this article but to push your agenda? You are obviously anti-Gearbox. But you have literally nothing. What are you going to watch every anime and read every graphic novel to pinpoint where this style originated?

    Lazy pointless journalism if you ask me.

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