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.
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.
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.