Making a Compact Gun in the Borderlands Style

Making a Compact Gun in the Borderlands Style

Romain Lambert shared the process of creating a Compact Gun in the unique style of the Borderlands series in Blender and Substance Painter.

Introduction

Hello! My name is Romain Lambert and I’m a 3D Artist currently working as a Content/Environment Artist on an unannounced title at Gearbox Studio Québec. Before that, I had the pleasure to work on Borderlands 3 and some of its DLCs.

My passion for the video game industry came years ago when I was still a teenager. While I was playing Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, I realized that I wanted this passion to become more than just a hobby but also my future career and so, here I am today.

In short, I studied the 3D Game Art course at the HEAJ (Haute Ecole Albert Jacquard in Belgium), then after those studies and some freelance work, I managed to get a 1-year Holiday/Work permit for Canada. It’s something that people from Belgium and France can obtain pretty easily due to some affiliations between our countries. So, at the age of 24, I came to Montréal to start a new life and search for a job in this big industry. At that time, I was still working as a freelancer to earn income to be able to live there and after months of research, I finally got my dream job at Gearbox Studio Québec. I’ve been here for almost 3 years and I’m really happy to work on wonderful projects with great coworkers.

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Compact Gun: Art & Inspiration

I’m someone who loves 2D and 3D art in general. I like a lot of different visuals from games, movies, or comic books but for my personal art, I prefer to work on something more stylized than realistic. I find it more enjoyable to try to embellish the reality of the world by creating something new without all the imperfections that exist in real life. Of course, it is a matter of personal taste but that’s why I love to work on Borderlands with its unique look due to the inking process. By working at Gearbox, I’ve found an art style that fits me and I want to continue making personal art in order to progress and grow as an artist.

In terms of art, I really like the work of Fernando Correa so I wanted to recreate something from him. I was almost sure that his designs could match the Borderlands style pretty well and I think that I was right. Now I want to implement even more of them!

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Stage 1. Blockout

After looking through the art of Fernando, I finally chose to work on his Compact Personal Defense Gun which is really lovely, but I also kept some of his other artworks as references.

Then I started to take other references, not so many but some like one stylized gun, one realistic gun, and a few Borderlands pieces. It’s important to work based on art and reference that you like in order not to rely only on your imagination, the same story applies to the inking.

I also wanted to give the concept a personal touch so I thought about adding a small trinket at the bottom of the gun like in another concept from Fernando, that’s how the idea of the panda trinket came alive.

When my PureRef board was ready, I began to work on the blockout of the model inside Blender. I put the concept art in the back and started to create the gun with basic shapes to quickly have the overall design and the right dimensions. Concepts often have a perspective different from the model in 3D, so it’s important to create a simple blockout in the first place to be sure that everything seems good enough to begin the high res model. For the trinket, I found a cute panda keychain on Google and put the picture on my Blender scene to model the basic shape based directly on it. It was pretty easy and fun to do but I had to remake it once because my first version was too low poly and sharp angles could be seen from afar… yes, even simple stuff can take time.

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Stage 2. High Res

Why Blender? I began to use Blender with the 2.8 beta version which has an amazing viewport. It has a nice interface and it's really more enjoyable to model there, so I’m always using Blender now for my personal work, and I've also started switching to it at work with some of my coworkers. At the moment, Blender is still not perfect for the game production pipeline but some of the add-ons/plugins are really great and can be super useful to speed up your production. As a free software solution, it could be interesting to try it if you want to test new workflows that you may like better.

The plugins are the second reason why I’m using Blender now to model. Since I have discovered the Hardops and Boxcutter add-ons, I saved so much time and it’s really precious when you only have limited free time to work on your personal project. For example, I used the latter tool to create all the bolt holes and the gaps in this model.

Hardops has also a great and smarter bevel modifier, I used it to create my final high res model by working on the weight value of the edges to find the perfect bevels amount for the baking part. With the non-destructive workflow, you can modify all this pretty easily during the production which allows you to work more efficiently.

Stage 3. Low Poly

When my high res model was done, I duplicated it and started to rework the modifiers by erasing the bevels or keeping some of them with a really small value where it was useful to have smoother edges. I applied the booleans, then cleaned up the model to finally have something around 8k tris. As a personal project, I wanted it to have enough polys for close shots while keeping it as a game-ready model.

The next step was to create the UVs. First, I exported my model inside Maya because I’m used to this software and its UV tool is one of the best. I like to use the camera-based option and the unfold tool to unwrap my models. Then, I straightened and packed my UVs to have something as good as possible for the baking part. Also, keep in mind that you need to maintain a good pixel ratio to have the same ink quality everywhere during the texturing of this kind of inked model. You don’t want to see aliasing at the edges of your painted lines.

A quick tip: To have the best quality possible you can share some of your UV space by duplicating some faces symmetrically. But take care not to duplicate the faces where you will add a written text afterward because it will be reversed on the other side of the model like in a mirror.

At this point, my model was ready for the next step. I had a good topology, one UV set of 2048 for the gun, and one smaller set for the tiny glass on the front of the laser.

Stage 4. Backing

This step can be quick or really tricky when you have a few bugs that you need to resolve. Marmoset Toolbag seems to have a great tool for baking but I still need to try it. Otherwise, I can direct you to this great tutorial by Leonardo Iezzi to learn more about normal backing.

On my side, I used Painter and my first bake was pretty clean but still not perfect. That’s alright, you need to take your time while baking to be sure that everything is correct.
After minor tweaks on my model (like having a better topology/triangulation to support the bake), it was finally looking good except for the panda trinket which had weird shading issues. I was more concentrated on the gun during the process and I found big errors in its topology later on… yet again, this small trinket made me lose some time but this is where we can learn from our mistakes to improve for the next project!

Stage 5. Inking

I used Substance Painter to make the texturing and inking of my compact gun. My first step was to add some height details like bolts with the help of alphas. I also like to slightly add my AO in multiply and my Curvature in overlay on top of my layers stack to create more shadows and highlights, it already gives a more stylized look to your model.

Otherwise, this time I wanted to begin with the inking process before creating all the materials. This way, I could draw the inks more freely just with the concept in mind without a bias to the generators' effects or some grunges that I like to add at the end of my texturing. Those inks are all hand-painted on the model and follow the techniques and rules that we have at Gearbox. Some examples: 1. you need to take care not to have too many straight lines; 2. you need to have different line sizes; 3. you need to have different line types depending on the material or the surface type (organic/hard surface); etc.

If you look at my compact gun, you will be able to see that the style of my inks is not the same on the plastic than on the metal. It’s great to have a different feeling based on the material type to bring more depth into your inking and to break the number of similarities. Also, the black lines are painted into the Base Color and I like to add them in the roughness, too. White lines and shadows are only painted in the Base Color with some opacity around 25%, these highlights are important to make the inks stand out even more.

A quick tip: The best way to reproduce or learn more about the inks is to look at the references or play the games (yes, this is even better, do it guys!).

Stage 6. Texturing

My texturing process is kind of always the same. I start by creating folders and basic colors to separate different kinds of materials that I will have like plastic, metal, and the extras (emissive or stickers). Then I begin with a basic material, add some dirt based on my AO and edge highlights based on my curvature with the help of generators. Next, I work on my base color to be sure to have all my colors with good values because it’s important not to have too saturated or desaturated colors if you want them to work well in PBR. Same for the metal, the values of your metallic pieces need to be right, otherwise, it will look bad or too dark during the rendering. Unity has a nice chart for this:

When all these steps are done, I start working more on my roughness to add nice subtle effects that would bring the piece alive with a more grounded look. Even for this kind of stylized model, it’s important to keep in mind that you are creating this with the PBR workflow so it must have few imperfections as dirt, rust, and scratches to tell a story and feel realistic. My last steps are to add some grunges in the base color and in the roughness to have a bit of color variation and even more subtle details. Then, I add some gradients as the final touch.

So for this model, I did almost everything in the same way. I started by using some basic materials from Substance or a few of my personal smart materials, then added different colors for the plastic and some metallic variations to make the different parts of the model stand out better. I added dirt, damages, and oxidation with generators followed by some grunges to tint my base color and add details in my roughness and at the end, a specific grunge to add rust on a few parts of my metallic areas. After that, I added all the stickers. I worked on the emissive and the glass material, then checked if everything was good in my base color, my roughness, and my metal map to finally add a soft gradient on the plastic and a tiny sharpen to boost the overall texturing details. When this is done, you can export and take a well-deserved break.

One more thing, I also used some smart materials, alphas, and decals from JRO as basic material and for the stickers. Remember: work smarter not harder. It’s great to achieve everything by yourself but sometimes looking for helpers can be precious. Same about the feedbacks, don’t hesitate to ask for advice on your work during your production process. Nowadays, there are a lot of communities where you can find awesome people and gather as many feedbacks as necessary to push your work to the next level!

Stage 7. Rendering

I used Marmoset Toolbag to render my Compact Gun. It is a really great software solution to present props or characters and allows creating a nice scene pretty quickly with lights and post-process.

For the lighting in general, I first choose my Sky/HDRI, then decrease its brightness to a very small value and start working on each light individually to manage them correctly without being distracted by the sky or the other lights. For this scene in particular, I added one key light, one overhead light, two rim lights, and three omni lights to highlight all interesting parts of my model. It’s a good idea to use references for this step too. And here is an interesting gun lighting tutorial to help you achieve better results.

Of course, I enabled the global illumination as well as some post effects in the render and camera settings to give a more realistic look to my stylized gun. I also used the Hejl Tone Mapping instead of the linear one to bring deeper colors to the scene. Otherwise, for this project, I did not activate the local reflections because it was messing with my outline but you can’t really tell the difference so I’m already very happy with the result.

To finish this rendering section, I’m going to shortly speak about this black outline that I have around my model. It’s not a custom shader or something fancy but a simple duplicated version of my model. In your modeling software, you need to make a copy of your model, then extrude its faces a tiny bit and reverse its normals. After that, you can apply a basic solid black material to the mesh inside of Marmoset Toolbag.

A quick tip: Don’t forget to enable the backface culling mode to be able to see the reverse normals in your software like Blender, Maya, or 3dsMax.

For more information about it, you can check this great tutorial made by Christoph Schoch:

Conclusion

Working on this project was a real pleasure. I enjoy doing smaller props like this Compact Gun because it allows you to continue improving your skills without taking too much time to finish the model. And it’s always pleasant to work on concept art from one of your favorite artists!

So, what’s next for me? I will probably keep doing props and materials in the Borderlands style to improve my personal and professional skills at the same time.

But what about you? You could do the same. Choose a concept that you like, find your style, aim for a small scope, and go ahead! Nothing but you yourself can stop you from learning or progressing further. I know that the motivation can be hard to find but we are living in a world where there are lots of communities and tutorials available online that can provide you with help and feedback so there are no excuses. The game industry is still growing and needs more and more artists to create some huge scale games and you could be the next one to work on them. For that my advice will be: don’t be afraid to believe in yourself.

That’s all, thank you for reading. It was a pleasure to write this breakdown, and I hope it was useful and could motivate some of you to work hard and maybe try this artstyle!

Romain Lambert, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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    Making a Compact Gun in the Borderlands Style