I finished Gears of War 3’s campaign mode on Sunday at 8.30am after three days of on-off playing since I started playing it on Friday.
I’ll post my review tomorrow but I’ll tell you right now that I loved the game from start to finish and it’s definitely the best Gears game to date. The narrative is much improved on the first two games. There are some really poignant and emotionally-driven scenes that tug at the heart strings, that’s for sure.
SO inn anticipation of the game’s release tonight at midnight, here’s part one of my interview with Epic Games’ Rod Fergusson, who was executive producer for the three-game series (part two will run tomorrow). Today, Fergusson talks about what he thinks made the series appeal to fans and how he never expected the series to be as popular as it became.
You were executive producer on all three Gears of War games. What does your daily work entail?
When I was executive producer of the whole franchise it was my job to make sure that everything was of a certain quality and made sense, and I’m including in that the video games, the novels, the comics, the action figures, all that stuff. I was really the first point for continuity. I was sort of the touchstone for all stuff Gears related.
And then on the video game side specifically it was really overseeing the project: what are the milestones? What’s the feature set? What are we working towards? Basically working to facillitate everything the team needed to ship the game. A lot of people think it’s sort of a project manager but the nice thing about being an executive producer, especially at Epic, is that I have a little bit more chance to get my hands into everything. I helped with the voiceover casting recording, I helped with the design, I helped a little bit on the dialogue of the combat chatter, so you get to put your fingers into a little bit of everything.
Did you or Epic expect the franchise to be as popular as it has become?
No, you don’t really expect this kind of success. One of the things we did have was a goal when we started Gears 1 in that we didn’t want it to be ”just a game”. Six years ago we were really thinking that we want more than just a game. We wanted to make a world that has an opportunity to create a lot of stories so that we could do comic books, so we could do novels, so that we could do action figures and so it wasn’t just about the video game at that time. When I spoke to the team that year, 2006 when we shipped, I spoke them about how fortunate we are in that this was like a bottle and that we had captured something that was really, really rare, so to go on and not have that one success but continued success is great. Gears of War 3 is probably the best video game that Epic Games has ever made and we’re really, really proud of it so to be able to not only continue to work on this franchise but to continue do such quality as we do so has been exciting.
For you, what is it about Gears of War that has struck a chord with gamers and made it popular?
I think there are a couple of universal things. One is that we try to ground the world that you play in so I think Sera as a planet, we made it very familiar with a lot of similarities to Earth so that it’s much easier to engage with. When we were designing this world we decided we don’t want a science-fiction world of chrome and glass and neon. What we want is something that feels old and feels ancient and feels like a civilisation has lived there. There’s a lot of weight to it: there’s marble and granite and big men – when they slam into cover they hit hard and the dust kicks up. So before we could do this fantastic stuff of all the creatures and monsters, we wanted to have a solid grounding in the world and we feel that that resonates with a lot of people. If you look at the action itself, too, it’s so visceral in that over-the-top way with the chainsaw gun, and how tight the camera is when you roadie-run. That visceralness, that intensity, we call it the ”sweaty palms” in that when you play the game you find your palms start to get sweaty because of the intensity of everything – and I think that really brings people to it.
And third, I think it’s the characters. Every time we do a satisfaction survey with customers, they always talk about the story and characters. I think a lot of shooters nowadays have the faceless hero when they try to make the player the character and so you kind of get this silence on the screen and a lack of personality. Gears is never afraid to show personality and have the characters have character and I think you see that resonates with people, that people are hardcore devoted fans of the Cole Train or of Dizzy or of Baird or of Marcus and people just love the characters for what they are. I think people have a real attachment to it and because of that, it’s one of the reasons we brought female Gears into GOW3. We saw that everyone had a character to latch on to – almost all personality types are reflected in the Gears squad but we didn’t have that character that a female gamer could really relate to and really represent themselves into the game, so in GOW3 we decided to bring female soldiers so that when they play online (female gamers) they can play as female soldiers.
Right. When we started off in Gears 1 we didn’t have a lot of time to communicate with people about the characters and all their backstories and we wanted to have this sort of blockbuster pace – a summer popcorn movie pace to it – and because of that you sort of paint with broad brushstrokes to get across these kinds of characterisations really quickly so you try to find things that people can relate to immediately: ”Oh, I get the African-American jock in Cole, oh I get the white sarcastic bastard in Baird, oh I get the anti-hero in Marcus, oh I got the best friend in Dom,” that sort of thing. They are immediately recognisable and people can latch on to them, which was great through one and two, but now in three we’ve been able to develop those characters more so they become more archetypes rather than characterisations: getting to show a little bit of that background of Cole and show some chinks in the armour and that he’s getting a little old and he longs for the days of being a superstar again. It provides a deeper meaning to all the characters.
Who puts the most pressure on you for the series: yourselves? The fans? Microsoft?
I think a lot of the pressure we put on ourselves. We look at what the fans expect and what the industry expects and we kind of put it on to ourselves. I think that when Epic builds games we want them to be as polished as possible so we’d rather build a smaller game that is high quality than build a big game that is mediocre. In Gears 1 and 2 we were like ”OK we’re not going to be able to polish that part so let’s just cut it out,” and that way we’d make a better overall product and as we get ready for GOW3 it was harder to do that knowing that this is the end of this story with Marcus and we just felt we didn’t want to cut too much. It was sort of, ”Well, we can’t cut that because we won’t be putting it into the next one” – and there was a lot of pressure to make this the biggest and best game we’ve done, the biggest, best Gears you can do. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make it the biggest and the best. I’m really grateful for the extension that we got from April to September from Microsoft because we were on track to ship but what we decided to do was rather than add a bunch of new features we just decided to put it all into quality so we did the beta to make the multiplayer a higher quality and just spend a lot of time on the campaign and Beast and Horde modes. We just pushed to make those more and more polished. I think a lot of that six months of extra time really fed into making Gears 3 such a great game.
How hard is making the second game in a series?
It depends on how you define hardest. Gears 1 was really difficult in a sense of how much extra effort and teamwork was required to get it out. When you look at all the risk that was involved: we had a new team that hadn’t done a story-driven game since Unreal 1, on top of a new platform that hadn’t even been released yet, on top of an engine that wasn’t finished yet and when you put all these risks together it was a miracle that Gears 1 shipped at all, and especially in the time frame that it did. For me, Gears of War is one of the things I am most proud – the ability of us to come together as a team to deliver such a product. Gears of War 2 was a little easier because all we had to do was put in a lot of stuff that we weren’t able to put into Gears 1. GOW3 wasn’t as hard from a production standpoint as GOW1 because we’d been through this before and we knew what to expect and how to plan our time better, and manage risk better, but it was harder because Gears 3 is a game of nuance. Where GOW2 was kind of obvious, by the time we got to Gears 3 it was sort of ”Well, we’ve kind of made some of the big things we wanted fix with 1, now what?” With Gears 3 there tended to be a lot more subtle things and that was harder to lock on but it came out with cool things like the mantle kick, where you can mantle over cover and the bag-n-tag, where you can take a meat shield and punch a grenade on them and kick them away … it added a layer of finesse to the series.
I’ll post the second half of the interview tomorrow, when Fergusson talks about the main changes in Gears of War 3, getting the voice acting right, and which character he identifies with most.