Rod Fergusson interview: part two

Here it is: the second part of my interview with Epic Games’ Rod Fergusson, who was the executive producer on the Gears of War games.

Executive producer: Epic Games' Rod Fergusson

Run through some of the major changes with Gears of 3

Wow, there are so many. Four-player co-op is definitely one of the major changes, then we’ve got arcade mode, which is on top of the campaign mode. The campaign mode is significantly longer in Gears 3 than in Gears 2 but even so, we wanted people to go back and play that content over and over, so we created this arcade mode where you can play the different chapters in the story for score. Then we have Horde 2.0, which is basically a revamped Horde mode where you’ve got essentially a tower defence vibe to it now where you have fortifications and turrets and sentries that you can build, you have boss waves, we’ve got mini-challenges while you play, and a sort of persistent skill level where you initially can only build barbed wire but then you can build up to a laser fence. With Horde being the number one way to play online for Gears 2, we were kind of like ”OK, we need another co-op mode” and we looked at what else was uniquely Gears and a lot of shooters today are human vs human so we decided to let people play as the locust, which is Beast mode, and your goal is to destroy the humans in five player co-op.

And then we have our multiplayer, and we’ve made a lot of changes. We’ve got dedicated servers around the world so things like host advantage is no longer an issue and it avoids things like people trying to cheat by doing lag switching, that sort of thing, and we’ve actually created a casual area inside our competitive multiplayer so that when new players come and have never played Gears before, they can actually go into a special area where they can play against other people who have never played before so they can have that fun and learn without being harassed by hardcore players all the time. And then we’ve got new weapons, new abilities (see where weapons spawn, etc). We really focused on making this game the most accessible version of Gears yet. We realised that, OK, we have our fan base and have our core that love the game but what we want to do now is create a game that satisfies them but also reaches out to a new audience. If you haven’t played Gears 1 or 2, then Gears 3 really is the best way to get into this franchise.

Do you find that a lot of people play Gears just for the multiplayer and not look at the campaign?

We usually have an achievement pretty early on in the campaign so we can see roughly how many people play the campaign, and I think it’s about 20 per cent of the [Gears of War 2] players have played multiplayer but haven’t played campaign. So there are some people who come to it for that but predominantly people come to play the campaign, at least in the past. Something that we really focused on in Gears 3 is that we recognise that in this industry now, multiplayer is kind of king and so we really tried to balance it. In the past in Gears 1 and 2, we put a lot of effort into the campaign and not as much effort into the multiplayer side, whereas now in Gears 3 we’ve really put a lot more effort into that side to kind of raise them both up equally, so with the dedicated servers and the six multiplayer modes and all the features you can get in those modes, we’ve really put a lot more investment into that side.

Having worked on the franchise for so long, how do you feel personally that this is the end of the trilogy featuring Marcus, Dom and the other characters?

It’s hard. It’s bittersweet because I’m really proud with what we’ve accomplished with the trilogy, and specifically with this game. One of the things I’m always proud of is just the values in the game. As a developer, I probably buy three or four games a month and I don’t think that much about it but I know there are people out there who only buy one or two games a year and so when I look at what’s in Gears with all the features, I’m really proud of what we’re delivering to the customer.

We’ve been with these characters for so long and it gets comfortable and when we were first writing Gears of War scripts and we didn’t have the voices yet it was hard to think about what they were going to sound like and now it’s really kind of easier to write these scripts, because you can hear the actor saying it in your head as you type. So, it’s a little bit sad but I think harder, too, is the fact that I do have that relationship with the cast: it isn’t just about these digital friends. I have actual, real friends who are the voices of these characters that I’ve worked with for the last six years and have real meaningful relationships. To know that what was once ”OK, see you in a year when we’ll do this all over again” to now an uncertain future, it’s harder.

How important is getting the right voice to creating credible characters?

Oh, it’s hugely important, hugely important. I’d never worked with union talent before – like true professional voice actors – and having done that with the Gears franchise, the difference is just amazing. There’s such a quality level that speaks to you: you can actually feel it in the game. In the long run a union actor will be more expensive, but they have this work ethic to get through so much and you’re not having to go over things. Originally we did some sample tests and had people do stuff and it would take half an hour to get one line out of them whereas with union actors they work so much and it’s so easy to say ”I’m looking for this” then bam, 10 seconds later you’ve got the line. Part of it is beyond the quality of the talent because I really do think when you look at the talent that is on Gears of War as a voice cast, we really have one of the best casts in the industry. They’re just so good. But what really matters to me is their engagement level in the game, and by that I mean they just are fans of their own characters and it’s not just showing up for a pay cheque.

It’s they come and they care and so now especially on Gears 3 (and we found this on Gears 2) we’d come to them and they have a line to read and they say ”You know, I don’t feel like Anya would say it that way or Anya is feeling like this. What do you think about that?” and they could bring their own performance and bring their own ideas because they’re invested in the characters.

You see that with Carlos Ferro (who voices Dominic Santiago). He just loves getting out there, and he was with me in Mexico where he met 2000 fans and the game is part of him. Dom is part of him now and he likes to represent that as much as he can. I like that. I like working with people where this isn’t just a gig. I like working with people who have a care factor because I’m coming in as a passionate creator and as someone who loves this franchise and loves these characters and I don’t want either to be disrespected so when we hire new people and we bring them in, I literally welcome them to the Epic family. I’m like ”Welcome to the Gears family. This is a close knit group and we’re really glad to have you.”

How hard is it to create such a memorable cast and series like Gears?

It’s hard because you’re walking a fine path between character types that people can relate to instantly versus cliches and so it’s a difficult line, then trying to find those interesting personality quirks to make them human and give them a reason for people to care about them. It’s been interesting for us to have three different writers on all three games and I think each of the writers has bought their own aspect in and helped develop those characters.

Do you have one character that you really identify with, one you have an almost spiritual connection with?

Ah, a little bit. To me I have a real connection with Marcus. I laughed the other day because I realised that I say ”Nice” a lot. People will show me something and I’ll say ”Nice”, I’ll do that, and I realised that ”Oh wait a sec, I think I’ve taken that, one of my own speech patterns and I put that on Marcus.That’s one thing Marcus is known for: saying ‘Niiiice’,” (Ferguson does an impression of how Marcus would say it). “So, I actually think that came from me but when you look at all the characters there’s something about each of them that I really like and enjoy.

Like when I play Horde now, I play as Dizzy. Peter Jason, who does the voice of Dizzy, has some of the greatest ad-libs ever and so they make it into the game, and listening to some of his stuff just makes me laugh out loud. And when I think back to the Maria scene in Gears of War 2 and thinking about Carlos in the studio, I mean, Carlos literally cried in the studio when he was doing that scene and so I have this affection for Dom, too, in the way I think about Dom as a character. And Lester Speight is a living Cole: he’s about as big as Cole and just as enthusiastic so it’s kind of weird that Lester really is the kind of living and breathing Cole Train. Then amongst all these really big men and big personalities is Nan McNamara – who voices Anya – who I found while watching the movie The Avengers on DVD. It opens with this scene of them looking for Captain America on an iceberg and Betty Ross is reading off all these technical requirements and I’m like ”Oh, that’s the voice we’ve been looking for for this woman who can carry off a technical conversation but still have a sexy voice to her.” So Nan was cast from me watching cartoons.

Is this the end of Marcus and Dom? Really?

Well, this is the end of this story and we’ve already announced the Season Pass for the four pieces of DLC that we’re doing so we’re really focused on that, but we’re not really sure what the future holds for the franchise.

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