Interview – Epic’s Rod Fergusson

By Stephany Nunneley, Thursday, 17 June 2010 21:15 GMT

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Epic showed off Gears of War 3 in a big way during the Microsoft press conference at E3 this week by debuting the game’s new co-op mode, Beast, and a more open-air feel that contrasts greatly when compared to Gears 2.

With a new look thanks to an upgraded Unreal Engine 3, and new ways to fight for your survival against the Horde and a new imposing threat, Epic is confident that Gears 3 will be a satisfactory conclusion a storyline that started back in 2006 with the original Gears of War.

During a Microsoft party last evening, VG247 had a chance to sit down and talk to the game’s executive producer Rod Fergusson, who shared with us the developmental thinking behind adding four-player co-op to series already renown for cooperative experiences.

[Interview by Patrick Garratt]

VG247: So, Gears 3 is the end of Gears of War.

Rod Fergusson: It’s the end of this story. It’s the end of the trilogy, basically, the conclusion to this epic trilogy to give a satisfying ending to the player so that he feels as if he’s actually accomplished something.

So, it’s really focused on giving some closure and the feeling of like “Yeah, I’ve done it. I’ve gotten the story done”. We’re not going to answer everything, because we think that mystery is necessary to make the world compelling, but at the same time there are a lot of open questions and we want to help them resolve those”.

VG247: The game has had a bit tech upgrade since Gears 2, and it looks much better. A lot of people think that in those terms that Gears 2 is kind of “it”, so to see the way Gears 3 looks with the lighting upgrade – you think you won’t get any more out of it – so what’s next? Are you looking at the next wave of hardware now?

Rod Fergusson: Unreal Engine 3 is just constantly changing. With every game, we make an improvement on Unreal Engine 3 and with it being two years since shipping the last Gears we’ve got the new lighting model and the new shadow model – we have new vertex animation to make the world more interactive, I mean there is a a lot of great stuff. So, Unreal Engine just keeps improving and improving.

That’s one of the things we hold ourselves to. Every time we release a new Gears game, we kind of want to be the bar set for the industry and then to say “Hey look, we think this can be the game that people want to buy to show off their HD system, to show off their projection television, and show what the Xbox 360 is capable of doing”.

So, we hold ourselves to that, yet it’s hard. I mean, name a trilogy that has all three games on the same platform.

VG247: I can’t.

Fergusson: Exactly. I mean it’s not like we have the luxury of the same hardware each time. We are doing it on the same hardware every time over and over again.

VG247: I don’t think that it would be overblown to say that you are really are beyond anything I have seen in terms of the actual tech, I mean you really are ahead of the curve. Bulletstorm is a classic example of that, as it is a really good looking game. I mentioned to the Ghost Recon guys today that if you look at the Gears of war games, they are really pushing things technically. And they basically said, something along the lines of “Yes, we find it hard to keep up”.

Fergusson:[Laughs] See, with a simple engine license they can keep up step and step with us if they really wanted to. [Laughs]

VG247: This time around you have four-player co-op, which is something you wanted to put into Gears 2. Is this something you felt you sort of had to do – I mean, was it a goal that you felt you needed to attain from a personal level or studio perspective, or do you think it really adds to the game?

Fergusson:In terms of four-player co-op over two-player co-op, we felt if we started at the right place – I mean if you think about it, it’s an unbelievable challenge. We don’t look at it as “Oh let’s take the main character and clone him three times”, we’ve been trying to do it from a character driven perspective and to write a story where there is always four people around all the time is really hard.

But we look at the way we like to play and we look at what our strength is and how people think about us in the industry – when you think Gears of war you think co-op. So, we’re looking at other games that are doing four-player co-op and we’re like “That’s our space, we own that space. We helped redefine what co-op was on that platform [360]”, so we want to reclaim that. Yet we want to do that in a unique way, by having unique characters to drive that.

So to us it wasn’t so much about having a technical responsibility. It was really about making a really compelling four-player co-op. I mean, I’m playing four-player co-op in Red Dead right now in a posse – and that’s what’s going on now. And that’s another reason we created Beast mode – I mean right now our most popular mode is Horde, and it’s a five-player co-op mode. So again, we’re playing to our strengths and Beast mode is a five-player co-op and it’s just so much fun and you can do it cooperatively.

VG247: Watching the first look at one of the levels in Gears 3 during the demonstration at Microsoft’s event was really great, I mean there it was on the screen with all these oranges and yellows. It was rather amazing looking. Were you pleased with the reception it got?

Fergusson: Oh yes. Definitely. I mean, you know, that’s what were about – creating these water cooler moments where people go, “Man that is bad ass!”, and yeah, it is bad ass.

Gears is a game with a group of people who are building a game they like to play. The Gears series is the only game that I worked as hard as I have to make the game so I can go home and play it. We are building a game that we love to play. So we want to have those spectacular moments in the game whether it involves a Berserker or a bag and tag execution – all that stuff. It’s like give me something memorable, you know? And that’s the way we design as level you know, like “Tell me the five things you want to do in this level”.

VG247: How difficult is it though to maintain the momentum and keep the player engaged. Essentially, how do you make sure there is never a boring moment?

Fergusson: Part of it is making sure the core combat is very cool. So, on one hand you will have this spectacular moment, and then switch back to core combat and with the executions and weapons and the creatures – it is constantly fun, right? Then we have what we call a pallet cleaners, which is like a vehicle moment thrown in, or something like that so it switches it so that when you go back to core it’s exciting again. It gives you a little bit of a break.

For us, we feel that one of our biggest success, and one we really focus on, is the notion of pace. That’s why we look at this as a having a “summer blockbuster pace”, one that is a bit of a roller coaster ride where you’ll want to keep moving. I mean, people criticize us for Gears 1 and the amount of story we had – but really we just wanted to keep the pace up. Really, when you look at it – we did customer service satisfaction surveys after it came out – that was our number one stat because 95 percent of people felt the pace was just right.

We also had huge numbers of people who made it all the way through the game. It pulled them through it – the pace kept them going. That’s what we focus on. Every time we play through the game, we are conscious of whether it’s the right pace, if we are hitting the right beats, and is it fun all the time.

VG247: In the first Gears, you had the cover mechanic….

Fergusson: Yeah, they were saying we weren’t innovative, but we said, okay well we’ll take your non-innovation there and see who wins this argument [laughs].

VG247: The second game had a different art-style to it and then it also had sections of combat where you would have to clear a section that added completely different elements to the core gameplay – ones that were different. So, what are we going to see in the third one that is different?

Fergusson: In terms of core combat we really have lots of things, like new executions, new weapons, new moves, the usual things you would expect from a sequel. We’re kind of bringing back a slightly older design philosophy to apply to four-player co-op because at the end of the day when you look at Gears 2, whether it be because we were inside a worm or because we were underground running in a tunnel, it was a little bit more linear just because of the environment that we were in.

With four-player co-op you can’t have those kind of environments and spaces, so we wanted to open up the world, throw some cover down, and let four people go out and try and find a way to deal with this threat and being able to team up a certain way, or move forward a certain way. That is one of the big things we are really pushing for we want to get back to these combat bowls – which is what we call them – and enemy square moments where you can split up and take out a control center instead of people being stuck in more of a long hallway.

VG247: Right because the first Gears was more of an open air experience where as the second one was more of a claustrophobic experience.

Fergusson: It’s a mix really. We think of it as an hourglass, ya know. There’s a bowl, and then we get you where you need to go, and then there’s another bowl. But when you have four people looking for cover and looking for different ways to deal with the threat, you’ve got to give them some flexibility there. If you allow one way to do something for four people, they’re going to be banging into each other and shooting each other in the back – and that’s not fun. This way, it’s all about giving them choice and opportunity.

I think its more of emergent gameplay and flexibility. Where a different situation can play out differently because you have so many choices now.

VG247: Is this the last Gears of War game that we’re going to see on Xbox 360?

Fergusson: I don’t know. I mean, we’re focused on Gears 3 right now and we’re focused on saying that this is the conclusion to this story. But whether there’s more stories or other ways to explore the universe – I’m not saying, but this is going to be a satisfying end for the players.

The player are going to love the way this story ends and it’s going to feel good and like they played through the whole trilogy.

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