Gears of War 3 Interview – Rod Fergusson talks Lancers, Achievements and Boss Battles
Written Sunday, March 20, 2011 By Dan WebbView author's profile
Gears of War is second only to Halo as far as Microsoft's triple-A, killer app franchises are concerned and since the first game's release in 2006, the series has had a huge sequel that crammed plenty of action into its campaign, ended things on a disappointing boss battle and brought Horde mode to the world.
Now Gears of War is back for a third instalment, bringing a whole new chapter of the story, more multiplayer modes, new weapons and a lot more besides.
Having gone hands-on with the Gears of War 3 beta - which is set to kick off on April 25th - we sat down to talk with Executive Producer Rod Fergusson about the impending beta, in a nice follow-up to our brief chinwag at Microsoft's February Showcase.
Turns out that Fergusson has a lot more to say about the Gears of War franchise, the beta and beyond...
It's a strange thing with the games industry, where there's as much money in games as there is in movies – in some cases more money – yet none of the developers are as recognised as you guys at Epic, although you'd never be mobbed in public like Steven Spielberg, say. Are you happy that you're able to communicate with people so easily, while retaining a certain level of notoriety?
It's great, yeah. It's nice having a kind of medium area. You don't want to be totally anonymous and you don't want to be unable to interact with people, so I think right now I'm not like Cliff (Blezsinski), but I have like 18,000 followers on my Twitter feed. So, having some notoriety has allowed me to have some conversations with people and they pay attention and actually listen to me, which is great because it allows me to have a bit of interaction, and I can get feedback and stuff. So I like having enough that people want to talk to me, but not so much that I have to worry about being followed home.
And having that kind of input from people, is that something that you're always looking for, to take on-board criticisms that contribute to a patch for a game or whatever?
We've always been highly supportive of our games. You only have to look at Gears 1 where we had six title updates and Gears 2 where we've had six title updates. It's all about making sure that the consumers are happy with the game, and that's a real balancing act, because there's a thousand-strong vocal minority of people and although they're a big part of our customer base and they come up with a lot of good stuff, sometimes that's just for the hardcore, so you can't just go after them. You have to make sure keeping all the players happy, so there's that to take into account. For us it's about finding that balance, but it's nice to have that feedback. What we're hoping to get out of the beta, is instead of getting a hundred really loud people shouting about what we should do or not do, we can actually get the opinions of a million people and find out what they like about the game and what do we need to fix.
Is it difficult to pick out the voices with something valid to say given the sheer number of people posting their opinions on the internet?
A little bit, but the nice thing is that we have a community that's really faithful, in the sense that they've followed us for a long time and so we've begun to learn which ones have reasoned judgement and aren't just yelling stuff at us all the time. One big thing we've done recently is take on of our community members (Cher Leigh) and made her one of our forum administrators during the beta period, and that's the first time for the Gears franchise, that we've identified a community member as helpful enough that we want them as part of our campaign. So, you learn who are the right people to interact with, and those that treat you with respect and reason, and even when they disagree with you, they still treat you with respect. The ones that tell me to screw off, I usually never hear from again anyway.
A lot of shooters these days seem to be focusing more on multiplayer than single-player, so do you take any of these kind of trends into account, or do you do your own thing and stick to your own strategy?
Well, we certainly don't ignore what's going on. Call of Duty has rocked the notion of what it means to provide a reward system to hardcore players and unlockables and all that kind of stuff. We don't have the gun porn that those types of games have, and so when we look at what we want to do, we want players to be able to express themselves through unlockable weapon skins and character variants, medals with titles and that kind of thing. We've been looking at what's going and thinking how we can reward hardcore players and how do we keep the game 'sticky' from a multiplayer perspective.
Historically in Gears of War, the campaign is played more than anything else in the game, so the traditional customer for the Gears of War franchise is a campaign player, so we have to make sure that we're delivering that, so we're going above and beyond in Gears 3. This is the most focus we've put into the story, which has been written by Karen Traviss, and she's just taken the story to another level. We're delivering the biggest, most polished campaign ever and on top of that, we've really focused on making this great big multiplayer experience that is both sticky for the hardcore, yet very approachable for those that are new to the franchise or were turned off by the previous games because they got shotgunned in the face in Gears 1 and haven't been back since. We've optimised modes, we've balanced the weapons and made things more approachable for them.
Do you think this is the most balanced Gears in terms of single-player and multiplayer then?
Absolutely. I mean, in terms of work, the campaign is still a lot harder to do, because of all the content you have to create. We can do a multiplayer map from start to finish, probably in about four weeks, whereas it takes months and months and months to do a campaign level.
Yet in the multiplayer maps, you presumably still have to take into account which weapons are suitable for which areas, so different play styles are catered for...
Yeah, absolutely. You go back to Gears 1 and out biggest goal at that time was balancing the Lancer with a chainsaw while the Hammerburst has no melee, so we really focused on finding the right balance. Now we're on Gears 3 and we're like screw that, let's make them all have different purposes. So that's why we have the Sawed-Off and the Gnasher for short range and high damage, the Lancer with medium range and the chainsaw, while the Hammerburst has a longer range and iron sights to go even further. So, what we want is players to think, I'm in Trenches for instance, so I don't need a Hammerburst, I need a Gnasher, so we've been trying to find that balance between weapons and each map has its own ideal, unique combination.
This one does seem more strategical in multiplayer. Did that require a lot of playtesting?
I always go back to a quote Todd Howard said: “games are played, not made,” and I love that line because that really rings true for us. We do playtests every day and when we were getting ready to show the beta, for the last three or four weeks we were doing two or three playtests a day. We were really focusing on finding that balance and making sure things work, even to the point where controls like holding Y or holding X to do an action, that's only about three weeks old. That was us just trying to continue reiterating on it and it seems to work really well.
That's what we've always been about, from Gears 1 to 2 to 3, it's all about polish. It's about making the cover mechanic even smoother, the controls even tighter and so on. We're really proud of Gears 3 and the extra time we've got on it until September, means this will be the best, most polished game we've ever done.
In the first Gears of War, some people said General Raam was too hard, then in Gears 2 the boss was more of an experience, but criticised for being much less of a battle. Do you ever get frustrated by these kind of criticisms levelled the games?
No. I think those criticisms were fair. That's one of those things we've been learning as a studio. What does it mean to do a really good boss fight? I'm really excited about people seeing what we're bringing to Gears 3, because we're certainly taking it up a notch from both of those. It's one of those things we've adapted over time, so in Gears 1, we were new to that market of console players and we did things that were really hardcore. I was responsible for the achievements and I made them based on ranked only, and even I don't have them all because I can't win in ranked matches. So, in Gears 2 we backed off a little bit and thought we'd open it up a little more, and in Gears 3 we've really tailored the achievements to be more friendly to new players, while using them to get players to try things they wouldn't necessarily try otherwise.
I call it a maturation. We started by saying Gears is for hardcore gamers and we're going to push them hard, but then we thought, why not broaden the experience and get as many people playing as we can? At the same time, you can't totally betray that hardcore origin, because those players are the ones who champion the game, love it the most and put thousands of hours into it. We have to be loyal to them, but at the same time we have to give them more people to shoot too.
With Bulletstorm having the exclusive early access to the gears of War 3 beta, was it tough to convince Microsoft to essentially promote an EA product?
It was interesting. EA and Microsoft played rather nicely with each other, as it was mutually beneficial to work together on that, so it's been good. I think it's been good to have that early access into the beta itself and we've been really happy with the success that Bulletstorm has had. What's great about it is that Bulletstorm is a great game on its own, so it's not like it was some big trick to make people buy Bulletstorm just to get the beta. At the end of the day, it's getting rated a lot of 9s and stuff, so I feel like Bulletstorm was great enough and it didn't really need the beta, as it's such a high quality game. And it's a good way to have people slowly roll on to the beta, because we don't to turn it on from day one for a million people and watch the servers blow up. So, we'll start the beta small with just us and Microsoft, then grow it slowly until we get to maximum capacity.
Microsoft never insisted that they bundled the early beta access with one of their products like the Halo 3 beta for Crackdown, which pretty much nudged the game into the limelight?
It's about a partnership, and we love our publishing partners. EA has been great and Microsoft has been awesome, so this is an Epic thing, we're launching a new IP and we wanted to make sure we could support it as much as we can from the Epic perspective, so it was great that our partners allowed that.
Gears of War 3 is readying up for a September 20th, 2011 release.