Epic’s Rod Fergusson Talks ‘Gears of War 3’

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It’s funny because in each one of these instances with these gameplay innovations, it’s something that’s felt uniquely Gears. Cover makes sense because of the story you guys are trying to tell. It’s a world under siege, a long-running conflict, where the feeling of desperation hangs thick in the air. 

Active reload seems like a natural thing to put in a game like that because, again, every bullet counts, every shot counts, and the idea that if you get better at the act of reloading, having increased damage as a consequence to that makes sense. Reloading is something you want to get better at because you’re in the middle of a long-running conflict. And Horde seems like another natural fit because there are going to be times when you are going to be overwhelmed by an enemy force that outnumbers you and it’s a nice thing to put into a game like Gears 2.

So, I guess my larger question following up on all of that, for the future of the franchise is, if Gears is going to continue, how do you scale that up and still have things feel natural? I know that’s kind of a big picture question but I think that’s going to be on a lot of players’ minds as they pick up Gears and probably finish the single-player campaign. How do you keep the gameplay innovating focused so that it also feels true to the universe? Is that going to be possible moving forward?

The thing is, the moving forward part, right now we’re focused on Gears and DLC and not going far beyond that right now just because that’s where our heads are at. The thing we kind of do is sort of build in the moment of, what are the things that make sense? New innovation with Horde came from that idea, “What is it that’s uniquely Gears?”

(MORE: No “Gears of War 3” Unlocks From Playing Other Epic Games)

And so you go, OK, well Gears is really about co-op, and Horde is the most popular way to play online. And so what we really would like to have is a co-op experience that allowed people to do that. What else is unique with Gears?

It’s the fact that you’re fighting against monsters. Not a lot of games have that. Most modern shooters now are human vs. human. So, to be able to take on the role of the monster and destroy humans is something that Gears can put in and let a subset of people do that. That type of thinking is where Beast Mode came out of.

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It was like “OK, Gears is co-op and Gears has monsters, there’s something we can leverage there.” But it’s kind of what you’re saying with all the game mechanics. Cliff is a feel-based designer, and that, along with the way that we iterate in the moment, results in elements where it feels that everything makes sense. Curb-stomping’s another example.

When we were play-testing for E3 in 2006 and we shot a guy down and he went down on all fours. Cliff walked up to him and was like, “I want to be able to stomp on this guy. Why can’t I just kick this guy and stomp on him?” And creating something like that is basically just making an animation. So we put it in and it was that kind of thing that made sense as the game was happening. As you’re playing you’re like, “Hey, why do I have to wait a second and a half to reload because I want to do something after that?” I think that’s what it is for us.

We sort of get our big ideas and we start to develop those big ideas while we’re in the moment. Things like the features we’re talking about make sense because they’re kind of developed in context, instead of being developed just on paper and not while you’re in the moment.

Yeah, that’s interesting to hear about the design process, because Gears thrives on that moment-to-moment tension in the actual gameplay. Where it’s like, “OK, here’s a scenario where I’ve got my buddy who’s down in the middle of a crossfire. And you’ve got to judge. Do I go help him out? Do I let him die? Sit out this round?” Stuff like that feels a little more integral to the Gears experience compared to other games that have it.

Yeah, it’s more personal. And that’s one of the things that I think is a really great thing but also a little bit of a struggle in some cases because everybody matters so much.

My son was playing another game and I told him to come to dinner and he just stood up and turned off the machine and came downstairs. I mentioned to him that he had done that, and he’s like, “Yeah, I could never do that in Gears, because you’re one of five and everybody on your team has to be there in order for the whole group to survive. It’s harder, psychologically, to stand up and turn off the Xbox. I think that’s part of the reliance we tried to build in; it really feels like people are depending on each other.

What I love about Gears is the visceral nature of the intensity of everything, whether it’s the weight of the characters and how big they are. When they slam into cover they grunt and you get a dust cloud off the back where they hit. Or the tightness of the camera during the roadie run and the threat around you.

So it feels like that rock fight as a kid in the woods and you have that sweaty palm kind of experience and the fact that your teammates are counting on you. You don’t know exactly where the enemy is and they’re all taking cover and stuff. It’s this really interesting hybrid of real enough that you have those flashbacks of that rock fight in the woods, but it’s not so real that you feel like you’re constrained by real-life limitations.

We get a lot of letters and stuff from actual soldiers who talk about how much they enjoy Gears and how they work in a four-man squad and how they enjoy playing the game. And so, we hear that and go, “Well, that was never our intent to create a Rainbow Six or Full Spectrum Warrior type of experience.” But there is enough reality there that it allows you to suspend disbelief and get caught up in it and have these sweaty hands. Whereas there’s still enough fantasy that you can have monsters and chainsaws.

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