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

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To everyone expecting a Gears of War 3 review: It’s coming.

In the meantime, I had a chance to speak to Rod Fergusson, executive producer at Epic Games, about what next week’s big release means for the studio and the world they’ve created. Over the last five years, the previous Gears games have introduced unique gameplay elements–a singular emphasis on cover and the active reload that lets players get an added-damage benefit for re-upping their ammo in rhythm–hence adopted by other titles. Gears 1 and 2 have also created memorable characters that garnered huge fanbases, especially in the case of series hero Marcus Fenix.

In the talk that follows, Fergusson reflects on what the release of Gears 3 means to the franchise and how the series’ signature features got their start in development.

How are you? How’s the beard?

Rod Fergusson: [Laughs] Everything’s good. We’re 6 days and what, 17 hours or something away from launch, so it’s exciting.

I know that you guys aren’t saying, “This is the end of the Gears franchise,” but this is kind of a milestone moment. Would it be fair to say that this is closing out the story of Delta Squad?

Yeah. We’re saying this set of games is Marcus’s story. This is the completion of his story. We want people to feel like there was a beginning, middle, and end with the trilogy, that this actually has a conclusion so the player can be satisfied in knowing they actually completed a story as opposed to just “ready at another chapter in the book or something.”

(MORE: The Techland Interview: Cliff Bleszinski, Part 1)

Fair enough. I think Gears has won a place in gamers’ hearts for a few different reasons. Probably for the actual play mechanics–the cover system, active reload and all that stuff. But, also because of the environment it presents to play in. The world itself has a story. Tell me what the mood is in terms of maybe seeing this environment you helped build for the last time and possibly saying goodbye to Sera.

Obviously, it’s very bittersweet in terms of having to say goodbye to parts of the story and characters. I mean, we’re not blowing up a planet, so the world can live on. We’re still doing novels and other things that tie into the Gears universe.

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So it’s not the end of Sera, per se. But, yeah, one of the nice things is that I expect people will be surprised when they play through Gears 3 and see environments like they’ve never seen before in a Gears game, and a lot of that had to do with this being the end of the story.

I felt like we had some freedom to explore new things and show places that you’ve never seen. So we didn’t have to be so consistent to this, “Oh, let’s keep everything as Destroyed Beauty, we can actually explore new areas that would be interesting as sort of a goodbye.”

Right. Gears has become one of those games where you can mark off what games were like before it and after it. Part of that comes through the mechanics. Obviously, “cover” is huge with Gears, and Gears really put that on the map. Can you talk about the origins of that as something you wanted to make a pivotal part of the gameplay experience?

Well, that’s more of a Cliff question because he was here at the real genesis of that idea. The game early on was Unreal Warfare. It was very much more of a vehicle/big battlefield type of game. As they worked on it more and more, they started to get more intimate in terms of what they were looking for.

And they came across a game called Kill Switch, which was a game that I feel did cover the first time where it felt natural. There were lots of scenes in that game where you are going through hallways and you’re taking “cover” in the corner of a hall, and you would clear the room the way you would do in real life. And that inspired that idea of cover.

Talking about the origins of Gears of War 1, we used to call it ‘Resident Kill Switch’ because it had the inspirations of the Resident Evil camera, and the kind of Kill Switch cover gameplay. And so those were there from the start. Then it evolved beyond that, because we really looked at the reasons a player would want and need to have cover.

We needed to make sure that cover was meaningful. And we looked at a lot of other games that tended to treat bullet dodging as a way to survive. There’s a lot of circle strafing, a lot of quick movement. Then, we had to make the world lethal enough that you couldn’t just feel like, “Mobility is the way to win this.”

Yeah, that doesn’t work in Gears at all.

We needed the idea of having to take cover to be important so we tried to create a very dangerous world to do that in. And then, we didn’t want it to be seen as a hindrance. People think about cover as a defensive reaction that slows you down. Because of that, when people first came to the game, they tended to try to avoid cover. They’d play the angle game and try to shoot around corners without taking cover because they felt the cover would be a hindrance to them.

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We worked really hard to try to eliminate that hindrance, by actually giving you a speed boost when using cover. So as you approach cover and you press A, you can slide into cover from a reasonably far distance. And we give you that sort of speed, and you can cover-slip around corners, which gives you a little boost of speed.

You can SWAT-turn between two pieces of cover, which allows you to move faster side to side. This idea of creating what we call “horizontal platformer,” with the ability to kind of hop from cover to cover and move quickly through the environment.

One of the goals early on was, can you move through the environment faster, taking cover than you could have just roadie-running through it. And that was always something we tried to focus on, trying to make it as fluid as possible, and actually be an advantage rather than being something you felt was a burden.

(MORE: “Bulletstorm” Review: A Rain of Pain That Feels Pretty Good)

You talk about making a mechanic an advantageanother thing that’s become a signature of playing a Gears of War game is the active reload. And it’s really impressive how that concept has wound up in other games, to the point where the independent game developer Chris Hecker, he’s talking about adding something like that in the game that he’s working on, Spy Party. What is it about active reload that made it so sticky with people who play Gears?

I think it’s taking something that is usually a passive activity or a moment of vulnerability, and it’s putting a little game-ism to it; it allows you to get some risk-versus-reward. The notion that I can do nothing and I’ll just play it normally, I can roll the dice and gamble, and try to do it faster and get a damage boost, and reload quicker.

But, of course, it has the downside. I could jam my gun and it could hinder my ability to fight. So it’s having that notion of taking a vulnerable passive moment and turning it into an active moment where people are still engaged with the game. They’re not just pressing a button and waiting one-and-a-half seconds for something to complete. They can stay engaged.

Actually, I have been kind of surprised, as much as things like “Horde” mode have been picked up by other developers. I was actually kind of surprised that it’s taken a little while for “active reload” to kind of get people to start leveraging that idea. Basically, I didn’t see it hardly at all during the timeframe around the Gears 1, early Gears 2 timeframe. It’s only recently that I’ve seen things that look like they’ve been inspired by active reload.

Right. That’s not the case with Horde Mode, though. One of the ways that you can tell it’s been a huge innovation is how quickly and obviously other games have aped it. I think those two words have become synonymous with the whole style of multiplayer. I know some of the changes that are coming for Horde Mode in Gears 3, but what do you think is the key ingredient there in terms of, “Here’s what ‘Horde Mode’ is and here’s what it isn’t?” Can you give me an example of something you would never add to Horde Mode because it would just break it?

Oh, what would we never add to Horde Mode because it would just break it. I’m sure you want a more specific answer, but to give you a slightly more generic answer, one of the things we were really afraid of was too much complexity. To use an MMO term, PVE, when you play it Player vs. Enemy versus Player vs. Player. Horde is a PVE experience.

A lot of people, sometimes if their skills are not where they want them to be in a Player vs. Player competitive multiplayer session, a lot of people can fall back to Horde to have that same kind of experience. Only they’re playing against A.I. so it’s not as stressful on a person who is maybe not as good.

And so I think one of the things we had to be really careful of when we were going from Horde 1 to Gears 3’s Horde 2, was this notion of wanting to provide depth, variety and persistence, but not wanting to make it so complex that people don’t feel like it’s something they can go to as a place where they still feel comfortable playing.

And that’s what Horde is, it’s a co-op friend experience where it’s a bunch of humans abusing the A.I. to see if they can survive the 50 waves. That sort of experience means that it needs to be quickly understood.

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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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It seems like there’s a weird mix of emotional influences going on in Gears. The reason the chainsaw Lancer feels so good is because you feel like, all right, at any moment I’m close to death, I’m close to being shot by Locusts or whatever. So when you finally get close enough to rip one in half, that feels very satisfying. But, at the same time, there’s a cheesiness to that. Like a Halloween-style horror movie. Do you guys think about this kind of stuff? What has the thought process been as you’ve introduced these kinds of over-the-top opportunities to the player?

Yeah, it’s on the forefront of our minds. It’s finding where that line is and where are people comfortable going. I think we have the ability nowadays to show any sort of human behavior in video games. And so the question is, “What’s too far?” And we had those conversations initially with the chainsaw, because you can go super-realistic.

You can do things where because we chainsaw diagonally, you can have, “Oh, it starts to go through and then it catches on the collar bone, and then it takes a little bit longer to cut the collar bone, and then it goes through. And then it takes a bit longer to cut through the spine,” which is where it crosses the line, where it goes from being fun and visceral to being nauseating and disturbing.

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People like the visceral part and they always want us to keep pushing it and taking it to the next level. Now in Gears of War 3, every weapon in the game has its own specific execution or finishing move. So we’ve had to watch each one as we build them and determine, “OK, is this too far? Does this make you laugh?” That’s kind of one of our tests.

One of the things we like to see is when people will chainsaw a Locust in half, and the guy would potentially burst apart. Like, you really don’t truly cut him in half the way you would expect. So they essentially burst apart. And we do that because that relieves the tension and allows you to have this “a-ha” and you kind of giggle at it and usually the character doing it says a line like, “Oh, I got some on my boots,” or something to help deal with that issue as well.

And so as we had to go, “OK, now we need a whole lot more of these for the new weapons. Where’s our line and where’s our threshold for each one?”

Yeah, you guys figured that out.

One of the things initially, the arm rip was one that we struggled with in Gears 2. The first arm rip I ever saw in Gears of War was back before it was even Gears of War 1, they had an arm rip in the demo for Unreal Warfare. And ripping the arm off and beating the guy with it.

So it felt like that was too far. So we didn’t do it in 1. And it came back up because people knew about it, and they wanted it. We talked a lot about it in Gears 2. And ultimately we decided against it. And then even when we got to Gears of War 3, we said, “OK, this is the final one of this series. We need to deliver on this. People have been asking for it for four or five years.”

But, ultimately, we still ended up sort of compromising by making it only a Locust move. We didn’t want the human characters to have that ability…so, the humans can’t rip arms off, only the monsters can. So we demonized it that way. Even at that point we were still making compromises. So yeah, we think about it a lot.

This is all happening while you guys are delivering a story where each one of the characters has to deal with intense personal loss, whether it’s Baird and his brothers, or Dom and Maria, or Marcus and his dad. What’s been the balancing act there in terms of these patently ludicrous moves that you make the player able to do and the kind of angst the characters have to go through? What’s that balancing act been like?

It’s been interesting. We started lighter on that stuff partly because in Gears of War 1 we were not as confident enough in our storytelling, so we told a very briskly paced, kind of summer blockbuster popcorn movie type of story.

And we felt good about it because it had that pace. A lot of people finished Gears of War 1, which wasn’t the norm at the time. And with Gears of War 2, we were more confident in the storytelling and working with Josh Ortega. So, we went for the Maria scene, and we felt really satisfied with how that came across as well as people’s reaction to it.

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Even then, there’s a balance we try to strike, much like the weapons balance between fun and disgusting. We had the same problem with emotion in the story, because if you think about what Dom went through in that story, you wouldn’t necessarily want to play as Dom for the next four hours after that moment.

We had to find a balance between being respectful to the moment but also allowing the player to continue his sort of escapism and getting caught up in the fun of the game. I think you’ll see that in 3 as well, as the environments speak to that probably the most in Gears of War 3 where we sort of recognize that you got people playing the multiplayer game for thousands of hours.

As much as it’s nice to have a de-saturated art style, one of the things you realize is that it can kind of wear on you after a while if you’re constantly playing in grays and browns and such. One of the things we went out of our way to do in Gears of War 3 was to provide multiplayer maps in particular with a lot more color and vibrancy.

Part of it was the engine now doing global illumination and foliage better. But part of it was the art direction, like let’s create some environments that are more interesting visually from a color palette perspective because people are going to be spending a lot of time in them.

You talk about the story. I appreciate your honesty where you say with the storytelling, you guys were less confident about it in Gears 1. I know the role that Josh Ortega played in Gears 2, having interviewed him years ago. But who’s been the unsung hero in Gears’ development in your opinion? People see Cliff as the face of the franchise. I think people familiar with you and from a corporate level, probably Mark Rein, too. But who might people not know about that you think they should, that contributed to Gears in a way that made it what it is? Part of the reason I ask is because Cliff always talks about the games being team efforts even though he’s the face of the team…

Oh, absolutely. I think Lee Perry is obviously a big influence. But he’s also getting out there now. We’re trying to make him more of a known voice. Because he was the one that brought Kill Switch to Cliff. But I think in terms of a truly unknown, to me, is Dave Nash. On Gears 1, he was the level designer. For Gears 2 he became the lead level designer managing all of the LDs for the campaign, and for Gears 3 as well.

He’s been part of our story team. He’s part of our design team and he basically controls how each of the campaign levels are being built and working with his team to do that. I think he’s had a huge influence on the campaign side and the story side.

I want to go off on a bit of a tangent. One of the things that you said before, was that so many popular multiplayer games now are like human vs. human. And you talk about how your more fantastical setup frees you to do some different things. But at the same time, I read an article this weekend by Mitch Krpata over at Joystick Division where he talked about how Gears 1 is the perfect 9/11 game. What does it mean to you when people assign meanings and interpretations to Gears like that?

I think it’s great. One of the things we started out with Gears of War was we said that we didn’t want to create just a game. At the time, it wasn’t as cliché to say it in the notion of transmedia products. But it was really that kind of thing.

We were trying to create a backdrop, if you will, for other stories. So we wanted to create a world that was big enough and characters that were rich enough and a story that was deep enough that we could have novels, and we could have comic books, and we could have action figures, and we could have other games.

So that was something that we really set out to do. And so we felt that if we had delivered Gears of War 1 and it came and went, and that was it, and even if it was somewhat successful, it felt like we hadn’t done our job. And so there’s a lot in the story in terms of depth and richness.

I think any good piece of work can be interpreted different ways, and I think that’s one of the nice things about keeping some of our stuff a little bit vague and allowing for interpretation so people can bring to it what they want to bring to it and assign it it’s own personal meaning rather than us trying to force something down people’s throat.

Some of it is on purpose, in terms of some of the things that are in there in the game. Some of the themes are subtle but on purpose, and some of them are not there at all, but people read into it. I think that’s great. Because like I said, I think it allows people to personalize it and make it their own.

MORE: Top Game Designers Say What They’d Put Into the Smithsonian

Evan Narcisse is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @EvNarc or on Facebook at Facebook/Evan.Narcisse. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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