It may surprise you to learn that Gears of War's multiplayer mode was "tacked on" in the final stretch of its development. And on top of that, the slip-and-slide shotgunning that now defines its gameplay experience was not how developer Epic Games wanted it to be played. Its success wasn't expected and what resonated wasn't by design.
But despite this, it became one of the Xbox 360’s most popular multiplayer games. With its follow-up titles, Epic opted to refine instead of reinvent, and this strategy is also at the heart of what The Coalition is doing with Gears of War 4’s multiplayer.
The Microsoft-founded studio is headed up by veteran Gears of War executive producer Rod Fergusson, but the majority of its development team is new to the franchise. Because of this, it’s approach has been to deconstruct Gears of War 3 and replicate its feel before introducing any new elements.
At a recent hands-on event GameSpot talked to Rod Fergusson, studio head of The Coalition, and lead multiplayer designer Ryan Cleven about the process of building a new generation of Gears multiplayer.
Further Reading: Gears of War 4 multiplayer hands-on impressions.
Gears of War 4 is a return to the classic feel, after Judgment, which was a departure. Why did you feel that was the right path for this game?
Rod Fergusson: Judgment was an experiment, in some respects. [With Gears of War 4] we always assumed we were going to start with 3, because we wanted to go back to keeping Gears what it was. Then we looked at Judgment and said, "Hey, what are the things here that we can learn from?" Whether it's how smooth going off of ledges was, or ways to approach smoothing out cover, and increasing responsiveness of the actions. Those were the takeaways from Judgment.
Ryan Cleven: Coming new to the franchise, one of the things that we were looking for was what elements make a Gears game? We didn't innately know those things because we weren't there during the first 3 games. That intimate combat, the things of it really getting close, is the strength [of the series]. This isn't about rifles at distance sort of pecking at each other while you play the angle. This is about wall bouncing and getting up close. We embraced it. We didn't run from it. We wanted to make something that was very unique and in staying true to Gears, we'd have something that no other shooter would have.
Rod, you have a long history with Gears. Developers that have spent as much time on a franchise as you have with Gears usually start thinking about moving on. What is it about Gears 4 that’s keeping you with it?
Fergusson: As a producer, I came from Microsoft and was the guy that stepped in part-way through the development and just started picking up stuff people weren’t doing. So I designed the UI, I started doing VO direction, and tried to contribute where I could. Over time that became bigger and I feel like there’s a lot of me in Gears of War. It’s my favourite game to play and work on. After seven years at Epic there was a lot of, “What are we doing next? We’ve done enough of this.” I wasn’t that way, which is why when Epic transitioned to free-to-play mobile stuff I left. I couldn’t do Gears again, so I bailed to go and work with Irrational Games [on BioShock Infinite]. When I had the opportunity to come back for Gears 4 and have a team that’s passionate about it, it felt like 2005 again. It was super exciting.
Gears of War was an iconic series for the Xbox 360. Do you feel the pressure to have the same impact for the Xbox One?
Fergusson: Yes. I think when you look at where Gears came into the lifecycle of the 360, we’re in a different place [with Xbox One]. I don’t know that we’re going to be the definitive Xbox One experience and the only reason people want [the console]. I think you get paralysed by fear if you think of that as your goal. To me the notion of being true to the franchise and creating a Gears 4 experience that feels like Gears of War and is moving forward--so it’s not Gears 3 on Xbox One again--is important. But I definitely feel the pressure of just being true and honest, having integrity on what Gears of War is and delivering on that.
You’re aiming to bring new players into the fold. How are you doing that?
Cleven: We saw that even though Gears has this wonderfully deep and interesting multiplayer, it was hard for new players to get in. You get shotgunned in the face almost instantly and are not really sure what's going on. The campaign would teach you one way to play the game and multiplayer requires a different way. We came up with this idea of co-op versus, where we wanted to make sure that there was a safe place for new players to go and learn how to play without feeling the pressure of intense competition. Eventually, once they’re comfortable mastering the different levels of difficulty, they can go and play with all those others online.
Epic was sort of fighting against the fact that players were not playing multiplayer right.Rod Fergusson
What else is the Coalition doing to ensure that this feels like a Gears of War game, so that people will recognise it the moment they pick up the controller?
Fergusson: We really focused on parity. One of the challenges beyond just having a new development team is we had a whole new engine. Naturally the way that scripting works and all that stuff that you would expect in how you render the game is different between Unreal Engine 3 and 4. One of the things we really had to focus on is basically creating Gears of War 3 in UE4. For months our number one thing was getting to parity. It was only once we got to parity, where we felt, "Okay, this feels like Gears 3," that we started talking about wholly new innovations.
Cleven: Instead of just taking an existing game and adding to it, because we were forced to rebuild it, we had to look at every little piece. We had to look at everything that might have been a bug, but is actually a feature. We had to turn over every rock and look at the entire surface area of the game to be confident it was going to go out properly.
You’ve said that in previous games multiplayer had been underserved. In what ways was it underserved and how are you working to rectify that now?
Fergusson: It's easier to talk about it from a Gears 1 perspective because we definitely improved over 2 and 3. Gears [development] was a 90/10 split between campaign and multiplayer. It was sort of tacked on at the very end. We didn't even quite know that we were going to have a game with multiplayer until much later. Then it was like, "We should probably figure out if multiplayer even exists in the Gears world." That's when we started playing Gears of War on other people's maps. We were playing on Counter-Strike maps. We were playing on Call of Duty maps and stuff. What works for Gears? What does a Gears multiplayer map even feel like? That's where Gridlock came from. When you look at the attribution of resources, campaign is just a much bigger beast to create. Typically, the dedication of time and resources has been much more skewed to the campaign.
Epic was sort of fighting against the fact that players were not playing it right. They were playing a highly mobile shotgun fest, rather than this tactical assault rifle game. We were fighting that all the time. We always focused on accessibility and getting new players in, so we kind of let the competitive players go do whatever because we didn't really like their style of play. We didn't spend too much time thinking about it. Now, as we're embracing Gears multiplayer, we're saying, "Okay, we're embracing wall bouncing and shotgunning." One of the things we're doing is we're making sure that the new, the social, the competitive, and the eSports, are all being equally served. That's really where we're taking it further.
And you’ve introduced some new gameplay mechanics, such as the Yank and Shank, which ties into the idea of Gears providing intimate violence as opposed to just picking people off at a distance.
Fergusson: Yeah. One of the things that we find people love about Gears of War is that it’s brutal in nature. For example being able to unicorn a person by stabbing a knife into their forehead, just feeds into that intimate feel. We always try to take things a little over the top so it's fun and not gross. Yank and Shank also allows you to deal with that awkward scenario where both players take cover and then it looks silly. The idea that there's a defensive way, or a super aggressive way to deal with it based on your play style gives you an interesting choice.
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I don't think you used the term microtransaction but you can now buy item crates, none of which affect gameplay. Why the decision to include that type of system at all and what do you think players will get out of it?
Fergusson: I feel like that paradigm of cards is really clear to understand for collectibles. We had weapon skins and character skins [in Gears of War 3], so that idea of collecting cards is just easily understood. It felt like it adds some engagement, it’s not "Oh, I like Tiger Stripe. I bought Tiger Stripe. I'm done.” I like the idea of why you buy Magic: The Gathering booster packs. If I could just buy the one card I want then I'm out, then you lose it, right?
There's some excitement around that. I think Hearthstone is brilliant at it. That idea of the glow, and the voice, and the excitement about being like, "I want to open packs, and I want to be a part of that engagement.” That's the same thing we're trying to do here. The notion that everything is earnable just through play means the only reason you would ever use real money is you want to accelerate it. We're going to be balanced to where you're going to be constantly getting crates, or enough credits to get crates through the game, so it really is just about your choice.
Do you worry people will hear “in-game purchases” and immediately freak out, and not even give you a chance to go, "No, no, no, wait. It's earnable. No!"
Fergusson: We're always concerned with that kind of stuff, right? That's part of why I think it's good that we're talking about it this early.
Cleven: Gears of War 3 had purchasable weapon skins. Ultimate Edition had purchasable weapon skins. It's not like the weapon skin purchasing is new to Gears of War. It's just now you can earn it, whereas before you actually had to purchase it.
During the original trilogy the series’ story was promoted as being very serious and heartfelt, one that deals with deep emotions and complex issues. The response to that was always a shrug and a laugh. In Game Informer’s Gears 4 reveal you acknowledged you aren’t trying to do that, you’re just trying to have fun. It was interesting that you did that...
Fergusson: There’s an interesting conversation about where stories in games should go. It really bugged me when we shipped BioShock Infinite and a phrase I’d never heard before came up: “the ludonarrative dissonance of BioShock Infinite.” The fact that I had to have a conversation with people about that drove me crazy.
People talk about Nathan Drake in Uncharted being a serial killer because he does mass killings. When you’re forced to have one interaction with the world, which is “What can I shoot?,” your ability to tell a story is hugely limited. To put an expectation on it that you need to find Rosebud in video game form… I mean there are other games out there that have that opportunity, maybe an independent game that has other ways to interact with the world and the player, but when you have a shooter you’ve got a cap on you. The best you can do is to create a compelling world and characters, then let players do cool shit so they want to come back.
The fact that I can make somebody cry in the Maria scene or the Dom scene is awesome. That’s what I think helps separate Gears, we’re not lunkheads just doing shooting. We allow ourselves some moments of humour, sadness, and darkness. That stuff can exist in our world but at the same time it’s a shooter. You have to recognise that and to stand here and say, “I’ve come up with a whole new way to do narrative with a gun,” when you’re talking with bullets… It’s just so hard to do.
We’re not lunkheads just doing shooting. We allow ourselves some moments of humour, sadness, and darkness.Rod Fergusson
It reminds me of the response to Batman V Superman and people saying its story sucks. Its leading characters are angry superhero and can-punch-really-hard superhero. There are interesting stories to be told there, and there have been, but for a blockbuster movie it’s not exactly a surprise it doesn’t. It has broad themes, like Gears, and those still connect with certain people. Similarly, there are people out there that know and love Dom, Marcus, Cole, and Baird, despite the weak story.
Fergusson: I go back to when Chris Rock hosted The Oscars. He went through all the movies that were up for an Academy Award. None of us go to the theatre and mention those, when someone asks what our favourite movies of the year are lots of people say Alien Vs. Predator or some other summer blockbuster. That’s what I think Gears is. We’re not trying to be Momento. We’re not trying to be independent art films, we’re a summer blockbuster. Eating popcorn and having a fun ride is what we’re here for.
My favourite moment from the entire series is the ‘who wants toast?’ Easter Egg, which was placed just after a scene where Dom is coming to terms with the loss of his wife. That kinda sums up the Gears of War experience for me and makes me smile. Are you going for that again with Gears 4?
Fergusson: We’re trying to. When we started out we said, “If Gears of War 1, 2, and 3 was the Tim Burton Batmans, we’re going for the Nolan Batman.” As we started to try to deliver on that, we had the same thing happen as with the original trilogy, where we wanted to be Resident Evil meets Brothers in Arms and then were like, “Oh, we made Predator.” So we aimed for Nolan and just because of our personalities and the fact that we want humour in our world, we realised we couldn’t sustain that level of darkness. We want a world we can go back into and to make it super serious is not as engaging to me.
You’ve said in the past you want Gears 4 to be closer to what the first Gears was like. What does that mean for what Gears 4 is becoming, taking into account you said you were initially aiming to be Batman and ended up as Predator?
Fergusson: To me I like to use the word “tension” to describe what we’re going for. That’s what I felt Gears of War was about, there was this unknown enemy in the dark and because so much of that became known, by the time you got to Gears 3 it felt a little like a World War 2 game. The Locust were just Nazis and we know how to fight that fight. They became an understood enemy. What we are trying to get with Gears 4 is that intimacy and tension where a single monster is scary again. It’s not horror because we’re not a survival horror game. It’s about tension and how we make you nervous, make you anticipate something, have the sweaty palms.
Do you think it cutting ties to the previous generation of characters makes that easier or harder? Judgment was a different type of game, but it benefitted from having Baird, Cole, and other iconic characters.
Fergusson: That’s a great question and what we’re trying to understand. It’s one of the reasons we kept it on Sera. We looked at how much we could change and felt that if we’re going to do a new cast and monsters, we can’t also have a new location. We needed some touchstones to the past to keep people grounded and keep it Gears. I think that it’ll be interesting to see if people come along for the ride. That’s part of having a legacy and bringing in the next generation.
Go back to the Next Generation of Star Trek, without Kirk is it Star Trek? How do you deal with Piccard? It’s a lot of those types of questions. Can you deliver on that experience? At least the mechanics and the world are kind of the the same, but we’re also taking it somewhere else. I’m hoping that not everything is going to be "Where’s Marcus?" I want it to be, "This guy is cool" or "I see where this is going and I can’t wait to explore this relationship." I’m hoping the familiarity is what gets people through the door to see what we’re going for.