New Gears of War 2 experience system due 3/24, Snowblind Map Pack coming 3/31

Q&A: Executive producer Rod Fergusson outlines update's brand-new ranking system, auto-balancing, and achievements; add-on features frosty remake of Fuel Depot, trio of all-new arenas.

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Three months after the second Gears of War 2 map pack was announced, Epic Games has taken the wraps off its successor. The Snowblind Map Pack will arrive on Xbox Live on March 31 bearing four new maps: Grindyard, Under Hill, Courtyard, and a remake of Fuel Depot from the original Gears game. No price has been announced, but the last add-on for the game, December's three-map Combustible Map Pack, cost 800 Microsoft points, or $9.99 in real-world currency.

Grindin' in the Grindyard.
Grindin' in the Grindyard.

Though exciting for Horde mode addicts, the Snowblind Map Pack will be preceded by something far more ambitious--and completely free of charge. The week prior, Epic will launch its third and most extensive title update, which implements an all-new experience-based ranking system. The old TrueSkill system ranks will become hidden but will still be used under the hood to "set up the most competitive matches possible."

Under the new system, players will earn experience points for scoring in public matches, advancing all the way to level 100. Upon attaining certain levels, they will be rewarded with the following Xbox achievements: Rookie Gear (level 5), Seasoned Gear (level 15), Battle-Tested Gear (level 25), Battle-Hardened Gear (level 50), and Veteran Gear (level 100). (The last two achievements will also require that players download and achieve feats in the Snowblind Map Pack.) Four other unnamed achievements will be added as part of the update, with a total of 250 GamerScore points.

In addition to the new experience system--which will be based only on games played post-update--Gears of War 2's Title Update 3 will also feature new auto-balancing features, which will swap in bots for players who drop out mid-match. (Those same dropouts will suffer an experience-point penalty.) To learn about the rest of the update's features--and about Epic's future Gears of War plans--GameSpot spoke with executive producer Rod Fergusson.

GameSpot: What really prompted the changes in Title Update 3? What was the impetus behind them?

Rod Fergusson: Basically, it was a matter of listening to what people were saying about the TrueSkill system. We spent a lot of time on the forums and talking with other players, and we were noticing that people were sort of plateauing really quickly. At the middle of the road, they'd have a three-bar skill rank. Then they were having trouble understanding about what they needed to do to progress because of the way TrueSkill works. We're still going to keep the TrueSkill system under the hood, though, because we'll use it for matchmaking behind the scenes.

So to remedy the issues, we figured we should impose a system where people could earn experience; even if they lost the match they would feel like they're moving up the ladder. We want them to feel like they're progressing, gaining levels of experience in multiplayer play. It was really a reward thing to make people feel better about their progression online.

We also wanted to make sure the game types were balanced. We've had over 22 million matches for Gears so far. We looked at a bunch of data that we have on the back end about what the average score per match was of a particular game type like Warzone and Annex. We found that typically, Annex averages about four times as many points as Warzone does.

So, we had to normalize that discrepancy, so that people wouldn't say, "Oh, to get experience, you can only play Annex." We actually normalized it across so that no matter what game type you play, you're gaining experience at the same rate.

GS: Tell me about the new ranks, like Rookie Gear, Seasoned Gear, and their corresponding achievements.

The new experience system in action.
The new experience system in action.

RF: We created five new achievements for the experience system. Normally, the only way Microsoft allows a company to add new achievements is to tie them to new downloadable content. So we were actually really lucky in that we were able to talk to the Microsoft Game Studios team and explain to them that this was a fundamental change to the game.

They actually allowed us to have the first three achievements--Rookie Gear (level 5), Seasoned Gear (level 15), and Battle-Tested Gear (level 25)--to be just on experience alone. However, the next two higher ones--Battle-Hardened (level 50) and Veteran (level 100)--we had to tie to the DLC.

To get Battle-Hardened Gear, you have to reach level 50 and have at least played a match on each of the four new maps. You don't even have to win. As long as you played and reached level 50 of your normal level progression, then you'll get the achievement. For Veteran, you have to reach level 100 and to win a match on each map.

GS: Can you describe the four new maps?

RF: Yeah, absolutely. Grindyard is kind of an interesting map for us. Any time you've ever heard us talking about Gears 1, we always talked about the fact that Gridlock was the map we used as a basis for a lot of our development. Grindyard was that map for us for Gears 2. When we first started bringing in the new weapons, like the mortar, it was the very first place we tried all these new weapons. We had hoped to make it part of the original 10 maps that were going to be in the Gears 2 box, but for a number of reasons, it ended up not being that way.

So, the team is really excited about Grindyard actually getting out. The fact that it's become a winter-themed map makes it even more awesome-looking. It's a junkyard processing plant with flames, but then you have this really cool falling snow which makes for an interesting contrast.

Then there's Courtyard. If you remember Embry Square in Gears 1, it has the same city feel with a nice dusting of snow. It's a really fun map because you can see people across the way really quickly, and so you get a really good sense of motion in the battlefield.

And, then we have Under Hill, which basically takes place on a highway juncture, just before it goes into the mountains. You have this raised highway and this tunnel into the mountain and it's sort of half-and-half on that sort of environment. You can go to the high ground on the turnpike and grab the mortar, but going up there exposes you because it's essentially a raised highway. It's a dead end to go up there. So, you can get the higher elevation, but once you get up there, you could potentially be stuck up there.

For the last map we're bringing back--by popular demand--Fuel Depot from Gears 1. This was a map that was sort of a warehouse map with a downed helicopter and these gas pumps that you could blow up. It had two transport truck trailers with the sniper rifle inside. We gave it a makeover, much like we did for the Flashback Map Pack and the other Gears 1 maps we revisited. We gave it a new look and feel in terms of the visual style--again, it's a winter theme.

Grindyard, before The Unpleasantness.
Grindyard, before The Unpleasantness.

GS: Right, now on to DLC strategy in general. Gears of War 2 has obviously been a huge success for you. Are you going to keep its momentum going with new map packs until the next Gears of War game comes out?

RF: I have no idea what you're talking about! (Laughs.) Yeah, I mean, our philosophy at Epic has always been to try to keep the community vibrant and to keep giving new content where we can. We're definitely responding to their needs, when we see things like a way of tweaking the game to make it better. That's one of the big things we're really doing in this title update. I mean, this is the third title update. Title Update 1 was really about fixing matchmaking, since once we had scaled up we saw some immediate issues that we could fix. So we got it out as fast as we could.

Once things started to settle down in that space, there were a number of exploits that were starting to hurt the user experience online. So we dedicated Title Update 2 to getting rid of exploits and ways that people were kind of ruining the fun for others.

Now, with Title Update 3, we started looking more at how can we actually improve the experience. By doing things like adding the new experience level system, we have it set up so if people quit while you're playing a public match, we'll spawn one or a number of bots in to balance the teams.

There are a bunch of things like that in this update. We'll penalize players for quitting in the middle of a game with the new experience system. We also have some improved standby detections, but we don't want to go into too much detail, because we don't want to give away what we're doing. Essentially, we're able to tell when people are standby, and we're able to penalize them in a sort of undercover kind of way.

Then there are things like Public Horde. We had no idea that Public Horde was going to be as successful as it turned out to be. We thought Private Horde was going to be the way that most people played because you wanted to get together with five or four friends and play. Public Horde is basically playing with strangers, yet Public Horde has been outpacing almost all of our multiplayer game types.

A Horde-ing we will go!
A Horde-ing we will go!

But one of the things that sort of sucked about playing Public Horde was the fact that if the host quit on you after three hours of playing, then your high score never got updated. So one of the things we're doing now is, at the end of each wave, if the score that you have is a new high score for you, then that'll get posted to the leaderboard right away. So if a host quits after three hours, then you know at least that your high score has been saved along the way.

GS: OK, now there's a rumor going around saying that the next Gears game might be broken into episodic segments like Half-Life 2: Episode One and Episode...

RF: Well, there's been no recognition of another Gears of War sequel being developed. But in terms of a business model perspective, our goal is to supply the community with more content that allows a game to keep being played and for people to enjoy it. I'd hate for people to stop playing Gears just because they felt like they had seen it all and done it all. So we continually look at how we can we keep the experience fresh.

For us, a design goal was, from the very beginning with Gears 1, to find a way that one map could be used everywhere. We don't want to have a Warzone-only map and we don't want to have Horde-only maps. So when we release a pack like the Snowblind Pack, we know that not only are there four new maps for every multiplayer mode, now there's four new maps for Horde as well--because Horde plays differently on every map.

So, it's really about giving back to the community. That's really what we're trying to do. I mean we fought for a long time about trying to get stuff free and with Microsoft and their business model and marketplace, and that's not as easy as we would like it to be. And, also we had other issues there. But ultimately, it is really about just sort of keeping the community vibrant and keeping the game fresh.

GS: OK, so hypothetically, were you guys to make a Gears of War 3, would you reach out to the community for input and ideas as you did with Title Update 3?

RF: It's always a source of inspiration. I mean, we have to be careful about where you get all your sort of feedback from, and you can never blindly accept unsolicited game ideas. But in general, after Gears 1, we spent a lot of time listening to the feedback of what people were saying as a way of contributing to Gears 2.

GS: OK, earlier you mentioned how Epic is trying to keep it fresh. So far, Epic has only released multiplayer map packs for Gears of War games. This year, the single-player expansions for Fallout 3 (Operation Anchorage) and GTAIV (The Lost and Damned) are doing very well. Does the success of those two arouse any interest at Epic to work on some kind of update to the single-player campaign of Gears 2?

RF: It's certainly interesting. I mean, I can't say it's not interesting. I think everybody is sort of watching that and trying to understand it and how best to take advantage of that interest out there. But, I don't have anything to reveal or talk about in that space right now.

GS: OK. Now, I would be remiss if I didn't ask this question: With Midway Games going bankrupt, what's going to go on with Unreal Tournament 3? Have you guys thought about a new publisher?

RF: You know, I'm only the executive producer for the Gears of War series. I don't know that much about the business side or what Epic's plans are. I know there's still apparently a lot of interest in the UT experience and the updates that are coming out. But beyond that, I don't have any comment.

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