Catching up With Epic's Director of Production, Rod Fergusson
Gears of War 3, which was released in September of 2011, drew a close to the trilogy that began back in 2006. The Epic tale follows members of the Delta Squad as they wage war against the Locust, a terrifying subterranean enemy that emerged from the ground and decimated the human population.
More than a year later, Epic Games announced the release of Gears of War: Judgment, a prequel set 14 years prior to the critically acclaimed trilogy. But instead of resuming the role of Marcus Fenix, the original protagonist, players would step in as Damon Baird, on trial for treason.
We sat down with director of production at Epic Games to talk about the game’s progression, gameplay and the future of Gears.
Paste: Epic was just at E3 a few weeks back. I know it was the first chance you had to show off Judgment—so how did it go? How did people respond?
Rod Fergusson: Oh, it went really, really well. In fact, I wish we had doubled our presence there in the booth. We had 10 stations inside of a private theater where a lot of people could play Overrun for the first time. We ended up getting lines that were multiple hours long to get in. I felt bad about that. We had 10 machines inside, and I thought that we could have put another 10 in there, and after seeing the line and the response, I really wish we would have.
But yeah, I was really happy with the response. It’s one of things where some people have talked about Judgment coming out on the heels of [Gears of War 3], but it’s really clear from E3 that there’s a definite hunger and yearning for more Gears.
Paste:There’s been a lot of hype and excitement about the new multiplayer, Overrun. What are you guys most excited about in terms of this new multiplayer style?
Fergusson: What we’re most excited about right now is this idea of class-based multiplayer—a mantra we have in the studio right now is “Play Your Way.” Everybody likes to play games differently. Not everybody is the best shooter. I’m one of those people that likes to play support roles. I like any sort of game that has an engineer or support class or a medic of those types of things. I tend to be that sort of person. I like to help the team. I’m usually not the fastest shot. So that idea of having class-based gameplay coming to Gears where people of different skills or preferences can play together and have a good time competitively is awesome.
Paste: So was Overrun more of a natural progression for the series, or was more of a really great creative leap?
Fergusson: It’s more of a leap for us really because the way our stuff is designed. When we first designed Gears, we focused on making the weapons what made you unique. And so when you look at Gridlock, the map, it’s all about getting to the power weapons. We purposely bait and lure people to the middle to have that fight. That’s how you differentiated yourself. If you wanted to be successful, you need to have a power weapon, and a lot of game multiplayers are focused around that. Now it’s more than just the weapon you’re carrying can have abilities. When you are in Gears multiplayer, there’s a lot of importance in your role.
When you play other games where there’s higher percentage counts—maybe you’re one out of 12 on your team—your individual performance kinda matters less, generally. Usually there’s people above you in skill level, and you’re trying to contribute as much as you can—at least that’s my experience. Whereas in Gears, you’re five-on-five, or in Gears 1, where you were four-on-four, you felt like your one contribution to this match is important. You had an important role to play. You can say, “Well, I’m still one in five, and my contribution is necessary for my team to succeed.” And then you continue to contribute in every way, either through repairing fortifications, or providing health to a team, or throwing ammo to a team, or what have you. It’s been a bit of a leap. And from what we’ve seen with Overrun at E3, it’s pretty clear that it’s a successful formula.
Paste: Judgment is a prequel to the original Gears trilogy, but it stars Damon Baird. What’s been one of the biggest challenges of crafting a game that is separate from that original trilogy, but still related to it?
Fergusson: Well, the biggest challenge is that fact that you need to go backwards in time story wise without necessarily going backwards in time in framework. And so that’s been the hardest part. A lot of times when you’re making games—when we made Gears 1, we didn’t make everything we could possibly think of in the Gears universe. We made what made sense for that gameplay and what we could think of at the time, and the scope of the project and the schedule, and all those different factors. When you start another game, you add more to that. So it’s like, “Oh, they added a new heavy weapon, and they have a new creature to attack me.” Once you’ve done that for three versions, or six to eight years, you have a large body of content and gameplay pictures and mechanics. And so you say, “Hey, we’re going to rewind 14 years.” It’s tougher to go back and rewind. You need to rewind the story and decide, okay, do we want to go back to just the Gears 1 universe, which has been changed three times. There’s a lot of decisions we’ve made to take the gameplay from Gears 1 to Gears 3, and we want to keep that. That’s been kinda tricky—looking at our backstory and our IP, that kind of stuff, and kind of bending it while trying not to break it.
When people saw the cover on Game Informer, they were like, “Well, it’s a prequel, but you have this chainsaw, and according to this book, this is when it came in.” And you sort of have to go, “Okay, we hear you.” There is some question about the exact date the chainsaw existed on the Lancer, but in the greater scheme of things from a gameplay perspective, people had a lot of fun with the Lancer and the chainsaw. And so we’d be getting rid of gameplay for the sake of just being true to the cannon. And in some cases, the answer is no. We left the cannon in order to give the gameplay as much as possible.
Paste: What was so appealing about this time period specifically?
Fergusson:There were a couple things that were really appealing about it. One was that it was a time period we really hadn’t explored. So we were able to look at it as, “Where can we go next with the Gears game?” And we felt like backwards in time was it. When the Locusts were new is really interesting, and it really fit into the gameplay, because the gameplay is different than the previous games. It’s very focused on intensity and feeling overwhelmed. It’s a challenge level. And so there’s this idea that you’ve been with the Locusts for the last six to eight years, and you’ve become comfortable with them. You recognize them as an enemy, but you don’t necessarily recognize them as a horrific monster that’s crawled up from the underground. What we want to do is take it back to a time when the Locusts were scary again. When they were new and people didn’t know exactly what was going on. It was just, “What are these, and what do I have to do to win?” It’s really interesting for us, and we wanted to make gameplay changes that accommodated that in terms of making the Locust even more meaningful and dangerous to you so that you could actually fear a single Wretch when it comes into a room.
Paste: What prompted you to bring [People Can Fly] into the project, and what’s been their biggest contribution so far?
Ferugsson: Well, it’s not the first time they’ve been involved in Gears. They helped us a lot with Gears of War PC when it first came out. They did a lot of work there, and they were certainly involved in Gears 3 in terms of graphical things. They heavily involved in the DLC, “RAAM’s Shadow.” It felt like a natural progression to work with them, especially coming out with DLC. What’s great is that they’ve been with us for five years now, I believe, and they love the franchise, and they believe in it, but they also have a lot of interesting and fresh ideas, and so it was a combination of coming in with this new outlook on the game and being aware of what makes a Gears game a Gears game. It makes this perfect combination of freshening it up, but you don’t go so far that it’s not Gears.
Paste: I remember reading an interview where you talked about how there’s a little bit of “betrayal” needed to keep a franchise fresh. I thought that was a really interesting way to put it. So what is Judgment’s “betrayal”?
Fergusson: [Laughs] Be careful how you say that betrayal part. We definitely change enough to keep things interesting. One of the big things is the control scheme. What we’ve done is try to make the game more explosive than the previous Gears games. We sped up the weapons swap animation. We’ve created the off-hand grenade so you can throw it or switch to it. When you switch weapons between your primary and secondary, you just tap the Y button; you don’t use the D-pad anymore. So it’s those sorts of things like that change the structure you’ve had for three games. I feel like that’s something that’s going to challenge new players. They’re going to come to it and go, “This doesn’t feel like Gears,” or “Wow, this is an amazing addition.” So that’s what we’ve played. We’ve changed out gameplay stuff in terms of the speed of gameplay. You need to have those things like an offhand grenade, or weapon swap in order to be successful given the game’s speed. That’s one thing we’re sort of challenging. Same thing with focus on the story, the gameplay and the story within the gameplay. Gears of War 3 had 90 minutes of cinematics—it was essentially a movie within a game. For Judgment, we’re more focused on the actual gameplay and immersing you in that experience and telling stories in different ways. It definitely feels different than what you’d expect a Gears game to feel like, but at the end of the day, when you play it, it’s still Gears.
Paste: On that level of thinking, how do you keep the narrative arc still strong within gameplay?
Fergusson: The story is told in a flashback way. You start at the end. The game begins with Baird being brought before a tribunal. The testimony of what happened that caused him to be there, you actually play that testimony. So you get to live the mission that lead to where he ends up. So the idea is kind of the difference between the flashback and present day in what’s happening in the courtroom in the tribunal, versus what’s happening in the field during the flashbacks. We also have things like the declassification system. We also have a lot of stuff around embedded storytelling, which is because we’re more focused on what’s happening in the level. If you pay attention, you can see the suitcase is left on the doorstep, and the bloodstain is going away from it, like they tried to evacuate and didn’t make it. That kind of stuff. There’s a lot of stuff where you can settle it for yourself based off what’s going on and what you see in the level.
Paste: Will we ever see any other offshoots from the original cast, or is Baird the special exception?
Fergusson: I always say never say never. We never planned on making the trilogy in Gears of War; it was driven by customers and community loyalty. It kind of grew off the success. The same thing is true here. If Judgment is hugely successful, then who’s to say what happens next? We never have a plan of where we’re going to go next. It’s more about, “Let’s make the best game we can.”
Got news tips for Paste? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.