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New, Better, More: Epic's Approach to Gears of War 2

The mantra for Epic's Gears Of War 2 team is 'new, better, more'. But how do you actually iterate to achieve that? Gamasutra talks to senior producer Rod Fergusson on the practical steps the team is taking in developing 2008's sequel.

This fall, the Epic-created, Microsoft published Xbox 360 Gears of War franchise goes from single, 4.7 million unit-selling game to an expanded franchise, with the launch of Gears of War 2. The team creating the game at Epic Games is keenly aware of the importance of this evolution.

Though the first title was praised for its all-round graphics prowess and slickness of play, it's clear there's room to improve -- especially in story construction and evolution -- for the sequel, and that's just what the team is trying to size up.

For the follow-on, franchise senior producer Rod Fergusson discusses with Gamasutra the execution of an attemped "New, Better, More" philosophy, the meaning of the title in the broader context, and the trials of managing a franchise that has grown well beyond games into other media like comics, novels, and a potential film.

The Xbox 360 system is in a very different place in its lifespan than it was when the original title came out, and as a developer, you have to squeeze more out, as a flagship title. There's a lot of pressure, I'd imagine, as a first-party title. Also pressure on the part of you guys, wanting to push it further yourselves. Pressure, both internally and probably externally, because you just want to make the product as good as you can.

RF: Well, it's a cross between many different dimensions. If you look at it not as the system, in terms of the maturing of the system, but it's also the maturing of the engine, the maturing of the team, the maturing of the gameplay, right? So, it's actually a cross of all those things, where we've actually pushed all the different aspects of it.

We're able to do so much more because the engine has gone through a number of different iterations, in terms of its improvements -- we've shipped a PC product on it; we've shipped a PS3 product on it -- so it's just a more highly optimized engine in terms of all the features that have been added into it, as well.

And then the team went through such a growth process through Gears 1, and had to ship a fixed-ship-date product. We had a publicly announced ship date for the title, and the way that you develop that game, versus a shipping-when-it's-done title, is fundamentally different. And so, it's been basically that whole maturation, across all of those dimensions, that has been really helpful to us, and making sure that we're able to be more successful with Gears 2.

As you moved into planning the sequel, how are things structured in your development process? Do you start with a feature list and go waterfall? "We're gonna have this much done at this point in time," or is it more iterative? How do you set your goals?

RF: It's a mixture of the two. We're very milestone-based, in terms of the way that we plan out our schedule, but we're also firm believers of "the best idea wins", so we get a lot of iteration and organic development. Even though we might have a particular idea about the way that we want to go, a new idea will win out and we'll end up having to make changes and adapt to that. And so we see rapid growth and rapid development in certain areas because of that.

For Gears 2, we really started off with this process called, this idea of just "New, Better, More." We just decided to, across probably 15 different systems in the game, from animation, to gameplay, to story, to weapons -- we just looked at them and said, "What would we like to do new, what would we want to do better, and what would we want to do more?"

And so we went through, and we actually created this huge list of things, and we went through multiple [processes of] narrowing down, and came up with our top list of, you know, "Here's the top 35 things that we definitely want to make sure gets into Gears 2." And it was like, bots was number one on the list for things that we wanted to get in, and be part of that experience; as well as things like the party system, and taking more time to ensure that what we were conveying in the story was actually getting across to the player.

Because that was one of the things that we hadn't realized at the time, that we had a real design goal of "Make all cinematics action-oriented," and in the process of doing that, you can lose a viewer because he's so focused on explosions and muzzle-flashes that he doesn't hear "Oh, I have to get the Resonator, and I have to get to Alpha Squad," and that kind of stuff. We learned the idea of repetition as being really important to get across that, "Hey! You're going to go get the Resonator," "Hey! You're going to go get the Resonator," along the way.

So we went through that whole process, and that really helped us define what our starting feature set was, and then we began hitting the ones that we felt were the critical ones that we had to get, and the riskiest.

And then, again, we find new ideas, like the original curb stomp was just in the middle of a play test. Cliff was like, "I walk up to this guy on all fours, and I look at him, and I want to just stomp on his head! Why can't I do that?" And we're like, "Yeah, why can't you do that?" And so, boom, a new feature that kind of defines the game in some respects.

So we have to be open to those things, and I think that's what it is about maturity; that you have to know when it's good to accept those things, and when is it time to say, "No, it's not going to define the game; it's not fundamental to our success, and therefore it's important to let that go, and maybe put it in for the next one."

How do you manage the project? Because it has a very tight ship schedule, and it has a lot of features, how do you keep it on track in the way you're talking about?

RF: Take a look at where you are, schedule-wise, and feature-wise, effort-wise; it's the joys of Microsoft Project, the joys of Excel, and the joys of having a good team who understand what it takes to ship a game, and when you have to make that compromise.

If somebody goes -- to use the curb stomp again -- "Hey, I want to do curb stomps," then you have to go, "What are you willing to give up?" You have to look at what the balance is for shipping. So it's finding that balance, and monitoring it, and making sure you're on top of the process all the way through.

So those are the tools you use, to manage the project from the production side?

RF: Yeah, we have some internal stuff, too, that we do; Test Track Pro is what we're using currently, and some web-based things that allow it. One of the nice things is that, from Gears 1 to Gears 2, we've got some additional production assistants, and we've got a couple associate producers, which we didn't really have for Gears 1, so it's been great having other people to rely on.

Because the franchise has gotten so big that when you're worrying about comic books, and novels, and movies, and just continuity of the story bible; there's a lot more to worry about in Gears 2 than Gears 1, where we were just focused on gameplay. So yeah, it's nice having those extra production assistants to stay on top of the schedules and those sorts of things.


The original game was extremely popular, and fostered a great deal of passionate community; did you really go and dive into that, to find out what the fans wanted?

RF: Yeah, we were doing that all along. It wasn't a matter of, "Now that we've shipped, let's go mine the forums..." We're pretty forum-aware, as a company, and so we were always knowing what people wanted. And, you know, the party system, we would've loved to have had it, too, but we sort of ran out of time on Gears 1.

And then things that go against the way that we want to play; like the whole "rolling shotgun" stuff, that kind of became the de facto way of playing, was against our core belief about how we wanted the game to be.

That was really something that we brought to Gears 2: "How do we bring back tactical combat?" How do we bring in things with stopping power, and balancing the shotguns, and those sorts of things, which we really felt like the online experience should be, from a player perspective.

Does it ever occur to you, "Maybe we should do a Title Update to rebalance this stuff? Or should we just save it for the sequel?" How do you make those decisions?

RF: It depends on how bad it is, really; you know, in terms of exploits, and whether it's ruining the experience. You have to look at what's ruining the experience versus what is a tweak. And if you plan things appropriately, like we've done for Gears 2, we were able to actually balance without doing a Title Update.

There are different technical solutions that you can do that actually change -- much like Bungie does, in terms of changing what the damage your shotgun does, or whatever -- if you see that you've made a mistake in the title you've launched.

But we did it for Gears 1: I mean, the grenade tagging was a show-off feature in our lab, and Cliff used it occasionally to taunt people and stuff, but we didn't really use it that much, because we didn't think that it was useful; it was cool, but it wasn't useful, we thought.

But then we released, and we found out that people were using it all the time. And we had actually mis-set -- it was an improper number that was set, that gave it a much longer range than a normal melee; and it was when we realized that we had that kind of an exploit, we did a Title Update, to reel that back in, and get that feature under control, because we felt that that was hurting the gameplay experience.

So you really have to look at it as: "Is that a preference thing? Do we have a vocal minority who's making a lot of stink about something just because it goes against how they want to play? Or are you truly unbalancing your game and potentially hurting the experience for everyone?"

And then you make that call, because Title Updates are not trivial; it's not like PC updates where you just kick out a patch; you've got to go through cert, and your entire game gets re-certed, and you have to go through this whole process with the publisher to get that stuff done. It's not trivial.

People expect, like, "Oh, I saw this thing, and now give me a Title Update over the weekend," and it's like, from the moment you see a problem to the earliest you can get a title update, it's weeks and weeks. So it's just part of the process of making sure that things are certified, and are the right kind of things that you want to put out there on a console.

And you have a limited number of Title Updates that you can do, I believe, over the lifespan of the product.

RF: We had quite a few with Gears 1, trying to get things, like with the Roadie Run [glitch] and so... We haven't hit that one, and I don't actually know what the ultimate limit is. They have limits in terms of size, and stuff like frequency...

But, again, it comes down to the significance, right? Like, Microsoft is really about, is there a security breach or an exploit that's truly ruining the game? They're not big fans of developers kind of whimsically doing it, just because they want to mess with the game, or whatever. So yeah, you have to have a purpose behind your title update.

We're getting a few years into the Xbox 360 lifespan experience; where do you think we are, technologically, in terms of the potential of the system, this generation?

RF: That's a good question. I mean, I'm not the technical guy, so my ability to speak to where the engine goes is -- all I know is that with the two to three more years of optimization that we've had, we're much further along than I think, three years ago, we thought we were going to get.

So I think we're certainly approaching the upper end of it, as far as what developers are able to do with it, but just looking at all the demos we saw today -- ours and others -- it's clear that all the games just keep improving, and keep pushing that bar.

I think it's just a matter of, you know, it's a slow cycle; you only get a kick at it every couple years, and so it takes a while for people to see that progress. There will be games in development that won't ship until 2010, and I'm sure they'll look killer, just because, again, they'll have more time with it, and learn from mistakes and optimizations of others. So, I don't know; I think we're getting up there, but I still think there's room to grow.


You're developing this game on Unreal Engine. Obviously, you're at Epic. Do you consider it more of an advantage that you have access at that level, or is it more that you feel the pressure that you have to put the best foot forward for the engine in the product?

RF: I think it's a bit of everything. I think we feel like there are some benefits, obviously, of having the engine being developed in-house, but at the same time, our engine team is servicing all of the licensees as well.

You know, other teams that use their own engine have dedicated engine programmers that are just on their product; we're sort of sharing our engine team.

So in some respects we're a little bit like the cobbler's children, but at the same time, having that, the engine leads are two offices down from me, and I can talk to them and understand; it makes it easier for us to plan about how we do things, and stuff. I think there are definitely some benefits to that.

But, like I said, if I had a dedicated engine team that were just focused on my game, I'd definitely get benefit from that as well. So, there are pros and cons to both of them.

I've talked to a lot of people who've been developing Unreal Engine games, and they do a lot of customization on the product for their own purposes, for their own games. To an extent, I've heard people say, "The engine is designed to make Gears of War." Not in a sense that it's only capable of making Gears of War, but that your product slots in well. How do you see that?

RF: Well I think that the design philosophy for Unreal Engine, from the very beginning, is that it's to support the games we make, and then people can take that however they want to. But we generally don't implement a feature unless there's an important need from the licensees; we generally don't implement a feature that we are not going to use.

And it's not, generally, because it's being proprietary or anything like that; it's that we can't do that feature justice if we don't use it. You need to be able to put it in, use it, see what's working or not working with it, optimize it, make it better, until you have a better product for the licensee.

So, to create a feature that we don't use, so that it just rots on the vine, or that we have to rely on other people to tell us whether it's good or not, that's just not doing any favors to the licensee.

So, it makes sense that as Gears [goes], the engine is helping to support the development of Gears, so you could say that Gears is an easy fit for it, because that makes sense. The same goes for Unreal Tournament for all these years, right? That engine was built to it.

But again, we keep an eye toward licensee needs; we're certainly open to licensees' needs, and we make tweaks and a bunch of other changes based on their needs. So, I can understand that perspective, but again it comes down to "We want to make the best engine possible," and if we're not using the feature, we can't ensure that it's the best.

Are there any features that have come out of the development of Gears of War 2 that are being implemented in the engine? That are going to be available to all licensees, that you are aware of?

RF: I think the fracture system is probably one of the easiest to point to; that idea of the semi-destructible environment, where you have the inner core with fracturable bits that fall off to make the gameplay a lot more dynamic and interactive. It's because we want to have that sense that you're hunkered in, and you're getting all these chips and stuff flying off.

So that was something that was a feature that came out of the needs of the Gears team in our "New, Better, More"; they wanted to have a more interactive environment, and a more destructible environment, so that got applied into the engine, which then became available to licensees.

Something I was interested about, that you talked a little bit about earlier, was with the first game you started with a blank slate, and then things became much more complex in the second game because they had to tie in, and things became more elaborate in the sense that there is more universe-building this time around...

RF: So are you speaking story-wise?

Story, especially in the context of games, is not just story, it's setting. When you talk about narrative in games, of course it's spoken dialogue cutscenes. But the whole Gears of War world is very distinctive, and the things that you can do, and what you've established as the capabilities of the Locust in the predecessor don't quite lock you down, but...

RF: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think there's a lot more need of the universe, as well. The game, Gears 1, required a certain amount of information to form the universe, which we were able to provide. But then when you go to where it becomes a franchise, you have to look at -- I'm dealing with the author of the book, and stuff.

I'm looking at "What does the universe need to provide the author, to be able to make their story?" and "What does the comic book author need? What do you need for that information?" and "What does the potential movie script need for that information?" and then there's the second game's story...

So yeah, it's a lot more complex, and understanding what the full universe is, and how does it apply to all these different mediums, and the stories that they want to tell.


How do you manage that? Is there someone who's in charge of managing the development of the universe at Epic? Or is this a collaborative thing because there are other media that are not even videogames?

RF: It's a collaborative effort. I mean, for the most part, I'm kind of the continuity guy; I'm the one reviewing the book, and reviewing different aspects to make sure it makes sense in our universe; and we have a story team on the game, with Cliff and myself, and Dave Nash, and Josh, to make sure that it works within the game.

And the thing that's really nice is that we can keep ourselves -- like, one of the things that we really wanted to have when we designed the universe for Gears of War was that we wanted to keep all of our options open to us.

We didn't artificially or arbitrarily close doors on ourselves, because we knew that as things required more of us, or more ways of telling the story, that we would have to delve into things that maybe we needed to change.

And that's been one of the really nice things. From working with movie script writers, to working with the author, to working with Josh on his comic book, these are all avenues for us to explore new things, and get more clarity and more detail.

Because, you don't need to know Marcus' childhood for the game, and so maybe you don't take the time to go explore that, because again, I don't feel the need to lock myself into something that I may want to change if somebody does want to write that story.

So it's a matter of having that balance of keeping the world open enough for choice and growth and whatever direction you want to take it, but at the same time it needs to have enough information to feed all the different mediums who request something from you. It's definitely challenging, and that's why I'm really grateful for the additional production assistants for Gears 2; because just that burden alone is challenging to maintain, on top of building a game.

I think success complicates things, to an extent.

RF: Absolutely. Absolutely. It complicates things because now you have fans who expect something from you, and there are loyalties, and you don't want to mess it up for them, but at the same time, it opens a bunch of doors.

Like, storytelling as an example: In Gears 1, it's been a long time since Epic did a story-driven game, and so we weren't as confident as we should've been in telling the Gears 1 story, and there were certain choices that we didn't take, because we just weren't confident that we could pull it off, or that people would believe it, so we backed off of that.

And now, with Gears 2, and the success we had with Gears 1, we feel a little bit more confident about that. One of the things that I think people are going to take away -- besides the killer gameplay, and Horde [mode], and riding the Brumak [enemy] and all that cool stuff that I think people really wanted to have in Gears.

I think people are going to walk away from the game, at the end of this experience, and go: "They took some risks, story-wise, and I'm really surprised in that." And I think people will be happy about it; I think they'll be glad that we did that. Again, maturing the franchise.

There's a fair amount of debate right now about whether or not people want traditionally narrative story in games all -- whether people want it, and whether we should be providing it as an industry, whether it was a stop-gap.

Obviously, it heated up, as a debate, with Metal Gear Solid 4, which is basically the most traditionally narrative game yet released. I don't know if you're familiar with Far Cry 2 at all, but they're trying to do a fully dynamic story... Like, you can kill any character in the game, but they want to create a system so, like, the lines can be delivered by another character. So it's quite complicated -- and it's part of the design imperative.

RF: I think everybody plays differently; everybody has different expectations. I think that it's much like, if you look at gamers in general, form casual to the ultra hardcore, I think the expectations of gamers in gameplay -- the same is true of gamers in story. I think that everybody brings something different, and they want something different from it, and I think that each has their own medium for a reason.

If you look at a fully dynamic world, where the player totally tells their own story -- I mean, there's cool stuff that's really interesting about that, but I look at "Why have interactive movies failed? Why have the movie theaters with the three buttons where they pick the plot choices failed?" It's because you don't have that, necessarily -- the surprises.

I think that some of the storytelling, and being pulled through a story, and being told a story, and having things revealed to you that maybe wouldn't have been a choice that you would have made, is more interesting to a player; when you get those surprises and those twists, because you're not choosing that fate.

And so, I think it's open to all of them. There are people who want the more "Give me the cinematics, and a little bit of gameplay," and there are some who want all gameplay and no cinematics. I think it's open for everybody, and there's a place for everyone.

As for us, we try to minimize our cinematics, but at the same time, we want to make sure that the player has an experience; there's a specific experience that we want them to have, and it's not an open world, sandbox game, because we can't ensure you'll have that experience. We can't maintain that pace in a normal open-ended sandbox game; you can't ensure it. How many times do you say "Screw it! I'm going to go do 55 taxi missions!" or whatever, right?

And now you're off the story train for a while, and you lose that sense of where you were building to, and you lose that momentum. I think that pace is really, really important, and for us in particular, in Gears 1, we were trying to get that summer blockbuster pace. If we stopped and said, "Hey, it's up to you for the next while..." you wouldn't have felt that way. We wouldn't have had the success we had with the number of people who actually finish the game, if people could take breaks along the way and not get that "Oh, my heart is racing," or "I really want to see what's the next thing..."

But, all that being said, like I said: gameplay-wise, from casual to hardcore, I think story-wise there's the same [situation]. There are the people who want to choose their own adventure, and the people who want a story told to them, and they want to live it out, and they want to be touched emotionally, or at least viscerally.


I think Gears of War is, even more than Halo, the prototypical testosterone fest. Ridiculously beefy, ridiculously masculine. What do you think about doing a game in that style? Do you think that's the primary audience of the 360?

RF: I don't know if it's the primary audience; as you saw from the E3 keynote, the platform is really broadening from Lips and all that stuff, right? So it's tempting to take it even further. Yeah, I think there's a core audience to anything, and I think shooters are a core gameplay for that audience.

I think it appeals to certain people. And for me, games are all about [being] aspirational. You know, I don't want to be -- and this is a personal thing -- I don't want to be the little girl walking backwards down the dark school hallway; I don't want to be putting myself in a place where... I want to be aspirational. I want to be that badass; I want to be that cool guy. I think Gears does that; I think Gears gives you that.

It has a weight to it, in the world, and it has this thing where I want to be with these guys, and I'd go to war with these guys. And it's just cool! I mean, really, we want it to be thick-necked steroid guys; we like that vibe.

And at the same time, we've been trying really hard not to be sophomoric. I mean, we're not doing fart jokes, and all of that stuff. So there's a line there, and we're trying our best to keep the energy, keep the excitement, and keep the aspirations of a 17 to 18 year old, going, "Yeah, I want to be that guy! And I'm gonna go kick ass with my chainsaw!" But again, we're not doing poop jokes or whatever.

It's funny, because, there's something I've been thinking about -- and I don't know if it's just a dichotomy, or if there's more to it than this -- but I've been thinking about people who talk a lot about identifying with the main character of a game as though they are, you know, somehow connected to the main character of the game... And I, personally, more think of main characters as the main characters of a movie. I don't feel like I have to identify, really.

RF: You don't need to project.

Right. I mean, honestly, I'm not that into Marcus Fenix as a character; to me, it doesn't appeal a great deal, but I did play through all of Gears of War, and really enjoy it. So it's not necessarily a bad thing.

RF: You have to make sure that you don't do so much that -- the thing is not to break them out of it. It's like, how do you get them in, and then you don't want to mess with the suspension of disbelief so much that, like...

If Marcus were to act in a way that was totally against your belief system, whatever that may be, that would make it be really hard to play him.

And so I think that you have to find this subdued character, where you say, "Well he says some occasional badass things, and he does occasional badass things..." and you're like, "OK, I can tag along with him for the ride, and I get that, and I think he's cool," as opposed to -- there's always a risk, when you put too much character, that you'll be going, "I can't associate. I'm not in line with that."

It's cohesive. The whole world of Gears, the whole thing is very cohesive, right, so even if you don't buy into, like, the Marcus Fenix, like, "Shit yeah!" kind of thing, you can still get it. You can still enjoy it for what it is.

RF: Yeah, and we've worked hard to make sure that Marcus was the aspirational guy that was somewhat quiet, and introverted in a way, and that Dom -- you know, we designed Dom to be the voice of the player. So if the player is playing, and he goes, "What the hell is that?" Dom goes, "What the hell is that?", right?

So we wanted to project all of the player questions, and all the player sensibilities onto Dom; to make him the one asking all the questions that the player's asking, so they don't have to have that -- Marcus isn't questioning, and Marcus doesn't have the same uncertainty that the player has, so they'll be like, "Wow, he's really strong, and he knows what he's doing, and he's a badass," whereas you have Dom asking the questions.


That's interesting. It's an interesting way to split the characters. The thing about games -- which you're well aware of -- is that they're both like a software development exercise and a creative exercise, so it's like you're talking about something that's almost mechanistic, in a sense. It's a mechanic of the story, the way the story functions. How do you do that division?

RF: Yeah, that was the big thing for us: Marcus is the player, and Dom is the voice of the player; that was the way we always looked at it. But yeah, it's tough, especially beca

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