"We haven't done a sequel like this at Epic, I think... ever," Epic Games president Mike Capps says of Gears of War II
, and that's yielded a lot of lessons.
At the GC Developers conference, Capps was sharing experiences from building the follow-up to the original Gears of War
, which sold 5 million copies and 1 million downloads of its first downloadable map.
"This was amazing, because we told them we were going to give it away for free and people still purchased it in droves," Capps says. "In fact, when we announced there was one week left before we were giving it away, another drove of people bought it in a rush before it became free!"
But there's a lot that goes into creating such a franchise, says Capps -- it's more than building a game. "You have to support the franchise and have numerous anchors, such as [making] the game something that people find easy to relate to, and managing player expectation."
The Visual Language
Distinguishing points for Gears
, Capps says, are its Earth-like setting inspired by old Europe, the Locust as "monsters under the bed," and anti-hero Marcus Fenix. Even fantastical items like the distinctive chainsaw gun have grounding in reality, he maintains -- "it shoots bullets and the chainsaw is effectively a big bayonet anyway."
' hallmark "Crimson Omen" logo was part of the branding effort and the creation of an over-arching theme for the IP As a whole. "You know, like the Misfits, where nobody actually listens to the band but everybody has the t-shirt," says Capps. "The 'Crimson Omen'... really, it's just our badass skull -- our Misfits logo."
The next step, says Capps, was to define the franchise's "visual identity" -- as an example, he shows conference attendees a Raiders of the Lost Ark poster that, by its look, feel and the objects it portrays, communicates its themes. Similarly, he says, the Gears
iconography summarizes the franchise's themes of "nightmarish horror," "humanity's last stand," and "never fight alone."
"The chainsaw," adds Capps, "is our lightsaber. I want it seen as much as possible."
Capps says the visual identity is essential even if its darkness means the original Gears
couldn't be sold in Germany, and German law prevented Epic from showing the game publicly at the Leipzig conference.
With this visual language established, Capps says, it raises the bar for Gears of War 2
. "Games do not compete in fun experiences -- they compete in visuals and hours of gameplay and number of weapons," he says.
"New, Better, More"
To apply the company's "New, Better, More," philosophy to Gears of War 2
, Capps says Epic broke the first game down into 16 different gameplay systems and analyzed each to see what needed improving on. "So everybody liked cover," he says, "so how do we do more of it, improve it, or make new stuff like it, while keeping true to the Gears
franchise so we weren't suddenly adding laser rifles that were all like 'pew-pew'?"
The team started with a "design cabal," Capps says, where groups brainstormed gameplay ideas, sorted them into "New, Better, More," and, "removed the impossible, leaving the improbable," shared lists amongst themselves and ultimately chose the top five ideas for each area.
"Then we just argued like crazy," he adds.
The areas that were easiest, Capps says, were areas where Epic knew it'd come up a bit short with original Gears
"So for example story... we did well on the characters, but it wasn't a plot-heavy game. In the second game, we'll be able to dig a little deeper."
The hardest part, then, were the areas in which the developer already felt confident -- technology, co-operative gameplay, multiplayer and overall mechanics, which were "considered by many," says Capps, "to be the industry best in Gears of War
"Obviously, at Epic, we have high expectations for tech," he says. "We didn't think, 'how do we improve our tech' -- instead, we thought, 'how do we improve our game with better technology?'"
For this, he says, Epic wanted to emphasize Gears 2
's "humanity's last stand" theme by using tech to create the feel of a large-scale war and a true Locust horde with a new crowd system.
"Yes, we cheat a little bit with repeating animations and so on, but each one is an agent and you can attack them and they'll react," says Capps.
Similarly, the team enhanced the "never fight alone" theme by adding a full-party system layer and a new "what's up?" feature where players can see their buddies' locations and invite them into the game.
Co-op, continues Capps, was a key area for proving the merit of Xbox Live back when Gears of War
started drawing audiences. The new game, he says, will include "monster trucks" among a broadened range of co-op vehicles, while Epic has added player-independent difficulty levels, better drop-in and out, more save slots, and other features designed to expand specifically the cooperative experience.
It was especially important, says Capps, to do a "new, better, more" analysis on the game's multiplayer component.
Adding AI bot support to multiplayer in Gears 2
was a "huge amount of work, but it was one of our most demanded." Another demanded feature -- Deathmatch, but Epic thinks it's done players one better with a "Wingman" mode where pairs fight other pairs. "That's 'never fight alone;' that's a much better fit than Deathmatch," Capps says.
"More online players seems pretty obvious," he continues, "not just lots of them, but more of them playing together online. We considered, do we want to have 16 [versus] 16 against each other? But it just doesn't fit very well in the world. We just decided to go as far as 5 on 5."
Creating "Water Cooler Moments
Capps says that as far as gameplay, "we play all sorts of nasty tricks" in order to ensure that so-called "water cooler moments" happen.
"The worst thing that can happen is this emergent gameplay, when something amazing happens -- but you're facing the opposite direction because we don't want to 'force you' to view it. Well, screw that!"
Also added to the gameplay are chainsaw duels and dynamic cover, including hostages that often become corpses rather quickly -- "we call that the 'meatbag' -- officially it's just called 'taking the hostage' in the manual, though."
"We wanted the cover system to be better too --we counted 400-odd tweaks that we made to the system," he adds. It was important to us, as there was always that one guy who hated the cover system on forums, so we made a lot of changes and we hope they please him."
Among a myriad of other tweaks, Capps says, Gears 2
will improve "down-but-not-out time," friendly AI, more bosses of all sizes, more finishing moves -- "because really is using the chainsaw enough?" and more enemy variety.
"And, believe it or not, ladders -- because we only got one ladder in the original game in act five and it was like a month and half of animation work, so I decreed there would be more ladders in the sequel," says Capps.
Finally, says Capps, "you never know if you're making a Gears of War
. You don't know, so start from the beginning making a franchise, not just making a game."
"Sequels bring their own challenges, so do your best to compete on originality -- that fits within your own universe. You need to improve your game on both the weak and the strong areas," he says. "It's the same way you run a company -- don't spend all your time trying to make your C employee be a B employee, you try and make your A a A-plus."
"In November, we'll see if we got it right."