The highly anticipated October 11th launch of Gears of War 4 marks a number of big, scary landmarks for the 26-million selling Xbox-exclusive series. It's the first new entry in the gory, M-rated third-person shooter series since Microsoft acquired it from original creators Epic Games in 2014; it's the first designed specifically for Xbox One and Windows 10; and it's the first original title from the newly-formed Microsoft development house the Coalition. That studio, based in Vancouver, is exclusively focused on the Gears of War series, and is headed up by veteran game maker Rod Fergusson. Previously the director of production at Epic Games on the original Gears of War games, Fergusson parted ways with Epic in 2012 to join Ken Levine at Irrational Games, where his role was to ensure the hugely ambitious BioShock Infinite shipped on time.
Glixel caught up with Fergusson earlier this month to talk about what the series means to fans, how he put his new team through Gears of War boot camp and what it means to be a game producer.
You made a bunch of Gears of War before, then you went and did something else…
BioShock Infinite, yeah.
And then you came back. Why?
Because it's Gears of War! It was a triple homecoming. I hadn't been in Canada for 15 years, I hadn't been back to Microsoft in 10, and I hadn't been with Gears for three. All these three things converged into this one moment and the opportunity to go back came up. One of the reasons I left Epic in the first place was because I couldn't make Gears any more, and this allowed that to happen.
Why do you feel so close to it?
It's the only game where, as a creator, you spend two to three years making it, and then it comes out, and then you go home and actually play it. That just doesn't happen. Normally you're tired of it because you've been looking at it non-stop.
Someone asked me once what the Gears of War legacy was. I bet you'd think I'd say cover-based combat or the active reload. Honestly though, to me it's shared experience. It's the notion of two people on a couch playing through the campaign. We've made that one of our fundamental pillars, because we've seen how important it is to people. It's made us realize we're going beyond being a distraction-maker and doing something with some meaning to it. We've talked to people about how their relationships have been built through the game, or in some cases how they're getting married because of playing the game together. It's affected them on a deeper level.
Is that depth external to the game though? Is it more about the social aspect?
No, it's the game. Gears is one of those few franchises that has a real range that goes from kind of comic-booky to real emotion. In Gears 2 we had the Maria scene and that had people crying. In Gears 3 we had the Dom scene, and that had people crying. The fact that we can go from this bubblegummy fun all the way to people crying while they're playing, well... not many franchises can do that.
The Coalition came together as a brand new team, and it's focused specifically on Gears of War. You've worked on the franchise before, but these other folks haven't. What was the first thing you did to get them all in the right frame of mind?
First I told the team to just go play while we were figuring out what it was that we were going to make. Everybody went away and played the trilogy and played Judgment and read the books and the comics. We'd have team meetings where we would have trivia contests... we'd ask what is the name of this enemy, what weapon does he use? Here's a shirt!
Did you give them a hard time if they got stuff wrong?
Oh yeah, totally. What was great for us was that when I went up to Vancouver to start on this, there was already a team there. They were getting ready to do other stuff and they were a pretty large team. We realized that this was an opportunity for us to remaster Gears 1 and create Ultimate Edition and in doing that it would be like taking the whole team through Gears of War boot camp.
It was a way to go back and deconstruct it and reverse engineer it. To do that, you have to understand about cover and combat distances, and how to bring enemies in waves, and all that stuff. Having to rebuild that game allowed them to go through this whole learning process.
Our team is from everywhere. They're from all around the world, and we have people from Assassin's Creed and [Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine] and all these different types of influences. So when they knew they were making Gears of War, they started going crazy. "You know what I haven't seen in Gears of War? I haven't seen verticality, or this kind of thing or that kind of thing." I was like, guys... love the enthusiasm – but first we have to show that we can do this right. First we had to get the core, so we said, let's just go back to school, and we did. We said OK, now here's three different battles from Gears 1, Gears 2, and Gears 3. Go recreate them. So they went and rebuilt them and we played them and agreed that they played really well.
Then we were like, OK now go make that battle better. If you were the guy on Gears 1 who had to make that, how would you have made it better? And they would go do that. OK... now that you've made the original, and you've made it better, now go make your own, and they would go do that, and I dunno... something like 70 percent of those "go make your own" battles are now in our game.
How long does a process like that take?
It takes months. But it was part of our process. We had to prove we could do it right before we did it different, and we had to really invest in the foundation.
Did you feel obliged to do something different? Or do you worry about straying too far from the formula?
Totally, I worry about that all the time. The team was always pushing me on where we could go differently with the game. At the time I was more like, "No, no, no, no... that's too far, too far." We ultimately realized that we did really have to push it.
One of the things I'd always said previously was that you should never put your producer and your designer in the same body because you want that creative tension between people. You want the designer to be like, "I had the craziest dream," and then you want the producer to say, "You don't have that kind of time."
You need that kind of conversation. Now I've put both of those roles inside of me and it's been hard to have that kind of notion of how do I think crazy but also know my production limitations.
So do you have anyone that keeps you in line?
I haven't needed keeping in line, but there have been times where I've needed to remind the team that my background is production more than design. I can self-censor myself right now, but I'm not going to do that. I'm going to tell you what I want, it's your job to tell me what it's going to cost. I'm just going to take off the restrictor plate that I have built in naturally, and I'm going to give you a bunch of shit that I want to actually do. Then you tell me whether we can do it or not.
But this is the stuff that you're known for, right? You're the guy that ships. What kind of mindset do you need to have to do that? Are you just really stubborn?
There's a process to it. It's about prioritization, and about having the maturity to realize that it's not a black and white, zero or one kind of decision. You have to realize that your best idea is not going to be during your design phase. Your best idea is going to happen during production and you're going to have to change a bunch of stuff to make that idea come to life.
A lot of producers think that it's their job to just say, "No," all the time – and it's not. Your job as a senior producer who knows how this stuff works is to know when to say, "Yes," to know when to make the game better without risking your ship date. You have to understand that those things take trade-offs.
When I look at junior producers and they seem to think that their job is hold the clipboard and say, "No we don't have time," I'm like, that's not your job. Your job is to listen to what it is you're trying to do, and figure out what's the best thing for the game. If it's coming back and saying that it's a great idea but we can't afford it, that's fine. Don't start with "no," start with: "Sounds cool, let me see what it'll cost us."
What's something that people would really relate to that was born of that process?
The ability to buy weapons skins in Gears 3 in the game was done within the last four weeks of production. The ability to press X and go get another Lancer skin or whatever. I pushed that, and people on the team were like, "You're shaking the Jell-o on this stuff."
What does that mean?
We use that term when trying to stabilize a game. So the team were like, "What are you doing? You're supposed to be reining us in and locking things down and getting this thing shipped." But this stuff is super important. If it's going to make the game better then you have to try and do it.
We had a problem in Gears 1 where people were able to outrun the streaming of the levels. So I think a week before we went to [certification] we put in the exhaustion mechanic where you get tired when you do the roadie run. That was me and [Gears of War programmer] Ray Davis in the last week of the project. Cliff [Bleszinski, lead designer] didn't even know it was going in.
We had to think about how we could stop people from getting these loading screens. We had to slow them down. We didn't want to slow down their run speed, so we're just going make them tired every six seconds or whatever it was. That was a last-second thing where we had to ship, but we didn't want people running into this problem. So that's why when you go to Gears 2, the run speed is slower to help with that problem so we don't have to do the exhaustion thing.
Those are the sorts of, "Holy crap, we have a problem, how do we fix it?" kind of moments. We just make a compromise and a trade off that we think makes sense.
Is there stuff in Gears that's absolutely sacred that you can't mess with because of the fans and the way they might react?
Yeah. When you have the kind of fanbase that we have, where they're tattooing themselves with the Crimson Omen and stuff like that, we know that there are certain things that we really can't mess with. You can't redefine it so that it means something different, because that's not why these fans were prepared to put it on their body.
That's why we invented the Phoenix Omen for the new game. It's a new symbol, and it's something we can use to represent the new saga without messing with something that people have already bought into. There's a loyalty that comes from the whole band of brothers theme and the core story of Gears of War. We just can't undo that.
The brotherhood theme didn't seem to really come until later though. Was there always going to be an arc where these characters became closer? Or was it a result of how the audience reacted?
In the first game, Baird and Dom wanted to punch each other in the face. They weren't brothers in Gears 1, but by Gears 3, they were. For us, the process of letting the characters grow and develop was important, but there was a lot of learning with them.
Honestly, it's one of the reasons we used such obvious archetypes. You have to understand, that first game came in super hot. That's one of the hardest games I've ever shipped in my life, and I've worked on some really hard games, from Counter-Strike on Xbox to BioShock Infinite.
Something we ended up doing was thinking that we just didn't have time for backstory, so we needed to be super clear about who these people were. So Cole was the super-enthusiastic sports guy. Totally get it. I got it in a few words. Baird is the sarcastic, science guy. Totally understand him in three words. Don't need to explain him at all. Dom is the best friend who loves his wife. OK, got him. Moving on.
One of the things we look at with Gears 4 is that you don't need to know the past to enjoy the new game. It's 10 years later now and people want a more nuanced story. They want more complexity. They want grayness and morals and morality.
What's the writing process for that? Do you have a basic structure and then have a writers' room that hashes out the details and argues about dialog?
We're very iterative. We use a term "negative space," and that's always an area that we know we don't need to figure out right now. So we'll look at something and we'll say, "OK, there's a big backstory thing and we'll ask what happened and we'll go like – does that inform anything we're doing in the game? Ehhh... no. OK, that's negative space, we'll come back to it."
So we put down this spine of a story, and as we start to add muscles to it and tissue to it, it changes and adapts. Because we have negative space and gaps we can fill it all differently. With a game like this, you have be able to change your scope as you're working through the project. We had whole missions where we were just, "Nope!" And we cut them. Then we'd have to ask ourselves how that cut affects our story. When it was clear that a level had to be cut because it just didn't affect things that much, well then we had to weave everything back together again. Ultimately, it's really all about the big beats and then the individual moments.
Early on we wrote just a sample – it was a character moment, where we wanted to explore the relationship between JD and Kate. We wrote a moment just to write it. It was one of the first things we ever wrote and we didn't even have the game structure yet. It was kinda out of character for Gears, because it was a sweet little moment between two characters.
When we get into the game, I kept coming back to where this moment might fit. Gears doesn't typically have these moments. Sure enough, it didn't end up where we thought it would be, but we put it in right near the beginning and decided to establish that moment so we could build off it.
That kind of tenderness can work really well. The scene on the train in Wolfenstein: The New Order is a good example because it's just about the characters and is completely different than the rest of the game.
It's something we try to do. Whenever we look at a cinematic in another game where it's super action-intense, I always have the same reaction to it, which is "why aren't you letting me do that?" Why are these characters having all this amazing fun and I'm watching them when I should be playing that? When we go to cinematic in Gears 4 and take control away from the player, nine times out of 10, it's because we want you to have a character moment. We want you to experience something where you don't have control of the camera. We want to pace something a certain way. That's our focus. If we're going to do a cinematic, it's because we're trying to get something across. A mood, a tone, whatever.
One of things that's really funny is that when we go to cut things like trailers together, and we're looking for all the action stuff. Well, none of our cinematics are action-filled, because that's what the game is for. We want the player to play the action, not watch it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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