Aside from the hours of hands-on time I spent with Gears of War: Judgment recently, I also had the pleasure of shooting the breeze with Epic Games Senior Producer Chris Wynn. We discussed everything from campaign to multiplayer to the involvement of Bullestorm developer People Can Fly. Read on.
The development studio ‘People Can Fly’, who created games like Bulletstorm and Painkiller, have been assisting with development on Gears of War: Judgment. What can you tell me about the capacity of their involvement?
Well, you know, their involvement’s really heavy. We personally wanted to get their entire studio involved, we wanted them to bring their fresh ideas to the franchise. When we finished Gears of War 3 and we got done with that trilogy and decided to do something else, we were, kind of like, free of those constraints of what the original trilogy meant.
We were able to come at it with new ideas, and going straight to People Can Fly, they already had some of those ideas, right? So we were able to start really quickly and start really fresh. In terms of the process, of working back and forth, they really took the initial reigns and really got the thing going and then we started slowly involving more people from Epic as they wrapped up on Gears 3 and that sort of thing, with the DLC and post-product support and all that stuff.
It is very much a collaborative process — where you have our people here and their people there and we’re playing both campaign and multiplayer on both sides and grouping all of that feedback together from everybody. Then the producers sort of go through and prioritize it all, and we just keep evolving it and iterating on it.
It’s been really successful.
That has me curious. Is PCF an official subsidiary of Epic Games now?
They are now, actually. What was it, yeah — three months ago we bought the rights to the entire company.
Beast mode was introduced into Gears 3. Horde mode came before it. Now you have this new mode called Overrun that sort of blends the two… what was the original inspiration behind Overrun? Was it a fan request or…?
We unveiled Beast Mode in Gears of War 3 at E3 2010, and it was almost an immediate question of “when can we have Beast and Horde mode together?” It’s something we had talked about, we just didn’t have the resources to pull off Beast mode, Horde mode, multiplayer and then Horde vs. Beast [in Gears 3].
It was literally one of the first things we started prototyping in Judgment. The two first things that we prototyped was the defense scenarios in campaign, that was something we had a lot of interest in, and then Horde vs. Beast. The easiest thing to do was, you know, mash em’ together!
So, you know, it was kind of fun, it was just very hectic and just felt too much like multiplayer, right? You just had a different variety of locust to choose from, so we had to figure out how to take it from there, and that’s when we made it objective-based, defense and attack.
We already had these classes with the locust, so we just wanted to make sure they were focused on attacking, so we said “oh, let’s get some defense-focused classes for the COG.” Then we talked about map design. We played around with lots of different map designs and the ones that we kept coming back to were the ones that had two lanes that came to a single point, that were funneled.
We use that as like a module for all the maps, it’s always two lanes going to one point. I think the reason that’s been so successful is it’s just so simple. If I die, I know exactly where to go to get back into the action, I don’t have to wander around wondering where things are at.
What’s it like to balance something like that?
Balancing in Overrun particularly is like a constant scale. It’s almost impossible to get perfect equilibrium. You do some changes over here and this side swings up and suddenly one side’s way better than the other – make changes over here and suddenly it’s the other way. You ease the swings each iteration.
The main way we go about it is we literally play it every day. Down in our play-test lab we open it up to anyone in the company and we play at least an hour a day, sometimes we do two hours a day. So we play, everyone talks for 15 minutes.
Then a small group of us sits down, take all of that feedback, look at what we think is pertinent, go and make changes, get back in the lab the next day and try some stuff again. It’s just that constant, constant iteration. You know, the one thing you have to be careful of is you get that same group of people that sort of start to not change, like one guy who only plays the engineer. He’s naturally going to want the Engineer to be the best character in the game.
You have to make sure you balance for that. You have to balance your feedback, but it’s mostly just about playing your game otherwise it’s just all theoretical.
Let’s switch gears (ha) to campaign, which I really enjoyed. The difficulty felt like, well it didn’t feel like hair-pulling, but it was a lot harder than previous Gears’. Especially when I got to hardcore mode. Was that intentional for you guys, to ramp up the challenge.
Yeah it was. During Gears 3 we’d done a lot to make it more accessible to people. One of the things we did was make it a bit easier. And we felt like Hardcore lost the “hardcore”, it was a little bit too easy. So we absolutely wanted to make it more challenging.
It kind of tied into one of our first pillars, which was “let’s make this intense.” We always use the word “sweaty palms” – we want people’s palms to sweat when they’re playing. We want you to always feel like “am I gonna make it it, am I gonna make it? I’m so close to dying!” To do that we definitely had to ramp up the challenge.
I really enjoyed the tower defense-style segments in campaign. Was that something, from the start, that you really wanted to implement or was that an idea tossed back and forth with People Can Fly perhaps?
That and Horde vs. Beast were the first two prototypes we made for this game. It came from two things, one was the fort mission in Gears 3 – it was super popular. You’re constantly be attacked by groups of Locust, falling back and falling back and falling back. People really liked that and it felt really cool.
In Gears 3 we wanted to implement elements of Horde into the campaign, so that’s how [in Judgment] we ended up with like these defense scenarios. And you’ll see again, like Overrun, there’s usually two paths that they’re attacking from – so it’s about controlling and defending those paths. We give you the tools to do that, fortifications like turrets and sentries that you can move around and develop a strategy to help you through it.
There’s a lot of interesting choice opportunities in the campaign. Do those classified moments that change the narration and gameplay actually have an effect on the story and how it archs?
It doesn’t branch it, but it does change it a little bit through that particular section. Those came about as a way for us to add replayability. We wanted people to be able to go “Oh, I played through this one this way, how can I play through it a little bit differently?”
We actually tried several different things and settled on this as being the most fun. You can try it with, like you said, different weapons that you can use and environmental conditions and time limits – just different variances that make it a little bit more challenging for you.
But the important thing is, it’s your choice. You don’t have to do it if you don’t think it sounds like fun. But if you want that extra challenge, then yeah, go for it. And we’ll give you some benefit – you’ll earn stars faster, which in-turn unlocks stuff.
Then of course we tied it into the fiction with the marshal’s testimony. People never tell the full story when they’re in court and testifying, so wouldn’t it be cool if you could play through the things they didn’t say?
Why choose Baird for this game?
He was actually the most popular character among fans. After every game release, Microsoft puts out a customer satisfaction survey and they did one for Gears 3. One of the questions was “Who is your favorite character?” You had a choice between everyone who was in Delta Squad and some other supporting characters, and Baird was #1. Marcus was like four or five, he wasn’t on top. But I think it surprised all of us that Baird was the most favorite – I would have guessed Marcus just because he was the central figure. I always felt like Baird was somewhat polarizing, but some people just really hated him, and some thought he was funny and cool. So to see him come out on top was like “Oh, wow. That’s pretty interesting.
I think I’ve mentioned before, we never really told his backstory, you didn’t know anything about him. We, of course, knew some stuff that we’d written in-mind, and so we knew that at some point in his career he was an officer… and stuff happened and he was no longer an officer.
That sounded like a cool story to tell. It’s a cool period – right after E-Day. It features Baird and it features some cool things that happened to him.
He’s got a signature look – his goggles. Are we going to learn their origin story too?
[Laughs] That’s an interesting question. He had his goggles from the beginning. There was a period of time in the beginning of the project where acquiring his goggles was going to be part of the story. So when we started to go down that path and we took the goggles off him, he started to not be Baird. It was weird.
You’re so used to him having the goggles – when we removed them, it was like when Marcus takes his do rag off at the end of Gears 3. It just didn’t feel like Baird anymore, so we decided “Hey, let’s just let him have his goggles because that’s who he his.”
Now that you’ve finished our enthralling discussion, go check out our preview of the game and tell us what you think!