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Gears of War: Judgment Developer Interview with Epic Games Lead Level Designer Jim Brown
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 03:51pm 08/03/13 | Comments
At a recent event in Sydney, Australia, AusGamers caught up with Epic Games Lead Level Designer Jim Brown, to chat about some finer points on the soon-to-be-released Gears of War: Judgement.

AusGamers: We’ve seen quite a bit of Judgment at various exhibitions over the past year, and it always seemed like just an extension of the original trilogy. But you’ve just explained how it is more of a bookend that is going to wrap the whole thing up. Was it hard for you guys to have sat on all that information, and had people like me assume that it’s just...

Jim Brown: [laughs] It’s been incredibly frustrating, yes. And people have been asking “Oh, do you have Horde mode”, and now we’re unveiling our new co-op modes. There’s a lot more to this than I think people are expecting. In some ways it’s great, because everyone’s like “Oooh, hey, this is awesome”, and they dive right in and have a great time. But yeah, it’s been hard to sit on a lot of it.

The other thing is, that externally, it may not seem like we’ve been working on it for that long, but we’ve had a full dev cycle on it. So we’ve just been kind of spinning our wheels quietly, and working on it.

AusGamers: You mentioned that you guys went out to the fans, and said “What would you like to see?”. Was it a case where everyone said that they wanted to see E-Day, but then you were like “You know what? We’ve still got a bunch of questions unanswered, let’s wrap it up here”?

Jim: We definitely applied our filter to that, but the big fan-favourite character was Baird, and we had never had a chance to tell his story in any of the other games, novels, or comic books. So that worked out well for us, because now was our chance to do that.

There’s a moment in Gears 1, where Baird and Marcus first meet, and they both kind of wonder who’s in charge, and they get into this little ego battle, and we never really explained why Baird wasn’t in charge. So now you get to go back in time and see him in the context of being a lieutenant, and get to know him, and he gets his moment in the story there. So it was good to do that finally, and get that out, and tell that story.

We also brought in People Can Fly to help co-develop with us. They had helped us out with Gears of War for Windows, and Gears 2, and Gears 3 DLC, but getting their fresh perspective on everything helped as well.

AusGamers: Can you talk more about what they actually brought to the table, that was unique to them?

Jim: Yeah. So they’re our sister studio that we’ve worked together with on Gears in the past. They are mainly known for things like Painkiller and Bulletstorm --crazy, crazy, over-the-top action, really, really super-intense-- and those were elements that not on fit really well within the Gears Universe --we’re talking about a game where there’s a chainsaw on the end of a gun; it doesn’t get much more over the top than that. So this was our chance to sort of pull some of that into gears.

Since we were doing something new and something special, with all of these new systems, and a new timeline, and new characters, and all of this, it was really good to have a fresh perspective folded in along with the core team at Epic. So the two of us working side-by-side were able to really make this something that stood on its own legs, in a very different way than the main Gears trilogy was able to.

AusGamers: Was it difficult, from a storytelling perspective, to... obviously, across three games, you’re amping up, and getting to this big crescendo. Was it difficult to then go back to where it all began, and be able to have that same cadence in one fell swoop, but also tell that personal story that you were discussing earlier?

Jim: In a lot of ways, that’s why we didn’t want to do just another Gears, because it had already hit that crescendo, and it would be kind of fake to just do it again, and be like “All the locusts are dead and Marcus saved the world, but he really didn’t and now we have to do it all over again in one little short game”. So in a lot of ways, doing it this way was a lot more freeing for us, because Halvo Bay is a city that had been mentioned once or twice, but we had never really explored it.

We had hinted toward the fact that Baird had been demoted, but we never really talked about why, or how it happened. So it was actually kind of freeing for us, that we could go back and still do a full game that has all of these rich elements from the Universe, but a brand new story, that still looks like Gears, feels like Gears, plays like Gears. So it was very freeing, and not limiting as you suggested with your question.

AusGamers: There’s a bit of a motif running through all of the Gears games, about military bureaucracy, and insubordination, and the guy on the ground is the guy that calls that shots. Obviously it’s easy to go back to that with Baird, and it’s already touched on in the first game. How did you differentiate the story this time around in regards to that?

Jim: So we have a completely different storytelling device in this game, with the testimony thing that adds a little bit of a unique spin on that, in that each act is told from the perspective of a different character. So you have Baird, who is a lieutenant trying to prove himself; be a good leader; work for the machine. And when you see him interacting with Loomis --the judge in the trial, and the colonel he was working under-- you start to get this sense of why he has a problem with authority, and some of those sorts of things.

Fighting alongside him is Sofia, a new character, who is fresh out of the military academy. She’s a special forces cadet who’s very by-the-book because she’s trying to prove herself. The third character is Garron Paduk, who is the enemy soldier that has defected over. He’s been through decades of war with the COG. He’s out of patience, and out of time. He’s one of those people who is like “Why are we even talking about this? I will solve every problem by shooting it”.

So you kind of have the devil and the angel on Baird’s shoulder, and you get to see how he reacts to each of them, and how they influence his decisions by playing those roles, and they help shape his story. So seeing the story from multiple perspectives like that was definitely new for us.

Then one of the other big pushes we wanted to do, was putting that story back into the player’s hands and making it a little more personal. So even in the realm of multiplayer, we really took a focus of wanting people to spend more time playing, and less time watching. Less time watching other people play, less time watching cinematics, and that sort of thing.

So in the storytelling of the campaign, we have fewer cinematics, and more in-world storytelling. So you as the player can choose to go and find different areas to explore, and new things to do. And that randomisation also affects how you experience it, what the side-dialogue for the characters is doing to be, and that sort of thing.

If you’re playing singleplayer, you start as Baird, then you play Sofia, then you play it as Paduk, then you play as Cole. If you’re playing in co-op, and you start as Baird, you stay Baird through the whole thing. So you can actually play that second section as Baird, so you get his perspective on it instead of Sofia’s. So again, slightly different story, slightly different perspective, and you can really kind of make everything personal to you.

And you may hear a completely different line of dialogue than your buddy heard when he played. So it kind of sparks that conversation. Even though you will ultimately reach the same end, how you got there is kind of unique and special.

AusGamers: So in terms of exposition, compared to any of the previous three Gears games, quantifiably, how much story is in this one to be delivered to the player? Because it sounds like if you can get a different perspective each time you play through in co-op with a different character, ultimately you’re just getting tonnes and tonnes of new stuff.

Jim: Yeah, there’s a lot there. And I don’t know... it’s kind of funny, because we brought in some new writers; Tom Bissell and Rob Auten. They had written for games before; they had written books about games; they had actually written stuff for Gears before. So that was a whole new perspective we had, and a whole new way of telling stories, much thanks to them.

Being on this tour, and doing this every day with different groups of media, and every day I sit down and realise I didn’t even know the half of it, I didn’t even know that was possible, I had never heard that line of dialogue before. We were talking today about how one of the guys got into a fight, and there was a bunch of snipers up on a rooftop, that I didn’t even know was possible to encounter. So I don’t know how much variety is there off-hand, but I continually find new things at just about every event. I’ve seen that particular fight dozens of times, but never seen that particular instance happen.

AusGamers: So is that an event of the S3 system that you talked about as well?

Jim: Yeah. Like I said, you never know where they’re coming from, how many of them, or what mix of them --there’s lots of little subsets in there. And it responds to how you’re playing too, so maybe he did something different that nobody had done before, and the game just reacted to it, and adjusted the scenario to fit that style.

AusGamers: So obviously the S3 affects the spawning of enemies, but does it change the weapons that are available to you in that immediate area? I ask because in the second mission that I played through, the declassified mission, I had more Boomers come in, and I found a mortar close by, that I couldn’t remember if it was there the first time I played.

Jim: I think that mortar is always there, I believe so. But like you said, the enemies that you fight can affect that. You would not have access to a Boomshot unless you killed the Boomer, and if there’s no Boomer, there’s not Boomshot. So that can definitely change things there as well.

AusGamers: So with the declassified system then, obviously you unlock a lot of things to do with the game, and then the big one is the whole other campaign. Is there any affect on the ending? Because you’re declassifying actual story as well there.

Jim: The ultimate ending is going to be the same, but it’s more about the journey of how you got there, and you get to know the characters a little differently along the way as well. So you may get to know Cole a lot better than Paduk, or vice versa, just depending on what paths you chose and how you played. That sort of thing.

AusGamers: In terms of multiplayer, what’s changed this time around? From a fan feedback perspective, and from having People Can Fly more involved in the project.

Jim: I would say multiplayer was much more significantly changed than single-player even. We really tore it down to the basic core of what we thought made Gears fun, then built back up around that. Like everything else, we went out to our fans, and had a lot of discussions with them. We even brought some of them in-house --we found some competitive players and had them come in-- and spent just days, and days, and days playing through the game top to bottom. Then actually folded them into our design meetings, and got their feedback, and incorporated that into the game.

We have an entirely new control scheme that you may or may not have noticed, that we really wanted to go with that kind of simplified route. Like I said: more time playing, less time watching, and just really removed all of the speed bumps along the way. Things like the grenades, where you had to have origami hands before. You had to push up on the d-pad, which was unreliable, then hold the trigger, the aim, then pull the right trigger, all just to throw a grenade. Whereas, now you just push the button and go, and you can do it while you’re running, or whatever; on the fly; you don’t have to aim.

So things like that really changed the flow of the game, to keep the game moving. We sped things up a little bit, we moved some animations and sped up others, just to keep that flow.

We have our Team Deathmatch, which is still there, but we also added a new... well, new to us, is the Free for All mode, and that really, really changed the way we had to build and structure the entire game. Because, traditionally you have two teams that spawn on either side of the map, and then they come together along a central front, and fight, then you rinse and repeat that process. But with Free for All, you’ve got ten people coming from ten different directions all at the same time, so there is no central front --every person has their own front. So every area of the map had to be combat-ready, and spawn-ready, and have access with no dead-ends, so everything became a lot more circular.

Then as the world was now set fourteen years before, we didn’t want to make completely destroyed maps like we did before. Which means now you have a building, and now you can go inside that building, and climb up on top of that building. You’ve got access from the roofs down onto the floor. So we improved movement a lot, so you can now jump through windows, climb walls, jump off the roof with your chainsaw revved, and land on somebody’s head. So that completely changed our map designs entirely.

Really going more toward that route of wanting people to make that experience more of their own, we went with a load-out system. So that before you go into a match, you have five different starting weapons you can choose from, and five or six different grenade types you can choose from, so that you can say “Hey, I want to play a support role”. And you’ve never been able to do that in Gears before, it was always “Hey, you’ve got your rifle, I’ve got my rifle; let’s go fight!”. Now you can be a pure support role versus a pure combat role, and both support the team and be successful at doing that.

So we took that even a step further, and now we have... so all of our traditional game modes belong with one set of maps, and we have an entire second set of maps that’s devoted entirely to a new class-based system. We have an Overrun game mode, where one team plays as the locusts, and you are all the crazy creatures, and all the different sizes, and things that they can do. Then the other team is the COG, but each of the COG are separated out into classes that fill a very specific role. They have specific weapons, and specific abilities to support that role, and you need everybody to do their part in order to win.

So it’s a competitive mode where one team is locusts, and one team is COG, then you switch sides. You fight against each other, switch sides and fight each other again and see who can get to the end the fastest overall to decide who wins. Adding the class-based stuff really changed Gears a lot for us in the competitive space.

Then finally, the co-op mode, which we’re going to go and talk about in a bit, sort of took all the elements of our previous co-op stuff, and folded that into the class-based structure of the Overrun mode, to come up with Survival. So you’ll actually be getting all of those elements, with the fortifications, and all of that, in a system that supports co-operative, class-based play.

AusGamers: Another thing that you guys did, that not many other console developers have done is supply dedicated servers. Which for people like us in Australia is a huge thing. Is that going to continue with Judgment?

Jim: Yeah, absolutely. We learned a lot during that process. So yes, this game will have dedicated servers. We’ll have more of them, with better access to different parts of the world. And the servers themselves have been improved, with connectivity and speed, and all that stuff as well.

AusGamers: Ok, then can you please tell anyone else working for any other publisher, and or developer, that...

Jim: [laughs] No, no, no, you’re my customers. I want you all! Tell them to come play our game.

AusGamers: Finally, Gears for Windows. Are we going to see that again?

Jim: This game is an Xbox 360 exclusive... [laughs].

AusGamers: I know, I know. Maybe in five years time?

AusGamers: Five years from now, I hope that you guys still love the game enough to support it, and I can still be making a Gears game five years from now.

AusGamers: Ok, well thanks very much for your time Jim.

Jim: Thank you.
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