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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.