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TVG and the broadsheets question the figurehead of Epic Games, the man formally known as CliffyB...
Epic Games and Microsoft Game Studios return gamers to the besieged planet of Sera on November 7th, when Gears of War 2 explodes onto Xbox 360. Set six months after conclusion of the original title, Gears 2 features new technology, new weapons, and expanded multiplayer modes, arguably becoming the most anticipated first-party release of 2008 in the process.
After going hands on with the game (you can read our preview right here), TVG took part in a roundtable discussion alongside some of the UK newspapers with Lead Game Designer, Cliff Bleszinski. The former CliffyB fielded a range of questions, and it's here that he reveals which execution was left on the 'cutting room floor', why Gears 2 is better than Gears 1, and why Unreal Tournament is no longer Epic's number one franchise...
What have been the main challenges in designing Gears 2?
There are a lot of things that have been tricky for us, [like] balancing some of the portable cover from the shield and the human hostage and what not - but I think pulling off the campaign has been a herculean effort. The thing about the campaign is that we haven't been able to reveal too much of it. We've released five minutes here, five minutes there, but understanding that there's so many hours of this, interesting things around every corner, new creatures, new plot point, new cinematic things that happen. Pulling that together when it's longer than the first game, when most games are having shorter and shorter campaigns has been a herculean effort, but I think it's turned out to be a great rollercoaster ride.
How much better was it to do the second Xbox 360 game now that you've presumably worked out the technology? What has it allowed you to do?
It's kind of trade-offs when you look at creating a universe in the first game in the series versus the second one. When we were doing the first Gears we were like, "Should we be doing this cover thing?" There were a couple of times where people were trying to second guess it, and Lee [Perry, Senior Gameplay Designer] and I were like "No, we're doing this. We're committing to it!"
Also, who are these characters? Who is Marcus? Who is Dom? Figuring out what their motivations are and what's going on in the world - that's fun in its own unique way, but it's also a little bit more scary.
Now we know we have cover, we know who these guys are, we know what the world is, we know what the Locust are, and there are all these secrets and mysteries in the universe, and there's these five million plus fans. It's like, "Ok, now we can have some fun!" So now that we know who Dom is, we can play with this little bit; have him a little frustrated at trying to find his wife; have new characters introduced with Tai and Dizzy, and raise the stakes. Humanity had its back to the wall in the first game, now it's about to be tossed over that wall - the Locust are sinking whole cities. Then we can add in other multiplayer modes, new weapons, and really start playing with the base we've established.
It looks like you've moved away from the claustrophobia of the first game, where there were small rooms - that was pretty much a technology dictated thing, wasn't it?
It was partially a design thing too in additional to technology. We intentionally kept the draw distances short because we wanted the game to feel intimate. We wanted the Locust to be in your face, because personally I'm not a fan of games where you're shooting little two-pixel guys on the horizon. If you have to use a sniper rifle all the time, then it's just not that cool.
Now that the engine has been optimised, we can get away from the claustrophobic grey pillars of the first game and expand things out a little bit. As we were designing the levels, we literally said, "What's your vista moment in this level, what is your money shot?" That was pretty much by design, and you know, letting a little bit more colour bleed through. That's not to say we're going to go all disco with rainbows or Care Bears and all that, but we're letting a little bit of the reds and a little bit of the blues come through. A little bit of trees, which we can then run over in a big truck.
What is it about Gears 2 that makes it so much better than Gears 1?
It's the sum of its parts. If you were to go to a restaurant and have a great dish, it's difficult to say that the parsley or the truffle oil makes this one dish extravagant. It's the same with music, with the vocals, the beats, and the chorus. It's the sum of its parts.
To make a hit videogame in this day and age, you need a trifact of a great campaign, a great co-op experience - we basically have two co-op experiences in this game - and an extended versus multiplayer where players can beat the hell out of each other.
Gears of War is aimed at the hardcore gamer; what concessions are there for casual gamers and did you find it difficult to integrate that?
Well thanks to the success of games like Guitar Hero and even of course the Wii, we're seeing a lot of gamers playing games that might not have ever considered playing them in the past. Or people who played Ms Pac Man back in the day and stopped playing it, and now they're back playing again.
A lot of developers are insecure and scared of that, which I think is really dumb. I think it's ok to have more people playing games, because maybe at some point they'll evolve into playing games like Gears or Halo or GTA, which are a little bit more "hardcore".
In regards to what we did though, we spent a lot of effort making the tutorial better this time around, so that you're not thrown into the middle of everything if you actually take the tutorial. You shoot a few bottles, go around a corner and learn how to do a grenade, Carmine says silly stuff entertaining you the entire time, and then the Locust wind up attacking the hospital, and all hell breaks out.
At the same time, the casual [difficulty] had to be a true tourist mode, so that it's actually hard to die in casual - the Locust fall fairly easily. We want casual gamers to give this a go; yes, it's a game with blood and monsters and things like that, but there are themes of sorrow and loss, and redemption in there - and maybe a little heart.
When you started on Gears of War 2, did you begin with the story element or did you look at what you wanted to add?
We knew we wanted to do a better job with the story from the get go, the first game was a very basic story. It was 'Armageddon' blowing up the asteroid, right? But we really wanted to explore the personal side of these guys a lot more. We had a process that we called 'new, better, more', in which the leads of the project all got together and asked what we wanted to see. We came up with this huge spreadsheet, we all voted against it and figured out what would be the big main things to work on in the game: adding AI bots into the multiplayer game, putting in a longer campaign, more amazing moments, more moments where you're not only driving tanks but you're also riding monsters.
That was kind of the process.
What is your favourite bit?
What, like a gameplay mechanic?
That's tough man. I think the Maria plotline for me, is very compelling. I'm a fan of those sad themes in games as far as Silent Hill 2 goes; movies like Solaris, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, The Vanishing...
The originals, not the Hollywood remakes?
Oh, of course! But to see this big badass guy evolve into this guy who is very frustrated, is very compelling. I think Josh [Ortega, the writer of Gears of War 2] did a great job writing for it, and I think Carlos Ferro who did the voice-acting really tuned in a very human performance, which is something you don't really see often in a big badass shooter.
Now that the project has reached its fruition, what's the bit that you think doesn't work that well - and try to make it better in number three?
I don't know. I wonder if sometimes if there's a little bit too much action occasionally. Sometimes when you go to certain sequences, like the assault truck sequence, it's a little tricky to figure what's going on because there's so much going on. That's something you have to be careful of, because people can only focus on one thing.
Another funny design thing that I've learnt on this project is that whenever you have the proverbial rolling boulder - you know, the Indiana Jones boulder going behind a person - people have a hard enough time focusing and moving and knowing what's happening. When people get that added sense of urgency behind them, they get complete tunnel vision and their IQ drops by half.
We've [done] a lot on this project with usability. We have our own casual people come in, friends of friends who sign non-disclosure [agreements] and play through the game. We stand behind them and watch where they get stuck, see what works, see what doesn't work. Microsoft has its own department for that too of course. We've done a really job, I believe, of ironing out all these spots to make sure it's a pleasurable experience from start to finish, with the correct peaks and valleys.
Is there anything that you wanted to add, but for technical limitations you couldn't?
Well there's one execution that ended up on the cutting room floor that breaks my heart.
What was that?
You could rip off somebody's arm and beat them to death with it! We just didn't have the time to animate it and get it in properly - I really wanted it in, it makes me sad [that it didn't make it].
You've still got the saw [the chainsaw bayonet] though.
Yeah, well now you can flip it over and cut people from behind from here to here (points from the groin to the shoulder). It's incredibly unpleasant. I think that crawling adds a lot too, that last sense of desperation where you try to get back to your buddies. There've been these great moments in Horde where I'm like, "You guys hold the fort, I'm just to get that gun - I'll be right back!" Then the guy goes and [gets floored], and somebody has to run out and try to get him back up.
The nice thing about Horde is that as far as Xbox Live communication [is concerned], is that normally in these games when people are alive they can still communicate, and when somebody dies they go into a dead channel. But in Horde when somebody dies, everybody can still hear each other. So the guy who dies has a spectator camera, and he can alert his buddies to the new enemies coming around the corner like Anya.
Has the game gone gold yet?
It's close to going gold.
In regards to AI, are there less instances where you'll go back to a checkpoint because Dom or Cole get killed?
That's the ultimate instance of frustration for gamers, when you have a fail condition and it's through nothing that you did of your own volition. We've been very conscious about that, and eliminated a majority of it this time. It was very frustrating.
With five million copies of the original sold, and high expectations for the sequel, has Gears of War become the most important franchise for Epic, even over Unreal Tournament?
I think it's safe to say that, yes. I think Unreal Tournament has been our bread and butter for years, it's been very successful, but it's hard to argue with the success of Gears. Unreal Tournament 3, we very much care about it, it's a well reviewed game. At the same time, if you look at where Gears is right now on the 360, I think it's safe to say that it's our primary franchise.
So do you think that UT could make another comeback?
It remains to be seen what we're going to be doing with Unreal Tournament in the future. We'd need to announce that.
Do you see the Xbox 360 as the main platform as opposed to the PC? During the whole Unreal time it was very much PC focused.
The PC right now is a fair amount different to what it was back in the day, with all the badly integrated video chips. Here's the problem right now; the person who is savvy enough to want to have a good PC to upgrade their video card, is a person who is savvy enough to know bit torrent to know all the elements so they can pirate software. Therefore, high-end videogames are suffering very much on the PC.
So piracy was a main point for you...
Right now, it makes sense for us to focus on Xbox 360 for a number of reasons. Not least PCs with multiple configurations and piracy.
But when the dust has settled, is there any possibility of Gears 2 on PC?
With the success of Gears, Microsoft is going to want the franchise to run and run and run. Is there going to be a point that you see when Gears will be shipped out to studios like People Can Fly, or is it something that you hold dear enough to stick with the franchise for instalments to come?
Well Rod [Fergusson, Gears of War producer] and I have plenty of ideas for where the franchise could potentially go, but again, we haven't announced anything. There's something that gets lost sometimes when a franchise gets shipped off to another shop. You get the primary studio that really understands what's going on with the franchise, and sometimes when another studio takes it over it can go well, but more often than not, there's something missing - there's a soul that's gone.
Are you perhaps referring to Call of Duty and the situation between Infinity Ward and Treyarch?
(Stays muted, but nods). But in our instance, if there were to be any future Gears titles to be developed, I have a feeling that they'd be developed in Epic.
Our thanks to Cliff Bleszinski and Microsoft UK. Gears of War 2 is arriving exclusively on Xbox 360 from November 7th. Get those bayonets revving...
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