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Epic's Executive Producer on Gears 3 speaks with us about the game's upcoming beta...
The delay of Gears of War 3 has made it possible for Epic to launch a multiplayer beta before its release in September. Launching in April, the beta will run for four weeks, and potentially help to shape the final product. But can beta's really have an impact on development in the modern console landscape, or are they in reality little more than thinly veiled promotional demos? TVG sat down with Gears' Executive Producer, Rod Fergusson to find out.
Do you feel any frustration about modern betas? Are they as useful as they used to be?
I think the frustration just comes from people's expectations that it's not a beta, it's a demo, and that we'd love to be able to put out more stuff where you'd say 'okay try this out, let us know and try this out', but the fact that people are making buy decisions based on these things and they're not allowing for the fact that it's an in-development product means that we have to polish it to such a degree that it's basically finished before you can get feedback on it. So that's a little frustrating, but at the same time, the extension has allowed us to do it, so we're just happy to be able to reach out to the community and say 'hey this is where it's going, what do you think? We want to make it the best game possible for September 20th,' so I'm just happy we're able to do it.
Given that you have to polish it up so much before you get it out there, what do you hope will feed back into the game from the beta and help shape the game?
Well I think we're open to anything really; there are some controversial things in the beta that maybe we were conflicted about internally, but we put it out there to see how it's going to play out. There's also all the technological stuff about dedicated servers and match-making around the world, to map balance, weapon balance, the tweaks we've done to some of the mechanics - the speed of the Roadie Run versus all these kinds of things. So I think we're pretty open to anything really, and the nice thing is we're going to have all kinds of telemetry data to know essentially, every bullet that's fired, every reload that's missed, all that kind of stuff; we'll be able to look at it and analyse it and see what kind of changes we need to make.
So is there anything in particular you could pick out that the team's particularly conflicted about, that you're hoping feedback will address?
I think part of it is...We learned really early on - like with I think Gears 1 it was grenade tagging on people - so when we played it internally it was sort of a show-off move, like you had to be really good to get close enough to get to somebody, and you're making the choice to actually touch them with the grenade rather than shooting them. So we didn't do it, it didn't get used all that often - and like I said it was more of a show-off manoeuvre - and then when it went public in Gears 1, the range was too far; it was much further than melee and people were taking huge advantage of it, and we had to go and Nerf it back down to normal.
So it's that kind of thing: like is there something in our play-style? You can get kind of insular so it's good to get a sense of different types of play-style. One of the things right now is when you tag somebody with a smoke grenade it DBNO's them [they're Down But Not Out] and puts them down, and we're like 'is that over-powered? How frustrating is that?' So it's kind of cool, and we use it a little bit, but I want to see if it goes rampant and we have to take it away, or whether it's perfect, and we can leave it alone, so yeah that kind of stuff.
Cliff Bleszinski has been quite open about the fact that as well as it being a beta it's a marketing exercise, and obviously you're trying to expand the appeal of the multiplayer. I'm just wondering, once you get those people playing online consistently - once you capture that audience - how do you then monetise that?
Oh, well for us it's not so much about monetisation - about how do you sort of milk the existing crowd if you will. I mean, for us it's about keeping the long tail, and keeping the discs in tray; we want to have a big community base that feeds into the game and we feed back into the community. I think the big thing is just keeping them; not getting them to trade in their game and not have it be rented and that kind of stuff. I think the monetisation is just having them purchase the game and hold onto it, rather than trying to milk that audience. But you can see though, that there is certainly a huge demand for downloadable content, a huge demand for map packs and that kind of stuff and I think that's a great way to service the community and give them the kinds of stuff - extra content - that they want.
So it's partly about keeping pre-owned games out of the system?
Yeah. I mean, I think there's multiple ways to fight the idea of the used game; you can either fight the demand, or you can fight the supply. So if you dry up the supply because nobody's trading their game in then they have to buy new because there's none available in store, you know, that kind of thing.
Could you tell us a little about how the new match-making system's been implemented?
Well it's a little more technical than I would be comfortable speaking to (laughs), that's a better question for Joe [Graf]. Basically it's just taking into account all the lessons we learnt from Gears 2, from the fact that there's no one perfect match. In Gears 2 there was only one number for what a good match was; at one time it was like 125 millisecond ping was a decent match, and that works really well in North America, but not so good in India - not so good in other places. So we've learned that you need to have regional quality, not just the idea of a regional filter, but you actually need to be able to set quality differently, maybe based on whatever factors in India that mean it needs to be 200 milliseconds to be a good match, or to be considered a good match.
We're using dedicated servers now to bypass all the host advantage and make it much easier to find a match; we're really focussed on making sure the playlists don't segment the population too much, so that people can find each other easier. So there's a lot of stuff we've done if you look at the last two years and all the running that's gone into this beta to try to smooth that out, and now we're going to test all those theories and if we're wrong on some of them they'll be fixed for September 20th.
Interesting that you mention India. Are you seeing more players from that region of the world?
Um, I don't know about more players, but they're certainly some of the people that I know have been affected a lot by us trying to find that magic number. I mean India and Australia, any sort of the far areas that don't quite have the same productivity, those ones struggle a little bit with games like ours where we're trying to find that perfect balance because if we make it work for them, it doesn't work for North America, and if we make it work for North America it doesn't work for them, so it's been a real fine line for us to try to walk.
How have you built on the Gears 2 multiplayer in terms of gameplay? What particular features do you feel really bring the gameplay forward in the new game?
Well, I mean, we've done a lot of little things you know, in terms of - say you look at spotting, or the improvements to the Tac-Comm. We really focussed on casting a wider net this time and trying to be more accessible and more mainstream with our multiplayer so it's not just a hardcore game to go play and somebody rolls up and shotguns you in the face. We wanted it to be a lot easier to get into, a lot easier to understand - the rules are a lot easier to understand - that's why we consolidated our modes, and gave them very clear names, like King of the Hill, Capture the Leader; these are things where you kind of know what you're supposed to be doing as soon as you go into them - you know, you look at the overhead maps - that kind of thing.
So the things we've been adding have been kind of these smaller improvements to really just try to make the game more accessible to the average player, because we see that the majority of the players play the campaign, and not all of them try multiplayer or if they try, they try it for a short period of time, so we're trying to like incentivise people, even with our achievements to say, just play for a little bit more and just kind of get comfortable with it. And we have even more stuff coming in line before launch - you'll hear about it - about how we're really trying to target the new player.
So obviously this is the last game in the [current] Gears series; end of the story arc. Have you guys been knocking about ideas about what might be next?
We've been really focussed on this one the most, so we're kind of heads down right now, but like you said, it's the end of the story but not the end of the franchise, so I don't know what we'll do next, but we're really focussed now on making sure we tell Marcus's story as best as we can, and when players finish it they feel satisfied that they actually consumed a story and they're not just left with some cliff-hanger and a head-fake for the next one or whatever.
Is NGP part of that future do you think?
Like the new Sony handheld and stuff? Is that something you guys could consider in the future?
I mean right now it's - just like I said - we're really focussed, I don't know where we're going to go in the future, and all this stuff that's been going on, and all the different technologies that are emerging. Right now it's just like, let's get this one right.
TVG would like to thank Gears of War 3's Executive Producer, Rod Fergusson for taking the time to speak with us about the game. The beta launches over Xbox Live on April 25th for pre-ordering customers (via Game and Gamestation in the UK), while owners of Bulletstorm's Epic Edition can get early access on April 18th. Gears 3 is set for release on September 20th exclusively on the Xbox 360.