Epic Talks Gears: Judgment, Designed to be “As Accessible as Possible”

RIPTEN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH JIM BROWN

The Epic Games and People Can Fly release of Gears of War: Judgment hit stores just a hair over two weeks ago. It marks the fourth installment of the popular Xbox 360 exclusive franchise, and the first to break away from the path of the original trilogy (in more ways than one). Judgment brings many changes, some received positively, while others not so much.

According to Metacritic, reviewers peg this prequel-centric release a 79 based on the scores of 74 critics. Some of the high end marks include a 96 from Cheat Code Central, a 92 from IGN, and a 90 from Joystiq. The lower end of the spectrum features a 60 from Giant Bomb, a 60 from Game Revolution, and a 60 from Digital Spy. I gave the game a 60 as well, and those who frequent this site know that Gears of War 2 (93 on Metacritic) and Gears of War 3 (91 on Metacritic) were absolute favorites of mine.

You always run the risk of alienating people when you alter core mechanics, and that was the focus of our recent conversation with Epic Games Lead Level Designer, Jim Brown.

Chad Lakkis: First thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

Jim Brown: Sure.

CL: What was it like working in tandem with another studio on such a popular release?

JB: I assume you are talking about PCF? (People Can Fly).

CL: Yes.

JB: Yeah. We’ve worked with them quite a bit even on previous titles. The first time we worked with them was on Gears of War for Windows, many moons ago, which was a good experience. Which was one of the reasons we actually looked more into them as a studio we wanted to invest in. They helped us out with Gears 2 and they did a pretty significant chunk of work for Gears 3 DLC.

And because Epic is small by comparison to some of the other studios out there that release the same types of games as we do, we typically contract out a lot of work. We do some outsourcing stuff and seeing PCF there who had good solid Gears experience, who cared about and was passionate about the franchise, it made a lot of sense for us to turn to them rather than outsource a company we had never met. In that regard it was really really easy for us to make that call.

CL: Where there any proposed changes for Judgment that you and your team vetoed? Change requests that didn’t “fly?”

JB: There were any number of things, but that was no different than anything we would have done ourselves. It was always a very very open discussion back and forth. With us pitching things, them pitching things and us talking about it. We’d spend hours every single day in video conference just chatting back and forth on the design side, programming side, art side , everything. We sent people there, they sent people here, and we just tried to make it as much of an open dialogue as we could.

One of the things that we really liked about them was what they brought to the table in terms of being somewhat familiar with and passionate about the franchise, but also having some of those new ideas and being able to bring that in without being hindered by what we had done in the past or stuck in old lines of thought. I think they brought more to the table then people realize.

CL: A number of the core mechanics have been changed from the original trilogy. Can you tell me a little bit about why you changed the controls for weapon switching and grenade tossing? And how did you go about balancing and testing these changes to ease series fans into them?

“It was this many-fingered origami thing with a multistep process that was not at all accessible, was not at all responsive, was not at all reliable.”


JB: We took a really hard look at what Gears was and we wanted to make sure that the core mechanic of Gears stayed fun but also accessible. And one of the things along with that, the grenades being a really really good example, is that in order to throw a grenade in previous Gears games you had to hit the D-Pad which was somewhat unreliable, you had to pull the Left Trigger, you had to aim with the Right Stick, and then you had to pull with the Right Trigger. It was this many-fingered origami thing with a multistep process that was not at all accessible, was not at all responsive, was not at all reliable. So doing something like a one button off-hand grenade toss made that whole process a lot more streamlined and a lot better overall. It just made the game feel and play that much better. When you tried to switch to your grenade you didn’t feel like the game was what was preventing you from doing that. It just flows a lot better, and so, all of the controls kind of came out from that line of thinking. We didn’t want the game or the controls to get in the way of people’s skills or get in the way of people playing and having fun.


JB: We took a really hard look at what Gears was and we wanted to make sure that the core mechanic of Gears stayed fun but also accessible. And one of the things along with that, the grenades being a really really good example, is that in order to throw a grenade in previous Gears games you had to hit the D-Pad which was somewhat unreliable, you had to pull the Left Trigger, you had to aim with the Right Stick, and then you had to pull with the Right Trigger. It was this many-fingered origami thing with a multistep process that was not at all accessible, was not at all responsive, was not at all reliable. So doing something like a one button off-hand grenade toss made that whole process a lot more streamlined and a lot better overall. It just made the game feel and play that much better. When you tried to switch to your grenade you didn’t feel like the game was what was preventing you from doing that. It just flows a lot better, and so, all of the controls kind of came out from that line of thinking. We didn’t want the game or the controls to get in the way of people’s skills or get in the way of people playing and having fun.

And then in regards to testing, we do tons and tons of testing every single day here in the studio with people of all skill levels and then we also do a ton of usability testing through Microsoft, and we do that at various points throughout the process. But one of the things we did this time, that was new for us, was to actually go out to the community. We brought people in. We brought in a lot of players. We brought in some of our top community players. We brought in some competitive players and handed them the game, gave them full access, and just let them play. We let them play for I would say almost a week, all day every day until they really got to know the game inside and out. And then we pulled them into our design meets and had them contribute. We wanted their honest feedback and we wanted to see how they were playing and what they were doing in addition to why and get their opinions. Doing things like that gave us a really good feel for where we were going.

CL: Elements of the game handle differently in the campaign than they do in multiplayer now. In multiplayer, grenade sticking walls is out, active reload bonus damage is gone, and a reticle is always present, even when moving. What are the reasons behind these changes and the disconnect between the campaign and multiplayer?

JB: Actually I would go as far as to say that the — I mean, yes you are right, for sure, but the consistency between campaign and multiplayer is a lot stronger than it has been in the past. And one of the reasons we did that, weapon balance for example, was primarily single player balanced in the past and adjusted for multiplayer, whereas this time around we did the opposite. We did all of our balancing through multiplayer and then adjusted for single player. And there were some mechanics, like wall tagging for example, that weren’t as popular in multiplayer and actually led to a lot of problems, but made a lot of sense still from the viewpoint of fighting AI as opposed to fighting a human player. So we were able to leave those in, and preserve them in the campaign while in multiplayer we were able to strip them out and make the experience better overall.

CL: Epic has a pretty good track record of listening to feedback from players and improving the game through updates when issues are taken with certain elements of game play. For example, a few years back players pointed out their frustration in regards to the distance in which they could be tagged with a grenade.

JB: Right.

CL: You and your team then adjusted that and made it so you had to be much closer to initiate the tag. Now however, in Judgment you can actually throw a grenade at another player and tag them from halfway across the map if your aim is decent. In addition to that, and some of the things we just talked about like active reload bonus damage and wall sticking grenades — If the active playerbase decides they want certain elements back in multiplayer or that they don’t like the fact they can now be tagged with a grenade from 50 yards away, are those things that we could potentially see changed if feedback leans heavily in that direction?

“Are we going to make everybody happy 100% of the time? Absolutely not.”


JB: I think that we always have a really really good relationship with our community, whether it’s in there playing the game with them, which a lot of us do every single night, or in forums or on Facebook and Twitter, our community page — all of that stuff. We do a really good job of trying to get in touch with people and I think that has actually improved and got a lot better with Judgment. We’re making some really serious attempts to get in touch with our community and stay in touch with them and respond to their feedback. That was one of the — the basis for Judgment overall was giving players a lot of what they were asking for and responding to a lot of the feedback that we got. Are we going to make everybody happy 100% of the time? Absolutely not. That’s our job, to kind of boil that down and figure out how we can adjust to the overall opinion – the trend of the community and what we think is actually going to make the game better. We’re always willing to talk to people. We’re in there playing, seeing how things change in the real world as opposed to on the test servers and making those adjustments on the fly.

CL: The list of weapons that can be used while behind the cover of a Boomshield has expanded dramatically.The Boomshot and Sniper rifle are both fair game now. Can you talk about the thought process behind that?

JB: Yeah. We wanted to make sure that all of our power weapons were exactly that, that they were powerful, and the Boomshield never really was. It was really really easy to work around. It was very exploitable. It was one of those things that on paper always felt like an advantage, especially to a new player, but to someone with any experience or even someone who made half an attempt, it was really more of a hinderance than anything else. So with the Boomshield specifically, that was our attempt to make that actually a power weapon. To make it something that people didn’t just happen to cross and sometimes pick up and get themselves in trouble with, but to actually make it something that was valuable as a power weapon — a point on the map that could create a front. Since we no longer really had that front style gameplay that was in previous titles we wanted all of our weapon pickups to be the fronts. So yes, it is much more powerful than it has been in the past and that is definitely intentional. We want it to be something people contend over and if you can get two power weapons then you can combine them. Right? You can put a Boomshot behind the Boomshield and go to town. And that’s your reward for controlling two fronts as a team or even as an individual player.

CL: One of the big changes to multiplayer is the removal of DBNO (Down But Not Out) from most modes, which also removes executions, opponent baiting and meat shields. This seems to fundamentally change the feel of competitive play, can you talk about your design philosophy for Judgment‘s multiplayer? Was your approach different than in previous Gears of War games?

“And so, with that desire to really make the game as accessible as possible, to make it as smooth and consistent and predictable as possible, that is the benefit we chose to pursue.”


JB: It was very much like with the grenades and switching those controls out because it was one of those things that — there is a constant debate and there has been for three tiles now about kill stealing. There’s this constant uphill battle that we’ve been facing to get new players into the game because they come in and they go down. Okay, and then they spend thirty seconds in that state. Sometimes they get back up and sometimes they’re dead. If they’re out they watch the rest of the round, they don’t actually get to play. And whether or not they were revived, they actually ended up spending more time watching other people play than getting to play themselves. It was also a little bit frustrating, not only for new players but for everyone, to have to kill somebody twice, because you have to shoot them to down them and then shoot them again to kill them or move in for the execution and get yourself killed, and things like that. And while that does add something to the decision making process, especially in game modes like execution which revolve specifically around that, the overwhelming feedback and data that we saw was that it was more of a hindrance to gameplay than it was a benefit. And so, with that desire to really make the game as accessible as possible, to make it as smooth and consistent and predictable as possible, that is the benefit we chose to pursue. It’s a huge benefit to competitive and team play.

CL: Will Execution Mode be the only multiplayer mode in Judgment that supports the DBNO mechanic?

JB: Right now that game type is designed specifically around that mechanic, so it makes sense to pursue that. Where we go in the future, who knows. Like you said, we look at the feedback from our fans and we adjust accordingly. But so far, that is the only — aside from a few places in OverRun and such — that game mode is designed specifically around that, so yeah. That’s where it is.

CL: In a 2012 interview with Joystiq, former Epic Games Design Director Cliff Bleszinski was asked about the time frame selection for Judgment. According to Cliff, The Pendulum War period was passed on because of its focus on the human on human conflict, “Now you have no chainsaw and now you have no monsters, And now we’re not Gears of War anymore.” Outside of OverRun mode, which still features COG vs Locust, can you talk about why the rest of multiplayer takes a “red vs blue” COG vs COG approach?

“We actually found that while some people do like playing as Locust, the overwhelming preference was for COG.”


JB: Yeah sure. Again, looking at what our fans wanted, and looking at our goals for this project — to respond to them and to provide a much more consistent experience and to provide an experience where more people could get into the game and have a better time. We actually found that while some people do like playing as Locust, the overwhelming preference was for COG. There are definitely people out there who love as playing as the Locust, who love that type of thing, myself being one of them to be honest with you. I always preferred to play as the Locust, but the fact remains that the human players are much more identifiable. The human on human experience in terms of gameplay is a lot more consistent and in an attempt to reach as many people as we could and give them more of that, that was the path we choose. That allows us to reach more people, it allows them to connect better to the players in our game, it allows us to do more with the individual personalities of those players to make them even more desirable and identifiable. And really that is what I think our franchise is built on, more than a cosmetic change. The fact that people out there so strongly identify with our characters that they tattoo their bodies and doing cosplay and all of those things really shows us how much they enjoy those characters and the feeling of being that guy and there was significantly less of that on the Locust side.

CL: So that I am understanding you correctly, are you saying you did in-house testing and people felt as if it was almost a penalty to play as Locust as opposed to COG?

JB: There was a stronger identification with the COG than the Locust. There was also a much more consistent experience playing COG versus COG. Even looking at our stats just on so far on Judgment we can see that the games are much more balanced than they ever have been in the past. There was always a slight, very very slight, lean towards the COG winning. I mean we’re talking a half to one percentage point in terms of advantage, but that is now gone completely. So I think we’ve definitely achieved our goals there in terms of making the game experience more consistent and better especially at the competitive level.

CL: Will those looking to play as Locust in multiplayer be limited to OverRun mode in Judgment?

JB: Right now that is your option, yes. I can’t talk about what we are going to do in the future because we haven’t announced anything yet.

CL: Are there plans to release Locust specific character skins?

JB: Like I said, I can’t talk about things that haven’t been announced yet, so you’ll have to wait and see what’s up there.

CL: Gears 3 dedicated server access was available across all modes as long as the user remained up to date with the latest DLC. Can you talk about why that stipulation was in place and will it work the same way with Judgment?

“…customers that continue to pay and continue to play…get a little bit of a priority in terms of what access to the dedicated servers they get…”

JB: So, there’s two reasons behind that. One is, because of code which I don’t profess to understand, to be honest with you, we are somewhat limited in the number of playlist options that we have available. We have significantly more in Judgment then we have had in the past. So that won’t be as much of a limitation moving forward. Also, secondly we want to make sure that we can continue to provide a good experience for our customers that continue to pay and continue to play, so they get a little bit of a priority in terms of what access to the dedicated servers they get because that access is of course limited. It’s not completely unlimited. And then also, we don’t want to fragment our community. We want to keep as many people in similar playlists as possible because that dramatically improves matchmaking. Not only matchmaking times but options in terms of how many players you can find, the skill of those players and how well they get matched to yourself. So there is a very complicated algorithm there that tells us we need to keep as many people in as few playlists as possible in order to maximize the player experience. That’s a big factor with regards to why we did that in the past.

CL: The overall map size in this installment feels much larger than previous. Are all the maps slated for release in Judgment roughly the same scale as what we’ve seen so far or will we possibly see some smaller ones too?

JB: We’ve always tried to do a pretty big variety. Going from Gears 1 to Gears 2, there was a little bit of a jump in size because we went from eight players to ten to be able to support that. Going from Gears 2 to Gears 3 there was a very very slight increase, not to map size but the density of the environments and the density of cover. A lot ot that was done because of changes to weapon balance. A lot of it was done with regards to creature size, getting Brumaks in there, things like that, and then just the way that gameplay itself evolved. And then going to Judgment, because we no longer had a single front – we had as many as possibly ten fronts going on at once – we had to account for that in terms of map size. Because we were in a world thirteen years before Gears 3 where buildings still existed and weren’t complete rubble that lead to a lot more vertical environments which also increased the overall gameplay space because you can now walk off of ledges and do that sort of thing. It increased the gameplay options and so maps just feel bigger because, “hey you’ve got on a roof and not just a guy across the way.” So yeah, in that regard maps probably do feel a little bit bigger and it may feel like a bit of a trend but we’ve always had “hey, here’s Raven down” right? Where you can run around and see everybody as soon as they spawn and go to town. The map we just released as a part of our first free DLC was Haven, which is significantly smaller than any of the other Judgment maps. So I think it’s safe to say that trend will continue. We’ll try to cover the spectrum of small, medium, and large. Just like we try to cover the spectrum of lighting environments, and gameplay styles, and environment sets in terms of weather patterns and visuals and all that stuff. We try and get everything across the board as much as we can.

CL: You mentioned the release of Haven. That was originally slated for April 2nd. Was there any reason that you decided to move it up?

JB: There’s a lot of different reasons, but the main fact is we had a map that was a free map out there. We had a good partner with Maxim and we just wanted to get it out.

CL: Any plans to bring back fan favorite maps from previous installments?

JB: It’s hard to say. Again, I can’t say about what we are going to do in the future, but it is a very different style of game. One of the reasons that we typically try and bring back remakes in our previous games is that it’s nice to get that feeling of nostalgia, “I’ve been here before” sort of thing, and new players still see it as new content so it’s kind of a win win for us. But the gameplay styles in Judgment are so different from previous titles that not all the maps worked and even some real fan favorites didn’t actually work that well in the new gameplay style because we did actually test a lot of them. So, what happens in the future, I don’t know but anything that we do bring back will be significantly updated to go with that style if we were to do it because the old stuff just doesn’t work quite as well as a lot of people would think or hope.

CL: With two new modes planned as a part of the paid DLC, Judgment has the fewest multiplayer specific modes at launch since the original Gears in 2006. Why is that?

“We wanted to try and cover all of our bases and consolidate as well. There are gameplay modes we had in there that people just weren’t playing…”

JB: Yeah, I mean, we’re a small team doing the best we can there. Just getting OverRun in was a big effort for us. We really think it’s worth it and we wanted to give that its proper due. We have lots of different gameplay options in there. We have free for all type stuff. We still have the team based stuff. We have the objective based stuff and then we have OverRun. We wanted to try and cover all of our bases and consolidate as well. There are gameplay modes we had in there that people just weren’t playing that really didn’t warrant the effort of us maintaining and updating them just to have them ship again when people aren’t playing them. We want to get as many people into the servers as we can. We want to make sure that matchmaking is the best it can be and one of the ways to do that is to consolidate our players and giving them all the best most consistent experience that they can get.

CL: Thank you so much for your time.

JB: Thank you.

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