Today the Gears of War 3 multiplayer beta kicks off for those who bought the Epic Edition of Bulletstorm. Epic reckons a million gamers will take part, enjoy the carnage and unlock special items for use in the full game.
This is the first step on the final road to the end of the Gears of War trilogy arc. But how did it become the gargantuan brand it is today? In this interview with Eurogamer, executive producer Rod Fergusson talks Gears pyjamas, questionable wedding photos and defining HD gaming.
Eurogamer: How has Gears of War carved out such a strong brand identity?
Rod Fergusson: Luck. We happened upon the Crimson Omen. One of our concept artists created a symbol for the squad that was a white cog with a human skull inside. When we were looking for iconography, we latched onto that.
We were saying, "Well, we should change the human skull to a Locust skull so we get both sides; the human cog and the Locust skull. And we should make it more stranded, have dripping spray paint on it and make it feel like it's a tag in the world." That just grew.
We found out there's a skull subculture out there that just likes skulls. Some of the stuff we do in terms of licensing, whether it be wallets or sandals or pyjamas, people will buy it for the skull and not just because they know it's Gears of War.
Eurogamer: There are Gears of War pyjamas?
Rod Fergusson: There are. I wear them all the time.
Eurogamer: What's the craziest Gears of War merchandise?
Rod Fergusson: It never got made, but there was a Snuggie that came to us. The blanket with the arms – I don't know what they call it in the UK. It was Marcus armour, so you put your arms in and you were basically dressed as Marcus in a slanket. We were like, "Yeah, that's too much. That's too far."
The one I wasn't that happy about in the end was Gears of War foot flops. There's a line between cool and getting your brand out there, and then there's whoring yourself, and you're doing too much and it cheapens it. It felt with the foot flops we crossed the line.
So we've been harder with ourselves. Shot glasses are cool. A neon clock is cool. But foot flops are not cool. Those are diminishing the brand, not contributing to it.
Eurogamer: I bought my Xbox 360 for Gears of War's visuals. Does that tally with your feedback?
Rod Fergusson: You spent money on buying a console and you wanted to show it off to your girlfriend or your wife: "Look, this is why I bought it. I spent all this money because, look how good these games look on my 60 inch TV." We wanted to be the showcase for what HD meant at the time, and we continue to try to push that.
Eurogamer: But it must be harder to do that now we're five years into the Xbox 360's life cycle. There are many games that look fantastic. Do gamers take how good Gears of War 3 looks for granted?
Rod Fergusson: They do. They take it for granted. That was one of our biggest problems with Gears 1 to Gears 2. Your memory is far better than reality. When I was a kid, Gilligan's Island was the funniest show on television. When you watch Gilligan's Island now, it's just plain terrible.
With Gears 2 we were competing with the memory of Gears 1 and what people remembered it was like. We got to the point where, at the review event in San Francisco, I suggested we put up a single station of Gears 1 so the press could play it and realise it wasn't as good as they remember. They were saying, "Oh, it kinda looks like Gears 1."
I'm like, "Really? No it doesn't at all. You just remember it looking better than it actually does." Not only were we competing with the state of the industry, we were competing with our own memory.
The nice thing is Unreal Engine 3 is always changing. It's the same number, but every day hundreds of code changes go in and the engine improves. We keep pushing our engine team and ourselves art wise to keep taking it up.
Yeah, people have closed the gap. We were far ahead of a lot of games when Gears 1 came out. Everybody's been catching up, and a lot of people are fighting for ownership of that title. But we continue to push the box and what HD means.
Eurogamer: Gears of War didn't launch that long ago.
Rod Fergusson: Yeah, but at the time it defined what HD was. It defined what your HD TV could do. People remember that.
Same thing happened to me when we were reviewing cinematics for Gears 3 recently. I was like, "These are good. I'm happy with them, but they feel like Gears 2." Then I went back and watched Gears 2 cinematics and I was like, "Holy crap!"
The stuff that was wrong with our facial animation and our lip-synch... In my memory, this stuff was jaw dropping. We're way better in Gears 3 than we were in Gears 2. I'm excited for people to see that.
Eurogamer: Fans have thought it would be cool to play Gears four-player co-op since the first game. Why now and not before?
Rod Fergusson: We had enough on our plate. Gears 2 was about doing all the stuff we wanted to do in Gears 1. There was a lot left on the table after Gears 1, like crawling when you're down. In order to get Gears 1 out we left some stuff on the floor we felt should have been in the game.
Gears 2 was more about doing the game we wanted to do. But from Gears 2 to Gears 3 it wasn't about that anymore. There weren't any obvious gaps. It was about, where can we push now? Where can we take co-op even further?
It's become more of an industry standard. Gears set the standard for co-op, but we felt people would judge us poorly if we didn't have [four-player co-op]. Enough games have four-player co-op.
And it was a good time for us, because we were re-imagining combat bowls and trying to get back to that Gears 1 feel of Embry Square. Four-player co-op felt better in that space. Technologically we felt we could handle it. We wanted to push ourselves.
It was an early thing that was a sacrificial lamb. Early on there were conversations about how much work we would have to do to support four characters, and how big the levels had to be, and how much testing we'd have to do. There were plenty of discussions about whether we should go back to two or not because of the amount of effort.
We decided to suck it up. Co-op is our bread and butter. If we were going to own anything, we wanted to own the co-op experience. We felt the way to do that was to ensure we could deliver a solid four-player game.
Eurogamer: Does four-player co-op mean fans will have to re-learn how to play the game?
Rod Fergusson: We're very aware of the single-player experience. We're walking a fine line between making sure we don't skew it so far in four-player that single-player doesn't mean anything. We do a lot of single-player testing because not everybody's got four people online at the same time they want to play with. It's finding that balance.
We do things in the campaign. We're doing these breadcrumbs from objective to objective so it's hard to get lost along the way. Because you have these combat bowls, where they're much bigger environments to allow for four-player co-op, you can dictate how you want to fight this battle.
You can choose to flank left or flank right. It's not as directed as Gears 2. There's a lot more choice in terms of how you want to have the battle and how you want to play it out, and whether you will rush ahead or hang back.
Eurogamer: Does four-player co-op fundamentally improve the experience?
Rod Fergusson: What I like about Horde is five-player coordination and working as a squad. We're not perfectly leapfrogging ourselves in military standards and breaking doors like you would on a SWAT team, but just having that notion of working as a team and coordinating efforts and fire and, you two go left, we'll go right - it just adds to the experience and we really enjoy it.
Eurogamer: You must feel incredibly proud to have contributed to a game series that will be remembered in 20 years time as the one that helped define this generation.
Rod Fergusson: I agree with you. I'd love for that to be true. At the gold party for Gears 1 I stood up and talked to the team and called it lightning in a bottle. A lot of people are grateful for the fact that they're just in the game industry alone. But there are people in the game industry who are not necessarily making games they love to make.
We've been double privileged in that not only are we making something that contributes to popular culture, but we're also doing something we love. It's truly lightning in a bottle. These are rare times that you can work on a game you love and that's going to have an impact.
When Gears 1 came out people said it was derivative and not innovative. I have a Google Alert for Gears of War. Every review that comes out now has a reference to Gears of War somewhere in their game, whether it be the cover mechanic or Horde. Almost every game review has a reference to Gears.
There are other games out there. Call of Duty is killing it. Halo killed it. We'll be there too and be a part of that notion of the third-person game and cover-based shooters. We helped establish that genre.
More on Gears of War 3
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Eurogamer: Has Gears of War broken free from hardcore gaming and permeated culture, like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty?
Rod Fergusson: There was a woman on my Twitter feed who said, "Marcus has a cool tattoo on his arm in Gears 3. Can you give me the source art for that because I'd like to get a tattoo?"
I said, "If you want to put a tattoo of Gears on your body I'm more than happy to give you the source art for that."
Several months later she sent me her wedding photos where she wore a strapless dress and on her back left shoulder blade is Marucs' tattoo. In her wedding photos.
She had met her husband in line at a "midnight madness" to buy Gears of War. That's what brought them together. They cut their wedding cake with a Lancer. She's forever got Marcus' tattoo on her back. It was the grounding and the basis of her relationship with her husband, and it's something that impacted her life to a large degree.
This other day I get a tattoo from someone who uses Gears 2 to get through chemo. He says he pisses off the nurses every time because he has to set up his Xbox and boot up the game before they put the needle in and start his chemo. He plays Gears 2 to get past all the stomach sickness and all the pain. That was his big thing.
You go beyond. It's not entertainment anymore. It's impacting people's lives in a meaningful way. That's what affects me.
Eurogamer: How do you deal with that?
Rod Fergusson: People say, "Oh, it's a time waster." But it has an impact on people's lives. It's not everybody. Some people, it's disposable. They play it and they throw it away. But it has a big impact on a lot of people.
That's the reason you end up doing it. You realise there's a devoted community out there that looks to you to make the best game possible and to bring that to them. That's what we want to do.
Eurogamer: Can Gears of War be as big as Call of Duty?
Rod Fergusson: One of our strengths is the character of our brand, the personality of our brand. You see the devoted followers. There's a way to bring that brand to other forms, whether it's comics or figures or novels or other types of games. There are different ways to experience the IP.
One of the nice things about Sera being so earth-like is it's grounded. We're not doing crazy, over-the-top aliens. We call a chicken a chicken. We don't call it a floosit or whatever. Money, we call it a buck. It's stuff people can relate to.
There's an opportunity there for us for sure, for people to experience our brand in a different way. But where that goes and what that ends up being, I don't know.