Meeting the man making the new Gears of War

Rod Fergusson knows Gears of War. After ten years at Epic Games he was as recognisable a front-man as Cliff Bleszinski or Marcus Fenix, and it was peculiar to witness the departure of all three from the previous title, Gears of War: Judgment. Fergusson moved to Irrational Games, helping to finish BioShock Infinite, and was rebuilding 2K’s Marin studio in California when Microsoft bought the rights to Gears and tempted him back to the company, the franchise, and his homeland of Canada to head its new studio Black Tusk. The studio’s debut game will be Gears of War on Xbox One – making it the second time that Microsoft has transferred one of its biggest franchises to a new home. We caught up with Rod to find out what it’s like being back, and how the new team can keep fans happy while still doing something new.

Is returning to Gears of War like a triumphant homecoming?

For me it’s like a strange triple homecoming. I worked for Microsoft for ten years, so coming back to Microsoft after all this time – I think it’s been 15 years or whatever since I’ve been here – going back to Canada and then coming back to Gears. It’s just been this three-step thing and it’s awesome, because Gears of War is my favourite game.

Is it weird not having the Epic guys around this time? Obviously Cliff Bleszinski has left the company.

Yes and no. They are obviously great friends and collaborators – it’s not one person makes something, it’s a team effort – but what I’m really excited about is just the pure energy that’s at Black Tusk. When you live with a franchise for seven years, there were people at Epic who were kind of done – like I wanted to do something else interesting. But when you look at Black Tusk it is just a pure, raw, pool of energy and excitement for what they want to do. So I’m like walking through the studio and Gears of War is on every screen, we’re playing multiplayer together and we’re playing horde together, and doing all this different stuff. Just to have that fresh enthusiasm is really invigorating.

I guess because it’s a new studio they’ve got something to prove as well. This first thing has to put them on the map.

Yes, and that’s going to be our big focus – doing right by the fans and the community to show that Black Tusk understands Gears. You have to do it right before you do it differently.

Like what 343 Industries did with Halo?

It’s a great model. I would be lying if we didn’t say that was an interesting model to look at, and I feel, as a fan of the Halo series, that they were successful with Halo 4.

When you did come back, did you have any kind of unfinished business that you wanted to see to? Any existing things you can now address?

Not really. I mean, one of the things I think we were guilty of when we were making Gears of War 3 was trying to put everything in. We felt like it was going to be our opus – like, this is the end of this franchise – so we probably could have been a little bit more diligent in terms of scope management. So there’s no unrequited feature that I always wish I could have done. To me there’s just something about Gears being Gears, and we’ve got that energy about ‘let’s make a great Gears of War game’ and focusing on the franchise as opposed to ‘well, I’m sort of tired of it, how can I change it?’

There are a lot of Gears stories already out there in the world. Do you have to mesh with that universe and the extended fiction?

That’s part of it, but what’s great is that at Epic we were always super lean, we always had the smallest team possible, we were always sort of understaffed and overworked so we weren’t able to fully take advantage of what the franchise could do. So one of the other reasons I’m excited about having Gears of War at Microsoft is that we can actually see Gears do more than just any one particular instance. There are just a lot more opportunities because we have more resources to do that.

On the technical side, Black Tusk was already working on Unreal Engine 4. Did that mean the team was already up to speed? Did Microsoft do the deal with Epic and just get handed some hard drives with the assets?

They’ve been doing a lot of work in Unreal Engine 4 and what is great is that we’re going to continue that partnership with Epic. It’s not an adversarial relationship, it is very, very much a collaboration and a partnership. That goes back to what was Gears of War, from the first game through Judgment, but it’s also a technology partnership. We’re were going to highlight the engine just like Gears always did. And the engine is going to enable an amazing game like Gears.

Are you able to tap up [Epic’s long-standing art director] Chris Perna for design queries and stuff like that?

There is a lot of institutional knowledge in the folks from Epic. That’s one of the things we are able to do, we meet with them and have conversations and just talk about it. Perna, he’s the monster guy, and there’s a lot of Perna in Gears games too, so just being able to talk to them about ideas – the fact we have the ability to do something really interesting and new and still tap into the history of the franchise is amazing.

Is this an easy job because you’re working with such a well-established brand, rather than having to launch one from scratch?

There’s definitely truth in that. A new IP is always challenging, especially if you don’t have a clear vision – it can take forever to figure stuff out, because when you have a new IP every idea is valid. With Gears there’s a certain core fundamental truth to ‘what is Gears’, so that’s been one of the things that’s been really great. With my role I can say ‘that’s too far outside’ or that it is not innovative enough, so this franchise allows that ability to provide a very clear and distinct vision. I think it’s been pretty clear over the last couple of years that I’ve not been chasing the safest bet, I’m chasing for stuff that I am passionate about. To be back on Gears, doing the franchise I love the most of all franchises is just a dream.

It must have been a very different experience at Irrational. And a very different project.

Yes, but it was great learning. To go from a studio like Epic that was a game first, story second kind of environment, to Irrational, which was very much a story first, game second kind of environment – to see how that’s done and how that story is so integral, and being able to understand how they go about building games around that, I learned a lot. Even the short stint I had at 2K Marin, having that exposure – I did ten years with Microsoft and ten years with Epic, you can get kind of insular. The jumping around for two years has been really great in terms of just getting exposure to new ideas and new people and different ways of doing things. Now that I’m coming back to Gears, I’m bringing all that new experience with me.

It must have felt good to have been called up by Irrational. I have a mental image of somebody saying: “We need someone to get this game shipped, call Fergusson!”

*laughs* Yes, it was good. It’s what I love to do. Just shipping a game - I have this motto of ‘he who ships wins’, and so to me that is my favourite part. Finalling is the absolute favourite part of game making, when you know that every decision you make in that last section of the production is hugely important. In pre-production you can make a decision and then the next day you can change it, whatever. When you are in finalling, you make a call to cut a feature and that feature is cut – when you make a call to do whatever – every decision at that point matters more than everything before, and the way that a team comes together to polish and finish it as a group – it’s my absolute favourite time.

You said Black Tusk’s first job is to prove you can make a Gears game. Does that mean you’ve got to do that first before you can start evolving the format?

It’s the same thing with all sequels. This isn’t a great way of phrasing it but I always talk about shipping a sequel to customers as ‘managing betrayal’. They want something new but they don’t want something so new that it doesn’t feel like what they want. But if you put out something that’s very familiar and is the same as the game they just had, then it’s like ‘I’ve already had this. This isn’t new enough.’ You actually have to betray them enough to give them something new and surprising but not so much that they disconnect, and I think that is a big thing that we have to focus on. It’s how we can innovate and bring something new to the franchise while at the same time really proving that we understand Gears – that this is the franchise that you know and love. So I’ve already given multiple speeches to the team like ‘here are the core tenets of Gears, here are the things that won’t be changing, and here are opportunities for us to innovate that we think we can knock out of the park.’

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