Gears of War 4 is one of this year's big games for the Xbox One. Although the single-player experience is still under wraps, Microsoft has shown off the multiplayer portion of the game. Like you, we've played it, but we wanted to get a little insight behind what went into the design and direction of the multiplayer component, so we sat down for a quick chat with Rod Fergusson, studio head for The Coalition, the developer responsible for everything Gears of War 4.
WorthPlaying: So, let's just jump right in and talk about multiplayer. Obviously, you're running the beta, but what is The Coalition going for with the multiplayer design? For example, 343 and the Halo 5 team seemed to have an eSports focus with the multiplayer there. Is that something The Coalition is going for with Gears of War 4? Something more casual? Somewhere in the middle?
Rod Fergusson: It's a mystery. I mean the highest level mission was to create the best Gears of War multiplayer experience ever. And then from within that, we had sort of three main goals. First we had "stay true to Gears while still innovating," so we don't lose the success that's been there in the past and don't lose the identity of Gears.
Our second goal was around making sure we reached basically the best versus for everyone. We looked at our kind of pyramid of who are our constituents; what is the audience for Gears 4 multiplayer and you look at it as sort of being sort of four tiers. There's the new player, the social player, the competitive player, and then the e-sports audience. When we look at e-sports, we recognize that there are sort of three pieces to that puzzle as well, which is not only other players but there's also casters and viewers.
The third big goal for us was maximizing engagement, which was, "Hey, you come for the campaign, you stay for the multiplayer." Now that you're staying for the multiplayer, how do we maximize that time?
Now, I can go into each one of those three goals, but going into your e-sports thing I mean, what was really our target? It's really to look at the sports players that bring the social and competitive elements to e-sports and say, "how can we create the best versus experience for all of those?" So a lot of our investment in terms of features and how we thought about it was, "how do we make the best for each?"
We have a new way to play called Co-op Versus, which is the ability to match-make onto a human team so that it is five humans taking on five bots all of the time. It's sort of a safer place to learn how to play, to learn the maps, to learn the weapons and learn different strategies. Then we have a new mode called Dodgeball which is a little more social. It's like Warzone where it is one life, but like dodgeball, you can bring your teammates back in. In dodgeball, you catch the ball [to bring back a teammate], but in our version if you kill one of the enemies that brings back one of the people that's been eliminated from your side.
Then we said, "OK, let's look at competitive and how can we service that better?" We focused on symmetrical maps that can be played at a highly competitive level. We created a new mode called Escalation. We looked at how competitive players play today and they're playing a mode called Execution. Execution came with the original [Gears of War] back in 2006 and really hasn't changed. They play it because it's simplicity in terms of one life and you're out, and it has to be a close-quarter-kill final, but it has a lot of problems. You get stalemates a lot and it can drag on, and it's not very deep from a strategy perspective. It's all very tactical and twitch-based.
We looked at Escalation from, "Hey, how do we create a meta-game so we have something that is more strategic?" One of the things that changes is the power weapons. The team that loses the round gets to pick what power weapon gets put onto the map. Instead of it being "oh, it's just five of us playing the same way every time because nothing changes," now every round the weapon placement changes and there are three rings that go off at the same time instead of one. You actually have to have strategy rather than just tactics, so it gives something for the commentators to talk about, it creates interest for the viewers and then it creates ever changing strategies for the players.
The last thing is we really focused on the spectating. One of the big questions we asked was, "How do you make Gears of War more watchable?"
WP: You mentioned that earlier with your e-sports comments. How do you appeal to the streaming audience? A lot of games just enable streaming via Twitch or YouTube and then let the casters figure it out. What are you doing to specifically cater to the streaming audience rather than just tossing it out there at them?
RF: We've gone back and started from scratch to create the spectator view. We have two spectator slots in our game. People can go in and they're either judging tournament results or they go in and cast.
We have a new spectator view which, because right now when you cast, like look at Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, when you cast that and say player one is having an awesome fight and then you want to switch to player five to watch what they're doing, you actually can only use the triggers and you have to cycle through players two, three and four. It's very jarring as a viewer to go, "Oh, I'm watching this fight," and all of a sudden "Flash, flash, flash, flash and now I'm on this other fight, what just happened, where am I?" I've lost context.
With the new spectator screen we have the ability to see almost [like] a dashboard. Here's all the 10 players playing, here's what weapon they're using, here's what situation they're in, and then you can just easily pick a player. What will happen is the camera will smoothly transition from one view to another so that you don't lose the viewer and it's not jarring.
Once you're on that screen, we have four different views. We have a player view, so you can go really close and see what the player is seeing. You can watch from that perspective or you can go into what we call the follow cam where it pulls back from them, and then you can rotate 360 around them and kind of get a sense of where they are and what's going on around them. Then we have ghost cams, so you can actually break the camera off and fly it as you want and film what you want. Then we have the battle cameras, which are the ones that are sort of like the security cameras around the map to show you what's going on in the map.
On top of that, in those views we've added this sort of extra vision to see through walls that allows you to see and anticipate battles. You can go "Oh, the players don't see each other, but we know they're around the corner from each other, so we want to stay here and watch this play out." It builds the sense of anticipation. There's a lot of stuff like that.
We think that as a third-person shooter we kind of have a natural advantage. Third-person shooters are inherently easier to watch because you have that character on the screen and you get a better sense of context. Then, any sort of personalization or customization that you do, like if I'm playing with a unique custom character skin or I'm playing with a custom weapon skin, all those things are visible on the screen all the time, so the fact that you have that view of the player, I think we have a natural advantage in the shooter space. It's just about "how do you not make this jarring?"
WP: It sounds like you're incorporating a lot of camera features that are similar to what you'd see in a typical TV broadcast event.
RF: Yeah. Things like creating overlays and those sorts of things is stuff that we're starting to look at. And one of the next things, you know, as we try to find balance in terms of addressing the needs of all of the audience that I talked about is that the nice thing about the multiplayer space is it tends to live on longer. As we say, "Come for the campaign, stay for multiplayer." That gives us an opportunity. Because they stay for multiplayer, we don't have to necessarily get everything in the box on day one. What we're trying to do is find a balance where we are addressing the needs of the new [players] as well as the needs of e-sports [players]. We know that maybe there is more investment that needs to be done.
I've talked about Gears of War: Ultimate Edition being the "crawl" of our e-sports investment and understanding, and Gears 4 is really the "walk." To get to "run," we're going to have to go beyond what's in the box. As we support e-sports and competitive [gaming] beyond release we're going to be putting in more features and more capabilities to help with more tools for casting, more tools for spectating, and more tools that make that a better experience.
WP: Let's talk about map design real quick. Earlier when you were going through the features, you commented on symmetrical maps. When designing a multiplayer experience, symmetrical versus asymmetrical are definitely two different types of experiences. Why favor one over the other? What does symmetrical offer that asymmetrical doesn't?
RF: Symmetrical routes make it easier for balance, for fairness, because one of the things you don't want to do is have some inherent spot on one side where you're at a disadvantage, especially when you look at our objective-based game types where you have to deal with rings and the idea that "Oh, you spawned on that side, and that means you can't get to this particular ring on the map." So that's part of it, but also Gears has always been driven by the drive to the power weapons so, who gets the boomshot first? Who gets the longshots first? When you have asymmetrical maps, that becomes a much harder problem to manage.
What we've seen previously is when you start to raise the competition level, or raise the stakes if you will, then often maps start falling off where people are like, "If we're going to play for money in a tournament, OK we're not going to play this map and we're not going to play that map, we're not going to play that map." Our goal is to make the 10 maps that we're putting in the box. We want all 10 maps to be viable for competitive play.
WP: If Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is the "crawl" before you "walk" or "run," what are some of the major lessons you've learned from the launch of Ultimate and seeing it out there on the Xbox One, seeing it out there on the PC, and seeing some of the complaints that came from players? What are the major takeaways that you're using to improve the Gears 4 multiplayer experience?
RF: We've gotten a lot of feedback, which is great. One of the things we've been doing is using Ultimate Edition to help create our relationship and improve our relationship with those types of highly competitive players. These are things that we are able to leverage. We already have pro players playing Escalation in Gears 4, as an example, and giving us feedback on how that plays out.
As we grow our caster base for Ultimate Edition, that's informing what we want to do for Gears 4 and how we want to move those features forward.
Then, as you know, Gears 1 and Gears 3 as competitive games are very different. In Gears 1, you shoot from the center of the screen. In Gears 3, you shoot from the end of barrel of the gun. Weapon sliding, the ability to take cover over top of weapon, and as you slide across it, being able to pick it up, is something that was in Gears 1 that was eliminated in Gears 3. It's really interesting to have those conversations around things that some people might have thought of as an exploit, others think of as a skill gap. The fact that you know it exists and how to perform that maneuver is a skill gap, not an exploit. We have those kinds of conversations about what should it be considered? Should we have it or not have it? There's a lot that we're learning through this process.
What I like to say is, "With e-sports, it has to be earned; it can't be bought." It doesn't matter if you put up a $20 million prize pool or something, or go crazy and say you're really going to over invest in it. You'll get some people who want to take a shot at it, you'll get people playing your game, but you're not going to fill a stadium with people watching your game because they're not invested in the game. For us, the reason we have the crawl, walk, run plan for e-sports, for us, is because that notion of earning it. You have to grow the community as much as you grow the players. So that's something that we're using Ultimate Edition to do. To establish those relationships with partners like ESL and Twitch and grow those relationships with the professional sponsored teams and to kind of leverage that understanding. We used to talk about what was missing, and now we're putting those in. You hear that when you talk about symmetrical maps. You hear that when you talk about Escalation, and you hear that when I say how we're changing spectator modes to make it easier to cast and easier to watch.
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