EW spoke with Fergusson, who has worked on every Gears of Wartitle, about following up the epic trilogy, creating memorable new characters, and the series’ greater focus on competitive multiplayer. But not Horde mode. He wouldn’t talk about that.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s been nearly five years since Gears of War 3, which ended the human versus Locust war definitively with a big explosion. So it’s a new team that you’re leading and it’s new hardware, so I was just wondering: Where do you start when you’re essentially relaunching one of Microsoft’s biggest properties?
It was an interesting process. We went through and talked through all the different kinds of alternatives about how do you sort of return to this place, to continue the franchise, and so we talked about do we go a prequel.
The feeling was that, the prequels for Gears would’ve been pre-Locust, and so it would’ve been more the human wars, what we call the Pendulum Wars. We felt like human-on-human conflict was not a Gears game. You have to have a monster to be a Gears game. So we felt like that was a problem. And you kind of run into the problem where you have with the Star Wars prequels where you have the Stormtrooper, and you go like, “OK, what was the predecessor to the Stormtrooper?” And you end up with the “Roger, Roger” robots, right? We felt like the prequel wasn’t the right way to go.
And so then we talked about a new origin story. Do we tell or retell the Marcus story and put our own spin on it? Then we felt like that wasn’t really what we’re here to do. We’re not here to reimagine the past or recreate this thing. We felt it would’ve been sort of disrespectful to say, “Well, that was that, but now it’s us, and here is how we would’ve done it” kind of thing. That felt really wrong.
Then we talked about an alternate planet and let’s go somewhere else. We thought, wow, it would be rough on Sera to get attacked by yet another monster, so maybe we should give them a break and go somewhere else. But then we realized by doing that that we couldn’t harken back to the past. We couldn’t go to places that were familiar, we couldn’t use things, like weapons, that were familiar. Everything would be new. We just felt like the idea of a new cast and a new enemy and a new setting, all of it together was going to be almost too much new. We didn’t have that grounding to what made Gears, Gears.
At the end of the day, we decided, well, why don’t we just advance time and allow ourselves to create a new cast through creating the next generation of hero by having JD Fenix being Marcus’ son and sort of taking up 25 years later.
And in doing that, using the same universe, you get the chance to create your new characters but you can still tie them to the incredibly popular cast. I think that [main characters] Marcus and Dom and all of them resonated incredibly well with the Xbox 360 audience. What can you tell me about these new characters and how they’ll try to reach that same resonance?
Well, I think one of the things we really tried to focus on with the new characters is that we tried to create more depth to them. You know, one of the things when we started the franchise with Gears 1, we didn’t have a lot of time for story, and so what we ended up doing, what we had to do, was create shorthand with archetypal characters, where you could pretty much sum them up in two words or three words, or as like the anti-hero and the over-enthusiastic sports professional, you know that kind of stuff. It was good in terms of you didn’t have to have a lot of back story to understand Baird or understand Dom, you kind of just got them right away.
But as time has progressed now over the past decade, I think people are looking for less black and white with their characters and are looking for more gray and a little bit more nuance. So that’s the kind of thing we’ve been trying to work on, is to provide them with a story that is not so pithy in terms of their description. I can’t say what JD really is in two words.
And part of it is about what we love about having a young cast, having a cast of mid-20-year-olds, is that is we have a lot of places we can go with them. They’re not fully developed. You look at Marcus, he’s probably in his 40s in Gears 1, he’s pretty established. His personality isn’t going to change a lot over that time or the things that impact him. I think having these sort of fresh faces means that we can go to a bunch of different places and affect them more.
You mentioned in some interviews that the game is gonna be a little bit more focused on some of the horror aspects, kind of more more tonally similar to the first Gears than the kind of balls-out action that was Gears 3. Can you tell us a little about how that influences the story that you’re telling?
The thing for us is, you know, we’ll never be a survival horror game. When you have guys this big with chainsaw bayonets, you can never disempower them enough. For me I really like the words “tension” and “drama.” It’s really where we’re trying to push. By the time you get to Gears 3, it felt a little bit like it could be a WWII game in the sense that the Locusts were well understood and you were fighting them like you would’ve fought the Nazi army in a WWII game. Whereas Gears 1, there was still a lot more discovery and still being scared and trying to understand this threat that you had never seen before.
That’s what we’re really trying to do with 4. We’re trying to go back to that feeling, so we’re taking the story down from — if you look at Gears 3 as this sort of planetary genocide or trying to save the human race from extinction — we wanted to get back to the story of three people and one night, and how can these three people survive this one night. Getting that intimacy back with story, and the intimacy back in terms of tone and to allow you to be afraid again.
Is there anything that you could tease about what people can expect with the multiplayer beta that launches on April 18?
I’m hoping that they’re going to have a lot of fun with it. It’s gonna be an event, an opportunity to really get to see some of the bigger changes that we’ve done to the game from a multiplayer standpoint.
One of the things that’s really excited me is historically, as you look across 1, 2, and 3, the multiplayer has been under-served. The reality of these types of games were the campaign is where you have to put most of your muscle to get it done, and you look back at Gears 1 and it was probably a 90-10 split between campaign and multiplayer. It got better over time, but what’s been great here is Matt Searcy, who is our campaign designer, the day he started on the campaign was the same day that Ryan Cleven started on multiplayer. So we’ve had this sort of emphasis and focus on all aspects of the product from the beginning.
What that means is that multiplayer has been greater served by our design team and our resources to make sure we’re doing the right things. I think people having an opportunity to feel that and feel like, “Oh, this different studio has created a Gears experience.” It feels like Gears and it plays like Gears, but now there is more nuance and sophistication into some of the things that are there. I think it should be pretty exciting for people. I wanted to try some new modes, new maps, new weapons, all the usual fun stuff.
I assume you’re not talking about whether a certain wave-based mode returns that was really popular?
[Laughs] I am not talking about that.
The Gears of War 4 early access multiplayer beta begins April 18 for those who played Gears of War: Ultimate Edition and will open to all Xbox Live Gold members on April 25. The beta ends on May 1.