Lead Level Designer Jim Brown on Gears of War: Judgement
GAME NAME: Gears of War: Judgement
DEVELOPER(S): Epic, People Can Fly
PLATFORM(S): Xbox 360
RELEASE DATE(S): 19 March 2013
Recently we were fortunate enough to attend an exclusive event hosted by Xbox Australia and EB Games Australia, showcasing the upcoming title, Gears of War: Judgement. While there, we were able to meet and interview Jim Brown, Lead Level Designer at Epic Games. Brown spoke to us about new game features, multiplayer maps and how Cliff Bleszinski's departure from Epic has affected the franchise.
Stevivor: To begin, could you explain a little about your role as Lead Level Designer, and what involvement you had in Gears of War Judgement?
Jim Brown: Right, so I am Lead Level Designer – I handle mostly the multiplayer side of things. We have a very, very small team so we all wear a lot of hats, which means that we all touch everything along the way. So, in terms of the levels, I do some of the layout work, the gameplay work, some of the artwork in-terms of meshing things out, the materials, lighting, and scripting. The level design team also handle a lot of the gameplay design overall – helping with creature design, weapon design, balance, game types, everything involved with gameplay we all kind of have our fingers in, so-to-speak. I have the unfortunate job of being the guy that has to organise everyone and make sure they are on-task.
Stevivor: This is a first for Epic in that you are developing a Gears of War game alongside another studio, People Can Fly. How has this new collaboration affected the Gears of War franchise?
Brown: So, People Can Fly have worked on Gears for quite some time – people don’t realise that. They had a big, big part for Gears on Windows, the helped out with Gears 2 and 3 (especially in the realm of DLC), but this is the first time we’ve actually had a full hand in the development of a full game. It’s worked out really well for us. Like I mentioned before, we are a really small studio, so typically we will contact outside to other companies and have them help us with small pieces here and there. Since we are a sister studio to People Can Fly, and because they know the franchise, they are already invested in it, so it made a lot of sense for us to bring them in as opposed to some other company that we don’t necessarily know or trust quite as well. In addition to that, they have a real history of a particular style of gameplay, that being very over-the-top and crazy. When you are talking about a game that has holes opening up in the ground with monsters coming out, and chainsaws at the front of a gun, you don’t get very much over-the-top than that. So they were really good fit for us, and they brought in some fresh eyes into the franchise, so working together went really well.
Stevivor: This is also the first time Cliff Bleszinski hasn’t been directly involved in a game from start to finish. It’s a big deal to gamers as I’m sure to Epic as well. What’s changed since Cliffy B’s departure from Epic?
Brown: Not much to be honest with you. Cliff is a great guy, his DNA is definitely in Gears – he was one of the originators of the franchise and he was there all along, he was actually there through most of the development of this game as well. He has definitely had his hand in it, but he was also very much the front-man - he would be the first person to say, “hey I’m here because of the team that was behind me” – so we’ve got well over 100 guys back at the studio that are willing to take up that mantle and take up that job. Especially with the team at People Can Fly coming in, and all the collaborations we’ve had all-along, it’s still very much a Gears game. Players will see that as soon as they pick it up.
Stevivor: Nice. Unlike previous titles, Judgement features a new main character. In what ways is Damon different to Marcus and why was he chosen?
Brown: So the reason he was chosen, which was almost even a bit of a surprise to us, is because he came back as a fan favourite when we went out and spoke to people. Marcus was very much an empty shell, in that players could project through him. He [Marcus] had this story, he had his personality, but he was very much just at the front there, where all the other characters were often the supporting cast. It’s interesting in that, when you look through the series, every character has had their moment – Marcus and his father, Dom and his family, even in Gears 3, Cole went back to his hometown and you were able to see the world through his eyes – but nobody really told Baird’s story. So this is your chance to see that and to see it through his eyes.
I think that also, because he’s a little bit snarky and very sarcastic, that’s he the kind of guy that says what the player is thinking in their head, so that’s why I think a lot of people really identified with him a lot more than we expected when we originally designed him. He slots into the lead role really well, and in this game we get to see him back when he’s a Lieutenant, as opposed to when he’s not in the other games. So he’s a great lead character, he has that strong enough personality to take that role, and the game becomes about the other characters in his squad, and how they respond to him as a leader and how that affects his decision-making, which ultimately ends with being on trial.
Stevivor: Are there any new features of Gears of War Judgement that we can expect to see?
Brown: Absolutely. The entire game was torn down to the basic core of what a Gears game should be, and then built back up from there. We wanted it to be an experience that players can make it their own, live their own stories in it and have it change and respond to what they’re doing and seeing, so that when they play it, they get a different experience every time. We have a new system called the ‘smart spawn’ system, which for short we are calling it ‘S3’. What it basically does is change the battlefield every time you play. You never know what’s going to come out of a door (or how many), or what weapons they are going to carry, because every time you reload a checkpoint, every time you start a new game playing co-op with a friend, whatever the circumstances are, you’re going to get a different outcome.
We also have a new system called "Declassified Testimony". The whole game is told from the perspective of these guys being on trial and they are kind of saying what the public record is of what happened. As the player, at certain points you can then chose to declassify what really happened, and usually that entails adding another layer of difficulty onto the game. So as the player, you get the chance to change the story when you want to, and add another layer of challenge in there so you can up the intensity of your game and again, see what they were doing officially (which is usually bending the rules, and that’s what got them into trouble to begin with).
Stevivor: Sounds awesome! As the Lead Designer, what sort of environments will we be seeing in this game? Is there any one in particular that’s your favourite?
Brown: Oh, interesting question. You’re going to see a lot of stuff – the game is based in the city of Halvo Bay, which is kind-of based of a real-world San Diego or San Francisco. It’s basically a major city with a military base that trains these special forces. You’re going to get to explore a little bit of the city and a little bit of the military base, and go all over. The game actually starts just outside that military base in the Museum of Military Glory and your first objective is to head there and protect it, as the Locust groups come in and start to completely destroy the city. You’ll see a lot of destruction and a lot of brand new places that we’ve never shown before in the franchise so far.
Stevivor: There was some uproar from the community when it was announced that the "Down But Not Out" feature would be excluded from some game modes in Judgement. Are you able to explain why the developers decided to remove/limit a feature that some gamers would describe as part of the ‘core’ Gears experience?
Brown: So when we went to go and design this game, we actually went to the fans and asked them what they wanted – that’s how we came up with a lot of this stuff. We also tore it back down to its roots to figure out what the core of what a really good Gears experience was, and then built-up from there – getting rid of the speed bumps and things that were getting in the way of players having a good experience. One of the main things that we wanted to do was smooth-out and make a really consistence experience where people would spend more time playing and less time watching. That [DBNO] was one of the features that took players out of the game, and we wanted to make a game that was very accessible to new players, but also have enough depth on-top that more experienced and more pro/hardcore players would keep coming back and having a reason to keep doing that. By removing "Down But Not Out" we could improve the accessibility of the game, we could improve the overall experience, but didn’t necessarily take away from that upper depth layer, because we’ve added a bunch of other things in there as well to really up the experience overall.
Stevivor: Are there any new enemies that we will be seeing this time around?
Brown: Absolutely. Because the timeline is set 14 years before the original Gears, there’s a lot more Locust - there’s a lot more bigger Locust, there’s a lot more scarier Locust. So you will see some guys that you’ve only ever seen before in DLC. The new General [Karn] is riding on this giant multi-legged creature, and was the one who actually master-minded E-day. He was the one who was responsible for a lot of the damage to infrastructure and things that ended with the fall of humanity. He’s definitely someone you’ll see a few times throughout the game. We actually went back and re-tooled every enemy in the game, so every enemy you encounter is going to be a little different, a little bit scarier, and more challenging than anything we’ve done in the past. There’s definitely a few more surprises in there with some new creatures that we haven’t talked about yet.
Stevivor: Just finally, I’ve read that the level design for the multiplayer maps will have more of a vertical approach than horizontal. Why was this decision made?
Brown: A couple reasons. One was the accessibility factor that we had, in terms of that we really wanted to open freedom of movement – part of that was the ability to break a window, climb a wall, jump off a ledge – just stuff you could never do before in a Gears game, now you can everywhere. Second, because the game is set before humanity has fallen, there’s a lot more buildings – and because there’s a lot more buildings, you want to get inside of them, when you are inside of them you want to get on-top of them! . Finally, for the first time in the Gears franchise, we are introducing a free-for-all game type. In the past, Gears games have always been about two teams that spawn on either side and they come together on a central combat front, but with free-for-all, you can now have ten teams coming from any direction, so we had to create new ways for them to come and new areas for them to go to, so you actually end up with a lot more vertical-styled gameplay.
We'd like to thank Xbox Australia, EB Games Australia and Epic Games for the opportunity.
Gears of War: Judgement will be available exclusively for Xbox 360 on 19 March.