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RIPTEN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH JIM BROWN

The Epic Games and People Can Fly release of Gears of War: Judgment hit stores just a hair over two weeks ago. It marks the fourth installment of the popular Xbox 360 exclusive franchise, and the first to break away from the path of the original trilogy (in more ways than one). Judgment brings many changes, some received positively, while others not so much.

According to Metacritic, reviewers peg this prequel-centric release a 79 based on the scores of 74 critics. Some of the high end marks include a 96 from Cheat Code Central, a 92 from IGN, and a 90 from Joystiq. The lower end of the spectrum features a 60 from Giant Bomb, a 60 from Game Revolution, and a 60 from Digital Spy. I gave the game a 60 as well, and those who frequent this site know that Gears of War 2 (93 on Metacritic) and Gears of War 3 (91 on Metacritic) were absolute favorites of mine.

You always run the risk of alienating people when you alter core mechanics, and that was the focus of our recent conversation with Epic Games Lead Level Designer, Jim Brown.

Chad Lakkis: First thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

Jim Brown: Sure.

CL: What was it like working in tandem with another studio on such a popular release?

JB: I assume you are talking about PCF? (People Can Fly).

CL: Yes.

JB: Yeah. We’ve worked with them quite a bit even on previous titles. The first time we worked with them was on Gears of War for Windows, many moons ago, which was a good experience. Which was one of the reasons we actually looked more into them as a studio we wanted to invest in. They helped us out with Gears 2 and they did a pretty significant chunk of work for Gears 3 DLC.

And because Epic is small by comparison to some of the other studios out there that release the same types of games as we do, we typically contract out a lot of work. We do some outsourcing stuff and seeing PCF there who had good solid Gears experience, who cared about and was passionate about the franchise, it made a lot of sense for us to turn to them rather than outsource a company we had never met. In that regard it was really really easy for us to make that call.

CL: Where there any proposed changes for Judgment that you and your team vetoed? Change requests that didn’t “fly?”

JB: There were any number of things, but that was no different than anything we would have done ourselves. It was always a very very open discussion back and forth. With us pitching things, them pitching things and us talking about it. We’d spend hours every single day in video conference just chatting back and forth on the design side, programming side, art side , everything. We sent people there, they sent people here, and we just tried to make it as much of an open dialogue as we could.

One of the things that we really liked about them was what they brought to the table in terms of being somewhat familiar with and passionate about the franchise, but also having some of those new ideas and being able to bring that in without being hindered by what we had done in the past or stuck in old lines of thought. I think they brought more to the table then people realize.

CL: A number of the core mechanics have been changed from the original trilogy. Can you tell me a little bit about why you changed the controls for weapon switching and grenade tossing? And how did you go about balancing and testing these changes to ease series fans into them?

“It was this many-fingered origami thing with a multistep process that was not at all accessible, was not at all responsive, was not at all reliable.”

JB: We took a really hard look at what Gears was and we wanted to make sure that the core mechanic of Gears stayed fun but also accessible. And one of the things along with that, the grenades being a really really good example, is that in order to throw a grenade in previous Gears games you had to hit the D-Pad which was somewhat unreliable, you had to pull the Left Trigger, you had to aim with the Right Stick, and then you had to pull with the Right Trigger. It was this many-fingered origami thing with a multistep process that was not at all accessible, was not at all responsive, was not at all reliable. So doing something like a one button off-hand grenade toss made that whole process a lot more streamlined and a lot better overall. It just made the game feel and play that much better. When you tried to switch to your grenade you didn’t feel like the game was what was preventing you from doing that. It just flows a lot better, and so, all of the controls kind of came out from that line of thinking. We didn’t want the game or the controls to get in the way of people’s skills or get in the way of people playing and having fun.

And then in regards to testing, we do tons and tons of testing every single day here in the studio with people of all skill levels and then we also do a ton of usability testing through Microsoft, and we do that at various points throughout the process. But one of the things we did this time, that was new for us, was to actually go out to the community. We brought people in. We brought in a lot of players. We brought in some of our top community players. We brought in some competitive players and handed them the game, gave them full access, and just let them play. We let them play for I would say almost a week, all day every day until they really got to know the game inside and out. And then we pulled them into our design meets and had them contribute. We wanted their honest feedback and we wanted to see how they were playing and what they were doing in addition to why and get their opinions. Doing things like that gave us a really good feel for where we were going.

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CL: Elements of the game handle differently in the campaign than they do in multiplayer now. In multiplayer, grenade sticking walls is out, active reload bonus damage is gone, and a reticle is always present, even when moving. What are the reasons behind these changes and the disconnect between the campaign and multiplayer?

JB: Actually I would go as far as to say that the — I mean, yes you are right, for sure, but the consistency between campaign and multiplayer is a lot stronger than it has been in the past. And one of the reasons we did that, weapon balance for example, was primarily single player balanced in the past and adjusted for multiplayer, whereas this time around we did the opposite. We did all of our balancing through multiplayer and then adjusted for single player. And there were some mechanics, like wall tagging for example, that weren’t as popular in multiplayer and actually led to a lot of problems, but made a lot of sense still from the viewpoint of fighting AI as opposed to fighting a human player. So we were able to leave those in, and preserve them in the campaign while in multiplayer we were able to strip them out and make the experience better overall.

CL: Epic has a pretty good track record of listening to feedback from players and improving the game through updates when issues are taken with certain elements of game play. For example, a few years back players pointed out their frustration in regards to the distance in which they could be tagged with a grenade.

JB: Right.

CL: You and your team then adjusted that and made it so you had to be much closer to initiate the tag. Now however, in Judgment you can actually throw a grenade at another player and tag them from halfway across the map if your aim is decent. In addition to that, and some of the things we just talked about like active reload bonus damage and wall sticking grenades — If the active playerbase decides they want certain elements back in multiplayer or that they don’t like the fact they can now be tagged with a grenade from 50 yards away, are those things that we could potentially see changed if feedback leans heavily in that direction?

“Are we going to make everybody happy 100% of the time? Absolutely not.”

JB: I think that we always have a really really good relationship with our community, whether it’s in there playing the game with them, which a lot of us do every single night, or in forums or on Facebook and Twitter, our community page — all of that stuff. We do a really good job of trying to get in touch with people and I think that has actually improved and got a lot better with Judgment. We’re making some really serious attempts to get in touch with our community and stay in touch with them and respond to their feedback. That was one of the — the basis for Judgment overall was giving players a lot of what they were asking for and responding to a lot of the feedback that we got. Are we going to make everybody happy 100% of the time? Absolutely not. That’s our job, to kind of boil that down and figure out how we can adjust to the overall opinion – the trend of the community and what we think is actually going to make the game better. We’re always willing to talk to people. We’re in there playing, seeing how things change in the real world as opposed to on the test servers and making those adjustments on the fly.

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CL: The list of weapons that can be used while behind the cover of a Boomshield has expanded dramatically.The Boomshot and Sniper rifle are both fair game now. Can you talk about the thought process behind that?

JB: Yeah. We wanted to make sure that all of our power weapons were exactly that, that they were powerful, and the Boomshield never really was. It was really really easy to work around. It was very exploitable. It was one of those things that on paper always felt like an advantage, especially to a new player, but to someone with any experience or even someone who made half an attempt, it was really more of a hinderance than anything else. So with the Boomshield specifically, that was our attempt to make that actually a power weapon. To make it something that people didn’t just happen to cross and sometimes pick up and get themselves in trouble with, but to actually make it something that was valuable as a power weapon — a point on the map that could create a front. Since we no longer really had that front style gameplay that was in previous titles we wanted all of our weapon pickups to be the fronts. So yes, it is much more powerful than it has been in the past and that is definitely intentional. We want it to be something people contend over and if you can get two power weapons then you can combine them. Right? You can put a Boomshot behind the Boomshield and go to town. And that’s your reward for controlling two fronts as a team or even as an individual player.

Read on for our discussion about the removal of DBNO and Locust from MP play