The Background of the Gears of War Series

by Travis

December 17, 2008

At the Game Developer's Conference in 2007, Cliff Bleszinski delivered a speech to a packed house regarding the background of the original Gears of War and how it came to be. Entitled "Designing Gears of War: Iteration Wins," Blesinski states that unlike most other game developers, he doesn't always know what the initial idea behind the game is heading early on."I have a couple ideas and I kind of go with it and feel things out".

It not always one of those things that you can plan out in excruciating detail in a design document. I think that you kind of feel through it in a sandbox period," stated Bleszinski. "At the same time, it's important to recognize as a designer you need to have some sort of an idea where you are going... you need to have a system of checks and balances."

Gears of War ultimately was an extensive exercise in failed ideas where going back to the drawing board, collaborating as a group, and intelligently compromising lead to a stronger product.

The idea behind Gears initially had the game as another FPS designed to show off the Unreal Engine 3.0; in fact, many saw demo footage at E3 2005 of a supposed Unreal 3 that would go on to become Gears of War. The concept name was Unreal Warfare, but over time, the Epic team began to nix the idea of yet another FPS. He showed off early concept art of Cog soldiers and the prototypical Geists, which were early versions of the Locust, until Epic found out a year later that Nintendo was making a game with the main character called Geist. The Geists then became Worms, which was named since the Locust dig tunnels. Finally, members of the team conceived the name Locust, as it tied in well with both insects and the idea of plagues.

Gears of War's cover system, an integral component in the title's gameplay, owes much of its inspiration to Namco's oft overlooked third person action game kill.switch, which was released in 2003 and also relies heavily on a similar cover system. Another inspiration for Gears of War was revealed to be Capcom's survival horror opus Resident Evil 4, mainly due to its reliance on offset camera angles that fail to obscure the action.

It was at this point that the idea of iteration came through, as he went through the many ideas in Gears that were ultimately shot down. At one point, the team had considered allowing the Cogs to loot corpses in the field and spend the earnings on upgradeable weapons. The was ultimately nixed for taking too much away from the action elements of the game. The team had also considered a morale meter, but killed that idea after realizing that the conditions for unleashing miserable teammates would be too finicky for what they desired, and that it would be unrewarding for the player. Finally, Epic had considered including an orders system, which partially made it into the final product, but feels significantly less like Full Spectrum Warrior than the original idea suggested.

Because Bleszinski presented Gears as a highly successful game built upon experience learned through mistakes, he then detailed which elements of the game rose from the ashes to become the final product. The team unanimously agreed that they wanted a slower-paced shooter than Unreal that was built upon trade-offs (L-trigger lends more precise targeting, but at the cost of battlefield visibility), no space aliens, a world that combined cutting-edge technology with contemporary machinery, and the embracing of certain clich├ęs while shedding others. Or as Bleszinski said, "We wanted a badass antihero and a wise-cracking sidekick, but no cigar-chomping characters."

After outlining some of the tools of the trade, including video capture software, he then detailed the development philosophy behind the game. As a group of people trained to look at every attribute and flaw of a game, Bleszinski confessed that no developers can truly play a game through the fresh eyes of a consumer. As a result, the team wanted to set out to make a game that they would find fun. The objectives behind Gears entailed creating both a vehicle for Unreal Engine 3 and a solid game with minimal distracting HUD, evenly paced checkpoints, and a cinematic eye, while keeping cutscenes short enough to keep the player immersed.

Bleszinski then described his own personal struggles as a lead designer. While MTV dramatized the process in its documentary on the making of Gears, it wasn't nearly so conflicted in real life. He recommended to "always be selling" ideas and to be a crazy visionary. Designers should pick their battles, he said, and allow each member of the team to state their case on why a certain gameplay feature should stay in the game. It's up to designers to maintain a mutual respect with the company leadership, and while staying persistent, he emphasized that compromise can create successful results for all parties.

After emphasizing the ways that failures led to success and the process of dealing with Epic's hierarchy, Bleszinski then went into detail regarding the most interesting elements of Gears: how the gameplay mechanics came to be. As he pulled up a slide called "The Halo Delta," he described how Gears would have to find a way to distinguish itself from Bungie's blockbuster, but remain familiar to shooter fans. He specified button layout, and how it made a difference in the process. The Epic team wanted to make reloading an act that would be more than hitting X, so they implemented the active reload as a minigame. They also wanted weapon swapping to be a slowed-down process to match the slowed-down nature of the game, so they changed the button to the D-pad instead of Halo's Y button function. Ultimately, they couldn't figure out what to do with the Y button until a member of the team said, "hey, let's use the Y button to look around at cool shit in the environment!"

Bleszinski emphasized the idea of consolidating functions to the A button. Because that button holds so many functions in Gears, it became crucial for the dev team to focus on making everything as context-sensitive as possible. As a result of both the multiple revisions and the ways that the Gears team strived to avoid being too much like other games on the market, functions seen in other games, such as crouching (too stealthy) and jumping (no bunny hopping), were nixed.

The camera, and its functions, were also broken down. Recall that Gears was an FPS until the team killed that idea; they decided to show off the Unreal Engine in a new light, while showing both the playable character, and environmental details. Two things were central to the reworked Gears camera: positioning and "roadie run." In regard to position, Marcus never blocks the camera. Also, because the camera is fixed in a certain fashion, he will never run toward the camera, since the gun is always trained on creatures, and not the player.

As for the "roadie run," Bleszinski cites the way that roadies at rock concerts run across the stage to fix something. It was the idea central to the way that the camera would work. It would come at the cost of not being able to shoot, and it only moves the player 1.2 times faster than moving normally, but because of the wobbling camera, it gives the illusion of speed, while accentuating a sense of danger and urgency. It was an idea that moved forward after the team rejected the typical FPS control arrangement.

The next section dealt with weaponry. Gears of War boasts familiar weaponry, but with new twists on those gaming conventions. Bleszinski cites the finale of Rambo III as the inspiration for the torque bow. It started out as a wrist-mounted weapon with the player detonating it. However, given the amount of animation required for the weapon, the game would have to lose the Berserker in order to make a wrist-mounted torque bow fit into the game. Because it was easier to animate as a crossbow with automated detonation, the second iteration of the weapon made it into the final game. Bleszinski also cited the combination of sound effects and the bolo-styled design of the grenades as a means of re-creating the game's weapons as something both familiar and new. Because Boomer Locusts say "boom" or teammates will shout "grenade," players are always aware of the sense of danger within the environment. Plus, the grenades are easier to see, because the bolo design telegraphs their movements.

Gears' cover system, which lent to the buzz phrase "stop and pop," also got a close examination. Bleszinski emphasized creating areas in which the player knows that an object can be used for shelter, and making cover both essential and fun. The team evaluated competing cover systems, and decided that using A for cover was more ideal than a stick-based cover, because it put the player in a state in which they could concentrate on firing instead of toggling their state of cover. Throughout the process of creating Gears and its cover mechanic, the Epic team found that the game ultimately resembled the 80s classic Bionic Commando. While Capcom's old-school action platformer involved a 2D character using an extendable device to platform upwards, Gears, and its use of cover-hopping, essentially sends players platforming through the map.

Finally, Bleszinski discussed the iterations in Gears' multiplayer features. While the game started out with the typical circular maps found in Unreal Tournament and Counter-Strike, the team ultimately killed that idea and moved toward a detailed battlefront that played off of the field of view. The Gridlock map was touted as one of the prime examples of how the team played with new map designs. Bleszinski revealed that "I" and "H"-shaped map formations were key to keeping combat suited to the confines of Gears' gameplay mechanics. He also cited the ideas of resurrection and execution as key to the struggle within the game. The sniper climax of Full Metal Jacket inspired the resurrection function in multiplayer, as a sniper could lure other players out to death as they attempted to rescue a wounded player. Also, execution set up the same "risk versus reward" concept that is at the core of Gears' camera and combat mechanics.