Much like my to-do list, Gears of War's world is a work of outward chaos and hidden order. Its curiously grubby and hunched-over squad battles take place in firebombed cities and shattered caverns, but each environment, no matter how confused on the surface, is a carefully organised space - the product of relentless playtesting, born on a whiteboard or a designer's pad as a graceful knot of routes and sightlines.
As with many a classic game, the designwork is so assured that it's hard to imagine things being otherwise. And yet - the franchise's rise to prominence was anything but a foregone conclusion. As with Titanfall, the Gears of War trilogy has taken a few interesting turns since the original entered development back in 2005. We had the opportunity to discuss certain of these during a chat with then-director of production Rod Fergusson in 2011, not long after Epic polished off Gears of War 3.
The interview (which we've never published in full) is obviously rather past its sell by date, but given that Fergusson is now heading up Gears of War for Xbox One - having quit Epic prior to the announcement of People Can Fly's Gears of War: Judgment - I thought it deserved your attention. Watch out for more excerpts in a forthcoming issue of OXM, and beware of series spoilers.
1. Planned out the story better
As strange as it sounds, Epic wasn't expecting Gears of War to spawn a sequel, let alone become the Xbox 360's first killer app. Had Fergusson, fellow co-creator Cliff Bleszinski and the rest of the original team known they'd be working on a full-blown trilogy, they might have thought a little harder about the narrative. "We were so focused on Gears 1 and not knowing whether it was going to hit or not," Fergusson recalled. "We were really focussed on that version, so we really weren't thinking about it from a trilogy perspective, especially in terms of the story.
"It's just like, 'what's everything we can get into this game that's really cool?'" he went on. "And then it was like 'Wow this hit - OK, now what are we doing for Gears 2? And this might be the last one, so let's get everything we can get in here. Wow, OK let's go to Gears 3.' We should have planned more, we should have thought of it long-term, but the thing is we were afraid [that if] you think long term... 'Oh, we'll save this story piece till the third one,' but then if it never happened we'd be really disappointed, right?"
Epic did, however, always intend Sera to be the basis for more than one story, whether in the form of a game or a comic or movie. "I think the one thing we did do when we were building Gears - we weren't saying we wanted it to be a trilogy, but we did say we wanted it to be transmedia," Fergusson added. "And that we wanted whatever IP we created to be big enough to sustain action figures, comic books, novels, movies, all this stuff. So when we thought about Sera as a planet, we thought of a world where there can be lots of other stories and other places."
Each of the numbered Gears of War games is the work of a different lead writer or writers - Susan O'Connor and Eric Nylund put together the first game's yarn, Joshua Ortega the second, and Karen Traviss the third. If the resulting series arc feels complete, that's as much a testament to Epic's calculated deferring of closure (Marcus's mum, anyone?) as its skill at tying the loose ends together. "We just tried to think big, even though we were thinking about the first game," Fergusson concluded. "We gave ourselves lots of open-ended things. People joked about us being the Lost of video games, because there are so many questions asked and no answers given, and a lot of that is just keeping things open. We only answered stuff when we really had to."