Gears of War 3 – Q&A with Executive Producer Rod Fergusson

Gears of War 3 box art
This image was on a gigantic billboard at the Microsoft Games Showcase in San Francisco earlier this week. Gears of War 3 Executive Producer Rod Fergusson and I sat down right in front of it, and chatted about the upcoming beta: the new weapons, maps. mechanics and some great tactical tips straight from Rod himself. Read on and study up. Mid-April isn’t far off.

NOTE: check out my full Gears of War 3 hands-on preview for more info.

UPDATE 03/06/2011: Small fixes. “Thrashball” is the actual name of the map/sport, not Smashball/bowl. Also, it’s Tac-Com, not Sat-Com.

GF: The beta was recently announced for mid-April, and there’s a ton of new features. What areas of gameplay are you most interested in getting feedback on?

Rod Fergusson: Pretty much everything. We have new modes: Team Deathmatch, Capture the Leader, King of the Hill. We have new weapons, new maps. Also, the new matchmaking system. That’s something that we stumbled with coming out of the gate on Gears 2. I feel like we’ve totally nailed it this time–or at least we will by the time we hit September 20 and get the feedback from the players. I’m really interested to hear it all. We’ve been working for a long time on this game. Hopefully we’ll get a million players out there telling us what they think. It’s going to be really exciting.

GF: In what areas of gameplay do you guys think you’re really tweaking with the balance? For instance, in terms of power weapons.

Rod Fergusson: There are a lot of places we tried to do that. In Gears 1 our big thing was to try and balance the Hammerburst vs. the Lancer. Two equal rifles, and you decided them based on play style. One had a chainsaw, one didn’t. How do you balance that? In Gears 3, we’ve added another shotgun [the Sawed Off]. We’ve added another starting rifle [the Retro Lancer]. There’s like five starting weapons now. Rather than try to find a way to make them all equivalent, what we’ve done is say “No. Let’s give them all a purpose.” Now you have the really, really short range, highly powerful Sawed Off; the Gnasher; the Retro [Lancer]; the Hammerburst, which is this long-range assault rifle. You have a gamut of range and power.

Now it’s based on your play style, but it’s also based on the map. You go into Checkout. It’s a small map. You’re like, crap: I need my Sawed Off; I need my Retro [Lancer]. You go into Trenches, and it’s a huge map. You’re like: I need my Hammerburst; I need my Gnasher. Having that ability for people to pick different weapons based on the map. And now, you can actually change your loadouts while you play. You die, and you’re like “You know. I’m sucking with the Hammerburst on this one. I need to switch to the Retro [Lancer], or the [regular] Lancer.” You can do that while you’re playing. We’re hoping that’s going to make some of that frustration go away for players.

GF: Speaking of balance of weapons, I noticed that reticule for the Sawed Off Shotgun is gigantic.

Rod Fergusson: Oh, yeah. We talked about potentially not having [the reticule]. It’s just so wide. It’s really not about the width of the reticule; it’s about how far away you are. One big thing we’re doing in Gears 3 that we didn’t do in Gears 1 and 2 is the reticules are dynamic. The reticules will actually grow and shrink based on accuracy. It’s a communication method with the player. If you’re moving, or running, you’re kind of inaccurate right now. Before, you didn’t really have anything telling you that. You just had to know that when you move you’re less accurate, because the tracers are going all over the place. We’re trying to bring the approachability to the players, have that conversation of: “You’re moving, and you should probably stop if you want that to be accurate.”

GF: We have a big modding community on the site. Are you guys considering ramping up support for user-created modifications? Maybe with a PC version of Gears 3?

Rod Fergusson: There’s nothing on the table right now. We’re not looking at a PC version of the game. User-created content is kind of hard on the Xbox 360, in terms of the secure platform. We’re really big on it as an engine company. We have the UDK, and the ability for people to go and make their own games. We’re big on that kind of community. If you look at Gears of War 1 on PC, all the tournaments and stuff. Those were all very mod-friendly. We’ve always been a big fan of that. It just makes it hard when you’re dealing with a secure platform where you want to have that fair, guaranteed customer experience.

GF: You’ve obviously been playing Gears of War 3 for a long time. What are some things you consider to be the most fun to do?

Rod Fergusson: There’s a lot of new stuff in the game right now. I love the “Retro Charge.” The Retro Lancer is a throwback Lancer. It’s from when humans fought humans, before the Locust arrived. It’s got a blade on it instead of a chainsaw. The blade wasn’t very effective against the Locust, so they ended up switching it out with a chainsaw.

What you can do now is you can hold down the B button. Instead of a chainsaw what you’ll do is start running with the bayonet extended. If you get enough momentum going, you’ll actually run into a guy, stab him and throw him up-and-over, like a bail of hay. It’s awesome on games like King of the Hill, where you can throw down a Smoke Grenade so folks can’t see what’s going on. Then you can just run through the smoke with the bayonet extended, and they just get stabbed from behind. That’s one of my favorite things.

I’m not a very good Gnasher player, the shotgun. I’ve always struggled a little bit, going online and just getting owned with wall-bouncing, shotgunning and that kind of thing. We really created the Sawed Off Shotgun to help with that. We wanted to create a weapon that was sort of new player friendly that gave them that experience of the up-close gib-fest, but take away some of the requirements of high accuracy for moving targets. With the Sawed Off Shotgun it’s just about distance now. Like you said, the width [of the reticule] is pretty much the entire width of the screen. It’s about, “I need to get close enough to touch you to kill you.” If you can get close enough, where you’re doing the dance-around, as long as they’re on screen you’ll pretty much gib them, or down them at least. That’s something that I really tapped into. If you get the Sawed Off Shotgun on a map like Checkout that’s close-quarters combat, it’s crazy.

GF: Once I figured it out, I went on a rampage with the Retro Lancer. It’s awesome.

Rod Fergusson: We actually have two Ribbons. Ribbons are rewards you get for doing cool things in the game. We have two that specifically tied to dealing with people who are charging you with the Retro Lancer. There’s one called the “Road Block.” If someone’s charging you, and you use the Sawed Off, or the Gnasher, and you gib them while they’re running at you, that’ll get you the Roadblock Ribbon. There’s another one, where if a guy is charging at you with the Retro Lancer, and you happen to step aside and grenade tag him on the way by, we call that the “Ole.” When you look at the b-roll footage, it actually ends on an Ole on Thrashball and Trenches. There’s a guy trying to Retro Charge, and he gets tagged on the back.

GF: You touched on this earlier, about Gears 2 having a rough time with matchmaking out of the gate. What was your guys’ approach to fixing that for Gears 3?

Rod Fergusson: The big thing for us was actually fixing it in Gears 2. That’s what we did over the six title updates. Doing “global matchmaking” is really hard. In terms of not having server browsers where people can pick their own experience. Having that fair, true skill-based matchmaking is really a challenge. One of the things we learned about Gears 2, was we had one number for what was a “good match.” You pick a ping rate, and you say anything below this ping rate is a good match. It makes sense when you think U.S.-centric, but when you go international, that’s not true anymore. Every country has a different infrastructure, and a different quality of internet. You have to change, and that’s something we really learned quickly. That’s something we’re applying to Gears 3.

Also, it’s the reason we’re doing the beta. When we looked at the time extension we were like, we have to come out strong on September 20th. Some people put Gears of War 2 down when we were having our struggle, and haven’t come back even though the game is fixed. We lost those people. We have to come back really, really strong on September 20th. That’s why we’re having dedicated servers, and we’re having a global beta is to get all that feedback in now.

With Gears 2, 1.5 million players hit us on the first two days. Going from our normal testing, maybe up to one thousand, up to a million and a half is such a jump in scale. It’s hard to plan for that. This time with the beta we’ll have all that stuff taken into account.

GF: So “host advantage” is a thing of the past. But if the dedicated servers go down, it’ll switch back to the old host system. Will the player know that’s happened?

Rod Fergusson: Yeah. That’s one of the funny things. We talk about dedicated servers, and also “host migration.” People are like, I don’t get it. When you have a dedicated server, you don’t need host migration. That’s true, but if a dedicated server ever goes down, then you’ll migrate to another one. Or, if for some reason something terrible happens, we need to go down for maintenance, change some hardware or something, the game will fall back to peer-based host migration match-making system. Without dedicated servers, it’s the best matchmaking we’ve had, bar none. Even without dedicated servers. We’re really confident. We wanted to make sure if we ever had to fall back to peer-based matchmaking that we did have host migration there.

GF: Speaking of matchmaking and actually playing the game. How will the new XP system [which Fergusson reminded me actually started in Gears 2 with Title Update 3] translate into Gears 3?

Rod Fergusson: We changed it quite a bit. Title Update 3 was an experiment that showed us that it was a really valued thing, that players really wanted it. The unfortunate part is in Gears 2 it doesn’t do anything for you, other than show that you’re a bad-ass because you have a really high number. What we wanted to do was provide the leveling system and the grind, and what you’re playing for to actually contribute to the game. What we did is we separate you’re level, and the “unlocks.” We built a structure more like “challenges,” if you will that will actually earn you new things. Get a thousand kills with the Lancer will get you the “Lancer Execution.” But the fact is you’re also earning XP along the way. The thing we also learned when we did the TU3 leveling system, is it only applied to multiplayer. Horde is the most popular Gears 2 mode online. We left out a whole segment of our audience with this ability to grind levels and feel like a bad-ass. What we realized is for Gears 3 we wanted the leveling system to be for the entire game. Whether it’s playing the campaign mode in “arcade,” whether it’s playing Horde, whether it’s playing Beast, whether it’s playing multiplayer. It all feeds into your level. It becomes, what kind of Gears player you are–not what kind of multiplayer player you are.

But, there are Medals in the game you can earn by doing certain things that’ll show what kind of player you are. If you did a thousand headshots, the title says “I’m a headhunter.” So people will know you’re a bad-ass with a sniper.

GF: So you’ve got a persistence experience system that keeps going up, and then you’ve got a system of challenge [Medals and Ribbons] unlocks along the way.

Rod Fergusson: Absolutely. You can unlock character variants. You can unlock Medals and Titles. You can unlock Executions on your weapons–all kinds of rewards to keep it sticky for the hard core players.

GF: There’s a few new weapons I got to play around with. The Sawed Off Shotgun, there’s that new grenade that burrows underground [the Digger Launcher]. If you could, maybe give players a tour of what they should play with when they jump in the beta.

Rod Fergusson: Trenches is a good map–if they vote for it [on Facebook]–for some new weapons. Up high in sort of the “crow’s nest” area is the One Shot. They can try the new heavy sniper rifle. It “pink mists” anybody it hits. You can shoot through a shield with that thing. Down at the very base of that hill, that’s where you’ll find one of the Digger Launchers that you can try. Same thing for Checkout. Checkout has a Digger Launcher over by the cash registers. That’s a good place to get access to that. Overpass has one of our “multi-turrets.” Up high on the bridge there’s a turret that has four Retro Lancers all in a sort of “rack.” When you shoot it, four streaks of bullets come flying out. It’s awesome. Overpass has Mortars, and Hammer of Dawn on it.

Mercy’s got the One Shot as well up in the Crow’s Nest. It also has the Boomshot, and the Digger [Launcher], up in where we call the “Sanctuary” area of the map beside the building. There are like three places that have the Digger Launcher right now. The thing is, because it comes at you from underground, we had to really balance it so it would just destroy you every time. It’s got a really big telegraph, and it’s kind of slow moving. If you’re in a duel, looking right at someone in a high-noon showdown, and someone fires the Digger Launcher you can get out of the way. It’s the whole notion that if there’s chaos in a crowd, you can shoot that thing and it’ll go up stairs and take out like three guys at once. It’s a really cool “stealth” weapon. Or even for “fire-and-forget” situations. When the sandstorm blows in on Trenches, you just fire that thing off. You don’t need to worry about whether you can see anybody or not. It’ll blow them up if they’re there.

GF: It sounds like Horde is going to have “fundamental changes.” Are you guys talking at all about what some of those changes might be?

Rod Fergusson: No, this is really about the beta. We have a lot of time left between now and September, a lot of things to talk about. Soon, but not yet we’ll talk about that.

GF: What are the maps that people will definitely get access to in the beta?

Rod Fergusson: There’s six contenders. Two of them are for sure. One of them is Checkout, just because the dev team loves it. It’s a close-quarters map, and you get the Sawed Off Shotgun, the Retro Lancer. It’s a show-off-the-new-weapons kind of map. Thrashball is Cole’s home stadium. It’s the Hanover Cougars stadium where he used to play. Helicopters crashed into it. The Scoreboard is actually hanging by a wire, and you can shoot the wire and it’ll crash down and kill people beneath. Thrashball Cole is sort of our mascot for the beta. That’s why we have Hanover Cougars on our shirts. You should make sure you get one these if you don’t already have one [I did! We'll be giving it away through a contest on the site soon].

Then we have four other maps. Out of these four we’re going to put two more into the beta. We’ve got Overpass. Jacinto is sinking in this map. It’s really cool from a dynamic standpoint. It’ll actually sink while you’re playing. It’ll be a normal street, you’ll be fighting and then all the sudden it’ll title, start to crack, pipes will break and water will start flowing down the street. It looks really, really cool. It doesn’t really change the playing field. Everything is where it’s supposed to be from a cover perspective. A house that was at eye level when you started the match will be fifteen, twenty feet above you.

GF: I did notice more interactivity in the maps. In Trenches, for instance, when the storm blew in I was like “Whoa. I can’t see sh!$ right now.”

Rod Fergusson: That’s when you should use the “Tac-Com” feature. Push the Left Bumper [LB] and you see where your teammates are, so you can always run to them.

So, and then we the map Trenches, which is our Locust-themed map, and it has that sandstorm.

Then we have Mercy, which has some Spanish elements to it. it has more foliage, and it’s an open space. it’s a little bit like Gridlock. There’s a lot of low cover, lots of wide open space. it’s one of my favorite maps for Team Deathmatch. I can see the entire battlefield, and I know where people are running to. One of the new features that we really love: when you’re place Mercy, you can get on the Mortar up at the top of that balcony, and then your teammates can ["tag"] people for you. You’ll see this little icon over their head, so you know where to start launching Mortar shells. You can just call in air strikes essentially. Or even with the One Shot. You’ll be like “where am I going?!” A guy will spot someone for you, you’ll look, and then “mist” them. it’s awesome.

Then there’s Oldtown, which is this sort of fishing village, a coastal town. It’s got cobblestoned streets. It’s my favorite for playing King of the Hill, because it’s got lots of nooks and crannies, different alternate paths to get to certain places. You get these cool showdowns over the rings. it’s a fun map for that.

GF: With all these changes and little tweaks, what would you describe as that core Gears gameplay that you know isn’t broken and you don’t want to fix?

Rod Fergusson: That it’s a cover-based shooter. When Gears 1 came out, everyone was talking about the run-and-gun, strafing and dodging bullets. For Gears, it was always the stop-and-pop. You go into cover, pop out of cover and shoot somebody. It’s all about stop-and-pop gameplay. At its core, that’s what we really wanted to have. When you talk to Cliff {Blezinski], he’ll say things like “horizontal platformer.” We use cover as way to increase speed and mobility. We don’t want cover to be something that’s passive or slow. You can actually cover, slip off or swat-turn around. You can actually move faster through the world from cover to cover than you can just trying to run through the world. It’s that core, visceral in tight gameplay.

Like, the first time you played Gridlock in Gears 1 and you ran and slammed against the car, and the camera got tight. You didn’t know if they were going to come in behind you, or from somewhere else. It felt like that rock fight in the woods you had as a kid. That’s Gears gameplay.

GF: What I love about Gears, and what always feels different about it, is the pace. The pace of it is so different from other shooters. You don’t necessarily have the mobility to run circles around people.

Rod Fergusson: One of the things we’ve really worked hard to achieve is the idea of a “front.” What we don’t like is a “swarm”–you never know where your teammates are, where the enemy is; it’s just craziness. What we like is this idea of: they’re starting here, we’re starting here; we’re going to meet somewhere in the middle and have an awesome gun battle. That’s one of the reasons our Team Deathmatch is round-based. We love the come-from-behind win. We don’t like when you just play to 50, then the buzzer goes off and you’re done. We want to have it where you eliminate the team, you have those 15 respawns that you work your way through, and those last five lives are your last lives. You can have that one-against-three clutch win. You’re cheering them on. When we do review events and have people play multiplayer, people get up out of their chairs. You can have those moments. There’s that, but also when you have a round, you start again. Everyone back to their corners. Let’s establish that front again, and let’s begin that gun battle. That’s really what I like about Gears, is I know I’m heading that way and they’re going to be there waiting for me.

GF: You talked a little about Team Deathmatch, what about the other two modes? What should people know about those modes going into the beta?

Rod Fergusson: With King of the Hill we took Annex and [the old] King of the Hill and merged them together. We optimized the rules. Once you capture the ring you don’t have to stay in it. We got rid of the execution rules. That’s one of the big things that people haven’t actually caught on to. We found that why people liked execution rules was people could self-revive. What they didn’t like about execution rules was that you had to actually go and execute them so them were invulnerable to being Shot. So basically, every mode now–except for the older modes like Warzone–has the ability to self-revive. If you go down, you just pound on the “A” button and you’ll get back up in any of the modes.

GF: I saw someone doing that! I thought it was either a glitch, or some powerup I didn’t know about.

Rod Fergusson: Yeah. But it’s a tradeoff. You can choose to move. You can crawl, and you’ll still get up. There’s a period of time where even crawling you’ll still get up on you own. But there’s a tradeoff: I can either choose to crawl, or I can just stand still and pound on the “A” button. If you don’t move, you’ll get up faster. If you move around, you’ll get up but you’re still vulnerable to people coming to get you.

GF: How does this affect execution gameplay?

Rod Fergusson: We still have our finishing moves, and now every weapon has its own finishing move, which you have to unlock as you’re playing. One of the cool things we did, is [execution moves] are actually worth something now. Every time you do an execution, you’ll actually earn bonus XP. It’ll help towards your level. We know that it’s party “I want to show off. I want to humiliate you.” But you’re also making yourself vulnerable when you start a long execution. A lot of times people will walk up beside you and blow you away while you’re doing it.

GF: It’s sort of worth it sometimes.

Rod Fergusson: Yeah, exactly. We really want to make that risk/reward. We want to give people bonus experience for playing like a bad-ass. In fact, we even give you a Ribbon if you execute the last person in a match. We call it the coup-de-gras Ribbon. Everyone in the match is watching at that point, so you’re like “I’m going to show off now.”

GF: When people get into the beta, they’ll be earning all these Ribbons, Medals and so on. Will these awards translate over to their full retail account profiles on September 20?

Rod Fergusson: It’ll reset. We want to understand what the curve is like. Is it too fast, too slow. We’re going to be changing it potentially daily. How much experience you get for a certain score may change. We don’t want people to race to something super high because we hadn’t figured out our algorithm yet. We have a good feeling about what we’re achieving in terms of a good match score, but we want to see what the actual public does. But with Thrashball Cole unlocked, the Gold Retro Lancer and the little “beta tester” title they get to carry around, they’re going to have three really substantial things waiting for them in Gears 3 when they get the game.

GF: So people can buy Bulletstorm to get in the beta. How else can they get in?

Rod Fergusson: We haven’t announced that yet. The Bulletstorm “Epic Edition” is the best way to get in, because you’re actually going to get a head start on everybody else. You’ll have that quality time with the weapons and maps before all those other Gears players come in. We feel it’s the best way to get in right now. There will be other ways, we just haven’t announced it yet.

GF: Do you know how long the beta will run for yet?

Rod Fergusson: We have a general idea. We have to play it a little bit by ear in terms of getting the feedback. We don’t want to drag it out where people start to feel like they’re tired of the maps. There’s a balance there. It’s going to be a substantial amount of time.

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6 Comments on Gears of War 3 – Q&A with Executive Producer Rod Fergusson


On February 28, 2011 at 5:09 am

Cool article! I have a question though. I’ve seen mention of 6 maps: Checkout, Mercy, Old Town, Trenches, Trashball and Overpass. Is “Sandstorm” different from these?

FYI, when he said “jib” it’s actually spelled “gib” :)

Mark Burnham

On February 28, 2011 at 10:28 am

@beckerist thanks, typos fixed.

When I said “Sandstorm” I actually meant Trenches, a map that has a big sandstorm in it. Oops, fixed.

Thanks for reading!


On March 1, 2011 at 7:13 pm

It’s actually “Tac Com” (Tactical Communication), not “SatCom.”

Great interview, though! You really got Rod to elaborate & expand on some of the stuff he’s only hinted at thus far.


On March 6, 2011 at 8:55 am

@VyperJMc I noticed thst too, but I thought since its a lot different in Gears 3, maybe they changed the name.

Mark Burnham

On March 6, 2011 at 1:34 pm

It looks like it is most likely still Tac-Com, not Sat-Com. Fixed, thanks.


On September 22, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Hi, I was just wondering if there was a way to get my level back cause i got reset after playing split-screen with my friend.

P.S. lovin the game its awesome!