Gearheads Interviews Infinity Ward About COD4

In November of 2007, many of us “Went Deep and Went Hard”. To this day, so many of us haven’t stopped playing Call of Duty 4, which resoundingly and somewhat easily won Game of the Year from the Gearheads of War vote.

It’s really the first game that has regularly torn us away from the Gears of War gameplay that brought us all to this site. We’re playing it regularly every Friday night for our weekly Friday Night FragFest and despite the fact that I’m not terribly good at COD4, it was my favorite game of 2007 and will be my most played game…probably right up until I finally get my hands on Gears of War 2. I really don’t see any multiplayer game replacing it any time in the near future.

All that being said, it was my great honor to have a chance to interview Robert Bowling, the Community Manager at Infinity Ward. Below is the exclusive Gearheads interview with Bowling. Enjoy!

Gearheads of War: First of all, congrats on the success of Call of Duty 4. We’re all addicted to it over at Gearheads of War. It’s the
one game that finally tore us away from playing Gears every week. Did you ever imagine that it would be neck and neck with a juggernaut like Halo 3 for people’s precious MP time on XBL as well as sales wise?

Robert Bowling / Infinity Ward: From day one we set our goal on making the best multiplayer game for Xbox Live (and any other platform we were releasing on). So we had our sights on that #1 spot on XBL, PSN, and on PC from the beginning for our multiplayer. On Xbox Live if that meant going head to head with Halo 3 then that was something we were prepared to do. The ambitious plans we had for Multiplayer and the loyal community we had established, we were confident that we’d be presenting a challenge for some of the current Xbox Live heavy weights. However, while I hope that’s what all developers shoot and hope for, the overwhelming popularity and success sales wise of the game has really been humbling and overwhelming to say the least. It helped to have a fantastic community standing behind the game early on, with the 600,000+ beta testers that helped us fine tune the game pre-launch to the millions of dedicated Call of Duty players that came after, we’re very fortunate to have such a hardcore and dedicated community to go along with game.

Gearheads: When developing the perk system for MP and leveling your character up, how hard was it to balance the game so that newcomers weren’t immediately turned off?

Robert Bowling / Infinity Ward: That was a big concern for the designers here at Infinity Ward, how to quickly introduce new and old players to the in-depth new leveling and unlockable system introduced to the franchise in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. With perks, weapon attachments, and custom classes, we were hitting players with a lot. To help balance and reduce confusion or overwhelming the players we decided to space out how the unlockables in the way that New Users start out with just the five pre-set basic classes which have pre-defined perks as well. This allowed them to play around with a few different weapon classes and perk sets to get use to the concept, while also limiting the new players to Team Death match and Free for All Playlists. A few games in, we unlock Create a Class for them and a few more perks to let them start playing around with customizing. With this method, I think we were really able to make it not so overwhelming for new players and veteran Call of Duty players a like who aren’t use to the massive amount of new weapons, attachments, and of course perks we’ve added to the game.

Gearheads: Does the game take skill into account in the matchmaking because I’ve often seen someone at Level 13 going against someone who is a Level 55 prestige three times over?

Robert Bowling / Infinity Ward: The Matchmaking system on Xbox Live is based on top of Microsoft’s TrueSkill ranking, not your in-game Rank. So if you’re a high-ranked shitty player, you’re going to be placed with other winning-handicapped players. So skill is the #1 matchmaking factor above all else. Rank is a good way to hopefully gauge a player’s dedication, but not always their skill as an individual player.

Gearheads: It seems to me like it was a smart decision to keep the achievements focused on the campaign to keep the annoying achievement whoring out of the MP experience. But a lot of people have complained about no achievements for MP. Do you have any regrets about that decision?

Robert Bowling / Infinity Ward: No regrets. Whatsoever. We’re big fans of keeping the Multiplayer about the multiplayer experience. You play to have fun, you play to win, you play to better the team. Sometimes multiplayer achievements take away from that because they’re more focused on unlocking an achievement rather than winning the match. I think achievements are fantastic for Single Player, and some games they really work in Multiplayer, but some they don’t and I feel Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is one of those where they’re best in SP.

Gearheads: Was there ever any consideration given to also adding the ability to customize your character to further enhance the RPG elements of the MP game? It would be fun to be able to design your own character.

Robert Bowling / Infinity Ward: There has been a lot of consideration put into further character customizations, and still something we talk about a lot for future releases. It’s something we’d like to see taken even further but you have give and take in development, and that was something that was given up so we could put more focus on another feature before launch.

Gearheads: Lots of people have complained that the M-16 is overpowered. Do you guys have a counter that will beat the M-16 most of the time?

Robert Bowling / Infinity Ward: The M16 is a popular weapon online, but I think there’s lots of counter weapon load outs that can easily compete with it. I personally use a G36c w/ Suppressor in Hardcore modes, or w/ Red Dot in non-hardcore and I can go head to head with any M16 clad player. So, I don’t feel it’s some kind of uber-weapon. In the end it comes down to speed and skill to determine who will come out on top.

Gearheads: My biggest problem with the game is that I thought that either the three nade perk should have been given much earlier or that it shouldn’t be in the game at all because I’ve been in games where people on the other team all have three nade perks and they just litter entire areas with them. It’s not much fun. Have you found that to be a problem?

Robert Bowling / Infinity Ward: We’ve received a lot of community feedback on this, particularly concerning Search and Destroy games. All in all though, frag grenades are something gamers in general tend to hate on. To me, it’s part of any shooter game. Soldiers have grenades; they typically carry more than 1 (around 2 / 3). If you’re in an area open for fragging, it’s a risk you have to take into the assessment. I think it’s noticed a lot more in S&D because players typically take the same route to a target, and the enemy knows they’re going to be on the target at some point so it seems a bit overwhelming. A good tactic I’d suggest to players is to stay aware, listen for grenade pings (bouncing off walls) for an extra warning before the grenade indicator (or in hardcore) and be prepared to “fake plant” the bomb, then run away to attract the spam-naders before actually planting the bomb. Also, try to stay about 10 meters apart when running a group and mix up your approach route to the target. Regardless, we take community feedback really serious and I won’t lie that this has sparked a lot of debate among the development team as to if and how we can maybe balance out nades if need be.

Gearheads: A lot of gamers are also having issues keeping their friends as they go into a game online. They’ll be in the lobby with you, but when it’s setting up the game, the player is gone. It’s one of the only negatives of an otherwise stellar experience. Is there a reason that is happening to some players more than others and is there a downloadable fix coming for that?

Robert Bowling / Infinity Ward: We’ve done a lot of investigation into this issue and have been talking with Microsoft about it quite a bit. In the end the biggest factor in the parties staying together and joining properly to games is corresponding NAT settings. If there are conflicting NAT settings (i.e. OPEN nats joining up with STRICT NAT hosts) then players with strict nats are going to drop out, or be left behind from the rest of the party. Just because you’re NAT is open, doesn’t mean you’re 100% good to go, if the host your attempting to connect to has a STRICT NAT then you may be dropped or not connect. The best thing all players can do is ensure they have an OPEN NAT, the more open NAT settings the smoother it will go.

Gearheads: What is IW’s favorite (or most played) map? What is IW least favorite map? What is your favorite gametype?

Robert Bowling / Infinity Ward: I think everyone has their personal favorites, so it’s hard to speak for the entire team as to what maps our collective favorite. My personal favorite is probably Crash or Overgrown depending on the game type. By far my favorite game type is Hardcore Search and Destroy or Search and Destroy in general.

Gearheads: Care to comment on when we might be seeing some downloadable content like new maps?

Robert Bowling / Infinity Ward: I’m excited to say that we’re working on some really cool downloadable content right now for Xbox 360 and PS3. We’re working on some new maps which will bring a lot of variety to the existing maps and have been listening to a lot of community feedback online, in the forums, and via the blog over at www.fourzerotwo.com. We’ll be talking about the maps quite a bit as we progress and letting out some sneak peek details here and there as they develop. That’s about all I can say for now though.

Gearheads: Let’s shift gears to the campaign now. The campaign has some shocking moments in it. The first-person view of the president getting shot. The crawling out of the crashed helicopter to an unceremonious ending. These are things that I haven’t really seen in a first person game before. How did you come to the conclusion that COD4 would be one of the first games where you’d experience dying (and no respawning for those characters) from the first person perspective?

Robert Bowling / Infinity Ward: It wasn’t so much a decision that we wanted to kill off the characters, but that we wanted to fully immerse the player in the experience, the emotion, and the intensity of every situation. Once you’re in Call of Duty 4, we never wanted to take you out of that. So we never wanted to take control away from the player and force them to passively watch a cut scene, they should be actively involved in the entire plot and story. If that means experiencing your own demise, then that’s a powerful emotion that we didn’t want to take away from the player and wanted to put you right there.

Gearheads: How did you guys come up with the idea of the pilot talking in a monotone and detached voice while you blow up your enemies on the ground because it was pretty funny and disturbing all at once?

Robert Bowling / Infinity Ward: We did a lot of research and reference for the game throughout development, which included lots of videos, photos, and speaking with soldiers directly and meeting with them, going to their bases, etc. For AC-130 we watched a lot of actual AC-130 footage. So all of that is taken straight from real-life scenarios and inspiration, they’re calm, collected, and precise. We really tried to capture that emotion and mentality when designed the AC-130 level.

Gearheads: The game is a fictionalized experience based on hypothetical situations but it didn’t include a real country from the middle east. Why not and do you think that a game will tackle a topic like that or do games have to avoid it because it would be too close to reality?

Robert Bowling / Infinity Ward: We didn’t want to take away from what Call of Duty has always been about, soldiers answering the call for action against an undeniable evil despite overwhelming odds, and putting the player in that role of a grunt soldier doing what has to be done. So we made it clear; here are some bad dudes, they’re doing some bad things (like shooting you in the face). It’s not about what you may or may not think about any particular conflict, or political stance, or enemy. It’s good vs. evil, and you’re good. Go you.

Gearheads: How did you get the running animation so perfected? I honestly think it’s better than any game I’ve ever seen.

Robert Bowling / Infinity Ward: We have the absolutely best character animators in the industry here at Infinity Ward. It’s that simple. We also have a great new feature in our CoD4Engine (CODE) which allows for seamless transitions between mo-cap animations and standard animations, allowing for the smoothest and natural movements in games.

Gearheads: Two more quick questions. First of all, do you think Call of Duty 4 deserves the Game of the Year for 2007? And second, is the franchise (at least the IW-produced games) now permanently entrenched in modern times?

Robert Bowling / Infinity Ward: I feel we’ve delivered what we set out to do and that was to make the best game of the year. So, Yes, to me Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is the 2007 Game of The Year. As for where Infinity Ward’s versions of Call of Duty titles go from here, I never presume to know what will be happening tomorrow, let alone an entire development cycle from now. So I honestly can’t say where we’ll be next game, we’re going to set our sights on setting the bar even higher next game so whatever that means in terms of what the game will be, is anyone’s guess. No reason to limit our selves to a deadest option. Anything’s possible.

Gearheads: Thank you so very much for your time. Perhaps some Friday Night FragFest, we can get the IW guys to face off against the Gearheads. Oh and the Go Deep and Go Hard song at the end is brilliant. Please release it on iTunes.

Robert Bowling / Infinity Ward: We are always down for a challenge so bring on the Friday Fragfest.

Gearheads Interview: Cliff Bleszinski Post Gears Release

Recently, my brother Cliff made an appearance on the Gearheads Friday Night FragFest. As a follow-up to that, he decided to check in here for an exclusive interview. This is the second time Cliff has stopped by Gearheads, but it’s the first time since the game was actually released.

Without further ado, here is the Gearheads interview with Gears of War lead designer Cliff Bleszinski:

Gearheads of War: First of all, I want to congratulate you on an incredible experience that has your older brother completely and totally addicted. If you wind up making my wife leave me because of my addiction to chainsawing friends online, you can forget my thoughtful Christmas gifts from here on out.

Cliff Bleszinski: That’s fine, I’ll just make sure I take you to some clubs to find you a new wife.

Gearheads: Very funny. Were you surprised at how well it’s been received, both critically and commercially? I’m sure you probably know it’s the fastest-selling new IP in gaming ever.

Cliff: The initial splash of sales is merely a testament to how we were able to stoke the coals of the hype machine by selectively showing cool sequences from the game, releasing the right footage, and not drowning the internet in screenshots. We carefully selected what we let everyone see as we did not want to spoil the entire experience. The fact that the game has continued to sell well is the biggest surprise for me. It means that people love the game and the universe and are playing it a ton on Live.

Gearheads: There have been several stories online claiming that while Gears is a great game, it hasn’t really been a “system seller”, instead just selling to the existing install base. Do you think that it’s been a system seller?

Cliff: One title does not a console war win. Sony’s Playstation2 won the last round by having GTAIII, Twisted Metal Black, Final Fantasy, and Metal Gear Solid 2 all hitting to make the console a no brainer. Gears is the start of that push for the 360 which is continuing with titles like Crackdown, Mass Effect, Forza2 and, of course, Halo 3. A console manufacturer needs to break down a consumer with not only features but with exclusivity so that the consumer finally says “Damn it, now I have to buy a (whatever.)”

Gearheads: As we all know, not everything is perfect, not even Bleszinskis. Are there elements of Gears that you look back at now and wish that you could’ve changed or been improved?

Cliff: I would have loved for more screen time for Anya and Jack. Both characters are near and dear to my heart. In a world that’s filled with heinous creatures, imposing architecture and super buff and badass soldiers it’s important to have room for something that’s pretty and something that’s cutesy. Otherwise we wind up bathed in a sea of manliness. As badass as “The 300” was we still had the exotic, artsy shots of the Oracle and beautiful naked women to balance out the ripped warriors yelling and cutting each other’s heads off.

Gearheads: Do you ever wonder what you could’ve done with the game if you’d had six more months?

Cliff: Reduced the distance on grenade tagging upon shipping, perhaps?

Gearheads: You guys talked a lot about how even though you were known for multiplayer games because of the UT franchise that you were really going to focus on the campaign aspect of this game, but it appears like the legs that Gears of War has is in multiplayer. People are still gathering to frag each other five months later. Are you surprised at how the multiplayer is sustaining Gears despite the fact that you guys said that the most attention would be paid to the single player and co-op campaign?

Cliff: People hear about a game through hype and marketing. Then they come for the single player and the graphics and ultimately they stick around for the gameplay and multiplayer. This experience is closest to a Friday night where a group of friends to go see a film that opens up and then go to discuss what they just saw at the bar or coffee shop afterwards. The viewing is like the single player campaign, the banter after is shared social experience – the multiplayer. For the genre in which we operate I believe you need the triple threat of great single player, co-op, and versus in order to have the initial sales numbers followed through with excellent longer term sell through.

Gearheads: The co-op campaign is truly drop in and drop out and works very seamlessly. A lot of people I’ve talked to seemed to enjoy playing the campaign more co-op than anything. Did you believe that was going to be a result from including such an immersive co-op element?

Cliff: We always knew that buddying up with a friend to tear through a cinematic campaign was going to be immensely satisfying. Make a fun, compelling roller coaster ride and naturally people are going to want to share that ride with a friend! There’s a huge delta right now between a hardcore and a casual gamer and co-op is the best way to bridge that gap.

Gearheads: Is the aim when creating a game and a universe like this to only give a tiny little portion of time in the overall storyline and allowing people to imagine how both the history and the future play out? In other words, it’s probably not realistic to expect to get much more than a sliver of Marcus Fenix’s story even if you were to add 10-15 more cut scenes.

Cliff: We simply didn’t want to start with the space shot of Sera while giving 10 minutes of history on the planet and Marcus’ background. Those users that want that information will ultimately seek it in the ancillary materials; in the art books, in the online marketing campaigns, etc… When I buy a videogame I want to cut right to the chase and start playing. Fill in the details later. Don’t force your exposition on me, let me build my own interest and ultimately seek out more data on the world.

Gearheads: Do you guys think you did an adequate job of getting the player emotionally invested in the story?

Cliff: Players jumped when Wretches lept at them, cringed when shot at, and laughed at squadmate banter. They beat the game, felt pleasantly exhausted, and then proceeded to team up to play co-op or battle it out in versus. Therefore, we got the players emotionally invested in the universe and the experience. Players want to know more about these guys and their backgrounds. That’s what I call a good problem to have! Sure, we can always do better in the future, but I think we did a pretty good job.

Gearheads: Are you guys working on getting some of the glitches in the game fixed with the next update? Things like the roadie run exploding chainsaw and some of the ways guys are getting out of MP maps.

Cliff: We’re continuing to enhance the online Gears experience not only with fixes but also with future downloadable content.

Gearheads: Any chance you can give the Gearheads any estimation on when we might see some more new content and/or hints on what that new content might contain?

Cliff: Cool Stuff Soon.

Gearheads: What’s your favorite moment in the campaign of the game and why?

Cliff: I love the ending sequence on the train when the music begins to build into a full crescendo as Reavers are circling around me, the train flies into the tunnel, and I’m able to eventually wield a chaingun against my foes. In many ways the game is the excited pitch of an ADD affected man child and this moment is one of those in which that vision culminates.

Gearheads: How about your favorite act of the campaign and why?

Cliff: Act one is still my favorite because of the cover gameplay. It’s packed with great moments and lots of solid shooting action.

Gearheads: What’s your feeling on weapon balance in the multiplayer of Gears? I, for one, think the shotty is overpowered, but then again I’m a huge Lancer/chainsaw fan. I’ve heard everything from the chainsaw is too inconsistent to grenade tagging is for noobs.

Cliff: There’s nothing wrong with some moves in a game being for “noobs.” It’s like having superweapons in an Unreal Tournament style of game; they allow even the simplest players to occasionally get a kill. Players quickly forget that, at any given point in their gaming career they were noobs. When I go on the forums and read up the consensus is that the Sniper Rifle is too strong… or that Pistol Melee is… or that the chainsaw is “cheap.” Generally speaking the more distributed complaints there are about weapon strengths the more balanced a game ultimately is. Players are going to complain because, hey, dying sucks. If they all complain about different weapons killing them then you might have a good balance in your game.

Gearheads: How quickly do you think other games will actually catch up to the visual masterpiece that Gears represents? I mean this is the first game where people were almost universally saying it’s the best looking game they’ve ever seen.

Cliff: Other studios are more than welcome to license our technology which enabled us to help rapidly prototype and create such great visuals.

Gearheads: I know you guys haven’t said anything about whether or not there will be a sequel, but do you think you can push the 360 so you can get even more detail and beauty out of it for whatever projects you happen to work on down the road?

Cliff: Yes we can.

Gearheads: Does it make you laugh that so many news organizations want to “break” the story that a sequel is coming out so badly that they’ll even go to extremes of basically misquoting you to try and be the first to have that story?

Cliff: I don’t find it funny at all. It causes me considerable grief actually. “News organizations” should stick to reporting the news, not making it up.

Gearheads: What is your favorite multiplayer map and why?

Cliff: I love (Fuel) Depot. There’s a front but that front can flanked and broken with a little bit of extra work.

Gearheads: Do you have a least favorite map and if so, why?

Cliff: I’m not a big fan of Ravendown because of its size. Still, having a map that is all out action and cuts right to the chase makes some users happy.

Gearheads: What is your weapon of choice in multiplayer if you can hand pick it at the beginning of the match?

Cliff: I’ll always have a soft spot for the Torquebow. It’s my love of Rambo 3 that drives this.

Gearheads: Is Gears the game you’ve always wanted to make or is there some pie-in-the-sky project you’ve always wanted to do?

Cliff: Gears is the game that I ultimately wanted to build.

Gearheads: Has Gears given you a sense of satisfaction or is it driving you to make you next game that much better?

Cliff: As a creative I’m never happy. If I find myself happy then it’s time to retire.

Gearheads: Finally, I just wanted to thank you on behalf of all of the Gearheads for making a game that’s allowed us to form a lot of new friendships and develop a great community of intelligent gamers. We’ll love to have you visit us during Friday Night FragFest again sometime soon. And maybe your brother can finally play with and against you.

Cliff: Yeah but he’ll have to practice. He doesn’t seem to take cover that often.

Gearheads: I don’t think the hundreds of chainsaw kills “he” has gotten during FFF would agree with you. Thanks so much for your time.

Gearheads Interviews Eric Nylund

So many people want to pigeonhole Gears of War as the next Halo, making the comparisons on a daily basis. But the truth is that the two games will likely have little in common outside of the fact that they could both be classified as shooters in a sci-fi universe.

One place where the Gears universe actually intersects directly with the Halo universe is in the home of Eric Nylund. Nylund is best known for writing two of the Halo novels, including The Fall of Reach and First Strike. He has penned a third unreleased book about the continuing Halo saga called Ghosts of Coral.

Apparently, Nylund has become the go-to guy at Microsoft for their really valuable IPs as he was brought in to help with Gears of War’s story. Nylund’s mind is the one place where the Locust and Covenant duke it out for evil, bent-on-destruction supremacy and where Master Chief and Marcus Fenix can kick back, have a brew and brag about all the ass they’ve kicked.

Nylund recently agreed to talk about Gears of War and his role in developing the all-important storyline that can either help carry a game or leave it as limp as Bob Dole without the little blue pill.

Without further ado, here is my interview with the prolific Eric Nylund:

Gearheads of War: First of all, how did you get involved in the Gears of War project?

Nylund: I work as a writer at Microsoft Game Studios. About two years ago, I started helping Epic’s lead designer, Cliff Bleszinski, shaping his ideas into a compelling game narrative.

Gearheads: What was appealing to you about the project?

Nylund: EPIC takes their story seriously. They have a rich story arc, deep backstory, and they’ve spent a lot of energy planning how best to present the story in the context of a video game.

Gearheads: Is this the first in-game story that you’ve written? I know you wrote the Halo books, but was this the first time you will be seeing your story in a game format?

Nylund: I’ve worked in the video game industry for seven years. GEARS is not the first story I’ve helped out with…but it will be one of the most interesting.

And to be perfectly honest, it’s not my story. The story is first and foremost, Cliff’s, and many other very talented and creative people on the EPIC team have contributed–most notably Rod Ferguson, Jerry O’Flaherty, Lee Perry, and Susan O’Conner.

Gearheads: When you first came on board, what kind of story outline was already there and how much detail was needed?

Nylund: There was plenty of detail, but it wasn’t crafted in a very game friendly way. A lot of the early work with Cliff was taking his ideas and the vast backstory and streamlining it to pick out what would eventually be shown in the game. We wanted maximum drama without slowing any of the action!

Gearheads: Was Sera already a concept in place or was that a concept that evolved when you came on board?

Nylund: Sera was there before I came along.

Gearheads: Why do you think that a fictional Sera was chosen when it could’ve clearly been placed on Earth given the similarities we’ve glimpsed of the two planets?

Nylund: Sorry – can’t answer this one. Label it TOP SECRET and move on…nothing to see here.

Gearheads: I recently interviewed Cliff Bleszinski and he said that Susan O’Conner helped in the development of the story. Was it difficult to collaborate with another writer?

Nylund: Nope. Susan is great. Epic needed a writer on site for large periods of time when the levels were being finalized, so Susan was brought onto the team. She jumped in feet first and soaked up two years worth of development in a few weeks. She brought a fresh pair of eyes to the project, and most of the in-game lines are hers. Everyone should check out her website at: http://www.storiesforgames.com/

Gearheads: What has it been like working with the Gears of War/Epic team?

Nylund: Great. They’re very committed to GEARS. For a bunch of non-writers they’ve come up with some great story ideas! There’s not a lot of ego on this team, either. They just want GEARS to the best game possible.

Gearheads: Did you have to collaborate a lot for the Halo books with Bungie and was there a big difference in how you worked with both teams on their intellectual properties?

Nylund: Yes, there’s a great deal of collaboration with Bungie especially for the latest book. We’re trying to dovetail events in three games and novels and make it work.

But writing for a video game is much different than writing for a book. There are similar elements: in both you’re trying to tell a compelling story. But in a game it’s more of a team effort. You’re not free to just writing anything. It’s got to mesh with level design, gameplay, and art. Words you put down on paper can impact 60 other guys on the team. You have to be flexible.

Gearheads: Are there any plans for Gears of War novels to accompany the game?

That’s up to EPIC. You never know…

Gearheads: Where did you get some of your inspiration for the storyline?

Nylund: Mostly Band of Brothers. A dash of the Resident Evil series.

Gearheads: Did you find any inspiration in recent events in the world…wars, politics, etc.?

Nylund: I’d say a good deal of the backstory could be taken right out of today’s headlines, a few names altered, a science fiction twist…and viola.

Gearheads: Is there anything about the limitations of the characters being in a video game that hinders your work and conversely is there anything that makes it easier to write the story?

Nylund: It’s easy to write huge galaxy-spanning scenes in a novel, change location on the next page, and populate them with millions of exotic characters. That’s harder to do in a game. Every new scene and character is a new art asset to be generated and fit into a level. You’re plying with a much more limited tool set in game writing.

On the other hand, it’s easier because you actually get to see the people, places, and things in the world, and can influence the in-game events. It’s a more vibrant palette to paint from.

Gearheads: Do you think that the story part of games is becoming radically more important with the advent of this next generation of
consoles?

Nylund: I think story has always been important in games, it’s just rarely been done well. To a small extent it’s been limited by technology, but to a much greater extent it just hasn’t been thought about with the creative energy that has been poured into gameplay and art creation. THAT is changing.

Gearheads: Is it tough to alternate between the Halo universe and the war on Sera with the Locust?

Nylund: No. I’m only happy when I get to work on three things at once. It keeps it all fresh.

Gearheads: Without giving anything away, what percentage of the story has changed from what you originally penned at the beginning?

Nylund: I wouldn’t use the world “changed” more like “evolved” which is typical of the game development process. Levels change or get cut, things are reordered, some art assets never materialize. I’d say the GEARS story has
“changed” by about a third.

Gearheads: How developed was the character of Marcus Fenix…and by that I mean, one of the biggest criticisms of Halo is that Master Chief is kind of soulless character who hasn’t really been developed (in the game, not in the novels)…will there be more to Marcus?

Nylund: Yes. Right from the start, we find Marcus in an interesting situation. How did he get there? How’s he going to get out of this jam? There are clues and little bits of story inserted throughout the game that fill in his past…but not everything. I think it’s smart to keep some things a mystery, to tell later….

Gearheads: Would you say your involvement with the Gears’ story is pretty much over at this point?

Nylund: Alas, yes…for GEARS OF WAR. All the audio lines have been recorded.

Gearheads: Were you a video game fan before you got involved in all of this? And if so, what are your favorite games and do they help with inspiration at all?

Nylund: Sure. I’ve played video games since I had a TRS-80, although the one game that got me hooked was The Ancient Art of War on my 128K Fat MAC.

Gearheads: I have to ask because I’m a big Halo fan in addition to Gears, but are you involved in the storyline for Halo 3 at all? And does the next Halo novel that will be published in October relate to the game?

Nylund: Sorry I can’t answer anything related to HALO 3. Bungie ninjas will find me…. And same goes for the new novel. Bungie controls the release of all the information related to the next novel–but soon, there will be some new information!

Gearheads: Thank you so much for taking out time from all of the writing to talk to the diehard Gears of War fan community.

Nylund: It was my pleasure!

Gearheads Interviews GoW Writer Susan O’Connor

Susan O’Connor was part of the three-headed creature that created the storyline for Gears of War, between Cliff Bleszinski, Eric Nylund and Susan.

So I figured the Gearheads would want to hear from the final part of that Holy Trinity about her perspective when it comes to the Gears storyline.

Thank God I did, because Susan gives great interview. Just fantastic. I hope you enjoy this as much as I enjoyed doing it.

Gearheads of War: Give us a little bit of your background and how you came to be involved in the Gears of War project.

I’ve been writing for games since 1998. I’ve worked on about a dozen titles. A couple of years ago, I was at Microsoft, visiting a friend, and I met the writing staff. I spent about ten minutes with this guy, Eric Nylund. Two years later he sent me this one-line email: “Hey, want to write the script for Gears of War?” I should print out that email and hang it on the wall. It was that short, I swear to God. I thought it was a joke.

Gearheads: Tell us what your role has been on the Gears of War project.

Epic had collaborated with Eric to develop the storyline for Gears, and by all accounts the process was an excellent one. When it came time to write the script, though, they needed a writer who could be onsite for long periods of time. Eric had his hands full at Microsoft. I can see the logic. The writer has to understand the game design, the level design, the animation, the music, the AI behavior, all that biznay. How do you explain all that in an email to an offsite contractor? Forget it. The writer needs to be there.

Gearheads: How do you feel about the way Gears of War’s story has evolved?

Solid. Remember, I wasn’t there for the first couple of years! The team probably saw the story go to hell and back a couple of times. By the time I showed up, the story was in place, and we didn’t deviate much. We didn’t need to. The story worked. Eric’s a great writer, and the guys at Epic understand plot & character. That’s pretty unusual in this industry.

Gearheads: How did you get inspired when you were going to sit down and work on key elements of the story?

I spend a lot of time on research. Probably too much time. What can I say, it’s a great way to procrastinate and feel good about it. The short answer is: I played games, read books, watched movies, and talked trash. The long answer is in my Netflix and Gamefly queues. When I was ramping up for the project, I played a lot of Resident Evil 4, Half Life 2, Unreal, and, um, Halo. 😉 And I should point out that I DIDN’T play in front of the team. Ever. I suck compared to them. EVERYBODY sucks compared to them. Anyway.

I play games to get that visceral feeling, but I look at movies and books for story/character inspiration. Movies: off the top of my head, I remember watching Black Hawk Down, Full Metal Jacket, Patton, Platoon, Training Day, Das Boot, Saving Private Ryan, even The Thing and The Warriors (out of left field, ya, but they were surprisingly relevant).

I was looking for movies that pulled you in and made you feel like opening a can of whoopass. And I was looking for ensemble pieces, where you have a bunch of guys working together. There’s always this built-in tension between guys – they’re working together, but they’re also testing each other, seeing who’s the better man. That was important for me as a writer. I wanted to bring multiple levels of conflict to the Gears story, so that the player feels like he has to bring it, every step of the way.

OH and of course The Sopranos. Damn, that show! Their structure is fantastic. They keep feeding you material on so many levels. Cliff and I would talk on the phone after every episode, dissecting every second of the show. I remember one night calling him at 10:01 pm or whenever the show ended. He answered the phone, and before I could speak, he said “DON’T SAY ANYTHING! I’m on Tivo! I’ll call you in thirty minutes!” It was hilarious.

And I also watched every episode of Rescue Me. Jerry O’Flaherty, Epic’s art director, told me about it. That show is so good it’s obscene. If any of the show’s writers are reading this, EMAIL ME.

I also read a lot of books – mostly nonfiction, like Generation Kill, military-theory books, and anything by Mark Bowden (I can’t recommend him enough, he’s a brilliant writer). One of my favorites has to be a book I borrowed from Lee Perry, the lead level designer. It was called “You Are Going To Jail” and that’s exactly what it was about. It was one scary book. I’m laughing now just thinking about it.

Gearheads: Any insight as to why Sera was created as an alternate universe whereas it could’ve simply been set on Earth?

Well, since I didn’t write the story, I don’t know for sure, but I can speculate just like any other fan. 🙂 The team has more creative freedom with an alternate universe. Any story set on Earth is going to be limited by real history. Can’t you just see the fan boards? “Dude, no way could that have happened, I saw this History Channel show, and that part of…” blah blah blah. Gives me a headache just thinking about it. IT’S A STORY! Just go with it!

Gearheads: Give us a little insight into the personality of Marcus Fenix. Since you were one of the writers, you must know him very well.

Ha! Fenix isn’t an easy guy to know. He’s a cipher. Here’s somebody who started life with a bright future. He was destined for great things. Not because he was a member of the lucky sperm club, but because he was just That Guy. Then history intervened, and things changed. So here’s a guy who’s starting from scratch – worse, really. He’s starting in a deep hole, abandoned in a prison cell and left to die. Where do you go from there? Do you give up, or do you step up? Obviously, Fenix is going to step up. And that means he is laser-focused. He’s not going to make jokes or try to be your pal. That’s not who he is. What he IS going to do is Bring It, and he’s gonna expect the guys with him to do the same. He’s a born leader. He reminds me of Russell Crowe in Gladiator in some ways. But he’s darker, and tougher, if that’s possible. I love playing Fenix. In real life, I’ll never be able to chainsaw a monster in half, or command respect from elite soldiers. But as Fenix, I’m The Man. That is a fun feeling.

Gearheads: What is it like creating a universe that you will eventually see come to fruition?

Fucking magical. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s a chance to be a part of this long tradition of “making cool shit for people who like the same stuff you do.” I remember RUNNING out of the theater after seeing Indiana Jones as a kid. I thought I was going to die, I was so excited. I wanted to just grab a vine and swing the fuck outta the parking lot. That was the greatest feeling. And now I can help create that experience for somebody else. Wtf. You can’t beat that. You cannot.

Gearheads: Is there a lot more pressure developing a storyline for a game that has such mammoth expectations?

Nah. Well, OK, yeah, a little. Who am I kidding. But the game story isn’t the lead, ya know? It’s about gameplay first, last and always. Cliff’s in the hot seat, not me. He handles it like a champ. I don’t know how he does it.

Looking back, I can see the pressure. But at the time, we were all just focused on the work.

Gearheads: Talk about how you collaborated with Eric Nylund and Cliff to develop the story. Give us some insight on the process.

The chopper would come in low, I would fast-rope down to the level-designer pit, kick in the windows…just kidding. I wish! That would have been sweet. They actually do have a big meadow next to the building. I should have rented a Black Hawk one day and freaked everybody out.

Anyway, I digress. I worked closely with Eric at the beginning, as he handed the project off to me. He had given me this fantastic opportunity: I wanted to do right by his story.

Once the project started in earnest, I worked with the design/art/level leads on each level. We would look at the story events, the characters, the gameplay, the level architecture, the monsters, the weapons, the vehicles…you name it, we looked at it and thought about how it would tie into the story & the game.

Once we had that information on paper, I could develop the script template, which was a tool we used to block out the story. It was a good way to present the story without getting bogged down in actual dialog. Once dialog comes into the picture, everybody latches onto it. It’s really the least of your worries. What’s important is the underlying story – does it make sense? Is it cool? Does it make the gameplay more meaningful? Once we had those design problems resolved, I could start writing the script. We probably ran through a dozen drafts for each level. That’s a lot of rewriting, but you know what, it has to happen.

I also spent a lot of time with the level designers. Poor guys. I was probably the bane of their existence. When I showed up, they knew they were going to lose two hours of their day. But it was worth it. For me, anyway. Ha!

Gearheads: How emotionally invested are you in how well the game does in terms of sales?

Sales matter. And yeah, I do pay attention. But it’s not the only measuring stick. Look at Psychonauts. That is a great, great game, but the sales numbers were awful. That was probably a marketing failure, not a creative failure. I don’t think Gears is going to have a marketing problem. 🙂 But here’s the thing: Epic’s going to deliver on the hype. I remember when I came onto the project, and sat down with the level designers to run through the game. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. And that was back in January!

Gearheads: Is it tough to try and convey emotion with some of these characters and how much did tech limitations play into the Gears storyline?

Compared to earlier platforms, there are NO tech limitations on the 360. For me, the challenging factor isn’t the tech – it’s the player. How do you connect with him? It’s his story, but he’s not there when you’re writing the script. That’s a tricky situation.

Writers who work in passive media have to develop rich story arcs, complex characters, and believable relationships. And it either works or it doesn’t, but it’s contained. It all happens there on the screen, and we just watch it unfold. But with a game, the player is the main character. That fourth wall has been vaporized. So now you have the same task list as the screenwriter, along with these new design problems. So when I worked on Gears, I didn’t think about what FENIX was feeling. I thought about what THE PLAYER was feeling. Sounds like I’m splitting hairs, since this is a FPS, right? But it’s an important distinction. For example, imagine if Fenix walked into a room and saw his long-lost dad sitting there. (That’s a theoretical situation, by the way – that doesn’t happen in the game, I swear.) Well, that might be an important moment for Fenix, but the player probably wouldn’t care at all. To him, that Dad guy is a stranger. But what if we met a father figure, like an older officer, and that guy treated Fenix like trash. That would piss off Fenix AND the player simultaneously. That’s the sweet spot you’re always looking for as a writer – those moments when the PC’s emotions and the player’s emotions are the same.

Gearheads: Which character in the game was the most fun to develop? And who was the most challenging?

Baird was my favorite character. He is heavily based on Tommy Gavin, the Denis Leary character in Rescue Me. I don’t know if it’s the Irish connection or what, but I know guys like Tommy, I get him, and I was always looking for ways to channel that black Irish rage into Baird. Gus was pretty challenging, if only because he’s a one-note wonder. He’s hilarious, no doubt about it, but I’m always looking for the material that’s lurking under the surface. Gus is pretty, um, consistent. What you see is what you get. That said, he’s a funny mofo.

Gearheads: As someone who is involved in game story, do you kind of feel like the odd person out when developers are creating their game?

Yes and no. I’m usually the only one in the room who’s focused exclusively on story, which means I have to advocate for my point of view, even if I’m getting lots of blank stares.

But on the flip side, everybody likes a good story, and the game writer can tap into that. I spent a lot of time walking from desk to desk, discussing the story with the devs. They all had ways of expanding and enriching the story, in ways I couldn’t. For example, the animators reveal character with body language. The musicians bring in the emotional undercurrent. The LDs build architecture that can make you feel tense, or claustrophobic, or even pissed. There are all these elements that can work together to bring the story to life.

Gearheads: With the PS3 looming, a lot of the criticisms of Japanese games is that sometimes the story doesn’t hold up over translation to the English counterpart. Is this an area where the Xbox 360 and Gears of War can take advantage of the story development?

Yes, yes, yes. Western developers and Western gamers are living in the same world, psychologically speaking. We all thought long and hard about what this story would mean to the player, in terms of his own world and personal life. The Gears story is going to be successful if the player is still thinking about Fenix, long after he’s finished the game. All those guys in Gears are real people to me. I hope they’ll be real to you, too.

Gearheads: What was your favorite part about being involved in this game and how excited are you to be able to see your story come to fruition?

The best part of the project was the opportunity to work with Eric and the team at Epic. The level designers, the artists, the programmers – they all kick ass.

And then there’s Cliff and Jerry. Those two guys. I don’t know how to describe the kind of respect and admiration I feel for them. Words fail me. Stupid words.

Gearheads: Is there anything else about Gears of War and the process of story development that you’d like to share?

I think I just left it all on the field. Gah.

Gearheads: Thank you so much for taking out the time to talk to some hard core Gears of War fans.

Thank you! I’m a Gears fan, too. We’re all in it together. C’mon, Epic! Ship it!

Gearheads Interview: Luke Smith

I’m going to put aside the t-shirt discussion for a day or two, although MDK put together a concept last night that I think will be one of two tees offered when all is said and done (although I’d prefer the font be blood red on both the chainsaw and the back of the tee so it pops more). The other is looking like it will be “Got Gears?” if the vote continues the way it’s heading right now. We’ll get back to that soon.

Luke Smith is a controversial person in video gaming just simply because he says exactly what’s on his mind on one of the most popular podcasts around, 1up Yours. Smith is the news editor of 1up.com, so his job is to shape some of the news reports that are published on Electronic Gaming Monthly’s online sibling. He has a blogging background which probably often helps him feel free to say whatever he feels at the time and a great part of my favorite podcast. Smith agreed to do an interview with Gearheads to discuss the state of reporting in gaming, the 1up Yours podcast and how he really feels about Gears of War.

Here is my discussion with 1up news editor and 1up Yours host Luke Smith:

Gearheads of War: First of all, you are seriously blowin’ up. Bryan Intihar ain’t got nothing on you. Podtacular, Video Game Outsiders, now Gearheads of War. You’ve now hit the holy trinity. Are you considering a run for the White House with all this publicity? Obama, Hillary and now, Luke.

Luke Smith: Hahaha. I think this country would need a reliable third party before I’d ever consider running for office. I wonder if Bryan Intihar would let me be the Vice President on his own Presidential ticket, though. That could work, GAP or Express could sponsor our candidacy.

Gearheads: Contrary to my first question, I actually want to be serious because you do have a pretty high profile position at 1up being the news editor. How do you view gaming journalism as a craft?

Smith: As a craft? That paints “gaming journalism” in too rosy of a light, methinks. Not to decry any of my contemporaries or the work that has been done, but I think gaming journalism has a long way to go before it’s a craft. There’s a lot of things about this industry that are still roadblocks standing in the way of “journalism” — companies keep so many secrets and ultimately that information is pretty controlled by Public Relations. Investigating much of anything usually results in turning up “no comment” or dead-ends or off the record commentary. The latter of that trilogy, however, could be an integral part of pushing “game journalism” further ahead. I think the rise of New Media — shows like The 1UP Show and the 1UP Network’s podcasts — has the opportunity to reshape game journalism altogether. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been evolving, though, either. It has to continue to evolve into an area where information goes to and fro easier. But, I think that being a “news guy” probably skews my opinion on game journalism because information is like currency to me.

Gearheads: What is the purpose of gaming journalism?

Smith: Depends on who you ask, really and what side of the show they’re on. PR will tell you it’s to control and mitigate information in conjunction with a devised plan — some folks in PR, interestingly enough, have talked about how they look at their job as protecting the gamers, keeping some things a surprise for them when a title ships. I respect that, but it’s still in opposition to what I’m trying to do.

Ultimately, though? I’m not really sure what the purpose is. Sometimes I feel like it’s getting information out there that may seem unjust (in that ‘omg look how much X company is charging for DLC’ kind of way), sometimes I think it’s about telling the stories of the videogame industry’s people, the studios, the business. Unfortunately, it all reduces to making money, though. People want their product talked about in hopes that it will influence the consumer to purchase their product — that might be the “purpose” but I don’t think that journalists need to kowtow to that approach, necessarily.

Gearheads: How is it evolving especially when you realize that there are other publications and news outlets out there that will allegedly “bend” the rules of journalism to score an exclusive (Shoe has made mention of this very practice several times in his editorial in EGM)?

Smith: Not to sound too much like a shill for my company, but I think the Ziff Davis Game Group and the 1UP Network are the embodiment of how game journalism is evolving. It’s the synergizing (which isn’t actually a word, I don’t think) of existing print properties and online and new media to create what is essentially a single explosion for a title. What the network did with Halo 3 last fall via EGM, 1UP and Gamevideos, in my opinion, really set the standard for how a title can be treated under the right circumstances. I feel like the 1UP Network is creating those circumstances. Those circumstances, just to be clear, are completely the byproduct of my bosses and the EICs at the Network, I don’t want it to look like I’m trying to cop for their successes — I still feel like the new guy, somedays.

Gearheads: Did coming from a blogging background make it easier or harder for you to do your job?

Smith: Probably easier, mainly because I saw how Kotaku and the Gawker Network sites operated and pretty shamelessly cribbed some of the philosophies in terms of management and setting up a staff in order to build 1UP News. I have an idea of what I want 1UP News to provide and a lot of that idea or vision probably came from some of the blogging background, in addition to a lot of the community-type reporting (think arts/theatre and sigh) that I did after graduating from college.

Gearheads: Are the roadblocks to doing your job and reporting news becoming more challenging with all the huge public relations departments and roadblocks these companies throw in your way?

Smith: It’s gotten a lot easier to do my job effectively as I’ve met more and more people in the industry and for the most part, I feel like PR knows what they are getting into when I call them. That’s not to sound negative or threatening, I’m fair, but I can be pretty, uh, fussy sometimes when things aren’t going the “right way” — and by “right way” I mean the way I want them to.

Gearheads: Name a company that does a good job of handling both good and bad news. And what makes them good at it?

Smith: I think Microsoft has done a really good job handling both the good news and the bad news. Everyone handles good news well, it’s easy to pat yourselves on the back for Gears of War shipping 3M copies in a couple of months. But during that whole Lumines microtransaction fiasco from last year, I was so disappointed with the direction that the game industry was going and I made sure to let Microsoft know how upset decisions like that made me, and hell, if you watched message boards, gamers were pissed.

Instead of simply saying “we’ll take it under advisement,” or “we’ll make a note” Microsoft served up one of the guys behind the decision to us for an interview. I thought that was a pretty impressive move on their part.

Gearheads: You’re in a very interesting situation in that many gamers have gotten to know your, uh, colorful personality via the 1up Yours podcast. Are there times when you feel like doing the podcast is a mistake for you given that being involved in “news”, at least in the past, meant that you were supposed to retain objectivity? For example, if people hear that you’re not so fond of a certain console, game or publisher, they automatically assume every news story out of 1up is tainted with that bias and might trivialize the impact of a news story from 1up.

Smith: No. I’ve never felt that way doing the podcast, and I’ve never felt that way writing a news story. Thankfully, John and Sam have been really supportive and encouraging of “my way” of doing things at 1UP News. I don’t think of objectivity as something necessary to News. I think that the climate is changing with how people want their information and I don’t think presenting it objectively is necessarily the future. Now, before that gets taken wildly out of context, I don’t mean “I present News with a bias,” because I do not care which platform plays my games. I care about consumers and gamers not getting the short end of the stick by overly aggressive business models. I care about games being built the right way with sufficient functionality. That’s starting to sound a bit self-righteous, I’m going to stop.

Over at C-Lo.net there’s an entry (hyperlinked) called “Journalism is Broken” that talks about some of the problems with journalism. One of the things the author talks about is how objectivity doesn’t really exist — we all have opinions, being honest and transparent about them is important.

Gearheads: People have accused you of being an Xbox fanboy in the past, despite how much you’ve ripped that company for the microtransaction fiascos and other things. How do you react to those criticisms?

Smith: I think they are laughable, but people are entitled to their opinions. I don’t think I’m any harsher or softer with Microsoft than I am with anyone else. The reality, however, is that while 1UP Yours was gaining momentum and people were getting familiar with my opinions, the only platform holder with a next-gen product to talk about was Microsoft — a lot of those accusations seem to have been pre-launch for Nintendo and Sony.

Gearheads: On the other hand, you’ve been pretty hard on Nintendo’s Wii for being a “Zelda player” and the five-year old technology that beats at the heart of that machine. Do you view it as your responsibility to the reader to take all these companies to task for what you view as their missteps?

Smith: It’s a bit presumptuous on my part, but I suppose I do think of myself as a watchdog or a consumer advocate for gamers. That’s how I want to be thought of. In a perfect world, I want gamers to feel like I am bridging a gap between them and publishers, developers and PR asking the questions they want to know. That wish could be completely delusional and I might be completely failing at it, who knows.

Gearheads: How much of the banter between you and Shane Bettenhausen on 1up Yours is contrived? And do you think that’s part of the reason that 1up Yours is one of the most popular if not THE most popular video game podcast around?

Smith: I can say that there is no contrived banter between Shane and I. We don’t sit around and figure out how to lob verbal grenades at one another — he and I just naturally tend to disagree on a lot of things.

I think that Shane and I are every bit a part of why 1UP Yours is popular, in the same way that John, Garnett and Andrew (who really is the brains behind the whole thing) are. I don’t think Shane and I are a “draw” anymore than Garnett or John is. I think the show feels different if any of the regulars miss it (yes, I’m included Mark MacDonald as one of the regulars — he’s our Detlef Schrempf coming in off the bench).

Gearheads: How much shit do you guys give him off the air for being such a Sony fanboy? You give it to him on the air pretty good, albeit deservedly so.

Smith: Well, we all give each other a pretty hard time on and off the air. Shane might get a little more than his fair share just because he leaves himself open to it, sometimes.

Gearheads: Do you view yourself as a jaded gamer? And if you do, does that make it more appropriate that you’re covering the news for 1up? In other words, does someone who reports the news from gaming companies need to be a natural skeptic?

Smith: I don’t know that I’d say “jaded.” I think I’m pretty discerning and I am very hard to please, but the handful of titles each year that do click for me — I’ll treasure those games forever. I think being a natural skeptic orients me very well for writing about News, there’s a lot of mucky muck to wade through on a daily basis to try and put together a section that I think is worth reading. We’re not an “everything site” like GameSpot or IGN (see, I’m not afraid to mention them, either) — 1UP News just doesn’t have an army of full-time news writers like those guys do, we have to pick and choose what we’re going to write about.

Gearheads: A regular listener to the 1up Yours podcast could get the impression that you actually don’t like playing games anymore (or at least games that aren’t Halo, WoW or Elite Beat Agents). Is that the case?

Smith: I love the videogame industry, I just don’t like a lot of software. And I can be pretty dismissive sometimes and then I’ll go back quietly and play a game and think “Oh shit, did I say this was bad?” And for anyone wondering, that didn’t happen with Lost Planet, I still feel the same way about that game as I’ve felt since late last year.

Gearheads: Are you ever afraid of how you’re coming off to some listeners? Meaning that even if your message is the right one, it might be getting lost in translation because many people view your personality as abrasive on the show.

Smith: I’ve never really thought about it that way. I’m sure the message gets lost because people will see me as a fanboy of X or someone who doesn’t like anything, or someone who is totally unpredictable — and aside from the latter, which I like, the two previous statements are things I’ll probably rectify this year. The abrasive personality, though? That won’t go away, period.

Gearheads: Other than calling my brother a dick (just kidding, I’m older than him so I’m naturally protective), is there anything you regret saying on 1up Yours?

Smith: Absolutely. Pretty much every week, I say something that as I’m listening to the show or a friend will be listening to the show they’ll IM me a quote and I’ll see it and go “My God, did I really say that?” A girlfriend of mine listened to the show and couldn’t believe some of the things that came out of my mouth on the show — my mother tends to feel the same way. I think sometimes I’m a bit misogynistic and a bit of a chauvinist pig, but that part of the show is really just “entertainment” — I have two younger sisters and always treat women with the utmost of respect, even though I’ve made mountains of sexist jokes on the show. (Hell, I almost made one just now)

Gearheads: Did you ever think that a podcast could wind up making you a bit of a celebrity (at least in the gaming world)?

Smith: Not for a second. I didn’t join 1UP to “be a star” like the 1UP Show jingle goes. I didn’t really even know what a podcast was until my first day at Ziff I sat in on a 1UP Yours recording and afterwards told Andrew Pfister, the show’s producer, that “I wanted to do something to be a part of that show.” I don’t think of myself as a “celebrity” — I think I have a little different approach and that my bosses have been really supportive (and tolerant of grief I’ve no doubt caused along the way) of that approach and my vision for the section. It’s really by their grace that I can do the things I do (does that ruin the whole ‘rogue with an edge’ angle?).

Gearheads: Obviously this is a Gears of War site, so I want to ask you about Gears. You didn’t seem very fond of Gears of War despite how it’s really taken a hold as a huge seller and on Xbox Live. You made it clear on 1up Yours that you can’t stand not being able to have clan support in ranked matches and you didn’t think it had a story, but what else did you or didn’t you like about Gears?

Smith: Hmm, I don’t know that I’ve been “not very fond” of Gears of War. I think I’ve been cooler toward it than maybe some others have but I wrote a blog shortly after the game shipped declaring it the game that you had to play from 2006. I don’t know that I can say much else about a game other than “you have to play it.” Do I think it has problems? Absolutely. Do I wonder why the multiplayer is the way it is? Every day. I think the “story” in Gears is secondary, I think that it has an opportunity to flesh out a lot in the sequel.

Gearheads: What could Gears do better that could suck you into the game more in the sequel?

Smith: Well, I think Gears is in a similar position now that Halo: Combat Evolved was in after it shipped and sold well. I don’t remember much of Halo’s story, and the Gears premise is really just a snapshot in a greater war. I think the Locusts will be fleshed out in the sequel, not to the degree that Bungie fleshed out the Covenant in Halo 2, but there will be some depth added to these foes that come from below — that will be a good hook in the sequel. Cliff has talked a lot about the button-time events that he wanted in the game, ultimately those got cut — I’d like to see those mechanics return, too.

Gearheads: Have you played it a lot on Live?

Smith: Not really. The no-team play in ranked games is really frustrating. Plus, the lobby system and the way you find a game, after the game shipped so many of those things were frustrating to me that if I look at my friend’s list on Xbox Live and don’t see seven people on playing Gears (presumably together) my likelihood of logging in diminishes even further.

Gearheads: Do you think that going to Bungie and getting a taste of Halo 3 right before you got your hands on Gears altered your opinion of the game at all?

Smith: No, the two are very different experiences and we played Halo 3 pretty much right after we got back from X06. I think I flew in on a Monday or Tuesday from X06 and left on a Thursday or Friday to go up to Bungie for the weekend. After that it was another three or four weeks before I sat down and played through Gears of War at the review event. I think you are underestimating some of my Gears-love. I don’t dislike it at all, I’d give it a fine score if I had been on the review.

Gearheads: Finally, I just wanted to let you know that you’re welcome to play with us any Friday night. Gearheads features Friday Night FragFest every week. It’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had on XBL and I’m pretty sure you’d have a good time too away from the prepubescent folks you run into out there on Live. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with Gearheads about your job and Gears of War. Keep fighting the good fight.

Smith: Thanks, I’ll probably take you up on that some night.

Gearheads Interview: Ryan McCaffrey

Ryan McCaffrey is the senior editor of Official XBox Magazine. He hosts the weekly OXM podcast along with sidekick Dan Amrich. He’s connected with the Xbox world better than just about anyone in gaming journalism and he was one of the first journalists out there to pretty much openly gloat about chainsawing a buddy in half.

McCaffrey graciously agreed to go an interview with Gearheads to talk about the state of the Xbox 360, what he really thinks of PS3 and Wii and of course our favorite game, Gears of War.

Gearheads of War: First of all, thanks for taking the time to do this. We’re pretty much all Xbox fans and love the information you guys give us through the magazine and weekly podcast.

Thanks Blez. We do our best to inform and entertain on a weekly (with the podcast) and monthly (with the magazine) basis.

Gearheads: Is it challenging at times having to focus solely on a single brand of console, especially with the original Xbox essentially being left for dead?

Honestly no, it hasn’t been much of a problem – lately. It was certainly more of a challenge during the first six months of the Xbox 360’s existence when the new consoles were hard to come by and people were still firmly attached to their original Xboxes despite there being nowhere near as many games releasing and in development as they’d been used to. But I think everyone has gotten really excited about the 360 and the truckload of games on the way in 2007 alone.

Gearheads: How solid do you feel Xbox 360 is positioned in the now current gen battle?

Better than anyone could’ve expected before the system launched, I think. Granted, that’s due as much to Sony’s bad decisions as it is to Microsoft’s good ones (there’ve been plenty of both), but Microsoft clearly got the message from last generation: it’s the software that moves the hardware, not the hardware that moves the hardware. Heck, there’s something good – really good – coming out almost every month of 2007. January: Lost Planet. February: Crackdown. March: GRAW 2 and Oblivion Shivering Isles. April: Guitar Hero II. May: Forza Motorsport 2. Beyond that you can rattle off Mass Effect, The Darkness, Blue Dragon, BioShock, Halo 3, Grand Theft Auto IV, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway, Project Gotham Racing 4, and a bunch of others. And most of what I just listed are exclusives!

Gearheads: What do you think of the PS3, especially in light of some of the announcements at GDC?

I think I can probably speak for a lot of gamers when I say that it’s a platform that I really want to be excited about, but have not yet been given sufficient reason to do so. There just aren’t enough exclusives yet to make me want to drop $600. White Knight, a Level-5 role-playing game, looks great, but it’s a 2008 title I believe. And as for the recent GDC announcement, Home is cool, no doubt, and I’m very anxious to check it out, but I have to wonder: is it actually too much for the casual gamer? What I mean by that is, does your average casual gamer want to have to load up a whole program and navigate this 3D space to check out their Achievements? Or are they happy being able to just press the Xbox Guide button or log on to Xbox.com and check them out? Maybe the 3D space thing will take off, but maybe it’ll prove to be too daunting to the average Madden-GTA gamer. Time will tell.

Gearheads: How do you think the Wii and the success of the Wii will impact future generations of consoles?

The technology arms race will never end. The human desire to improve will mean there are always consoles that are ludicrously more powerful than the ones before it. I believe that. And I believe Sony and Microsoft feel that way too. Nintendo, however, has taken a left turn that is, to date, serving them very well. Surely their controller innovations will affect future generations of consoles, but I don’t think the other major players will stop advancing their hardware the way Nintendo essentially has. Instead, they’ll simply incorporate these innovations into their next uber-consoles.

Gearheads: Will the divide between the casual gamer and the hardcore gamer only expand? I only ask this because I feel kind of out of touch with the people enamored with the Wii, but there are a lot more of them out there than there are hardcore gamers, I suppose.

I don’t think it matters, frankly. Good games are gateways to other good games. If someone who’s never been a gamer before picks up the Wii and digs it, they’re more likely to get into the “hardcore” stuff like Xbox 360 and PS3. Hell, look at Guitar Hero II. I’ve never seen a “gateway” game like that. It’s genius.

Gearheads: Do you ever feel like a certain segment of the gaming population doesn’t take OXM as seriously as it should since it has the term “official” in the title? For example, I talked with someone over Live last week and he mentioned that he thought that Microsoft exerted some kind of editorial control over the publication.

Of course. It comes with the territory. There will always be those people that think “official” means we’re owned by Microsoft. Well, we’re not. What makes us “official” is that we pay Microsoft “x” amount of money to use the Xbox name and logo – and the exclusive rights to do an Xbox demo disc. That’s it. They have no editorial control whatsoever. When we give their game a bad review, they’re as unhappy as any third-party publisher that gets a bad review.

Gearheads: Is there an issue you guys published that you’re especially proud of and if so, why?

Ah, you’ve set me up perfectly for some shameless plugging! Thank you! J Seriously, though, I think our last two issues have been excellent. The March issue (which you probably can’t find anymore on newsstands) featured Guitar Hero II. We had an exclusive review of the game, a behind-the-scenes tour at RedOctane, and a number of great feature articles to boot. And it also had a great cover – a guy with a guitar instead of the usual Xbox game, which features a guy with a gun. Hehe.

And the April issue, which is the new one out now, is cool for the OXM Universe game that’s on the demo disc. It’s a “progressive development” game that we’ll have on every disc. It’s essentially space exploration, and each month you’ll get a new piece to the puzzle. Subscribers are going to eat it up, and hopefully everyone else will try it, get into it, and become a subscriber. Oh, and we also have the expensive-on-Marketplace Chapter 2 download for the original GRAW on the April disc – for free.

Gearheads: How often do you guys have publishers upset with any coverage and/or rumors that you guys happen to publish in the magazine?

It happens. It’s part of the job. But really, it’s not a frequent thing. Publishers know when they have a bad game on their hands, whether they want to admit it or not, so they know when the bad scores are coming. And as for rumors…well, readers love `em even if publishers don’t. J

Gearheads: How challenging is it to put out a podcast every week?

I prepare an outline of topics and (often) an interview for every show, so it’s definitely a good deal of work. And during deadline crunches it can be particularly painful to take the time out to do it. But honestly, I REALLY enjoy doing the podcast every week. My dirty secret is that I’ve always been fascinated with radio and probably would’ve looked to go into it with my journalism degree after college if I hadn’t been lucky enough to get a job at OXM. So the podcast is an outlet for me to scratch my radio itch.

Gearheads: Which is more challenging, putting out the magazine or doing the podcast each week?

Certainly the magazine. It’s the engine that drives everything (including the podcast), so it has to be as good as it can be. The podcast is a little less pressure, although we have so many listeners now (woohoo!) that it’s becoming a pretty big deal itself!

Gearheads: Do you enjoy it?

I can honestly say that it’s the highlight of my week. I mean no disrespect to the magazine in saying that, because obviously I love writing and putting together the magazine, but doing jokes, bits, editorials, and interviews on the podcast every week is a blast.

Gearheads: How do you feel about the quality of gaming journalism?

It’s higher than ever, in my opinion. You might not realize it simply because there’s SO MUCH of it out there, and not all of it is good, but there’s a lot of great writing and great writers. Not just anyone can walk in off the street and get paid to be a gaming journalist. On our staff, for instance, we have journalism degrees, English degrees, and psychology degrees. And this is the case for a lot of outlets these days. This isn’t a business that’s just for kids anymore; it’s the bigger industry than movies, and the quality of people within it now reflects that.

Gearheads: Can a guy be a serious journalist and a fanboy of a certain console at the same time?

Well, I think the term “fanboy” implies a negative connotation; that they’re blindly supportive of a particular game/console/company/whatever without regard to reality. But I absolutely believe one can be a serious journalist and still be very supportive of a single console. I hope we fit that mold. We’re not fanboys. We each own multiple game consoles and play games on every platform, handheld or desktop. In fact, for our little staff bio pictures that run in the Message Center section of each issue, we used our Nintendo Mii avatars as our pictures – two issues in a row!

Gearheads: What is your favorite game in the past three years on any console?

Wow, that is a question that’s almost impossible to answer. Just one? Sheesh, well then it’s gotta be Halo 2. Our work crew and friends played that EVERY NIGHT for seven or eight months straight on Xbox Live. There are more good stories that I remember than I can even count.

Gearheads: How about the past 10 years?

Now you’re approaching “all-time” territory (sort of). This is again almost impossible to answer, but I’ll have to go with the original Doom. Oh wait, that’s more than 10 years ago. I feel old! So from 1997 until now, then…I’ll take Grand Theft Auto III. It was a revolution. Nothing less. And it’s still awesome today.

Gearheads: And of all-time?

Wow, the money question. I literally cannot pick just one. Short list: Super Mario Bros. 3, Doom, Half-Life, all of the old LucasArts adventure games, Halo/Halo 2, and the aforementioned GTA III.

Gearheads: Do you think Gears of War set a new standard by which all other games will be judged now in terms of visuals?

It clearly has. And while there are a lot of visually spectacular games coming out this year, I don’t think any will top Gears in that department, except maybe Mass Effect (which, coincidentally, is also based off of Unreal Engine 3).

Gearheads: What of Gears’ more innovative features (such as cover system and active reload) do you think will wind up having the biggest long-term impact on gaming?

Well to be fair, Rainbow Six Vegas did the awesome cover system thing at exactly the same time. And active reload is damn cool, but I really think the “essence” of killing monsters/opponents is what other games will strive to capture from Gears. It feels so f-ing fun to chainsaw somebody in Gears, or grenade tag them, or blow them to bits with the shotgun, etc. That, to me, is the magic ingredient in Gears.

Gearheads: What was your favorite moment in Gears?

The battle at the Fenix estate at the end of Act IV. Pure awesomeness.

Gearheads: What do you think they could do in the sequel that will make it one of the best franchises in gaming if you don’t already think it is?

More multiplayer modes, better character development, four-player co-op. Natural stuff that’s probably already on Epic’s checklist.

Gearheads: And finally, we have a weekly Friday Night FragFest. We’ve already beaten Ziff Davis and we have your team in our sights. Can we mark this down as a future contest…Gearheads versus OXM? We might even let Corey onto our team so he can kick your limbs around. I remember you giving him a hard time about that for quite a while. 🙂

Name the time and the place. We’ll be there!

Gearheads: Thanks so much for your time and we look forward to meeting you and the OXM staff over XBL soon.

Thank you!

Gearheads Interviews Mindzeye Studios’ Pete Jirles

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I had the recent pleasure of interviewing Pete Jirles, President of Mindzeye Studios at Comic-Con. As many of you know, Mindzeye Studios secured the license from Epic Games to produce statues for the Gears of War franchise. Mindzeye Studios was at Comic-Con to unveil those awesome platinum and bronze-finish Gears of War statues that they’ve been working so hard on. They didn’t disappoint either. The moment that I saw them, I slapped my credit card down so quick that it couldn’t help but put a smile on Pete’s face.

It was great to hear from Pete that the show was a tremendous success. Pete was gracious enough to send the interview responses to me last week, but I’ve only found the time to put it up now due to my recent termite fumigation with my house. So without further ado, here’s the interview…

Interview: It was great to meet Pete Jirles, President of Mindzeye Studios, and his brother, Jeff, at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Thank you for taking the time to speak to our readers about the awesome offerings coming from Mindzeye Studios regarding the Gears of War franchise. Now that you’ve had a chance to recover from the awesome outing that you guys had at SDCC, you can hopefully answer some of the grueling questions that we have in store for you (j/k).

It’s obvious to see why Epic Games awarded Mindzeye Studios the license for their Gears of War IP. Epic Games is very guarded with their IP and it speaks volumes when they choose their partnerships. Congratulations on that. The level of detail and skill that is shown on the pieces thus far have all been outstanding!

• Can you let our readers know how you were able to secure the license and what did that entail? Does the license also include the sequel, Gears of War 2?

PJ: We actually contacted Epic Games after seeing the amazing teaser trailer for the first game. We immediately saw the potential of the franchise. After making contact and presenting our work on the Hybrid line, Epic was interested in seeing what we could do with some metallic finished statues. So we drew up a contract and started conceptualizing various characters, poses and bases. We will definitely be working on some characters from the GOW sequel.

• Epic has their own in-house lead art designer/sculptor, Chris Perna, did you work with him on a consistent basis? How much artistic control does Mindzeye Studios have when it comes to working with licensed material?

PJ: Chris has been great during the process. Since he knows the characters inside and out, it’s nice to call on his expertise when in any phase of the design stage. He really knows what he’s doing. And being a perfectionist is something that Mindzeye Studios can relate to, so we’ve tried to mimic Chris’s attention to detail at all times. Control with licensed material is a bit limiting, since the licensee obviously doesn’t want anything about the IP to change. Consistency is a key component of working with an outside franchise like Gears of War. But we are able to conceptualize and design poses, bases, environments and decide which characters to produce.

• While we’re on the subject of Gears 2, did Mindzeye influence Epic’s character designs for their sequel?

PJ: We left the character development for the sequel to the professionals. Epic definitely knows what they’re doing when it comes to the Gears of War franchise. They come up with the characters and we’ll sculpt the hell out of them. We’re fine with that scenario.

• Many companies produce their statues using a laser-scanned technique while other do it the old-fashioned way by sculpting it by hand. Can you tell us how Mindzeye approaches sculpting?

PJ: Rapid prototyping is becoming more and more prevalent as the technology advances and costs drop. We actually had the Marcus Fenix statue rapid prototyped, but had to sculpt in some lost details and finish him by hand, which actually took quite some time. There was a fair amount of additional sculpting that was needed in the end. While Dom and the Boomer were both created by sculptors from scratch. Mindzeye Studios is definitely interested in sculpting and creating things by hand, but with quick turnaround times of rapid prototyping, it’s nice to have options.

• These three pieces are available in bronze or platinum finishes. Are there any plans on offering painted pieces since I noticed that some of your other offerings have that as an option?

PJ: We went into the Gears license wanting to create statues that not only lived up to the look and feel of the game, but also provided a mythic quality to each character. As if they were frozen in a time of struggle, chaos and despair, but were somehow able to rise above it all and conquer their demons, as well as the ones amassed against them. Granted, that might be taking it a bit far, but we had quite a few meetings and discussions before the first concept was put on paper on how the Gears characters would look in bronze and what type of effect that would have throughout the entire line. So it’s always been about the classic bronze/platinum look that hopefully conveys that symbolism. But we are considering colored bronze pieces in the subsequent Gears statue lines, which would have the paint/dye fused with the bronze to create a muted colored finish. We always want to maintain the original metallic concept.

• The three pieces that have been shown to the public are not only detailed on a scale of ten (10), it’s been ratcheted to an eleven (11). Do you have plans for the rest of the usual suspects such as Cole, Baird, & Carmine (since he’s returning in some form to the sequel)?

PJ: We do have plans for a Cole statue for sure, which will be going into production soon. Carmine is also on the design block, along with a few other characters mostly turning up in the sequel – or playing a more central role.

Dom

The bronze & platinum cast Dom barely made it in time for Comic-Con (the knife that rests on his shoulder will be added later)

• For instance, when we spoke at Comic-Con, sculpting the Sonic Resonator Device on Cole’s back would be awesome since he carries that for practically half of the Gears 1 game. Also, attention to these details really hit home with the Gears fans and collectors around the world. Perhaps you can offer both versions- one with (extremely limited run) & the other without. So how about it, Pete?

PJ: We’ve actually been kicking around that very idea since SDCC. We definitely listen to fans and one thing that we’ve heard loud and clear is bring on Cole and Carmine – as well as more locusts, so we’re drawing up plans on how to best unveil these next pieces. One thing I can say is that we’ve just begun to work on the Gears line. We have many plans. And the excitement is growing each day. We’re continually pushing the design envelope.

• The Gears universe is so rich in character designs, does your company plan on consistently adding to this line with the multitude of COGs and Locust Horde? If so, will you consider a frequent buyer’s club/Collector’s Club by offering collectors a slightly reduced or exclusive offers similar to what Master Replicas does?

PJ: We are considering exclusive offers to a Collector’s Club that we’re preparing to set up. We were sure that the GOW line would catch people off guard and grab attention, but even we weren’t prepared for such a positive response across the board. Gears fans have been fantastic with their comments and feedback. We definitely want to give back when we see that.

• So far, the three pieces that are offered are “stand-alone” pieces, are you planning companion pieces similar to what Sideshow is doing with their Star Wars and Lord of the Rings statues? Perhaps Marcus chainsawing a Locust?

PJ: You guys should be a part of our design team! We’re drawing up concepts as we speak on how to best implement more companion pieces locked in combat. Stay tuned, it’s going to be big.

• The Boomer is getting rave reviews at our site, did you expect this kind of reception from a “bad guy” piece?

PJ: Once the Gears licensing contract was nearing completion, we began to do more extensive research on the characters and what our options might be right out of the box. The minute we saw the 3D digital renders of the Boomer we all agreed he was going to be the centerpiece to the initial line. Marcus and Dom are great, but the Boomer is just a fantastic antagonist. It doesn’t hurt that his gun is the size of New Jersey, either.

Boomer

Mindzeye Studios’ attention to detail even has a crack running through the Boomer’s base depicting how heavy he is!

• Many Gears’ fans have already made the venture to your site to either view the statues or pre-order them directly from Mindzeye. What other retailers will offer your pieces?

PJ: We’re currently setting up retailers and distributors for the Gears line. One thing that we found following the unveiling of the GOW statues was that retailers and distributors were as impressed with the designs as fans were. So the Mindzeye Studios line of the Gears characters will soon be available around the world.

• It was great to not only see these statues in-person, but it was great to have the chance to talk to you, Pete. Congratulations on the Gears statues and we look forward in featuring you on our site in the near future and as more product starts rolling out. Thank you!

PJ: It was great meeting you guys. Your feedback and support have been fantastic. We’ll be in touch as soon as we have anything new to report – which will be very soon. Keep up the great work on your site. Thanks!

Check out all of their awesome statues here (you can also order them directly from their site): Mindzeye Studios

Gearheads Interview Neca’s Randy Falk

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Randy Falk (left) with TMNT co-creator, Peter Laird (right), at the NYCC Comic-Con ’08

This interview has been in the works for a while now. I first met Randy Falk, Head of Product Development at Neca, during last year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Randy is absolutely one of the most down-to-Earth and approachable guys that you’ll ever meet in the toy industry. He not only works his ass off to bring fans the goods, but he’s a huge movie, comic, and videogame fan as well.

During this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, the Neca booth was just buzzing with electricity from their debut of so many cool and exciting lines from Gears of War, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT), a slew of videogame-related IPs, to iconic movie characters such as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan, Regan of the Exorcist, AVP2, Beetlejuice, Pirates of the Caribbean, Sweeney Todd, and so much more. Check out their website for the list of licenses: Neca’s Endless Licenses Randy and company were really busy with not only selling that awesome Comic-Con exclusive Gears of War Anthony Carmine action figure along with other sweet offerings, but hosting the cast of the upcoming Warner Bro.’s movie, Watchmen, and TMNT co-creator, Kevin Eastman. Randy was cool enough to indulge the Gears community by answering exhausting interview questions that I emailed to him. Thanks again for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to keep the legions of Gears fans salivating for more, Randy! Keep up the fantastic work in bringing our dreams and wishes in plastic! Without further ado, read on because there’s a ton of juicy information. And remember, you read it at GearheadsofWar.com first!

It’s obvious to see why Epic Games awarded NECA the license for their Gears of War IP. The level of detail and skill that is shown on each piece that NECA has created is unparalleled. I know that NECA believes in sculpting your products old-school (by hand). It’s amazing to see your final product’s likeness to their movie, videogame, and musician counterparts. Outstanding job! Also, I’d like to personally commend you for being inducted into the ToyFare Hall of Fame. I can’t even begin to thank you for bringing all of these awesome franchises to reality. So many fans and collectors have had their geek dreams fulfilled because of your hardwork for securing these licenses. Congratulations! Much deserved!

Randy Falk (RF): Thank you, first and foremost, I’m a fan so I know that I am very fortunate to get to work on so many cool projects. I have assembled a great team here of talented artists and we have had the pleasure of working with some of the biggest and best names in film, music, and video games.

• You and your sculptors have worked very closely to Chris Perna. Can you tell us if that relationship has fostered into NECA influencing Epic’s designs for Gears 2?

RF: Chris Perna has been a great help to us. The quality of reference and his fantastic art direction has been tremendously helpful. I don’t think we could do it at this level without him. As far as NECA influencing any Epic designs, that has not happened. As a matter of fact when I first met with Epic in the Summer of ’07 to secure the license for Gears of War they were very far along with the designs for Gears 2 already. Epic continues to come up with such cool weapons, villains, characters, I love the universe they have created and I enjoy being able to play in it by making the toys and action figures.

• How involved is Epic Games with the creation of these action figures? Have they or Microsoft stepped in to tell you guys that you’re way over the top, and tame some of your designs (i.e. the headshotted Locust; which by the way is marvelous)?

RF: Epic is very involved in the process and we wouldn’t want it any other way. Before we even start sculpting NECA and Epic work out character selection, signature poses, points of articulation, possible accessories, etc. Once we start sculpting the models I send everything through Chris via e-mail and every few months I travel down to North Carolina to review new prototypes in person and to get a further glimpse into Gears 2. Epic has been totally supportive of anything we suggest like the “Headshot” Locust or the upcoming “Chainsaw” 2 pack.

• What has proven to be the most challenging aspect of bringing these virtual characters to life?

RF: The amount of detail and the time it takes to re-create it. There is so much detail on all of these characters and designs that involve very clean mechanical elements like armor where everything needs to match up perfectly and be symmetrical, that takes a lot more time then a guy in a sweater or business suit for example. There is just so much going on with each characters look and design and we want to capture it all faithfully, no compromising. That is where it becomes the most challenging and the most talented sculptors rise to the occasion, those who have the ability to really study the reference and see it through to the end.
Aside from that, I would say the second biggest hurdle is making these massive heavy figures in the 7″ scale with all the detail and deco for an affordable price.

• Generally, female figures are a hard sell to Joe Public. Yet, iconic videogame figures such as Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft and Halo’s Cortana are quickly scooped up. Can we expect an Anya Stroud and/or Maria Santiago (Dom’s estranged wife)?

RF: Sorry, no plans for either of those at this time.

• Which figure is your favorite and why?

RF: Tough question, I’m going to have to say Marcus because he is Marcus, the badass, the leader. We just did a new head that is Gears 2 based for Marcus that reflects the subtle changes to his likeness and we have given him a much more aggressive expression this time out and I love the way he looks.

Marcus_new_face

Marcus Fenix’s new face sculpt for Version 2

• Since the “Anthony” Carmine figure is exclusive only to the SDCC event, are there any plans to re-release him in a boxed set or individually carded figure to the general retail? By the way, I must say that the cryptic description on the packaging was a stroke of genius. Since the numerous Gears 2 gameplay videos are all over the Net now, we’ve all seen the new COG redshirt or Benjamin Carmine (Anthony’s brother), was this the reason for making “Anthony” exclusive to this event?

RF: Yes, we were aware that in Gears 2 there would be generic COG soldiers or “redshirts” and some new COG helmets so we figured that Carmine would make a good con exclusive especially since he has somewhat of a cult following and we could release another COG to retail in 2009. We will be offering a COG soldier in our next series (all based on Gears of War 2) and the COG for retail will sport a new helmet and new arms with additional ball-hinge elbow articulation. That way we preserve the “exclusive” or “special” element of the SDCC Carmine and the retail COG soldier is a different item.

• The Lord of the Ring’s Balrog was a work of art, as well as a small miracle. Are there any chances that we could see larger Locust-types such as the Boomer or Berserker? Come on Randy, we want that Boomshot!

RF: Thanks, the Balrog took years to make happen and I think it aged me tenfold.
I want a Boomer too and I think it is possible in Spring of ’09. As long as the line continues to perform well and has a good sell-through this holiday it should happen. Sales and interest in our line have been strong and I think it will increase once Gears of War 2 is out this November. I will do everything I can to make a Boomer figure. We already made the Boomshot weapon, so it needs someone to wield it. 🙂

• The 1:1 scale electronic Lancer rifle and Gears 2 game bundle which is exclusive to Amazon.com was a stroke of genius. We thought Cliff might have misspoken when he announced it at the Comic-Con Gears 2 Panel discussion. We shouldn’t have doubted him. How in the world are you guys making any profit off of this deal? Since the LoTR Balrog took up so much shelf space for retailers, this deal with Amazon for the Lancer rifle makes complete sense. Will we see more offerings like this in the future from the Neca and Amazon partnership?

RF: Thanks, again this works because like you said by doing it with Amazon shelf space is not a concern and the Lancer is probably the most iconic thing in Gears of War so it was like let’s do this, let’s make it happen and see what the response is. So far orders and fan feedback from when we showed the prototype in San Diego have been great. Cliff has been awesome by plugging it and doing photo ops at Comic-Con. I think this is the beginning of a NECA and Amazon relationship that will offer lots of cool figures and collectibles in the future.

Almost as cool as Blank’s COG tags. Almost… 😉

• Since Anthony Carmine is a COG-redshirt, it’s an automatic army builder like the Locust Drone. Could we conceivably see a weapons pack offering of Lancers, Hammerbursts, etc. (i.e. old-school Kenner Star Wars & Hasbro GI Joe weapons packs)? How about the Sonic Resonator device that Cole carries on his back? Additional figures like Wretches would definitely whet the fans’ appetites.

RF: I would love to see this happen, but retail does not respond well to the weapon/accessory packs. I grew up with the JOE and MOTU weapon packs and have great memories of them but there is not enough support for this item to live on its own at retail. However we have added some extra weapons in our multi-pack gift sets that contain 4 figures. For example this Fall we will have a Delta Squad boxed set exclusively at Toys R Us that will contain Cole, Marcus, Dom, and Baird but we did not just pack in the weapons the carded versions came with, we added a Torquebow, Longshot, Hammer of Dawn, in addition to 4 Lancers, pistols, basically a whole arsenal for your squad.
In a perfect world I would love to do a mail-in offer for an accessory pack because I love mail-away programs and grew up with them (Boba Fett, Zuckuss, Cobra Commander, etc). I don’t know if enough Gears heads would clip and save their UPCs would they?

• Can we expect dioramas and prop replicas from the Gears of War? What does the granting of the license for Tri-Force with Sid Garrand of Nightmare Armor Studios to produce 1:1 replicas of the armor, helmets, and weapons do for your plans?

RF: The license with Tri-Force does not really affect us, or our plans because the markets and price points are so different and from what I have seen so far their approach is more stylized where we are striving for totally realistic to the game.

• Companies such as Master Replicas, Sideshow, & First 4 Figures have produced scaled replicas of weapons for the Halo, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Hellboy, & Doom franchises. I have a few suggestions that might be interesting. Please bear with me as I try my best to describe them. How about offering scaled replicas weapons assortment mounted on a plaque similar to what Sideshow did with the Lord of the Rings’ weapons? You could separate them by COG and Locust weapons. On the COG weapons plaque there would be an embossed “COG” symbol (not to be confused with the Crimson Omen- Gears of War logo) and a “Locust” symbol on the Locust weapons plaque. The scale would most likely be in 1:4 scale to capture the detail. These weapons would be mounted on the plaque and be non-removable which still technically constitutes them as statues. Some weapons assortment collections could possibly be:
• COG collection #1 would consist of the Gnasher (shotgun), Lancer, Longshot, and Snub Pistol.
• COG collection #2 would consist of the Mulcher (gatling cannon), Scorcher (flamethrower), Hammer of Dawn, and Frag Bolo Grenade.
• Locust collection #1 would consist of the Hammerburst, Torquebow, Gorgon Burst Pistol, and Poison Grenade.
* Locust collection #2 would consist of the Boomshot, Boltok Pistol, Boomer Chained Mace, and Smoke Grenade.
It would be a no-brainer on how popular these would be with the Gears community since the franchises’ universe is so rich.

RF: All good suggestions and something we have considered as we head into 2009. For 2008 our focus was on the figures (close to 20 by year’s end) and the full size Lancer and of course having these items out for the release of Gears of War 2. Now that we are developing for Spring and Summer of 2009 your suggestions would make for a nice extension to the line.

• Since Lt. Minh Kim’s sculpt was revealed at the New York Comic-Con, what are your plans for offering him? On that same vane, will he be offered through an exclusive deal with Amazon.com like the Locust “Headshot” Drone figure?

RF: We’re considering an assortment of 2 packs at the moment that could include General Raam vs. Lt. Minh Kim and the “Chainsaw” 2 pack of Marcus vs. Locust as part of the assortment. These should be available at retail and not part of any exclusive program.

• Since NECA has pulled the trigger on the 12″ Marcus Fenix figure, can we expect to see the rest of the usual suspects of Delta Squad? You know Marcus needs his buddy, Dom, along with Cole and Baird.

RF: That will depend on sales, the 12″ figures cost a lot to produce so I don’t think we could justify Cole or Baird, but maybe Dom could happen. We are considering a re-fresh of Marcus with the new Gears 2-based head and LED’s in the shoulder armor in place of the sound chip.

• The two-packed figures of Marcus chainsawing a Locust in the chest is brilliant. I remember you telling me about it during last year’s convention. Now that the public can see the prototype, can we expect other action-diorama pieces to follow?

RF: I hope so, a Chainsaw duel could be cool or maybe something that would allow us to do some scenery pieces to use as cover elements for the figures.

• There’s no doubt that these figures are awesome. However, I question the use of the cut joints and non-hinged elbows. Was that purely a design decision or can we expect to see better poseable articulation in future iterations? I think that it’s safe to say that we want these figures to assume any position like Altaiir from Assassin’s Creed which is awesome, and the upcoming Shaw Brothers’ figures.

RF: I think you will see more articulation added in as the line progresses. Initially Epic seemed concerned about articulation compromising the aesthetics so we were more conservative at first, but if you compare Series 1 to Series 2 there have been some major improvements in the articulation of Marcus and from the Locusts in Series 1 to the Therons in Series 2. We will keep pushing the limits to add more in while retaining the look of the character in game.

• How is the line selling thus far?

RF: I think I touched on this earlier, so far so good. I hope to see an increase with the release of Gears of War 2. Also having the figures at Toys R Us for a more affordable price and on Amazon has been a big help in reaching a larger audience.

• Any hints on what to expect, Randy? Come on, whet the appetite of all those Gearheads out there! Thanks so much for your time and we look forward to the tons of great things to come from Neca.

RF: I would love to share more, but for now I have to play it safe as may new items we have done still need to be priced out for production and I don’t want to mention anything specifically that may change. We are continuing to work on lots of figures and weapons from Gears of War and we have Series 3 and Series 4 (both of which are Gears 2 based)
completed and we’re planning for Comic-Con ’09 already.

Gearheads Interviews Major Nelson

Major_Nelson_Interview

Larry Hryb, better known to the Xbox community as Major Nelson, runs one of the biggest gaming communities on the Web at Major Nelson.com. He’s been gracious enough to take time out of his very busy schedule leading up to huge fall releases to do an interview with me and present it here for you, my fellow Gearheads.

Without further ado, here is my interview with Major Nelson.

James: The Xbox 360 has some monster games coming in 2008. Several have already arrived, including GTA, and one is coming soon in Ninja Gaiden 2. Then later in the year you’ve got Fable 2, Halo Wars and Gears of War 2. If you had to say what game you anticipate spending the most time with this year, what would it be? Remember, this is an interview for a Gears of War community, not to sway your opinion or anything. Heh.

Major Nelson: Then clearly, I need to say Gears of War 2..right? I am actually very much looking forward to see what Epic and the team have done !

James: Are you more of a Gears of War or a Halo multiplayer type and why? Don’t tell me you like both equally either. I’ve yet to meet any true gamer who loves both equally. You usually either prefer one or the other.

Major Nelson: At this point, I’d have to say Halo. I enjoy the various game variables they have built into the game to allow an endless number of game types.

James: That being said, what’s your favorite weapon and map in the first Gears multiplayer? How about which character you usually play as on both the COG and the Locust side?

Major Nelson: I am COG all the way, and my favorite weapon is the Lancer without a doubt, as is evident my picture here.

James: A few media outlets have criticized your podcast and site as being disingenuous and not as forthright about your connection with Xbox as an employee. They’ve said that you aren’t as forthcoming about your connection as you should be and they cite the PlayStation blog as an example of being straightforward. What would you say to that charge?

Major Nelson: Considering I have a note on my blog about who I work for and a quick search of my name will reveal very quickly who I am and who I work for. I make no effort to hide this.

James: A lot of people assume there is a healthy dislike between Microsoft and Sony. Is this like a Yankees-Red Sox rivalry or more of a friendly rivalry?

Major Nelson: Oh I’d say the answer is somewhere in between. Sony is a solid company and a great competitor in the console space.

James: Sony seems to be gaining some momentum with Metal Gear Solid 4 releasing exclusively on the PS3. How concerned is the Xbox team with the perception that the PS3 is becoming a much more viable purchase?

Major Nelson: I think our strong portfolio and pricing speaks for itself 😉

James: How much do you think Blu Ray winning the high def format wars will impact the console battle?

Major Nelson: It may have indirect impact. What I mean by that it is is in every PS3, so they’re going to have a challenge getting the price down to a more mainstream level.

James: There seems to be a popular perception out there that Microsoft doesn’t view the Nintendo Wii as true competition and that Sony is the main competition for the 360. Is that the case? If it is, aren’t you guys limiting what the 360 can be for the mass market?

Major Nelson: The Wii is certainly a competitor. We’re always evaluating what they’re doing in the market and how we address their success.

James: Should Microsoft still be offering an Arcade SKU when I’ve talked to video game journalists and they tell me that the numbers have shown that most people who download arcade games off of XBLA have a hard drive?

Major Nelson: Now that the Xbox 360 Arcade is at (US) $199, that is the sweet spot for many consumers. It very much has a role in our product line up.

James: Is E the permanent co-host with you now? What makes him an ideal Ed McMahon to your Johnny Carson?

Major Nelson: He is permanent….when he shows up 😉

James: You’ve had a chance to interview some luminaries in the video game industry. My personal favorite podcast interview was with Marty O’Donnell. In fact that was one of my favorite interviews on any podcast ever. Who was your favorite interview and why?

Major Nelson: Certainly Marty is up near the top, although I have to say interviewing Ken Levine (BioShock) is always a blast. He is really plugged into the community, and that is apparent when we speak.

James: Do you think that companies deciding to open up like this publicly is ultimately a good idea given that most of the “unbiased” games journalists claim that these podcasts are essentially nothing more than delivering company messages? On top of that, you also have to answer to angry mobs of 360 fans whenever something goes awry with the service as evidenced with the widespread outages over the 2007 holidays.

Major Nelson: I can’t speak for any other company, but I can tell you that Xbox has a history of having very direct relations with the Community. We made a conscious decision that we wanted to be part of the conversation years ago…other companies are just now starting to realize that which has confirmed the work we’ve being doing.

James: Finally, where would you like to have the podcast go? Are there specific improvements you’d like to make to it?

Major Nelson: I am always looking to see where to take it next. I am working on a few ideas, but nothing to share yet 😉

Pre-Pax Interview With Gears Community Manager ‘Six Okay’

While over at the Epic forums, I had the chance to talk briefly with the new community manager for Gears of War. Here is the Q and A:

* Please tell us your full name and current job title

My name is Justin Korthof, and I’m Community Manager for Gears of War at Microsoft Game Studios.

* How long have you been doing community work for the games industry?

I’ve been involved in online community in one form or another for more than half of my life. I’ve been having a blast doing community for the games industry specifically for about two and a half years now, and have had the pleasure of working on several different types of games (mostly shooters) on nearly every major platform out there.

* What are your current plans to make sure everyone has an exciting time waiting for Gears of War 2 to ship this fall? What type of experience can the fans expect from you and Microsoft when it comes to keeping the community updated and involved in the Gears of War universe?

Keeping people excited isn’t going the be a problem. Everywhere I’ve been looking lately I see people – gamers and non-gamers alike – who are really excited about this game. What I’m focused on right now is making the experience of being a Gears fan as rich as it can be. That means that I’ll be doing a lot of different things, starting with gearsofwar.com.

Our web team has already developed a great new website, and we’re working hard every day to add several new features to the site that will make it an even cooler experience for fans. One of those features is the new Community Update that will be starting during PAX. We’ve already been doing some small weekly updates on the website since E3. In response to fan requests, I’m going to be enhancing that feature a lot. There’s still a ton of planning going on for those updates, but we’re exploring all of the stuff that Gearheads have been requesting – developer diaries, exclusive looks at art and screenshots, community Q&A’s. You’ll have to keep checking the site to see what goodies we come up with, though.

Add to all of that some amazing stuff that marketing has in the works to support the launch, and I think it’s going to be a really exciting couple of months. But it’s not going to stop there. I can’t say too much yet about what comes after launch, but it’s worth mentioning that community support won’t stop on November 7th. I’m looking forward to playing with you guys online, and… well, I should probably stop there for now.

* How often will you be in contact with Epic and relaying the information you are allowed to share with us? ( Daily, Weekly, Bi monthly, or monthly)

I’ve already gone down to visit the guys at Epic, and I keep regular contact with them as well. They’ve been extremely supportive of everything, and have thrown in a ton of great community support ideas. We’re all working very hard to ensure that everyone is on the same page, and to make sure that you guys are getting the most thorough and up-to-date information about the upcoming game and the entire Gears of War universe.