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PAX 08: Lead GoW2 artist and writer talk Lancer polys, deaths and comics

This past weekend, during our PAX 2008 coverage, we got the opportunity to sit down and chat about all things Gears of War 2 with Epic Games senior artist Pete Hayes and lead writer Josh Ortega. During the twenty minute conversation, we learned all sorts of information about Gears 2's art, discussing with Pete the changes that were made to improve the Gears 2 Lancer. Improvements including a complete remodeling to make the Lancer nearly three times the polygons as the Gears 1 model. No joke!

During the second part of our interview, we talk about Gears comics, character inspiration and other general story related bits the with Mr. Josh Ortega who also opens up about the hype surrounding the "new and improved" Gears 2 storyline We were also promised that Gears 2 will not leave us with a Halo 2-style ending. A promise we fully expect Mr. Ortega to live up to.

Put on your reading glasses, click towards the break and read our complete Gears of War 2 interview.

Interview with Pete Hayes

With all the gore in Gears of War, how difficult is it to stay within the rating board's requirements to meet a certain rating and how much does the rating board hold you back from doing what you want? Specifically speaking, was it the ESRB that made you remove the Locust execution animation where the characters' arms are ripped off and then beat with them?

Pete Hayes: We're not held back that much. I think that was one of the only things that we prepped for and I don't know specifically if that was because of the ESRB or ratings concerns or if it was just something that wasn't high on the priority list and we had other things we wanted to focus on time wise to make sure we got those things perfect in the game versus adding yet another execution. We have a set of very cool executions which we definitely wanted to expand upon from Gears 1, so there's a bit more variety. I thought the idea was kinda cool, kinda silly and over the top as far as ripping an arm off and beating someone over the head. To be honest, I never really got the details and I think it was more so that we had to prioritize because there's so many things you can put it in the game and that's one of those things that didn't make it in.

As far as people hearing about it first then being really excited for it, that's unfortunate and that happens sometimes. When people play the game and see the other executions and the foundation of all the Gears 1 kind of gore and just the over the top action, I think they'll be very, very pleased and won't miss it one bit.

Was there any content that you wanted to put in Gears 2 that just didn't make it into the final game?

Pete: Honestly, I don't think so. I think that the process as far as creating the game and the production pipeline is so streamlined now. With Gears 1 it was a little bit crazier, because what the game was kinda morphed and changed over time. But once it came out and it was so successful and everyone enjoyed it so much, we knew we had a solid foundation to build on. So, all we had to do was expand on it. We did all the concepts, modeling and so much of the asset creation is quickly done on the front end of the project. Knowing that, I don't think so. I'm sure they've always got ideas percolating for future projects but who knows where they'll end up.

You mentioned assets, did you re-use a lot of the original Gears' assets in Gears of War 2?

Pete: Absolutely, there's a ton of assets that came from Gears and obviously we tried to touch everything as much as possible to give them an update. As artists we always have something that always bugged us and one of those things for me was the Lancer, you know, the assault rifle. That was the very first thing I did for Gears 1. Obviously, that was done how many years ago and my skill level as an artist wasn't anything close to what it is today. So, that was one of those things where I said you gotta let me redo the Lancer it has got to be completely refreshed, new low poly, new unwrap, make it super crisp and clean. That's our hero weapon. Marcus was given an up-res and Anya was given an up-res to almost where she was completely redone. The Hammerburst was completely re-modeled from scratch, that got a design and functionality tweak and the model was redone. There were definitely assets that worked and we were happy with and were 100% the same in Gears 2 as Gears 1. Then, obviously, there is tons of new stuff and lots of tweaked and refined things as well.

Speaking specifically about the Lancer, it being the iconic weapons in the Gears universe, how careful were you to not refine or tweak it too drastically where fans would be angered by the changes? Were you scared to change too much?

Pete: It wasn't even a matter of scared, it's just that we won't and knew straight out that you can't mess with it because it was branded too heavily. I didn't want to mess with it at all and the only things we tweaked were out of necessity was the scope on top. It was very low res and didn't really look that good, so that was a necessity thing. It was just that the design was revamped slightly. But when I said we redid the Lancer, it wasn't so much the high poly, it was that the original Lancer was 1500 polys and the new low poly Lancer is in the 3500 range. So, we almost tripled the amount of polys we used on the low poly in game. It's like three times the visual clarity. But the high poly, what's used to define the look of it and what translates the detail, we didn't change at all, keeping it 100% original to keep the branding. It's such an iconic weapon.

Are you saying that in Gears 2, the new and improved Lancer is 3500 polys in game?

Pete: Yes it is.

Is that because Epic was able to improve the Unreal Engine and give you more room to use higher poly weapons or was the use of lower poly weapons in Gears 1 due to time constraints?

Pete: It wasn't even a time thing. Obviously, we've made huge improvements in the performance of UE3 engine. I think more so, when we started Gears 1 and the Lancer being the first weapon, we weren't sure how much budgeting we'd have for certain assets. So, it was a production pipeline thing where every single weapon had to be in the 1500 poly range because we didn't know how much space we had or how much memory for the weapons we had. When we hit Gears 2, we knew, okay we can have some larger poly things in the game. And this being the most important weapon in the game, it's bigger than some of the other weapons but it has to be because it is Gears. It was just a conscious decision to give it more room to breath.

Looking at the overall art inspiration for Gears 1, you were all about "destroyed beauty." Going into Gears 2, was that your same art focus?

Pete: In Gears 2, with environments, it was more variety, bigger, more expansive, larger battles all the stuff Cliff talked about. All the marketing and just to have more and everything being bigger. There's definitely some environments that have that Gears 1 flavor, then there's some that are totally, completely different and unique. We don't want to spill any surprises, but people are going to be surprised. I get blown away playing it, because I just work on my little part of it and don't see the game being assembled. I just wrapped up my stuff for the project just three weeks ago and I've been doing nothing but playing the game, trying to help find bug and looking at my stuff to make sure my stuff is implemented correctly. Then there's different environments where I'm blown away and get goosebumps. Obviously, I'm biased but I think people will be really surprised by how diverse and beautiful the game is.

Critics of Gears have categorized the game as being a brown, dull and colorless world. What do you say to those who thinks it's just a typical gritty-dark game?

Pete: I think Gears 1 is the game we wanted to be. With Gears 2, if you look at the assault demo and video, there are huge, open, expansive vistas with beautiful sunsets, trees and sun. If you look at the sinkhole demo, the one I'm doing at PAX that Cliff did at E3, there's definitely a huge range of colors and action going on. I don't think it was ever a conscious decision to introduce more stuff, it was just how the game grew and evolved. It's one of those things. We don't want to spoil it, but play the game then come talk to us and see if you feel the same.

Finally, give me three adjectives to describe the general feel of Gears of War 2?

Pete: Bigger badder and more badass!

Come on Pete, we've heard that one-liner too much already. Give me your, Pete's own, adjectives to describe Gears 2.

Pete: How about ... visceral, frantic and intense.

Works for us.

Interview with Josh Ortega

Can you explain your role in Gears of War and how it changed with Gears 2?

Josh Ortega: Actually, I didn't work on the first Gears. That was Eric Nylund and Susan O'Connor. Those were the two writers, especially Susan, who wrote the original Gears. I was actually brought in on the second one, because there was an increased focus on the story and we wanted to explore some new stuff. So, I guess they figured to go with a different writer and try some new stuff.

Before coming onto the project, how big of a fan were you of the Gears of War franchise?

Josh: Actually, it was one that I just played a little bit. I think everyone in the games industry is notoriously behind on getting to play the games they want to. For me, Gears was one of those games. I really had enjoyed it on the brief, the little I played internally on the Xbox checking it out. Then I was like, I want to play that, sit down and immerse in it, to beat the whole game and fully get it. Then Eric Nylund, the guy who works on the Halo novels, he introduced Cliff and I along with with Chris Taylor from GPG, John Sutherland from MGS and Bill Harms from GPG and also Impaler from Top Cow. It was a fun lunch, me and Cliff hit it off right away and just got along very well. We had similar ideas, but it didn't look like I would be free for Gears 2 because I had to work on something else. That ended up getting canceled, a comic book related project, and since I was known as the comic book guy they said you have to work on this game. So, it freed up where the Gears opening was there which was awesome and I was like, "holy shit!" I didn't think I was going to have a chance to work on it even though me and Cliff wanted to work together, but the schedules just weren't aligning. But then came the opening.

I started playing it and loved the game, so I moved my Gears playing up in the queue. I played it and it was awesome, I was just blown away by it. I even went back to it when we were doing stuff for Gears 2 knowing that I had to play multiplayer with the press, I knew I had to get better. Active reload is the key and when everyone asks me the secret to Gears I say active reload. Dude, I couldn't beat Raam until I figured that out, even on normal. Then I kicked his ass on hardcore then insane. I've gotten better and I just wanted to polish the skills. Also, I just wanted to get re familiarized again after being in the Gears 2 world for so long, to just go back and get everything fresh again. I think I played through it almost three times.

Being honest, the original Gears wasn't hailed by critics for its story, so why are you putting such a focus on the storyline this time around? Why weren't you happy just being that violent Gears game without the deeper story?

Josh: The story was the one thing people criticized about Gears 1 which was somewhat valid and somewhat not. I don't think Gears 1 was a bad story, I just say sparse. Which, in a way, as a writer coming on, that's brilliant. Because, you know, there's tons to tell. The worse thing would have been to overwrite it, because right now everyone's curious and questioning all these things. So, it was fun to come in and finalize things. I mean, a lot of the ideas from Cliff, Rod Fergusson and Mike Capps had a lot of ideas on the story, but it was almost like a ground level. It wasn't a complete ground level, but it was the next best thing where the franchise was at a big branching off point where we had to go in and reexamine everything.

We've heard about Carmine coming back in some form, can you explain this a bit more?

Josh: I can't explain all of it, but I can say it's a brother. It's a Carmine brother. You'll definitely get to meet him, but as far as how it goes, how it unfolds and the fate of this Carmine, you'll have to just wait and see what happens. That's always the joke though, people saying that if you bring back Carmine won't you just kill him off again? So yeah, you'll get to see a good amount of Carmine who's totally a different character, but has some similarities.

What about the Locust Queen, will we see or learn more about her?

Josh: You'll definitely learn more, totally learn more. But to what extent, when and all that stuff you'll have to wait. Like I tell everyone in the interviews, can't you just wait to ask about this stuff until after November once everyone has had time to blog about it? That's going to be a blast, I can't wait to talk about the intricacies of the story.

Can you tell us about any main character deaths in Gears 2 or even if there will be any in the story?

Josh: That's the beautiful thing about Gears, the hallmark of Gears. Characters dying. It always happens, always, and is one of the big things about Gears 1. Like with Kim, that shocked me and I was like "whoa, I thought that guy was my leader and he's gone?" But then I got it, they were setting up the Marcus thing and I got what was happening. Same thing with Carmine, that shocked me and it was so brutal, they take him out and it's like one of the greatest deaths in video games. It's just so random and the way it hits, it's like real life, ugly violence ... but in a good way.

With the introduction of new Gears characters like Dizzy, were there any other personalities that you wanted to see in the game, but didn't make the final cut?

Josh: No, I don't think there were any major people that were cut out, but we did have other ideas for other characters. Cliff did warn me early on to write to the technology and being prepared for that. But yeah, there were one or two characters that we wanted to put in that, early on, we just agreed we didn't have any time to model. Pete needs some rest. [Laughs] We were just so happy with Ty and Dizzy, because the modelers did such a brilliant job with the art and it's fun for me coming from the comic book world to work with Chris Perna and the other guys. Those guys are such geniuses at what they do and it's so fun to write something and see it render, then go "oh shit, that's what that looks like?" Because you kind of envision it in your head, but then they do their magic and it's this whole other thing. In this case, Ty and Dizzy were both modeled and concepted by the time I came on, so I had to write to their look. Then I defined the character, like naming Ty and stuff, but Dizzy had his name.

So you formed personalities around the concept art and models?

Josh: Yeah, then we worked on the personalities, but looks didn't change terribly. Ty is so cool, because of his armor being so different and cool looking. I think he and Dizzy are going to be two fan favorites.

I'm already a huge fan of Dizzy and his lovely hat.

Josh: I know!

Pete: He's my favorite in multiplayer and has some of the best lines.

Josh: Oh God, I know! His stuff is good! Peter Jason plays him, who also did a lot of John Carpenter films and worked on Deadwood, did a brilliant job on Dizzy. There were some internal folks at Epic who said he was a little over the top and didn't think it would fly. I said it was good though and actually reeled the character back from the person who he was based on. The real guy, the real Dizzy who I based the work off of was way more outrageous. He was a guy from Yazoo city Mississippi where I got stuck some day and met this guy named Berto. There was this line he said that I wanted to get in the game, which was where Berto was giving his food recommendations to us. He said something like, "ya'll gotta go down to Mittendorf's, they've got some gooood groceries, some gooood groceries." I was like, oh my god, groceries? Who says that stuff? So I put that in the game and put other speech patterns in there, some deep southern Mississippi accent stuff.

Can you tell us about your work with the Gears of War comic books?

Josh: That's one of those fun things that's out there now. Jay Stratton is our new Gear introduced outside the video game universe which is really fun. The novel is going to introduce another new character, but the comic will release first on October 15th from DC Wildstorm. It's fun, you can already see some images online, he's a younger guy who's a part of Delta squad in the six months between Gears 1 and Gears 2.

Will you be writing other Gears comics or novels in the future?

Josh: Oh yeah, it's an ongoing series. My big idea was to introduce a new Gear which is a big thing me and Rod Fergusson talked about. I wanted to do stuff in the comic that we can't do in the game, that's the brilliance of the comic or novel. Like, blow up whatever you want, make the biggest fucking vista you want, because the artist can draw that then. Whereas the modelers, it takes forever to do the good work they do. Not to say that it's easy on the comic artist, it's still hard but it isn't modeling, it's concept art. Concept guys burn through stuff where you'll see then create stuff in a week, which is fast.

So, you're pretty much saying that comics give you the freedom to explore scenarios and events that you couldn't do in a video game?

Josh: Totally, that's the brilliance of it. We decided to do a new character then, because that's something that I knew we couldn't do in Gears 2.

Talking about the Gears 2 story again, will we be seeing a Halo 2-style ending or will there be a bit more closure to the story?

Josh: You'll get nice closure. This is definitely a big thing for me, especially coming from a serial medium like comics which is similar to TV, I think it's important. If it's a franchise you, of course, don't want to end things too much where there couldn't be room to expand should you decide to. At the same time I'm huge on it feeling complete and it having an ending, a beginning, middle and end. And it has it. The response has been really good, over at Epic people were like "holy shit!" I'm far enough away from it now where I can see that. It's a dark story at parts, which is hard to write and I had to talk to the actors to be sure they could play that stuff. It's hard to write, you don't want to be there all the time and it's a weird place to go to channel that. But I think it's really gorgeous, it's that destroyed beauty thing again where we pulled it off with there being beauty yet ugly darkness. It's still Gears though, it's comedy and it's still fun where there will be parts that'll crack your ass up. We have some scenes, like a call scene, that's just fun and it got people rolling. Get ready to be shocked. I don't want to hype it up too much, just get ready for an interesting ride.

Sounds like Gears of War 2 will be ten times better than the original.

Josh: The first one was good and if we can find a way to do ten times better, than I'd be impressed. That sounds hard, but sure, why not? I say the original Gears was like the ten, but sure, let's go to eleven. Like Spinal Tap, right? Let's go to eleven.

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