Interview with Gears of War: Judgment Level Designer Jim Brown

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Epic-Jim-Brown-01Gears of War: Judgment’s release is just around the corner on March 19th, and I recently received the opportunity to not only get some hands-on time with the campaign, but also interview the lead level designer at Epic Games, Jim Brown.

We have to thank Xbox Australia, EB Games and, of course, Epic Games for facilitating, organising and hosting the event. And a massive thanks to Jim Brown, who has worked on the Gears of War franchise now for a decade.

He is a consummate professional and very personable, which put everyone at ease. I actually spoke to him outside of our interview time and will add in some of those tidbits at the bottom of the interview. And no, there were no “off-the-record” details or information relayed – not like I would write them out anyway – so don’t hold out hope.

Please enjoy the interview!

First of all, thanks for being here and doing all of this; we greatly appreciate it. So, we’ve heard that the fans’ opinions really influenced the direction of the game, but did the team at Epic Games already have an idea of where they wanted to go with this entry in the series before polling gamers?

No, we really weren’t sure where we wanted to go. The one thing we knew was that we didn’t just want to do another ‘Gears’. We wanted to do something special, try something new and challenge ourselves along the way. And the Baird thing kinda caught us off guard a little bit as well, because he’s always been a supporting character. But what we found was that, because he’s a smart-ass and sarcastic and all of those things, he really says what gamers are thinking in their heads a lot of times so people identify with him a lot more. And, even in the worst case conditions, he’s a very interesting character and so he brought a lot to the table. And, he was the one character whose story – out of the whole Delta Squad – we never told; never in the comics, never in the novels and never in any of the games. So this was really a good opportunity for us to tell his story.

See, I would have thought that Cole would be the biggest fan favourite after Marcus and Dom…

Yeah, he definitely is, but by the end of ‘Gears 3’ and looking at some of the novels, a lot of his story had already been told as well; going back to visit his home town, his missing his Mother… we actually built a whole section of the game around him. Plus the beta and he had his own special downloadable content and his own multiplayer map and so…

He’s had enough of the spotlight!

Yeah, exactly. But yes, he is a great character which is one of the reasons we brought him back here. He’s also Baird’s best friend so they play off each other very well. He’s a little bit different in this game, though, people will see; we re-did his character art – obviously because he is 20-25 years younger – but we also re-did all of his audio to try and capture that younger, more energetic feel as he’s not quite as worn down and war-weary as in previous games.


How much potential did you see for further balancing all the weaponry with this being your fourth entry in the series? Obviously, people are always going to be a little vocal about it, especially in regards to multiplayer…

A little?! Yeah, totally, be honest! (Laughter)

Well, in single-player it’s not as much an issue but when they take on multiplayer, people get very specific and outspoken about certain mechanics and how they are balanced when playing against other human opponents.

And that makes sense, because people who play the campaign are in it for fun and the story, but on a particular multiplayer map you’re playing a match however many times over and every little detail matters, for sure. But, now with our new load-out system where you can choose any one of these 5 weapons and 5 grenades to customise your class, so to speak, to play the way you want to play, we wanted to make sure that every weapon filled a very specific role. We didn’t want to have 3 or 4 rifles that all did the same thing but just looked different. So we wanted to make sure that each was tailored towards a specific type of player. So, even though they were all fairly well balanced across the board already, we re-balanced every weapon in the game against that system. We then used that as the basis for the entire game, where as in the past it was the other way around where the single-player came first and the multiplayer was the off-shoot. This time around we used the multiplayer as a baseline and built the single-player based on that.

That’s interesting because multiplayer has always been such a large focus for Gears fans, I would have expected that to have always been the case. Now, one thing I know you can’t talk about is next-generation, but I’m wondering if you guys plan to move forward with Gears of War as your sole focus in the future, continuing its legacy as the premiere Epic Games franchise on future platforms, or have you gotten the itch to do something different?

I would love to say yes; I mean, this is something that is very personal to a lot of us. We’ve been working on it for a decade now and the whole reason we did this one is because so many fans wanted us to and we weren’t done with it. And it’s such a big universe, so there’s any number of directions we can go with it. But we’re still not finished with Judgment yet; we’re still at home working on DLC. So we are constantly building and expanding on the universe as much as we can.


Speaking of DLC, I wonder if you can tell us if it will be multiplayer heavy as that has been the trend?

Uh, the DLC is gonna be what the DLC is gonna be. (Laughter) We’re not saying just yet, but stay tuned; in the next few days some details will come out, for sure.

I had to try. (Laughter) Do you think you could explain the Declassified Missions for people who may still be confused as to how that is implemented and what it means for the story?

Sure. So the game is framed around a series of testimonies. You play as Kilo Squad, who are on trial for committing war crimes. And as each members steps forward to give their testimony, you as the player take over and get to live that testimony and kinda make it your own and tell that story. So that’s basically the “public record” of what happened. Now, throughout the game you will be given the opportunity at several points to declassify what really happened along the way, and that gives you some context as to how they bent the rules and did things that ultimately ended with them being on trial. Each of the declassified testimonies changes something; it could be the weapons you’re using, environmental conditions, squad tactics or any number of things – there’s dozens of them in the game. And each time you do it, it’s us giving you the option as a player to say, “yes, I want to change the story” or “yes, I want a little more of a challenge”. And that feeds into the star system where, at the end of a chapter, we rank how well you’ve done and whether you’ve accepted those challenges, completed them and that sort of thing…

And that breeds replay-ability with the star ratings…

Absolutely right, so when you get one set of stars you might think “oh, I only got two, I need to get all three” or “hey, I got silver stars because I’m on normal difficulty. I’m gonna up it to hardcore and see what I can do this time”. And then you can use those stars to unlock things later in the game. What people don’t realise about the declassifieds is the way they change the game further on down the road. So, for example, if you choose to say “hey, here’s a declassified where we’re only going to use shotguns”, two hours down the road when you wish you had your lancer back, and three declassifieds ago you chose to give it up, it’s gonna affect the way you play through that chapter. So they start to have this sort of domino effect and interact with one other, and what happens is that you end up with a more custom experience as opposed to someone else who didn’t choose to do that or had a different combination of events and things they’d done along the way.


I’ve seen today that the number of Locusts on any given battlefield has increased exponentially and the combat is much more frenetic… was that purely a design decision or was it connected to the plot seeing as these are the early days of Emergence Day when you’d expect the Locust army to be at full-strength and pushing their strongest onslaught? 

Both, really. I mean, we wanted it to feel a lot darker and a lot more intense, much like the original ‘Gears’. We wanted to recapture that feeling where the creatures are scary again. Because, as you said, from a story perspective the Locusts at this point are a heck of a lot stronger than they were in later games; there’s more of them, they are bigger and stronger. They have a more powerful and intelligent leader leading the charge, who you chase throughout the game…so from a story perspective, and a gameplay perspective there’s a lot of different reasons for that. Even from a technical perspective we are pushing more enemies than we ever have before on screen at the same time, better lighting, more particle effects, higher frame-rate – so there’s a lot going on there that’s freshened the air.

Just going back as it relates to the star rating system, I have to ask how easy will it be to go back and replay a section to improve your rating? Will it be accessible as part of the main menu system for convenience’s sake?

At the end of each chapter you can immediately choose to continue or replay from that point, so you can say “ooh, I only got one star. Before I know what happens next I want to go replay that and try again.” And the other great thing is that the stars are based on your team’s efforts. So you can bring in a co-op partner, drop-in drop-out, and they can help you essentially get more stars along the way and in turn more rewards for both of you…or the punishment if you do poorly.

Awesome. Well, just to close this out, what is the one thing that you can say to prospective gamers and consumers to sell them on Gears of War: Judgment?

I think that what was really, really important to us as developers was to look at this from fresh eyes. So what we’ve done is created a very special game that is a Gears game; it looks like Gears, it plays like Gears, it feels like Gears, but there’s so much new there. We’ve really approached storytelling, gameplay, weapon balance, everything from a completely fresh perspective. So, I think that it’s going to be really good for first time players while providing a lot of depth for experienced/long time players. And, especially, for people who have taken a break – this is a really good chance to come back and re-experience the franchise from the beginning of the video game timeline.

Great, well thank you so much for your time Jim!

Awesome, thank you.

As mentioned, through natural conversation Jim relayed some further points to me on multiplayer and the new “Smart Spawn System”. I asked him if it was strange or maybe even frustrating to see people playing his levels a certain way and if he was thinking to himself “don’t do that, there’s a great spot up there!” He then reiterated the fact that the new Smart Spawn System prevents him from being able to do that as even he will play the same area over and over again and always be surprised. On multiplayer, Mr. Brown assured me that much work has gone into the server side of things and making sure that the user-experience is as smooth and accommodating as possible online. There are multiple new servers and he promises stability across the board.

Well, that’s all for my interview with Gears of War: Judgment’s lead level designer Jim Brown. As Jim stated, Judgment is a great jumping-off point for anyone who hasn’t played a Gears title before; they and the “Gears Nation” can cast down their Judgment on March 19th, exclusively on the Xbox 360.

I am a graduate of the Bachelor of Interactive Entertainment (w/ major in Games Design) course at Qantm College, Sydney.

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