The Average Gamer

Rod Fergusson: “We didn’t change Gears of War to lure more female gamers”

Earlier this week I interviewed Rod Fergusson, executive producer on Gears of War 3. Fergusson has been working at Microsoft for a decade, producing such luminary games as Counter-Strike for the Xbox, Blood Wake and Microsoft Train Simulator (hey, it sold over a million units – don’t knock it). He’s beein working with Epic Games since 2005 and, among other things, controls the entire Gears of War brand.

The Gears of War games are the only console shooter series that I really enjoy, for a number of reasons. First, and most importantly – split-screen co-op. I love the instant collaboration and the sense of working towards a common goal but I’m sure as hell not going to put a second set-up in the study to play a game with my boyfriend.

Secondly – the characterisations. There’s plenty of narrative that helps motivate you beyond “shoot-everything-that-moves”. I loved Dom’s character development in Gears 2 and the relationships between Baird, Marcus, Dom and (of course) the Cole Train are always good for a laugh.

Thirdly, CHEEVOS. Gears of War was the first game to properly incorporate achievements for co-op players, for which I am very grateful. Finally – grenades and the chainsaw bayonet. My analogue stick aiming skills are woefully inadequate for most shooters and the power of that chainsaw and the grenades gives no-hopers like me a fighting chance.

Rod "@GearsViking" Fergusson - Executive Producer of for Gears of War

I talked to Fergusson about Gears and how Epic Games are appealing to the female gamer. Here’s what he had to say:

One of the things that I’m very happy about is that Anya’s on the box now. She’s not just sitting in her pencil skirt doing nothing and talking in your ear. Can you tell me more about the decision behind that?

Rod Fergusson: Yeah, it really comes out of two places – one is that we wanted it for the gamers. When you go to a poster signing and you go to like, a comic-con or something where you get a chance to meet fans face-to-face, you’re surprised at how many female gamers actually play Gears of War. It’s got a reputation of being this thick-necked testosterone, male-oriented game and so to find all these female players was kind of surprising. Part of the decision of having female characters is to allow for female gamers to actually have that reflection of themselves in the game. Like you’ve seen downstairs even.[referring to the twenty games journalists below us in the hands-on multiplayer preview] I think probably yourself and others…

Yeah, there’s like three of us [female games writers] downstairs.

RF: Lauren [Wainwright] downstairs; she picked Anya – she wanted to be the woman in the game, right? So from that perspective it was like, okay how do we help our fans have what they want to have? See them personalise their experience in the game.

"You see Anya with a bayonet"

The other side is that from a fiction standpoint, Gears of War 3 is really about the end of the coalition, the end of civilisation, the end of the military. Things have become more desperate so that notion that even Anya having to pick up arms and become a soldier and fight for her life… the sense of survival is really a really quick indicator that the world has changed. I mean, you look at the box and you see Anya with a bayonet, with that look on her face. It immediately tells you that it’s different; something’s changed in the world, so we wanted it from that perspective too.

Do you have women running around the world? ‘Cause I know there weren’t before. I’m wandering around going “Why is everybody fighting to keep humans alive? You have no women. You’re all gonna die out.”

RF: [laughs] There is that. If you read the comic books, there’s a story called the Barren series and it was really they kind of tried get a little bit into that. Part of the fiction we had was the notion that any women that were fertile were actually shuffled off to try to reproduce and regrow the civilisation, whereas those that were infertile or barren were the ones that became the soldiers. So that was sort of the separation of society. The comic kind of gets into the dark underbelly of that. I mean, it’s already dark but the even darker side of it.

That was kind of where we went with that. We’re sort of like, okay there’s a place – I think their term was “birthing farms”. There’s a place that people go to try to rebuild the human population. Depending on how much you want to dig into that particular thing, it can get pretty interesting.

That’s what I love about working with Karen Traviss on the books is that she’s able to take a lot of stuff that we hint or allude to and go really really deep into it in the novels or Josh Ortega took really deep in the comic books. It’s been fun to explore the other aspects of the franchise beyond just what we’ve shown in the game. Coz some things in the game, it would hurt pace to slow it down and try to explain every single thing. Some things you kind of just have to blow past and hope people can keep up and know there’s another place they can go find it.

I interviewed Mike Laidlaw about gender as well, a while ago. A few people seem to think that maybe it would be easier to attract women because they need “different kinds of play” What do you think of that?

RF: It’s probably true but that’s not something we’re going after for Gears of War. We didn’t change Gears of War to try to lure more female gamers. Part of the what we found was that with even without female characters we had a lot of female gamers. There’s a lot of gamers – female players – who want the experience that is Gears of War – not “Okay, how do we make it more social for the female gamer?” It feels a little pandering to me.

Anya's ready for revenge

So I think the thing is just trying to find the things that all gamers want which is that personalisation; that customisation and how to have a unique experience. That I can be a female character in the world, I can make my gun pink if I want to. That’s a really extreme example, but it’s that notion of personalisation. It’s like why people customise their ringtones and their desktops and that kind of stuff. Let’s get that and try to bring in gamers so that they can personalise their own experience.

From my experience it seems like you’re doing it right anyway, in that we – I’m crap at shooting – and we now have 2 different types of bayonet and a whole lot of grenades, so I’m good. I’m catered for.

RF: Well there you go. The sawed-off shotgun is your friend; all you gotta do is get close and you don’t even need to aim. You just have to get close and you can take somebody out. You’re not good at shooting? Then the sawed off is a good way to go.

My thanks go to Fergusson for the interview. Gears of War 3 is scheduled for release on 20th September 2011. If you pre-order from GAME or Gamestation, you get to access the multiplayer beta in April. Go read my Gears of War 3 multiplayer preview coverage for more details.