Gears of War 2 at the New York Comic Con
It's rare that the journos at videogame events are outnumbered by ardent game fans, but such was the case on Sunday at the New York Comic Convention when an enthusiastic crowd of Gears of War fans packed a large meeting room at the Jacob Javits Convention Center on Manhattan's waterfront. Many, like me, had already read the enlightening "Game Informer" cover story on Gears of War 2, so, did it make sense to be there? Would Epic Games say anything new -- anything at all? I didn't have much hope when they showed the same short, bloody-red trailer that most of us had already seen.
I could dwell on the fact that Epic Games president Mike Capps only half-jokingly stated that money was the most important part of making games. Money's a fact of life, and you can't begrudge the head of a company his ducats. I could dwell on the fact that few new things were talked about beyond the magazine article, but that holding back is marketing and PR-oriented: Leave 'em hungry and they'll come back for more.
The primary topic of discussion was the matter of writing for the game. To many, the script was the weakest piece of the generally brilliant Gears of War puzzle. While Capps acknowledged that the writing was lacking, he also shone a bright light on the process of scripting a mega-game that's so hotly anticipated. Once again half-jokingly, Capps exuberantly called Joshua Ortega "our poor writer bitch" who has to deal with the changing whims of the designers all the time, at which point Ortega sheepishly grinned.
What would you do if your boss called you a bitch before 500 people? I'll tell you what I'd do. While I yearn to please anyone who hires my gun, frankly, I don't care how much money anyone would be willing pay me for writing -- if anyone ever had the audacity to call me their "writer bitch," I would walk out the door and probably spit in someone's smug face. In the beginning, there was the word and the word was sacred, and it still is. I would have said, "Dude, my first book got me well into the six figures because I can write better than the average pencil-necked geek. So forget your fancy, fabulous (insert alliterative expletive) Cliffy B bits and bytes, for even though he's a fellow Pole, I'm outta here if you don't completely respect what I do." But that's just me. Ortega, whom Microsoft provided to Epic for free, kept grinning.
And yet, as Capps explained the writing process when it comes to games, I began to more fully understand and appreciate the rabbit hole from whence he emerged. To him (and to many game makers), it's the artwork and control mechanics (and making money) that are uppermost in designers' minds when they make a game. In fact, according to Capps, Epic employed about 20 psychologists to observe the habits of 30 new user testers each night as they played during the GoW2 game-making process. Imagine the research, the placing of electrodes, the watching of pupils getting bigger and smaller. It's a game in itself! I thought, how cool was that? They've put up maybe $20 million to make a game, and they'll do anything to make sure gamers will like it, including adding the science of medicine and the mind to help.
All of this research about what gamers want eventually yields what could be called the Story/No Story Paradigm. Want story? Ortega and Epic will give it to you. Want to shoot undaunted and chainsaw until your screen is a blood-spattered mess? You'll be able to shut off the story portion of Gears of War 2. The truth, said the prez, is that writing often comes as the last thing in the game, after the rest of the design matrix is in place.
Yet Epic wanted to make the second game in the franchise one that dances the plot and dialogue tango far better than it did in the inaugural effort. Capps said that while the steroid-ridden, square-jawed Marcus Fenix came complete with a very strong characterization, the rest of the story wasn't stellar. This time, the story was designed around more than just the environments that the designers created. There was indeed a place left to tell a tale, however small a place that may have been. Ortega said the company allowed him to explore and create a more complete backstory to make a richer world and, ultimately, a quick, taut user experience.
Other news? There will be a Gears of War comic book around the time the game is released in the fall. The story is supposed to be "bigger, better, more bad ass," according to Capps. There may well be feature-rich downloadable content as was the case with the first game, but news about multiplayer will have to wait a week or two until May. Also, when you take cover, that cover may be moving, so you'll have to move with the cover (which may be something like a giant worm) to stay safe.
Finally, the floor was opened to questions, some of which were too technical and some of which made more sense to plain old fans of the game. For instance, one guy apologetically said he didn't quite like the controls in the first game, and Capps said they've tweaked them carefully to be bigger, better and more bad-ass.
There'll be a ton of talk about Gears of War 2 right up until the fall right here at Crispy and elsewhere throughout the gaming world. But forget the journos and the pundits. We just guide you. You're the ones with the true power. So when you get your hands on GoW2, let us know if it's more bad-ass. And tell us whether you like that story by the "poor writer bitch."