Gears of War – Campaign Level Progression

A lot of diehard fans will argue how Gears 3 is drastically different from Gears 1.  How is it different though?  I spent some time recording the actions performed by a player in a 20 minute segment of each game and put them side by side.  Although the following statistics are not completely representative of the entire game as a whole, they can give a brief glimpse into the differing design philosophies of each game.

Cinimatics VS. In-Game Dialogue

The most noticeable difference between the two games is the use of cinematics or cutscenes, moments when the player loses complete control to watch either narrative unfold or the characters perform actions outside of the characters realm of possibilities.  Gears 3 doubles Gears 1’s use of cinematics while relying less on in-game dialogue – narrative delivered via conversation of characters during gameplay.  While cinematics can give a designer more control over what the player is seeing and thus, greater impact on their mood, they can often disconnect the player if not executed properly.  In-game narrative can be the middle ground for the player to both pick up story and motivation while still interacting with the world.
It would appear that with a bigger budget and more fans to wow than ever before, Epic decided to focus more on cinematics in their third installment.  In just 20 minutes of gameplay, four major cutscenes occur taking up six and a half minutes of gameplay time.  This seems outrageous when looking at how sparsely Gears 1 takes control away from the player.

So did the film guys just get in there and say “We need cutscenes to tell this giant story.  This is the only way to make players feel connected to these characters!”  Gears 3 aimed to deliver a more Hollywood-like experience and, I do say delivered, but at what cost to the gameplay?  In my honest opinion, and get ready for it, the use of cutscenes not only left the gameplay unharmed, but enhanced it.

I know what you are thinking “Jakobsen… You just flipped my world upside down”.  That’s alright.  Let me guide you through this rough and confusing time my delicate butterflies.

Gears 1 had only two player co-op.  It was really designed for siblings or two best friends to get together and save the world.  As intimate as the environment of Gears 1 is over the later installments in the franchise, the actual experience in itself is more intimate.  You and a close friend are exploring a new world with new rules and mechanics not seen before.  It would be easy to go several minutes without speaking.  And if you are conversing, the second important dialogue occurs in-game, it’s fairly easy to hush your buddy and listen to it.

Now – fast forward to Gears 3.  With 4 player co-op, this game exploded into a party game of sorts.  You get your group of friends together, crack open a drink of choice and compete for higher scores.  You are shooting grubs while reminiscing about the old times when you all climbed the roof of the high school because it was “cool”.  You ain’t got the time nor the bandwidth to pay attention to dialogue between characters in the game.  That’s when the cinematics, or cutscene, comes into play.  When the cutscene starts , everybody shuts the F*** up.  A cinematic is a great cue to the player that some important stuff is about to go down and they should listen.  It gives the player a chance to breath and disconnect from their previous attitude of “kill everything” amplified by the presence of three friends, to a calmer state more capable of accepting story and plot devices.
While it can be argued that in-game narrative can offer a more immersive experience, it’s not always the desired effect.   There is a time and a place for everything, and in this case, Gears 3 gave their players a chance to cool off and listen to the story instead of competing for their attention during gameplay, while at the same time letting them completely enjoy the game without having to worry about hearing the story.  This aspect alone is a fairly prime example of how Gears evolved through the series and what Epic’s focus turned toward.

Pacing/Progression

Comparing the progression charts, it starts to become apparent that Gears 3 focused more on large chunks of gameplay while Gears 1 has a more fluid pacing, interweaving combat and exploration closer together and in smaller bursts.  Gears 1 explored a more intimate space.  My brother and I played the series together and he summed up Gears 1 in a pretty simple sentence.  “I never felt safe when it was dark in Gears 1”.  You never knew what was around a corner in Gears 1.
Gears 1 combat was short and sporadic. Due to Gears 3 having to accommodate up to four players, spaces are larger and combat areas are extremely apparent.  Gears 1 could hold a sense of mystery with every room because a Locust could come out of anywhere, potentially only lasting a few seconds.  None the less, these skirmishes kept the player on edge.  These short skirmishes are less worth your while, border lining annoying, when four players will instantly demolish the enemy, often some players never knowing it had even occurred.
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The use of large chunks in Gears 3 also directly relates to the experience it is trying to deliver.  It’s a game for a group of friends to play together.  The larger chunks are easier to digest as a group then constantly changing it up.  Friends just want to kill stuff together, not necessarily sight see.  This also explains the lack of exploration in Gears 3.  Including cinematics, players are spending only 46% of their time outside of combat.  Gears of War 3 = Kill Everything!
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In the spirit of “Kill Everything”, Gears 3 replaces exploration with unique combat moments.  In this particular chapter, players are given a chance to commandeer a catapult like device from the enemy and use it against them.  This small pace-breaker reinvigorates the combat and brings momentum to the player in exchange of the slower moments of Gears 1’s exploration/in-game dialogue.

Conclusion

It’s interesting how both these games can deliver such a different experience while maintaining a near identical set of mechanics – all due to a slight change in target audience.  I cannot sit here and say, from a progression sense, that either one got it wrong; both delivered the intended experience with near perfect execution.  Although I earnestly enjoyed Gears: Judgment, I think they hurt themselves by attempting to reach to broad an audience, thus never nailing one audience.  That’s a completely different blog post though.

Bonus: Design Tips

I am conducting all this research to prepare myself to design a level in the Gears 1 level editor for PC.  It would be foolhardy to not mention  a couple tips I picked up from the exercise.

Tip 1

Remind the player what they are doing.  Both Gears 1 and 3 would have unique sound bites after long fights or exploration just to remind the player of their goal.  It’s subtle enough the player doesn’t become annoyed, but helpful enough to move the player along.

Tip 2

Target Audience and Pacing!  Gears 1 doesn’t let the player ever feel safe.  As I am designing a level that can, at the most, be played by two people, I need to take advantage of how Epic used small encounters to keep the player on their toes.

Tip 3

Sufficiently set up the level.  Both games use a small cinematic to set the stage for the level.  Gears 3 uses grand cinematics, but Gears 1 accomplishes the same feat with simple flyovers.  Let the player know what they are about to experience.  Let them get anxious.
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