Games

'Gears 5' Director on His Career of Salvaging Game Development Trainwrecks

A lengthy chat with Rod Fergusson about his long road in games, going from a fixer who helped ship 'Counter-Strike' for Xbox, 'Gears of War,' and 'BioShock Infinite,' to running a studio.

by Patrick Klepek
Sep 11 2019, 7:00pm

When Microsoft purchased the Gears of War franchise from Epic Games in 2014, it hired someone from the game’s past to help lead its future, producer Rod Fergusson. This week, Fergusson and his studio, The Coalition, shipped their second game, Gears 5, and the first one directed by Fergusson himself. It’s a departure for a person best known as a fixer, a person who comes in and helps games finally ship. He was part of why the original Gears of War got out the door, and came in as a closer for BioShock Infinite.

But Fergusson has been making video games for a long time, long enough to have a credits page that spans nearly two decades, and it’s a list includes a lot of games called not called Gears of War or BioShock Infinite. It’s also a list that lives on multiple places on the Internet, including Wikipedia. Now, look: Wikipedia is a great source of generally reliable information, but it’s also edited and maintained by random Internet people, so it’s often full of shit, too.

Knowing that, I thought: Why not use Wikipedia’s potentially flawed and incorrect listing of every game Fergusson has worked on as a guide for an interview? Why not use Wikipedia’s alleged timeline of Fergusson’s development history to lead us from the past to the present?

And hey, if we end up fixing a few mistakes on Wikipedia along the way, great. (We did.)

Maybe we could finally learn why he’s in the credits for Fat Princess...if, well, he’s actually in the credits for Fat Princess! And Lost Planet 2! And the original Counter-Strike port to Xbox!

...and Microsoft Train Simulator? (That one is is absolutely true, by the way.)

Over the course of nearly an hour, we spoke about what it’s like to tell people something they’ve worked on isn’t going to make it into the final game, how games like Gears of War and BioShock ended up “on fire,” how Fergusson approaches running a studio in a culture where more people are coming forward if they experience harassment or toxicity, and more.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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VICE Games: To lead into Gears 5—OK, Wikipedia? Not reliable! But I wanted to use it as a way to guide through your career and how we get through to this moment by going through all the games that Wikipedia claims you worked on...

Rod Fergusson: [laughs]

VICE Games: ...and tell me the first thing that comes to your head. I'm going to name off these credits, and maybe they're incorrect and then we can work on fixing Wikipedia? The first one it lists that you worked on was Half-Life: Counter-Strike. It doesn't list what you did—Wikipedia doesn’t list this any of the games—so what comes to mind when I say that?

That is not the first game I worked on.

VICE Games: Good, then we've already established that Wikipedia is wrong. What comes before that?

There's two games that come before that. The first game that comes before that is Microsoft Train Simulator. It was a PC game, and it was the first Microsoft train sim. [I was] working with a UK developer Kuju. Xbox hadn't hit yet, and halfway through that project, Xbox came around. I was in the simulations group, which we renamed to Aces, and they wanted a game that was in the window of launch. It wasn't going to be at the hardware launch but within the first year, and so we worked with a developer called Stormfront. They had a really crazy boat water tech that was amazing. That became Blood Wake.

I was the only producer at Microsoft that, within a six-month period, had shipped both a PC title and a console title, with Microsoft Train Simulator and, then, Blood Wake.

VICE Games: Where does Counter-Strike come into the equation?

I'm trying to think about whether to do the long version or the short version.

What ends up happening after Blood Wake is we tried to start another studio inside the company, and I go away for a little while to try and do internal development at Microsoft, and it's not quite working for a number of reasons. I decide I want to go back to publishing because that seems the right way, and so when I try to reenter publishing, they said, "Well, we have this project called Counter-Strike for the Xbox that you might be interested in." And I went: "Yes, I am interested in that."

We're starting to focus on it [and] we're like, "Hey, we're not seeing a lot of progress on this." Basically, there were two sides to Counter-Strike. There was the PC version [a spin-off, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero] and the console version. We went down to Dallas, to Ritual [Entertainment], to find out what the status of the game was, and we found out that they hadn't even started the console version, and we were promising it that holiday.

VICE Games: [laughs]

We were like, "Oh, this is going to be a problem." [laughs] I phoned back to Bonnie Ross, who was the head of the studio of at the time. I told her "It's done, you need to cancel this project. There's no way we're going to make this for holiday. This is done." She's like, "No, we can't do that. We said we were going to ship it, we need to ship it." So I just tried to come out with something outrageous that where was no way she was going to say yes to, so I was like, "OK, well, if you say that, then what I need is the engineering lead of every studio in publishing, I need to take the lead developer from Ritual in Dallas and move them up to Seattle to work on it, and I need to form a skunkworks team of an internal development, and we'll do it ourselves inside the building at Microsoft and I'll lead it." I was waiting for her to go "Well, there's no way we can do that," and she said "Yeah, sure, let's do it." [laughs] Wait, what are we doing now?

So basically, we essentially Counter-Strike Xbox in, essentially, I think, four-to-six months?

VICE Games: It was the first console version of the game, right? I remember that being a big sticking point at the time. "Hey, we're getting Counter-Strike and it's on a console and it's on Xbox."

Yeah, and it was nuts because we had dedicated servers. You could convert your Xbox into a server. People were running multiple Xboxes. On launch day, I'm on the Microsoft [network, so] I'm connected to a pretty big pipe, so I offer up my Xbox to the world and see what happens. You see players coming in, playing matches on my server. It was a cool experience.

That was really what gave me the taste of internal development. Leading that team through that hard pressure, driving every day, it was just nuts, but it was something I got a taste for. When I surfaced from that, they were like, "Hey, you had really great success working with a big dog developer," which is what they considered Valve at the time. Big dog developers are hard to work with, so they were like "Somehow, you navigated this path. You got all the approvals and you got the stuff working and you actually delivered this project on time. That's amazing. How would you like to take on another big dog?" And I'm like "OK, sure, these are interesting challenges, what's up?"

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And so they're like "So, we have this thing, it's called Gears of War, you haven't heard of it, we're working with Epic Games and it's something that we'd like you to jump onto." I was like "OK, cool." That was...January 2005? [Editor's Note: In the two years between Counter-Strike and Gears of War, Fergusson worked on two "unannounced projects" he wouldn't disclose.]

I go onto Gears 1 and it's on fire. It's just not going to ship. Epic was doing Unreal Tournament 3 and Gears at the same time, but they only had one producer, so I wasn't getting build notes. I wasn't getting milestones delivered. I was just like, "This isn't working at all." But at the same time, I got used to the firefighter approach of trying to save a project, like the way I saved Counter-Strike. It was this notion of "OK, the best thing for me and for the game and for the company is for me to actually quit Microsoft and go join Epic and go on the ground and deliver the game there." That's what I did. I basically interviewed with them, they needed another producer, they'd already worked with me for five, six months, and so they were like "Yeah, this is great."

I freaked out my wife. She was totally not understanding what the hell was going on. I kind of signed the papers and was telling her, "Well, we should have an easter egg hunt with everybody in the company." She's like, "What, how are we doing an easter egg hunt with everybody's kids in the company?" "I'm number 63, there's not that many kids. There's probably 30?" "No, no, no, stop, stop, stop. You're leaving a company of 63,000 to work for one of 63 and take a paycut to do it?" And I went, "Yeah, pretty much. That's pretty much it. That's a great summation of what I'm doing with my career right now." [laughs] Plus, we were leaving Seattle, and the idea of leaving Seattle to go living in the South in North Carolina...we had a bunch of preconceived notions and none of them were accurate, but that's what we thought? When I moved from Canada down to Microsoft the first time, [I started a cycle where I] I always go ahead and start the job and leave her to clean up the mess. Same thing here. "Well, I've gotta go start work in July." I joined Epic in July of 2005 and left her to pack up the house and she jokes that if you look at our driveway in Woodinville, you'll see the claw-marks as they dragged her away. [laughs]

I joined them in July 2005, and basically it was trying to firefight and get things done. They had been working on it for a long time, it was codenamed Warfare, it was supposed to be a Battlefield competitor. They were probably on year five at this point when I joined? They had a development methodology. You look at the Unreal Tournament games, where it was just "we ship it when it's done," "we'll do 100 maps while we wait." Around that time, around 2005/2006, it was when we were getting out of the "it'll be done when it's done" mindset and more into what we call the "fixed ship date" mindset, that idea of "Well, actually, if you pick a date and you hold to that date, and all the sales regions can rally behind it and all the stores can rally behind it and all your marketing partners can rally behind it and everybody believes you, wow, you get this huge amplification." Picking a date and sticking to it is really important. That was something that was new to Epic and something we brought to Gears 1. We picked a date and this was the date we were gonna ship on. That was this driving force.

'They're like 'So, we have this thing, it's called Gears of War, you haven't heard of it, we're working with Epic Games and it's something that we'd like you to jump onto.' I was like "OK, cool.' That was...January 2005? I go onto Gears 1 and it's on fire. It's just not going to ship."

We basically have 18 months to go from some nice art and a little bit of AI and turn that into what became Gears 1. That's what I did. Again, it was probably at most an 80-person team to get Gears 1 done. We had to pull a bunch of people off Unreal Tournament 3 and focus on Gears, so instead of parallel development we essentially made it serial development. We hit lightning in a bottle, we had no idea what we had, it was a miracle project. If you were look at the glideslope of the [chart tracking] bug [fixes]—people talk about having a glideslope landing pattern. Ours was a base jump. It was basically this nightmare finish. We have thousands of bugs to we have no bugs was like...weeks, which was crazy. BioShock Infinite aside, it probably ranks as one of the hardest projects I've ever shipped in my life. That was a true test of "OK, what does it take to rally a team?"

But that was the great thing. I joke about the early days of Epic [but] everybody there was really passionate about shooters. I always said it was like moths to a flame without the unfortunate end; everybody that was there wanted to be there and was passionate to be there and wanted to do it. To rally 80 people to go and deliver Gears 1 wasn't really as hard as it sounds because they were so into it. People who really wanted to deliver the quality of that game. I was there just providing reality checks.

VICE Games: They needed someone to point in a direction.

Yeah, and enable decisions. They had never seen a Gantt chart [a visualised project schedule], they didn't know the idea of linked dependencies [parts needing to finish before others can start]. I'd go into a leads meeting and go, "So, if you link all these tasks together with the people who can do them, it actually goes three months longer than you're thinking." One of the leads at the time, I think it was Lee Perry, who said "Oh, it shouldn't be called Microsoft Projects, it should be called Microsoft Reality" because it was this notion of well, actually, this spreadsheet is not how people actually work. [laughs] You can't do all the things in parallel. You actually have to have linked dependencies. That idea of having someone who is watching over the designers and engineers and saying, "Hey, you can't actually fit that in, what you're trying to do."

When I first got there, the story was supposed to be a hub-spoke story. It was a Wing Commander thing, where there was a base and you'd go off in different directions. When I plotted out the story, I realized you weren't starting the game story until three hours in. I'm going "Guys, we have 18 months to make this game. We can't spend three hours of the game in a prologue, essentially." [laughs] We ended up breaking off all the spokes and laying out the story linearly, to make a story, to make one story.

Then, we had to go and look at the art we had. The Fenix Estate as a beautiful piece of art, but you could not hold gameplay inside. We basically had to rip it apart and rebuild it, basically triple its size inside so you could fight inside it. It was that kind of stuff. We were laying the track in front of the train.

Part of it was figuring out the gameplay. We had all this great art because they kept doing it as engine demos and promo reels and those sorts of things, but the core meat of the gameplay hadn't completely settled, so knowing combat distances and all that—we were figuring it out at the same time as we were figuring out the story. We had to bring in outside help, like Eric Nylund from Microsoft to help with world-building, and we had Susan O'Connor to write the dialogue and stuff once we had the high-level structure in place. It was this race to the finish on Gears 1.

VICE Games: OK, so now...maybe some of these are gonna be wrong. You're gonna have to correct me. You're also listed for Fat Princess and Lost Planet...2?

Those are kind of...thanks credits? Fat Princess, I think, was an Unreal Engine game that one of the teams was working on and they had us play it and give notes. We played for a few hours or a couple days and then we sent them a bunch of notes saying "Hey, we think your game could be better if you did these things," and so as a thank, they put me us in the credits. Lost Planet 2, same thing. They had a crossover, where they had Marcus and Dom show up. In terms of working with them, it was a special thanks credit.

VICE Games: What comes to mind when you think of Infinity Blade now?

That was one of those times where I go, "I don't get it. I don't get mobile." [laughs] That notion of the repeating thing that loops and loops and loops and trying to figure that out. The thing that I was struck by, honestly, was just Donald. Donald Mustard is brilliant, and watching him pitch games, he's legitimately, creatively [smart] and somebody I admire a lot. I really wish I could have worked with him more. He was still dealing with all the Chair stuff, and I didn't do that much with Chair. I just wish I had spent more time with him because he's somebody I really admire.

But yeah, the gameplay and stuff? I didn't get it. I didn't get how people would want to play a game over and over and over again. And probably to this day, if you put roguelike in your description, I'm probably not playing your game. [laughs]

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VICE Games: I used to be that way, and then Spelunky turned me into a convert. Now, you can put all those games in front of me. I feel like sometimes it's maybe you have to get one of those types of games to click for you, and then how those games operate fall into place after that.

It's partly age. When you've got two hours, I don't want to start over every time? I just want to continually make progress. Someone turned me onto the roguelike cards games and that...is interesting. Basically, I like that whole idea of Magic: The Gathering drafting.

VICE Games: Like Slay the Spire?

Yeah. The idea of building a deck as I go until I fail is kind of a cool idea.

VICE Games: Let's jump around a little bit so I can squeeze in some questions about Gears 5, but, uh, Bulletstorm. It remains an interesting project, given what that studio does now. [It developed Gears of War: Judgment in 2013, and now the announced-but-not-unveiled Outriders for Square Enix.] What was your level of involvement there?

It's a game that's kind of ahead of its time. One of the problems we had was around the marketing. EA didn't know how to market it, so they decided to market it around high-level skill. All the marketing was around skill shots.

VICE Games: It had the high-score tracker. Score-based combat was a huge UI element.

Right. I think it was intimidating to a lot of people. It would be super popular today. Super streamable, and the idea of having competitive play and that kind of stuff would be great. In that moment, I think the lack of approachability—or the perceived lack of approachability. Because you think you have to be the world's best first-person-shooter player to enjoy this and that wasn't the case at all. I think it hurt it.

On the campaign stuff, I helped a bunch with notes. But really what happened was that project went a little bit on fire and so Tanya Jessen, who was the producer on that, was basically like "I have to focus on the campaign" and I took over the multiplayer side of it, and basically was the producer on that.

"Part of [a game's development being on] fire is also ambition, when you look at what you want to make and when you need to do it. Anything can be solved with reducing scope. If you look at the iron triangle—there's resources, money, and time—you have to manage this triangle."

VICE Games: I think three times you've mentioned being near projects on fire. I want to make clear that's true of most projects. They're all on fire at some point. What's the quote? It's a miracle that any game ships, given how difficult it is to make a game? That notion of a game being on fire, what are some of the takeaways you've brought to being a studio director?

Part of the fire is also ambition, when you look at what you want to make and when you need to do it. Anything can be solved with reducing scope. If you look at the iron triangle—there's resources, money, and time—you have to manage this triangle. You could always go "It's not looking good, therefore I can't add anymore resources and I can't add time, so what I can do is cut scope." But you have a certain bar, a certain threshold by which it's a viable game, so you can't cut too deep. You'll do that along the way. And we use anatomical things [to talk about this]: "Oh, we're just in the muscle now. We haven't hit bone yet." That's how you talk when you talk about cutting features.

A lot of projects go through that. Their ambition causes them to start high and then the question is if you have the information along the way to make the right decisions. It's a tricky line because if you don't have the right information, it's not until you get really close to the finish line that you realize it's not gonna land. If you don't know as you're going, you could be a year out and not realize you're six months late.

In reality, humans can't really predict much more than a year? If you have a three-year project, your first six months are pretty solid, your second six months are looser but you have a good idea, and then two year and three are fiction. The reality of managing a project where you're realizing that, as things come into focus, and you realize all of a sudden you're going to go past [deadline], how do we deal with that? That's the notion of being on fire. We just didn't have the information.

Now, there's a problem there and I've seen it. If you have too much information, then you start to become production-led, instead of designer-led. Some studios are that way. You'll look at some game shops and you'll see "Oh, that's kind of an assembly line place." Especially if you're doing annual cadences? If you're shipping a sports game every year, you need to be production-led, you can't be design-led. You have to be: "You have 10 months to make a game" and figure it out; that's not changing. But we like to lead with design, so you go, "OK, this is a design-led game," but at the same time, you have to have enough information when the pot is full or overflowing, so you have to make smart decisions along the way. You're trying to avoid that fire. You're trying to create a place where you can sustainably deliver this thing on time.

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VICE Games: Something I like to ask developers is if there’s a detail, a really tiny detail in Gears 5, that you're proud of, that you want to call out? It's not something that shows up in a trailer, but maybe it shows up in an obscure YouTube video two years from now.

Hmm, that's an interesting question. Let me think. There's lots of that, right? When you have a team of this size, no one person can own it all. What I look for is to try and create a clear vision and provide clarity and decision-making that enables them to go and deliver their best work. But the actual solutions tend to be them, so you have to trust in the team that you have.

There's lots of low-level stuff like that. I think the way gunplay feels in multiplayer right now is amazing. The fact that, for the first time ever, that gnashers [shotguns in Gears] are perfect. I've been with Gears for 13 years, and in multiplayer, nobody has liked the gnasher in 13 years. After the tech test, to get [feedback of] "the gnasher is perfect, don't change it" blows my mind. That's a lot of smart work by designers there.

Some of the storytelling I feel really good about, in terms of the way we deal with collectibles? It's funny. Tom Bissell, our writer, he's really big on making sure—he wanted to make sure that people had slightly different experiences if you went back and played [again]. He probably cost me a bunch of money, probably about a third more than I needed to spend on VO [voice over] and writing because, basically, when you get to the sand level in act three, there's multiple ways you can approach things. Often, there's times that things are very similar, and you could have reused the same line, but we didn't and he wrote a different one. [laughs] If you were to go back and play, "What if Del goes through that door first instead of Kate? What if we did this part of the rocket before we do this part?" Each one of those has a different line of dialogue.

It might not be a big, fundamental change—it's not like they say it's red in one version and it's blue the next version. But it's different, and so there's a little bit of that life to it. It's subtle when you go through it. If you go through it and play through it in a different order, or have somebody else lead, you'll get slightly different dialogue, which is interesting. It's one of those features that I give shit to Tom about because it'll never get written up. People will never go, "Oh, this is amazing! There's three different versions of dialogue here!" It's so subtle. But I like that it adds something to the world if you go back.

VICE Games: For two games now, you've been running a studio. We've entered a period in the gaming industry and society writ large where folks who are experiencing harassment or don't feel comfortable at work, they're coming forward. Work environments are changing. As someone who runs a studio, how do you approach it? How do you make sure people are getting enough sleep? Crunch is managed? If people feel uncomfortable, there's a way for them to come forward?

Listening is the biggest thing. It's one of those things where what you learn pretty quickly is the culture in your studio has two sides to it. There's the culture you want the studio to have, and so you act in a certain way and you present yourself in a certain way and you expect certain things that help reinforce a type of culture. But the other half is the culture is reflected back at you. The culture is in the people you hire and the way they behave and the things they do and what they believe in and what their values are. You can't let one side of that coin dominate what's going on. You can't force a culture on people, though I think you can model it and set goals and show what good looks like. But on the other side, you have to listen to what's happening and react to what's good and bad in your studio and react to it. You find different ways.

One of the first things I did—coming from Epic and Irrational, I was very focused on independent studios and so when I came back to Microsoft, my biggest fear at that time was "Oh, I have a bunch of people who haven't shipped anything in more than five years, so they're in this [mindset of] 'Oh, I'll just hide out here maybe, and I'll allow the bureaucracy to settle in.'" My first thing was I'm going to create an award for avoiding that. I created a GSD award—the get shit done award. Basically, it just said that if somebody can show—and it's all team-nominated—if you see somebody on your team cutting through red tape or finding the entrepreneurial way to solve a problem, and not blaming slowness on the size of Microsoft and actually focused on what's smart and fast, nominate them and we'll pick people to earn this reward. When I could stand up in every team meeting and hand out a GSD award, it made people understand what I valued, which was getting shit done. I value execution. The notion of GSD helped with that.

We also set up stuff like the ability to put anonymous questions to the leadership teams, so that we could deal with questions people didn't want to ask in a team meeting but we could answer in the team meeting. That's a cultural thing. We set up a health survey, where we ask "How likely are you to recommend the studio to your colleagues and family?" And basically, based on all the feedback on that, we're able to act on issues that are coming up. We have a lot of things like that in terms of how we think about a culture.

For creativity, one of the things we do is free Fridays. Every milestone, there's going to be a Friday where you're off task. It has to do one of three things: You have to grow yourself, do something for the game, or do something for the studio. Take the day to do it, and then you can do it [again] on multiple free Fridays, or some people will do Friday, Saturday, Sunday if they really believe in it. Out of that, you get the opportunity read whitepapers maybe you couldn't have the time for, or if you're not a designer on the game but you have a cool idea for a feature, you can prototype it and maybe it shows up in the game, maybe not. [Or maybe] you do something socially for the studio culture. It's things like that.

The biggest thing is recognizing that you have to listen and that things don't just happen. You have to be proactive. That idea of inclusivity and diversity, much like we do it for the game in terms of how do we make sure the game inclusive and how do we make sure the game is diverse, you have to think about that with your culture, too. Especially me, as a middle-aged white guy, I can't just sit there and go, "I'm sure what I'm going to attract around me is diverse." I can't guarantee that, so what I have to do is be explicit about it and look for it and find the best people. At the end of the day, you want the people in your studio to look like the people who are playing your game. In a perfect world, I'd have 50-percent women and 50-percent men because that's who is the audience is that consumes the game, so that's the high-level goal? That's what we shoot for? But obviously in this industry it's hard.

VICE Games: Do you have any rituals in the leadup to the launch of a game? Do you eat at the same restaurant? Drink the same drink? As someone who is production-minded, used to getting things in line to clean up the processes of studios, I wondered if you had certain tics that come together as you get right to the moment where the big launch happens.

[laughs] It's changed, oddly, as my role has changed. At Epic, we definitely did, and we changed it up. When the game came out of certification, we would drink. We'd all get together in my office and drink and cheers and whatever, and then we started to joke that once we did two games where we were able to get through cert without failing, we felt confident. Then, we started to drink on submission. [laughs] We're like "OK, it'll be fine!" Now, I drink twice—on the way in, on the way out.

Part of that was because Cliff [Bleszinski, designer on Gears] was the face. Cliff would be out [and talking]. When we went into hardcore triage and managing bugs and agonizing over what to fix and what not to fix, Cliff was out promoting. He was out doing his thing. I had a lot of that. Because I was so close to the team in those final moments, I was able to have those kinds of rituals. Now, I still do the triage and still help the team figure out what we're going to fix and what we're not going to fix as we go to finaling, but all of a sudden, I get grabbed and hauled off to talking to people, so I get disconnected.

Gears 4 was really hard for me, honestly. I think it was a night, for some reason, when the review embargo lifted, and it was just the five of us out on this press tour. I was completely in a different city away from the team and I didn't have that opportunity to to run up and down the halls and high-five people and be excited with them. That same thing is happening here right now. Wake up at 6 o'clock this morning and start reading reviews, knowing the team is going to be coming in. I sent off an email and communicated with the team to congratulate them and thank them for their hard work and they should be proud of what they've done, but I'm isolated away from them and that's hard. That's why I'm looking forward to going back next week and shake their hand.

One of the things we're doing, too, recently—my dad was a captain in the Canadian Navy and a bunch of people have military relationships at the studio. Being a military game, we felt like we wanted to give something back. So we reached out to the Canadian military, and at one point the Minister of Defense came to Vancouver and we gave him a demo of Gears of War and he thought it was great. We talked about, "Is there something we can do?" And he talked about "Well, it'd be great if there was a way to help the troops abroad," so we donated a bunch of consoles and a whole bunch of games to basically every place there was a Canadian soldier deployed. Ultimately, he invites us to Latvia. "Come to the Canadian base in Latvia, we'd love to welcome you."

We go and get this amazing tour, and we get to play games with the soldiers. But at the end of it, he hands us these two challenge coins and thanks us for what we've done. We researched the challenge coin and the military history and what it means and even today, especially in the American government and military, having this thing that recognizes service or a thank you, really stuck with us. Then we decided: This a thing we want to take on in our culture. Instead of giving GSD [get shit done] t-shirts, we started doing GSD coins. Now, we're doing ship gifts that are coins for every game we ship.

If you know anything about the challenge coins, it has its own secret handshake—the way you hand a coin is, basically, it's inside the palm of your hand and you shake your hand and when you lift your hand away, they now have the coin. So for Gears Pop, I went to the publishing team and shook their hands with coins and I gave them all their Gears Pop challenge coins. We also have a Gears 5 challenge coin that I'm going to help the team give up when I get back. And since it's been five years that Gears has been at The Coalition, we want to have an anniversary coin, as well, so we're going to be doing that. I really like that.

I just really like the secret handshake more than anything, probably more than the coin. The opportunity to take five minutes and go to the publishing room—and it's not that many guys, it's maybe 10 people in the publishing team—but to be able to go up to the publishing team and take the 20 minutes to stand there and shake each one of their hands and thank them for what they did and they get a coin for it? I love that. And that's what I love about GSD [get shit done], that I get to call the person up to the front of the room and just shake their hand and say thank you, especially on a big team. I love that ritual around that, about what that person has contributed, and their coin is their keepsake that they can take back and create this collection of their contribution to the studio and the franchise.

VICE Games: You've come to a lot of projects and tried to de-scope them and tried to focus on "What we're trying to accomplish?" and "How do we accomplish that?" Is there anything in particular stick out as the most painful cut? That one day felt like the most important thing in the world to this project, and then the next...? Even for you, who is supposed to be cold-hearted and ruthless and cut through it, people put a lot of hard work into things that aren't going to make it into the game, does something stand out?

Sorry, is that my reputation? Am I cold-hearted and ruthless?

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VICE Games: [laughs] No, I just figure as a producer, to some degree, you have to be able to separate yourself—I mean, correct me if I'm wrong. You look at a body of work, and you're trying to sculpt it into the game that ships. You have to make hard choices, and you're brought in as someone to make that happen.

Not really. Every game I've been on, in order to make it, you've had to cut. Sometimes you see the scars, sometimes you don't. If you look at Gears 1, at the end there's a scene where on enemy flies off on this giant uberreaver [the Hydra], that creature was supposed to be in the game. The artists were like, "We're so far along, we've got it almost done, but we can't put it in the game and get the AI done," so they were all sad I had to come along and say "Hey, we're cutting this." They found a way to put it back in. "Then, we'll, uh, put it here!" [laughs] In order to make peace with the product you have, there's a certain point you have to be happy with what you have and not look at what's on the floor to get there.

The obvious one, just because it lived on later for me is in Gears 4, we had a mode that we had nicknamed Chaos. It was something we thought we were doing fine on. We had Versus, we had Horde, and we had Chaos and we had the campaign. "I think we're OK, it seems to be coming along?" As we started to turn the corner to final the thing, we were like "Oh, crap, this is not where it needs to be to be final. You can't polish something this rough, we still have work to do, and we're supposed to be polishing." My philosophy is always that I'd rather have something small and highly polished than something big and mediocre. We just decided, even though we'd gone down a path quite a ways, we decided to cut Chaos. All it's going to do is steal polish away from Horde and Versus and the campaign. Rather than do that, let's just cut Chaos now. We did it really quickly.

I really trust my spider sense when it comes to production stuff, and so I don't say, "Hey, I feel like we maybe we should be cutting Chaos, could you please go away for three weeks and get me all the data that supports that?" Then I think I've wasted three weeks of work I could be putting into something else. If my producer spider sense is going off, I just go, "This isn't going to fit. Does everybody agree it's not going to fit?" And if they're like, "Yeah, it doesn't fit" then cut it. Today. Now. We're done. Just remove it from the menu and move on. Everybody that was on it, now put them on something else and get Horde to be more than it was going to be before. That allowed us to do that.

So, Chaos sits on the floor for Gears 4, and becomes the prototype that creates Escape [in Gears 5]. We were able to go in and say "Hey, there was something really powerful there that we liked, we liked the idea of a more aggressive Horde, a shorter duration Horde, a smaller team Horde where you can find friends faster." We take that seed idea that we had and mutated it even further, because we had the time to spend on it. It was sad in Gears 4; that was going to be one of our points of innovation. "Hey, we have this whole new mode that no one's ever seen before," and we have to let it go for the sake of the health of the project. It's true triage. You're amputating something in order for the body to live. But the happy ending to this story is that it becomes a key feature in the next version.

"Every game I've been on, in order to make it, you've had to cut. If you look at Gears 1, at the end there's a scene where on enemy flies off on this giant uberreaver [the Hydra]. The artists were like, "We're so far along, we've got it almost done, but we can't put it in the game and get the AI done," so they were all sad I had to come along and say "Hey, we're cutting this." They found a way to put it back in."

VICE Games: You mentioned the Gears 1 artists finding a way to sneak a nearly-finished work into a different part of the game. Is that common?

Yeah. Easter eggs are a way to sustain your game. It allows you a news beat. Six months from now, you can put out a "Hey, I saw this easter egg" or "There's this thing you didn't find yet" and that people get excited about the game again. We see easter eggs as a positive thing.

In the past, we've been very deliberate. The thing that's changed is the wild wild west. There's been a lot of missteps around that. It used to be just that, people saying "I'm sneaking something in, hopefully my producer doesn't catch me. I hope the lead artist doesn't catch me. It'll be my little secret." Then, we've literally seen games pulled off the shelves and cost millions and millions of dollars because somebody snuck something in the game they weren't supposed to sneak. Once that story happens, you have to be upfront with the team. "You love easter eggs, we love easter eggs, we're all on the same page. All I ask is that you just vet them through something. Make sure your lead knows, make sure your producer knows.

We'll dedicate time to it because we believe in it, but it can't be under the table. If it's under the table and it's found and it causes an issue, it's all on you and you have to know that." So we just made it more official. Nobody's sneaking anymore. I mean, it comes down to philosophy.

Some developers love putting each other in the game? I feel a little weirded out by it. If you go look at all the gravestones in BioShock Infinite, it's probably all team member names. I think people still sneak their names in? I try to tamp that down a little bit. I don't want to be heavy handed, but it feels weirdly self-indulgent when you're like, "Oh, it's Fergusson & Fergusson Law firm!" It just feels weird in a game, where somebody is like "I have to put myself in this game now." It feels self-indulgent and I don't like it, but I'm pretty sure if you were to check every gravestone in Gears 4 you'd probably find somebody there.

VICE Games: I guess I never thought about the notion that 20 years ago, people weren't scavenging through game code. That's a more formalized process now. A game is released and people are combing through betas, and there's a whole phrase for it: datamining. That's an extension of the easter egg philosophy going back to the Atari 2600. I guess I shouldn't be shocked that easter eggs are now in a spreadsheet and there's a pitch process for them.

Yeah. Before, on Gears 2, there was downtime, so while you were waiting for a build, you'd have hours where you'd be like, "OK, I made a bunch of fixes." Your team gets smaller and smaller and smaller and eventually you end up with your dirty dozen. These are the only people who can touch the game because we don't want to shake the jello. These are the trusted 12. So they'd make fixes and they're waiting for bugs to come in and basically they'd be like "OK, I'm sitting here for a couple hours, I've got nothing going on, I'm going to open up my level and start to create an easter egg and play with it."

When you look at the Gears 2 cowboy hat easter egg, that was just Dave Nash sitting at his desk going, "I'm kinda bored, so I'm going to put this in." He showed it to me we cleared it, and it's probably one of my favorite easter eggs. But it was just him going, "I'm at my desk waiting for the next bug to come in, might as well do this while I'm waiting."