Today, Epic Games will release a major update for their acclaimed Gears of War 2 that not only includes a laundry list of improvements and fixes, but also introduces several significant features that diehard Gears fans have been requesting for some time.
To find out more about Gears 2’s big Title Update Six, I spoke with the game’s executive producer Rod Fergusson via email, and here’s what he had to say:
G4: What can you tell us about Gears of War 2's massive title update six in terms of what went into implementing the impressive list of fixes and additions?
Rod Fergusson: A lot of blood, sweat and tears are what went into TU6. :) We've wanted to release TU6 for a long time but the size and complexity of all the changes we were making at a very fundamental level meant a much longer development cycle than we initially planned. We love our games and our fans and we're really happy that we're able to keep supporting them the way we have.
G4: What is the process for evaluating and approaching massive improvements like these? What kinds of data, analysis, etc. go into assessing what needs to be done, and deciding how those changes are going to be implemented?
RF: When looking at making changes of this scope, we look at all kinds of data, both objective and subjective. Gears 2 is pretty well instrumented so we can see everything from number of bullets fired to active reload frequency to which maps and modes are the most popular. Beyond that objective data, we look at how we're feeling about our online experience and what our community is feeling. We have a great community and they certainly aren't shy about giving us constructive feedback. Then it's a matter of determining what's possible given the constraints of the Title Update process and what's worth doing given what our players really want. Will it have a big impact on the community or is it something simple that we can easily include? How risky of a change is it? Is it something that could benefit us in the longer term?
Once we've evaluated the need and the solution, then it's all about ensuring we have enough people and time to get it done while at the same time continuing to build Gears of War 3 and still make our April 2011 ship date.
G4: Our readers are very pleased about the lobby system and ability to join matches already underway. What are some of the other improvements/fixes that you think players will be excited about seeing?
RF: Beyond the creation of Social Matches, we've also done a lot of work on Ranked matchmaking. We've improved the way we collect players by using TrueSkill and collecting them as a single group, we now separate them into more balanced teams using their XP levels (without breaking existing parties), and we have greatly improved our host selection methodology, which provides better network conditions and makes it harder for hackers to manipulate the match.
A change that was suggested on our forums that we thought was interesting was to select the leader in Guardian based on XP level so that the most experienced player on the team is the leader first. That way the outcomes of the matches are a little more reliable.
Also I'm personally a really big fan of the Horde changes where you can now play Social Horde with "strangers" and can have other players join-in-progress, and now if you fail, you can start from the current wave instead of having to restart from wave 1. This makes it a lot easier to try and make a run to 50 even if you don't have enough friends online.
G4: So explain how the new Social Xbox Live feature work?
RF: Social Matches, also known as Player Matches, are a less restrictive way to play online publicly with "strangers" than Ranked Matches. For example, unlike Ranked Matches, you don't have to wait for full teams before your match starts. Instead, you and your party are immediately put into a match in progress if there's room. If there are no matches in progress with room, then you will start a new match with bots which will then be replaced by future joining players. The goal is to get you playing as quickly as possible even if that means playing against bots temporarily instead of waiting in a lobby.
Also, unlike Ranked Matches, instead of getting taken back to the lobby after every match, you are able to play with the same group of people for as long as you like. At the end of each match, instead of going back to the lobby, the teams are rebalanced using the players' XP level (without breaking up parties), a new map is automatically chosen and the fun continues.
And finally, unlike Ranked Matches, Social Matches do not require formal Xbox Live arbitration so players are able to join and leave as they please. Players can join through Social matchmaking or players can invite other players to the match and they will join their team.
Since Social Matches automatically cycle players through all the maps available in the game, players of Social Matches must have all four downloadable map packs (or the Gears of War 2: All Fronts Collection which is a compilation of all DLC map packs). This prevents players from getting dropped during a map cycle because they don't have the required map.
G4: There are a few items in the improvements portion of the update that seem like they would have made sense to be included when the game was first released (computer bots taking over for players that drop out, joining in-progress horde sessions, etc.) Why weren’t these implemented earlier? Have there been benefits to taking the time to polish these features, as opposed to trying to simply get them in the game just for the sake of it?
RF: Some of the TU6 improvements weren't implemented earlier due to specific design decisions based on what we thought our players wanted or how we expected the game to be played. For example, we were reluctant to add the ability for bots to take over for real players initially because of our experience with the “Unreal Tournament” series. Players there made it very clear that they'd rather wait for human players than play with bots. However, early after Gears 2 was released, we heard from the community that they were frustrated with players dropping in Ranked matches, and so in TU3 we added the ability for bots to fill any open slots due to players leaving. This was so successful that we decided in TU6 to take it a step further with Social matches where we don't require full teams to start playing. If you can't join a match already in progress then a new match will be started with the players in your party playing with bots. Then new players are able to join your match in progress and replace the bots. We figure it's a lot more fun to be shooting bots in a competitive match than to be waiting in a lobby for another team to show up.
As for the lack of join-in-progress Public Horde when we released, this was partly a faulty design decision assumption and partly the lack of a good method of scoring partial sessions. With Horde being a co-op method of playing, we expected that Horde would be played mostly by people with friends on their Friends List and so we put the majority of our effort into the Private mode. We were caught by surprise by how many Public Horde matches (basically playing with strangers) were being played and we've been trying to make that experience better whenever possible. Also at the time of release, we didn't have a good way of scoring a partial session so you had to be part of the session from the very beginning. We've since come up with a better scoring system that allows for partial sessions, which enabled us to put in the join-in-progress feature. As well, with TU6 you can now join a Public Horde match in progress, and if you're playing a Public Social match, you can even restart from the wave that you failed instead of back to level 1 as you would with Ranked.
G4: Are the features and improvements being introduced in this title update any indication of some of the features players can expect to see in Gears of War 3's multiplayer mode?
RF: Whether it's something small like balancing weapon damage or something big like changing how our matchmaking works, everything we do in support of Gears 2 is a learning opportunity for us in building Gears 3.
G4: Can you give us the scoop on the "All Fronts collection" price drop? What will the collection's new price be? And why is the drop happening now?
RF: Sure! With the release of Title Update 6, we'll be dropping the price of the All Fronts Collection down to 800 points (a 50% drop). All Fronts is the collection of all four Gears 2 DLC map packs (also individually reduced in price), which represents 14 multiplayer maps and a "deleted scene" campaign level. And you can also get it bundled free with the Gears of War 2: Game of the Year Edition for $29.99 ESRP.
In terms of why the drop is happening now, the unfortunate aspect of any multiplayer downloadable content is that it immediately segments players into "haves" and "have nots," which makes it more difficult for players to play with one another. Our goal with reducing the price on the All Fronts Collection (and the other individual map packs) is to make all of the DLC maps more accessible so that more players are able to play with each other. This is why Social Matches require all DLC so that everyone has the same content and can participate in the automatic map cycling.