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The Savage Beauty of Gears of War

Journal Entry: Mon Sep 19, 2011, 6:53 PM

WARNING: Interviews subject to "interruptions" due to "disturbances"

beyond the dA video crew’s control.

Ever wonder what it’s like to be an artist working on one of the world’s hottest shooter games inside the HQ of one of the world’s most respected videogame development companies?  Ever dream of imagining and creating the alien landscapes and the superheroes and monstrous creatures who inhabit them?

These exclusive interviews only from deviantART at Epic Games HQ with Gears producers Cliff Bleszinski and Rod Fergusson and Gears artists Chris Perna, Wyeth Johnson, Shane Caudle and the rest of the Gears artists gang reveal what it takes to make a team of sorcerers to conjure, capture and render pure mayhem for our videogame rapture.  They deliver insight into what their journey was like from when they first realized that art was their only life path and travel all the way up to how they got their current jobs at Epic.

Watch spyed, megturney, and techgnotic as they take command of the North Carolina
compound of Epic Games for a visit with the creative crew behind GEARS OF WAR as they prepare for the imminent release of GEARS 3.

This video was Powered by deviantArtists for deviantArtists.  spyed, techgnotic, megturney, scottpagano, trifonic, and fiercecouture joined forces on this one.   I plan on having many more deviants involved when we go visit another art team in the future!

Gears of War by techgnotic

The Savage Beauty of Gears of War

The rabidly anticipated release of GEARS OF WAR 3 provokes the question of why this is the shooter game has risen so meteorically through the ranks of all other contenders to attain its current extraordinary status with legions of loyal videogame warriors worldwide.  What is it in the mix of elements bubbling in the cauldron of this furious sci-fi shooter experience that sets it apart from similar vicarious excursions into exhilarating mayhem?

First there’s the creative artistry.  Whatever the misgivings of polite society’s guardians of youth about violent videogames in general may be – Gears is a beautiful game, a visually stunning experience.  From the imagination and intricate detailing that has gone into the hideous Locust creatures and the surreally muscle-bound Frazetta-esque COG fighters to the lush exteriors and atmospheric interiors of the various battle “map” settings, advancing through Gears is as visually satisfying as spending an evening with James Cameron racing through his latest cinematic outing.  There is apparently no vision of wonder (or nightmare) percolating in the minds of Cliff Bleszinski’s Gears artists that Epic Games’ “Unreal Engine” cannot render manifest.

Gears of War by $techgnotic (cont.)

There's Also a Story Element

Then there's the story element.  In the first version of Gears the critics, while wild about the sheer velocity of the gameplay, complained of thinness of the plotline, in which Marcus Fenix leads a band of human soldiers on an alien planet against the Locust Horde, a race of insectoid beserkers who have emerged from the bowels of “Sera” intent on cleansing it of the “Cog” humans.  Novelist Joshua Ortega was engaged for Gears of War 2 to deepen the main characters' back-stories and ramp up the emotional impact of the “brothers to the end” theme.  So then the critics lauded the storyline and dissed the slower game pacing necessary for building the better storyline.  Gears of War 3 will feature the narrative gifts of sci-fi writer Karen Traviss, who has authored four Gears tie-in novels. Epic Games is betting that the perfect action + narrative balance has now been achieved.

Gears of War by $techgnotic (cont.)

Then There's That Extra Something About Gears

Maybe it's the sci-fi setting freeing players to indulge their fantasies of heroic patriotic mayhem as Cogs one night, only to indulge another night's darker mood of anarchy and nihilism by being a Locust in the new Beast mode.  Since these good guys and bad guys exist only on a fantasy plane, any twinge of “political incorrectness” is disappeared.  Maybe it's the strength of the action/story-blended narrative framework of Gears providing the perfect incubator for the unique Gears Mythos of brotherhood, redemption and salvation now really coming into being.  There's no place the adventure can't go from here.  It's no wonder the story of Marcus Fenix & Co. is now being extended in comics, graphic novel, novel and soon major film iterations.     

Gears of War is proving that when artistic vision and narrative imagination find the perfect common channel to flow into, the inexorable surge of the creative impulse unleashed can produce a thing of true beauty, something that excites and satisfies on multiple visceral and narrative levels.  Gears of War melds together art and storytelling like no other contender in current videogaming. That's a battle armor no gaming critic or social guardian can ever penetrate.


An Inside Look

Wyeth Johnson,
Lead Artist – Gears of War 3


First, what is your advice to deviants in the community with their hearts and minds set on one day working at Epic Games (or similar company)?


There’s no other answer to this question other than “make cool stuff”. Honestly. I used to have a mentor right when I first got into the industry 11 or 12 years ago who used to jokingly tell people who would ask the same question “If you have to ask, you can’t get in”. He was joking, but at the same time, there’s a grain of truth there. The people who really make a name for themselves in this industry are people who couldn’t dream of doing anything else. They make cool things, download our free Unreal Developers Kit at UDK.com and just start creating. If they don’t want to use Unreal, use any other technology. Just make. Fail a lot, create some crappy games or bad art, do tutorials and research, absorb messageboards, post killer art on DeviantArt and share it around… In short, this industry recognizes talent, and passion, and that’s the end of the story. Stop messing around and get to the business of failing early and often, you’ll get it out of the way and start succeeding sooner.


What was the original intent in setting Gears in a world of sci-fi, warfare and horror all in one? Was it a question of maximizing creative possibilities in visuals and storylines?


Honestly the setting isn’t deliberate in that way, and never has been. Gears is a story about humanity, about fathers and sons, about going home. The themes of sci fi, or horror, or the scope and intensity of the Locust threat and the ensuing war are all simply tools in our toolset that we use to advance the development of the universe, of what those characters are feeling and what the player subsequently feels. Obviously from an art standpoint we love playing with eliciting those themes and emotions via how we present the world, but at the end of the day it comes back to Marcus and the rest of Delta squad, and what they are experiencing.


Gears has been called “heavy metal extreme” in motif. Will the narrative remain focused on mostly over-the-top comic book style warfare or will you be trying to evolve more personal character drama into the storylines?


The truth is that we play with presentation a lot. There’s a great compliment between the core themes of combat (“Take cover or die”) and the dynamics of the character of Marcus Fenix and Delta squad. While our big, blockbuster moments are always going to be over the top, there’s always balance there with getting into the characters and showing the many other sides of their personalities. This is far and away the most nuanced story we’ve ever told, and the characters are more real and dynamic than they ever have been. We’ve made big strides in our facial animation and the quality of our rendering, the pacing of our story, and we do truly put a definitive conclusion to the story of Marcus and the rest of the Delta squad.


Was it accidental or intentional that Gears has achieved a “theatricality” in gameplay that other shooters lack? The use of cover in gameplay and other elements like chainsaw duels enable players to develop real personalities (even qualities of mercifulness or not) – which are absent in games which are primarily “aim & shoot” body-counters. Is this the x factor of Gears gameplay that players often evoke?


So much of this feeling comes down to our combat distances, and the “Intimate Violence” that brings players up close and personal with their enemies. There’s a deadly ballet that comes with flanking enemies, moving in and out of cover and using the dynamics of our movement to close that distance and move in for the kill. It’s a visceral experience that other games just don’t match, it’s definitely what makes Gears stand out in a sea of other shooters. We also have some great new weapons in Gears of War 3, and each of those has a custom execution which just adds that much more theatricality and flourish to an already hard earned and prideful kill.


A kid playing Mario Bros. in the early 90’s would never be able to believe the technological evolution that videogames would experience in just the relatively few years between then and now. Being an all-knowing big-time insider, what can you tell us mere mortal players today that is absolutely positively going to happen in the tech progression of gameplay by 2020 that will blow our minds?


At Epic we’re always looking forward to the next big thing, trying to intuit where technology is headed and be a leader in that space. We have already demonstrated Samaritan, our realtime next-gen graphics technology demo, and we’re making constant improvements to our UnrealEngine technology and rolling those improvements out for free to anyone who wants to use our entire suites of tools at UDK.com. If you’re looking way far future, obviously the most exciting things are the things we couldn’t possibly guess at, the experimental ideas that don’t look anything like our current technology and really change the game. The things we do know are that the power of these mobile devices you see today are growing in power and capability at an extraordinary rate, and as Mark Rein (Vice President, Epic Games) says, “AAA isn’t going away, it’s going everywhere”. Watch for some really impressive stuff on future generations of mobile devices, it’s a great time to watch that world grow and expand.

Maury Mountain,
Senior Artist – Gears of War 3


Which visual artists most inspired you when you were young? Who inspired you to be an artist?

Maury Mountain:

When I was younger, I could never get enough of comic books. I would try to work more hours so I could feed my comic book subscriptions. I didn’t do much art then, nearly all of my time was spent playing the violin, but when I did get a free moment (or being bored in class) I would draw characters from X-Men, Spawn, Batman, and Judge Dredd to name a few!

The artists of the comics I loved gave me great inspiration to learn how to draw and make cool stuff: Greg Cappullo, Frank Miller, Michael Turner, and Simon Bisley to name a few. Aside from my comic-artist fandom, my dad is a huge inspiration artistically for me. He is a designer and artist, introduced me to awesome artists and designers (Aubrey Beardsley, Frank Lloyd Wright), as well as being a huge inspiration for me to be dedicated, draw often, and most importantly have fun drawing and making art.


Is there a standard trajectory in the evolution of a video game enthusiast? Which games and systems hooked you into a career based in video games?

Maury Mountain:

Not sure if there is a “standard,” but I think that with love, determination, dedication, hard work, and passion, anyone is capable of taking themselves on a path to a career in the gaming field. That path may start in any way possible, but the key point is being motivated, patient, and regular about the passions you have and keep focused on the goal!

I’ve always loved games, one of my first gaming experiences was MegaMan, I thought it was the coolest game ever. I would sit and draw all the [insertname]Man enemies I could. I continued playing games over the years on the NES, SNES, Genesis, Turbografix16, Gameboy, N64, etc – but it wasn’t until I bought a computer for college (Apple G3!) and discovered Unreal, Unreal Tournament, Quake 3 Arena that I really felt like I started down the path to where I am today.

When I played Unreal and Quake, I saw people using custom skins and custom models, and I wanted to figure out how people did that. I started dissecting the games, ran UnrealEd on my friend’s PCs, unzipped every .pak file in the Q3A install, reading tutorials, downloading art, and most importantly – joining online art communities that were most active. Did a lot of studying of the art in the games, flat textures fascinated me and I knew it was what I wanted to do.

As a member of these communities I would make art for models people put in SDKs, suffer harsh critiques from fellow artists, release skins, try to get included in community skin packs, work on mods, and above all having fun making art for games that I loved playing. After lots of work, exploring art, and trying my best to improve, I got the opportunity to start my career.

Advice? When making art, always be objective about your work, compare it to games on the market today, and aim to make your art as good, if not better than what is currently in boxes on store shelves. Fail often, fail quickly, but most importantly understand why you fail so you don’t fail again!


What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received when it’s revealed you’re a Gears artist?

Maury Mountain:

The best compliment I’ve ever received is when artist friends say Gears of War inspired them to make art for games. It’s awesome to hear that. I love giving back, its amazing to hear that I was a part of something that impacts someone so much that it inspires them to pursue it as a career.


Which sci-fi movies, television shows or authors most inspired you to become an artist in this genre?

Maury Mountain:

I looooove all sorts of cool movies with monsters, aliens, robots, demons, dragons, etc! Some of my first influences when I was in elementary school include movies such as Alien, Willow, Nightmare on Elm Street, Predator, Night of the Living Dead, Dark Crystal, Neverending Story, and Labyrinth (to name a few!!) really inspired me to draw monsters and cool stuff. Following that, I watched a lot of Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Bill and Ted, but was more influenced by comic books such as Batman, Hellboy, X-Men, Spawn, Fathom, Darkness, Witchblade, Superman, Akira, etc! Seeing cool Films all my life helped influence me to want to make cool stuff.

Epic Team on deviantART

While some of the Gears artists seen in the video are veteran deviants with a dA page (like Mikey Spano aka intolerant3d for the last ten years, all these artists are now available on dA for you to ask any other questions you have about the world of videogame arts production or for advice on making it as a videogame artist.  Here’s the rundown of dA names for checking out the masters of Gears of War:


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