August 19, 2022

Produced by Adam Davis-McGee, directed by James Herron, and edited by Patrick Biesemans and JC Scruggs. Click here for the transcript.

Today, the original Gears of War is remembered fondly as one of the Xbox 360’s most iconic online multiplayer shooters. But in our latest War Stories video, Gears of War gameplay designer and lead level designer Lee Perry tells Ars about how the game’s multiplayer modes were almost scrapped at the last minute.

“The thing at Epic back then was it was a very small studio,” Perry told us. So while the development team “knew from a very early point” that they wanted multiplayer in the game, they also felt they were “dramatically losing the battle” with games like Halo in terms of sheer workforce.

Perry said the Gears of War team put off multiplayer level design until near the end of the development process, thinking it would be easier than creating a full, cohesive single-player campaign. But when they started prototyping multiplayer maps based on those in games like Counter-Strike and Unreal Tournament, “it was always a train wreck,” he said. That’s because “those games played fundamentally different” from Gears of War.

In previous multiplayer shooters, players would run around at scaled speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, often darting in from a side door and getting off a headshot before the target even saw them coming. That was fundamentally unsatisfying in Gears, where characters move at a “normal human amount of speed,” and the combat is more about tense, close-quarters firefights across cover.

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Facing a planned fall release from the perspective of the summer development crunch, Perry recalls a “very specific moment” where the multiplayer wasn’t coming together, and the team was openly asking itself, “Do we just cut this?”

Eventually, though, the team started designing multiplayer levels built around Gears‘ gameplay design. The key was making forced choke points that created “the faucet of where enemies come from,” as Perry put it. Adding in a lot of (now-clichéd) chest-high walls also let players see across the gaps to view the battlefield while remaining protected. “It’s important to see what the enemy is doing as opposed to they just pop out of the door next to you [and kill you],” Perry said.

Watch the full War Stories video above for more on how Gears solved its multiplayer problems and how the game was in part designed to show off close-ups of 3D characters with “Christmas hams for biceps.”