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Rod Fergusson knows production. At Microsoft, he helped create courseware their consultants use to teach project management, went on to produce MS Train Simulator, Blood Wake, Counter-Strike Xbox and headed up production on the Microsoft side for a third-party project by a North Carolina developer called Epic. The game was 2006’s blockbuster Gears of War, and by the time it shipped, Fergusson had moved to Epic to take over as producer.

He says the hardest part of the transition wasn’t convincing Epic he wasn’t a Microsoft insider, but convincing Microsoft he was no longer a Microsoft employee.

“I think people say I’m a little bit harder on Microsoft than others just because I know them, and I know what they want, and I know why they want it,” he says, “so I tend to call ‘bullshit’ a little bit quicker than other people do. “

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Fergusson in his Epic office, as part of The Escapist‘s exclusive coverage inside Epic. You can read the rest of our interviews and impressions tomorrow when Issue 149 goes live, but for now, enjoy my exclusive interview with Fergusson, where we talk about game production, why Gears of War was a harder game to develop than the sequel and the value of knowing when to say when.

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The Escapist: Tell me all the stuff you’ve been working on. “Producer” is still kind of a new role for game development, and it’s kind of nebulous from studio to studio. I know a lot of guys have an adversarial relationship with their producer, and some of them just love their producer. How does the role work for you at Epic, and what do you end up spending your time doing?

Rod Fergusson: Well, for me it’s kind of a different role. The reason I love being a producer is that you’re able to get your fingers into all the pieces. Like, you’re able to be involved in everything, because you kind of oversee it all. And I know that producers … you know, when I first met Cliff, I think the first thing he ever said to me was “there are too many producers in the industry.” And that was before he had sort of gone through the cycle of seeing how producers can really contribute to the development process. And I think if you were to ask him that same question today, he’d have a completely different story.

TE: I think the industry in general, also to some extent Epic, has a reputation for being just kind of cowboy, unbridled creativity, and “the game is released when it’s ready, and you can’t put your business constraints on us, mister.” How do you sort of corral that as a producer and focus that into making a game like Gears or Gears 2, where it’s such a big project, and Microsoft is over there in their corner, waiting to see what’s going to happen?

RF: You know, for Gears 1, we had a public ship date, and it wasn’t exactly the date we were [trying] to hit … but this notion of having a fixed ship date – much like we kind of do now where we’re saying, “OK, November … we’re coming out in November,” that’s just a different mindset for how you work. This idea of a date-driven schedule means that you’re going to be on time; the question is now what compromises do you have to make in order to make that date. And it takes … I call it a maturity … it takes a maturity of the team to be able to recognize those compromises for what they are, which are basically ways of focusing your product and potentially getting a better product out because of them.

Gears 1 was hard for us, because Epic utilizes an organic, iterative, design process … new ideas are constantly being churned, there’s no such thing as locking down a design doc, really. The best idea wins. If we get a really good idea, even late in the schedule, if it’s really good, odds are it’s going to make its way into the game. But after seeing how we survived Gears 1 and making appropriate trade-offs to get to that fixed ship date and still having a great game at the end of it, you kind of realize that not every feature has to be in there for it to be a great game.

I always say it’s the thing that you’re not thinking about is what’s going to bother the consumer, not what you’re cutting. Like if you cut something, you’re going like, “Oh, they’re going to be so upset,” but I’m like, “No, what’s going to bite us is something we’re not even thinking about yet.” It’s going to be something you think is perfectly fine, and it’ll be, like, the idea of some particular bug-like grenade tagging in Gears 1 where we had a bug when we first released. That wasn’t on our radar at all, that grenade tagging was broken, . And then lo and behold, we had to do a title update to fix it, that kind of thing, so … I think it’s just a matter of being mature about knowing that not every feature has to be in the game to be a good game, and making appropriate trade-offs for what’s the biggest bang for the buck.

So you say, “OK, here’s our five biggest things, and as long as we have these five pillars, and everything we’re doing is supporting them, then at the end of our two-year cycle we’ll have a great game.”

TE: Do you think there’s a tendency to sort of over-feature, to cram as much as possible? I mean, you have however many people working; everyone wants to get their one pet idea in there …

RF: Absolutely. And a lot of people have this … we call them babies, you know, because like, “this is my baby,” that “don’t kill my baby” kind of thing. It’s that idea that everybody has a baby feature. And that’s why I say it takes a maturity, because there’s some point where you have to recognize that, is it really contributing? Is it really going to be defining? Is it really going to be contributing to how people receive the game and how people perceive the game, or is it just a feature that you think is cool, and maybe it’s not that important.

TE: Do you find in your experience here that having to refine and meet that stated ship date, cut these features; does that create a kind of animosity, or does it do the opposite and bring people together to focus on the actual project as a whole rather than their pet features?

RF: Yeah, I think it’s different between the versions. I think we really matured as a team on Gears 1. … After the success of Gears 1 and going through that process once and realizing, “You know, hey, that thing didn’t make it into the game, and yet it still did really well; that obviously wasn’t as important as I thought it was.” And just that learning process.

In Gears 2, it’s been completely different in the sense that everybody now knows what it means to do a date-driven schedule, and what it means to make compromises. We think about that a lot more in terms of “what are the trade-offs?” Things that Cliff never said before were things like, “The producer side of my brain says this is too risky,” where in Gears 1 he would never had said that because he was the creative designer that didn’t think about constraints. Which is great for a designer to be able to have the opportunity to do that, but now he also has a little bit of a reminder in the back of the head that “we need to be careful about how far we go with this” in order to get what he wants and not spin it too far out of control.

TE: Walking in here it’s very calm, collected. It’s a big building, I’m sure there’s a basement somewhere where everybody’s hammering away, throwing things at the wall in frustration. But you have a release date for a AAA title a little over a half a year away. What’s the process at this point? I’m not seeing anybody sweating; when does the sweat start pouring?

RF: We’re getting there. Now has been the time of when reminders of milestones are coming up, and soon we’ll be getting the countdown clocks and things like that, where it’s like, “Hey, are you aware that it’s ‘X’ amount of days until content complete, and ‘X’ amount of days until feature complete, and that kind of stuff.” It’s around that time – like when you hit these next two milestones, kind of feature complete and content complete, really represent the transition of the game from a production standpoint to what we call the end-game, where you’re basically beginning your glideslope into landing this project on a particular date, so. … We’ve been a little bit more sensible this time.

In Gears 1, we crunched for a really long time – it was one of the hardest crunches I’d ever been on in my time in the industry. But it was necessary to get the game out. And we’re all grateful that it worked out. But this time we’re trying to be a little more sane; we’re trying to do things like – we just crunched for three weeks, and now we’re taking this week – not off, but we’re taking this week in terms of normal hours so that people can recover.

Because it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and think that whatever you’re working on is a sprint, so we remind everybody that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and so you have to pace yourself accordingly. Yes, you have to give incremental effort as you go along, but ultimately you still have to realize that five months is a long time, or whatever it is to what we need to get to ship, and so you need to pace yourself appropriately.

I think we’re also much further ahead than we were for Gears 1 at this point, so … it’s certainly not comfortable, it’s certainly not like, “This is no sweat, and we’re not going to have to work hard to get this to ship,” but it’s not as difficult as Gears 1. … So again, we’re not complacent at all, but we’re not freaking out, either, because we’ve already been through this once.

I’m kind of one of the rare people that – I kind of like crunch, ’cause I like the focus. … To me, it’s an indication of ambition. I know there are some development shops out there who have perfected their craft to the point where they feel they can ship games on eight hours a day and that kind of stuff. But to me, I don’t know how you do that, because our stuff is so fluid, and new ideas are being generated that you’re getting stuff along the way that are better ideas. And so if we were to say that we’re never going to crunch, that we were only going to work eight-hour days, that means that some of the really good, new ideas we’re having wouldn’t necessarily make it into the game.

To me, it’s like, if you’re not crunching, then you weren’t ambitious enough, you know what I mean? You gotta overshoot a little bit and attempt that greatness, and that requires extra effort. And if you didn’t do that, then somewhere along the line, you settled, in my mind.

Russ Pitts is an editor and producer for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.

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