BY NATHAN WERTZ
Canadian military veteran Andrew McDonald is The Coalition's Assistant Producer on Gears of War 4, part of the billion-dollar Gears of War franchise, which is now available on Xbox One and Microsoft PC. He is also the owner of Third Order Effects, which provides military consulting services to gaming studios.
Gears of War 4 is set on planet Sera 25 years after the Imulsion Countermeasure in Gears of War 3 that destroyed all of the Locust and Lambent. You play the role of Marcus Fenix's son, J.D. Fenix, alongside his friends Delmont Walker and Kait Diaz as they face a new threat to humanity's survival. Gears of War 4 also includes online and couch co-op gameplay along with all new multiplayer modes, including Horde 3.0, which now features skills and classes to upgrade your character.
I recently played Gears of War 4 and had the opportunity to do an interview with Andrew McDonald. He tells us about his time spent in the military, his path to becoming the Assistant Producer on Gears of War 4, his current role as Assistant Producer, recording firearm audio and other weapon "Foley" for Gears, and offers advice to those who want to pursue a career in video game development.
Can you give us a bit of background on where you grew up and your decision to join the military?
I was born in, and grew up in Vancouver, BC. After I graduated from high school I started my college career but was also fascinated about the Army, specifically the Infantry from what I had read and seen, so I decided to join the Seaforth Highlanders, a reserve infantry regiment based in Vancouver. Pure curiosity drove me to make this decision and I figured if I was going to do it, I might as well join the branch of the military that would do the most shooting and would maximize my chances of parachuting out of an airplane…I’ve done a serious amount of shooting but I’m still waiting on my wings.
Where did you serve and what is your current position?
I continue to serve in a reserve capacity going on 13 years of service and am currently a Master Corporal (which is the US equivalent of an E5). During that time, I transferred to the regular army for fulltime service where I served in Afghanistan in Kandahar Province with a Psychological Operations unit alongside the Marines and US Army.
Any thoughts or takeaways from your time in service?
Life in the service for me is very comfortable as it can be very predictable with many opportunities to jet off and do exciting training, trips, and experiences. The bonds you create with your colleagues are unlike anywhere else. There are of course many bad days, especially while deployed, so it’s not sunshine and unicorns all the time. I also find lots of similarities between the chain of command and process in the Army to that of game development.
One of the many takeaways’ I learned from the military was always to plan in pencil – the ability to change direction or adjust to changing circumstances is key to success at any time in your life. Also, always carry a pencil and not a pen – pen ink can run in the rain.
What was your path after exiting military service to working on "Gears of War 4"?
After returning home I wasn’t entirely sure where I wanted to take my civilian career. In a matter of chance, I randomly met two developers of a game that I was playing while serving in Afghanistan. The game was Prototype and it was developed by a company then called Radical Entertainment. We started to talk and I expressed an interest in wanting to know more about games while they wanted to know more about the military. We began a mutually beneficial relationship where I did some minor advising on their next game and started to work as a tester for them. I then started to move around to a few other studios in the Vancouver area working in QA and eventually landed at The Coalition where I wanted to put my years of small team management to use beyond a QA capacity and into a production role.
What is your current role at The Coalition and how do you describe your job to a layman?
My current role at The Coalition on Gears of War 4 is that of an Assistant Producer. A good military analogy would be to an Ops NCO or Plans NCO. I help manage members of the Level Design team and Campaign Systems team, primarily focused assigning people to time and tasks while also ensuring each team member is unhindered and not blocked in any way from efficiently and effectively doing their work while respecting the development schedule. The higher level planning and major decisions are still taken by my Senior Producer who I work for.
Did "Gears of War 4" utilize any military experts?
To be honest, if team members had questions surrounding that sort of area they would normally just ask myself. Questions primarily revolved around terminology or military shorthand – essentially what would somebody say in this case, or what would another word for X be if you were describing it in a military setting?
I was, however, utilized to test out audio tech for recording firearm audio and other weapon Foley. We set up a test with multiple microphones at various distances and with various firearms and recorded them going off, getting loaded, unloading, racking the actions, etc. It was a real fun time to get to be a part of something as technical as that.
I don’t believe any of it actually ended up in the game, as Gears weapons have very particular and familiar sounds associated with them, but it gave the audio team information that they can use going forward if and when they want to author their own audio effects for different guns and gun sounds like rifle actions locking and unlocking, the sound of a spent casing exiting a bolt action – that sort of thing.
How is this different than previous Gears of War games?
Gears of War 4 is the beginning of a new saga and takes place 25 years after the events in Gears of War 3. Gears 4 also introduces brand new heroes and characters as well as a mysterious new enemy that threatens Sera.
From a gameplay perspective, Gears of War 4 introduces new technology as the first game in the series to be developed on Unreal Engine 4. Gears of War 4 also features new gameplay mechanics and innovations such as Windflares and close-cover combat, while also introducing brand new multiplayer modes like Dodgeball, Arms Race, and Escalation to the franchise for the first time. Horde 3.0 also sees the return of emergent gameplay with the addition of a fabricator for building defenses, as well as the introduction of skills and classes.
Any moments that come to mind where the game had to be significantly changed? We hear that a lot of people get burned out from putting massive hours into video game development. Is it plausible to have work/life balance in the video game development field?
The leadership team at The Coalition had a very clear goal in mind with Gears of War 4 and helped keep the development team on track. Obviously a lot of work goes into creating a video game, but it is still completely possible to have a healthy work/life balance and it’s definitely encouraged at The Coalition.
Any thoughts on VR technology as a whole and its potential uses to treat PTSD?
As a consumer I think VR is amazing and I can’t wait to see where it takes mainstream gaming. I’m a huge DOTA 2 fan and had the opportunity to fiddle with a friend’s VR headset during the last International, which allowed you to essentially spectate down on the playing field of the game, so to speak. It was a very unique experience. I really hope companies continue to innovate with VR and keep pushing its possibilities.
As a veteran, I believe the work being done to treat PTSD is one of the benefits of VR that is flying under the radar of a lot of people in the industry. Games and their respective platforms excel at entertaining, but it’s exciting to see when gaming technology such as VR can be used to go beyond that and actually help to heal. I think it also forces some questions to be confronted as VR helps continue the trend of bringing PTSD out into the light. I’m very interested and excited to see how VR treatment options evolve. I would love to see more focused mainstream games tackle this subject in VR as well.
Thoughts on the new Nintendo "Switch" console? There was a preview trailer that came out on the 20th.
Well it was filmed in Vancouver so I have to smile about that a little! As a fan of the OG Nintendo, with many friendships forged (and wrecked) by Mario Kart, I’m excited to learn more about the Nintendo Switch.
From an industry perspective, it’s always great to see how other companies, developers and publishers continue to push gaming forward with games and hardware releases.
Military.com has a lot of active duty and veteran readers that may want to someday work in your field. To get to where you are today, what do you feel is the optimum path to travel? Any other advice for video game creators just starting out?
It seems that many people who end up in the gaming industry seem to get there in a very roundabout way or by accident. My father told me a long time ago that you want to work with something that you love. I love games and I love working with people towards a common goal. Once I got my first experience of the industry, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.
For those who want to get into games, maybe try to see if there is a gaming industry in your area. Some cities and areas have busy gaming scenes, others not so much. Vancouver has many studios both massive and small in it, so I had the benefit of location. Do some looking around and see if any studios are doing focus testing or user research so you can experience a game that is still in development. If possible, try to start networking with people in the industry – I can’t emphasize how important this is as it will help not just with knowledge of the industry but increase your chances of employment substantially.
Education and motivation are also key. Make the best of your time in uniform to achieve this – not just with using your GI Bill benefits but also to seek and accept responsibility while serving and show that you want to get on your leadership courses and that you excel at managing a team of professionals. And once you’re out of uniform, continue to learn from people in the industry: read articles on game development and talk games with your friends – what you liked about this game, what was cool about that part, why this level was a horrible experience, what was their favorite game and why.
Also (and this is a big one) don’t be afraid to get creative with explaining your skills that you’ve acquired through your military career in terms that aren’t military jargon. You’ve spent years becoming professionally competent as a soldier, sailor, or airman/woman and you can’t understate that. Employers want to see that on a resume, but they might not know exactly what it means.
What's next for you at the company? Can you give us any insider information?
We’re really excited by both fans and critics response to Gears of War 4 and I’m proud to have worked on the team responsible for launching a brand new saga for the franchise. Now that we’re on the other side of launch, the studio will be creating and releasing two new maps each month for the first year after release as well as other DLC pieces. I’ll also look to take some time off after a busy launch season and play some games I’ve put off due to a lack of time!
Nathan Wertz is the Founder of ThisAndThatTech.com, a site focusing on tech deals, news, and reviews. He also hosts the BitBitByte Podcast. RSS: https://audioboom.com/channels/4755288.rss or iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-bit-bit-byte-podcast/id1126009001?mt=2