Rod Fergusson freely admits to being an expert. When announcing that he had been hired to lead development on Black Tusk Studios’ Gears of War franchise when Microsoft acquired it in 2014, Xbox head Phil Spencer called Fergusson “a great addition”. Hanno Lemke, who was running Black Tusk at the time (the studio is now called the Coalition), said that his experience was “second to none”.
So what is Fergusson an expert in?
“I’m an expert in Gears of War,” Fergusson, a Canadian, said with a laugh during an interview. He was only half joking, and he’s got a Gears of War tattoo to prove it. One of the reasons that Fergusson was brought in to work on Gears, which Microsoft says has sold more than 22 million games, earning more than a billion U.S. dollars in revenue, is that he was fundamental to the success of the first three games in the franchise.
But he’s not alone.
“The thing that’s interesting with the video-game industry is there isn’t a single role that makes video games,” he explained on the phone from his office in Crosstown Vancouver. “When you look at the diverse set of skills that are required, we have specialists who are very good at very specific things: artists who are specifically good at lighting a scene, artists who are good at making environment assets or making special effects. We have systems designers and gameplay designers and level designers.
“But you can only do so much as an individual. You need a strong, passionate, dedicated team underneath you.”
Fergusson, now also running the studio, believes that the Coalition is filled with experts. It’s his job to pull all of them together, and all of the things they do into one cohesive, blockbuster product. “My strength is guiding a team…and ultimately being able to ship a product.”
On October 11, the studio will release its second game, Gears of War 4. Its first was Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, a remastered and updated version of the 2006 game that gave life to the lucrative franchise. By developing Ultimate Edition, staff in the studio also became experts in Gears of War.
Fergusson started working on Gears of War in 2005, when it was just an idea for a first-person shooter brewing within Epic Games in North Carolina. He had been working as a publishing producer for Microsoft, acting as the point of contact for studios developing games, getting experience with Train Simulator and Blood Wake, a launch title for the original Xbox console.
While producing 2003’s Counter-Strike Xbox, Fergusson realized that the game could go “from nothing to ship” in under six months only if he brought development in-house. That gave him his first true taste of what it meant to be a producer leading the development of a game. He was hooked.
His next assignment was working as Microsoft’s producer on Gears of War. Fergusson noticed the team at Epic was facing challenges, and decided to make a move. Gears of War was a smashing success, but after two popular sequels, Epic was looking to focus on free-to-play games, and Fergusson wasn’t interested.
“I love telling a story and creating characters and creating a world,” he explained. Searching for that storytelling took him to Irrational Games in Boston, where he was brought in to wrangle production on Bioshock Infinite, which was languishing. “They had a lot of great ideas but they were not having great success in their process and being able to close down the game.”
He was in Boston for six months and admits it was some of the hardest work he’s ever done. But the game was released to acclaim in the spring of 2013. “I was grateful for the experience to bring another team to closure and to deliver a game that people really wanted to get their hands on,” Fergusson said. When he learned that Irrational planned to shrink the studio and shift focus, Fergusson once again found himself looking for a place to work.
He accepted an offer to set up a studio for 2K Games, but after just a few months, Gears of War was offered to him. Fergusson calls it a triple homecoming. Coming to Vancouver brought him back to Canada, back to Microsoft, and back to the franchise he helped establish.
“I get to work with some of the most talented people in the world,” he said, adding that he’s proud of what the developers at the Coalition have been able to accomplish while making Ultimate Edition and Gears of War 4.
He also admitted to being “humbled by the intensity of the passion of our fans”, many of whom, he said, also have the tattoos to prove their commitment.