Gears of War was the quintessential Xbox 360 series.
It was a high-budget, triple-A franchise with a huge focus on the then-new world of online console multiplayer. It's a franchise that has sold over 22m units and generated over $1 billion since its 2006 debut.
And after working on last year's Gears of War: Ultimate Edition – a remaster of the original game – developer The Coalition is hard at work on a brand new entry in the series. And it is updating it for a new generation.
The modernisation of Gears 4 has happened across a few different facets,” studio head Rod Fergusson says.
One was from an art-style and story perspective. We like to think of our new art style as being this baroque authenticity. It has to be stylised to be Gears, but we wanted it to be more believable. What you find is that the proportions and bulk have been reduced, but you can still definitely tell that it is Gears. We have been trying to increase believability but not go realistic. From a story perspective, we looked back at 2006 when it was okay to do a really black and white story where things are super obvious and clear. These days people want more questionable morality-type stuff that's a little bit more grey. That's what we're going for.
And from a gameplay point of view, our biggest thing was making and keeping Gears Gears – how do we stick with the fundamentals and how do we build on top of that without breaking it? Because we changed engines and we changed studios, it was really about parity – how do we keep it Gears? And then once we got there, we talked about how we innovate the use of cover and innovate with the weapons. It's just playing around with those kinds of things and being true to what Gears is.”
The last time another studio handled the Gears of War series was 2013's Judgment. It was developed by People Can Fly, with a Metacritic score roughly ten points lower than the other Gears games. And Gears of War isn't the only Microsoft franchise to change studios – Halo switched from Bungie to 343 Industries, whose Halo games have had slightly lower Metacritic scores, too.
Although Fergusson produced the original Gears of War trilogy during his time at Epic, the studio head admits the pressure is on to keep up the quality.
We're feeling all kinds of pressure,” Fergusson laughs. There's lots of pressure in taking Gears to The Coalition and trying to deliver on some of the success we had with the original Gears of War games. There's a lot of pressure to deliver the experience that fans want, and changing something enough so that it's new, but not so different it doesn't feel like Gears. Microsoft has invested heavily in Gears of War and we have a super passionate fanbase that loves the franchise, so how do I deliver the experience that they want?”
Yet this is a new console generation, with potentially a new generation of fans. So what about this possible audience?
When we started Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, we thought it was for existing players,” Fergusson says.
But almost 50 per cent of players had never played another Gears game before. That was a surprise to us. So we spoke to the focus groups as we were trying to build Gears 4 and realised that we were talking to these young people who were saying: ‘I was nine when Gears of War first came out'. We are putting as much emphasis in existing players as we are into new people playing the game.
The big thing for us, too, is that Gears 4 is the beginning of a new saga. So even if you weren't part of the original trilogy, this is an awesome place to start.”
The Coalition is also trying to court pro-gamers. Though eSports is by no means a new thing for the shooter, the studio is pushing competitive play hard with Gears of War 4.
Obviously we'd love to be hugely successful in eSports,” Fergusson says.
But that's not a given, it has to be earned. eSports is successful because of the communities that support it. In order to get one million viewers or to fill a stadium, that's not because of a prize pool or a particular feature set. That's about a community coming together to support the thing they love. We want Gears 4 to be the continuation of what Ultimate Edition has started, which is bringing that community to eSports. In the past, we didn't look at professional play with the original games. We figured they'd do what they were going to do and we were focused on making the game more accessible.
With Gears 4, we are taking care of the competitive player as well as new people.”
Gears of War 4 will be receiving a wealth of free content post-launch. At any given point, there will be ten multiplayer maps available, with The Coalition rotating what's available.
It was about not segmenting our audience,” Fergusson explains.
One of the things I really don't like about even in Gears 3 right now is that there's a playlist for people who have all the DLC, another for all the people who have none of the DLC, here's another for people who have one bit of DLC. You separate everyone and they can't play together. With Xbox One, you can push content out to people so that they have it and make sure that everyone has every map so there is no segmentation, everybody can play with everybody.”
This strategy also ties into The Coalition's eSports ambitions for Gears of War 4.
If you're going to use skill-based match-making and you're going to use loads of visible skill-ranks and that kind of thing, you want the biggest player pool,” Fergusson says. Even today in Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, you'll get level 60 players competing with level 2 gamers, which is unfair. That's because the player pool was small at that time of day. People don't tend to respond to that well so that's why the bigger pool you can have, the more ability you have to find good competition for a player.”
An online beta for Gears of War 4 is going live at the end of April (and is already live for some), which in itself isn't news given that most triple-A online titles do these tests.
But Fergusson questions the motivations of publishers behind many of these betas.
The industry has taken the word beta and twisted it to mean ‘pre-release demo',” he says. The community thinks they should be highly polished.
If you put something out that's not a highly-polished demo, people see it as a reason not to buy it as opposed to helping support a game's development.For us, we are really focused on saying we're pre-alpha right now. I even joked thatwe should call our beta an alpha just so people understand where we are and that we are actually looking for feedback and we're actually testing systems.”
He continues: Gears ofWar has had issues in the past. We stumbled out ofthe gate with Gears 2 because it was our first time doing party-based match-making. We were testing that with 1,000 people internally
with Microsoft and all ofa sudden it was a million people and everythingfalls down.
We don't want that to happen again, so we did a beta forGears of War: Ultimate Editionand learned a lot with that. Ultimate Edition was on Unreal Engine 3, now we're on Unreal Engine 4 with all-new code, so we have