Gears 5’s campaign has mostly remained a mystery since the game’s reveal at E3 2018. The Coalition head Rod Fergusson has hinted at big changes, even noting the dropping of “of War’ as a way to give even the title a different feel.
Speaking to Fergusson, Gears of War 4 was a way to show fans, and themselves, that the team at The Coalition was capable of making a good Gears of War game. And Gears of War 4 was exactly that, but it left some people wanting for more of an evolution from the series’ new developer. That’s the goal with Gears 5, which tackles open environments, adopts some light RPG elements, and encourages creative player choice in combat.
However, talking to the team at The Coalition, Gears 5 is not meant to be an open-world game or an RPG. After playing the campaign for about five hours, I can say with confidence that it’s still a Gears game. And speaking with many members of the studio, that’s exactly what they wanted: a Gears game for which they took the genres and traits they’re inspired by and made it all into something that works for the Gears series.
In one of my conversations, I got the opportunity to speak to Fergusson and franchise narrative lead Bonnie Jean Mah about Gears 5. We discussed what it’s like to take Gears in new directions under Microsoft; the inception of Gears 5’s unique vehicle, the Skiff; and the fierce battle over Kait’s hat.
The first thing I’d really like to talk about is how Microsoft is picking up all these studios, and obviously new games are being made in new franchises, but how has it been with Gears? Has Microsoft been good about changes to the franchise?
Rod: They actually don’t have any creative input at all. That’s one of the nice things about how Matt [Booty, head of Xbox Games Studios] runs the studio organization. And Phil [Spencer] as well, was really just about trusting the studio heads. It’s really about trusting the studio heads and the teams there to recognize what’s the best way to leverage whatever it is they’re building. And so I think with the smaller studios, you’re seeing a bunch of opportunities for lots of new IP and new and interesting content that fits very well on Xbox Game Pass. And then on the more franchised studios like Halo and ourselves, it’s just about how can we continue to evolve?
Matt has a great line around just building great games. It’s just the notion of don’t worry about business models, don’t worry about subscriptions, don’t worry about changing things to adopt to a particular strategy. If you make an awesome game, then we can take that awesome game and apply it to different strategies. So rule number one is to make a great game and focus on quality of execution. And that’s kind of what we pride ourselves on at The Coalition. We say what we do and we do what we say, and when we say we’re going to deliver you a game, we deliver you a game, and we do it at the highest quality we can.
Xbox’s public image at the moment seems to have flipped on its head from the beginning of the generation, where it’s now a lot more forward-thinking, open to change, and focused on players. But I see this common public conception that Microsoft exclusives have not hit as hard as they did last generation. Did that ever put any weight on The Coalition to swing for the fences with Gears 5?
Rod: For us it was about growth of the franchise, you know? And we looked at it like this: okay, Epic put Gears of War on a shelf and said, “We’ll never make it again.” So when Microsoft bought Gears, I was really excited about the fact that we can actually see where this is capable of going. And then sort of parallel to what Microsoft was doing, we wanted to expand the audience and the reach of the Gears of War brand. So how do we go back to what it was in its heyday?
And the notion now of two comic book series, which just started its second novel; working on the movie; and now we’re on our third game with The Coalition between Ultimate Edition, Gears 4, and now Gears 5. And our licensed products and clothing thing with AAPE and Funko Pop and Tactics. We’re just trying to continue to grow the franchise and expand it in a meaningful way that runs parallel to what is going on at Microsoft. But it isn’t Microsoft saying, “You shall do three games or you shall do this!” In fact, when I announced the three games, they didn’t want me to announce all three games. They were like, “Oh, just save them.” And I’m like, “No, I want to tell everybody we’re doing three.” [laughs]
And so in some cases, again, I think the strength of the bottom-up way we’re doing things now allows for each studio to have its own identity and to be creative–the top-down stuff doesn’t work. And we saw that I think. I was part of the Gears of War Kinect game that never saw the light of day, and that was okay. How do we force something to be on strategy? And now the strategy is to make awesome games and then we’ll figure it out.
I think it’s very interesting to see traditionally linear shooters move towards a more open environment. How’s the team adapted to the open-world setting? Has it been exciting?
Rod: Yeah, for sure. It’s probably one of our biggest challenges. That’s one of the things we talk about. The unfortunate part is once you figure something out, you have to go down to where you truly understand it. So we had a team that didn’t make Gears before, so we made Gears 4. We were feeling pretty confident. “Okay, we know how to make a Gears game, we know how to do all this stuff,” and then this little thing called ambition gets in the way and you start creating new ideas that nobody has a clue how to do necessarily. And it makes an interesting challenge again.
I think the combination of RPG systems and the idea of really large levels that require traversal were challenges. I don’t know that you’ve gotten to it in Act III, but it’s really, really leaning into this sort of “Do it in whatever order you want to do it in,” and the idea of branching narrative and different combinations of “This is the third time I’ve been here, but I didn’t do these first two things, so how do I talk about that?” Huge challenge, and actually a bigger challenge than we expected. And that was one of the things that we developed through iteration. We did a new development process this time about what we call horizontal slices, and so because we had gone through Gears 4, we were able to get things stitched together quickly, more quickly, and so we were able to have what we call the Genesis Build.
We didn’t know what to name it, we were like, “Okay, over Christmas, we’re going to be able to play the game all the way through, but we’re not at alpha yet, so what is it?” And we’re like, “What comes before alpha?” So we finished it and said, “Oh, screw it. Genesis comes before everything else, so we’ll start at Genesis.” And so we had a Genesis Build where we could see all the systems together and we could see the world stitched together, and then we just got a bunch of feedback from that and then we said, “Okay, we have to pivot a bunch of things.” And then we did another iteration of it; we did Genesis 2. And then we did another iteration and then we did Alpha. So those iterations were really about how we deal with the size of this level and how fast the Skiff can travel and how detailed we can fill the world, and how we deal with branching narrative.
I was just saying earlier that when we started, you couldn’t get off the Skiff until you pulled up to a dock, and now we’re like, “That’s too limiting,” so now you get off wherever you want. So what does that mean for the world and how do we stream it in? That kind of stuff. So there was just a lot that we had to go through to figure it out. And fortunately we had people from Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, we had people who had previous lives that had been on those types of games. And we just knew that we weren’t trying to be another Red Dead or Far Cry or Ghost Recon. We were just saying, “How can we take Gears and make it feel more open and expansive without trying to go toe-to-toe with Ubisoft?” Because that’s not really what this game is. We just wanted to take inspiration from genres we love to give a bit more freedom and that idea of player choice.
It’s funny you mention Ubisoft because when I was in Act II and it was like, “We have to go to that tower!” I’m like, “Oh crap, I’m going to have to climb this tower.” Thankfully not.
Rod: [laughs] No, no, there’s no tower climbing.
But going back to the Skiff. How did the team land on it? Because when you think Gears, you immediately think, “Oh, a cool guy truck that you’re going to drive around the world.”
Rod: It was a battle. It was literally a battle, much like Kait’s hat. So in Gears 4, we had the beret on Kait, and almost everybody hated it.
Bonnie Jean Mah: I liked the hat.
Rod: I mean, you and I liked the hat.
Bonnie: Yeah, we liked the hat. [laughs]
Rod: We essentially had to fight really hard to keep Kait’s hat. It was one of those things where I was like, “Look, I don’t pull rank very often, but we’re keeping the hat.” And so it was one of those things when we got to the Skiff because Gears 4 was about wind flares, and I wanted this idea of Sera as a hostile host that’s trying to get rid of humanity with all these storms that are kind of fighting you as well. That idea of wind was really important to keep as a throughline, and so I really wanted a wind-driven vehicle.
But there was complexity around that. Originally, I wanted a sailing simulator because I’m that kind of a geek, but all of our user testing showed that nobody really enjoyed heading into the wind and having to understand the tacking. So we had to find ways to cheat it and make it feel different, but the number of times that engineers came up to me and said, “Can’t we just make it a dirt bike? Can we not make it a Jeep? Please, God, let it be a monster truck.” And I’m like, “Nope, it’s a weird sailing thing that you ride on the back of.” You’re kind of parasailing or wakeboarding off the back of this thing.
And so, there was a number of times where people were trying to rebel against it, and it felt like it was an opportunity to do something really cool and ownable, and at the end of the day I think where we landed, much like Kait’s hat, was that it turned out really awesome and I think it is a unique sort of differentiator for us.
It definitely brought back some memories of snowmobiling. It’s a really neat feeling thing.
Rod: And I love in Act III when it gets overloaded because it’s a two person vehicle but you have four people, and watching them be tethered in and leaning to help you keep stable and stuff. The animations, I really enjoy watching them as I drive. And it feels really good.
Yeah, I was definitely like, “More people, easier to tip,” but I still couldn’t get it to tip.
Rod: [laughs] Exactly.
So where does Gears go from here? Does it get bigger, even more open?
Rod: I have trouble imagining a bigger game than Gears 5. It’ll be interesting to see how people react to some of the changes. I don’t know how people will react to the RPG-ness, how people will react to the larger levels, and the skiffing around. We got feedback about how not everybody loved the Horde elements in the Gears 4 campaign where you had a fabricator and you had to defend that.
We were trying to create a Horde tutorial in the campaign and some people were like, “It’s not my favorite thing.” So it’ll be interesting to see how people react. I feel like we’ve changed the game enough that it’ll be really cool to get feedback on.
I was surprised by a lot of the new stuff, but even more surprised by how much it still felt like Gears. Just before I came in here, I did a whole little section completely undetected. And in that first area with the Rejects, I shot down a shock trap and got detected by one of them so they’d run at me and get caught in it. Oh, and shooting the frozen pond and watching them fall in was hilarious.
Rod: Yeah, that’s my favourite thing. Drop Shots on the ice are amazing.
Why did The Coalition decide to put such a focus on these player-created moments in combat?
Rod: We were saying we want to challenge expectations of player choice. What are ways that we can give the player more choice? And so one way is player-initiated combat. I learned that lesson from Bioshock Infinite. And so, the idea that there are battles that the swarm are just kind of meandering around and whatever, and you get to look around and see that there’s a weapon over there or there’s a flank point there or a sniper over there, and then what are the tools I have in Jack that I can sort of use to overcome the situation?
We wanted to allow you that moment to take it in and decide how you wanted to play it out. And then with some enemies having health bars, it allows for a different style of play because it means that if I know that Carrier is down to one-twentieth of its health, I know I can rush it and maybe kill it before it crushes me. But in previous games, you’d be like, “It’s a bullet sponge and I don’t know when it’s going to die so I don’t know when to make my play.” And even things like Stim, where I can go into overhealth and be super aggressive because it’s my get-out-of-jail card.
It allows me to play it differently. Normally, I’m back of the room sniping, and now I kind of go a little bit more on the frontline and use Jack to save my ass whenever I make a mistake. And with the RPG elements [Jack’s upgrades], we mix it up. What are the ways that people are going to play? We didn’t want there to be one where you would just fill up all the upgrades, and at the end, everybody plays the same. That’s why we didn’t do the tech tree thing. We wanted people to be like, “Oh, I want to invest in this thing” or “This is the way that I like to play. I like stealth, so I want to do this,” or “I don’t like stealth, I like this.”
I thought it was really cool that when I was going by certain things, Del was like, “Holy crap, there’s a condor, or holy crap, there’s a train tunnel. Maybe we should check it out.”
Bonnie: And the cool thing is, if you do explore all that, we’ve actually worked really hard to build a history into the world. So environmental storytelling was a big push this time around, so it’s not just the world that you’re exploring, it’s what lies beneath. So we tried to add layers, like in Act III when you’re going through the BYR Space Facility. There was a civil war there, so we have these layers of story.
We have what the facility was, and we have the war that took place there, and then we have the Swarm here now. Why are they here? We have all of these layers of story and collectibles all throughout the whole thing to fill in the blanks if you do want to know more about those stories.
And the side quests, like you just mentioned. There’s a condor crashed over there, you can decide to delve into that or not, but it’s a way of enriching our world.
Rod: Yeah, and the combination of when you go into the ice level and we can tell you a little bit about Gears 2 with Operation Hollow Storm. And so you’re learning about the derricks and the grind lifts, but at the same time you’re learning these things, you’re picking up a collectible that eventually unlocks the freezability on Jack’s Flash ability. So it kind of duo-layers, we sort of breadcrumb you through with lore with a payoff at the end, which is a gameplay changing mechanic that you can apply to Jack.
Alright, I’m all out of Gears questions, but Rod, I’m very interested in how you’ve found the experience of moving to Vancouver, Canada, to work on Gears.
Rod: I love it. Yeah, I love Vancouver. One of the things that surprises me is the downtown and how vibrant it is, because there’s all the tall buildings, and I don’t think a lot of people realize that all the tall buildings are actually residential and not business. So when I first moved here, I lived over by Rogers Arena, and I would go to the airport and be coming out at like 3:30 in the morning to catch a cab, and there’d be people walking around. It felt like it was 10 in the morning, you know?
And so there’s just this sort of interesting culture and vibrancy to this city, and it’s really clean and beautiful and I get to drive through Stanley Park every day on my way home, so it’s been great. And one of the things that surprised me, when I moved to Epic in North Carolina, we lived there for like seven, eight years, and it felt like a lifetime. We shipped three games and I felt like I’d been there forever. And so now I realize, starting in January, I’ll have been here six years, and it’s gone by in a blink. I’ve been so fortunate to come to a place that not only is a beautiful place, but it’s just such an amazing team and studio here. I’ve been very fortunate with Epic and The Coalition to work with the best in the industry. I built a career around getting to work with the best people possible, and so that’s been awesome.
Bonnie, as a Vancouver-native, how has it been seeing the big studios return to Vancouver? Because years ago, it felt like they were all leaving or getting closed down, but now there seems to be a reinvestment in the community from larger studios.
Bonnie: It’s validating for our community. We have an amazing group of artists and technical folk and the game industry here, I mean, there’s a reason why so many of us come here and so many of us stay. It’s because you have that community of developers. We support each other. You’ve got to be nice to everyone because chances are, you’re going to work with them again. It was very concerning when the studios were pulling out, but now you see the big names coming back and we feel like we do have a future. And our industry is strong and growing and we’re not–knock on wood–as worried that people are going to pull out. And we get to keep making games in Vancouver, which is awesome.
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