Last week, we flew to Vancouver courtesy of Microsoft to check out Gears of War 4. It's the first Gears game made specifically for the Xbox One family, but much attention has been paid to the PC version as well. While at Microsoft's downtown headquarters we had unfettered access to developer The Coalition, and what follows is a condensed version of a multi-hour chat we had with studio head Rod Fergusson, creative director Chuck Osieja, lead campaign designer Matt Searcy, lead multiplayer designer Ryan Cleven, and many other senior staff – between sessions on the upcoming shooter, of course. We believe it's the most thorough examination you'll get of what it took to make Gears of War 4, straight from the mouths of those who built it.
COGs in the machine
Q: What were your high-level goals coming into this project?
Studio head Rod Fergusson: There were a bunch of 'em. Rule number one was to make sure it was a Gears game. When we come out of this, the number one goal is to make it feel like Gears. Number two was to return to what the fans are looking for, and they want that dark, intimate game, and that tension that came from Gears 1 – that idea of a new mystery and a dark thread, and the uncertainty of what's going on. If you look up dramatic tension as a word, there's four tensions that go into it: tension of surprise, tension of mystery, tension of relationships, tension of situation. And that phrase 'dramatic tension' was a thing I wanted to make sure Gears had.
Then it was making the game feel contemporary. To get the point across when I first got here, I likened Gears 1, 2, and 3 to the Tim Burton Batman. The Tim Burton Batman was over the top and very cartoon-y and comic book-y and it was fun, but you look at where Christopher Nolan took Batman with The Dark Knight, it's much more serious and felt like you got a sense of where they were in a time and place. Did I want it to be a Christopher Nolan Dark Knight? No, that's too dark and taking itself too seriously. But it was a great contrast.
We had the archetypical characters that were highly stylised, and we wanted bring them to a place where they feel more real. We didn't go for realism or realistic, we went believable. Instead of giant steel boots we have kneepads and combat boots – a little more believable. And we added nuance of story and depth of story – a little more grey in the morality – because that's what people except now it's 2016.
Q: As a new studio tackling an existing franchise, how did you retain that Gears feel? You had to completely rebuild the game in Unreal 4 as well of course, which meant leaving everything from prior games behind.
Creative director Chuck Osieja: Things we would have loved to have taken [from prior games] included the AI system that was 10 years old and had four iterations on it… to be able to move that over and be able to start making content on it day one would have been amazing. [However] we were able to record gameplay from Gears 3, play it back inside the Gears 4 engine, and do a pixel-to-pixel comparison. So when you shoot something like the Longshot, before we tuned it, it was exactly what it was in Gears 3.
Lead campaign designer Matt Searcy: A whole portion of our team was building these tools where we could analyse things to the pixel: when you press the button to go into cover, is it taking the exact same number of frames? When you run down the street for this number of frames, do you end up exactly where you would have in Gears 3? We tested that all the way through, so if we did change something – the roady run animation or the way you slide into cover – we were either intentionally changing something about the core mechanics, or it was taking the exact number of frames to do it as before. The cover slide mechanic is a clear example of that in Gears. There's no onscreen information of when you can go in to cover or what cover you are going to go into, but after you play it a few times it's this dependable exact thing you learn, and you get that feel.
Creative director Chuck Osieja: For us, there was a watershed moment about a year and a half into the project when we had a gate review with Phil Spencer. We gave him the game and he sat down and played it. And when he was done, he goes 'this feels like Gears'. That was like, 'okay, thanks'. That was exactly what we were going for.
Q: How does creativity work at your studio?
Creative director Chuck Osieja: Creative people can be all over the map a lot of times, so for me it's a lot of objective setting and goal setting. When somebody comes to me with an idea, it's being able to question whether it's meeting the objectives we set out to do, and whether it falls in line with what Gears is and what Gears isn't. Because very often people will go 'what if we put jetpacks on 'em?!'. And we'll go 'hang on, that isn't a Gears thing!'. That's an extreme example, but there are things people wanna do where you go, 'cool idea, probably not for this game'. My job is to take that and spin it into what the experience wants to be."
It's mostly me and Rod that wind up making the final decisions on what creative aspects of the game make the final cut, but we're also bringing ideas to the table. What's cool about this process and the reason I like working here is: it is collaborative and it doesn't matter where the ideas come from. When you're not precious about where the ideas come from, you get to the best results.
As a new studio working on Gears, it was very important for us to make sure we created a confidence in the fans that we understand what Gears is, that we love Gears the same way that they do, and that we're gonna take care of their baby the same way they would. Because we don't have any credibility! Outside of Rod and a couple of guys brought in from Epic, we don't have experience building a Gears of War game. So, it's important for us to do it right before we do it different.
Studio head Rod Fergusson: Let's do Marcus Fenix again but now with a different origin story! His dad's now a spy! If we were Epic I think we could have gotten away with that, but as The Coalition, we felt like that would be disrespectful to try to rewrite history to say 'oh forget the stuff before, we have a better version'. I didn't want to do that.