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The mystery of Black Tusk's 'next big entertainment franchise'

Microsoft's Vancouver-based studio Black Tusk was recently thrown into the spotlight when it was announced that it would be the new custodian to the Gears of Wars franchise. And while it is likely that the studio will make a new Gears of War game, questions remain about the "next big entertainment franchise" that Black Tusk teased back in 2012.

Microsoft has declined to comment on whether that IP is still alive or whether the studio is working on something original. But if the announcements over the past 14 months are anything to go by, then there might be more to Black Tusk than just Gears of War.

The studio was formerly known as Microsoft Studios Vancouver before it underwent a name change in November 2012. Prior to its name change, it was working on the now-canceled free-to-play PC title Microsoft Flight and a Kinect family game. After the studio's rebranding, studio manager Mike Crump told the Vancouver Sun that Black Tusk had been given the green light to work on a brand new AAA game.

"We are working on Microsoft's next big franchise," Crump said in November of 2012. "We're not working on an existing franchise. We're looking to build the next Halo here in Vancouver, for example, which is really exciting. We're building something from the ground up."

Microsoft teased what many believed was Black Tusk's original IP at its E3 press conference seven months later. Microsoft Studios corporate vice president Phil Spencer announced on stage that the company was investing in five new studios to create blockbuster franchises for Xbox, and Black Tusk was one of them. He said the studio was "assembling a world-class team to create a brand new AAA exclusive game for Xbox One."

The brief trailer that was shown at the press conference had elements of sci-fi and stealth, and showed influences from Ubisoft's Splinter Cell games. No additional information on Black Tusk's project was released and Microsoft remained tight-lipped about what the studio was up to.

Yesterday, Spencer told Polygon that the trailer shown at E3 was "more of a concept piece that the studio was working on," inferring that it may not be a game.

"One of the things we like to do is just get the team working on something together," Spencer said. "We picked E3 as a great time for them to come together and put an asset together."

When asked what Black Tusk has been up to between its name change in 2012 and the recent Gears of War aquisition announcement, Spencer said the studio has been "incubating different ideas over the past six to nine months on what they might work on ... but the discussion with Epic [about Gears of War] obviously didn't start yesterday."

The Xbox Jobs Twitter account seemed to be willing to share more details, tweeting that Black Tusk "has been working on an all original IP since its inception," debunking the idea that the studio was working on an existing franchise all along. The Twitter account added that the studio has "not yet determined the future of the new IP at this point."

There does appear to be movement within Black Tusk that suggests the studio is preparing to do something with its newly acquired IP. One Black Tusk employee lists on LinkedIn his current job description as technical animation director "for future Gears of War title," while a senior level designer at the studio also makes mention of his work on Gears of War. The technical animation director also makes reference to an in-house animation engine that has been "designed from the ground up for next-gen consoles and modern PCs ... the Black Tusk animation engine features always-on, full-body IK on all characters, physically-based transitions ad dynamic, contextual behaviors that can be fully-authored by animators from within Maya..."

Polygon reached out to Microsoft to ask whether Black Tusk has been working on an IP separate to that of Gears of War and, if so, how much of the studio is dedicated to the original IP and how much is or will be dedicated to Gears of War.

"Today we announced that Microsoft Studios has acquired the 'Gears of War' IP, and that Black Tusk Studios will oversee all future development," a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement in response to our questions. "We have nothing further to announce, but look forward to sharing more news on the studio's development efforts in the future."

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