The remains of Black Tusk Studios are still in Vancouver. Some of them are obvious, like the 3-D studio logo against one wall that has yet to be taken down. Elsewhere they're more subtle, like how the meeting rooms in the downtown Vancouver office are named after mountain ranges in British Columbia, a direct reference to the heritage Black Tusk hoped to build.
The studio's main meeting room has giant glass walls that move to lead into the hallway for bigger team gatherings, planning sessions and the like. Those walls showcase a topographical map of Vancouver and the surrounding area. On a tour, one team member jokes that you can actually find where the office sits on it, and someone else points to the spot exactly.
Elsewhere, the transition to the studio’s new identity moves in fits and starts. As we walk through the studio, avoiding key areas — Gears of War 4 is in active development here, but those areas are off limits to all visitors, including, apparently, family members and visiting press — the slowly accumulating Gears of War artwork and tchotchkes decorating some walls become more prevalent.
It’s not the breathtaking display of brand synergy you’ll currently get at, say, 343 Industries, the developer in charge of Microsoft's other big shooter, Halo. At 343's Kirkland, Wash. studio, you’ll be greeted at the door by a Master Chief statue, where the Legacy Effects-built Spartan costumes from various live-action Halo commercials are visible. But that will probably come. And as this office becomes more at one with its new identity as The Coalition, the remains of its former Black Tusk identity will be swept away.
In its place, The Coalition is set to become one of Microsoft’s most important studios. It’s clear that this Vancouver-based studio is a key part of the Xbox platform — Gears of War’s heavy presence in Microsoft’s recent E3 press conference says as much, to say nothing of the development team’s size, which has ballooned from around a hundred people in 2013 to almost two hundred today, not including contractors and outsourcing.
It’s a lot of pressure for a studio that hasn’t yet shipped a game, whose only original project was never officially announced — a game that, as far as the public is aware, never even had a name. And The Coalition knows it. It recently invited Polygon to the studio to learn more about how Black Tusk assumed control of Gears of War with series co-creator Rod Fergusson, and how remaking the original Gears of War with the upcoming Ultimate Edition was a way to explore what Gears of War was — and where it should go.
"The genesis of Black Tusk was probably 2012," says Studio Manager Mike Crump. "Microsoft and Vancouver goes back further than that, but in 2012 we had a group of core gaming folks who had worked on console products and AAA games before."
Previously, the team existed more nebulously within Microsoft Studios Vancouver. Just a few months prior to the formal announcement of Black Tusk’s creation, MGS Vancouver’s Microsoft Flight, a free-to-play successor to the dormant Flight Simulator series, as well as an unnamed Kinect-based family title referred to as "Project Columbia," were canceled.
At the time, Vancouver's local game development scene was undergoing a difficult contraction: Prototype developer Radical Entertainment laid off the majority of its staff in June of that year, ending original game development to become a support arm for Activision, and Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar Games closed its Vancouver studio. Publisher THQ also dissolved amidst bankruptcy proceedings in 2012, leaving nearby Company of Heroes developer Relic in limbo before Sega purchased it.
In an interview with the Vancouver Sun in November of 2012, timed with the announcement of the studio's opening as a separate entity from MGS Vancouver, Crump explained that "there is a history of gaming in Vancouver that goes back decades, and what that has left us with is a pool of talent that is really unparalleled, I think, most anywhere in the world." The studio's namesake was the Black Tusk, a volcano in Garibaldi Provincial Park in British Columbia.
Microsoft wanted the studio to create a new IP for the then-upcoming Xbox One in an effort to create a new juggernaut for the new console. Microsoft expected Black Tusk to build something "in the action shooter space," Crump says, using Unreal Engine 4. "We were recruiting the best talent we could find from around the world. We were focused on recruiting from all over, from our competitors in Vancouver, from outside Vancouver. We brought in people from Germany, Australia and the UK."
Black Tusk had its official coming out at Microsoft's 2013 E3 press conference with a short, prerendered teaser of what appeared to be its new in-development IP.
That was the last the public would ever see of it.
Crump is cagey about what that game was. "We were in late preproduction. We didn’t have a full vertical slice," he says, referring to a limited, playable build meant to demonstrate a game's core features internally, and perhaps later at shows like E3. "That was something we were working on."
Black Tusk started with a team of approximately 20 full-time staff in 2012 as the project began preproduction, adding staff to grow to almost 100 by the end of 2013. That’s when the Microsoft Studios mothership presented it with a unique scenario and a difficult choice.
"We could continue working on the IP we were working on," Crump says. "Or we had the opportunity to take on Gears of War."
"Microsoft was in discussions with Epic," Crump says. He and other senior members of Black Tusk assembled to discuss the studio's future. "We were hugely invested in what we were working on. You don’t spend a year and a half working on a game without getting attached to it. There was a lot of discussion."
The committee understood that not everyone at the studio would react positively to the change. "I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some people on the team who were disappointed when they found out the thing they’d been working on for so long was going to be shelved," Crump says. "If you’ve been in the game industry long enough, you’re going to go through project cancellations. People go through this period of mourning a bit. You have to give them that space and time to go through that, the sense of loss that people have around something they’re invested in."
But according to Crump, in the end, the final decision was a "no-brainer."
"We went around the table and everybody was in favor of going for Gears of War." On Friday, January 21, 2014, Crump, former General Manager Hanno Lemke and the management team announced to the studio that its in-development project would be canceled, and Black Tusk would immediately transition toward Gears of War.
"The next breath," Crump adds, "was 'oh, by the way, Rod Fergusson will be taking on leading the studio.' Everyone was pretty excited about that too. And then Rod showed up on Monday. It was all downhill from there."
As Black Tusk had been assembling its proposals for its new IP, Rod Fergusson had been considering his own future. Less than a year after shipping Gears of War 3 in September of 2011 as executive producer, and after helping Polish developer People Can Fly jump-start production on Gears of War: Judgment, Fergusson saw the writing on the wall as Chinese multimedia conglomerate Tencent bought a 40 percent stake in Epic Games for more than 300 million dollars.
"They weren't going in a direction I wanted to go," Fergusson says, "and in my position as director of production I wasn't in a position I wanted to have anymore. With Tencent's involvement, it was very clear they were moving toward a free-to-play model. I wanted to do AAA big games on covers of magazines that people talk about, and sitting around working on patch after patch was not something I felt very excited about. So I told Mike Capps [then-president of Epic Games] 'I'm out.'"
He wasn't gigless for long. Boston developer Irrational Games had delayed its long-awaited and long-announced BioShock Infinite from the Fall of 2012 to the Spring of 2013, and was desperately searching for help to bring it to completion. "I heard through the grapevine that Ken [Levine, former creative director of Irrational Games] was looking for somebody," Fergusson says. "They were struggling with BioShock Infinite. They were afraid it was going to fail, and they were stuck and didn't know how to ship it."
Fergusson flew to Boston to meet with Levine and his team, where they showed him a demo of what they had, which Fergusson says impressed him. "I saw an opportunity to help in a short-term way."
Epic had kept Fergusson's departure quiet, but on August 9th, 2012, Fergusson announced that he had left the studio for Irrational Games. He had a difficult job ahead of him. "Gears of War is the hardest I’ve ever worked to ship a game," Fergusson says, "but Infinite was pretty close. Those last six months — I was there for nine, but the last six were really hard, to pull that out of the fire."
His time at Irrational was short-lived. "I realized Irrational was not the place for me," he says. In discussions with BioShock's publisher 2K Games, the management team suggested that Fergusson "stay within the family," he says, and 2K asked him to head a reorganized 2K Games studio based in Marin, Calif.
"I moved my whole family to San Francisco, put my kids in a new school, all that stuff," Fergusson says. 2K had a project for the studio, which quickly went into preproduction as Fergusson began building the team. "We inherited a project. They had some things they were doing internally that aren't announced yet," he says, adding that he expects the project will be announced soon. "It was an existing IP we were trying to bring stuff to."
"After six months, it was pretty clear that I was not in line with some of the leadership at 2K," Fergusson says. He says that management believed he wasn't changing enough about the IP. "We were not going to be able to make the best things going forward. Philosophically, we were just out of line."
Around Thanksgiving of 2013, Fergusson informed 2K Games President Cristoph Hartmann that he was leaving the studio and company. Fergusson says that this marked a strange period for him professionally. "I went back to my wife and said 'this is really weird.' I did nine and a half years at Microsoft and seven and a half years at Epic," he says. "I don't change jobs. I go in and stay there, and in the last three years I've said 'I quit' three times."
Fergusson says he thought about starting his own studio after leaving 2K, and called a friend at Microsoft to ask if they'd be interested in in joining him. His timing was serendipitous. "He says, 'What? Did you just quit 2K? We're buying Gears. If you're available, that changes a bunch of stuff,'" Fergusson says. "I said 'yeah, I'm available. If you get Gears, I'm in.'"
"We locked down Gears and that Friday they announced it," he says. "Over that weekend I signed my papers, and on Monday I flew in."
"Did you just quit 2K? We're buying Gears. If you're available, that changes a bunch of stuff."
At this point in Fergusson's story, there's an elephant in the room. He's jumped from lily pad to lily pad in the last 18 months, holding senior roles at three different studios. Would people worry he wasn't ready to settle down? When asked about this, Fergusson is deadpan, saying "Everyone was real happy when they heard I was here."
This gets a laugh out of the room. "I don’t recall anybody being, like, 'uh-oh, is he gonna bounce in six months or something,'" Crump says, and he denies any large-scale trepidation over Fergusson's recent history. "We saw Rod as one of the co-founders of the franchise we were taking on," he says. "It was reassuring to know there was going to be someone here from the get-go who could help guide us into this universe."
Crump was also realistic about Black Tusk's short history and the expectations his studio would face with the Gears of War announcement. "We knew that Rod would bring credibility to the studio," Crump says. "Of course there are going to be skeptics out there: 'These guys are gonna fail. It’s Microsoft; they’ll just squeeze this thing for money.' Having somebody come on board who’s so well known to the Gears community helped a lot to establish us as a studio that will treat the franchise the way the fans want it to be treated and take it seriously."
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition Lead Producer Jarret Bradley echoes Crump's sentiment. "It was super obvious the first time he talked to the team about Gears that his passion level was off the charts." Bradley also acknowledges the transitory nature of AAA game development. "We've all worked in the game industry before and we've probably all done similar things — where you work somewhere for six months and realize it's not for you," he says. "Spending eight years at Epic working on Gears and being willing to come back and work on it shows something."
Once Fergusson arrived at the studio, work began quickly to align the studio with its new mission statement.
"We were able to transition people really quickly," Crump says. "There wasn’t any huge down time, where people were just moping at their desks. Within a week of Rod’s arrival we were mobilizing the entire studio to start preproduction on Ultimate Edition. The first week (Rod) walked around here, everybody was playing games. We were having scrum meetings, already talking about what we needed to do. We were setting preproduction goals."
"It was nice because we had really clear goals about what we were doing with Ultimate Edition," Fergusson says. "The first week was 'go play the three games and get familiar with Gears of War.' We even did stuff like trivia at the end of meetings. There were t-shirts that said this character or that weapon, just to play with it a little bit and show that part of the culture is around knowing about what you’re building ... there was an energy that harkens back to what it was like 10 years ago at Epic. There’s an energy around what it’s like to make Gears fresh again. Everybody was so excited to have something tangible. They were all like, whoa, we get to make Gears! I come from eight years of Gears at Epic. People were like, eh, what can we do different?"
Gears of War on Xbox 360 (left) and Ultimate Edition on Xbox One (right)
Crump says that energy cut both ways. "First, people were super proud that we were chosen, given the opportunity to be entrusted with the franchise," he says. "And second, now we have to prove ourselves. Everybody’s going to be watching us."
The team started by figuring out exactly what Gears of War: Ultimate Edition would be. "There were some key decisions we had to make really early on," Fergusson says. "One was, 'what tech?'" Previously, Black Tusk had been developing its new IP using Unreal Engine 4, building production pipelines and techniques for the new technology.
"We had the question of staying true to the game that was Gears of War using Unreal Engine 3, or do you recreate that experience in UE4 because of the potential graphic enhancements you can get," Fergusson says. "I don’t think everybody understands that the difference between UE3 and UE4 means there are certain aspects, especially in scripting, that you can’t port. Artificial intelligence is one of them. If you like the Wretch in UE3 and you want to have a Wretch in UE4, you can’t just copy and paste the code. You have to look at the code and completely rewrite it and hope you get the feel and everything else the same."
It quickly became apparent that, not only would the team not have time to entirely recreate and rescript Gears of War in Unreal Engine 4, but it would be a different game. "For a number of reasons, the main one being the truthfulness of the simulation ... we decided to take UE3 and add to it," Fergusson says.
Technical Lead Jaysen Huculak explains that the decision to go with Unreal Engine 3 bore fruit quickly. "We felt confident we could take the tech from 2006 and bring it forward and modernize it quickly," Huculak says. "That’s what we did in preproduction, and then we could execute against that really quickly."
The team had a playable Xbox One build of Gears of War in four weeks. Which was good, given the project's tight schedule: approximately four months of preproduction, 10 months of production and two months of clean up and polish for bug fixing and any necessary triage.
Gears of War on Xbox 360 (left) and Ultimate Edition on Xbox One (right)
Fergusson suggests this kind of time constraint isn't always a disadvantage. "I like the fixed ship date constraint, because you use it to make tradeoffs and decisions," he says. "I [think about the idea of the] iron triangle: You have resources, schedules and features as the three sides. If you change one you have to change one of the others. The idea of locking the schedule side down, so now you’re only playing with resources and features, gives a producer control. You just have to scope it appropriately. If we treat the date like a feature, we just have to scope it appropriately to make that accomplishment."
Remasters like Gears of War: Ultimate Edition suffer from a particular drawback when it comes to rearranging that iron triangle, however. "Look at Gears of War," Fergusson says. "Timgad Station was this section we released in PC that’s now available in Ultimate Edition. Timgad was an area that was problematic for us. We weren’t getting it done, and so we cut it as part of our triage to make our launch date for Gears of War on Xbox 360."
You probably see where this is going.
"Now, in the remaster," Fergusson says, "the feature set is known. The content set is known. We can’t just say 'cut this multiplayer map,' or 'cut this multiplayer feature.' They’re expected as part of the remaster. We tied one hand behind our back from a triage perspective. That made a lot of the process of triage on this process harder."
"Normally, for a game of this scope, you’d be looking at two or three years of development."
The development timeline on Gears of War: Ultimate Edition was therefore less flexible than it would have been for a new game, which required some difficult decisions. The anniversary treatment provided to the first two Halo titles by franchise steward 343 Industries, for example, which allowed players to swap back and forth between those games' original assets and new, revamped presentations, wasn't feasible. "It wasn't a technical reality," says Mike Rayner, studio technical director. "For 343, that was an Xbox title they brought forward. They kept the entire game in memory and had the original art in there. We could have put an Xbox 360 worth of extra memory and kept all the original assets in the engine at the same time, but we’d be compromising on the potential of the remastering in terms of what we could do with the Ultimate Edition."
Chris Matthews serves as art director for Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. "It was pretty major, just trying to figure out what the game was," Matthews says. "Obviously we used part of that time to pitch what our quality bar was going to be for the game, but also to do this huge triage on what was in the game and what it was going to take to: A) do a texture upgrade; B) make the assets from scratch; or C) keep the assets as they are and give them a physically based shader, which would be the lightest of touches.
Pushing the envelope of what the game could look like became something of a mantra for the makers of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. "It was the same philosophy we always had around the Gears games," says Fergusson, "which was to push it to the highest visual quality we could."
That meant two decisions. First, the campaign would not change from a gameplay perspective. Huculak explains that, early on, the team decided to completely lock each level's geometry, the underlying invisible structure that holds everything in place. The team would completely remaster Gears of War's visual presentation, including all of its cutscene content. It made a list of every asset in the game — over 3,000 — and created a plan to rebuild every one of them.
Gears of War on Xbox 360 (left) and Ultimate Edition on Xbox One (right)
Adding to that workload, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition wasn't Black Tusk's only title in development. "We wanted the internal team here to get up to speed on Gears 4," Crump says. "Normally, for a game of [Gears of War: Ultimate Edition’s] scope, you’d be looking at two or three years of development. We had eight to 10 months of production to get this done." Even with an internal team that, as of this writing, is approaching 200 full-time staff, "there was no way we’d get it done with internal resources only," says Crump.
One of Black Tusk's other hidden qualifications came to light as the studio began to plan out production of Ultimate. "Another one of the advantages for us being well positioned to take Gears on is that we already had good relationships with outsourcing studios all around the world," Crump says. "We had very carefully screened them. We stopped working with a number because the quality wasn’t there. The two or three we were continuing to work with, we knew they could meet our quality bar. When we started working on Ultimate Edition, we just rolled those guys straight on to asset creation for that."
After a submissions process from multiple external studios, Black Tusk selected UK developer Splash Damage as its main partner to assist in getting Gears of War: Ultimate Edition on track. "We checked out different studios," Huculak says, "and they came back with the best full package from a content creator side as well as a technology side. They got where we were going with it. They had some suggestions that we’d layered in as well, like their particle system."
Once the team had a plan and help lined up, work began in earnest on rebuilding the game.
Gears of War set a clear graphical bar early on in the last console generation, so revisiting it was a considerable challenge. Multiple team members mention rose-colored glasses and talk about fighting against an internal idea that many fans of Gears of War had about what the game looked like. "You remember things differently," Fergusson says. "That’s always been a concern when you do Xbox One stuff. When we share the Ultimate Edition, people’s immediate reaction is, I remember it looking like that."
The new look for Gears of War: Ultimate Edition started, as most games do, with concept art. "Because of the way we were working with the team at Splash Damage and setting guidelines and doing reviews, I feel like we’ve created more concept art for this title than we did for the trilogy," says Fergusson, "because of the way we’re using concept art as a communication tool for the art team here and the art team at Splash Damage. It felt like every three feet we had a new concept painting for the environments. We had a huge amount of concepts — character concepts, monster concepts, environment concepts."
In rebuilding Gears of War's assets, the studio started from scratch — at least, almost. "What we took from the original Epic assets was just a gray box, a form, to make sure we still fit inside the physics of the original game," Matthews says. "But everything was reauthored in the same way you’d make it for any AAA game today."
In addition to brand new textures and normal maps for every object and character, the studio decided to carry over its effects tools and philosophy from its previous work to Ultimate Edition, with an emphasis on physically based rendering technology. This simulates the way materials interact with light in a more realistic manner, leading to a more believable sense of light and surface and a more cohesive, realistic visual presentation. But this presented challenges of its own as Black Tusk tried to build and understand Gears of War.
The original Gears of War featured an art style heavy on inky blacks, which allowed for trickery — Fergusson points out that the factory environment was largely a collection of disconnected pipes, with darkness filling in the gaps. It was a style determined in part by technical limitations. As the series evolved and Epic in turn became more comfortable with Unreal Engine 3 and the capabilities of the Xbox 360, Gears of War evolved, incorporating more detail and more color. There's a definite feeling that the Gears of War: Ultimate Edition can't walk that back. "I think the hyper detail was always on the table," Fergusson says. "The question was how much to embrace desaturation. It was based on "Band of Brothers," the HBO show, in terms of making sure that only the red would pop, to make the blood more impactful. We talked a lot about that."
"Obviously tastes have changed," says Matthews. "A number of games like Gears have been called out for being too gray or too desaturated or too sepia or any other color. We had another opportunity, when we started adding in our physical-based shader, to start playing with light a little bit more." The team explained that the move to physical-based lighting and materials made something more impressionistic impractical.
Other problems boiled down to a difference in style between Black Tusk's earlier work and the visual identity of Gears of War. "The previous IP was very realistic, what I would consider almost photorealistic," Fergusson says. "I walk in and some artist asks, 'how does the weapon attach to his back?' I said, 'I'm sorry?' We don’t realistically have a way for that weapon to connect to his back."
"Initially it took a while in preproduction to get the team to accept the exaggeration and spectacle and all the stylistic choices that make Gears," he says. "Baird is another really good example of this, or if we were to show the Corpser or the Reaver. They’re really muddy textures on the 360. Your mind fills in details. If you don’t do that, you look at it and say, wow, that looks really muddy. If you go and say, let’s make it photorealistic, there’s a lot of questions that have to be answered. When we were doing early Marcus heads, they took the jowls and said, with a guy that big, that thick, he’s gonna have this really big chin, really big jowls. They lost the compactness of Marcus’s head. And so by getting realistic proportions in the head, it made him look not at all like Marcus. Our final head is probably our third or fourth head."
The artists eventually found their stride. "Rather than realism, they started to focus more on believability," Fergusson says. "If a piece seemed to connect to another piece, there should be a connection between them. One of the things you see in the opening cinematic in the prison, you see Marcus take a shoulder strap and click it into a socket, so it lends itself a bit more to that."
"We didn’t want to move away from our original design, but we wanted to make it feel more believable," Matthews says. "There’s quite a nice example in the Berserker of this iterative process we went through with each character. We looked at things like asymmetry, calluses, even where she has chains and the links on them, because Berserkers always have to be restrained."
Matthews and the team looked at the Berserker's visual overhaul as an opportunity to build in fiction. "We wanted to tell a story about how armor plating wasn’t bolted on," he says. "It kind of hardened, like fingernails, out of her skin. We got right down to the minutiae, comparing the original with where we got to in our concepts, and very small things like making sure that the angles of the jawline would match really closely. Nobody could look back and say, why did you push it in this direction without a good reason to do that? We went back to the original and tried to find the DNA of what we were looking at."
Asymmetry came up repeatedly during Matthew's explanation of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition's complete visual overhaul, and with good reason. "In terms of next-gen stuff, especially when you look at stuff for Gears 4, one of the ways people show they’re next gen is by asymmetry," Fergusson says. "You have the ability to do it. When we don’t do it, it feels like a previous-gen technique to not have asymmetry now. It’s like secondary animation almost. It’s just one of those things you expect."
The nature of the original release's technical limitations and production schedule demanded a significant overhaul for modern audiences. "When you look at it and compare the level of detail that was not there in the original to what we’re doing," Fergusson says, "even on the Seeder, it was like, is that a light? Is that a buckle? The texture was so muddy. It was going through and coming up with purpose and definition for all this stuff."
Matthews explained that the team's visual target for the subterranean Locust started with the Corpser, the giant, spider-legged monster that appears early on in Gears of War's campaign. "It's this huge creature," Matthews says. "It's technically a massive challenge. You have all the defining elements of the Locust, the albino-style skin, the underground-creature feel, and then you’ve got the armor added in over the top. This was one of the creatures we worked on a lot, getting it right, trying to bring out the essence of the Gears canon."
"We took the skin off the Corpser," Fergusson says. "Our lead character artist came up with this way of using elephant skin and all these other types of brushes. Working with Splash Damage, we could say, hey, if you’re going to do a character, start with this as a baseline. We could look at the skin from that perspective. With these applied brushes and techniques, then we could get them in the right ballpark, and it was just tweaking from there. If you look at the Reaver’s back legs, it looks a lot like the Corpser’s legs."
Once Matthews and his team made those decisions, work continued on other monsters. "Once we’d defined that, we could take loads of elements of this and work them in. We created skin shaders. We created skin cracks and textures, almost like fingernail shaders, so we could carry those across all the different elements," Matthews says. Every monster received a similar level of heavy concepting and iteration. Matthews points out that the Kryll, the swarming creatures that are rarely seen clearly in the original release, even received a similar treatment.
Matthews presents example after example of the work done on each character and creature in reverse chronological order — first the new version followed by the original. It's jarring every time, because it hammers home what Fergusson said regarding rose-colored glasses. It's easy to mistake the game for what it looked like nine years ago.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition's environments have also seen dramatic changes. While the original game's underlying boundaries and collision are unchanged, the way visual assets have been built on top of that invisible skeleton has radically changed. Unreal Engine 3 popularized a style of level creation based on "kitbashing" in-game assets — taking hundreds or even thousands of individual game assets and creating a level. Think Legos.
With Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, the team had the benefit of a pre-existing level layout for each part of the game, which allowed them to custom build pieces of each stage more often, which had the benefit of improved game performance. "We had the luxury of being able to say, this should be part of this world, so let’s go and make an asset," says Matthews. "While we took about 3,000 assets, there’s also a good proportion of new things we added on top of that, that weren't original assets."
"Everybody’s had that reaction," Fergusson says.
The significantly modified engine also allowed for much greater environmental density. "Having the forward renderer meant we could achieve a high level of density in multiplayer levels," Matthews says, "because you’re only paying for what you’re forward rendering. One of the things we made an artistic choice on was to bring vegetation back to that. Comparing the original Mausoleum level to where it is now — there are questions as to whether we’d have been able to do that if we’d used a deferred renderer. It allowed us to push things further using this engine."
As Gears of War: Ultimate Edition's maps took shape and became more detailed and sophisticated, Black Tusk was able to take some of its earlier work familiarizing itself with the game and apply it subtly. As the rest of the studio played the original trilogy to learn what made the series tick, Narrative Producer Bonnie Jean Mah and her team also read every Gears of War comic and novel, building an internal database for the series' fiction. This allowed Black Tusk to leverage a Gears of War-era canon that was actually written later.
"Right in the opening to our game, we’ve got this big bloody 'WELCOME TO THE SLAB' handprint on the wall," Matthews says. "We wanted to remind the players where they were, where they were set in the universe at that point."
"The canon team did a bunch of research and then looked for opportunities along the way through the game to insert that canon into the game," Fergusson says. "We didn’t know the name of this prison until Karen (Traviss) wrote "The Slab," the book. There’s probably one per chapter, one opportunity where we found a way to get the game back into the continuity of the trilogy."
Throughout the entire process, Matthews stressed the push and pull to move the series' presentation forward without losing everything that made Gears of War distinguishable. "It’s been a very fine line. We’re constantly checking back against people who’ve played the original game for thousands of hours to make sure we haven’t stepped too far away from that."
Black Tusk made a different, slightly more difficult decision regarding Gears of War: Ultimate Edition's frame rate. "One of the first things we did when we got Gears running on Xbox One was we got multiplayer to sixty," Fergusson says.
The campaign had different priorities. "On the campaign we don’t want to make the concessions you have to make to be a 60Hz game," Fergusson says. "We were rebuilding all the assets. We could have run the 360 assets on Xbox One at 360. We could have stayed with old art and just run faster. But by remodeling everything and retexturing everything and using new technology like our physical-based materials, all this stuff adds a burden. That burden meant we had to give up 60 frames per second." Unless, of course, you're playing Gears of War: Ultimate Edition on PC — that version, which doesn't have a release date yet, is frame unlocked, and will run at any frame rate the player's PC can handle.
PC players also get an additional benefit from their platform's added horsepower. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition's new assets were all mastered for 4K. While this guarantees a sort of "archival" print of the game for any future projects requiring it, PC players will have the option of running the game at both 60 frames per second (or higher) and 4K resolutions. While the Xbox One version looks very good, the difference in detail between the console release at 1080p and the PC version running at 3840 x 2160 is striking.
[Continue to part two of this story to read about multiplayer and The Coalition’s future, and to see new concept art from Gears of War 4.]