How can Gears of War 4 compete in a free-to-play esports world?

It's the end of Gears of War 4's multiplayer coming-out party, and The Coalition studio head Rod Fergusson sounds tired.

He's been around the world, for all intents and purposes, making stops in Europe, the U.S. and Mexico to show off his team's first crack at a new Gears of War game. At one point, Fergusson makes a roundabout acknowledgment that the team has a lot to prove — and that Gears of War doesn't hold the same position in the gaming conversation that it once did.

Gears of War 4 logo

In discussing the migratory patterns of players over the course of the franchise's life, Fergusson explains that original Gears developer Epic Games could have certain expectations about multiplayer activity. "When we were that big, I think it was just assumed that people that were going to play the game were going to move on [to the next Gears sequel]," he says.

But in the almost five years since Gears of War 3 launched in 2011, the world has largely moved on to other things. The Coalition's mandate is to change that, to make Gears relevant again. And while a traditional campaign is a major part of that initiative, more than ever, competitive multiplayer is where Gears of War 4's sights lie.

When Gears of War debuted in 2006, multiplayer was an afterthought, albeit an effective one. Cobbled together in the final stretch of development, it was limited in scope. "In the past we've had a difference in resource attribution," Fergusson says. "In Gears of War, it was 90 percent campaign and 10 percent multiplayer. Over Gears of War 2 and Gears of War 3, you see that allocation slightly change. With 4, the day our campaign designer started is the day Ryan [Cleven, multiplayer lead designer] started. So multiplayer has the same priority campaign has. They're not fighting for resources."

And that has allowed The Coalition to rethink how the multiplayer coexists with the campaign, and how multiplayer may be the thing that drives Gears of War back toward relevance.

The new generation

Once The Coalition started on its multiplayer plans, it became clear to the team that the new equal-class status allowed a kind of introspection about what does, or rather should, define Gears of War's competitive element.

"For me, in terms of the game itself, it's understanding that the multiplayer game Gears of War is different from the campaign game Gears of War, and coming to terms with that," Fergusson says. "What you're seeing in Gears 4 is us admitting our multiplayer is our multiplayer."

Gears Kait

Part of that comes from an acknowledgment of higher-level play and its place in Gears of War's multiplayer. Previously, the development team made a concerted effort with things like stopping power and increasing the efficacy of the Lancer against other players as a means of resolving player tactics that were considered too effective. "We were trying to find counters or things to fix multiplayer," Fergusson says.

Fergusson and Cleven suggest the developers had a sense during the development of previous Gears games that multiplayer needed to have the same sort of weapon emphasis as the campaign, which was theoretically training players to play the game a certain way.

The solution, according to Fergusson and Cleven, is a different sort of player education. "We're saying, can we provide a safe place for new players to learn how to play," Fergusson says. Part of this will come from certain encounters in the campaign itself — there are specific enemies that will apparently force solo-oriented players to acclimate to more aggressive tactics.

But The Coalition is also introducing a bot-based option in multiplayer scenarios that will allow less experienced players to get their sea legs against more and more sophisticated opponents. "You have to accept the wall-bouncing shotgunners," Fergusson says, adding that "it's not an exploit; it's a skill gap. It's really about making multiplayer smoother and refining things like active reload and wall-bouncing — making it better, but also helping players make the transition better."

Fergusson says that there's a balancing act in expanding what Gears of War is and whom it appeals to while also finding the heart of what defines the series. "I mean, this is a hard product for that, because we're trying to say this is the truest form of Gears, and trying to embrace what makes it what it is, so that's been a lot of our focus.

"How do we reclaim what's ours?"

The cost of DLC

Some of the ways Gears of War 4 is bringing the franchise into the modern era may seem familiar if you've paid any attention to multiplayer gaming over the last three years. Plenty of series have crossed or stumbled over the shifts in business models taking place over this, and The Coalition seems to be learning from them as much as it can.

"I think there are people leading the way," Fergusson says. He says one of those is Microsoft developer ally 343 Industries and its handling of Halo 5. Gears of War 4 introduces a card system similar to Halo 5's Req Packs, containing cosmetic content available in-game, though Fergusson is adamant that it won't affect the game's balance. Gears of War 4 will also have regular, mostly free DLC.

Gears Del

Fergusson says the similarities to Halo 5's strategy are intentional, but not mandated from higher up. "There's not an initiative from [Xbox head Phil Spencer] that says, 'You will do blah blah blah,'" says Fergusson. "It's been more that this is what feels right to us in this space. It's been interesting for us watching what's happening with Halo 5 and Warzone and Req Packs, asking how people feel about that. I'm not saying we're trying to copy them, but saying we're not trying to learn from them would be silly. Warzone seems to be a great success and using the Req Packs to help that happen is great."

There are bigger benefits to free maps than goodwill from players, according to Fergusson and Cleven. "It makes good sense, the idea of free maps, in terms of the problems we had with Gears of War 3," Fergusson says.

This last part is something of a recurring topic over the course of his conversations. Fergusson is explicit in discussing the problems Gears of War 3 faced maintaining player populations despite its massive sales success. Referring to the constant cadence of new, paid maps for Gears of War 3, Fergusson says, "It was definitely harmful to the overall goal of keeping people together playing." Both Fergusson and Cleven stop short of calling paid DLC a mistake, but it seems clear there are serious questions about what might have been for Gears of War 3 and, later, Gears of War: Judgment had the pricing model not segmented the player base.

Fergusson is almost apologetic, explaining the hows and whys of the paid-DLC model. "At the time we were doing those sorts of things, [there were] only so many things to look at from our first product release that you would do to continue the relationship with the customer after release," he says. "At the time it was a best practice, releasing map packs within 30 days. In the moment, with all the things we were dealing with inside the industry at that time, it seemed like a good idea. But in hindsight you can look back and say, 'We're fragmenting our audience and hurting the longevity of our game.'"

"The word 'mistake' is rough," Fergusson says. "Players are kind of like baby birds. They want new stuff pretty quickly. So you walk that line, where you ask, 'How quickly do I feed you because you're hungry all the time?' Versus trying to capitalize on all this extra content versus what came in the box. That's what I like about this new plan, because we can give content out right away, because it's free. It's going to be out there and not segment the audience, and we want people to play together and keep the pool as big as possible."

"We've created more knobs to turn. There are other ways to generate post-release revenue."

Cleven explains that new hardware, both in homes and server side, has allowed developers to experiment more with their business models, and moving Gears of War 4 to a new platform has enabled more experimentation. "People used the tools they had at the time to address the audience," Cleven says. "To service a long tail multiplayer audience, you have to have a product to do that. DLC on the consoles was the tool to do that. Because of more sophisticated business models we have an opportunity to change that now."

"We've created more knobs to turn," Fergusson says. "There are other ways to generate post-release revenue. You look at the card systems, like Ultimate Team for FIFA. Those things are hugely successful, and it means that the pressure of whether or not the only DLC we'll have is a map — so how do we monetize that? — has been turned off. We have other ways to monetize, so things like maps become something we can give to the players to let them have more opportunity to play."

With all of the discussions of business models and cosmetic DLC, though, there's an elephant in the room for a game betting so much on the longevity of its multiplayer element — both in how it's sold and how it's presented.

Where Gears fits as an esport

For his second interview for this story, Fergusson calls in from Mexico City at an event for Latin American press. In some ways, Gears has always had a more welcoming face for non-North American and Western European audiences than other shooters. "How we think about diversity and those sorts of things has always been an important part of Gears, when we look at the cast and the characters," says Fergusson, "and we talk about those sorts of things, whether we have representation that's as diverse as possible."

Yet much of the global expansion in mainstream gaming comes from the growth of two, often connected sources: the legitimacy of free-to-play (F2P) gaming with serious, core audiences and the expansion of esports — and Gears of War 4 is trying to thread the needle of appeasing one audience without the benefit of appealing to the other.

Gears JD

The biggest drivers of the resurgence of competitive multiplayer in the popular consciousness are Riot's League of Legends and (to a lesser extent) Valve's Dota 2. "I think if you were to talk about whether there was anything that has changed in the industry that we have to take notice of, Ryan would point to MOBA inspirations," Fergusson says.

Some of those inspirations are subtle. Fergusson's reference to letting Gears be Gears, and specifically, his reference to wall-bounces and shotguns as part of Gears of War 4's acceptable skill gap is a direct allusion to the competitive potential that drives LoL and Dota 2. One new mode in particular seems dedicated to the sorts of competitive watercooler moments that make esports so interesting. In Dodgeball, each team starts without respawns, so when someone dies they're out for good — until, that is, their team scores a kill, which then tags a dead teammate back in.

Modes like this allow for unpredictability and major upsets. Dodgeball is fun to play, to be sure, and it encourages a level of cooperation and map awareness. It allows for coordination. Things like this make it feel like The Coalition gets it, and a discussion of a developing "meta" — that is, the overarching set of strategies a game's competitive community comes up with to solve "the problem" of a game's balance elements — suggest that the studio is on the right track.

But in talking to Fergusson and Cleven, it’s difficult to shake the feeling of more questions without easy answers.

Console games often struggle as a spectator experience, and shooters have their own difficulties, which leaves console-based shooters in even more of a bind. This is the defining aspect of sports spectatorship, to witness competition, and while real world sports like football, soccer and hockey have all borrowed from video games to become more watchable experiences, many video games lag behind.

Some of these problems are a basic design issue with shooters. League of Legends, DOTA 2 and other MOBAs are presented in such a way that they're easy to look at. "It's about perspective and what you see," Fergusson says. "One of the reasons that we think things like Dota and League do well is because the watchability of a symmetric map and pulled back makes it easier as a viewer to grok. Because you can see things play out and you're able to understand it. In a first person shooter, because of the perspective, it's harder."

"I think we have a slight advantage there," Fergusson says. Gears of War's reliance on a cover mechanic is part of that.

"Gears has to be a largely flat playing field," Cleven adds. "Overlapping structures invalidate cover, so we need to be careful. But that gives us more opportunity to use cameras looking down. Gears is a very intimate game for a shooter. A lot of the combat is close range. We have an opportunity to provide people with shots and scenes that they can visually parse very quickly. We've looked at games like LoL and DOTA to see if we can emulate that kind of viewpoint."

"To say, 'We're going to do episodic free-to-play versions of this' doesn't make sense. We want to do it right before we do it different."

Fergusson and Cleven aren't saying it will be easy. "I think because we haven't catered to this style of play before, we've put ourselves behind the 8 Ball until now," Fergusson says, "which is why we're kind of digging ourselves out of a hole to make sure Gears is watchable and played at this level."

There have been other smart related additions to Gears of War 4 over Gears of War Ultimate Edition, like two caster slots and new drawn back camera angles. But there's another problem particular with console multiplayer games that holds them back — the controller.

A controller is a subpar means of navigating the various options of a multiplayer game's spectator mode. Every big console shooter requires casters to cycle through players one by one, to cycle through camera angles, and generally stumble their way through whatever's happening. It's an inelegant solution at best, and a clumsy body blow to the viewer experience at worst.

Asked about this, Fergusson and Cleven are apologetic, but seem committed to the unpleasant reality that controller-oriented spectator options will continue to drive console esports. But when asked whether or not some kind of more dedicated spectator client could be built for the game, perhaps on PC using a mouse and keyboard to more effectively and efficiently navigate the spectator experience, Cleven casually says that Gears of War 4 supports a PC keyboard in spectator mode — a fact not included in the extensive presentation that preceded press hands-on time with the game — which has hotkeys for different players, camera positions and angles. Cleven and Fergusson then ask whether players would be interested in keyboard and mouse options for the spectator mode.

The emergence of the megalodon-sized players in the esports market in the last few years has caught everyone off guard, and clearly, The Coalition and Microsoft are scrambling to keep up, just like everyone else. In that mad dash to find where the puck is going to be, to subvert a metaphor for just moment, it could be easy for those companies to miss some of the very important trees in the forest.

Gears of War 4 weapons
Weapons: Dropshot, Lancer, Buzzkill (from top)

One of Gears of War 4's biggest challenges, for instance, may be one of cost.

"I think everybody has a business model discussion," Fergusson says, "but is this the time to do something different? A boxed product made the most sense and was a strength we were going to lean into."

Part of this, he says, was a practical limitation for a team that hadn't yet developed an original game. "We had enough new,' Fergusson says. "We're a new team, with a new engine, on a new platform for us, so we have so much stuff to figure out. To say, 'We're going to do episodic free-to-play versions of this' doesn't make sense. We want to do it right before we do it different."

But console games have often struggled in many of the biggest growth regions for online gaming, in part because of high cost of boxed software. There are broader business realities that loom over the traditional console business in the global market. "As we're trying to crack the seal and figure it out, obviously you're going to look at business models and the content that will motivate people," Fergusson says.

He's not prepared to say that Gears of War will ever be free-to-play, exactly. "I don't know if we've got research that says the only difference between success or failure is business model, but if we did, we'd have that conversation," Fergusson says. But, he adds, "certain audiences want that free-to-play experience, and with new levers to monetize the games it's easier to take a game and say, 'You're now free-to-play, because we have other ways to recoup the development costs,' because they charge for characters or champions. It's always going to be a conversation of how to match customer expectations and find the best path for success."

But this year, Gears of War 4 is entering a format and field populated by massive games that are already free. Paid retail software has struggled to establish those kinds of player bases.

"For me the thing is you can't buy your way into esports; you have to earn your way in," Fergusson says. "So it makes sense to me that when you have a thing so dependent on community engagement to be successful, that the one that is the most accessible, meaning free, has the most success. I think we have a lot of learning to do."

Fergusson is practical about the work Cleven and the team at The Coalition are putting into Gears of War 4 to make it a contender. "I think a lot about what we've put into it beyond creating a mode for esports that makes sense for casters to talk about and teams to strategize about and spectate. We're thinking about how to make it watchable. And there's investment and partners. It's a long game, not a short game."

"You can't buy your way into esports; you have to earn your way in."

But how does a $60 game compete with free-to-play? There's not an easy answer. "I think the question," Fergusson says, "is what do you consider competing? I don't know that you have to win to compete. So do I sit here and say Gears to be the number one competitive esport in the world in a short time frame? Part of us embracing this and making sure Gears feels like Gears is giving fans the best experience they've ever had, and we're seeing through Ultimate Edition that there's an esports audience and players there that want to play and watch this game played professionally. Does that mean I have to compete with League of Legends for ratings? No. I have to serve the community that wants to be part of it. It's not about being the number one esports game. It's about being authentic to the esports audience that wants to have the Gears of War experience."

Cleven also mentions the passionate, existing fan base of Gears players as a grassroots asset to the scene The Coalition hopes to cultivate. "There's also something to be said for the fact that there was a dedicated group of players and fans and viewers who have been doing this, playing esports, organizing their own tournaments for Gears, for a long time," Cleven says. Asked if Gears of War 4 is starting with one hand tied behind its back as a console retail product, Cleven suggests the opposite. "I look at it the other way around. League of Legends and Dota have done a great job of raising the profile of multiplayer gaming. We've gone from millions of players to tens of millions of players and possibly hundreds of millions of players.

"Now there's a language and a discourse around multiplayer gaming that we never seen before. Over time, who's number one/two/three will probably change, and it's almost as if — and table stakes might be the wrong word — but it's something that is available to everybody because we don't know where it's going to end up. But we do know that every day average players are now talking about multiplayer gaming. And that's something that we do really well."

Around the world

Gears of War 4 may not become an esport juggernaut. It may reach the same audience the series found in the past, and everyone may go home with money in their pocket.

But with the way the industry is moving, would The Coalition view that as a success?

In his second interview for this story, Fergusson had time to reflect on the beta press tour, and noted that he saw a different reaction from the press in different places.

"It's been interesting," he says. "In Mexico City, pretty much every reporter asked about esports. That seems to be the big push here in Mexico. It was interesting to talk through stuff with them. I've been thinking a lot about some of [those] questions — if you can't be the best, why would you go after it all? That you have a ceiling being a boxed product instead of free-to-play.

"Maybe one of the problems of esports today is that people use it as a single, high level term to represent a lot of diversity. If you align esports with actual sports, there's a notion that hockey can never be as big as football, and football can never be as big as soccer. You have a certain fan base for hockey. Why have a Stanley Cup when you'll never be as big as the Super Bowl, which will never be as big as the World Cup? That's kind of where my head was landing — it's not about there being one sport to rule them all.

"Yes, we have certain ceilings on us because we're a boxed product, or because we have chainsaws on our guns or we're an M-rated title. But that doesn't mean there isn't a fan base out there who doesn't want to compete at a pro level, or who wants to watch that. We may not become the Super Bowl, but the Stanley Cup is pretty damned exciting." Babykayak