In an era of bigger, "better" sequels, Gears of War 4 is drawing back.
"When we got certain decision points, we had to ask if we'd really blow it out of the box and go crazy, or do we prove to ourselves and our fans that we know what Gears is about," said Gears co-creator and head of current Gears of War stewards The Coalition Rod Fergusson. "We tended to choose the latter."
In speaking to Rod Fergusson several times since last year’s lead up to Gears of War Ultimate Edition’s release on Xbox One, he’s repeatedly discussed the sense of almost over-completion that accompanied Gears of War 3’s release back in 2011. "I over-scoped that project as a producer because we didn't think we were ever going to put it into a next one," Fergusson said. "So we didn't cut very much." That quest to go bigger, to do more, in some ways diluted or distracted from the core of what Fergusson, and now The Coalition, believe made Gears of War distinctive in the first place.
In my 90-minute conversation with Fergusson and senior studio staff, this was a point that was returned to, over and over again. There’s a lot of discussions that have transpired and continue to occur over what makes Gears of War special.
But for The Coalition, it isn’t just about returning to what made the series distinctive in the first place. It’s also about proving to a passionate fanbase that the studio is up to the task of making a game that players are looking for. "We did have a mantra going into this, to do it right before doing it differently," Fergusson said. "We're a new team. We've become the torchbearers of this thing that everybody loves. The last thing we want to do is come out with a first-person Gears of War, and this and this have changed." The studio didn’t want to be met with cries of "these guys don't even know what a Gears game is — they shouldn't be the ones taking care of it," Fergusson said.
In that regard, there’s no clear reason for hardcore fans of the series to worry. I was able to spend about 25 minutes playing through a somewhat extended version of the E3 demo of Gears of War 4 at The Coalition’s Vancouver office a couple of weeks before the show, and everything seemed, well, like it should. The new Lancer had the same satisfying punch that the series only really nailed in Gears of War 3, and chainsaw flanking worked like a charm when it was done confidently. Cover was laid out logically in a way that allowed for multiple kinds of engagement, and verticality existed in a way that felt very specifically implemented to force tactical decision making.
This is apparently in large part due to a years-long process at The Coalition to understand what made the series function the way it did in the first place. Some of it is basic design philosophy — the concept of enemies that mirror the protagonists, of more powerful enemies that make traversal of cover more difficult (the "pinners," as Coalition staff put it), of enemies that flush players out of the safety of cover and force more difficult strategic decision making.
Pressure was always present, which Fergusson maintained was part of an effort to restore and build upon the sense of combat tension that was present in the original game.
"A lot of the development work was taking things we had learned from Gears and trying to find new ways to do similar things."
"At first, everyone at the studio wanted to show me what I hadn’t seen, and I wanted them to show me what I had seen," Fergusson said, explaining that he wanted to know that his team understood what made the original trilogy work. "We had this Gears 101 bootcamp. The game is deceptively complex — you have to spawn enemies in waves, and you have to draw the player’s eye, and all these other things."
"I think most people don’t understand how little documentation there was about how (Epic) went about building what they built," said Chuck Osieja, Creative Director at The Coalition. "There was a lot of knowledge that was built over time, but we had to break down what makes good encounters, what makes a good enemy, what makes for good engagements. We can now go and teach someone to make a Gears game, because we have a lot of knowledge that we’ve documented, to understand how and why it works the way it does."
"Once we got the game ported to Unreal 4 you start to realize really quickly where things that make Gears feel like Gears fall apart around the edges," said Matt Searcy, Gears 4’s lead campaign designer. "A lot of games start out as art and spaces and levels are designed around that, but you can’t build Gears that way. You need your pen and your paper and you need to figure out how everything works. It’s driven by gameplay more than I think people realize."
An important part of Gears is the moments where the game breathes, where combat stops, and learning where those belong was also part of The Coalition’s learning process. "I think we got that pretty early on in production," Searcy said. "I think as you start to put the campaign together, you sometimes need to go back and pull the combat out. You have to let go of your babies. You’re so close to the little pieces, but when you go back to look at the whole, you have to make smart editing decisions that make the pieces fit together. There are times where you have to pull an awesome combat beat because players need to breathe, and there needs to be a story beat. There has to be something other than shooting a gun."
With a new generation comes more powerful hardware, but some of what made Gears of War distinctive was in part driven around the hardware it was built for. Enemies had "super high fidelity," as Fergusson put it, but they also weren’t as many on the screen as many other games would push. This was compensated for by close-up violence. Design and hardware co-existed. "When you look through the games, and you look through what makes the games what they are, in some cases, bugs became features," said Searcy. "Sometimes it’s those things that make the game awesome."
The transition to Unreal Engine 4 forced some painful work and painstaking recreation of one of the most important elements of the game as well. "When we ported to Unreal 4, we lost all the AI," said Searcy. "The way enemies behave is hugely important in what players can do and how the game feels." The drones, replacement fodder for the Locust grunts of the previous trilogy, were particularly difficult to get right. "For a while, nothing felt right. In some places, the AI got too smart. The guy writing our AI had them acting intelligently to getting flanked, and when you got the drop on them they’d move to a better place. When what needs to happen is getting the drop on them gives you a couple of seconds of feeling super smart where you can chainsaw them in the back."
"Over the last year, our games lead goes on little hunts for things that don’t feel quite right. With headshots, something wasn’t right. Sometimes someone ‘improves’ an animation or effect from Gears, but in doing that makes it feel different."
"With the slide into cover, someone said ‘hey we fixed slide into cover,’" Fergusson said. "I said that was great, but it looks a little unresponsive. So I asked how many frames the original slide was, and it was 11 frames. So I said OK, you have 11 frames. Make it as beautiful as you want, but you have 11 frames."
"One of the things the new hardware gives us is a fidelity of polish that we couldn’t achieve last generation," Fergusson added. "There’s a bunch of stuff that’s improved. Even the roadie run has been improved. With the way the world interacts with materials, and the way rain drips and gathers at a character’s elbow, there’s a lot of fit and finish. We were such a small team with the previous games by comparison that there were holes in our animation that now we can fill.
"The roadie run was a placeholder animation, and every game we tried to improve it, but Cliff (Bleszinski, series co-creator) would say no. But a few months ago our lead animator said I think I have something." That improvement is in the game now.
Every game has a blue sky period, where the technical limitations of engine or practical limitations of time seem more distant. This allows the team to imagine what could be and hopefully push the game forward. And even with Gears of War 4’s need to demonstrate the fundamentals of the series, The Coalition spent some time wondering what more they could do within the series’s context.
Then the cuts have to come, and hard decisions have to be made. This can also be a liberating thing, however.
Instead of approaching the need to evoke the original Gears of War’s sensibilities as an anchor, the team is approaching it as a means of focusing their creativity. "I think good designers can work inside of a set of parameters," said Osieja. "Having that grounding, that foundation, that it needs those things to feel like Gears, but how do you innovate on top of that and push it further, that’s really hard to do and really important to do it."
"You can’t get a team to ship a good game without constraints," added Searcy. "You need to say this is your playground, and ship it within that box."
But before the team walks into that box, the blue sky can offer features that may come to define the game, even as features are cut or locked. "We had ideas for water-based spectacles, and wind-based spectacles," Fergusson said. "The initial plan was to have both. But we realized the reality is that our tech team can’t do two really big things — we couldn’t do intense physics based water simulation and physics-based wind in the time we had. So we had to decide what we could get the most out of, and what we could riff off of. So for the sake of our sanity and our tech team, we had to cut one, and we chose wind."
"We started cutting at the beginning of production," Searcy said. "It’s like pruning a tree. Once you know enough, you can tell by playing through shells of levels that things aren’t working and make smart decisions, before we’ve invested six months in something."
While Gears of War as a series has a legacy that makes it beloved, as a series in its tenth year, and on the cusp of its fifth main entry (after 2013's Gears of War: Judgment), it has its own baggage to deal with. When asked if the old overly macho "dudebro" accusations heaved at the series are a challenge or an opportunity, Fergusson seems frustrated. He's been a major guiding force for the series’ narrative since the first game, and takes it seriously. Jokes are made at the interview about Fergusson's stubborn love of the game's fiction, and how his preference for lore that makes sense can occasionally butt against the basic design needs of the game. You can tell that the game being written off as a macho cliche bothers him, at least a little.
"The hard part of the "dude-bro'y" [element] is that a large part of our population loves it," he said. "I can't sit here today and go, man, we've totally scrubbed that, there's none of that kind of banter, none of that cheesiness. Because as I'm making all of those statements, I'm making someone that loved it like it less."
But Fergusson also says that aspect of the game has often been exaggerated by critics of the series. "That's a problem we have to overcome," Fergusson said. "It becomes an easy response when you talk to people about Gears of War. People go "dude bro," people don't even listen to the story or what's actually happening, they listen to the combat chatter, and they go, "oh, that's it's big thing." Or they look like they're on steroids, so it's a very macho game. And when we were doing the European press tour for the game, they didn't think of it as a dude-bro'y game, they looked at it as a very American game."
Fergusson and the team are trying to remedy some of that and find evolution in the game's story, at least. New hardware means that certain things are no longer a problem — the Xbox One can hold more than a few lines of combat chatter in memory, so in-combat dialogue should be a little less reductive, for example. But Fergusson is also hoping that new characters with less baggage in their fiction can help add some new stakes and growth to Gears. "We've got to make it more contemporary, as more than a decade has passed," Fergusson said. "Modern audiences don't want black and white characters, they want grey, ambiguity. I want to bring more interesting depth to our story and our characters."
"But I don't want to go to a place where we're not allowed to make a joke," Fergusson said. "If we lose that sort of banter that bonds those characters it doesn't feel like Gears to me anymore. When we made Gears of War we thought we were making Band of Brothers-meets-Resident Evil. We made Predator. We haven't gone all the way to where we take ourselves so seriously."
When our interview occurred, it was in the immediate wake of Uncharted 4’s triumphant critical victory lap, and there are easy comparisons to be made between the two series as flagships for their respective platforms. "For us, the question isn't Gears of War 4 versus Uncharted 4 — it's Gears of War 4 versus what's Uncharted 5," Fergusson said. "Let's say five years from now someone picks it up and says let's go back. How would they make it?"
"We had the big finale, where we said goodbye to Marcus and Anya, and they had their tomorrow," Fergusson said. "That was our goodbye game."
Gears of War 4 instead focuses on new characters, chief among them J.D. Fenix, son of Marcus and Anya, who, if the game's E3 presentation is any indication, has a strained relationship with his father. A generation at odds with the survivors of the original trilogy seems to be a running theme. Kait, a friend of J.D., was born an outsider, a group of survivors who abandoned the martial law of the remaining human authorities to live outside the walls of the last human cities. J.D., Kait and their friend Del discover a new, monstrous threat to humanity amidst the wild ruins of Sera while discovering a history of conflict the trio never really understood.
Fergusson explained that a tension was present in the original game, due in part to its acknowledged efforts to evoke Resident Evil 4, and in some ways, Gears of War 4 hopes to find that again. "I always avoid the term survival horror, because I feel like our characters are so empowered it doesn't make sense," Fergusson said. "You're not walking through a high school hallway at night with no gun, waiting for the serial killer to get you."
There are four kinds of dramatic tension, as Fergusson points out: the tension of relationships; the tension of tasks; the tension of surprise; and the tension of mystery. "Whether it's a scary monster in a dark night, whether it's 'I don't get along with you and we're pushing against certain things and having arguments about stuff and you've done stuff I don't want you to be doing,' whether it's the scare moments, everywhere we can, we've tried to push that a little bit further to get back to that darker Gears feel where we can, without trying to cross this line where we're trying to pretend we're a survival horror game when we're not."
While Gears of War 4 deals directly with the events of the previous games, it won't do so in such a way that people unfamiliar with what happened in the 30 years prior to the game will find alienating. "You have to go back to your roots and your origins and give an opportunity to let people who weren't part of the previous journey to come in," Fergusson said. "For me, Gears of War 4 is a great time for new people to jump in if they haven't played the first three Gears games. Will you miss some of the inside winks and fan service? Sure. But it's not going to hurt your experience not having it."
At one point, it was my turn to be grilled by Fergusson about the game. He asked what I thought, and I explained that aside from playing the game without collectibles, it felt like a Gears game should. The team’s attempts to find that soul seem to be working.
But as I explain to Fergusson, I’m not the one he has to convince. And the team is well aware of the challenge ahead of it.
The question is where Gears is as a part of the popular conversation. Gears’ fortunes have largely been tied to Microsoft’s with the Xbox as a platform. Gears has had the weight on its shoulders of being a flagship for Microsoft before, but never in this scenario, where it’s clear that Microsoft isn’t in a leadership position.
This was demonstrated even more at E3, where Gears of War 4 was tied to the imminent release of Microsoft’s Xbox One S console and the launch of Microsoft’s Play Anywhere initiative, which will bring a day and date launch of Gears of War 4 to Windows 10. Microsoft is using Gears as a means of demonstrating the power and breadth of its platform — to the point where Fergusson was prominently featured in the reveal video for Project Scorpio, the powerful Xbox hardware scheduled for release next year.
While The Coalition hasn’t made any formal announcements about Gears of War 4 and Scorpio, there are clearly discussions underway for how the game might get a second act on the more powerful hardware. "We have to look at what the engine can do with the power that Scorpio has," said Fergusson. "Because we're mastering at 4K, it's not about assets or art. It's about getting the milliseconds down in terms of getting the game to 4K at 60 or 30 [fps] depending on single-player or multiplayer." In the meantime, Xbox One S owners will get the added benefit of HDR color support in this Fall’s release of the game on Xbox One.
In that respect, Gears of War 4 continues the series tradition of standing as a technical showcase for Microsoft's console. But for Fergusson, it keeps coming back to one thing: proving that The Coalition can handle the legacy it’s been handed. "Give me a couple of games and maybe I can fuck it up," Fergusson said. "But right now, I want to do it right.