Beauty deconstructed: The state of Gears of War (part two)

[This is the second half of our Gears of War cover story. Click here to return to part one.]

Part 1 | Part 2

Gears of War was a project that, by Rod Fergusson's account, barely came together in time for its Holiday 2006 release, and the game's lengthy cinematic component might have suffered the most for it. Many of the in-game cinemas were assembled close to the last minute, and when Epic didn't have time to conduct motion capture sessions or record additional pick-up dialogue, it made do. Some cutscenes reused motion capture from previous scenes flipped — from left to right to right to left. Empty spaces devoid of dialogue were filled with bits of combat callouts from the cast, stitched together to fill the gaps.

When Fergusson talks about the in-game cutscenes, it's clear that he was never completely happy with how things turned out. This isn't uncommon in game development. Sometimes things have to be done before they're as good as desired. With Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, Fergusson and the studio had a chance to go back and fix things.

According to Cinematics Director Kyle Gaulin, it took his team almost 12 months to completely recompose and reshoot the original Gears of War's approximately 45 minutes of cutscenes. "[First we'd always] watch the original with Rod," Gaulin says. "He’d go through and call out things he wanted to improve. The original story, this is what they were trying to sell, but for whatever reason it didn't come across clearly, or it was hard to execute on at the time. The major narrative story beats, he’d call them out and flag them. We'd make sure to take note of that. With how far technology's come, animation and rigs and textures, it was finding moments where we could really push in on characters and sell emotion, as much as these guys emote."

See how a Gears of War: Ultimate Edition cinematic was made

Fergusson has several examples of areas where he feels the pacing and execution of the original release's cutscenes were lacking, even undercutting Epic's storytelling goals. "There’s an example you’ll see early on that drove me crazy," he says. "There’s a moment where Marcus is in the helicopter and he just lets the moment sit really long. Then [Kim] goes, 'welcome to Delta,' and he hands him a can of water."

"I counted. 20 seconds before [Kim] speaks," Gaulin says.

"And then when you hop out of the helicopter you have a Lancer," Fergusson continues. "We never sold that. We never explained to the player how you switched from a Hammerburst to a Lancer. It just magically appeared in his hands."

"A lot of the scenes had moments that worked," Gaulin says. "It was just toning things down. One of the biggest things that bugged me was ... it seemed like they only had one camera and it would whip back and forth all the time. But I wanted to use the same mentality and approach [the original game did], have that handheld kind of feel. But instead of just one guy running around in this fight, there's two camera guys. That gave us the advantage of doing camera cuts. Some of the big, epic scenes we had way more camera angles, but we wanted to keep things grounded and intimate and close."

"When we came out of [the cutscene introducing Hoffman and Delta squad's mission], a lot of people didn’t understand that they were about to go on a mission to pick up the resonator and save Alpha Squad," Fergusson says. "That's why we ended up with a lot of repetitions, where you have to remind people of what it is they’re doing. We got rid of where Marcus says, 'That was satisfying,' because there’s two dead bodies on the ground."

"A lot of the scenes had moments that worked. It was just toning things down."

Gaulin discusses the process for rebuilding each cutscene. After starting with notes from the original, the cinematics team used those guidelines to storyboard new versions. Next, Gaulin would supervise layouts of the new cutscenes using the rough game assets to nail down camera placement, and plan for any additional assets that needed to be created for the scene. "We were also putting this in the engine so the designers could get a feel of what it was going to be like before we shot any mocap," Gaulin says. "Once you’ve gone past that, it becomes really expensive to redo a scene."

After motion capture sessions, the data is moved back into the scene in rough form to clean up performances and finalize additional animations done by hand. "We’d start reviewing stuff more in the engine," Gaulin says, "doing renders every night, and then the final team to kick things off is audio."

Most of Ultimate's audio remains identical to the original game, but there are some fixes here and there. "Originally Cole was going to be Gus the Bus," says Fergusson. "If you play the original game, a couple of times you’ll hear him say things like, ‘Thanks Gus, I’ll take that under advisement.' But at the time there was a Pittsburgh Steelers football player who matched the Bus reference, so we felt like we were going to infringe on his nickname. Instead of taking Gus from Augustus Cole, we took Cole Train. [In] a couple of places ... we got John to say the line with Cole. I don’t think we did much more than that from a dialogue perspective."

Moving multiplayer forward

In November of 2014, Black Tusk contacted five members of the Gears of War competitive community with a mysterious proposal. "We reached out to them and told them we were going to buy them plane tickets to Redmond," Crump says. "They weren't able to talk about it with their friends or even tell their families where they were going, or why, but that when they got there they'd be taken care of and see something cool."

All five players agreed to Black Tusk's terms. When they arrived, they were greeted with Xbox Ones and an early version of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. They were there to playtest the new multiplayer and to give the team feedback on the game's most subtle yet dramatic difference: the move to 60 frames per second.

But they didn't know that. "After they played for four hours straight, we asked them a lot of questions," says Lead Designer Peder Skude, "without telling them about anything we’d changed. At the end of that first day, 6 p.m. or 8 p.m., the first question I asked was, what frame rate do you think it was?"

Exclusive Gears of War: Ultimate Edition multiplayer footage

"These are people who have played countless hours of Gears," Skude says. "One had a story he told me, where in his first year of college, he had an offer in his dorm: 'if you can kill me, I’ll give you 200 bucks.' Nobody was ever able to kill him a single time." None of the players could tell, initially, and even when prompted to guess whether it was different from the original game, there was some confusion.

"[At the studio] we go back and forth and compare 30 to 60 and the two different controllers and look at acceleration all the time and think this should be an obvious difference," Skude says. "But even for people who play a lot, they notice the responsiveness, but they don’t really know why."

For a play session with Ultimate Edition's multiplayer during Polygon's visit, the team had the original Xbox 360 release set up to try. After a few rounds there, the session switched over to Xbox One. In that context, the difference between the two is considerable. Controller responsiveness is significantly higher.

Console modder Ben Heck built this controller that measures the game’s latency.

"The main thing with 60 is that it’s just really hard to go back," Skude says. "If you just walk around and look at stuff, it’s OK, but if you start playing and play for a few hours, and then go back and play at 30, it just feels odd. To me it’s almost like going back from watching sports in HD. Before I didn’t even think about it. But once you’ve seen a picture that clear, you just can’t go back."

Rayner states that the team contracted well-known console modder Ben Heck to create a controller specifically to measure and tune the latency between the controller and the on-screen results. The results, according to Rayner, are similar to that of the Call of Duty series, long considered the gold standard for responsiveness.

Once Black Tusk had the frame rate where it wanted it, there was still more work to do — much of it prompted by the thrashing handed to the team's build by the pro players it had assembled. "Another funny story is that in the playtests ... when they got their hands on the game at 60, they started doing stuff way faster than anybody here was playing it," Huculak says. "We ended up with crashes from running out of memory, because of how quickly the pro players were doing some of the activities."

"They were crashing it every half an hour or so," Bradley says. "Some guys were crashing more often than others."

Skude clarifies that one player in particular was pushing the engine past its initial breaking point. "Our research pulled them out about 30 minutes at a time, so it was crashing every 10 minutes for a while. But then this one half hour, it had no crashes, this one guy."

"There were things we ended up discovering that are character-ability things," Huculak says. "We ran into a ton with cameras, grenades, anything with a physics tick. We had ragdolls that were going all over the place. From a dev perspective, we had to go through a ton of things and make sure the [engine] handled 60 well. And not only that, but we also had to scale it at 30 as well."

"That was a big thing for us, managing nostalgia. You have to apply the fact that it’s going through this lens of 10 years."

Multiplayer provided a design challenge that the campaign did not, in part because it was considered sacrosanctly untouchable. It's clear that the team believes there are different expectations for a remastered single-player campaign and a competent current multiplayer offering.

"That was a big thing for us, managing nostalgia," Fergusson says. "You have to apply the fact that it’s going through this lens of 10 years. What’s the new sensibility applied to it? You have to pick and choose what to do from a nostalgia perspective." Fergusson uses the series' "down but not out" mechanic as an example. In the original Gears of War, when you're "downed" and run out of health, you fall to the ground, unable to move, at which point you can either be revived by a teammate or finished off by an enemy. In Gears of War 2, downed players can drag themselves to cover in an attempt to secure more time for a revival. The team decided to stay with the original game's system, because some team members believed it was a key difference from one game to the next.

"A lot of things, like ... wall canceling, we don’t have," Skude says. "You can cancel out of a SWAT turn. We don’t do mantle kicks because that’s a Gears of War 3 thing. Planting grenades, distinctly Gears of War 3. It’s a balance. But we probably discussed all of the gameplay mechanics in any of the Gears games. Would this fit? Why or why not? Even from Judgment, to be honest. Being able to run off a ledge, or the mantle gun animation — that was taken from there, because it’s smoother and more responsive." [Editor's note: We originally misquoted Skude saying you can't cancel out of a SWAT turn. We regret the error.]

Gears of War UE

Missing Horde

Asked about the inclusion of Horde mode, the player vs. enemy mode introduced in Gears of War 2, Fergusson says the studio talked about and ultimately dismissed the possibility of including it. "It came down to two things," he says. "One was just time and effort to do that. Also, Horde didn’t exist until Gears of War 2. Part of that was because you have to have a certain library of creatures to create a reasonable army to fight against. In Gears of War, there’s not as much breadth to the army, and the experience would be kind of anemic compared to what it would be for Gears of War 2. And the scope of it was a bit too much for [the development cycle]."

But now, as Gears of War: Ultimate Edition approaches retail — the game is just shy of gold status at the time of this writing — Fergusson seems to have had a belated shift in thinking on the topic. "Where we settled … is that the campaign is really the tribute to nostalgia, whereas the multiplayer needs to be more modernized," Fergusson says. "If I were to do it all over again, if we were to rewind 18 months and say, today’s the day we start Gears: Ultimate Edition, I’d probably go hard toward Gears of War 3 multiplayer. People in the multiplayer world get used to a curve, to what it is to be a contemporary competitive shooter. I think there’s less nostalgia there. People don’t think of clunky cover as fondly as when they play the campaign and they see a weird animation glitch or the character says something stupid like 'lookit all that juice.'"

Fergusson was nervous enough about the narrow middle ground Gears of War: Ultimate Edition's multiplayer occupied to inquire with fans well after the point of no return had been reached. "This was one of my biggest concerns at E3, was how it feels to have this hybrid," he says. "So I was like, 'how’s it feel?' Every time I’d walk up to somebody at the booth [to ask if they'd played the game.] 'Yeah, I just finished!' How’d it feel? 'It felt great!'" Fergusson seems willing to take those fans at their word, if, that is, he wasn’t already convinced they're right.

Elsewhere, other changes for the series are afoot, though they are incremental. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is making several concessions to the competitive multiplayer community with a dedicated spectator mode, though this is only a half step: Spectators can only follow players and switch between stationary camera positions in each level, as if they had been killed and were waiting to respawn. Meanwhile, there are involved custom game tools, and, even though Gears of War: Ultimate Edition has full dedicated server support, it includes LAN play as well, which marks it as the first Xbox One game to support the feature, considered vital to e-sports organizations and competitions.

Gears of War on Xbox 360 (left) and Ultimate Edition on Xbox One (right)

There's even a custom map and mode designed around a particular favorite game type that was jury-rigged by the competitive scene. "After those few days [with the pro players], we were just ready to pack up and go home," says Skude. "But at the end [they said] 'let’s play some 2v2.'" However, instead of using the full map, the pro players explained that they'd be playing "Boxes," where players would select the map War Machine and run to the middle space of the map, bordered by the map's vending machines, using only Gnasher Shotguns. "It was really fun," Skude says. "Afterward they [said], 'this is how we always play. We only play it in this one map.'"

"Jarret [Bradley] took it upon himself to take that ruleset and actually begin to embody it inside the space," Matthews says. "He used one of our rulesets to go in and just tidy it all up. We ended up with this really good community-driven map, which is the embodiment of a variant ruleset. It’s like the War Machine map, but it’s lit to be an arena. It looks like a 2v2 or 1v1 shotgun map now."

Black Tusk also made other changes to fix long-standing quirks of each map that made them less balanced. "We’ve improved a lot of things behind the scenes," Matthews says. "We started with the original physics. As the frame rate improved, we began adjusting things like that, and we’d notice little details. There are more control points on certain pieces of physics on one side of some maps opposed to the other, even though it’s supposed to be symmetrical. We went back and made sure that stuff was perfectly symmetrical in physics as well."

New names

As Gears of War: Ultimate Edition approached the end of its production and headed toward its two-month finishing stage, E3 was rapidly approaching, and with it an acknowledged but unresolved problem: No one really knew who Black Tusk was.

Just a few months earlier, previous General Manager Hanno Lemke left Black Tusk to assume a senior role with Microsoft's European Xbox team, and Fergusson assumed the role of studio head in his place. Around that time, the topic of changing the studio's name became a conversation for a variety of factors.

"We felt the need to align behind the idea of being part of Gears," Fergusson says. "This was just before Hanno left, around March. We wanted to get something out for E3. Black Tusk as an entity hadn't shipped anything yet. We were concerned about the Black Tusk entity becoming known very publicly at E3, making the announcement, and then saying, 'oh, by the way, we're changing our name.'"

Black Tusk was a name chosen for the studio to reflect its heritage as a Vancouver-based studio and the pride its founding members felt as part of the Vancouver development scene, but Fergusson says there wasn't any particular pain about the name change internally. "People liked the name Black Tusk. But people got why we were doing it. It made sense that we were going to rebrand around Gears. I think once they saw the name and the logo, it was pretty positive. For this team in particular, too, it was right in the middle of a crunch, so it was like, 'what, we changed the name? OK, whatever.'"

There were several schools of thought on what the name should be, including a new regional-influenced choice in the same vein of Black Tusk, something referencing British Columbia or Canada. But the thinking quickly veered toward something specific to Gears of War. "We felt like being part of the IP was important to us," Fergusson says. "When I talked to them about The Coalition, well, that speaks to what we have here, which is a very diverse set of individuals focused on one thing, which is the definition of a coalition. It worked culturally and worked with the IP. It would be a strengthening of our brand as a studio. If you’re going to work at 343, you know you’re building Halo. We want you to know that if you get a job offer from the Coalition, you’re going to work on Gears."

The studio's new logo came together more quickly. "The logo came on really fast," Fergusson says. "We had the 2-D version and said, OK, let’s make a temporary 3-D version. Our artists blew it out of the water in like two weeks and gave us this amazing 3-D version. OK, I guess that’s not temporary."

The next big thing

While Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is about to go gold, the studio has already shifted the majority of its staff to the next thing, located on another floor, the place where even family isn't allowed to go. While the newly-christened Coalition announced and debuted Gears of War 4 at E3, showing several minutes of gameplay footage on stage at Microsoft's press conference, Fergusson and the rest of the team are hesitant to say much more about the game.

Over the course of more than four hours of interviews, however, some things are clear.

First, there was no planned sequel ahead of Gears of War 3 at Epic, no timeline of the future after Marcus Fenix ends the Locust threat for good. "The reality of the trilogy is that it was created incrementally," Fergusson says. "In Gears of War we didn’t know Marcus was going to stab the [Locust] Queen. We very much went with, 'OK, we’re making a game — here’s Gears of War, that was good. Now what’s Gears 2? Now where are we taking it?' We didn’t have a clear roadmap, a trilogy bible, any idea of what Marcus’s story would be from beginning to end, until we were developing Gears of War 3. That stuff wasn’t locked down."

But there had been some discussion about what a sequel could look like.

"There was a bunch of stuff I brought with me from the thinking we’d done about what Gears 4 would be at Epic," Fergusson says. "I took that as a seed and began developing a whole new idea of what Gears 4 is, what the universe would be beyond what we were doing."

Fergusson suggests that Epic's over-ambition with Gears of War 3 makes Gears of War 4 a somewhat simpler proposition, in part because there's not a sense that there won't be any more chances. "When we were doing Gears 3, we over-scoped it," he says. "We felt like it was going to be the last one we’d ever do, like it was our opus, so we put too much stuff into it because we felt like we were never going to make another one. It better have it all. We don’t have this pressure with 4. We know that if things go well, there will be others. We can be more rational around [what fits] and save some of it for the future."

When asked if there was a desire to reconcile the external fiction around Gears of War in order to set the groundwork for Gears of War 4, Fergusson demurs. "A little bit," he says. "The reality of Gears 4 makes it a bit easier on us in some respects." This raises questions — does Gears of War 4 take place so far away chronologically or geographically from the original trilogy that history is less of a problem? For now, The Coalition isn't talking.

In conversation, it sounds like the move to 60 frames per second for Ultimate Edition's multiplayer is driving some conversations at the studio about the future of the series. "Part of it is how we’re determined to make those decisions around what we’re going to push for Gears 4," Fergusson says. "It’s something we can talk about in time. There’s a lot of sins hidden in 30, which is good and bad. When you look from 1 to 3 to Judgment, what you see is a focus on responsiveness and the notion of, hey, maybe that footfall doesn’t have to be so precise, because we want faster movement. Or weapon swapping can be a lot faster if you pull out a bunch of animation frames. It maybe looks more clunky, but it happens really fast and feels better."

Fergusson sounds cautious about the kind of arms race that thinking can breed, and how you can't really go back. "That’s part of what 60 forces," he says. "But I hear about this from the Call of Duty guys. The 60Hz culture changes how you work. You check something in and now you’re below 60, you have to pull it back and figure out what’s wrong. That idea of getting to a bar and holding and putting that pressure on getting the visuals as high as you can, but not breaking that bar. Because once you break it ... all the fallbacks are pretty ugly, except to go immediately back to 30, and that’s a huge drop."

Meanwhile, some of the work the studio did as Black Tusk on its original project plays its own part in where Gears of War 4 is going. "From a tools and technology pipeline standpoint, a lot of the stuff we were doing before rolled straight into Gears 4," Rayner says. Crump explains that their earlier work served as a learning experience that's carried over directly to their future projects.

Even before Gears of War: Ultimate Edition started development, Black Tusk — now The Coalition — had built a technical foundation to take the series forward. To create a home for Gears of War worthy of the series.

"That code exists; those features exist," Fergusson says. "Some of it we looked at. Some of it we are leveraging. Some of it we said, hey, we could leverage this in the future, but where they were may not be where we are from a storage perspective from Gears 4.

"That was the nice thing about knowing that, with Microsoft’s investment in the franchise, we’re probably not just going to get one crack at this." Babykayak

Part 1 | Part 2