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How Gears of War changed to become Xbox Game Pass’ biggest launch

Gears 5’s focus shifts from getting players in to keeping them

Kait walks through an ice forest in Gears 5 with a robot hovering above her The Coalition/Xbox Game Studios

Once upon a time, Rod Fergusson knew that if players would hurdle a $60 barrier to a triple-A game, there would be some breathing room for the developers on the other side. Every design choice they made wouldn’t be the one to make or break the game. They could count on new players hanging in as the story caught them up on a canon sprawling over a decade or more.

“If somebody puts down $60, they have this sort of sunk cost idea, and that even if they did have some road bumps along the way, or they’re struggling to learn a game or they don’t quite understand what’s going on, they’re like, ‘I’m determined to get my value out of this,’” Fergusson said.

Gears 5, launching on Xbox Games Pass at the beginning of the month, inverted Fergusson’s concerns somewhat. The Coalition, the studio Fergusson leads, wasn’t going to want for an audience; they’d probably get the biggest one any Gears of War game has ever seen. The game is, effectively speaking, free with a Game Pass subscription. So how would Fergusson’s team keep huge tranches of Game Pass players engaged, especially when they could tap out and play any of a number of other practically free games without considering Gears 5 a pile-of-shame sacrifice.

“We had to go in with this idea of, like, ‘How do we make this — even though it’s got a 5 on the end of the title — how do we make this the most approachable Gears of War ever?’” Fergusson said. “It’s not necessarily just going to be hardcore third-person shooter types. It’s going to be people who are puzzle gamers, or people who are RPG players and what have you.”

Launching on Xbox Game Pass, in other words, didn’t just mean setting out prime rib at the buffet and making sure the carving knife was sharpened. Fergusson’s team had to do things like create a boot camp showing players how to take cover — and this franchise is one of the seminal works of the cover-shooter genre.

“Then, when you fire up the campaign, we give you a three minute video, a ‘Previously on Gears’ so that you understand what the story is,” Fergusson recounted. “We then also have a whole bunch of accessibility options, realizing that the audience is going to be much greater.”

If, as some have argued (OK, we argued it) spending $60 on a game doesn’t make sense anymore, then developers like Fergusson should expect a lot more of this. That whole sunk-cost-as-a-motivator idea is no more farfetched than the thought that a big triple A name with a big number next to it communicates big value in the subscription offering it.

Biggest Game Pass launch ever, but no sure thing

Microsoft, which owns The Coalition and bought the Gears of War franchise in 2014, last week touted a launch week audience of 3 million people for Gears 5. With sales figures somewhat mooted by the game’s availability in a subscription, this is one of the few times where a publisher touting the size of a player base really means something about its success.

The company has launched flagships and big-name first-party titles on its service before — Forza Horizon 4 and Sea of Thieves last year come to mind. But a brand new IP and the mass appeal of race cars are a little easier to serve to newcomers. Gears 5 wasn’t going to beat both of them, for player numbers anyway, on incumbency.

Multiplayer’s inclusion of the robot drone Jack — a support-class character! in a Gears of War game! — was another pole holding up The Coalition’s big tent. Jack flies around, repairs fortifications, revives allies and distributes guns and ammo. The role is there, Fergusson said, specifically for players who want to contribute to hardcore multiplayer but aren’t accustomed to “that idea of a fast-moving, cover-taking, pixel-hunting, gun-shooting character.”

Gears of War is the type of franchise where you’d expect dedicated players to roll their eyes at talk of accessibility, but Fergusson says players are actually happy to have the n00bs around, thanks to the Jack role.

“We even did that on Versus. The Versus community on Gears is seen as a somewhat hardcore audience,” Fergusson said. “You go in, you wall bounce, you take a shotgun in the face five times and you quit. So one of our mandates was, we designed a new mode that was more welcoming called Arcade, which slowed down movement, increased weapon variety, made it more rewarding to get kills and made it easier to get kills.

“What we did with Gears 5, to the best of our ability, was try to remove as many barriers as possible,” Fergusson said, “just because we knew we were going to have such a diverse audience coming in, more diverse than we’ve ever had before.”

Ben Decker, the head of gaming services for Microsoft, chimed in with additional figures suggesting Xbox Game Pass was doing a swell job of driving new players to Gears of War on the whole. “Over [the game’s] lifetime now, 40 percent of Gears of War 4 players tried the game for the first time through Xbox Game Pass,” Decker said. “We saw that engagement, we saw that discovery build over time via the Gears catalog, and then we really saw it come to fruition with the launch of Gears 5. And it was our biggest [Game Pass launch] ever and the biggest one for an Xbox Game Studios game.”

But Fergusson, of course, doesn’t see the job as finished just because Gears 5 delivered big numbers and The Coalition’s owners are happy to tout them in a bullet-point news release.

“When Microsoft bought Gears of War, my mandate was to grow the franchise,” Fergusson said. “And so that’s what I’ve been attempting to do since 2014. The idea of getting ahead and growing the franchise and continuing to show that something with a big number at the end of its title is still going to have value and resonance and relevance in the industry is hugely important.”

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