Three new games and a lot of ambition
In 2014, Microsoft acquired the rights to the Gears of War franchise from Epic Games, and formed a new studio — now known as The Coalition — to serve as the stewards of the brand, appointing series co-creator Rod Fergusson to lead the project. Things started out purposefully slow and steady. First, there was a remaster of the original game, followed by Gears of War 4, a game explicitly designed to be conservative.
“We were so afraid of people thinking we were going to take the game and not be true to the franchise,” Fergusson explains in an interview with The Verge. “I didn’t want to be seen that way. So I really made it a priority that the first thing that came out was an authentic Gears game. Now that we’ve done that, we’ve built this foundation, now is the time to push even further.”
Today at E3 in Los Angeles, Microsoft didn’t just announce the next Gears of War — it also unveiled a plan to turn the franchise into something much bigger than a console shooter series. Alongside Gears 5, there’s also a turn-based strategy game for PC called Gears Tactics, and a cutesy mobile game with a Funko art style called Gears Pop. These are games meant to broaden the audience for the series, both in terms of who plays Gears games, and where they play them.
Gears 5 was an obvious next step for the series, but once development started, Fergusson says he started questioning how Gears could continue evolving. “What sorts of other things can we do?”
If the process sounds familiar, it’s because Microsoft has already done something similar with arguably its most important franchise, Halo. In 2007, the company bought the rights to the sci-fi shooter series from original developer Bungie, and then formed 343 Industries, a studio focused entirely on creating new titles in the Halo universe. That started out with remasters and new console games, but eventually the world of Halo also expanded to include mobile titles and a real-time strategy series called Halo Wars. The playbook was written; for Gears, Fergusson and Microsoft were just waiting for the right time to utilize it.
Development on Gears 5 started not long after the fourth game launched, and Fergusson says he started thinking about complimentary titles soon afterwards. “As a creator, you create this world and you want as many people to get access to it as possible,” he explains. “So you look at what are the barriers for people, and platform is one of them. So as a console game predominantly, a third-person shooter, it was like, ‘Well where else can we go?’ So as the main team is focused on Gears 5, we also have a publishing team talking about what we could do in the PC space, that would be more than just the console game brought over. An actual authentic PC experience.”
The result is Gears Tactics, a turn-based strategy game that sounds like a dramatic shift for the franchise, but in practice looks remarkably like Gears with some XCOM thrown in. There are still key aspects of the franchise, like cover-based combat and massive boss battles, but they’ve been placed in a slightly different context, one built exclusively for the PC. While the Coalition is overseeing the project, Tactics is being developed by Splash Damage, a UK studio that previously worked with Microsoft on PC ports for Gears games.
If Tactics is a slight detour for the grisly shooter series, Gears Pop, which is coming to both the iPhone and Android next year, is a complete left turn. The cutesy game transforms Gears’ beefy characters into big-headed Funko Pop figures, and will offer what Funko president Brian Mariotti describes as “explosive, cover-based gameplay, distinctive and powerful ultimate abilities, and deep metagame deck-building for strategy fans who love charming visuals, exciting action strategy, and real-time play.” It’s also something of a team effort. Development on Pop is being overseen by the Coalition, but led by Mediatonic (a UK studio known for quirky titles like the bird dating simulator Hatoful Boyfriend) with Funko also lending a hand, contributing not just art but also consulting on aspects like dialogue and user interface.
As part of this process of expanding to new platforms and genres, Fergusson — who has worked on the series since its inception and even has a Gears tattoo — says he was forced to reexamine just what a Gears of War game is. “The mobile game really caused us to pivot,” he says. “Previously, if you were to say, ‘OK what are the franchise tenets of Gears of War?,’ brutal probably would’ve been one of the words that you use. But that doesn’t really apply to the mobile game. So we started thinking of it as visceral. You start to distill it down to its truest essence.” According to Fergusson, that core of Gears boils down to three fundamental factors: cover, co-op, and characters
The changes for Gears of War also represent part of a broader shift for Microsoft. With the Xbox One generation, the company has often been derided for having a small number of first-party games, especially compared to competitors Sony and Nintendo. Tentpole titles like Crackdown 3 have been perpetually delayed, exciting partnerships like Platinum Games’ Scalebound have been cancelled, and completely new experiences like Sea of Thieves are few and far between. At any given E3 keynote, you can expect familiar faces from Xbox: Minecraft, Halo, Forza, Gears.
According to Matt Booty, head of Microsoft Studios, efforts like the one underway at the Coalition are one way to combat this. “It’s an action that we’re taking,” he says. “The first thing that we feel empowered to do is build upon and expand our existing franchises. They’re a tremendous asset. However, we absolutely need to be starting new things.” As part of that “new things” category, today Microsoft revealed a brand new internal studio in Santa Monica, headed by Darrell Gallagher, who spearheaded the most recent reboot of Tomb Raider at developer Crystal Dynamics.
Microsoft has had some success with this strategy, most notably with Minecraft, which is available on just about every platform imaginable. But it remains to be seen whether a violent, action-oriented series like Gears is big enough to support an expanded universe. For Fergusson, the three games announced today represent just a first step in the process — and they’re about all the 300-plus person studio can handle right now. “I don’t think I’m ready to announce a fourth game,” he admits. “I don’t know how the Coalition would manage.”