“It’s been crazy… I worked at Microsoft before, I lived in Canada before and I also worked on Gears before. It’s back to Canada after 17 years, back to Microsoft after 10 years, back to Gears after three years,” said Rod Ferguson, The Coalition’s studio head, during a recent Gears of War 4 multiplayer hands-on event in San Francisco.
Ferguson has worked on a number of major video game franchises over the years, most notably as a producer on the Gears of War series while at Epic, and then, as the executive producer of development on Bioshock Infinite towards the end of the game’s lengthy, marred development cycle. Ferguson is credited with ensuring Bioshock Infinite, a game many consider the pinnacle e of the narrative-driven first-person shooter, got back on track during its final months of creation.
In January 2014, Ferguson was brought on as the head of Microsoft’s The Coalition, formerly known as Black Tusk Studios, to take over the Gears of War series, the company’s second biggest Xbox console exclusive next to the Halo franchise.
Ferguson says being away from Gears of War during his time working on Bioshock Infinite prior to Irrational Games’ closure has given him a fresh outlook on the gory, chainsaw mounted gun-filled series.
“Epic is very game first, story second, where as Irrational is very much story first, game second. So getting to work with someone like Kevin Levine [Irrational’s studio head] and learn from him and how he tells stories was a great opportunity…,” said Ferguson. “That three year break and working with other developers allowed me to bring a different perspective back to Gears.”
Ferguson says that back when he joined The Coalition in 2014, of the entire studio, he was the only person with experience working on the franchise. While some might assume this was a disadvantage, Ferguson believes the complete opposite.
“I had an entire team of new people working on it [Gears of War 4], so I kind of got a new perspective through their eyes and their understanding of it. That was one of the good things about working with Ryan Cleven [the game’s lead multiplayer designer], because Ryan is so analytical. “
Ryan Cleven, Gears of War 4’s lead multiplayer designer says that both on the multiplayer and singleplayer side of things, The Coalition has taken its time with the fourth entry in the Gears series. Similar to 343 Industries’ strategy with Halo Combat Evolved: Anniversary Edition, The Coalition was able to learn the series intricacies during the developing of the relatively well-received remake of the original Gears of War, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition.
“We were really worried about not doing it right before doing it different. The first many months of our development cycle was just about parity. Could we create a Gears of War 3 game if we wanted to? We spent a lot of pre-production time focused on that,” said Cleven, emphasizing that the studio’s goal is to keep long-time fans of the series happy, but also grow the franchise at the same time, a task that is never easy for a video game studio, especially one taking over a series from another developer.
“Coming new to it, it isn’t obvious. We remade all the features and then when we played it didn’t really feel right. Even though all the boxes were checked and all the pieces were there, we had to spend a ton of time polishing it. Once it was polished we played with it for a long time before making any decisions about how to grow it,” said Cleven.
Ferguson also says that Gears of War 4 marks a return to the series more intimate tension-filled roots and dark tone. Following the release of Gears of War in 2006, later games in the franchise took a brighter, more lighthearted approach to the ongoing COG vs. Locast war.
“In Gears 1 there was a darker tone and than in 2 and 3, the lights got turned on more and it became a World War 2 game, rather than the intimate squad behind enemy lines from Gears 1. We really felt that we needed to go back to that darker more intense time. That’s what 4 represents, this notion of discovery, wonder, fear and tension,” said Ferguson.
Ferguson says that Microsoft decided to found The Coalition in Vancouver because of the region’s diverse range of video game development talent.
“If you look at our team in Vancouver, it’s a very senior team and it comes from people internationally from all over the world. There are a lot of Canadians, but a lot of people from everywhere else. That’s what was really great is the diversity of talent that’s available in Vancouver. There’s a vibrant game community that you can tap into,” said Ferguson.
During the hands-on multiplayer demo, one thing was abundantly clear about The Coalition’s take on Gears of War. Despite the fact that the studio was forced to rebuild the title using a new proprietary engine because Epic still retains ownership of the code powering earlier titles in the series – 343 Industries was in a similar situation when it took over stewardship of the Halo series – the game feels, for better or worse, nearly identical to its predecessors. It’s worth pointing out, however, that Gears of War 4’s multiplayer does seem to mark a return to the series strategic, cover based roots, a shift longtime fans of the series will likely be pleased with.
New elements designed to solve issues that have plagued the series’ horizontal, cover-based gameplay since launch, have also been thrown into the multiplayer mix. For example, when directly across from an enemy while behind cover, players now have the ability to “Vault Kick,” allowing them to fly over cover and knock their opponent back.
Ferguson says this is an aggressive attack that accelerates movement and is designed to add a new variable to Gears formulaic gameplay mix. In my hands-on experience with Gears 4’s multiplayer, while undeniably cool, this move doesn’t seem to fundamentally add much to the game’s multiplayer. Weapons like the new Dropshot, however, which is a modified mining tool that shoots an explosive charge that burrow into the earth before popping out and attacking foes, seems like it is set to add a new variable to Gears’ gameplay.
Hardcore fans of the series will be pleased to know that Gears 4 is set to feature LAN gameplay, a feature the Halo series dropped years ago, and that co-op has been limited to two players in order to create what Ferguson calls a less chaotic, “more intimate” gameplay experience. Playable multiplayer levels during the hands-on experience were called Harbour, Dam and Foundation.
“It feels like a big deal,” said Cleven, when asked what it feels like to take over the Gears series. “That’s something that was incredibly energizing, coming to this franchise, seeing the fans and how passionate they are, it was almost overwhelming in the beginning. Growing with it over the last two years, everybody loves the game, and it’s something that we’re all very proud of and we can’t wait to share it everyone,” said Cleven.
Gears of War 4 is set to release October 11 for the Xbox One.