Gears of War has a new home. Microsoft has bought the iconic Xbox series outright from its creator, Epic Games, and handed it over to its newest studio Black Tusk - where it’ll be overseen by series veteran Rod Fergusson, who we last saw at Irrational finishing off Bioshock Infinite.
Revealing the news at the end of January, Microsoft surprised the world when it unveiled its new custodian. Black Tusk Studios (formerly Microsoft Vancouver) is still best known for a trailer, that slick 30-second promo for an unnamed stealth-action game that we saw at E3 last year. What looked like a solid concept for a futuristic spy thriller, however, turned out to be just that. “It was something that was done in Unreal [Engine 4] and more of a concept piece,” explained Microsoft Studios head Phil Spencer.
The studio’s manager, Mike Crump, had previously said that Black Tusk was working on “Microsoft’s next big entertainment franchise”, though Spencer suggested that this Splinter Cell-meets-Uncharted teaser wasn’t necessarily anything more than a fleeting idea, a way for the fledgling studio to test their creative and technical expertise on the new version of Epic’s Unreal Engine, on which the new Gears game will run.
Not that it’s likely to be with us any time soon. Following the announcement, Spencer said that the new game would have to “reignite the franchise and grow it,” adding that “it won’t be a quick turnaround” but he believes “we’ve built the right team to achieve that goal, I just want to give them the time.” The discussions to acquire the series’ rights from Epic had reportedly been ongoing since last autumn, so Black Tusk might have begun preparatory work on the game then.
Indeed, there might even be something further to be read from Spencer’s initial Twitter response, where he referred to Black Tusk’s “first original GoW”. Could that potentially mean a stopgap in the form of a remake of the first Gears? Microsoft certainly has previous form with remakes, with rumours still buzzing that we’re set to see a Halo 2 Anniversary Edition later this year. A tarted-up Gears box set for Xbox One would fit. Gears is obviously less ripe for an update, though a visual overhaul with a few additions - perhaps adding Horde and Beast mode to the original game - would certainly be warmly welcomed.
Spencer’s stated desire to “reignite” the series is understandable in light of the low sales of Gears of War: Judgment. Bulletstorm developer People Can Fly was essentially handed a poisoned chalice, tasked with continuing the story of Delta Squad, whose narrative had come to a natural conclusion in Gears of War 3. Though generally praised by critics, it was received poorly by buyers, and its first month sales of 425,000 copies was barely over a fifth of Gears of War 3’s launch tally.
In such circumstances, it’s easy to see why Epic would want to sell: it can now focus its attentions on PC-only sandbox survival game Fortnite (other games are also in development, we’re told) while licensing its ever-popular middleware out to publishers - Unreal Engine 4 has already been adopted by Microsoft for Black Tusk’s game and Fable Legends, so it seems to be the company’s next-gen engine of choice.
At the same time, it’s easy to see why Microsoft wanted to buy: the franchise was one of the most significant Xbox titles of the last generation, and fans have been clamouring for its return on Xbox One since the console was announced. While Judgment many not have done the numbers, a proper reboot that shows off the power of the new console could be just as popular - and possibly as influential - as the first Gears was on Xbox 360.
The pressure is certainly on Black Tusk. On the one hand, it has to deliver a game that appeals to existing Gears fans, while ensuring that it feels ‘new’ enough to justify its status as a first-party standard-bearer, something more than a visual upgrade of a last-gen game. That’s perhaps why Microsoft sought the experienced Fergusson, producer of the first two games and executive producer on the third, to take charge of development.
As for where the series might go under Fergusson’s stewardship, we discussed potential updates to the franchise in an interview conducted around the release of Gears 3. “I think there’s more we probably could have done in terms of customisation,” he told us. “Part of it is what your franchise is built for. We can’t really do ‘weapon porn’, where we add a stock and a scope because our weapons are kind of unique”. With contemporary shooters increasingly offering more ways to personalise your online experience, that could well be part of Gears’ future.
It’s also evident that he was keen to bring new players into the fray, with more accessible multiplayer elements - which would tie into Spencer’s aforementioned desire to “grow” the fanbase. “We’ve tried to make it frictionless so you can be in and playing within ten seconds,” said Fergusson, adding that he believed it was important to cater to die-hards and novices equally.
“Players who compete in the alpha playlist you recognise as the advocates for your game. They’re the champions, they’re the people you love dearly and so you make sure their needs are met. But if you end up just aiming towards the hardcore, that audience gets smaller and smaller as you go along, and so you want to keep bringing new blood into the mix.”
A third possibility is that Gears will follow the example of Fable Legends, becoming a long-term service rather than a traditional boxed product. With an expanded universe taking in multiple novels and comic books, not to mention a long-awaited film adaptation, there’s plenty of lore to draw from. Happily, whichever direction Microsoft takes the franchise in, we’ll likely hear more on those plans before too long, with Fergusson confirming he’d “share more with you all soon.” A teaser trailer at E3 is the very least we’re expecting.