Vancouver video game studio retools Gears of War saga
New characters, new story for a new console among the challenges for The Coalition
By Nelson Bennett
It has been three and a half years since the last Gears of War instalment was released.
Two weeks ago, after two and a half years in development, the latest in the franchise, Gears of War 4, finally hit the shelves.
But this time, it wasn’t North Carolina’s Epic Games that created the long-awaited sequel to one of the best-selling Xbox games. It was made in Vancouver by Black Tusk Studios, which ended up rebranding as The Coalition.
The new name – taken from an organisation in the game called the Coalition of Ordered Governments – was intended to reflect the fact that the Vancouver studio is now all about, and only about, Gears of War.
“It was us declaring to the world that this is a Gears of War studio and if you ever get a job offer from The Coalition, you know you’re going to go work on a Gears of War game,” said Coalition studio head Rod Fergusson.
Epic Games created Gears of War for Microsoft Corp. The game’s initial version was created in 2006 exclusively for Xbox 360 and was one of Microsoft’s top-selling console games. It became a billion-dollar franchise.
Gears of War is a third-person shooter game that pits humans against reptilian creatures and other monsters in bloody, head-exploding melees.
Microsoft initially hired Black Tusk to develop a new blockbuster franchise. But Microsoft cancelled that project after learning that Epic was shelving Gears of War and decided to buy the franchise and hand it over to one of its own studios.
“They decided not to make Gears of War anymore,” Fergusson said, “and Gears of War was obviously a successful franchise for Microsoft, and so with it just sitting on the shelf, Microsoft saw an opportunity.”
Fergusson, a producer on Gears of War for Epic from 2005 to 2011, was a natural choice to head the new project. He had left to work on other projects, including another popular Microsoft Xbox game: Bioshock Infinite.
A team of more than 200 created Gears of War 4, which is set 25 years after the last Gears of War instalment ends and features the sons and daughters of the characters from the previous games.
“It’s a new saga,” Fergusson said. “It’s a new cast with new monsters and new settings.
“It’s been 10 years for this franchise, so obviously people’s expectations around story and characters changed over a decade. So we put a lot of effort into trying to make that feel more contemporary and having more, deeper characters with more interesting motivations.”
Fergusson said one of the challenges in developing Gears of War 4 was staying true to the game, while updating it and building it on a new platform for the Xbox One new console.
Epic had built its own game development engine, called Unreal Engine. The previous Gears of War games had been developed on Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 platform. The latest game was developed on Unreal Engine 4.
“We were a new studio, never made a Gears of War game before, on a new technology (Xbox One) for a new platform, with a new story,” Fergusson said. “That was sort of our biggest risk – we had so much change.
“Gears has a unique feel to it – what it feels like to go into cover, what it feels like to shoot the gun – to recreate that, to rebuild from scratch that feeling on Unreal Engine 4 took a really long time, and that was the biggest challenge for us.”
Gears of War 4 was released earlier this month, and video game reviewers have thus far given it rave reviews, with the consensus being that it maintains its reputation as one of the best third-person shooter games ever made.