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Gears 5: Teaching an old COG new tricks

Campaign designer Matt Searcy on balancing the old and new of an ageing franchise

When the original Gears of War released 13 years ago, it changed third-person shooters overnight. All of a sudden, chest-high walls and cover systems were the new industry standard, and long gone were the days of inelegantly circle-strafing your way through encounters.

Whether it's a new Gears titles, or the medley of other third-person shooters that studiously took notes in the years since, the original game certainly left its mark.

But here we are, over a decade later with six games from three studios, and Gears of War still enjoys stalwart support from its audience. After so long though, it's fair to raise questions about Gears' place in the industry and its enduring allure.

Launching earlier this week, Gears 5 comes from Canadian developer The Coalition, and is the studio's second run at the franchise since taking it over from Epic Games and People Can Fly following 2013's Gears of War: Judgement.

Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, campaign designer Matt Searcy says Gears of War 4 was The Coalition's opportunity to prove it understood the series, while Gears 5 saw the team try and evolve it into something new, that still feels like the franchise fans are familiar with.

Gears 5 campaign designer, Matt Searcy

Gears 5 campaign designer, Matt Searcy

Microsoft's release slate has been particularly sparse this year, with Crackdown 3 being the only other major title in 2019. Combined with the high uptake of Xbox Game Pass -- which opens up the entire modern Microsoft-published Xbox catalogue to subscribers -- there's a lot of pressure on The Coalition to deliver with this tentpole release.

"[Gears] has people that care about it enough to tattoo it on their bodies.... When you work on any game, it's stressful because at some point it's gonna come out," says Searcy. "When you work on a game that you know there's millions of people waiting for it just because they're already Gears fans, it's even more intense.

"Then when you work on a game that is going to ship on Game Pass... there is an expectation of quality, and it drives us to do everything as good as we can... A lot of our stress and anxiety was just going, 'Okay, we have this huge audience that's potentially going to show up for this game. How can we deliver to all of them?'"

In order to try and hit those bases, ensuring that Gears 5 was both new and familiar, The Coalition focused on approachable design goals, giving players freedom and choice, but also ensuring it was a highly-tuned experience with a "tonne of stuff under the hood," including a suite of accessibility options.

The other side is a focus on more intimate, personal stories than previous Gears of War titles. As Searcy says, Gears games are "ultimately about family."

"If you look at Gears, it's always been about family," he says. "It's about the family you have, the family you choose, and what it means to be a part of that family."

"If you look at Gears, it's always been about family. It's about the family you have, the family you choose."

From the early stages of Gears 5, the game hints at more challenging subject material such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or ethical quandaries around weapons of mass destruction. This is new territory for the series, the historic appeal of which has been its over-the-top and bombastic nature. However, The Coalition-era Gears introduces new characters who are being affected by their first experiences of war.

"We want to explore our characters and what they're going through," says Searcy. "We want to talk about what it would mean to go through that. If you look at the characters from the old game, you pick them up 12 years into a 15-year war... They're all damaged.... We started with a bunch of characters who had never been in a war before, so we're going on a journey with them and exploring what it means to them and the planet.

"Gears has always under the surface delved into personal issues and society issues... We wanted to delve into a bunch of those things that have been present in Gears before, and [have] an updated take on them."

Of course, Gears is still at its heart a game about big beefy soldiers chainsawing monsters in the face. While The Coalition flirts with deeper themes in Gears 5, there is still a lot of mitigation in the way Seary speaks about it.

"We're careful not to go: 'We have the be all and end all answer and we're going to tell a specific story about that stuff.'"

With Gears 5 boasting 86 on Metacritic, and Microsoft currently having very little else in its exclusive stable, we can expect the Gears series to continue for the foreseeable future. But Searcy says the franchise's continued popularity comes from how it resonates with people.

"We don't let our decisions be driven by vocal minorities in that way"

"There is some core, some storytelling point that is true....that people are coming back for because it's speaking to them."

Gears certainly has broad appeal, and Microsoft is certainly leaning into that. In fact, shortly after speaking with Searcy, it was announced the Gears 5 would include dozens of pride flags in multiplayer. This was met with typical outrage from a loud minority of players -- along with an outpouring of support and appreciation from more tolerant corners of the internet -- which saw the whole conversation mired in the unpleasant "anti-SJW" rhetoric that clashless petulantly with the tides of progress.

While the pride flag announcement came after our chat, we did speak with Searcy about the reaction of fans to things like female characters in the male-dominated Gears franchise: "It's a vocal minority, so we don't let our decisions be driven by vocal minorities in that way... We think we're telling great stories with great characters, and so if you have a surface level rejection to this, and you're not even willing to play the game because there's a female protagonist in [it], that's your loss."

Searcy says better representation in Gears is "important for video games" but ticking some diversity box doesn't factor into the developer's decision-making.

"For us, yeah it's important that there's diversity in our game, but we don't drive every single story decision on that... I think it's awesome that we explore diversity inside the game, and we do it intentionally, but we don't really do it to bait a bunch of people," he says.

"We don't really do it so we can go around with a sign saying: 'Hey look, we put a woman in the game and the front of our box.' We did it because we think it's natural and right and it reflects the right thing to do on the story, and reflects honestly the culture in our studio and the wider culture of what it means to be playing games right now."

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