Rod Fergusson is a name synonymous with Gears of War.
He's been with the franchise since its inception in 2006 at Epic Games, and has led The Coalition - the Xbox studio tasked with handling the series - since 2014. He's worked on every Gears title, and has recently teamed up with external studios on the release of Gears Pop and Gears Tactics.
His departure from the IP after 14 years (to work on Diablo) might raise some questions over what the future holds for The Coalition and the Gears brand, which just released its most recent game (Gears 5) in September last year. Microsoft was clearly aware of this, with studio boss Matt Booty jumping on a call with GamesIndustry.biz to reassure the world that Gears and The Coalition isn't going anywhere.
"We wish all the best for Rod," Booty tells us. "He has a huge amount of passion for the game and has shown a real devotion to the players and the community.
"Gears 5 represents a world class studio that is at the peak of what they can produce. It was one of the biggest games we've launched at Xbox Game Studios. We had three million players in the game during its opening weekend. So we're really happy with how that landed. It received game of the year nominations and accolades for some of its accessibility and diversity work that was in the game... all of that represents what the studio is capable of, the team that we built there, and some of the impact that Rod has had.
"As we go forward, the studio is going to continue working. We have a lot more coming up with Gears 5. We have new operations, content and maps... we have new DLC plans. There's a bunch of things that we're going to be delivering for Gears 5 throughout 2020. And then coming up more immediately, we have the turn-based strategy game Gears Tactics, which is content complete. We are on track to get that shipped by the end of April. We are going out on tour at the end of this month to give press a preview of the game. I feel really good about where the game is. While it is unfortunate that we're losing Rod, the timing makes sense from a production point-of-view as the game is already in place, and the senior creative leads on it are wrapping it up.
"Going forward, I deeply believe that one of the most valuable and important assets in the games industry are studios that have worked together and have shipped quality AAA games. Certainly, The Coalition is really a group of world class talent. We are also very fortunate that the leadership team that we have up there consists of a lot of senior veterans. So we're in a stable situation there, and it gives us the opportunity to go out and find a new leader for the studio and really shape the future."
The Coalition, like 343 with Halo, Turn10 with Forza and Mojang with Minecraft, are the custodians of the Gears IP. Yet with Fergusson moving on, Gears 5 in the marketplace and Gears Tactics practically finished, could we see the firm branch out and do something new?
"Right now our focus is really on making sure we deliver on the promise of Gears as we have spelled it out for the fans," Booty answers. "We have a lot of Gears content coming up. We have Gears Tactics. We are continuing to support [smartphone game] Gears Pop. That is the focus first and foremost.
"But, to your point, I think that it's not quite that cut and dry. One of the things I am excited about launching this Spring is Minecraft Dungeons. While that is part of the Minecraft franchise, it really is a new kind-of game. That game started as an independent project from some of the people in the Stockholm studio, who had an idea for a game, they worked on it in their own time... I remember before handing over the leadership of the franchise to Helen Chiang, we reviewed that product, it looked exciting, we put some resources behind it... and then under Helen's leadership, we evolved the possibility of taking the Minecraft franchise in a whole new direction.
"We also have situations like Everwild, which we announced at our XO event last year. Rare is a studio that is going off and creating something entirely new. So I think you'll find a spectrum of ways that new IP will come about within the studio system that we've got right now.
"With the big franchises that we are the stewards of, it is certainly our responsibility to the fans to continue working on those."
"Obviously, we are really fortunate to have new studios like Ninja Theory and Obsidian, who are known for being able to come up with new worlds, new characters and new stories. I don't think any one studio is that pigeonholed. But with the big franchises that we are the stewards of, it is certainly our responsibility to the fans to continue working on those. But even within those boundaries, there is a lot of room to innovate within any given IP."
In 2018, Microsoft announced a plan to broaden the Gears series. The sales of recent games had been slower compared with earlier titles, so the firm revealed plans for a trilogy of products at E3 2018. Those producers were Gears 5, the casual strategy game Gears Pop, and the PC turn-based strategy game Gears Tactics.
"It was a concerted effort to think about how we can broaden that universe," Booty says. "When you think about broadening a franchise, it is not just taking characters and stories in new directions, but it's about what new gameplay mechanics can come about? What are new ways of engaging with the franchise? That shows up in some subtle ways, for example the way the character Jack [the drone in Gears 5] was used as a way for newer players to engage and start to learn about Gears. All the way to things that are much more overt, when you're talking about something like Gears Pop, which is on a completely different device and with a completely different gameplay style. It was absolutely a very focused and planned effort to go and broaden the franchise."
Yet what has had perhaps the biggest impact on Gears' popularity has been Xbox Game Pass. With millions of subscribers in the service, Gears 5 found that it had an immediate audience when it launched. As a result, it attracted three million players in its first weekend, giving the franchise the sort of audience it's not enjoyed since the Xbox 360 games.
"I feel great about Gears 5," Booty says. "I will start with what's most important, in that the quality and the craft of the game is world class. I say that definitively without having to put any exceptions or caveats around that. We are particularly happy with the progress that they've made in terms of accessibility, diversity representation in the game, and some of the awards it got for things like audio. We are still seeing a tremendous amount of energy around the passionate and global fanbase. That group continues to grow.
"We have continued growth in merchandise, linear media... Universal still has the option for the movie out there. So we feel great about it. And in terms of the game's performance, it has done very well within Game Pass."
He continues: "Game Pass gets rid of some of the friction, and it's why we need to think about Gears, Halo, Forza, Minecraft, as an overall collection of titles, as opposed to just 'what is the next game in the series'. [Game Pass] really gives us an opportunity to bring people back into those franchises.
"Historically, it might have been difficult, or even impossible, to come in to a franchise at No.3 or No.4, and say 'I should have really gone back and played 1 and 2... maybe I need to get my old console out of the closet'. What we've created with Game Pass, is if we bring someone into a franchise with the most recent game, it becomes very easy for them to go back and explore the rest. We are seeing that now with Halo Master Chief Collection. People are going back and playing remastered version of the original Halo games. It's great for people who might not have experienced them the first time. It's important for our teams to understand that they don't just manage one game and then it's onto the next one, but we have leaders who are really thinking about these more holistically as franchises, as opposed to single game releases."
Rod Fergusson's departure from The Coalition and Gears of War is an end of an era. But with Game Pass and plans for Gears content throughout 2020, the series and its studio will continue.
"I think about our franchises in terms of worlds and characters and stories," he concludes. "Those are really important. In terms of fictional, sci-fi universes that are out there, the Gears universe has a lot of potential for us to build on. Both in terms of evolving it, and revolutionising it. I am confident we have the raw material and talent in place in order to move forward."