Gears 5 interview — Rod Fergusson explains the story, characters, accessibility, and ending

Rod Fergusson, studio head of The Coalition, went out on a limb recently when he said that Gears of War 5 is the finest game in the Gears  saga, which began with Epic Games’ first Gears title in 2006. Microsoft got the rights to Gears in 2014, and it launched The Coalition studio in Vancouver, Canada. There have been six Gears games so far, and this one is a good one.

I played the full game on Windows 10 laptop and reviewed it. Afterward, I interviewed Fergusson, who has been with the series since the beginning, about the choices that the developers made. I think that Fergusson was right to say it is one of the finest games in the series.

We talked about how The Coalition tried to make the game more approachable because the team knew that many fresh players would be coming into the series via the Xbox Game Pass. We also talked about the shift to Kait as the main character, the diversity of the series, the battle with a fearsome boss dubbed The Matriarch, the big kaiju-like beast in the game, the ongoing destruction of Sera, the design of the robot Jack, and the challenge of balancing both comedy and tragedy in the same story.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. Beware, there are some spoilers in this interview. Gears 5 debuted on September 6 for players with the Ultimate Edition. It debuts on Xbox One and Windows for standard edition players on Tuesday.

Above: Rod Fergusson is studio head of The Coalition, maker of Gears of War 5.

Image Credit: Microsoft

GamesBeat: Some big days ahead for you.

Rod Fergusson: Yep, we’re down to it now. The next couple days will be a lot of fun.

GamesBeat: I hear you tried hard to make this game more approachable. Could you describe how you went about that?

Fergusson: It was one of those things–when you realize what’s going to happen with Game Pass, millions of people are going to have access to the game without any sort of barrier. They don’t have to put down $60 to play it. We wanted to make sure we created a game that, even though it’s the fifth in the franchise, it was the most approachable, so that when new players came in, we could welcome them in a meaningful way.

We did a bunch of stuff. One thing we did, we really pulled out our tutorial into a boot camp, so that new players could come in at their own pace and play through to learn the mechanics. Traditionally we tried to put it in the game, and it doesn’t–you can’t be super explicit about learning, because you’re trying to do it in the context of the story. The story suffers because you’re taking time to do learning. We felt it would be better to create the boot camp that you could go to and learn how to take cover, how to blind-fire, how to throw grenades, all these things, and do it at your own pace. You can repeat it if you want to. That way, when you go into multiplayer or campaign, you’re prepared.

You go through a lesson, and then the lesson will–it’s done in the context of Baird and Del working together. With each lesson Baird will ask you if you’re ready to move on. Then you can say yes or no. You can decide if you want to redo a tutorial or move forward.

The other part we looked at was multiplayer. Historically multiplayer in Gears has been seen as hardcore. People come in and do a lot of wall-bouncing, fast-moving people with shotguns, and you get shot in the face five times. Maybe it’s not your best first experience. We created a new mode called Arcade, which people got to try in the tech test. We slowed down the movement. We added passive abilities. Almost every gun can do headshots.

JD, the son of Marcus Fenix.

Above: JD, the son of Marcus Fenix.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

We made it not about shotguns, basically. It’s about weapon variety. Each character has their own weapon upgrade path, and as you play and get eliminations, whether you help somebody or down somebody or revive somebody, you can use those eliminations to buy a new weapon and upgrade. You get these fun fights between rifles versus rocket launchers or melee weapons. It’s not just a shotgun-fest. We saw in the tech test that the feedback was what we wanted. People said, “I don’t play a lot of Gears multiplayer, but now that I’ve played Arcade it’s a lot of fun. I’ll play that a lot.” That’s been awesome.

With Jack, our robot, you can play him in the campaign and you can play him in Horde. He’s a different style of play. It’s not a cover-taking character that uses pixel precision to shoot a gun. He floats above cover. He supports the other characters. You tend to have area of effect. His weapons auto-aim or attack an area. It doesn’t require the fidelity of being able to pixel-hunt. It’s another way to welcome new players. If you have someone who’s a long-time Gears player and they want to play with someone who’s new to it, you can bring them in through Jack. Jack is just fun. I’m a support player. I love the idea of helping others and being able to heal on the fly or revive people or repair fortifications. Even for highly skilled players, Jack is super fun. He’s critical to the play experience.

We also added a bunch of accessibility options. We worked with the Gaming for Everyone division here at Microsoft. We had an inclusive design sprint. We brought in subject matter experts. We looked at what the community is saying about what they need. We did things like improving our subtitling, so now you can change the font size. There’s a background. It tells you the character’s name when they talk. You can remove camera shake. You can remove controller shake. You can have single-stick controls if you need them. You can, for the first time ever, remap every control. Every button can be mapped somewhere else. That helps things like the adaptive controller, where remappability is what makes that work. We wanted to make sure we supported that.

GamesBeat: You mentioned at Gamescom that you felt like this was your finest Gears of War game. What did you mean by that, as far as how your team got very enthusiastic about this one?

Fergusson: In terms of the quality of offering–every Gears game I ship is special, because of the team I work with. Gears one was super special the first time, and so on. But 5 has been–just the quality of the team and the quality of the game, I’m really proud of the fact that there’s so much value in it. It’s a five-in-one, having the biggest campaign we’ve ever had, the deepest Horde we’ve ever had, 11 competitive modes in versus. We have this new co-op mode, Escape. We have a map builder on top of that supporting Escape at launch, and post-launch you’ll be able to build maps for Horde and Versus.

When you look at the quality of the offering and the quality of the story–we’re telling an interesting story at a really big scale. The quality of the experience–we’ve changed a lot of things in terms of the way the gunplay works. It’s not using the same sort of mechanics that were more–the reticle is more precise. The inaccuracy is in the recoil, not in the spray. You can learn the weapons. Each weapon has a personality.

There’s just a quality of execution and a quality in the offering that I’m really proud of. We work very hard at the Coalition, and we’ve built a reputation. We say what we do and we do what we say. We focus on quality of execution. That’s why one of our awards inside the company is the GSD award, the “Get Shit Done” award. We really value execution at the Coalition, as a culture. If you look across all five different pieces inside the box, I think this is the best Gears yet.

GamesBeat: I felt like the shooting was better. I’m not exactly sure why. But I did use the whole wide array of guns that you guys put in the game. You’re right that normally, if I go online, I’d have to use the shotgun. Hopefully that part is changing. But the gunplay variety was very good this time. I liked the freeze gun. That was very useful.

Fergusson: Yeah, yeah. Jack mixes up the gunplay too. In the previous Gears games, the only way you could interact with the world was with your gun. Now Jack can make you invisible or heal you or put up a barrier. It adds another layer to the combat.

I also just think the responsiveness–this is the first game on Xbox One X, where you don’t have to make a choice between pretty and performance. We don’t have to decide whether we want 4K or 60fps. This is the first campaign running at 60, and it’s running at 60 in 4K. It looks good and it feels responsive, which I love.

GamesBeat: What about Kait as a main character? How did you look at that? Does it make the game feel different, that she’s in the lead?

Fergusson: It definitely feels different, in a good way. The big thing for us was just coming down to quality of storytelling. We looked at where the story was going as we transitioned from 4 to 5, and we felt like this is really Kait’s story. It was kind of Kait’s story in 4. You were helping her save her mom. In 5 it was even more so, about what she was going through. We felt the story would be more impactful if it was from her perspective, if you got to feel it, as opposed to watching it. If you were just on the outside watching her go through things, it wouldn’t be as impactful as being her, you yourself going through it.

It allowed us to do some fun stuff with perspective. If you play as Kait, you’ll see things that you won’t see if you play as Del or Jack. Being able to live Kait’s perspective means you get to see things differently.

Gears 5 Kait Hero Close Up

Above: Gears 5 Kait Hero Close Up

Image Credit: Microsoft

GamesBeat: In some ways it seems like you guys held back from some of the plot points or story because this is the second in a three-part story.

Fergusson: [laughs] We’re trying to get out of the trilogy mindset. The word I like now is “saga.” Just the idea that we don’t want to limit ourselves to a beginning, middle, and end, one-two-three thing. “Oh, this is the Empire Strikes Back game.” That kind of thing. For us it’s just about where the story can take us and what stories we can tell. This is just a continuation of the saga.

It’s nice to have a young set of characters, instead of being in their mid-40s. It gives us a lot of head room in terms of where we can go. We wanted these younger characters so that we could transform them over time. With Marcus and Delta Squad, they were set in their ways. The world changed around them, but they didn’t really change. Now, as you see with JD in this game, their experiences can change them and transform them. That’s what we want to lean into, to have that happen as we move forward.

GamesBeat: You wanted to make this a Gears for a new generation of players, do you think?

Fergusson: We wanted to keep the people who’ve been playing. Much like Star Trek and the Next Generation–I jokingly call this Gears: The Next Generation. It was just a way to take a different approach to the storytelling and the character development. Previously we had very iconic characters. You understood them immediately in two words. Sports hero, anti-hero, science guy. They were very quick, iconic archetypes.

When you look at modern storytelling, things are more grey. They’re a bit more nuanced than that. We wanted to have characters that had more nuance to them, so that we could go different places with them. It means they’re not quite as instantly recognizable out of the gate, what sort of personality and archetype they fit into. But it makes for a more interesting, nuanced, and sophisticated journey.