Gears 5’s Campaign Design Director on its open world and core loop

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Matt Searcy goes in-depth with Stevivor.

Stevivor headed to Vancouver last week to discuss all things Gears 5 with developer Coalition. We also had the opportunity to go in-depth about the game’s core loop and move to an open-world structure with Campaign Design Director, Matt Searcy. Here’s a massive transcript from that interaction.

Steve Wright, Stevivor: Is the new Gears campaign a kind of response to the trend to go into open-world games, or was it just kind of an evolution to you guys from what you were doing before?

Matt Searcy, Campaign Design Director, The Coalition: It was actually an evolution. A bunch of those games came out after we started production. We’d been working on this for almost three years, right? Certainly there were open-world games before but they were the big, big ones. Nobody had done sort of the hybrid stuff yet. God Of War came out when we were mid production, right? But when we finished Gears Of War 4, we knew we wanted to evolve the game a lot more. Gears 4 was our trial run; we spent almost half that dev cycle porting the game to UE4 and reverse designing the game while we were doing it and learning how to build enemies in a Gears game and how to build new mechanics and how to build levels, because there’s such a specific way of building Gears combat, so it feels like Gears.

And when we started this game we already had all that knowledge. We didn’t have to spend half the dev cycle doing that. So right away we started with this idea of how could we layer more strategy? More player choice around sort of the core Gears game play experience? And give players sort of more ways to tackle hard combat situations. And so that’s actually where we started. We were prototyping lots of stuff and we were prototyping. We’ve always had palate cleansers and vehicle sections and they’re always kind of on rails of dial to 11 and then at some point we were like, ‘Well what if we could just drive that way?’

And so we started prototyping that, and we had a crazy idea for this sail car thing, and so we had so much staff going on at once, but our process, sort of, over time what it does is, it sort of takes the good stuff, it gets rid of this stuff that doesn’t fit with the core and it starts to boil them down. So some of our prototypes became Jack’s abilities and got attached to him as a robot and we started realising we wanted to put any of this sort of RPG-light progression stuff through him as well and not on the player. We felt that it fit better and it kind of helped it stay around the core game play experience instead of directly inside of it. And just, sorry, I did take it all on the back to your first question, the initial question about the open-world elements.

That was a combination of all those things coming together, right? Because people love exploring Gears games because they’re beautiful. But all we had before was collectables and ammo for you to find and so now we have this new thing for you to find. We can give you a whole game play loop around upgrading Jack and investing in him and his strategies. At the same time we were prototyping this crazy sail car thing and finding out what felt good about it and I think we arrived at a really great place where we’ve got a world that’s worth exploring, both for Jack and for story reasons and gameplay obviously. And we found a vehicle and sort of this expansive environment that feels really cool to drive around. And we ended up with this palate cleanser that’s more of a breath of fresh air when you go to it from, you do these core gameplay experiences and these intense missions, then you go out and you have this feeling instead of us just cranking the dial up to 11 on some sort of racetrack thing for the next five minutes.

And the really cool thing about it is, people can do what they want with it, right? If you’re a hardcore Gears player and all you want to do is the story missions, you can barrel through the game and do all of the story missions. If you like exploring, you could explore and find everything we’ve hidden. If you really love Jack and you want to explore all of the stuff you could add to him and when it does the game play, go find all of the side objectives, the secondary objectives and see how much stuff you can find for him.

Stevivor: I’ve noticed that in the open world, giant yellow flags seem to be positioned near key points of interest. Is that how you’ve tried to gently push players to those locations?

Searcy: We user test like crazy and we also did, on this game, we did lots of internal user tests and external user tests and we did a different kind of production process too. We did a horizontal slice instead of a vertical slice, which is… Most games do a five minute demo with and enemy and a weapon and a really polished game experience. But we felt we’d already kind of done that on Gears 4, and we knew how to do that. So instead we put our efforts into making the whole game playable at a low polish level so we could play everything interconnected quite early. Two years before our ship date, I think, was the first time we did it. We did it a couple of times and you learn lots of things, good and bad, right?

We reshaped the over-worlds, we made story edits… we’ve learned. You deal with pacing and enemy introductions, you get all this experience. We changed how Jack controls work and one of the things that we learned and actually we learned talking to some guys who used to work on Tomb Raider, player leading is…it’s a whole art and science to itself, right? And you start looking around other games that are done, exploration spaces and a lot of them, I mean, those flags, you’d be surprised to find out how many people probably haven’t noticed those.

They’re gigantic, but people don’t notice that stuff. And if you go around God Of War, there’s a big bright white bleached flag on every dock, tide white, on every dock that stands out. You realise that people can get lost pretty easily and there’s nothing more frustrating than getting lost, right? So, we took a lot of cues from those games and we spent about a bunch of time learning about them. But once you figure it out, go for the yellow flag.

Stevivor: What, to you, is the core of a Gears game? What things are untouchable that have to be part of this experience that then get new stuff built around?

Searcy: Well the core Gears combat experience, which is what I think everybody, I mean there’s a storytelling component to this question I guess, which is, Gears is a very cinematic, action movie sort of feeling, experience. We want you to feel like you’re playing it. It’s also unique in that it’s a game that can go to crazy, riding a Brumak, fighting a huge chain sawing in with a helicopter, to a character euthanizing his wife, and some funny banter and it can do all this stuff, which is pretty amazing. So there’s this, we do actually have some ways of talking about the storytelling but when it comes to the game play, the core Gears experiences based around this very specific way of moving and interacting with cover that feels heavy. There’s no jump button on purpose.

Your movements are always shown to you. Everything you do is very intentional and the combat is built very clearly around fronts around the cover and the kinds of enemies that we give to you and what they ask the player to do. How we layer different enemy types together and we spent a bunch of time figuring this out and for me, Gears is at its best when it’s a little bit too hard for you, in a hard encounter, you’re going to maybe die once or twice. But because cover is so clear in Gears, you can close your eyes and remember that encounter that you start to learn it. You start to see the cover paths, you start to see the enemies and their patterns and then you solve the puzzle and you feel great about yourself because, especially like on Insane, you’re bouncing your head against it and you realise, ‘Oh, there’s two or three ways I could solve this puzzle. Okay, I’m going to try one of them this time.’

It’s almost like a Mario game that way, right? They show you the challenge and you die falling down the hole and the next time you try and figure out how to get over it. And then just to expand a little bit, on this game, what I love about Jack and some of the mechanics we put in is, we’re really just tying to take that core puzzle experience and keep it there at the centre and then give you more tools and more ways to solve that puzzle.

So, for sure that difficulty will open up a bit. There will be some encounters that feel like, ‘Oh wow, I just breezed through that because I used…’ But if you didn’t do what you did with Jack, you might not have, right? You use the decision and then the game itself gets harder as you go through the axe. We introduced smarter enemies and harder enemies and so the difficulty is going to ramp up as you go through the game as well. So I’m excited about it because the core Gears experience is still at the core. We’ve just given you… instead of the puzzle being, ‘Which piece of cover do I take?’ And ‘Which weapon do I hold?’ It’s expanded to all these strategies that didn’t exist before.

Gears 5 heads to Windows PC and Xbox One from 10 September, though Xbox Game Pass subscribers get a headstart from 6 September.