Ryan Cleven on Gears 5’s Horde mode, working on a legacy franchise

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And the inclusion of Halo Reach and Terminator in-game.

At Gamescom, Stevivor had the chance to preview Gears 5’s new and improved Horde Mode and chat with Multiplayer Design Director Ryan Cleven.

Julian Rizzo-Smith, Stevivor: Horde Mode is a staple of the Gears franchise and been part of the game since Gears 2. How do you make it fresh and new? Looking at past editions of it, What was the thing that you were like, okay, what’s missing?

Cleven: So, Gears 2 had some magic in it, which was the emergent gameplay. When you first look at it, you’re “Like cool this is a really neat idea. There’s all these creatures that attack me, we’re going to kill them using all the regular Gears combat, it’s going to be awesome,” and it is. But then as you keep playing, you find the ways to be successful were by discovering exploits or unintended behaviors from the developers to survive, like using the boom shields to, control the AI, and that emergent quality to it was something that made it…That one extra thing that made horde become this really magical defining moment in gaming where this style of gameplay was created, and that essence was the strength of the richness of what Gears made.

Gears 3 they added fortifications to enrich the experience with more game play, but it moved to a more structural patterned approach, and moved a little away from the emergence that was in two and then with four we tried to bring some of that back by making the fortifications movable, but when that ended up doing was over time people figured out… We were hoping that there’d be more ways to win than just one, and the community figured out the optimal way, which is pretty uninteresting, which is to build turrets in spawn in almost every map. And that was something that was really disappointing that there was really less emergence. Even though we created all this opportunity for it, it didn’t materialize in terms of how it played out at the high end.

And so, when we set out from the beginning, it was still once again to try to bring back some of that emergent quality while still having a richer play space than existed before. And simultaneously, we wanted to make sure that the live part of the game was richer than before. So Gears 2, the maps were there at launch, and then they added some with the DLC, but it really didn’t change much after that. And what we wanted to do with five is really make sure that post-launch the game stayed really fresh, and that’s where we came up with this difficulty system that is a very different approach to difficulty, to be able to make one map feel very different than another map. We bring out a new event that mixes those modifiers up, and you get a whole new way of approaching new problems for people to solve even on the same maps.

So having Horde be this more living version in combination with bringing back some of that emergent quality was really the two challenges that we set out at the beginning to solve. And what we ended up with that territory control game with the power taps and the hero characters with the really big meta on top of the new difficulty system with events, and ultimately map builder supporting horde. We really see these as elegant solutions to those two problems, and that was really where Gears 5 horde came from

Stevivor: It’s interesting you bring up Horde Mode as this magical moment in gaming, almost in the same way as the cover mechanic in Gears 1. Why do you think Gears has become a franchise where revolutionary mechanics are part of its DNA?

Cleven: Being one of the early showcased titles on the Xbox 360 with so many innovative things in it. The health mechanic where you regen, the cover mechanics, DB and O which is hugely ahead of its time that now almost every shooter is using DB and O. But Gears had it a decade before everybody else did. And the elegance of the design, the strength of the division of a horizontal platform that cliff had that really created such a rich technical foundation for the game, combined with a really great IP, and storytelling, and a visual showcase. You put that package together and it’s so compelling that it makes a giant splash. But then at the same time it has this really solid game design fundamentals that were ahead of its time, that allowed the team there to build on it as well as provided really great material for other people to copy or whatever.

Having made that splash, and having that both style and substance made a landmark. And that was where people looked at the visuals of Unreal Engine 3 in Gears of War and they said, “Wow, the future of gaming looks amazing.” And this really different way of approaching shooters that almost every other game is run and gun. Even to this day, there’s people who have incorporated cover much better than they ever have before, but it’s still not what Gears is. And so it’s still today has its own niche that really it hasn’t been knocked out of. And because of that the through line from the beginning to now, it’s still is the best at what it does. So it’s a visual showcase. If you look at the Gears 5 on Xbox One X It’s a beautiful game.

It really shows what technology can do, what the Xbox One X can do, what the Unreal Engine 4 can do, and what the coalition, our team can do. And it’s always something that people can refer to and say, “Look what was done in Gears. That means that we can do blah, blah, blah.” And as an IP starting from that beginning splash, it has given us in gaming a beacon, a landmark to always refer to. So I think that those fundamentals were so strong that we’ll always have that to look back on.

Stevivor: In that sense, do you think that the new mechanics that are in this, the new difficult settings and whatnot, do you think that might be something that might innovate future wave style modes in other games?

Cleven: I mean that’s a great question. We don’t really think about it like that. What we try to do is make the tightest designs that we can, like spiritually from a design philosophy, there’s a minimalism inside Gears gameplay that we always try to respect. Which makes it very difficult actually to add things to it, because you always have to make sure that it’s as simple as it possibly can be. And the elegance of the cover system, we try really hard to not play the HUD, but we want to want to get things in the world, make them visceral, make them tangible. And so trying to make gameplay systems that all fit with what was there and preserve this minimalism pillar means that whenever we think of a problem, it’s always in terms of what’s right for Gears.

When we set out with Gears 5 we wanted to challenge expectations for Gears and Gears 4 we wanted to prove that we could make a Gears game first and then add our own mark to it in Gears 5. We felt that we’d done that with four. And when we were to do Gears 5 it really was about Gears. It wasn’t like, “Hey, we want to make something that other people copy or whatever.” It was about how can we make the best Gears game that we can imagine that still feels extremely authentic, but brings new ideas to it. And that meant solving challenges that maybe other people hadn’t attempted before about, we knew that PVP gamers wanted to stay with something for longer and be able to get that more gameplay out of the same thing, and really they’re always hungry for content.

So giving them a way to customize their own difficulty was a way that we saw for them to do that and we didn’t see anybody else doing it, but it wasn’t like we’d done an extensive like competitive researchers to make sure that somebody else hadn’t been doing it. It was what was right for Gears, and what was right for our players, was always the thing that was the most forefront in our minds.

And we have on the multiplayer team and in the coalition, but we always want to find something that is the hard solution for a problem. Like almost that we know that the, simple solution, the one that’s the most obvious may not be the right one. It sometimes is, but we really want to push ourselves to find something that is something where it really clicks, right? That isn’t just an 80% solution or 90% solution. We want to go and keep iterating on it until we find that 100% solution, and then that usually ends up with creating something that’s different than what other people are doing, because only Gears can do what’s right for Gears.

Stevivor: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s interesting as you mentioned that the difficulty layers aren’t something that you really see in this genre especially I think in console, but it’s interesting this is coming to both Xbox and PC. What are the opportunities, I guess from making this for both, because I think in a way the different difficulty layers, are something that could necessarily see in a Steam title?

Cleven: Gears 3, did the mutators. This approach is a different approach that I haven’t really seen before, which is the merging of difficulty and the modifiers at the same time. So every time you click on a modifier behind the scenes difficulty is actually increasing, but then it adds this twist, and the idea of adding a twist when you’re simultaneously upping the difficulty was something that we hadn’t seen before, and most designers would probably want to separate them to give the players the most amount of control. But by merging those two ideas, it really creates a really interesting dynamic, which is that the experience always changes. So people expect that when you up the difficulty, enemies get more hit points, or your guns do less damage, or you have less hit points that the experience fundamentally changes.

Now it does get harder, but it’s not really different. And by forcing players to make a decision about which way they want it to be different, you’re always getting them to think about the possibilities of what it could be. And that means that it isn’t about finding the difficulty and staying there. It’s always about, well, is this the right set of things to do for us? And if we bring out an event that changes that up, even at the same level of difficulty, they are still going to try to solve that problem in a different way. So it really opens up a new problem solving space for teams so that maybe if you play with your friends and I play with my friends and then we mixed that up a little, different combinations of people will want to play that same difficulty level differently.

And if you separate them, people don’t have to make that choice. And then most people will just play according to difficulties, and then they’ll never really get the experience that the mutators or modifiers provide. So we really thought that this approach gave more people much richer experiences when it comes to simply just changing difficulty. So I actually can’t think of a PC game off the top of my head that does that.

To answer your original question, the PC audience, we did ship a windows version of Gears 4 and that was where we got our feet wet, experimenting with cross platform play and us being such a co-op centric game, we really wanted to make sure that as much of the game as we could would be cross play.

So you can play Gears 5 across Steam, across Windows, across Xbox One X, across Xbox One, and have full cross-play across all modes. We’ve limited a little of ranked play for some fairness considerations, but it’s really opt in or out for some Xbox players. But other than that exception the game is fully cross play, and that is something that we’re super passionate about. It’s just we’re a coop game. Co-op for us is cake not icing. That’s something that Rod says often, which is that if we have a chance to make it just part of the DNA, we do it. And I love playing on both consoles and PCs and so for me to be able to jump back and forth freely, and I’m a huge steam gamer as well. And I love the fact that Gears is now showing up on my steam list, which is super awesome.

And what I’m really looking forward to is just bringing gamers of a different mindsets into Gears, and hearing from a whole bunch of new fans in terms of how they see the game, and that will open up new ideas and new ways of looking at how Gears evolves in the future. And that’s something that I’m really excited about.

Stevivor: In that sense it seems like it echoes the core design philosophy of Xbox, accessibility and gaming for everyone. I do want to briefly talk about accessibility in Gears, and how it seems like you’re molding characters and some of the different mechanics around that. Can you talk a little about the design decision? 

Cleven: For sure. I mean we have the most like accessibility features that we’ve ever had inside Gears 5. We fully support the Adaptability Controller and we allow full remapping for both PC and console to make sure that anybody can play the way that they want to. We have beginner levels of difficulty, we’ve got target lock, you can toggle the button mash versus hold. We have single stick aiming. We have obviously things for colorblind mode, to be able to make sure that people that are color blind can actually see the radicals as well as the menu navigation. And Jack our new support character inside Horde is also playable in the campaign. He is really intended to span from players that are really good at Gears all the way to players that are first time Gears players and even for people that may have a difficult time aiming or moving, and aiming at the same time or playing with friends that have very different skill levels to be able to play in the same game.

We’ve got this character now that can adapt to any one of these situations. So between a lot of our accessible features as well as this character that is designed in such a way that there’s depth without an expectation of high twitch skill really brings a lot more possibilities for all kinds of players to be able to participate in Gears with Gears 5. So that was something that our whole studio has been passionate about from the beginning. The multiplayer producer, Otto Ottoson is the eternal champion for accessibility. And we have a focus on the UX team to be able to make sure that we are a first class execution of what accessibility looks like on Xbox platforms, which includes even things like being able to change the size of your subtitles, and to have narration possible through the whole game for people that have difficulty seeing.

We implemented something in Gears 4 Horde that has a radar ping for people that have a hard time seeing things to be able to find the fabricators so they can always get back to it to revive somebody. So it’s something that we have fans of this franchise that have expressed a love of it, but sometimes they have challenges playing it, and we always listen to those people to make sure that with the next version we’re making it available to more and more people, because not only as a studio and as game makers, but as a company, we really see the future is in making sure that everybody can play our games.

Stevivor: Can you give me a quick rundown of introducing hero characters, namely the characters from Halo Reach and Sarah Connor?

Cleven: Well it was a really a huge pleasure to both of those IPS to Gears. Sarah obviously is one of the strongest female heroines in action gaming like starting back in the 80s with her [in] Terminator. The classic scene of her in Terminator 2 where she was shooting the T-1000 into the molten metal before was our inspiration for her ultimate inside the game. And to be able to bring those classic cinema moments through her, such an iconic action hero, and have her mirror how we see Kait’s journey was really just the right thing at the right time with the new Terminator Dark Fate movie coming out. It was just a really cool serendipity where everything came together right at the right moment, and it was similarly with Halo Reach where with the re-release of Halo Reach there was just a great opportunity to be able to bring some of those characters into Gears and we wanted to collaborate with 343 for a long time and we’ve been looking for the right moment to do it.

And with Reach, we saw it as the closest Halo from a feeling point of view to the Gears‘ IP where Reach has these distinct characters with very distinct personalities that line up with how Gears looks at its heroes. Where we have these individual characters, each with their own individual personalities, where there’s relationships between the group. Master Chief is amazing, but he is one man, right? And with Reach there was a whole bunch of characters and from different backgrounds, and that really lined up with how we see Gears, and it was a very natural thing to be able to bring some of them over to Gears. So we chose some of the abilities that we thought were really iconic from Halo, but we could make feel really grounded inside Gears and then brought some of the characters that felt to us, a very natural fit inside inside Gears.

So that Gears fans would really recognize the value in having some characters from Halo in the game, and the Halo fans would really see the value in seeing their favorite characters inside Gears. And so it was the right moment, the right timing of the launch of Gears 5. We had for the first time heroes with ultimate abilities inside horde, and it was really again like lightning in a bottle of exactly the right moment with exactly the right partnership, and with exactly the right features to be able to make it all come together. And I’m just personally really happy to have Halo in the game that we made, and I think it’s something that we think we really executed on that our friends at 343 are really proud of.

Stevivor: Do you have plans to bring future characters?

Cleven: We haven’t announced any. I mean who knows what the future will bring. We obviously plan on bringing new hero characters to horde. We haven’t said which characters those will be, and it’s always something that we would consider very carefully. We want to make sure that, Gears feels like Gears, but it’s also Gears has always been influenced and influences pop culture. So it’s something that we are always trying to find something that enhances, and grows like the IP of Gears while not invalidating it’s core. So we always take these partnerships extremely seriously, and always make sure that we do it right. So it’s something that we don’t just run into very quickly and haphazardly and something that has to be very well thought through. So who knows what the future will bring.

Gears 5 launches on September 10 on Xbox One and Windows 10. Xbox Game Pass early access begins on 6 September.

Julian Rizzo-Smith traveled to Cologne, Germany to preview Gears 5 as a guest of Microsoft. Travel and accommodation were supplied by the publisher.