HEAT VISION

'Gears 5' Studio Head Plans to "Grow and Flourish" Franchise With Film, Comics, Games

The Coalition studio head and creative director Rod Fergusson weighs in on the upcoming film, a newfound emphasis on esports and how famous gaming streamer Ninja came to showcase the new franchise entry.
'Gears 5'; inset: The Coalition studio head Rod Fergusson   |   Courtesy of Microsoft
The Coalition studio head and creative director Rod Fergusson weighs in on the upcoming film, a newfound emphasis on esports and how famous gaming streamer Ninja came to showcase the new franchise entry.

Five years ago, Microsoft acquired the rights to a then-dormant franchise which had once been one of the biggest IPs in video games: Gears of War.

Having sold more than 22 million copies and grossed over $1 billion globally, the Gears brand was once a marquee, AAA series that helped make stars out of creator Cliff Bleszinski and solidify a pre-Fortnite Epic Games as one of the most powerful publishers in the industry. Following the original trilogy's final chapter bow in 2011, however, Epic placed the title on the shelf, seemingly for good.

Flash to 2014, and Microsoft breathed new life into the franchise with its subsidiary studio The Coalition (then named Black Tusk Studios before adopting its current moniker, a reference to the government body in Gears lore) with Gears of War 4. A reimagining of sorts, Gears 4 shifted the focus on to a new protagonist and signaled a return for what was once one of Microsoft's crown jewels.

"One of the things when we started Gears 4 was that we were a new team and only four of us had ever made a Gears game before, so we had to make sure to show fans that we knew how to make a Gears game," Coalition studio head and creative director Rod Fergusson tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Fergusson has been with the Gears franchise since the very beginning, having served as executive producer on the 2006 original and later director of production for the series at Epic Games. Following a departure from Epic in 2012 and a stint at Irrational Games where he helped oversee the final stages of development on 2013's BioShock Infinite, Fergusson returned to Microsoft (where he began his career in the 1990s) to steer the revival of Gears. The fifth title in the series, Gears 5, launched this week.

"We began this journey with Gears of War 4 and now I feel that we’ve hit our stride with Gears 5," he says. "Part of my mission since 2014 has been, how do I grow the franchise and bring it back? Epic put it on the shelf to essentially die, so Microsoft brought it back. Not only are we trying to bring it back, we want to grow and flourish."

Gears 5 has debuted to critical praise, currently sporting an 86 percent on review aggregator site Metacritic. Meanwhile, the mobile game Gears Pop! hit one million players in its first week of release in late August. There is also the upcoming spinoff title Gears Tactics, a real-time strategy game based in the series' universe; a series of comics; a second novel; and, of course, a feature film in the works at Universal Studios, which Fergusson says he meets with producers on to discuss the script.

"The buzzword everyone hates is 'transmedia,'" says Fergusson. "To me, there’s a credibility to being outside just the game. There’s something about having an opportunity for loyal fans to get deeper into the world and see this thing is everywhere, not just one place."

One other area that Fergusson is paying attention to is the growing influence of streamers and internet personalities. Earlier this week, Tyler "Ninja" Blevins — who recently left Amazon's Twitch for Microsoft's streaming platform Mixer — broadcast himself playing through a few hours of Gears 5's campaign, a bit of cross-promotion between Microsoft's newest star and its newest AAA game. Blevins was not paid by Microsoft to stream the game. 

"Ninja has a partnership with Microsoft and that made sense to them. It wasn’t something that I was banging down the doors on," says Fergusson. He does note, however, that the advent of streaming influencers has changed the way he thinks.

"A game like Apex Legends basically got all of its marketing from streamers. You have to pay attention to that and the impact it has," he says.

There's also the ever-growing esports scene, in which Gears has carved out its own niche, though Fergusson sees the franchise having an even bigger impact in the future. 

"We have simplified it down to this ‘crawl, walk, run’ idea," Fergusson says of his studio's approach to competitive gaming. "Gears 1 Remastered was our 'crawl,' but that game didn’t have a lot of tools for spectating and how you swap the cameras, so it was a little hard to watch. When we designed Gears of War 4, we designed it with an esports viewer in mind. That’s how we got to 'walk.' Now, with Gears 5, I’m not going to call my shot and say that we’re running, but we’re tying up our running shoes."

Returning to the Gears franchise wasn't a hard decision for Fergusson ("I love the world, I love the characters, I love the stories," he says), but the core teams he worked with in the past have now ventured far and wide, including the man who created, and was so deeply associated with, the series: Bleszinski. 

When asked if he feels Bleszinski's absence, Fergusson demures. "A little," he says, though Gears 5 is now the second numbered entry in the series without Bleszinski's involvement, so the keys to the franchise are now securely in Fergusson's possession. "When you spend three years making a game, yeah, you care about the game, but what you really remember is the time spent with those people, collaborating and making cool shit," he says.

The latest release is the series' most ambitious. Introducing a new open-world dynamic and utilizing multiple playable protagonists (including the series' first female playable hero, Kait Diaz), Gears 5 is as much a major step forward for the third-person shooter as it a satisfying next chapter.

"We likened it to Star Trek: The Next Generation. We jokingly called it Gears: The Next Generation," Fergusson says with a laugh. "We went through every permutation you could think of, from changing planets to changing gameplay mechanics to going first-person, you name it. Our initial fear was that people would go, 'This isn’t even a Gears of War game!'"

Fergusson credits Microsoft with allowing him to take risks with the Gears IP. "The biggest freedom is the amount of trust that [Xbox head] Phil [Spencer] gives us. People expect this Microsoft overlord to come to the studio and say ‘Thou shalt do this’ but it’s not like that," he says. "We set our features, we set our date, and they look to us as studio heads to deliver."

Still, it's not lost on the studio head how much responsibility Microsoft is putting on his shoulders, both for the Gears franchise itself and its potential to help bolster the number of the company's Games Pass subscribers. "Right now it’s all about content for Games Pass," Fergusson says. "Having these tentpole franchises helps ground what is the Xbox Games Studios. What makes Gears interesting to a company like Microsoft is the fact that we have an edge, that we say ‘fuck’ or the fact that you chainsaw monsters in half. There’s a grittiness that gives it a bit more credibility in the gaming space, that it’s not just all the shiny, polished things."

While Fergusson says one of the goals of Gears 5 is to "continue to make it easier to sustain and have a longer tail," he also notes that he's looking forward at what's next for the franchise, even if it seems a daunting challenge.

"We gave ourselves a ramp to launch toward the next one," he says. A second later, he shakes his head. "I don’t know how to make a game bigger than Gears 5," Fergusson adds with a laugh.

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