Gears 5 multiplayer director talks evolving Horde Mode, Halo: Reach crossover

A new developer coming onto a beloved franchise can be a scary proposition, bringing with it all sorts of pressure and uncertainty.

Fortunately, Gears of War fans could breathe a sigh of relief when Vancouver-based The Coalition delivered with 2016’s Gears of War 4, the franchise’s first new game that wasn’t handled by original developer Epic Games. With strong sales and positive reception, The Coalition proved itself a worthy successor to the Gears throne.

Fast forward three years, The Coalition is preparing itself to launch Gears 5 in September. At Gamescom 2019 in Cologne, Germany, MobileSyrup sat down with Gears 5 multiplayer Ryan Cleven to discuss how the studio has grown in this time and what it’s doing to push the franchise forward with this sophomore outing.

Question: To start, what’s the experience been like working on Gears 5 compared to the last game?

Ryan Cleven: Gears 5 has been a very different experience than Gears of War 4. It’s actually super exciting for the studio to be able to put more of itself into the game and try out some new ideas. We feel we understand Gears now and where Gears can go. And not only did we have the experience of building the first game, but we actually ran [multiplayer content] for almost three years and we learned a lot over that time that influenced the development of 5.

Marcus Gears 5 Horde

With Gears 4, we really wanted to show that we could do Gears right before doing what we wanted with it. Rather than coming to the franchise and saying, “Hey, we know better than the makers of Gears and what Gears should be right away,” which obviously wouldn’t have been true. We really wanted to understand the essence of it. With Gears 4, when we built it, we went through a really extensive experience of recreating all the little tiny details that made Gears feel like Gears.

As long as we could still feel those same Gears feelings when we added new systems, we could make sure that it felt really “Gears-y.” And in Gears 5, we were really excited because we could not only bring new ideas to the table, but we could make sure that whenever we implemented them, they were still true and authentic.

Q: On the subject of bringing new ideas to the table, what were some of the elements of Gears multiplayer that you wanted to either change or expand upon going into Gears 5?

Cleven: We didn’t want to completely reinvent the franchise but we knew that we had to challenge the foundation more than what had come before. So that was [The Coalition head] Rod [Fergusson]’s direction to us as a team — to challenge expectations. That was where Escape Mode in multiplayer was born — what if we took Horde and turned it on its head?

Gears 5 Escape Mode

So we looked around the game and said what needed to be modernized and what needed to be reinvented. And so our shooting model was modernized and something like Escape was Horde Mode reinvented. Right from the beginning, the initial vision for Gears 5 was built on the idea of challenging player expectations as well as providing more meaningful player choice throughout the game.

That was something that Rod felt in Gears 4 we may not have done as well, where the campaign was more linear and our metagame in multiplayer was a little smaller. So we really wanted to bring a lot more meaningful player choice, both in the campaign and multiplayer.

Q: To that point, what’s been some of the feedback that you’ve received from the technical test that ran in July?

Cleven: We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people that have either not played [many] Gears multiplayer or had played and rejected [it] or people that had never even considered playing Gears — they’ve played the new Arcade Mode and really enjoyed it. We’ve actually had a lot of people say “I’ve never really been that interested in Gears but this was super fun.”

Gears 5 chainsaw

Then we’ve also had our core community say “This is the best Gears Versus Mode ever made — the shotgun feels super consistent, the balance of all the weapons is great, the modernized shooting mechanics are awesome….” It’s really been a positive experience for us where they’re really trying to help us make the game better. They’re really being very helpful and meaning to be a part of a constructive process, which has been a really enjoyable experience for us.

Q: Gears 5‘s inclusion as a day-one title on Game Pass opens up the franchise to potentially a lot of new people. How does having the knowledge that there might be a large influx of newcomers influence development?

It was something that we wanted to take into account from a very early point in development, that we knew we were going to be available to a lot of people. Boot Camp [Gears 5‘s new tutorial mode] was something that we wanted to add right from the very beginning.

Because we saw that there were people that jumped into the game and just played Versus multiplayer or just played Horde or played it before they played the campaign. And historically, the tutorial part of Gears of War was the first part of a campaign, so we wanted to lift it out of the campaign and into a really robust experience that will teach people mechanics they might have not ever even seen, like close-quarter combat mechanics.

Gears 5 Jack Horde

Right from the beginning, we wanted to make that tutorial experience part of the initial flow and have something like the [accessible-minded] Arcade Mode be the first experience that people play. Or give people playing Versus our new ‘Tour of Duty’ system to guide them to experiences by offering them daily challenges like “Hey, what if you won a multiplayer Versus match?” or “hey, what if you completed five waves of Horde?” So, the people who are coming into the franchise and may not know exactly what they’re looking for will have a gentle sort of guiding through learning how to control the game to actually playing the game.

Then we have something like Jack [a robot that can fly around the map to heal allies and make repairs] in Horde Mode. If you’re playing with friends that had been hardcore fans of the franchise but you have never played before, Jack’s a great place to start. It provides a great opportunity for people to jump into Gears, which has always had a bit of a reputation for being a more difficult game. Now, there’s a way to play that is good for new players and hardcore players.

Q: Horde is a staple of Gears, so what was the overall approach to this mode in Gears 5? How did you balance not changing too much with adding new features?

Cleven: Horde has always been a passion project for us at The Coalition. The development of Horde in Gears 4 really taught us a lot about what makes Horde and why it works. This gave us an opportunity to refine that. The core of Horde, as we see it, has always been trying to find ways of making more emergent gameplay.

We had a lot of feedback on the classes from Gears 4 where players felt that the roles gave them very specific roles to fill but they were almost too rigid, where you felt you had to do something, like only the Scout could pick up Power [a form of currency] or only the Engineer could build. The intention was to encourage people to feel good about playing that role. It was never to make people feel bad if they ever stepped across the line.

In Gears 5, we wanted to make something that had a much clearer way of helping people understand what their role was and at the same time make people feel comfortable picking up Power no matter who you are. Splitting Power equally amongst everyone automatically gave everybody a much more satisfying co-op feeling as opposed to having to navigate a giant shared pool of money [like in Gears 4].

These are all small refinements, but they really laid the foundation for bringing the hero characters in and making all their abilities very readable. You know that JD is the offense character or Kait is the Scout character, so when you see them on the battlefield you don’t have to figure out who is which class.

Q: Beyond Horde Mode, your other major Gamescom reveal was the addition of Kat and Emile, two characters from beloved Xbox 360 shooter Halo: Reach. How did this crossover come to happen?

Cleven: There was some really great timing there because of the re-release of Halo: Reach [later this year in Halo: The Master Chief Collection]. And we felt that Halo: Reach was sort of the closest analogue to a Gears experience where it’s co-op, it has this cast of very strong characters that all play a particular role where they have unique personalities, and that felt the most kind of kinship with how we look at Gears.

We’ve always been trying to find opportunities to collaborate with [current Halo franchise developer] 343 [Industries] and this really worked out from a timing point of view. Everybody thought that the ideas were good and it really gave us an opportunity to bring more Hero abilities from Halo that we might not normally do [like Emile’s Drop Shield]. We had the ideas and pitched [343], they liked them and it all just sort of came together at the right time.

This interview has been edited for language and clarity.

Gears 5 will launch on Xbox One, Windows 10 and Steam on September 10th. Alternatively, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers will be able to download the game early on September 6th. The Halo: Reach Character Pack is exclusive to the Gears 5 Ultimate Edition, which is included in Game Pass Ultimate and sold separately.

Image credit: Microsoft