Microsoft has put a padlock on its Xbox One war chest by acquiring the rights to the popular Gears of War franchise from Epic Games, the software giant announced today. This means that future Gears of War games can and probably will remain exclusive to Microsoft's platforms, having helped to launch the Xbox 360.
For Microsoft, this deal represents the straightening of a wrinkle which meant that Epic Games owned the Gears of War franchise, with an agreement of platform exclusivity negotiated with Microsoft. For some time, this was a clear win-win, as Gears of War gave Epic a banner title, heavily promoted by Microsoft, which established it as more than the owner and licensor of the Unreal Engine, along with incentives to maintain exclusivity, and Microsoft got a genre-defining action game. With big guns. With big chainsaw bayonets. Handled by big men.
However, the arrival of next-generation consoles was always likely to provoke consolidation, with Microsoft looking to keep hold of its crown jewels after the Xbox One’s first clashes with Sony's PlayStation 4 has seen the Japanese company take an early retail lead. As far back as 2011, Epic’s then-president Mike Capp was expressing a desire to ship a Gears game on PlayStation in competition with Sony’s platform-exclusive titles, telling James Brightman of Industry Gamer:
Do we wish we could take all those Killzone and Resistance fans on PS3, and get them to say ‘Gears is awesome’? Yeah, sure I’d love to ship the Gears trilogy on PlayStation. That would be fun. I want to be there; I want to be everywhere.
This continues the trend of the major console players prioritizing retention of IP over talent. The most explosive example of this was of course the departure of key staff from Infinity Ward from Activision, which has done little to slow down the Call of Duty juggernaut. Bungie, creators of the Halo franchise, were allowed to depart from ownership by Microsoft, but the valuable Halo IP was retained at Redmond, developed first by Bungie itself and subsequently by 343 Industries. The Gears of War acquisition includes “all existing and future games, entertainment experiences and merchandise”.
Although the last instalment of the series, Gears of War: Judgment, underperformed in the market, affected by the relatively recent release of the climactic Gears of War 3, the absence of the iconic Marcus Fenix in the lead role and possibly the transfer of much of the creative duties to People Can Fly, which had been purchased and rebranded as Epic Games Poland, it remains one of the most iconic Xbox franchises. Over its lifetime, the franchise has sold 22 million units, representing over $1 billion.
Locust development in Vancouver
Development duties for the next Gears of War game has been handed over to the relatively unknown Black Tusk Studios, which was unveiled in November 2012 after a year of stealth development. Black Tusk, based in Vancouver and featuring a core of former Electronics Arts talent, can trace its origins back to Microsoft’s 2009 acquisition of Vancouver-based BigPark, Inc, the studio of former Microsoft Entertainment head and current Zynga CEO Don Mattrick. BogPark cofounder Hanno Lemke is now general manager of Black Tusk.
Black Tusk Studios’ first project was shrouded in mystery, with a teaser at 2013′s E3 showing what looked like a Splinter Cell-inspired near-future stealth game. Whether this will be developed in parallel with a new Gears of War game or whether the studio has been reassigned has yet to be confirmed – or, indeed whether this was a game at all, rather than a smokescreen to draw attention away from negotiations with Epic. Microsoft’s Phil Spencer told Polygon that it represented a “concept piece”.
If one wishes to accept that Microsoft allows studios to make unrelated assets from non-existent games for their own entertainment which are then shown at the largest digital entertainment event of the year just for the heck of it, that is entirely a matter of personal conscience. This game-not-game was also described as an Xbox One exclusive, which it seems unlikely that the next Gears of War game will be, while Xbox 360 ownership remains high – although the Gears of War game after that may be another matter.
Ironically, one of the initial and major benefits for Epic Games when they allied with Microsoft was the use of the Redmond giant’s extensive testing resources. Black Tusk Studios is now likely to benefit from Epic’s ongoing assistance and expertise with the Unreal Engine.
Black Tusk has been skilling up since its launch, and it was also announced today that its ranks will be bolstered by Rod Fergusson, the veteran Gears of War Director of Production who left Epic in August 2012 to help Irrational Games to deliver BioShock Infinite, at the time troubled by delays. BioShock Infinite, despite a slight further slippage in release date, launched in March 2013 to critical acclaim and strong sales, and Fergusson, brought in as a “closer” to replace the departing Tim Gerritsen, left Irrational shortly after its launch.
Despite the relative underperformance of Judgment, Gears of War remains one of Microsoft’s most consistently successful and enduring the recognizable gaming assets. It makes sense that steps would be taken to ensure that its IP would be kept in the family at a time when both Microsoft and Sony are seeking to tempt consumers with the promise of platform exclusives. Whether Marcus Fenix and his team of heavily muscled and possibly slightly overcompensating Gears can fare as well against the PS4 as they did against the Locust and the Lambent remains to be seen.