News broke this morning that the Gears of War franchise will now be wholly owned by Microsoft, as the company purchased all present and future rights to the series from creator Epic Games. This means future Gears of War titles will be for the Xbox One and Xbox One only, with no chance of the series jumping ship or going multiplatform.
It’s a smart move on Microsoft’s part for a simple reason, they are generally behind in the exclusives department, and couldn’t bear to lose one of their core series like Gears of War if Epic was indeed lured by Sony to expand the franchise to Sony’s PS4. It’s been a real temptation, as ex-Epic president Mike Capps said in 2011 when he said he’d “love to ship the Gears trilogy on PlayStation.”
Microsoft has struggled in recent years with having a stable of exclusives that rival its competition. To think of this in practical terms, Nintendo has Super Smash Bros, jammed full of more first party characters than they know what to do with, and Sony even managed to assemble a roster for PlayStation All-Stars. But what fighting game could Microsoft make that would feature beloved, exclusive characters from its universes? You’d have Master Chief vs. Marcus Fenix vs. ….who exactly?
The state of Microsoft’s exclusive line-up isn’t spectacular. The gold standard is obviously Nintendo, who has so many cherished first party franchises they can’t even make games out of them fast enough. Though Sony has lost formerly big series like Metal Gear Solid or Final Fantasy to the siren’s call of “multiplatform,” they have staples and big sellers like God of War, Infamous, Uncharted and now The Last of Us in their pockets, with sleeper hits like Little Big Planet tucked away for safekeeping.
Microsoft, is first and foremost, the Halo console. It’s the series most closely associated with the Xbox, and one pivotal for them to continue their pitch that the Xbox One has better exclusives than their rivals. Bungie left the brand to build the multiplatform Destiny, and 343 Industries took over Halo. Their first game, Halo 4, sold well, but many worried about the direction of the series, and with five full Halo titles released (along with a spin-off or two), the franchise is aging. Time will tell if Master Chief is the draw he used to be, once we see what 343 has planned for his Xbox One debut.
That’s why it was smart of Microsoft to secure their solid #2 franchise, Gears of War. Yes, Microsoft has other exclusive franchises at present from Dead Rising to Forza, but as both launch games showed, neither series is exactly blockbuster material at this stage. Forza is a high quality franchise that has huge appeal…to racing sim enthusiasts, while Dead Rising has always had its ups and downs, and it’s hardly securely in Microsoft’s grasp (Dead Rising 2 was multiplatform). Once upon a time, Microsoft might have boasted about Fable being on their must-have exclusive list, but the sharp and baffling decline of that series has all but killed it, barring a magical (and unlikely) resurrection. There are other past, present and future IPs floating around they can call their own, but few that are proven and reliable in terms of sales and quality.
Gears has always been a solid, heavy hitter for Microsoft with three full-length games that sold well (22 million copies total) and received their fair share of critical and audience acclaim. More recently, the series suffered through an unneeded spin-off in Judgment, but it was a forgivable offense and arrived with such little fanfare, it barely made ripples in the larger Gears pond. If Gears went multiplatform, that would have taken one of Microsoft’s brightest feathers out of their cap, and they were smart to ensure that didn’t happen.
That said, the series, like Halo, is going to have to prove it has what it takes to stay relevant in the ever-changing video game landscape. The Gears series has constantly produced the best-looking games for the Xbox 360 over the course of the last console generation, and Microsoft will need the series to deliver again to prove that the Xbox One is capable of producing games just as gorgeous as the PS4. Whispers about resolution and framerate and being underpowered have haunted the Xbox One, but Epic always knew how to crank the most out of Microsoft’s hardware. When the first, second and third Gears games were released, they were the most beautiful titles out for the system up until that point, and hopefully new developer, Black Tusk, can do so under the direction of Gears veteran Rob Fergusson.
As for Epic itself? Iconic game designer Cliff Blezinski left in 2012 while president Mike Capps announced his departure soon after. Despite these significant losses, Epic is still in the game business, and their next title, scavenge/survival sandbox game Fortnite, is supposedly due out this year, though we’ve heard precious little about it so far.
While locking down Gears is important for Microsoft’s long-term exclusive strategy, I’d say that it’s almost more important what ends up happening with Titanfall. Due out this spring, Titanfall is shaping up to be the first “must-have” exclusive of the next-gen PS4 vs. Xbox One war, and everyone is heralding the Respawn/EA project as the birth of what’s assuredly the next big shooter franchise. You know, the way Gears and Halo were viewed when they were first released.
Microsoft paid a hefty sum to ensure that Titanfall would be released for Xbox One and PC only, leaving Sony’s PS4 out in the cold. But the deal is only for the first game. There’s no telling what could happen in future installments, and games that start out exclusive to one system often end up open to all (see Mass Effect, MGS, and so on). Microsoft would have to make an enormous deal with EA and Respawn to ensure Titanfall was tethered to the Xbox One alone, and I’m not sure they’ll be able to do so. It will depend heavily on how successful the game ends up being, and Respawn founders Jason West and Vince Zampella are known to be pretty cagey negotiators.
That’s why it’s good to have Gears as a now permanent, reliable soldier marching on their side. Though the series was generally viewed as safely in their camp, nothing is a sure thing when dealing with third party devs. Now, no matter what happens with Titanfall, Microsoft still has Gears and Halo eternally. Overall, I’d say they’re still behind Sony in total worthwhile exclusive franchises, so hopefully they’ll continue to develop more. I would like to play a “Super Smash Xbox All-Stars” fighting game someday, after all.