Gears 5 and the future: Interview with Rod Fergusson and Bonnie Jean Mah

During our visit to The Coalition, we were able to sit down with Studio Head Rod Fergusson and Franchise Narrative Lead Bonnie Jean Mah to learn more about the direction of the Gears of War franchise.

Gears 5 launches on September 10 (albeit a bit earlier for Ultimate Edition and Game Pass owners). In our hands-on preview with the campaign, we discovered a Gears game unlike any of its predecessors, pushing boldly into open-world, almost-RPG territory. It's clear The Coalition is thinking about the future of the franchise and isn't content with simply resting on its laurels with the tried-and-tested Gears formula.

Related: Gears 5 Campaign Preview

What might that future look like? We sat down with the team to find out.

Growing the Gears 5 franchise

Gears 5

Gears 5 (Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)

Jez Corden, Windows Central Senior Editor: I'm a huge Gears fan, but I haven't necessarily been super hyped for Gears 5. I was expecting Gears 5 to be good, but also, that it would be "just another Gears." However, going hands-on with the campaign I'm a little bit more like, "oh wow, they're serious." It seems a little less like you're just maintaining the franchise, and are instead looking to grow and expand the franchise. Is that what you've been looking at?

Rod Fergusson, The Coalition Studio Head: When we came into Gears 4, our thinking was "we're a new team, new studio, and only four of us have played Gears before." We wanted to show that we knew how to make a Gears game. We didn't want to go too radical, because we didn't want the fans to think "wow, they don't even know what they're doing." It was intentional.

"Our goal with the next generation is to take Gears to a more contemporary, more modern place"

We wanted to get people to trust us. When we started doing the beta tour and started talking to fans more, we discovered that many of them already did trust us. We may have like, "over-indexed" on trying to prove ourselves.

As we look forward, our goal with the next generation is to take Gears to a more contemporary, more modern place, compared to other shooters in the wider industry. We want to lean into that with Gears 5, and deliver more of our personality and Coalition sensibilities into the mix. We dabble with open-world gameplay for our larger levels, we're dabbling with RPG-type things with Jack's abilities. We're thinking more about player choice. Traditionally, player choice in Gears boiled down to what gun you chose. You didn't have a choice of location, and your only verb was to shoot. With Jack's abilities, and the Skiff, player-initiated combat and other new elements, I think these are ways we can turn Gears on its head a bit, while still staying true to the essence of Gears. We want to give the player more "verbs" to play with.

Jez: You mentioned open-world and RPG elements and things like that, but one thing I noticed that felt ramped up was the world-building, through collectibles, environmental details, NPC interactions, slower-paced areas you can just explore. Even the small puzzle elements, using radio signals to unlock parts of the open-world maps made me feel more anchored in the game's world. We've got books, we've got comics, it really feels like Gears could far beyond its identity as a game.

Rod: You have to look at it from both sides. Immersion is huge for us. We think of Gears as grounded sci-fi. When we bring things to life, we think about how to make things believable — not necessarily realistic? You just have to be able to kind of squint and go, like "I could kind of maybe see that working?" We apply that to the immersion factor in our grounded world.

"It's all about creating a bigger, more expansive franchise for people to play in"

Some things we wanted to do like the wind-driven Skiff, still may seem a little out there, but you can still see it working. With our books and our comics and other world-building exercises, it's all about creating a bigger, more expansive franchise for people to play in. Even the Hive Buster characters from the Escape mode create negative space that we can go and chase new stories in.

On the other side, with multiplayer, we can indulge the pop-culture side of the game. It's not so immersive, but it's just so cool, you know? We can get Halo Reach in here, we can get Sarah Connor and the Terminator from Dark Fate in here. We think about how we can grow the franchise by collaborating with other platforms. It's just awesome. Partnering with 343 Industries to bring the Halo Reach cast back in to record new voice-overs felt like a great homage.

Gears of War's strengths and weaknesses

Jez: Speaking of 343 Industries, and I don't want to sound mean...

Rod: Haha, but you're going to...

Jez: I mean, I'm a Gears guy, I like my chainsaws, my exploding guts, and so on, but it always felt like Gears was in Halo's shadow in terms of Xbox exclusives. Is that something you think about?

Rod: When you look at it, when you're taking care of a franchise like this, you have to be honest with yourself and ask "What are our strengths, what are our weaknesses?" In that, one of our strengths is also one of our weaknesses, with is the chainsaw. The chainsaw Lancer helps define who we are as Gears of War, and helped us get the platform we have. The chainsaws also ensure we're a Hard M mature-rating, which means we can't be put on a Pepsi bottle, for example.

We have an opportunity to expand with games like Gears POP! for example. But I think if we got rid of the Hard M, it'd be like having a Deadpool movie that is PG-13. People would be like "I don't want to watch that movie." If we made a Gears without swearing, or blood, or gore, and no chainsaw teen-rated Gears — we'd alienate our fandom. And so then you have to realize, our strengths put a bit of a cap on how mainstream we can potentially go.

Of course, our plan is to grow. To grow its reach, and our player base. That's why we're trying to make Gears 5 more approachable with things like Boot Camp training, Arcade Versus mode, and even things like Game Pass. We have a real opportunity there since people don't have to pay $60 to try it out. This is an interesting moment in time for Gears as a franchise, we're coming together with comic books, the novels, and the movie and all that stuff. We believe we've created the most approachable, best version of our game. We'll see how people react to this moment in time. It will dictate how we look to the future, but we're setting ourselves up to capitalize.

Gears of War expanded universe and lore

Jez: On the wider Gears universe... tell me, does Earth exist somewhere beyond Sera?

Bonnie Jean Mah, Gears of War Narrative Lead: Negative space? Yeah, that's our answer. Basically, we haven't defined a lot of this stuff in our universe. There's lots of stuff that we purposefully don't pin down, as we want to make sure that we have many questions we are able to answer in the future, and also not pay for something. That's a great example of not being able to give an answer one way or another, because it exists in negative space.

Rod: If we were to pin it down, and just say "no," just to give you clarity, and then I realized I do want to go to earth in another game, you'd be like "I thought it wasn't in this universe." Some people are now speculating whether or not we're inside the Halo universe... laughs

We always think of it like this: "as long as we have enough to tell the story of our game." I want to do that with the least amount of explanation possible because it allows us to go in and add details to many different places. The best example of negative space getting fleshed out is from Gears 1, where Carmine says "Are you the Marcus Fenix, the hero from the battle of Ashpho Fields?" Cool, we had no idea what that was.

When Karen Travis came aboard and asked what could she write about, Aspho Fields was a clear piece of negative space waiting to be filled in. We tapped into Karen, as a military journalist working with the British Army. She made the Battle of Aspho Fields way richer, and way cooler than we could have come up with in a conference room, arbitrarily trying to fill in the negative space in a few hours of meetings. That's how we look at our franchise. For the wider lore, among our new authors, we look for little sand boxes where we let them create things safely and come up with new lore that won't impact the core story. It helps inform us, and then move towards working them together.

Jez: I do often think like, "where could this all go?" I do own the books, but I hate reading...

Rod: The new book Ascendance is actually up on Audible, bridges the gap between Gears 4 and 5. We actually got the voice of Anya, Nan McNamara to read it, it's really awesome.

Bonnie Jean: It's cool for fans who are interested in what happened between Gears 4 and 5, because it's not a huge space in time. You get some insight into her headspace after the events of Gears 4. The nightmares, the headaches, and so on, leading up to Gears 5. The Swarm were still a relatively fresh problem at the end of Gears 4, and it dives into how JD and the trio try to convince the COG that this is actually a problem. That said, it's not required reading for the game. It's for fans that are interested in diving deeper, it's important that one of our pillars be that the Expanded Universe stuff is mainly there if you want it. The game will give you everything you need.

Jez: Do you have a central repository where all the franchise's lore lives?

Rod: One of the first things Bonnie Jean did when she first came was to organize an archive of all the things that had come before, and build out a timeline. It was really important when building some of the comics like The Rise of Raam to know where exactly the characters were at the time. The good thing about moving to a new generation is that we can focus on the new, and not live so much in the past, but we do always want to trace back our lineage. We do have an internal wiki that details how characters react to certain events and that sort of thing.

Bonnie Jean: We're creating new lore in our universe all the time. One of the cool things about Gears 5 is that we worked hard to add layers of previous games into the world around you. When you're traversing some of the icy areas or the desert areas, you're coming across parts of Sera that have never been explored in the games, but have been referenced previously throughout the canon.

Now we're actually going to create these areas as living civilizations. We have collectibles and we have assets in the environments that tell the story of the world that came before all the wars. We're creating more lore, but we still want to leave enough wiggle room so that we can build new stories off from what we're establishing in the games.

Jez: Could there be a game set during the Pendulum Wars one day?

Rod: We have talked about that. For the past 13 years, the defining thing we've always thought of in Gears is the monster. And so a human-on-human war, UIR vs. COG, felt a little too... There are many other games out there that have human-on-human war. We like the idea that you get empowered to overcome your demons. The Locust sort of represent the boogeyman under your bed, they crawl up from underground out of the darkness. Using a chainsaw to dispel the boogeyman felt empowering.

Jez: To wrap up, is what we're seeing with Gears 5, experimenting with open-world gameplay, RPG mechanics, the sort of innovation fans should expect from the franchise moving forward?

Rod: Absolutely. That's exactly what we want to do is continue to push. We want to bring in elements that we think are interesting, so I think as people embrace them, or not, then that'll inform where we push Gears of War forward. The longer a franchise persists, the more pressure there is to stay current and modern. You don't want to see version 12 of the game and think that it's the same old, same old. We know that "five" is a decent-sized number, a decent time to make it feel fresh again, and challenge expectations.

Challenging expectations

In my Gears 5 hands-on time with the campaign, I discovered a Gears game trying to break out of its shell and grow into a more contemporary, far more ambitious title. As awesome as Gears 5 seems, I'm more excited than ever already for Gears 6, 7, and 8, convinced that The Coalition isn't just playing it safe anymore. Gears could sit up with Halo in the big leagues some day, while also helping restore Xbox Game Studios' image for quality, which has taken a slip in recent years. Thanks a ton to Rod and Bonnie Jean for fielding our questions!

Gears 5 launches on September 10, 2019, for Xbox One and Windows PC.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!