Saving Gears of War, Halo Style

It's not too late for Microsoft and Epic to follow the Bungie path.

January 6, 2010 - There's something special about Gears of War. When the original game was released in 2006, it was one of the prettiest console games we'd ever seen. But it was more than just eye candy. The cover-based combat was visceral and exciting, and Epic Games had created a dark, destructive world that felt larger than life. It was a perfect fit for the Xbox 360, and gamers couldn't get enough.

"Dom, you go left. I'll go right."
Gears of War was an outstanding new game, but it was far from perfect. So before the release of the sequel in 2008, we wrote about what Microsoft and Epic needed to do to pull the series into the upper echelons of gaming. In essence, we asked what Gears needed to do to become the next Halo. And, of course, we had all the answers.

A lot has changed since then. Bungie is now an independent studio once again, and it's scheduled to deliver just one more Halo game before handing the energy baton over to Microsoft's own 343 Industries. Without Bungie at the helm, the future success of the Halo franchise is far from secure, and more than ever Microsoft needs a sure-bet shooter in its arsenal.

Gears of War 2 is just over a year old, and it's already squandered the longevity capital of its predecessor. It's hovering near the bottom of the top 10 on Microsoft's weekly list of the most-played games on Xbox Live, and its launch was plagued by multiplayer malfunctions, exploits and performance issues. These problems have largely been solved, but many gamers abandoned Gears of War 2 while Epic tinkered. And despite Cliff Bleszinski's promise that the sequel would be "bigger, better and more badass" than the original, many fans complained that the single-player campaign fell short of those expectations.

Botched multiplayer and a single-player experience that doesn't raise the bar? Hardly a recipe for Halo-like success. Gears of War 2 had some outstanding elements (one of which, Horde, Bungie promptly swiped). The game even wowed many critics. But Microsoft doesn't need another hit. It needs a new global entertainment property like Halo or Call of Duty. Gears of War shouldn't become a Halo clone. But Epic and Microsoft must look to Bungie for clues about how to win big. Here's a start.

Why is Halo so huge? Despite what your creepy college roommate thinks, it's not because Cortana is "so frikkin' hot." It's because Bungie took a solid game idea, executed it well and empowered its players to take ownership of the finished product. Halo fans are encouraged to think that the franchise belongs to them. The hardest of the hardcore are part of a Bungie-sanctioned Seventh Column of evangelists and crazies who spread the Halo word on fan sites and forum threads around the world.

Bungie developers (God help them) actually listen to their most vocal fans and interact with them constantly on Bungie.net and at gaming conventions. Watching the Bungie folks interact with gamers at the Penny Arcade Expo is a lesson in "community management," whatever that is. At PAX 2009, when they weren't hosting ODST demo sessions and holding public panels, Bungie designers were hiding Halo swag throughout the convention center and Tweeting clues to fans.

Better than a message board.
Respect for community is more than a philosophy. Adopting it leads to tangible benefits for both developers and gamers. Take, for example, the public multiplayer beta. If we could sneak into the Epic developers' bedrooms in the middle of the night and plant one idea in their brains with something sharp and dangerous, it would be this: hold a public multiplayer beta for Gears of War 3. The days of throwing your AAA online shooter onto the net with no large-scale testing are long past. A public beta is like breaking up with your horrible long-term boyfriend/girlfriend. You dread it, and it hurts while it's happening, but everyone will be better off when it's over. Suck it up, Epic. Your fans can help.

Community is the latest buzz word in publisher circles. Usually it means hiring someone to moderate forums and give away t-shirts at Comic-Con. That's a finger in the dike, nothing more. Head over to Bungie.net sometime and compare it to the official Gears of War community site. As of this writing, the latest post on Bnet was 34 minutes ago. The last post on the Gears of War Community Blog was August, 2009. Community doesn't end when your last piece of DLC ships.

Sure, there are plenty of people who play Halo just for the storyline. But the series' online multiplayer mode is the reason Halo is a household name. Bungie created a gaming phenomenon by giving people an easy-to-use system that (generally speaking) works every time. Halo's matchmaking takes the complexity of online gaming out of the player's equation and makes it pushbutton simple.

We're not saying Gears of War's multiplayer experience should exactly mirror Halo's – far from it. Epic might find that Gears fans don't want Halo's matchmaking system. In fact, the original Gears of War's tacked-on multiplayer mode more closely resembled an older PC shooter's browsable server system, closer to Epic's heart than online matchmaking. Gears online players were always more concerned about glitching, cheating and host advantage than the lack of lobbies and playlists. Maybe Epic should chase dedicated servers and player choice rather than matchmaking. But that's something only the community and Epic can decide together.

Hey, remember up above when we were talking about public betas? Oh man, that was awesome. Seriously, there needs to be a public multiplayer beta for Gears of War 3. Find out what the fans really want. Go beyond the message boards and get your hands dirty. Then figure out what's next.

On the surface, both Halo and Gears of War seem to be about nothing more than space marines. They both star bulky soldiers who don't say much and face seemingly insurmountable odds. But Halo digs deeper than Gears, despite the latter's focus on what lies beneath the surface of the planet Sera. The Halo universe is alive. Its creators' obsession with expanding the Halo fiction is legendary. They build it because they love it. They can't help themselves. Epic has always seemed to treat Gears of War's fiction as a stranger in the room.

This will only go so far.
For Gears of War 2, Epic called in comics writer Josh Ortega to take the series' storytelling to the next level. The result was a base coat of paint on a blank canvas. It's going to take more than a Braveheart-esque speech by Chairman Prescott and Dom swearing through his grief to push Gears into new narrative territory. Epic and Microsoft have tried to solve Gears' storytelling problem by issuing comics and novels to build out the universe. It's a good start, but so far it's failed to have the impact that a similar approach has had for Halo. That's because Halo was larger than life before a single book was written.

Halo is about a lot of things. Yes, it's about shooting aliens. But it's also about people struggling to survive against overwhelming odds. It's about what it means to be human. It's about technology, class, religion and what happens when those things intermingle. Gears of War is about grunts fighting bugs.

Gears needs a compelling back story. It needs a population. It needs direction and detail. Who made all these towering buildings of lattice and spire? Why is Sera worth saving? Is there a relationship between Anya and Marcus or not? Two games in, we still don't know who the Locust are and why we should fight them. Halo explained an enemy and introduced another by the middle of its first installment. In Gears of War, nothing of substance seems to be at stake. That needs to change. And it needs to happen in-game, not in supplementary comics.

The biggest challenge in breathing life to the Gears of War universe is not building the back story, although that will take a deft touch. If Microsoft truly wants Gears to loom large in the minds of gamers, it will need to carefully walk the fine line between giving fans new information and teasing them with mystery.

Not gonna cut it.
With its alternate reality games (I Love Bees), internet breadcrumb trails (the Cortana letters) and in-game hints (Halo 3's terminals), Bungie constantly keeps the Halo community guessing. It's yet another way Halo's fans are encouraged to interact with the universe on an ongoing basis. Bleszinski chain sawing his way onstage at the 2008 Game Developers Conference was hardly subtle. And that's OK. Epic is not Bungie, and it has its own approach. But it should embrace its over-the-top ethic and use it to excite the community. How about a stunt where a Raven fake-crashes in the Arizona desert? Let fans find it and blog about it. Start mailing COG tags to random hardcore fans with no explanation. Whatever it takes to make Gears seem like more than lines of code.

This approach should carry over into the games themselves. In Gears of War 1 & 2, Marcus and Dom are meat puppets. The comical Carmine brothers are far more compelling characters, and they were thrown in as a recurring gag. There is endless room for secrets, lies and feints in a science fiction series like Gears of War. Epic should follow Bungie's lead and take Gears fans in unexpected directions.

Storyline and multiplayer aren't what drew gamers to Gears of War, but beefing them up significantly could go a long way toward making them stay. Just as important, though, is the series' core gameplay. Dubbed stop-and-pop by people who dub things, Gears' combat felt like controlled chaos. Its hallmark moments were large-scale courtyard battles in which enemies would flank your squad and rush in for the kill.

In Gears of War 2, that approach returned, but it was diluted in favor of large set-piece segments that altered the pace of the experience and took the series into new territory. Driving tanks, riding on drill rigs and piloting enemy creatures replaced on-the-ground combat and left the game feeling somehow bloated and thin at all at once.

Gears of War is about boots on the ground. It's about soldiers in the trenches fighting their way to the enemy, finding that enemy to be overwhelmingly strong and then powering through to defeat that enemy in the face of incredible odds. Do gamers really want Marcus Fenix to fly around on a Reaver or find himself stuck behind the controls of a lumbering Brumak?

When we touched on this subject two years ago, IGN Executive Editor Erik Brudvig compared Gears of War to a Michael Bay blockbuster – a pretty thrill ride that's fun while it lasts but lacks gravitas. Rather than retreat from that format, Gears of War 2 dug deeper, further emphasizing spectacle over substance.

If Gears of War 3 continues on the same path, it will be successful. But it will not move Microsoft and Epic any closer to turning the series into a world-class entertainment property like Halo has become (imagine a collection of Japanese anime studios doing short treatments of the Gears of War universe).

Epic and Microsoft have been quiet about Gears of War 3 so far. And that's a good thing. Hopefully that means they're sitting back and reevaluating the series. We're big fans of Epic and Gears, and we're looking forward to seeing what's next. And if the next installment is just more of the same, that's fine too.

But we're reserving our true excitement for the possibility that the next Gears of War shocks us more than Emergence Day.


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