Q&A: We speak with The Coalition's Colin Penty about the big changes with Gears 5.
Microsoft's next big game, Gears 5, is out now on Xbox One and PC. Following 2016's Gears of War 4, it is developer The Coalition's second brand-new Gears of War game since studio owner Microsoft bought the franchise in 2014 from Fortnite developer Epic Games. To get a closer look and deeper insight into the game and the franchise in general, GameSpot spoke with studio technical art director Colin Penty.
He spoke about a number of different topics, including the thinking behind Gears 5's noticeably brighter colour scheme, the technical challenges of creating the most expansive and sprawling levels the Gears franchise has ever seen, and how The Coalition is now hitting its stride and gaining the confidence to take risks and try new things with the franchise following its run at Epic Games.
Penty also told us about how Gears 5 will perform on the OG Xbox One and Xbox One S, stating that its campaign will run at 30fps on the older machine just like Gears of War 4. That being said, Penty said The Coalition applied some technical wizardry to get more juice out of the older hardware through temporal upscaling. Additionally, the studio was able to achieve the smooth 60fps frame rate for all of the game's multiplayer modes--Versus, Horde, and Escape--on the older Xbox hardware, which is something Penty said he is proud of.
On Xbox One X, Gears 5 runs at 4k/60fps across campaign and all multiplayer modes. Penty said the team refused to compromise as it did with Gears of War 4. "We put a line in the sand early on in development of Gears 5 that we wanted the campaign to be 60fps on Xbox One X," he said. "We didn’t want to have a compromise like Gears of War 4 where you had to choose 1080p/60fps or 4k/30fps. It was a large amount of work across a lot of disciplines to pull it off, but I really think it was worth it and is probably the best example of harnessing the additional power of the Xbox One X."
Also on the subject of hardware, Penty said he is "definitely super excited" about the forthcoming release of Microsoft's next-generation console, Project Scarlett, in Holiday 2020. "We don’t have anything to announce right now in terms of Gears with the new hardware--but I’m definitely super excited about what the new hardware could do. Having dedicated raytracing hardware is huge," he said.
You can read the full interview below.
Gears 5 is available now on Xbox One and PC. You can buy the game outright or subscribe to Xbox Game Pass to get it at no extra cost. GameSpot's Gears 5 review in progress currently scores the game a 7/10.
This story has been updated to more accurately reflect Penty's comments on dedicated raytracing hardware.
After playing some of Gears 5 I was immediately struck by the brighter colours, especially in the snow and the red sand. The Gears series is known for dark and grimy scenes, so can you talk about the art direction for Gears 5 and what you wanted to achieve? Was it a purposeful change to introduce brighter, more colourful environments?
Looking back, Gears of War 4 was a game that dominantly took place at night as that fit the tone better. While being still quite a colourful game it was also quite dark as a result. With Gears 5 we were excited to have gameplay levels that mostly took place during the day and that was definitely a deliberate decision. Having the majority of the game set during the day makes the game feel much brighter and compared to Gears 4 allows a lot of the vibrant colours to come through as a result. We also improved the HDR output tremendously from Gears of War 4 so the vibrancy of the image in HDR is amazing.
With Gears 5, you're multiple entries into a franchise people know very well and have strong feelings toward. What were some of the challenges of staying true to the heart of the series as it relates to the art direction, but also pushing things forward and trying new approaches?
This is something our art director Aryan Hanbeck could probably answer better than myself. I will say that after shipping Gears: Ultimate Edition and also Gears of War 4 the Coalition art team has a pretty good feeling of when something “looks” like it belongs in the Gears universe or if it doesn’t. I think this frees us up to experiment with more confidence in Gears 5 and know that we will be able to keep the look authentic to Gears ultimately.
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Moving on the subject of technology, Gears 5 is releasing about six years into the Xbox One's life cycle. What kind of experience can people expect on the OG Xbox One hardware?
For the Xbox One and Xbox One S we were able to squeeze a bit more performance and quality out of the older hardware. Our campaign on Xbox One is running at 30fps just like Gears of War 4, but we were able to improve the image quality substantially in Gears 5 by using Temporal Upscaling – this way we always render at 1080p having a much sharper image, and only scale the “internal” resolution if needed for GPU performance. We also pushed to get Horde and Escape mode running at 60fps on Xbox One for Gears 5 so that way all of our MP modes are a consistent 60fps on Xbox One. I think gamers will appreciate that.
For Xbox One X, what kinds of things have you done under the hood to take advantage of the increased horsepower and speed of the console?
We put a line in the sand early on in development of Gears 5 that we wanted the campaign to be 60fps on Xbox One X. We didn’t want to have a compromise like Gears of War 4 where you had to choose 1080p/60fps or 4k/30fps. It was a large amount of work across a lot of disciplines to pull it off, but I really think it was worth it and is probably the best example of harnessing the additional power of the Xbox One X.
For multiplayer on Xbox One X we were able to introduce additional rendering features since we are running the same frame rate as Xbox One. We have screen space reflections and higher quality ambient occlusion as result.
Our cinematics also have much higher quality reflections, lens flares, depth of field, and motion blur on the Xbox One X compared to the original Xbox One and Xbox One S.
Gears of War 4 was released in 2016, and in terms of technology, that's a long time. So what's an example of something we'll see in Gears 5 that maybe wasn't possible technically last time around?
Being able to achieve more with technology is probably 50% the technology itself and 50% the teams ability to execute using that technology. So I think with Gears 5 certain things would fall into one or the other category. Something like Temporal Upscaling was technology that just didn’t really exist in a useable state in 2016. On the other hard large overworld levels in Gears 5 we wouldn’t have been able to pull off in Gears 4 from a technical stand point--partly because our team wasn’t quite ready to take something that complex on, and partly because some of the technology wasn’t quite ready yet. For example having dynamic shadows that can be seen for kilometers in the distance wasn’t something we were capable of in 2016 technologically while maintaining performance.
"We had to deal with a lot of technical challenges due to the larger worlds. Issues that were just minor annoyances in our linear levels became massive problem for our larger levels" -- Colin Penty
Something else that I’m really proud of is the investment from our team in character materials, models, and facial animation systems in Gears 5. We created a dynamic iris caustic system that simulates light bouncing around the iris, as well as implemented proper sub-surface scattering on the eye and many other improvements. We cleaned up our facial wrinkle maps and blood flow tech to really make it sing with our skin material and facial animation. All of these improvements were mostly things we learned while finishing Gears of War 4 that we wouldn’t have been able to properly do without that experience doing 2016’s game.
One final example I can think of is our tessellation and cone step mapping technology – both of these weren’t really possible to a high level of quality--at least for us--in 2016. Employing these on Gears 5 allowed our materials to have a lot more depth and allowed us to do some pretty incredible snow and sand deformation around the players feet and from the skiff.
One of the most striking parts about Gears 5, at least in the amount I've played thus far, is that the levels are far bigger and more expansive. What were some of the technical challenges related to taking this approach? And on the other side, what opportunities does this present?
We had to deal with a lot of technical challenges due to the larger worlds. Issues that were just minor annoyances in our linear levels became massive problem for our larger levels such as streaming, memory, 60fps performance, snow and sand deformation, and visual pop-in. Opportunistically I actually think it forced us to make systems that were more scalable and robust than anything we would have normally built--thus helping us on our linear levels, split screen modes, and other SKU’s such as PC that could harness these new scalable systems.
The ambition of Gears 5 is immediately noticeable with its massive levels and more open-ended structure. What had to happen under the hood, technically, to allow this to happen?
We had to learn how to stream our game in a different way – we ended up splitting our streaming sections in the overworld levels into granular sub-components like “large, medium, small” so we could stream areas in at different speeds. We also had to get familiar with Unreal’s landscape system and train our art and design teams on how to get the most out of that system – then had to augment it a lot with some of Epic’s latest Unreal Engine work as well as some modifications of our own.
We abandoned baked shadows and go to a fully real-time shadowing system as we couldn’t afford to store kilometers of shadow map data on disk or in memory. Our shadows in the distance are real-time ray-traced. We focused on writing a sand and snow deformation system that did a proper displacement on the sand and snow when the player foot pressed into the ground.
"I’m definitely super excited about what the new hardware could do. Having dedicated ray tracing hardware is huge." -- Colin Penty
We made the system persistent so the trails would stay for a long, long time. Finally, we wrote a paintable volume fog system that allowed the artists to paint fog in the world wherever they wanted it – this gives the overworlds a great sense of atmosphere while maintaining 60fps on Xbox One X.
A new Xbox, Scarlett, is coming in about a year. I've read that The Coalition plans to support Gears 5 for a very long time after release. I know you can't talk about unreleased hardware, but at a high level, what are your thoughts on even more increased power with the new console in terms of what it will allow you to do technically, but also creatively?
We don’t have anything to announce right now in terms of Gears with the new hardware--but I’m definitely super excited about what the new hardware could do. Having dedicated ray tracing hardware is huge.
On the multiplayer side, what are some of the technical innovations you're implementing to make Gears 5 a top-notch multiplayer experience?
I’m probably most proud of being able to achieve 60fps on Xbox One and Xbox One X for Versus, Escape, and Horde. It really helps with playability and consistency. We also brought a lot of our campaign tech into our multiplayer maps--for example we use volume fog in some of our MP levels and some levels also use cone step mapping. Our MP levels always output at 1080p due to temporal upscaling and all outdoor MP levels use shadow cascades for dynamic crisp shadows, which is a big step up from Gears of War 4’s soft baked shadow maps.
With Gears 5, this is now The Coalition's second brand-new Gears game after taking over the franchise from Epic. Do you feel you're now hitting your stride and blazing your own trail?
I feel like we have more confidence with the franchise now and are more comfortable taking risks. I’m really happy with how we were able to add new gameplay elements like Jack and the overworlds and not break the core loop of what makes Gears feel like Gears.
I understand you're also able to talk about the development of new and existing characters in Gears 5, so at a high level can you talk about Kait and her trajectory in this game?
Gears 5 is all about Kait’s journey and her discovering what is the nature of her connection to the swarm. I don’t want to spoil anything!
From what I've played so far, the relationships between the characters--old and new--are more nuanced and dynamic than ever. Can you talk about the kind of story you wanted to tell in Gears 5 and how you go about balancing and pacing a story with so many different characters and interwoven storylines?
Gears 5 is all about Kait’s story, but of course we also wanted to develop and flesh out the other characters as well. To get the pacing of the story correct it’s a lot of collaboration between Rod Ferguson our creative director, Matt Searcy our Campaign Director, Bonnie Jean Mah our Narrative Director, and Tom Bissell our writer to get the story and pacing correct throughout the campaign. It’s a delicate art!