Waking up yesterday was an interesting experience as I did my usual thing of rolling over in my bed, grabbing my phone and checking to see how Twitter was doing while I was gone. Turned out some interesting, if not all that surprising news broke as Microsoft announced their acquisition of the Gears of War IP from Epic Games.
It was a move that made total sense, especially considering the mass exodus of development talent from Epic as it seemed to double-down on its roles as an engine maker, Infinity Blade manufacturer, jailer of Shadow Complex, supposed developer of something called "Fortnite", and murderer of People Can Fly. These apparently busy roles left them with no time or interest for their AAA blockbuster shooter franchise. Even though Epic was seemingly ready to drop Gears of War, it was the one new brand for Microsoft that helped cultivate which had any traction last generation, and they'd be fools to let to go, or worse, disappear into the hole it climbed out of.
More importantly, it's a move that I believe could lead to a stabler, if more uninteresting, Microsoft.
The three key franchises for Microsoft before the colossal impact of the Gears of War franchise were Halo, Fable and Forza. Halo and Bungie continued to find life last generation with the fantastic Halo 3 and refreshing Halo 3: ODST. Turn 10 and Forza seemed to be heading for the stars with Forza 3. While Fable saw some great success with Fable 2 as the powerful Peter Molyneux led Lionhead to victory.
Gears of Wars, while not a completely innovative title, was an incredibly influential franchise that signaled a sea-change for the third-person shooter genre. It was a highly successful and great shooter franchise with very pretty graphics, but with a weak universe and nigh impenetrable multiplayer. While I'm not especially fond of the first game, Gears 2 and 3 are really excellent titles where I could cut a monster in half with my chainsaw-mounted gun. That's pretty cool that exists.
Things were looking good for Microsoft with these four very successful franchises circulating around. Then it went really dark, really quickly.
Forza was reinvigorated by its incredible open-world arcade spin-off in Horizon, but Forza 4 was iterative to a fault while the Xbox One launch title Forza 5 was a misfire in more than a few ways. Fable was the worst off with the lackluster reception of Fable 3, the miserable Fable: Heroes and misguided Kinect exclusive Fable: The Journey (not on rails), while the Xbox One online-focused iteration of the franchise, Fable: Legends, seems questionable at best (Not to mention the departure of Peter Molyneux from Lionhead, quite a blow for an outsiders perspective of that studio and its culture.) Gears continued on with the completely unnecessary and unsuccessful Gears of War: Judgment, and with Epic's waning commitment to big-budget console titles, suddenly the continued existence of the franchise went into question.
Thankfully, Halo weathered the storm the best. The passing of the torch from Bungie to newcomer 343 Industries was a very, very risky move, but ultimately proved very, very successful with the awesome Halo 4 and promising looking Halo Xbox One. But with the other key pillars of Microsoft's limited yet previous successful portfolio crumbling, things were looking grim, unfortunately so with the recent launch of the Xbox One. We got a taste of Microsoft trying to broaden out with the announcements of Ryse: Son of Rome, Quantum Break and Sunset Overdrive, but it's hard to imagine any of those being able to recover whatever ground that Microsoft has lost.
How long could Halo prop Microsoft up? The franchise that, in all respects, made the Xbox the viable player in the industry that it is today? We were about to find out.
Until Microsoft pulled out the ol' checkbook and brought Gears of War under its control.
So, yes, the news yesterday was far from a surprise considering the pressure Microsoft was under. Though, deep down in that same announcement was a very interesting little note: Black Tusk was going to be at the sole developer of the Gears of War franchise going forward.
You'd be completely in the right if you read that last sentence and came away with a blank face. Black Tusk aren't really a household name as they haven't put out anything yet. But there's a couple of things important about the fact that they'll be the stewards of the franchise.
First off, Microsoft already had them pegged as developing a new IP that would rival Halo. In fact, at the last E3, Microsoft showed a teaser for an untitled new IP featuring a spy-like man rappelling down a skyscraper, knocking dudes out while fireworks were going off in cityscape behind him. It wasn't much, but you got the sense of how Black Tusk referred to themselves and how Microsoft were all smiles and secrets about them that they meant serious business. While the teaser wasn't that exciting, what it represented and the full story behind it was the most interesting thing about Microsoft Studios going forward into the next generation.
Now it turns out that they're on Gears of War duty for the foreseeable future, with Phil Spencer, Microsoft Studios' corporate vice president, suddenly coming out and saying that thing Black Tusk were doing, that thing we were shown at E3, was more a concept piece than an actual in-development game. Just a little something-something to get the creative juices flowing.
I'm used to Microsoft spouting all sorts of nonsense, but I find this little bit almost impossible to swallow.
You're telling me that a studio, to this day on their very own website, despite having a small Gears of War logo awkwardly positioned on the front page, still have language plastered all over it like: "Do you want to help define Microsoft's next big entertainment franchise?" And current job listings having such descriptions as: "We are looking for a seasoned storyteller who can help us bring Microsoft’s next big IP to life." With all of this, you'd really have me believe that Black Tusk was just doing a whole lot of nothing until Microsoft finalized the Gears of War transaction with Epic? This was a studio that was excited about its position of bringing something new and big to life. It seems like the Gears of War IP was forced upon them, with their baby potentially canceled.
There's some resemblance to this event with the creation of 343 Industries, but with one very clear exception: 343 was built from the ground up as a studio for developing Halo. Black Tusk was not. Microsoft assembled a bunch of really talented people who had a clear love and/or experience with Halo, but the same is not true for Black Tusk. By all accounts, there are a lot of industry veterans at Black Tusk, but not necessarily those who have experience or love of the Gears of War franchise.
It's a depressing consequence of this move which could continue Microsoft's problem of having a small, limited portfolio. It'll be a stabler situation for them if the next Gears of War brings the franchise back to life, and Microsoft starts alternating the Halo and Gears of War franchises which avoids the issue of annual stagnation that we've been experiencing with franchises like Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed. Not to mention a little extra cash could help fund some big new stuff for Microsoft.
But if this does give them a stable ceiling, Microsoft needs to remember that the floor could fall out from under them at a moment's notice, as it almost did with the initial path that the Xbox One was looking to take. Look at Forza, Fable and, even to some extent, Gears of War. What was widely popular and successful one year could completely flop next year. It's probably the most admirable aspect of Sony that makes them a better publisher in my mind than Microsoft. Sony's willing to take risks and throw stuff against the wall to see what sticks. While I'm generally more satisfied with Microsoft-published titles, Sony is a much more interesting and exciting company to follow and support with big and cool stuff like Demon's Souls, Journey, Beyond: Two Souls, Uncharted, The Last of Us, inFamous, and more.
And there's even the question if Gears of War has the weight that Halo does in long-term franchise appeal. Even Microsoft itself has doubts about that. Phil Spencer commented to IGN long before the announcement of the acquisition of the Gears of War license: "I think that franchise [Gears of War] would need to be, not reworked, but you need to think about how to expand the universe and what people are doing -- maybe take it more gritty, I don't know, [...] But you'd want to do something with it because I think it did kind of run its course on 360. ...It doesn't quite have the story arc of a thing like Halo or something, at least the way it's played out in the games, and I think we'd want to pump that up."
The characters, plot lines, overall greater mythology of the Gears of War universe is one that is very much lacking. It actually has a famously good art style with its "destroyed beauty" motif. It's a powerful concept that is present in other games like Dark Souls and such, and something I would imagine would be expand upon further, and tied into the overall thematic elements of the next Gears of War. But no doubt the next game will have to be quite bit different. Marcus' story is over (he took off the damn do-rag, there's nothing left for him to do), and trying to create a more pervasive identity for the Gears of War universe going forward will be quite a challenge.
There's no question that Gears of War is a popular franchise, but the continued validity of it is something that will be interesting to see going forward. The real question is if it's even possible that Microsoft can make Gears as trustworthy a pillar as Halo. Which Microsoft needs, as Halo alone can only keep them standing for so long.
Buying Gears of War was a perfectly reasonable move, and it's a franchise that I really enjoy so that's good too. But if Microsoft wants to stay relevant they need to diversify much, much more. Getting Gears of War under their control is a good move for the short term. But the rumored cancellation of Black Tusk Studios' huge new IP is a bad sign for the long term as it shows a lack of investment in their creative future and forward-thinking financial security.
(1) Yin-Poole, Wesley. "New Dev Black Tusk Studios Working on Microsoft's "next Big Entertainment Franchise"" Eurogamer.net.: http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-11-29-new-dev-black-tusk-studios-working-on-microsofts-next-big-entertainment-franchise
(2) McWhertor, Michael. "Microsoft acquires Gears of War from Epic, hires series producer Rod Fergusson" Polygon.com: http://www.polygon.com/2014/1/27/5345342/gears-of-war-xbox-one-microsoft-epic-games-rod-fergusson
(3) Dyer, Mitch. "Who Is Black Tusk Studios?" IGN.com: http://www.ign.com/articles/2014/01/27/who-is-black-tusk-studios