When we spoke with developers at The Coalition about the creation of Gears Tactics, executive producer Alex Grimbley said their starting point was simply taking existing Gears and moving the camera up.
It’s an arresting quotation because it lays bare just how slim the divide is, in technical terms, between a third-person cover shooter and turn-based tactics – genres that we think of as being very different in how they play. We also had the chance to speak with Cam McRae, technical director on Gears Tactics, and wanted to probe a little deeper on this statement. Was it really that simple?
“Just to get a sense of tactics at the start of development, it literally was ‘just move the camera’, and then put some spaces between the turns,” McRae says. “It was easy to get there, but then it was really challenging to make a good game on top of that. There was a lot more work to make it feel like a tactical game and not an action game.
“One of the challenges you get once you move the camera up is that reading the play space becomes harder, because everything’s further away,” he elaborates. “So understanding what’s a COG unit and what’s a Locust unit, and which locust unit is that, isn’t as easy as it would be in a standard Gears game.” There’s a further complication in that Gears veterans have five games of exposure to this world, so they know what the Locust are supposed to look like, meaning the team “can’t change things too much. We ended up emphasising a bunch of animations and exaggerating them a bit,” to telegraph units more clearly.
McRae’s answer reveals just how much of Gears Tactics is derived from its cover shooter predecessors, right down to unit assets. The starting point was, literally, Gears 5, then?
“Yeah, exactly,” McRae confirms. “And it was a huge benefit to us to be able to take this humongous content library from Gears 5, which also has content from Gears 4, and then back to Gears 3, 2, and even 1. Of course, that content has been upgraded over the years, and converted to high def and 4K and so on. And it meant we had thousands of textures and animations and everything all available to us, so the team could focus on building the tactics game rather than having to remake a bunch of content that we basically already had.”
It explains the much-celebrated fidelity that Gears Tactics shares with the rest of the Gears universe. The environments, the Locust, the COG – it all looks as it does in the other games, because it pretty much is as it is in the other games. And given that the original Gears of War was created by Epic Games, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the series has been built in the company’s Unreal Engine since its inception. It has also been published by Microsoft as one of the Xbox’s third-party exclusives since its first release, so the two companies have been working together closely since at least 2006.
In 2014, Microsoft acquired the rights to Gears of War from Epic, and was free to take the franchise in whatever direction it chose. But with all this history of cooperation, and this huge existing asset library, presumably there was never any question of changing engines for Gears Tactics, despite the change in genre?
“No, never any question of changing engines,” McRae confirms. “We’re very happy with Unreal Engine, and especially the work that Epic does to support it. So even though we have what we call an older version, we’ve been bringing in fixes from current UE4 all along. So as Epic makes changes to the rendering engine, say, or adds things like volumetric fog, we’ll integrate those things over into our version and make sure that it works correctly.”
So there are excellent reasons to stick with Unreal, but it’s perhaps slightly unusual for a company as vast as Microsoft, and one with such a prolific history of software development, to stick with a third-party engine for one of its leading series. After all, many if not most of the biggest game developers in the world have built their own engines. To name but a few: Bethesda, Bungie, CD Projekt Red, id Software (obviously), Konami, Paradox, Rockstar, Ubisoft with both Snowdrop and Anvil, Valve… we could go on and on. Microsoft was never tempted?
McRae is emphatic: “No, no, no. Not at all. The way Xbox works is the studios are responsible for their own decisions in terms of their tech base and what they want to build. If a studio wants to build their own engine, that’s their choice – and they might have good reasons for it, depending on the games they’re trying to make – but if they want to use UE4 or Unity, that’s also their choice. And we encourage all studios to share tech, talk about ideas and the things we’re trying to build, and solve problems together.”
EA famously encouraged its studios to use its proprietary Frostbite engine, no doubt anticipating the economies of scope that would come from sharing a commonly applicable knowledge base across multiple projects. McRae is sceptical of this approach. “There’s absolutely no mandate to try and use one tech base [in Microsoft]. I think it complicates building a game when you force people to use one thing, and it also centralises all of the problems into one team, which you don’t really want to do.”
We venture that it certainly seems like it’s caused more than a few headaches for those who have tried. “Yeah,” McRae agrees. “I’ve previously worked at other studios that did try to do that, and it makes it harder, I think.”
Nonetheless, Gears Tactics must’ve required a number of further modifications to the Gears version of Unreal, given the shift in genre. It surely can’t be as simple as pulling the camera up from Gears 5 – what other changes needed to be made?
“We completely rewrote the AI system for this game,” McRae says. “We didn’t pull anything over from Gears 5 for that, because they’re so different. For Tactics, we built a goal-based AI that can take time to make decisions. It basically forward-simulates the world, makes choices, then backs up and makes better choices. It takes a few seconds to do that.”
The Coalition also needed to make a number of modifications to Unreal to enable Gears Tactics’ procedural levels. “A couple of levels are bespoke, meaning they’re totally authored by the content team, but they’re mostly stitched together at run time,” McRae says. “One of the challenges with UE4 for us, is that it likes to bake a lot of things at build time. So content will build things, and then it’ll go through all of our build machines and will take hours to generate reflections and nice light maps and things like that. And we do all that at run time in the game, so reflections crossing across parcel boundaries, or shadows, or lights, the global animation system is all done at run time. And that was actually quite a challenge in UE4 because none of those systems existed, so we have built all those from scratch.”
This reflects McRae’s biggest piece of advice for aspiring engine developers, which comes when we test another presumption we have: with game engines such as Unreal and Unity on the market, engines that have been refined and developed for years and aim to provide all things to all people, why on Earth would anyone try to build an engine from scratch? Is it a totally stupid idea?
“Oh, I don’t think that’s stupid at all,” McRae says. “Programmers just love to build things, and you never know who’s gonna have just an insane idea. UE4 is a certain style of engine, but there are other engines out there that are really interesting. Oxide Games and Stardock make Ashes of the Singularity, and they have a totally different style of engine that’s actually very cool – it’s entirely job-based, so it doesn’t follow the model that UE4 uses, and it has its own place which is really neat.
“If I were to give advice to somebody, I would say build tools rather than try to build an engine, because there’s a massive appetite for different tools to solve specific content problems which can fit into any engine. But you know, you’re gonna have young programmers out there who just want to build things, and they could definitely go and build an engine, and you never know, it could catch on. That said, UE4 does have hundreds of person-years of effort behind it, so it’s an uphill battle. You’re right that Epic is trying to cover all bases, and they’re doing a good job of it.”
In this sponsored series, we’re looking at how game developers are taking advantage of Unreal Engine 4 to create a new generation of PC games. With thanks to Epic Games, Microsoft, and The Coalition.