Gears 5 team talks ‘Versus,’ cross-play challenges, and accessibility

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Microsoft soon debuts its next Gears of War installment, elevating the fierce Lancer-revving shooter series to its best form yet. Gears 5 packs a story campaign accompanied by a brimming multiplayer sandbox, refreshing all aspects of its online play.

Related: In Gears 5, an evolved formula brings home a big win for Xbox

Tending to Gears 5’s competitive arenas and cooperative modes, the latest rendition strives to welcome newcomers, while raising the stakes for veterans. The result is a rich multiplayer package for Xbox One shooter fans this fall. We sat down with two brains behind multiplayer, Ryan Cleven and Otto Ottosson of The Coalition, discussing what Gears 5 looks to deliver for online play.

Save on Gears 5

Gears 5 for Xbox One

Gear up for a wild ride.

Gears 5 raises the stakes with Microsoft’s latest evolution of the brutal shooter series. Amazon is currently offering the game at the cheapest price we’ve found, just $50. The game is expected to be released on September 10, 2019, while the $80 Ultimate Edition grants four-day early access.

Evolving Versus multiplayer

Windows Central Senior Xbox Editor, Jez Corden: I’m someone who has been a fan since the original Gears of War, but never a Versus mode fan, given it’s so different from first-person shooters like Battlefield and Call of Duty. I found Arcade mode to be a lot more friendly as a newcomer. What tweaks are present in Arcade that aren’t in core modes?

Ryan Cleven, Multiplayer Design Director: The biggest difference in Arcade is obviously that people will pick different characters to play and those characters have different load-outs. And one of the biggest side effects of that is that people don’t all start with the Lancer and Nasher. And that means that there’s a lot more combinations of weapons that you’ll see, rather than just short-range fights and long-range fights.

[…] The second thing is the mode itself, being a respawn mode, where it’s 50 points to win instead of eliminating the other team. [It] means you’re always spawning and never get killed out. But because we’re respawning you near your own team, that doesn’t really exist in some of the other modes, they’re always using the regular spawns or King of the Hill spawns. Between the weapons and respawns, there’s always this rolling combat that happens. And that combined with the fact that each character has a perk, and a particular ability means that no team is usually able to get a lock on the other team.

Otto Ottosson, Lead Multiplayer Producer and Accessibility Lead: With eliminations being tracked now and giving you progress rather than kills, when you participate in the kill, it feels like you got the kill. You get all the rewards for it. You get that skull progression to upgrade a weapon. You get celebrated on-screen. [You] feel like you’re much more part of the action, just by participating at all, right? You just have to get a few bullets in. You don’t have to be that hero that runs in front and tries to take out the players that might have played Gears for longer.

I think also, the fact that there aren’t weapons on the ground, and you get the weapons through your own progression. If you’ve played Versus in Gears for a long time, you understand that these power weapons are placed in certain locations and that they come on cooldown. They know to charge those areas and dominate them and those players will always have the power weapons. Where now, every player gets to explore the weapon path that they want.

How does that weapon path work? Is it like, you start off with a pistol, and then progress up to a Boomshot?

Ryan Cleven: No, there is a progression from less power to greater power, but everybody starts out with roughly a basic weapon that’s a Lancer or a Hammerburst, something in that territory. And then each character will have a theme that we’re building around either their ability plus the weapon picks that they get. And because it’s not a permanent upgrade, it’s temporary, it means that we can give them more powerful weapons. We have one character that’s all about heavy weapons, so all they have access to is a buzzkill, a salvo, and a mulcher. Even though they’re all really powerful weapons, that cost a few more skulls, and it means that their abilities are focused on them having those weapons. It isn’t just pistol to Boomshot every time, the characters all have their own paths to it. Like Otto was saying, if you want to try out heavy weapons, just take the guy with heavy weapons, and you’re playing with a whole bunch of them. As opposed to being the one guy to run over and pick up the one off the mount.

Otto Ottosson: And over time, you might find a role that suits your play style, right? Because you can take one that gets precision weapons or heavy weapons. You might get more comfortable with one of those as you start playing, but often you have to also change tactics. If there is a really good close-quarters enemy team, you sometimes want to switch to long-range precision weapons, so you can take them out before they get close. That also has an impact on how the battle story evolves over the period of the match.

Ryan Cleven: [There are] two tiny mechanics tweaks layered on top of all these, we have something called a slide-cancel cooldown timer, which whenever you initiate a slide, and then you cancel, which is what players used to wall bounce, we actually have a little cooldown on it that says they can’t do it again, for a short period of time, about 500 milliseconds. And that means that they can’t bounce as much. They can still slide around, but they can’t vibrate like you might have seen some people do. The other is that every ballistic weapon will pop the head of somebody, as opposed to downing them, which means that the game gets a little bit more lethal overall. So even when you’re using a Lancer, if you manage to get a headshot as the last thing that would kill them, then their head explodes in a really satisfying ‘gotcha’ of gore.

Is it your hope that arcade will on shift people over to Gears 5’s core modes? And will you support both equally?

Ryan Cleven: We see these three pillars of Arcade, Core, and our competitive Escalation. And if a person spans them all, or is happy playing one, we’re just happy to have them playing the game. That being said, if they haven’t played Gears before, Arcade is definitely a better intro to the whole thing. So once they’ve played it, we hope they at least experiment with some of the other modes. But it’s okay from our point of view, if they fully just stay inside Arcade, we will be adding more characters over time, with new abilities and new upgrade trees.

Otto Ottosson: I’m excited because now that we’re on Game Pass on day one, there is going to be an influx of players that might not have paid the full price for it, they’re going to come in. And if they end up gravitating more towards arcade or more towards core, it doesn’t really matter. If they like one mode or one way of playing over the other, I think this is a good thing, right? It creates a bigger ecosystem for our players.

You spoke about character classes and focusing on heavy weapons. Are we going to see the game go full-blown Overwatch, allowing players to fly around and heal as Jack? How deep does that go?

Ryan Cleven: I mean, it’s not off the table. I don’t like using another game to define our game so much. But to say that we could have Jack as a playable character inside Versus, I think we could. It’s going to take a lot more work to get into a place where he would be perceived as adding value to the team, or that he wouldn’t be crazy overpowered. Because if you play him in Horde, he’s pretty overpowered. It would take some work to get him there but the reason we called it Arcade was to lighten it up a little bit and open the door to things like that.

You’ve got the Terminator in Gears 5 already, alongside characters from Halo: Reach. Could we see more Microsoft franchises appearing in Arcade mode? It feels like you’ve got a little bit more freedom with the tone of the game.

Otto Ottosson: We’re extremely excited to bring the Halo: Reach characters to Gears 5, that they’re playable on all multiplayer modes. And to have the Terminator Dark Fate deal there, where we get to get Sarah Connor and T-800 is awesome, getting these such established characters into our franchise. There’s always a chance there’s something more than that, but for now, those are the only ones that we have.

Mouse and keyboard, tackling accessibility

On the topic of accessibility, I’ve covered the Xbox Adaptive Controller and worked with a chap with brittle bone disease. It really opened my eyes to things I take for granted. One of the things the Xbox community is quite contentious about is the idea of mouse and keyboard versus controller. Mouse-and-keyboard is great for accessibility but for competitive play, has its issues. How are you approaching that?

Ryan Cleven: From a game design point of view, our philosophy, rather than fragmenting the audience into many little sub audiences, we want you to play with the input device that works best for you. We don’t want to take people that use keyboard [and] mouse or controller or the adaptive controller, we don’t want to start segregating people based on their preferred input device. The reason we currently support opt-out cross-play for console to PC, primarily, because we’re still making sure that our PC plays really safely from a hacking point of view. We’ve got significantly improved anti-cheat technology inside Gears 5 over [Gears] 4, but we want to make sure that it’s completely safe before we even consider merging the two. They do play together and they all use the same ranking systems. However, like I said, they can currently opt-out.

The way that we think about controller versus keyboard-and-mouse is that with our skill-based matchmaking, if somebody is outperforming somebody else, they will move up and be playing against a different group of people. If that keyboard and mouse player is truly performing at a high level, they want to play against people that are also playing a really high level. You really shouldn’t have to face a scenario where somebody is so obviously able to perform really well and they’re just destroying you all the time. Let’s say that you’re on a keyboard and mouse, and you’re just not very good at the game. We don’t want to say you have a keyboard mouse, so you should be really good at the game. It’s just who you are. Even if you’re starting your career and just start learning how to play Gears, just because you’re using a different input mechanism, doesn’t make you intrinsically better or worse at the game. We want everybody playing against each other. We have a lot of devices, we’re on Steam, we’re on Windows, we’re on three different consoles. It’s such a rich place that I just can’t see us continually sharding down into such small audiences that all happen to be playing exactly the same devices on exactly the same criteria.

You think that skill-based matchmaking will counter any precision benefits that come to light?

Ryan Cleven: It will put people of like skill against people of like skill. And it’s really good. It will just mean that, if someone is really good with a mouse and keyboard, they can aim really well. But if somebody is really good with a controller, they can wall bounce, and they can move really well. I actually think that there was a recent Fortnite tournament where somebody came [second] using a controller.

I think it’s less of an issue in a game like Gears, where it’s cover-based and has strategic positioning elements. It’s sometimes down to perception and they’ll blame the tools.

Ryan Cleven: Accessibility is a huge part of what we want to do with Gears.

Otto Ottosson: Like Ryan was saying, the skill-based matchmaker will put people of equal skill against each other. But we’ve also done a lot to get Gears 5 to be the most accessible game that we’ve made so far. He talked about the Xbox Adaptive Controller, we have full key rebinding in the game. I’m not sure if you know how the Adaptive Controller works but it’s basically an input device, where you can get different inputs to plug-in. So you can set up any sort of input mechanism that works for your ability and play the game just like you would with a controller or any other device.

Can you use mouse and keyboard on Xbox One too?

Otto Ottosson: Yes.

Expanding the threat of Horde mode

Quickly moving to Horde mode. What was your thought process going from Gears 4 to 5, and what you wanted to change up and enhance?

Ryan Cleven: The biggest piece of feedback we got was that everybody but the engineer felt like their role started to diminish over the course of the game. The high-end strategies ended up becoming a singularity around putting turrets near the spawn. That really wasn’t what we wanted to achieve with making everything movable as we did before. We set out to make something that had everybody play a role, all the way through. So we added game progression and hero characters with ultimate abilities, that let people play their role all the way from [wave] 1 to 50. As opposed to the scout eventually just getting out-scaled by the enemy.

Now, as long as they’re playing well, they can keep up. Not completely keep up, but they can do a lot better than they could before. Everybody on the team, we wanted them to feel really relevant. Then the second thing that we added was a territory control game, to really encourage teams to get out of their comfort zone. Just playing in one spot doesn’t win the day anymore. It’s about having a greater degree of map control, as opposed to locking down to one spot.

Can you touch on some of the new construction abilities and fortifications?

Ryan Cleven: The two big ones are the Power Tap, which is on wave 11, 21, 31, 41. After you defeat a boss, a power tap will emerge on top of a geyser. When you capture it, it’s going to give you a regular supply of power. The other economy fortification that we’ve added is the Forge, which is… the dustbin of Horde? You always have all these guns lying around at the end of a wave, now you can pick them up and you can put them in the Forge and it gives you power. Now, because everybody wants power, not just the engineer, every hero will have a reason to hold power. That means everybody’s trying vacuum up as much as they can.

Otto Ottosson: It’s actually a good secondary role for JACK because JACK has this mechanic arm that shoots down and grabs a weapon. So he doesn’t have to sacrifice one of his loadout weapons to pull them and bring them to the Forge. Obviously, anybody can participate, if you drop your own weapon you can just go back and pick it up again. But we often see JACK using that as a secondary role to take weapons to the forge.

Release date

Gears 5 is on track for a September 10 release on Xbox One and Windows PCs, bringing a variety of multiplayer content, alongside its cinematic extension of the Gears of War campaign.

Save on Gears 5

Gears 5 for Xbox One

Gear up for a wild ride.

Gears 5 raises the stakes with Microsoft’s latest evolution of the brutal shooter series. Amazon is currently offering the game at the cheapest price we’ve found, just $50. The game is expected to be released on September 10, 2019, while the $80 Ultimate Edition grants four-day early access.

Preorders remain live, starting as low as $50, while the premium Ultimate Edition unlocks on September 6.

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