After the release of Gears of War 4 on PC, and the stunning 4K HDR update that arrived in time for the release of the Xbox One X console in late 2017, the development team at The Coalition made the bold decision to target 4K 60 frames-per-second for the Gears 5 campaign on the 4K capable Xbox One X. With Microsoft touting performance as one of the focal points for the still mysterious next-generation Xbox Scarlett, this leap in frame-rate is something that provides an immediate visual impact to players. And a potential glimpse into the future.
A benchmark that will no doubt be the cornerstone of future franchise entries (like, say, the inevitable Gears 6) and other first-party efforts like 343’s Halo Infinite.
“It was actually one of the first decisions we made,” Technical Art Director, Colin Penty, at The Coalition tells me. “We grabbed a Gears of War 4 map, Dam, and then did a test. Try to get it running at 60, just to prove that we could do it. And, we got it running at 60.”
The development team at The Coalition made the bold decision to target 4K 60 frames-per-second for the Gears 5 campaign on the 4K capable Xbox One X.
Doubling the frame-rate, on paper at least, one can’t help but think that in order to do so the team at The Coalition would need to make sacrifices. Resulting in a smoother but perhaps less impressive visual experience than Gears of War 4 – with fewer pieces of eye-candy littered about the screen. Subtract from one pile to add to another. A line of thought born from AAA console releases mostly targeting 30 frames-per-second.
“But, you know, 60 wasn't enough,” Colin adds. “We also wanted to also push the visual quality higher as well.” This decision led to the Xbox One X version of Gears 5 taking a priority of sorts, where the various teams met, and the new target of 60 frames-per-second was set. “We couldn't tell them, hey, we're going to do 60 and it's going to look worse to get to 60. I would have had the whole Art Team with pitchforks at my desk if we did that. Any sacrifice we would do, visually, to hit 60, it had to be invisible to the player.”
And it’s this aspect where the full picture comes into view. Gears 5, and its visually stunning campaign, presents windswept snowy environments, moody industrial installations, horrific creatures and giant monsters, and villages and small towns both bustling and in ruin. All this comes from story, concept art, and an ambition to create memorable set pieces. As an industry veteran for 18 years, Colin has worked closely with several art departments and directors and has seen an evolution where technology can make even the most grandiose vision – a reality.
“I find with the technology these days, especially with the power of the Xbox One X, there's not a lot we can’t do if we're smart about it,” Colin explains, adding that optimisation and an understanding of hardware played an important role in not only hitting 60 frames-per-second but also upping the visual spectacle on display. “Optimization of content, I think that equals quality. I always challenge our team to make things faster, but to also look better. And there's a lot of cool tricks you can do on an Xbox or PC to make a game run faster and look better. For Gears 5 we used every single trick we could find and everything we learned from Gears 4. And we learned a lot there.”
"We couldn't tell them, hey, we're going to do 60 and it's going to look worse to get to 60. I would have had the whole Art Team with pitchforks at my desk if we did that."
A response that in many ways explains why late-generation titles tend to look markedly better than launch offerings.
“With Gears of War 4 we had no idea about the Xbox One X or that it even existed,” Colin continues, expanding on the concept of improved visuals in sequels but from the perspective of now having a 4K-capable console to work with. “We weren't thinking about 4k resolutions. And one thing we learned when we did the Gears 4 update for Xbox One X was that you need a lot of like pixel density to really show off that resolution, to really do justice to 4K. Another early decision we made with Gears 5 was that we wanted a thing called detail maps on everything. It's like a high frequency, crunchy detail, throughout all our assets - not just the environments but all the characters too. The scratches on the armour, the pores on JD’s skin, all detail mapped to get that extra crisp look and the higher fidelity to really show off 4k.”
In terms of structure, if you’ve played a Gears of War game in the past then you’re probably aware of its cinematic take on the tactical co-op third-person shooter. Linear progression through a story with a cast of memorable, and overly beefy, characters. Gears 5 shifts thing up a little bit with the introduction of two open and large overworlds. Hubs that lead to regular Gears of War-style missions alongside side activities and exploration. The decision to add large overworlds came after the decision to move to 60 frames-per-second.
Naturally, this added some pressure to The Coalition’s technical efforts.
“The two overworlds were both technically and artistically very challenging,” Colin confirms. “We did a lot near the end of development to make them look more atmospheric. The layer of fog over the ice and some global illumination that we made look a lot higher detail than it really was. All these nice little visual details that were added at the end made the overworlds work. Simultaneously, we had a whole technical art team optimising the world so we hard one team pushing the technical side and one optimising for performance."
“For a little while there, after the overworld decision was made it was up in the air. Like, can we still do 60 frames-per-second with these overworlds?” Colin recalls. “But we basically said, we can do it we can make it happen.”
"The two overworlds were both technically and artistically very challenging, and we did a lot near the end of development to make them look more atmospheric."
By this point, with all the talk about Xbox One X you might we wondering about the base Xbox One console – the less powerful launch edition. Of course, Gears 5 is playable there – and looks great too. “It really helps that the Xbox One X is very similar to the Xbox One,” Colin tells me. “At the end of the day it's a lot faster, but the architecture is almost the same. Because we were targeting 60 frames-per-second on the X, we focused almost all our development time the Xbox One X when it came to the campaign. It was like, if it runs at 60 on an Xbox One X then we know we could probably make it run at 30 on an Xbox One. That was simply seen as an easier job than 60 for the Xbox One X.”
“Not completely though,” Colin adds in relation to the base Xbox One version of Gears 5. “We did have to go in and do changes to some things. We have lots of tricks, not just with the Xbox hardware itself, but with Unreal Engine 4. We worked closely with Epic, using their latest technology and that helped Gears 5 have its own noticeable look.”
The flipside to this comes with Gears 5’s suite of multiplayer offerings – from Horde to Escape to Versus, stuff that was already running at 60 frames-per-second in the Xbox One release of Gears of War 4. This side of development, from a technical perspective, took the opposite approach.
“For multiplayer we were all about Xbox One, at getting these modes to all run at 60 as the sort of baseline,” Colin explains. “We're always looking at the lowest common denominator, and to really focus on that. By the time we got the multiplayer on Xbox One X that was fun for us because it was already running at 60 frames-per-second. Let's do stuff like turn on screen-space reflections and higher quality ambient occlusion.”
This in turn leads us to the final piece in the Gears 5 hardware puzzle, the PC – with Gears 5 playable as part of Xbox Game Pass or as a standalone release on Steam. “Having the Xbox One as our baseline kind of guarantees that a decent PC would probably run the game quite well,” Colin concludes. But is quick to remind us that a new generation of console hardware is on the horizon. “If the day ever comes where the Xbox One is no longer the baseline, well, then PC gamers are going to have to start upgrading their systems.”
Thanks to Colin Penty for his time and to the Xbox ANZ team for arranging this interview.