At the recent Gears Ink event held in Melbourne to celebrate the launch of Gears 5, I had the chance to chat with Technical Art Director Colin Penty. Having worked on Gears since Microsoft acquired the IP in January 2014, Penty has been with the franchise since Ultimate Edition.
Penty tells me he was “one of the first art people to go into Gears 4” which gives him a unique view of the franchise. With Gears 4, Penty and The Coalition “wanted to prove we could make a Gears of War game.
Looking back, he believes that the studio could have taken more risks with Gears 4 but is still proud of the game that was released. And now, with Gears 5, he says the team felt more comfortable.
“We’re like, yeah, let’s take some risks,” he said. “Let’s, do what we think would move the Gears franchise forward.”
It’s a delicate balance, especially for the art teams. Gears of War has a striking and recognisable art-style which Penty says is a challenge all of its own. “How do you make it look ‘Gears’?” Penty asks rhetorically before offering his explanation.
“We have a sort of a checklist of things we go through to kind of make sure that an asset is, as we call it, ‘Gearsified.'”
The term ‘Gearsified’ is a great one and I mention to Penty how that idea is a hard one to put into words. Instead, the unique look of Gears is something you know when you see it.
Penty laughs and explains that the Art Director has put it into words. He says that making something Gearsified means, “things like kind of bulky dimensions, middle trims, kind of crunchy detail.”
When you have dozens of artists and a number of studios working together on a property, you need to be able to know when something looks right. If the art doesn’t look like a Gears asset, then it’s not going to be right for the game.
Gears 5 presented an even greater challenge thanks to the addition of new locations such as a jungle, snowfields and a desert.
“It’s a challenge to have that variety in general in the art. We’ll have the sand working, but then the snow looks bad,” he explained.
“How do you get the snow working and then we’ve got to do a jungle and it’s wet and then, a wind flare hits. Now, what happens?”
Just by adding these new locations into Gears 5, the nature of their visuals compromised the team’s ability to create a ‘Gears Asset.’ Penty explains, “When you put sand and snow on everything, you lose the silhouette a little bit as well. And then sort of starts making it look maybe less like a Gears Asset. And then how do you bring that back? There was a lot that we had to do there to make it all work.”
It’s not just the environments that The Coalition needed to work hard to get right though. Penty told me that a big part of the look of Gears 5 was driven by making the characters visuals match their individual journies.
If you play Gears 5 you can see that the game kind of starts where Gears 4 ended. We initially wanted to almost look the same artistically and then as the game goes on we really wanted this concept of a journey.
People are changing and transforming. JD transforms and Kait goes through changes. We wanted to further reinforce the journey.
When you play Gears 5, you’ll see that Kait and Del’s armour changes throughout. When you’re in the snow they have what Penty calls the “COG Winter Armour.” Later, in the desert, they have sand armour, goggles and a different look.
Penty adds, “When I saw that coming online I’m like, ‘look the armour keeps changing and they keep looking different as the game goes on.’ That definitely was there to really just give the sense of a journey.”
From a technical standpoint, Gears 5 is a beast. Penty tells me that there is twice as much detail in the characters. “We doubled the number of triangles,” he tells me proudly.
The Colation also added all-new shaders to the skin, eyes and hair of the characters to make them more believable, more real and more ‘Gearsified.’
In this way, The Coalition was able to make the difference between cinematic and in-game character models as small as possible.
As we talk about the technical side of things, Penty is in his element and excitedly explains to me the way the teams worked to make the cutscenes and gameplay look the same. “Things like wrinkle maps on the characters, they were all added to the gameplay character faces. So when they’re talking in-game, you can see them look a lot more realistic.
“And we knew that we wanted to have a lot of seamless transitions in Gears 5, so that was part of that as well. We had to have a certain throughput there and make that look organic and it really was a lot easier to do that because of the cinematics being real-time.
“In Gears 5 every cinematic is real-time now. So that really allowed us that flexibility to do those transitions in and out, make it all look a lot more organic.”
Finally, we talked about the snow and sand deformation in Gears 5. If you’ve played, you’ll know that as you explore the open-world areas, your characters leave tracks behind them.
I wanted to know what programming and tech went into creating these tracks. Especially considering how long they remain on the map and how many can appear at the same time.
Penty is quick to give props to Jeff Lester and Chris Wallace who, he says, “spent a lot of time getting our trails looking awesome and persistent.” The trails would fade away after a few seconds in the early stages of development, Penty told me. However, the team looked at it and thought it simply wasn’t good enough.
“We have to do better. And so we scrapped it and rewrote a brand new system that would have the trails be persistent for a very long time,” he said. “You can see them actually go for kilometres. So it’s, it’s amazing what we’re able to store there.”
It’s not just allowing players to create these tracks though. Penty told me how there is a huge amount of tech powering the trails and how much effort went into creating them.
How far do you push down? What happens if you walk everywhere and pushed down to all the sand everywhere and reveal the ground underneath, what does the game look like?
We added a little console commands for game testers that would press down all the sand, flood and press down the snow, so we could see what the game would look like with all everything pushed down.
The Coalition didn’t stop there though. As Penty explains, “Finally we ran a real-time tesselation system. So we’d have a real-time test and I’m automatically creating triangles around the ground.
“That would allow us to press down the footprint, into the sand and have that look like a footprint,” he said adding, “Cause otherwise there’s a lot of triangles there to make it look good. And so we were dynamic and tessellating around our deformation.”
As we wrapped up our interview, I asked Penty what his favourite memory of working on Gears 5 is.
I really fond of the very beginning when we were doing things like testing out new shaders and testing out 60 frames per second. The excitement of like, we might actually be able to do some of this stuff.
And the first time we got our character shaders online, we did a test and we just saw the cinematic quality we can hit.
He added that the bonding moments that came about as parts of the game started to come together were also a highlight. That, and seeing players enjoy the game.
Gears 5 is available now.
Thanks to Colin Penty for his time