The Coalition’s Colin Penty talks Gears 5 and its art

September 8, 2019

With the release of Gears 5 imminent, Rocket Chainsaw had the opportunity to head over and check out the massive Gears Ink launch party held by Xbox in Melbourne, Australia. Amid the sound of chainsaws tearing through Swarm flesh and tattoo needles inking the skin of Gears of War megafans, Andrew had the opportunity to chat to Colin Penty, Technical Art Director on Gears 5, about his experiences working on the game.


Andrew: First of all, thank you for taking the time to talk to me today… let’s jump straight into it! So as Technical Art Director, what were your main responsibilities working on Gears 5?

Colin: Yeah, I think in pre-production of Gears 5 it was like maybe helping the art team figure out what visual leaps we can make over Gears 4, how can we make this look better, how can we improve shaders, and lighting, and materials, and all that. And then as the project goes on and starts becoming a bit more about performance and memory and “Hey, that art that we all built, let’s make sure that’s running on an Xbox!”, and testing on the Xbox. Obviously, with the push to 60FPS on Xbox One X, that was a really important thing for us, so we really had to make sure all of our art hit certain criteria, so we were a little bit less forgiving than, say, Gears 4 with the whole “Hey, artists, the way you built that, that’s just not going to work at 60FPS, you’re going to need to rebuild this thing in a different way.” There wasn’t too much of that, though. So, yeah, I guess that sounds like Good Cop/Bad Cop, a little bit of both.

Andrew: So that was something, with Gears of War 4, that it was considered a pretty incredible technical achievement on both PC and Xbox, what was it like working with Gears 5 making the technological leap with everything as well as increasing the FPS and still trying to maintain that performance across the board?

Colin: Haha, sounds hard, right? Sounds hard. Yeah, it was really hard. But, it was like a thing where we had to really believe, we had to get by with the whole team on the 60FPS thing. If any one group didn’t believe in it, it made it really hard, and so to make people believe in it you have to kind of tell the artists, “Hey, it’s not gonna look worse, it’s actually gonna look better.” And that was sort of like my messaging for about a year and a half in the middle of the project. It was just like, “Artists, don’t worry, I know that 60FPS is scary, but we’re actually gonna make it look better!” And they were like, “We don’t believe you!” and we were like, “No, it’s gonna look better!”. So I think we did make it look a lot better in Gears 5. And so that was hard to pull off, but I’m really happy with the results. Does that answer your question? I’ve forgotten your question. Laughter

Andrew: So at the moment I’m halfway through Act 3, I think, and something that I’ve noticed is that the game employs a lot more open space than the series has in the past. What was it like adapting to that style from the linear style of the past?

Colin: That was a huge challenge and learning experience for our team. It kind of started off with design and having to figure out, and to be honest this was probably the hardest part, was how do you design an open-world area? Because it’s not an open-world game, per se, but it’s like a large environment. How do you design an environment like that and make it fun, still, and make sure you’re not just on the skiff for 10 minutes and just going from point A to point B, because that’s not fun. And so, we made sure the skiff handles properly and make sure there’s enough to do out there, and so we kind of had to let design churn on that for a while. And once that was nailed down, then it was for the technical and artistic challenges of getting that to all look beautiful, and to not look out of place, compared to the linear levels, right? You want to maintain the same visual quality bar that the linear levels have. How do you do that when it’s fifty times bigger than one of those levels? So we had to do a lot of tricks, like we couldn’t rely on baked shadows anymore, we had to go to all real-time shadows because we just couldn’t afford all the memory it would take to store those shadow maps. So we had to make a lot of fundamental technical decisions, and then of course getting all of those elements running at 60FPS was also it’s own challenge, fitting it into memory.

Andrew: Memory always, always seems to be the killer.

Colin: Yeah, memory’s not a problem at all, until you’re out of it – and then it’s panic mode. Whereas, performance is just sort of a constant threat, but it’s never panic mode on performance – or rarely panic mode on performance, whereas with memory you can hit panic mode very quickly.

Andrew: With that, then, assuming you had unlimited processing power and no worries at all around technical performance, what is something that you would have loved to implement that you weren’t able to?

Colin: Whoa, that’s a good question. Um, so the whole time, you know, just to step back… Gears 5, we made it a very scalable game, visually, a lot more I would say than Gears 4. In terms of a lot of the lighting and shaders and shadows, and so we first wanted to make it scalable so that the PC ultraspec would look amazing, right? So I think that was a success in terms of we made it so that the PC ultraspec is really leaps and bounds better than Gears 4. So I was happy with that, where we got to on there, so that was already quite a bit faster than Xbox. But beyond that, something that I really would have loved to do… To make the Xbox run at 60FPS on Xbox One X, we were constantly having certain rooms where we might turn off the visual features because we thought, “This room is very dry, you won’t see a lot of reflections here. We’ll probably turn off screen space reflections in this room to get the performance back.” And so we’re always turning stuff off, and hoping the player never notices… but yeah, I think that something I would add if I had something faster than an ultraspec PC, I would probably just add a level of density to the overworld, it’s just, like… pebbles everywhere, and grass blades that are just super thick, and some of that stuff is harder to do.

Andrew: I mean, I can talk from experience so far, I haven’t noticed anything turning off when I’m going into spaces, so it’s definitely working!

Colin: Then I’ve done my job correctly! There’s a lot of balancing, there’s a lot more of that than players realise.

Andrew: Playing a lot of games in the past, I’ve definitely seen some games where I’ve walked into enclosed areas and suddenly had my framerate tank, on PC and console, and that’s never a fun experience!

Colin: Or conversely, on some games where you go into a room and you’ll see a big blip, like you’ll see the fog change or something… we’re trying to not have any of that in Gears 5, we’re trying to have a cohesive visual experience the whole time.

Andrew: So the environmental art direction in Gears 5, something I’ve noticed is that it’s a lot more varied than some other games in the past – a lot more colour (not to say that Gears 4 wasn’t colourful), there’s a lot more variation in the environment and how it works. Was designing styles and locations in that way a focus during development?

Colin: Yes. We definitely wanted Gears 5 to feel like a journey, and one way to reflect that was not just the characters changing as the game went on, but also to have the environments changing and to go from the jungle, to the ice, to the sand and beyond… that was something we decided consciously to do early on. I don’t think we fully realised the content creation impact of changing the environments that much. That’s a lot of effort to build so much variation into the assets, “Here’s the sand version, here’s the snow version, here’s the regular wet version of that asset.” So we did spend a lot of time on the content management, but yes, that was a decision we made early on and I’m really happy we stuck with that to create that arc and that visual journey. And I think every other game that came before Gears 5 was kind of like 24-hour period. There wasn’t any ‘months later’, and so in Gears 5  there are those kind of passages of time, and we also needed ways to show that time had passed, and that was another way to do that.

Andrew: It’s definitely good breaking away from the Xbox 360 Unreal Engine 3 ‘everything is mud brown’ view that people had at the time.

Colin: Yeah, like the Greys of War. Rod’s (The Coalition Studio Head Rod Fergusson) like “We can’t have Greys of War.” So we really wanted to add that 110% and shout out to Aryan Hanbeck, our art director who did an amazing job working with the concept team to really create awesome variety and colours that pop, but not like psychedelic colours, like a good strong colour palette.

Andrew: And so something you mentioned, and somewhat personally speaking, I feel that the characters of Gears 5 are probably one of the most important aspects of the game, as well as one of the best signs of progression watching them literally visually grow and change as the game progresses. How do you develop the artistic vision to support and visualise that growth and progression?

Colin: So how do we develop the progression of the characters as they go through? Yeah, there’s a whole… It starts with the writers kind of like they write the story and work with Matthew Searcy the campaign director, and kind of figure out, what’s Act 1 about, what’s Act 2 about, what’s happening to Kait in Act 3 and things like that. And so when that’s laid that, that’s when Aryan and the concept art team will start to get involved and kind of begin drawing up concepts of this is what JD might look like in Act 2 and things like that. It’s sort of this, very much an iterative loop and Aryan would have these sort of character sheets that he’d print out or have on screen where you’d have all the different incarnations of JD and he’d kind of look back on it and say, ‘Hey Colin, what do you think about this. Does he look cohesive, but different in a way? Like, does it look like a journey’s occurring?” And so, there was a lot of that to just make it look believable for the characters still and you know, there’s a lot of time spent on like even adjusting where the screws are on the Cog armour and making sure it feels functional, but also aesthetically pleasing.

Andrew: Continuing with that, and one a little tangent, given Dave Bautista has just been announced to be coming to the multiplayer side of Gears 5, are there any celebrities you’d personally love to bring into the universe?

Colin: Does it have to be celebrities?

Andrew: I mean, why not just anybody you want?

Colin: I’ll cheat a little bit. So, my answer before, I should stick to the same answer, is I think it’s really cool we have Halo characters in the game for the first time, so we have Cat and Emile are there and they’re super awesome. They’re more than just a character skin, they have their ultimate abilities and their key parts. So, I think that’s awesome, obviously it would be awesome to have someone like master Chief in a gears of War game, but just having Cat and Emile is amazing to me. And obviously the Terminator as well. So, that’s my answer, Master Chief.

Andrew: So a few years ago now, just before Gears of War 4 released, I had the opportunity to interview Chuck Osieja (Gears of War 4’s Creative Director), and something he spoke about was The Coalition’s goal to create a game that you could tell was a Gears game before you began changing the formula. Do you believe that’s something you’ve done with Gears 5? Changed the formula and brought something new?

Colin: Yeah, I feel like that’s something we’ve done with Gears 5. We’ve brought new elements to the game but not wrecked what Gears is, and I think I’ve got that validation in the last 24 hours with the reviews coming out and everyone’s saying, “Hey, these new elements are great, but it still feels like Gears” and I take that as a good thing. We want it to still feel like gears of war. So yeah, I think we’ve walked that line this time and taken those risks and I think it’s paying off and I’m really happy with the results. So, yeah, I think we’ve accomplished that.

Andrew: Thank you for your time.


Gears 5 releases on PC and Xbox One on 10th September and is available to play right now for Xbox and PC Gamepass Ultimate Subscribers. Stay tuned for our review of Gears 5 in the coming days.