I genuinely did not expect this news today. Microsoft Studios has purchased the rights to the Gears of War franchise from Epic Games. The franchise will continue to be developed at Black Tusk Studios, a new Microsoft internal studio based in Vancouver, BC. In hindsight, the move makes a ton of sense, as Microsoft did the same thing with the Halo franchise: while that series was originally developed by Bungie, when it came time to part ways with that studio, Microsoft move development in-house to 343 Industries.
During E3 2013, a teaser trailer was shown for a stealth action game being developed by Black Tusk. When the studio was founded, studio manager Mike Crump told the Vancouver Sun that Black Tusk was "not working on an existing franchise" and "building something from the ground up." Unfortunately, that game ended up as a "concept piece" according to Microsoft Studios head Phil Spencer.
"The thing we showed at E3 last year, it was something that was done in Unreal and more of a concept piece," Spencer told Polygon. "The studio has really been incubating different ideas over the past six to nine months on what they might work on, but the discussion with Epic obviously didn't start yesterday. We've been in this discussion for a while. The leadership team there has known for a while."
Black Tusk Studios is also getting some help to develop Gears of War: former series producer Rod Fergusson has joined the studio to oversee the franchise. This continues Fergusson's new habit of hopping between studios. He worked at Microsoft for 10 years before moving over to Epic Games to be the executive producer of the first and second Gears of War games. Fergusson was promoted to director of production for Gears 3, but left Epic Games in August 2012 to become Irrational Games' executive vice president of development and help get Bioshock Infinite out the door. He left a year later to become the head of a new 2K Games studio in California, only to turn around 5 months later and return to Microsoft. Why?
"Honestly, because I missed it," Fergusson told Polygon. "As a player, I've never had a better gaming experience than when I was playing Gears with my friends - especially Gears 2 Horde Mode. And as a creator, I was part of the birthing process of this franchise and it made me sad that it wasn't going to move beyond what we had accomplished. Dammit, I want to play the next Gears game right now! What's the old line? 'If you want something done right, do it yourself.' So when the opportunity came, I grabbed it."
The move has Fergusson coming back to Gears of War, Microsoft, and Canada.
"First it's a homecoming on many levels - returning to my Canadian homeland after 15 years, returning to Microsoft where my games career got started and of course coming home to making my favorite franchise of all time - Gears of War," he added. "Second, I was really impressed with the extremely talented team of people at Black Tusk and I'm really looking forward to working with them to move Gears forward. And third, I never really felt that I was done with Gears and so I was really excited to continue what we started. I have a lot of great ideas of how we can grow the franchise."
Gears moving to Microsoft frees up a number of Epic Games' resources, and the engine developer says that it'll be working on new projects. One of those projects is the previously-announced Fortnite, but the rest remain a mystery. I'm personally hoping for a new Unreal Tournament.
"We're very proud of the franchise we built in close partnership with Microsoft over the past decade and are happy that this agreement enables Microsoft to forge ahead with the 'Gears' universe on their industry-leading platforms as Epic concentrates its efforts on new projects," said Epic CEO Tim Sweeney in a statement to Xbox Wire. "Epic remains totally dedicated to supporting Xbox One and is licensing the Unreal Engine 4 technology to Microsoft in support of their future projects."
There's no specific details on the new Gears, but it's probably going to be an Xbox One game powered by Unreal Engine 4. Surprise.