In December of 2015, Microsoft asked Motherboard if we'd like to write a feature about the making of Gears of War 4. We didn't.
Previews and stories about the making of video games are interesting to players who are already dying to play them, but are rarely useful to anyone outside that audience.
Publishers are also protective of how and when information about an upcoming game is rolled out as part of a grand marketing plan, and explaining the nuts and bolts of the development process itself can confuse or counteract that plan.
It's for these reasons that we didn't jump at the opportunity. Instead, we responded to Microsoft's offer by asking if they'd be willing to let us embed with the development team in the final week leading up to certification ("cert"), when Gears of War 4 developer The Coalition submits it for Microsoft's approval. This is the final test of the game before it's shipped to retail, and is usually the least publicized phase in game development. It's stressful, not creative, and the least flattering aspect of the development process. It's also absolutely necessary, and the only way any AAA game is ever shipped. That's what we wanted to see.
We didn't simply want a tour of the studio and a series of interviews with media-trained, senior level staff. We asked if we could be there for as long as we wanted, if we could sit in on meetings, and walk around the studio freely, talking to whomever we wanted, media trained or not.
Microsoft agreed and gave us what they said was "unprecedented access to one of its studios."
We believe that our visit provides a truthful, useful look into AAA game development in 2016, through the perspective of one particular studio.
However, it's worth stating the obvious: A visit to one AAA game developer does not perfectly represent the conditions at every AAA game developer or even every AAA game developer under the Microsoft umbrella.
As the story makes clear, Gears 4 is one of the biggest games Microsoft will release this year and studio head Rod Fergusson is known for running a very tight ship, so it would make sense for Microsoft to lay bare The Coalition. It likely shows the company at its best.
Still, Microsoft kept to its word and the visit took place as promised. Microsoft offered a long list of senior staff at The Coalition for Motherboard to interview, but we were also free to walk around the office with an escort and talk to anyone, which we did. This was one of the most useful aspects of the visit.
In the interest of full disclosure, we'd like to list the instances in which Microsoft pushed back on questions or things we were privy to but the company did not want included in the story:
- AAA game developers use project codenames internally. We learned the project codename for Gears of War 4 and the codename for the project The Coalition shelved in favor of Gears of War 4. As one PR representative at Microsoft and other studios explained it to me, developers don't like it when these codenames leak to the public because they fuel false rumors. Also, publishers don't want to be in a situation where they confirm the codename for a game that's already out, and not another which is still in the early stages of development and may never come out. Microsoft asked that Motherboard not share these codenames and we didn't because they aren't useful information to the reader. They're just cool sounding names like Blue Harvest.
- There was one room in the studio, where The Coalition started working on its next project, where Motherboard was not allowed. This is addressed in the body of the story as well.
- Microsoft originally agreed to let Motherboard attend the rehearsal for its E3 2016 press conference. As news about the new Xbox One model announced at that event started to leak the day before, Microsoft got cold feet and wouldn't let us in, much to our dismay as we flew in a day early specifically for the rehearsal. We were told that this decision came from the highest levels at the company.
Finally, given that such things are common when covering video games, it is also worth noting that Microsoft offered to pay for Motherboard's travel and lodging for the studio visit. We declined the offer.