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Microsoft buys 'Gears of War' franchise, Vancouver studio made lead developer

Gears of War (2006): If there’s a franchise that’s synonymous with the Xbox 360, it’s Gears of War, the over-the-top sci-fi shooter that made “chain-sawing grubs” a household phrase (at least to gamers). Just as the original Halo showcased the graphics and computational ability of the first Xbox, so too did the first Gears exemplify the kind of power that Microsoft brought to bear with its then-next-generation console. Most critics agreed that it was the best-looking game on the 360 at the time, and it continued to push that bar with subsequent sequels.

Developer: Epic Games

Gears of War now belongs to Microsoft, the company has announced. In an interview on Friday, Jan. 24, Microsoft Studios head Phil Spencer said the deal to acquire the grim and gritty shooter from creator Epic Games was made in order to have "complete freedom to move the franchise forward."

Spencer wouldn't disclose financial terms, but said Microsoft is getting all previously-released games, all trademarks and all assets.

The Gears franchise includes four games and has been an Xbox exclusive since it's debut in 2006. Spencer said 22 million units of the first-person shooters have been sold, earning Epic over a billion dollars in revenue to this point.

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Epic, which created the first three games and co-produced the fourth, didn't have an immediate plan for a new Gears game, Spencer said, which helped spur discussions. "We're at a really important and exciting time in our Xbox evolution," he added.

Vancouver's Black Tusk Studios, which is owned by Microsoft, has been given the reins of the Gears franchise. The existence of Black Tusk was revealed in November, 2012, after having been operating under the radar for a year, and the staff have spent the past two years adding staff and getting systems up and running. "We're going to hit the ground running with a talented team in place," said Spencer.

If this sounds a lot like what Microsoft did when it bought the Halo franchise from Bungie, it should. Spencer said he was committed to having the right studio to work on the right franchise. "I think those two things tied together leads to great success," he said. "We've seen that with Halo and we wanted to apply the same strategy with Gears."

Black Tusk head Hanno Lemke acknowledged the similarities between what his studio is doing and what 343 Industries did with Halo. "They did a tremendous job," Lemke said in a phone interview. "From thinking big about the franchise, going from a console title to a cross-screen title, to thinking about film and TV."

Hiring the right people to join the development team was something else that Lemke said 343 did so well, and it's why Rod Fergusson (a key producer for Epic Games on the development of the Gears games) will be joining Black Tusk to help shepherd the franchise. Spencer called him a "great addition to the leadership team."

Fergusson, a Canadian citizen, recently did a stint at Irrational Games to help with the final production on BioShock Infinite, and had been heading up a 2K Games studio north of San Francisco.

"His experience and pedigree around bringing 90 plus-rated shooters to market is second to none," said Lemke, adding that Fergusson's experience with the franchise makes him ideal to oversee the development of future Gears titles. "He will reassure fans that the franchise is in good hands."

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In a statement, Fergusson said, "I'm extremely excited to be joining Black Tusk Studios to oversee development on the Gears of War franchise. I've been privileged to work on a lot of great games with a lot of great teams, but Gears has had the most impact on me professionally and personally, so this really feels like a homecoming. I can't wait to share more with you all soon."

"We've got massive plans for this franchise," said Lemke, listing console games, experiences on other platforms, and "media extensions" as opportunities for growth of the Gears franchise. "Our portfolio plan will be it's not just one big release, it's going to be multiple releases over time."

Spencer, who said he signed the original deal with Epic that brought the first Gears of War game to Xbox, promised that more details will come "later this year."

"For me, this has always been a franchise that I wanted to work on and wanted to keep working on."

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