Dabe Alan

How Gears of War rose from the ashes of a scrapped Unreal title called “Warfare”

How Gears of War rose from the ashes of a scrapped Unreal title called “Warfare”

Epic’s Jim Brown became known in the Unreal Tournament mod scene and was hired by the company in 2002. He has worked in some capacity on every game Epic has shipped since that time, including acting as the design lead on Gears of War for the PC and multiplayer lead on the first Gears of War for the Xbox 360. He has a deep knowledge of the lore behind Epic’s largest titles, and during an interview he was able to share some exciting history: Many of the core ideas, names, and concepts for Gears of War came from an unfinished, unreleased Unreal game called Warfare. This story is how that project split off into Gears of War as well as the Onslaught game mode in Unreal Tournament 2004.

The good ol’ days

“After Unreal Tournament [shipped], Epic began to move ahead with their new IP. It didn’t have a name, and it wasn’t solidified. They just kind of started working on it in the background.” This new game was known as Unreal Warfare internally. “At the same time, Unreal Championship was in development with Epic and Digital Extremes [working as partners]. There came a time when they realized they wouldn’t make the ship dates, so the project was split. Digital Extremes finished Unreal Championship, and Epic finished Unreal 2003.

The crunch to finish those two games was both brutal and prolonged; it was also when Brown was hired by Epic. There wasn’t even anyone available to interview him for the job, as everyone was exhausted from the long hours. Brown referred to it as a “trial by fire.” This was one of the most difficult times in Epic’s history, as everyone involved in either game was burnt out after the titles were shipped. Unreal Warfare sat on the sidelines while everyone took some time off to regain some much needed sanity points.

Still, there was a “fairly playable” version of Warfare up and running. Epic showed this early version of the game at GDC 2002.

“That’s kind of what Warfare was at the time. It was planned to be a vehicle-based game with an on-foot component. Multiplayer based,” Brown explained. There was an enemy that wasn’t modeled, but they were known as the “Geist,” and they later became the Locust. Brown was able to list a large number of elements that would be reused: The COG and Locust symbols were shown in the video, the burnt out buildings and wrecked cars were used to set the mood, the underground areas look much like the Hollows from Gears of War 2, and the COG soldiers make extensive use of cover.

“And to top it all off, after a long fight, the COG soldier DBNOs [down but not out] the Geist, and then executes him by ripping his arm off and beating him with it– an execution that didn’t make it in the game until Gears of War 3,” Brown pointed out. After two separate title launches and the switch to Unreal Engine 3, Warfare became a victim of the post-launch recovery period. It was cancelled, but that didn’t mean the work done on the game had to be wasted.

There was a wealth of concept art, game play ideas, and inspiration to be found in the early version of Warfare, and a newly hired Jerry O’Flaherty took advantage of it while working as the art director for Gears of War. “He came in with a whole new vision and reworked Warfare as we were transitioning from Unreal Engine 2 to Unreal Engine 3, so there was this complete shift of thinking, of technology, of everything,” Brown said. Gears of War was started from scratch, but much of the early inspiration for the game came from the work done on the unfinished Warfare.

Gears of War wasn’t the only game to benefit from that deep pool of art assets and design ideas. “All of those environmental assets were used for Unreal Tournament 2004,” Brown said. The game play ideas from Warfare were used to create the Onslaught game type. When Unreal Tournament 3 was released and Epic created the next version of the Onslaught game mode, it was called…. wait for it…. “Warfare.” Bazinga.

Warfare may have been cancelled, but some of the single-player aspects of the game found a home in Gears of War, and the multiplayer mechanics ended up in Unreal Tournament. That’s not a bad way to go.

Gears of War and Unreal Tournament shared inspiration… and levels?

“When we started working on Gears under UE3, there was a whole new set of technical limitations and a push to get things done, and we were focused on the single-player almost exclusively.” It wasn’t until E3 2005 that they showed off any multiplayer footage, and that created a mad rush to get one map up and running. “We weren’t even sure if we were going to do multiplayer with Gtaylorears, and then at the last minute we said we had to do this. We threw it up and it was an instant hit.” Brown was working on Unreal Tournament 3, but once the multiplayer component became a hit everyone stepped back from their respective projects and began working on Gears. It was all hands on deck to get both the single-player and multiplayer aspects of the game finished in time to launch.

This led to some things being cut, but the assets and ideas behind each removed section were used as much as possible. The Windows version of Gears of War had an exclusive chapter set in a city named “Timgad,” which was a concept that was removed from the console version of Gears of War. The concept art from that cut section of the game was also used as the basis of the Unreal Tournament 3 map called “Downtown.” I’ve embedded two videos so you can compare and contrast the two pieces of content. First, the Gears of War level.

This is how the content looked like in Unreal Tournament 3.

Ideally, everything that’s created at Epic is used in some way. “We don’t throw anything away. If it gets done and is good, we’ll find a way to use it,” Brown said. There are some exceptions, such as a flying dragon with a Locust aesthetic in it’s design. It was built and animated but never made it into the game, only to be used as a tech demo during an Unreal Engine 3 presentation. If you watch the following video, you’ll see a “creature” next to it that later became the Brumack. This video was created in 2004. Skip to 4:31 if you want to see the dragon, although the entire video is fascinating from a historical perspective.

Brown shared some other initial concepts from Gears of War. The original design for the Wretch was “a horrific skinny little person.” There’s a scene in the tech demo where a Brumak walks across the screen, and you see this version of the Wretch climb out of a manhole. The team later decided they needed something a little more scary.

Epic keeps everything saved on their internal servers, including each build of every engine dating back to the early days of the company. “I can tell you exactly what I did four years ago to the day, if I wanted to,” Brown said. He gave a presentation at GDC that traced the evolution of a Gears 3 map from beginning to end. He was able to go back to the original file and see each distinct version of the map and grab screenshots of the process every step of the way.

Who knows? Some of the concepts and art shown here that were never used may still make it into a game. Let’s take a moment to bow our heads for a moment of silence to honor Warfare, and to celebrate the great games and concepts that were taken from its bones.

We’re not done!

Enjoy some other pieces of concept art and ideas from early versions of Warfare and Gears of War. I’d like to thank Epic for opening its vaults and allowing us to show you this work for the first time.