How Microsoft brought Gears Tactics to the Xbox Series X and S

Gears Tactics was a big game for Microsoft. A splashy, strategic spin on the Gears franchise, it served not only to show that Microsoft is willing to invest heavily in PC games, but that it’s just as committed to Xbox Game Pass on Windows as it is on Xbox consoles.

“We were thrilled,” says Tyler Bielman, design director at Microsoft’s Gears-focused studio The Coalition, when asked about the reaction to the game. “We knew that we had captured some magic in bringing that Gears intensity and action and combining it with a thoughtful turn-based experience, and we were really happy with the reviews, we’re really happy with everyone’s response — the response on PC Game Pass was tremendous, so yeah, we were really happy with it. We think it’s a really cool addition to the Gears franchise.”

While Gears Tactics was developed for PC first, a console version was always in the works, and now, Microsoft has confirmed that it’ll land on November 10th — the same day the Xbox Series X and Series S next-gen consoles go on sale. Gears Tactics is arguably the biggest first-party launch title Microsoft has for the new Xbox consoles. With Halo Infinite delayed into next year, this is the only console debut for one of Microsoft’s premier franchises that you’ll be able to play on launch day.

For the PC version, The Coalition had to figure out how to translate Gears’ fast-paced action to a traditionally console-unfriendly genre. Now, they have the opposite task.

“We wanted to really make it authentic for the PC strategy gamer first and foremost, but we also knew eventually we would take our time and bring it to console in a way that feels really native on the console,” Bielman says, citing the game’s controls as the most important thing to get right. “The game has to feel great with the sticks in your hand, and the game that we have with Tactics is very free and open — it doesn’t take place on a grid, you can move your units anywhere on the map. We knew that in order to make that feel good, we couldn’t just have a simple mouse simulation on the controller — we had to add functionality.”

The bones of the game haven’t changed, but there are some affordances to make it play smoother with a controller. There’s a precision mode that slows the cursor down and new snapping features that help you select the right target faster and more accurately. The UX has also been streamlined in certain regards, like the convoy area where you manage your soldiers and choose missions, and there’s additional content, including a new playable character along with extra enemies and equipment.

Gears Tactics did ship on PC with controller support, but it clearly worked better with a mouse and keyboard, so The Coalition’s efforts to refine the game for controllers will also come to the PC version along with the new content. Conversely, Bielman says that you can plug a mouse and keyboard into an Xbox console and play the game just as it would run on a PC.

While a console version was always planned, it wasn’t necessarily intended to happen alongside the launch of the new Xboxes. “It wasn’t so much someone saying like, ‘Hey, you’re gonna make sure this game is on the hardware,’” says Cam McRae, technical director at The Coalition. “It was more like, our game’s gonna be ready to ship and there’s hardware so let’s target it and make it happen.”

“PC was our primary focus, but we knew that we were going to ship on console eventually so we had a console version running mostly from the very start of the project,” McRae adds. “We didn’t specifically spend a lot of time with it, but we just maintained it to make sure that there wasn’t going to be this massive effort to go and actually make it run on Xbox at the very start. So when we started actually looking at the console, we already had an Xbox version running, which was really good because we didn’t have to spend time on the table stakes of running on the hardware.”

“And then when Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S hardware came out, moving from Xbox to that hardware was not a huge effort for us. We were already working on it for Gears 5, and even though the hardware itself is different, the tooling that we work with remained the same, so we weren’t making this huge change to how we built the game. We just had a target like the rendering subsystem and I/O and other things to make it work on the new hardware.”

Microsoft’s multidevice Xbox strategy means that its new games need to run on a wide variety of hardware, all the way from the original 2013 Xbox One through the 4K-capable Xbox One X, the 1440p-targeting next-gen Series S, and the ultra-high-end Series X. According to McRae, though, tuning Gears Tactics for each system was simpler than making it work on PCs in the first place.

“It’s harder to make PC games,” he says. “Tyler can attest to the fact that my workplace has a stack of GPUs — there’s just so much hardware on PC. You have different RAM configurations and different hard drive speeds and totally different vendors on GPUs and then just a huge range of drivers you have to worry about and CPUs. So it’s harder, but it’s kind of fun, too.”

“For us, because we’ve made a few PC games now and we kind of understand how to scale for all that hardware, when it comes to looking at the whole range of Xbox we can scale our game very well because we already know how to do it on PC. It really helps when you start targeting consoles — it’s just like yeah, there’s a few of them and everything’s fixed, right? Targeting fixed hardware is always easier even if there’s two or three. It’s still much easier than the tons of combinations in the PC space.”

Gears Tactics will run at 4K / 60fps on the Xbox Series X with a choice of 60 or 30fps for the cinematics — “not for any performance reason but more for just personal taste,” McRae says. The Series S will run the game at 1440p / 60fps, while the One X will have the option for 4K / 30fps or 1440p / 60fps, and the One S is at 1080p / 30fps. McRae says each version is tuned individually for each console beyond simple parameters like resolution. “I look at the hardware, look at all the different settings I have available under the hood in the engine, which is hundreds of things I can tweak and tune or optimize, and then it’s just balancing them all to get the best picture quality and hit a performance target.”

The Series X will obviously run Gears Tactics better than the other consoles, but one big question I had was the relationship between the Xbox One X and Series S versions. The Series S is a next-gen console with similar CPU and SSD advances as the Series X, but unlike the One X, it doesn’t target 4K resolution, despite a GPU that’s roughly comparable in raw power. Given that both consoles can run the game at 1440p / 60fps, with an extra 4K / 30fps option on the One X, which is the better version?

“That’s a good question — it is better on the Series S,” says McRae. “It’s visually better — same resolution, same frame rate, but the CPU is so much better in the Series S and the Series X that we have a lot more ability to just draw more stuff. Even though the GPU is responsible for drawing, we still have to get it there off the CPU, and on the Xbox One X you’ll see that the visual quality is not quite as high as it is on the Series S in the performance mode.”

While Gears Tactics still needs to run on the CPU-constrained Xbox One consoles, The Coalition says this didn’t compromise the design of the game. The two foundational elements of Tactics’ action, according to McRae, were the number of enemies for a given encounter and how long it could take for the AI to make its move. There was initially a back-and-forth between the tech and the design side, as you’d expect, but ultimately, McRae says the team hit a “really sweet spot” between the scale of the encounters and the speed at which they play out. “If you put too many enemies in, it becomes very overwhelming very quickly,” he says.

“Because we had worked to design the constraint of how many enemies and we kind of knew our hardware limits, we could then go and say this is how much we need to optimize the enemy turns so that it can finish in time. So how that actually manifests in reality is, on a very slow CPU, the enemy turn might go over its limit a little bit compared to a brand-new CPU in the Series X or the Series S where the enemy turns are really snappy, they finish their planning really quickly and they do their turn and it’s back to the player.”

Microsoft’s hardware agnosticism has been taken to a new level recently with the launch of Xbox Game Pass for Android devices, all streaming over the company’s xCloud servers. The Coalition won’t confirm when or whether Gears Tactics will be playable this way, but I was interested to know the team’s thoughts on how the game might adapt to touch controls, which is something that Microsoft has been expanding.

“We actually looked at it way back when we started on the PC because we thought that people might be playing this on a PC that has touch,” says McRae. “So we did a very initial pass of it, but it wasn’t something that we really pursued because we were just looking at the data and not a lot of users actually would use touch for this kind of game. They would sit down and play on their laptop or they would play it with the mouse and keyboard. But when we look at something like xCloud, yeah, if we were gonna put it there then I think touch is something we would revisit.”

Wherever you end up playing it, Gears Tactics is worth checking out — particularly since it’s on Game Pass across all Xbox platforms. I really like the PC version. It’s a smart reinvention of the Gears series, and it’ll be one of the first things I fire up on a next-gen Xbox. Between Tactics and last year’s excellent Gears 5, it feels like the franchise is firing on all cylinders again.