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The Mystery Surrounding Black Tusk Studios

by William Schwartz

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Following the recent announcement that Microsoft would be buying out the Gears of War franchise and handing the reigns to Black Tusk Studios, some have started to wonder….well, what exactly is Black Tusk Studios? Not much is known about Black Tusk Studios, and even their E3 demo/”concept piece” only added to their mystery. For a studio that, according to studio manager Mike Crump, was focused on creating the “next Halo”, it has remained relatively under the radar.

But first, its history. Black Tusk Studios was formed in 2010 as Microsoft Studios Vancouver, occupying two floors of a brick building in downtown Vancouver. Its staff, according to the Black Tusk manager Mike Crump, have, on average, 12 years experience working on big-budget video games. Some of the games that Black Tusk staff have worked on in the past include Splinter Cell: Conviction, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, Crysis 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, God of War III, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, The Saboteur, and many others. Some other staff were from recently shuttered Vancouver studios such as Propaganda Games, Slant Six, and Black Box. At that time, Microsoft Studios Vancouver was working on two games, Project Columbia, a Kinect game, and a free-to-play Microsoft Flight for the PC. Both got cancelled in 2012, which is around the same time frame that Microsoft Vancouver formally changed its name to Black Tusk Studios.

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After the name change, Mike Crump told the Vancouver Sun that “We’re not working on an existing franchise, we’re looking to build the next Halo here in Vancouver, for example, which is really exciting. We are building something from the ground up.” He also added, “We have been officially green-lit by Microsoft executives to go ahead with the project that we’re on.” This was supported by the recent jobs listings on the newly formed Black Tusk Studios website, looking for a lead environment artist for “the next AAA game” and a senior gameplay engineer with “experience with multiplayer and/or co-op gameplay development.” There was also a  listing for a senior visual effects engineer with DirectX11 experience. The website also claimed that Black Tusk was “dedicated to creating immersive, AAA games that push the limits of Microsoft’s entertainment platforms” that aim to “define Microsoft’s next big entertainment franchise.” In short, Black Tusk was Microsoft’s next AAA developer.

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However, after that, news stalled regarding Black Tusk. Not much was known on what their next AAA IP was going to be. Then, a LinkedIn resume of Black Tusk’s senior product manager and product planner, Jonathan Browne, revealed that Black Tusk was working on four unannounced IPs. Naturally, a fervor of sorts started, but that was about it. That is, until Microsoft’s 2013 E3. Phil Spencer went on stage and said that Microsoft was investing in five new developers to develop new AAA IPs for Microsft, one of them being Black Tusk. He subsequently said afterwards that Black Tusk was “assembling a world-class team to create a brand new AAA exclusive game for Xbox One” followed by a short E3 demo that gave off a Splinter Cell vibe.

However, after that, nothing came out about Black Tusk Studio. Things went crazy, however, after the Gears of War acquisition. News then emerged that Rod Fergusson, former Epic Games executive producer, Irrational Games director of product development and founder of a new 2K studio, would work with Black Tusk and oversee the Gears of War franchise. Fergusson would work with Hanno Lemke, who was in charge of Forza, Fable, Ryse, and other games before his stint with Black Tusk. Lemke was also the general manager of EA’s Black Box during its Need for Speed and Skate era.

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After this news, many gamers had questions regarding the still-unannounced Black Tusk IP. Phil Spencer told Polygon that, “The thing we showed at E3 last year, it was something that was done in Unreal and more of a concept piece.” He called it “an asset”, something to get the creative juices flowing for the studio. “The studio has really been incubating different ideas over the past six to nine months on what they might work on,” he continued, “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.” However, Spencer also told Polygon that Black Tusk taking control of Gears was “a nice coincidence” and that Microsoft had not planned it out when Black Tusk was founded, unlike 343 Industries.

However, subsequent tweets by Xbox Jobs made the situation only more confusing.

Along with recent jobs posting by Black Tusk Studios for a lead writer working on “Microsoft’s next big IP” and helping to “shape the spirit of this new franchise” and a  senior online engineer and talks about a “web application to support console and multi-screen end points.” Recent LinkedIn profiles indicated a change in Black Tusk, with one listing himself as a technical animation director “for future Gears of War title”. A senior level designer at the studio also makes mention of his work on Gears of War and an in-house engine  “designed from the ground up for next-gen consoles and modern PCs … the Black Tusk animation engine features always-on, full-body IK on all characters, physically-based transitions ad dynamic, contextual behaviors that can be fully-authored by animators from within Maya…”. The Black Tusk website states that their “current project” is “Gears of War”. Finally, Phil Spencer went on Twitter to talk about Black Tusk and Gears of War, saying

Despite all of this news, still not much is known about Black Tusk. The unannounced IP is still a mystery, as are the possible 4 according to Browne. It’s still unknown if the new IP has been scrapped, or is being worked on in conjunction with Gears of War. Until more news emerges, I have a feeling this is the most we’ll know of Black Tusk, until either the new IP or Gears of War is released.

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