Xbox One exclusive games have often struggled to leave an impression. In 2003, a trailer for Halo 2 famously set expectations astronomically high.

The trailer showed what’s called a “vertical slice” of the game: a small part of the game created for stakeholders to showcase all the features. These slices usually last around a few minutes and hit the highlights alone. When it came time to make the rest of Halo 2, Bungie struggled and made history by creating one of the first high-profile disappointments in modern gaming.

Over 15 years later, game development studio The Coalition decided to slice in a different direction. The single-player campaign of Gears of 5, which took the series out of cramped corridors and into sprawling, open maps, was practically playable from beginning to end two years before the game launched to relative success this fall. And that’s because developer The Coalition employed what’s called the “horizonal slice.” That means they created most of the game from start to finish. By Christmas 2017, The Coalition employees were able to take the game home to play through it, providing extensive, and valuable, feedback.

“You get a better picture of where you’re at in development,” said Zoë Curnoe, campaign lead producer for Gears 5. “Sometimes in game development, we deep dive on new features instead of focusing on how those features fit into the larger picture.”

Gears of War 4 went the “vertical slice” route, showcasing a short sequence on a bridge that showed off that game’s new environmental effects and characters. The game was received well, but didn’t really do anything new to the formula. Gears 5, however, finds Kat Diaz, the first woman to lead the franchise, exploring wide-open deserts and upgrading equipment using secret items found in side missions. The side missions alone were a huge shift for a series that popularized hallway gunplay.

“Before we built Gears 5, we already had this foundation of technology, even though we were going to do really big and different things,” said studio head Rod Fergusson. “We got to this opportunity where we thought, ‘What if we just stitched this whole thing together now and play it as a full experience?’ We were messing with RPG systems where you need all the balls in place. We couldn’t do it mission by mission.”

This horizontal slice approach was a first for The Coaltion, and they focused on completing the campaign. Curnoe said as different departments got involved, the process became easier.

According to Fergusson, there were also time management issues they discovered as they kept stopping to evaluate the entire game. He likened it to a surgeon on the operating table.

“The patient is open on the table. Is it worth the cost and time to stitch up the patient mid-surgery, stand them up and go, ‘Well, how do they look now,’ and the audience goes, ‘It’s not quite done,’” Fergusson said. “That takes time away from developing things. You always have to weigh the cost of that preparation and polish against getting even more stuff in.”

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