Cliff Bleszinski, aka “CliffyB,” is the last person you’d expect to hear talk about his dog. The poster child for hyper-macho gameplay, who came onstage at GDC this year bathed in blood red light, holding a gun larger than a child with a chainsaw attached to the end of it, is a gamer’s designer. Frequently described as a playboy man-child, Bleszinski, age 33, drives a convertible Lamborghini, is rumored to have a girlfriend 10 years his junior and says “fuck” a lot.
Bleszinski got his start, as did a number of designers of his generation, designing a game out of his bedroom, which he then sold to Epic MegaGames. Epic hired him to follow it up, and he’s now the company’s design director, responsible for the award-winning, blockbuster Unreal games, which have helped keep the PC multiplayer shooter genre alive and kick-started Epic’s engine licensing business, and the multi-million-copy-selling console shooter Gears of War. His last appearance at GDC was to announce the release date for the Gears sequel, Gears of War 2, expected in stores this holiday season.
The Escapist recently visited Epic’s home offices (just down the road from ours) for a quick look at the making of a Gears of War 2 level, as chronicled in Jordan Deam’s article, Into the Sinkhole: Behind the Scenes with Gears of War 2. Afterward, I sat down with Cliff Bleszinski in his action figure-adorned office, where he talked about how awesome the new Gears installment will be, the difficulties involved with being one of the last of the rock star designers, the movie Poltergeist, how many developers have ripped him off, why he thinks some online gamers are dicks, the importance of not playing games from time to time and his dog. I also tried to make him cry.
The Escapist: So I was talking to Rod [Fergusson, producer of Gears of War 2] earlier, and he was telling me you guys were putting the finishing touches on [the Gears of War 2 demo level].
Cliff Bleszinski: It’s come a long way in the last few weeks. For some reason, our team responds extremely well when they know something’s going to be featured publicly … “Oh my god, this is going to be shown! Holy shit!” And suddenly it’s a mad scramble and artists are in the meeting making shit look better, animators are animating stuff and leads are staying late to hook it all up and plug it in. I think it’s one of the craziest videogame levels ever made. I can’t play it without my palms sweating.
TE: What’s the red button [on your desk] do?
CB: That’s destruct.
TE: Of course. Does that kind of mini crunch help you get your ideas down?
CB: The majority of the ideas are down and now we’re at the point where it’s all about iteration. We have the basic forge of the sword and now it’s about hammering it out. It’s a matter of playing with timing, a matter of what looks good and what doesn’t work, pacing and everything like that.
Now that the base level is there, from here on out until ship what we do is start tweaking difficulty, ammo placement, ammo balancing as well as overall pacing, music hitting at the right moment, stingers hitting, things like that.
Locally I’m going to be firing up the game to play it and periodically having team-based peer reviews where we all just sit down with a notepad and call out what we think sucks, what we think needs work and how we can make it better.
TE: Compared to where you were at this point in the development cycle for Gears 1, how do you feel about where you’re at?
CB: I feel really good. It’s a tremendously deeper, darker game. It’s bigger – the whole pitch about “more badass” … I think is completely true. Since we had that base game to start off with, we could just layer on top of that. We’re no longer saying, “Should we do cover?” or “How’s that chainsaw going to work?” Now we’re like “What new ways can we use the chainsaw?” or “How can we make that cover mechanic that much better?” … Feels good. Feels really good.
TE: Does it get stale for you at any point? In a way it’s like working on a licensed game.
CB: It’s our IP, though, and if we want to have some wiggle room … we’d be like, “Hey let’s do a monster that does this or have a character that does that.” That comes from us.
It’ll be a cold day in hell before I would ever do a licensed IP. I believe the most creative minds in any entertainment are in this business, and I think we need to lead the way by creating new and original intellectual property.
TE: So, looking back – Jazz Jackrabbit days – put yourself there seeing yourself here now. (This is the “Barbara Walters/I’m going to try to make you cry moment.”) Is this everything you imagined and more?
CB: It’s not, because I’m not done yet. We’re just getting started, and I think the world is just starting to catch on to how cool games are.
I think you have an entire generation of gamers that are hitting 30, 32, 33 … they have kids, those kids are being raised with games. I want to know what games are going to look like when those kids are grown up and they’re like 15 and 16.
I think it’s only going to get cooler when you look at some of the innovations that are happening with AI, with animation, with mind control with video games, how displays are getting nicer. Everything is converging into this amazing pot of innovation, and I want to be around for it. I want to see where it goes. I want to see this medium become the dominant entertainment form of the next hundred years.
TE: You were talking a lot last year about your favorite games of the year. You had a lot to say about BioShock. How does the success of that type of game inform what you guys do?
CB: I think when you look at a game like BioShock, gamers aren’t stupid, and gamers will call out designers on any BS that they pull or anything that assumes the audience is stupid. Your average gamer, I believe, is smarter than the average film-going customer, and you need to understand and respect that. I think coming off of BioShock, with BioShock selling over 2 million copies, there’s definitely an audience for games that, while it’s a shooter, it’s a shooter that tackles deeper themes.
I think gamers are more mature, and I think they’re ready for games like that. Look at GTA4 coming out this week and the amount of mature elements in that. It basically plays out like a great Scorsese crime drama that lasts 36-plus hours, and that’s where it’s going. I think players want something like that. We’re giving them a deeper, darker story this time around as a result.
TE: How do you balance that with what’s a bigger, broader industry now? We’re going to have 30- or 40-year-old people who haven’t played videogames. How do we give them what they’re looking for while satisfying the people who want an experience like Gears of War?
CB: I think what we do with Gears, when we talk about the sci-fi clichés or stereotypes, what we’re doing here is we’re taking things that are often seen as cliché or stereotypical and putting our own unique twist on them. I don’t want Gears to be too weird. I have a tremendous amount of respect for games like Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, but I see those as almost not games, but art. To the point where it’s not in the realm of commercial art. It’s just art.
We’re making the accessible blockbuster, and we’re painting our characters with far broader strokes because we keep our cut scenes short and to the point. Our dialogue is snappy and we cut to the chase. We don’t have the time necessarily to pontificate on who this guy is for 20 minutes at the opening of the game, because the player picks up the controller and he wants to get in and he wants to get action right from the get-go. So that’s what we give the players, and over the course of the game, you start to get to know these guys a little better and you have a better sense of who they are.
I mean, bringing it full circle, Gears is … yes, it’s about guys who are these kind of big, bad space-marine-looking characters, but at the same time there are a lot of secondary themes in the background about struggle for energy sources and themes of loss and retribution and whatnot, and I think that those who play the game and want that will find it there.
TE: So it’s not necessarily about depth of story, or even presence of story vs. absence of story; it’s more about how it’s presented that differentiates your game from, say, a BioShock for example …
CB: I think BioShock was completely about the passive narrative; there were only two and a half actual cut scenes in the entire game, whereas the rest of the game’s narrative was audio logs that you would find or things you would hear over a speaker. Looking at how BioShock handled all of that, there is a little bit of that coming through in Gears 2 as far as the players being able to locate COG tags and read the name of the soldier on them, or find a scrap of paper that’s a brief love letter from a soldier back home to his girlfriend and things like that, as well as certain sections of the levels that have PA systems where the player overhears what’s going on in the environment.
Basically, when the player’s playing the game, you don’t just have cut scenes to tell them the story; you also have dialogue between the soldiers. You have things you read on the wall. You have things you find in the world, things you just happen to overhear that help kind of add up to that overall construct of what the world and the universe ultimately are.
TE: How much do you play now – games like Gears of War, online, that sort of thing?
CB: I’ve been too busy playing Gears 2 to play Gears 1 online anymore. I played a fair amount of Call of Duty 4, played some Devil May Cry 4 … Army of Two is solid, good game. Good game.
It’s funny though. I’m at the point now where I want to make sure I have a good work/life balance. I’ll play Call of Duty 4, but I might not necessarily get all the achievements; I might not get to the next level as far as leveling up in the online experience. I might not beat Army of Two. I’ll give it a good five or six hours and be like, “OK, I get the experience. Now I want to check out the latest movie.” Or I want to be outside taking my dog out or just experiencing life in general and meeting new people.
One thing I’ve learned throughout my life … being tasked with creating new characters and new IP is, you have to have that pool in your head of experience in life to draw from. Gears 1, for example – a trip to London helped me inspire so much of what the architecture was in Gears, and some of the characters being people that I know from my life and work … not necessarily directly riffing on but also inspired by. And everything that you experience in life is grist for the mill of your creativity. So I think it’s good to have a good balance there.
TE: Do you find that to be kind of a problem for the industry, sort of the insular nature of the development community? Folks designing games without a lot of life experience to draw from?
CB: I actually got in a discussion with George Broussard from 3D Realms a few years ago, and he claimed that real life experience doesn’t make you a better game designer, and I have always felt that’s so not the case. I mean …
TE: There’s an obvious joke there.
CB: I guess there’s a reason why there’s strip clubs in Duke Nukem. There’s a lot of those in Texas. Great buffets as well, I hear. And tater tots and ribs and things like that.
At the same time, man, I love this medium; I think it’s the most compelling medium to ever exist in the history of entertainment. To be a good creative, you need to be a well-rounded person. You need to have life experience. You need to have your heart broken. You need to experience loss. You need to raise puppies and have a family eventually and know what it’s like to put the top down and drive 120 mph on a beautiful day with the leaves kicking up behind you, with the music playing. Because if you don’t know what that’s like, how are you going to have a real-life frame of reference to compare it to when you try to bring that level of excitement into your games? I think it’s definitely good to live life and be a well-rounded designer.
TE: How does that inform who you’re designing for? Your experience with playing games and not having the time to pursue all the achievements – does that inform your design in terms prioritizing certain design choices and not making as deep an experience?
CB: Once you establish the core loop of the game, the classic “what you’re doing for 30 seconds over and over again,” you need to then switch it up. I’m not diagnosed ADD, but I have a very … my mind just needs to continue to be entertained. When we’re doing level walkthroughs, if I find myself thinking, “Oh, OK, on the way home today I need to pick up eggs and butter,” then I’m like, “Well crap, this level’s not keeping my interest. I need to have something happen at this moment.”
And what that’s pushed for is a game that, while it may not be very heavily scripted in some ways, also moment to moment has things happening one thing after another. Always something bursting through the door, always something chasing you, always a new creature being introduced, new weapons, new dialogue … there’s always something happening that you can latch onto as the proverbial water cooler moment.
I think when players sit down and play Gears 2, the “describability” of the level will be even higher than the first, and they’ll be able to just sit there and talk about the part with this and the sequence with that, and the moment when this happened to that guy. I think it’s going to be one of the most memorable experiences that has been captured in games.
TE: The ending: cliffhanger or no cliffhanger?
CB: There might be a little bit of a cliffhanger. It’s a fucking dark game. And that’s not to say it’s all emo and the characters are sitting around cutting themselves, listening to like Shiny Toy Guns or anything like that. But at the same time, there are moments of levity in there. Gus Coletrain has some great moments in this game. There’s some wonderful interaction with Baird, Marcus and Dom, and certain characters are back that were in the first game. I don’t want to spoil too much, but there’s some nice giggle or laughable moments in the game, too.
TE: Gears 1 was kind of a departure for you guys, particularly from the shareware days, and also Unreal. Unreal had a very strong PC and PC-mod community. Gears was your first major console title, and obviously Gears 2 is going to be released on consoles, so you could say the focus of the company has shifted in that direction. Do you see that as a general trend in the industry?
CB: I don’t think PC gaming is dying. I think it’s evolving. I think it’s one of those situations where things like Steam seem to be doing rather well, digital distribution is helping them a lot.
At the same time, right now we look for partners with our games, and with Microsoft we have a partner that wanted to not only sell games but also wanted to sell and establish a console base with the Xbox 360 in this war. And with Microsoft’s support, A) us providing a great game, B) them providing amazing marketing support, come together you have almost 5 million copies of games sold, and you have a new IP established. … I don’t know if people really know the amount of risk that was involved with us doing the first Gears. We hadn’t done a single-player game in a while. It was a new IP, with a new universe. It was the next generation of our engine, which we hadn’t shipped a game with yet. It was a new console, and we were also in the process of merging with Scion, which was the company Mike [Capps] was heading up at the time.
If I was a betting man, I would have bet on it failing, but I believe we have the experience and know-how and the dedication to pull something like that off. I feel so confident now with the sequel, the fact that we have such an established base to start with, that we’re just going to knock it out of the park this time.
TE: What do you think was the real key to the success of being able to bring a new IP to a new platform?
CB: The obvious thing is that the game is freaking beautiful. It looked like nothing that anybody had ever seen. I can guarantee, at the same time, if it had been the exact same Halo-style of gameplay, people would not have been as excited about it. It was not only a beautiful game, it was also a new universe that was interesting and accessible as well.
When we talk about clichés, we’re like, “Oh you have these big, bad guys as well.” Yeah, but they don’t look like guys with top hats and clown makeup that nobody can relate to. They look like an idealized sci-fi version of what your average teenage boy would like to be.
Then at the same time we made the game very accessible. We threw you right into the action. We didn’t have cut scenes that were like 40 minutes, because players didn’t want that, and we leveraged in the cover mechanics so it felt like … yes, it was a sci-fi shooter, but at the same time, it was a new style of play. Now, in so many games you see so many cover mechanics being used, you see roadie run features, you see even buttons that lead players to new locations kind of like points of interest, etc., etc. Co-op in the single-player campaign is also becoming standard, and on and on the list goes on. I think it’s very flattering to see that happen, and we want to take it to the next level.
TE: We talked briefly – it may have been at an airport – about the supposed lack of innovation in Gears of War that other games have gone on to copy. How does that make you feel? And do you think Gears of War 2 is going to introduce anything similar in that respect?
CB: The fact that other games have taken a lot of the features that are in Gears I think is just wonderful. Back in the day, when we did Unreal Tournament and Double Kill and Headshot and all of that suddenly started appearing in other games, that was cool. I’m all for it. I want to see other games take what we started and run with it. Hell, we weren’t even the first ones to do the cover mechanic. … Winback, and Killswitch did it, and we took it and perfected it with the new universe.
We’re going to take what we learned and continue to deliver hands down the best cover system that you’ve seen in the business. It’s flawless, it’s seamless and it plays like a freaking dream, and there’s going to be a lot of surprises in there that people are suddenly going to start sitting up and taking notice. Play the game, rip it off, we don’t care. As long as you license our engine.
TE: What’s your favorite game that you’ve worked on, hands down?
CB: Gears. Gears of War. And I’m still nostalgic for the first Unreal Tournament. I think there’s a certain lightning in a bottle that we had there that was phenomenal. I’ll always like Jazz [Jackrabbit], too.
TE: Speaking of Unreal, how responsible do you feel for the kind of over-adrenalized, hyper-testosterone online playing environment that’s sort of sprung up around Gears and Xbox LIVE?
CB: I’m astonished at the level of success that Xbox LIVE has had. I’m also a little bit dismayed about the attitude of a lot of young people out there online. I wish that they wouldn’t be such dicks. I don’t get it. You get that anonymity and that brings out the worst.
I know that a lot of these kids aren’t really like that. If you met them day to day and talked to them, they wouldn’t be bigots or racists like that, but they just get that attitude, man. I don’t know what it is. I’m hoping that as the gamers grow up, they’ll grow out of it a little bit, ’cause I’m tired of hearing people slinging insults online.
TE: Do you think that granting them this environment where they can exercise their fantasies and be the tough guy marine – curb-stomping people and whatnot – combined with the anonymity is partly to blame?
CB: I think it’s all of it. I think we deliver the kind of entertainment experienced … it’s the classic Poltergeist. You remember the scene when the kid was being essentially stalked by his little clown doll? Everybody gets that clown doll when you’re a kid and nobody wants it, and your parents put that creepy clown doll in your room and they’re like, “Hey, this is fun,” and you’re like, “No, that thing is freaking me out.” And eventually the kid gets hold of it and beats the crap out of the clown.
That’s the same cycle that we do in a game like Gears, where you know the big monster stalks and stalks and stalks you, and eventually you get the big gun, and you get that sense of empowerment, and you defeat the monster and you feel better. And, of course, a monster that’s four times bigger comes along and the cycle continues. It’s the same thing with an RPG as far as leveling up and getting a handle on the enemies, and then bigger enemies come in and you do the grind and continue right? But I think that sense of empowerment is very powerful, and then when you add in the anonymous aspect and the ability for people to project their voice, there’s a certain amount of attitude that I think comes through.
TE: Your favorite horror movie?
CB: Ever? It’s so hard to pick, man. I guess I have to go back to Poltergeist because it did such a perfect job of creating that idyllic suburb and creating that perfect sense of that American nuclear family in the ’80s and just destroying it. Completely ruining it all and scaring the crap out of an entire generation … lulling the audience into this false sense of security by showing a family they could easily project themselves onto and showing very real horrors that collectively kept us all up at night.
TE: What’s the first step for you in designing a new game? Say, for example you were working on a new IP right now: What comes first, a great overall concept or a bunch of cool stuff you didn’t get to do last time?
CB: With a sequel it’s generally all the stuff you didn’t get to put in the first game. So to that extent, sometimes a sequel is almost easier than the first game, of course. So all the cool stuff that you were hoping to get in the first time … I was hoping … I don’t want to spoil too much …
TE: Go ahead, please.
CB: Yeah right. [Laughs] When you create a new world, though, you just kind of sit down and kind of come up with a couple characters, come up with a general setting and theme that all has to tie into the gameplay mechanic. You can do the chart as far as how these things tug against each other, whereas if you were a screenwriter, you just sit in a corner and you come up with a cool world and cool characters and you’re done. You don’t have to worry about how the game mechanic plays in.
So it’s kind of this multiple-angle balancing act that has to be done, and I’ll come up with a pitch, I’ll come up with a treatment, and I have to sell Rod [Fergusson] and Mike [Capps] and everybody else in the company on it to make sure they buy off on it, and then it’s thrown to the wolves and everybody else dives on it and starts forming it into their own essentially amazing hit experience. So I do get a lot of the wonderful responsibility of creating a lot of that, but at the same time, it’s the intelligent people that I surround myself with that make it great.
TE: How much selling do you actually have to do?
CB: A lot. I have to do a lot. Because every single person in this company has seen every single fucking sci-fi movie ever made. They’ve read every single graphic novel and every single book, and every time I pitch something, they go through the database in their head of where they’ve seen that before and they go, “Oh, I saw that in Texas Chainsaw Massacre; you can’t do that” … or whatever movie. “That was in Dawn of the Dead. I saw that.” And it’s like, “No, no, a chainsaw on a gun, that would be cool, right?” etc., etc. I think a lot of it comes from just getting along with people and hanging out and working with them on a day-to-day basis and just a sense of mutual trust.
TE: So you don’t get a lot of slack being “the Cliffy?”
CB: Not at all. In fact, they beat up on me five times harder because of that. Everybody’s so worried about my head getting big that I get teased on a regular basis because they’re worried about my head being able to fit through the door. I get more crap than anybody. It’s like being the boss’ daughter. You have to try five times harder.
TE: How much of that image is actual Cliff, and how much of it is the PR/marketing machine? And is it accidental that that happens?
CB: My weekends are just hookers and blow; that’s pretty much it all the time. I’m like Elliot Spitzer up in here … whatever man. People get a kick out of the car. I’m like, it’s just a car. I’ve gotten more enjoyment out of my dog than my car, to be honest.
So in the grand scheme of things, if I can help, you know, sell a few games, and help us pay our bills and help the guys feed their kids and put gas in their tanks and provide gamers with a great experience, and if they, you know, get to know somebody in the business, I think it’s a good thing.
Russ Pitts posted a very negative review of Gears of War. He is, however, looking forward to the sequel. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com