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Cliff Bleszinski: Creativity, Design, and Reality

The Epic designer talks about the evolution of the shooter genre, the essential elements of its design and how best to work with talent in the context of People Can Fly's Bulletstorm.

Recently at a Gamasutra-attended event, Epic Games design director Cliff Bleszinski came to San Francisco to showcase Epic's latest title. Developed by its People Can Fly studio in Poland, Bulletstorm [YouTube trailer] is clearly the latest evolution of the fast-action, adrenaline-pumping shooters that the company -- and the studio -- is known for.

As the game is published by EA under its EA Partners program, it marks another major publisher collaboration for the studio, which currently works with Microsoft on the Gears of War series, which has been tremendously successful; Bleszinski is currently working on Gears of War 3 for an April 2011 release.

Tammy Schachter, senior director of corporate communications at EA, participated in the meeting as well, in which Bleszinski discusses the rise and evolution of the shooter genre, how best to work with talent, and the essential elements of shooter design.

I guess this is the first major project you guys have done with this studio since the acquisition.

Cliff Bleszinski: Mm-hm. Well, to be fair, PCF [People Can Fly] did greatly assist in the shipping of Gears PC.

Is this a concept that came through you guys? Is it a concept that came through them? Did you work collaboratively?

CB: Yeah. This wasn't a situation where I flew in in like a helicopter, like, [adopts gravelly voice] "It's called Bulletstorm, and it's about this." [meekly] "Oh, okay!"

No, it was not like that at all. One thing I've learned over the years is let the creatives do what they do, and this is very much driven creatively by PCF.

Given the background of the studio and the fact that you guys had acquired them, I had that sense. Epic is tactical about business but not in a mercenary way.

CB: You know, it's the whole thing where you try and make a business that's good and profitable, and then you don't want to become evil. We let PCF do what they do. We don't try and re-arrange their DNA on the project, right?

The shooter space, over the course of this generation, has become the predominant genre for core gamers. Is that a surprise to you? Is that what you were anticipating?

CB: I welcome it, because I'm primarily a shooter type of designer, as far as the kind of games that I do. I just think, I don't know if this is an American thing or if it's a global thing, there's just [adopts hick accent] somethin' about shooting things that's fun.

If you can nail that 30 seconds of gameplay -- Halo nailed it with, you know, throw a grenade at an enemy to soften him up, pepper him with shots, come in and finish with the melee, right. And I think that's what Bulletstorm is doing with their kick, slide, leash, and weaponry. I think we're nailing that, and I think we're on to something special there.

I think there are a lot of reasons it's popular, but I think one of the reasons is popular is because it's something that video games can do very well, right?

CB: Absolutely.


Bulletstorm

It's something that the toolsets that we have and the skill sets that designers have are well suited to. It comes together very well.

CB: Absolutely. Is that a question?

Yeah, well.

CB: Well, to be fair, I played through Heavy Rain and thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm glad that they're taking those types of narrative risks over at Quantic Dream, because I'm probably going to be making shooters for the next couple of years.

It's definitely great to see things like Heavy Rain, but at the same time, it's still great to see people explore existing things. Do you think that the genre still has room to really grow, expand, keep fresh?

CB: I've gone on record before, and I said the future of shooters are RPGs, and the shooters that I've liked the most lately are ones like BioShock, which had some light RPG elements, as well as Borderlands, which I continue to gush about, not only because it's our engine of course, but because Randy's a good friend of mine, and it's the kind of game I believe in.

Moving on from there, game developers have a way of cross-pollinating an immense amount. Gears was influenced by Resident Evil, then Resident Evil 5 was influenced by Gears. So, maybe you'll see elements from more RPGs, or Heavy Rain narrative style elements, start bleeding into the genre.


If you look at another one of your licensees, there's Mass Effect. It definitely was more shooter-ified in Mass Effect 2.

CB: Yeah...

Chris Remo has asked the question: Can you have that kind of narrative in a pure shooter? Strip away all the RPG elements, but just have the narrative?

CB: Well, I guess you can kind of say... Well, taking away the RPGs and having the narrative is kind of what Gears is in many ways, right? And you'll see a little bit more RPG elements in the next Gears game that are very light. That's a total aside.

The thing that was cool was that Mass Effect is kind of an RPG for me, with the cover-based shooting. I think there's a reason why it's been successful. Because gamers love Gears.

It's like well, here's something that's like Gears, but even has more depth, and a different setting. It's Star Wars for this new generation, right? Well, and the addition of the potential for having sex in a video game is also very powerful.

I've heard you talk about this. You were an old school console gamer back in the day. One thing I personally like about Gears -- obviously I haven't played Bulletstorm so I can't speak to it -- is that I feel it blends the expertise of the Western school of game design, the shooting/PC heritage, with what I would consider a more console game feel.

CB: Yeah, when Marcus slams into cover, it's kind of Mario slamming his head on a block, right? In Gears 2 -- I think Steve Totilo made that analogy about Gears 2, "if Miyamoto had made a shooter", because there's parts in it where you shoot down fruit to cause these big stone creatures to move so you can use them as cover, all these kinds of creative solutions.Same thing with the razor hail, and staying inside.

I was born and raised... [and] many of the things that I loved growing up were Japanese, from video games to toys and things like that. Maybe that's coming through in my DNA.

Yeah, I feel like it is. I was trying to talk to someone, very inarticulately, about why I like Gears of War and why I don't as much like some of the other shooter games. What I said was, "It feels like a video game." She was just like, "What are you talking about?" And that's as far as I got.

CB: You're getting into very intangible things about look and feel and pacing and writing that you could write a retardedly long dissertation on, right? Gears is what it is, and it has its silly moments of chainsawing people, but it also has its most poignant moments.

The number one thing that the gamers that we surveyed loved about Gears, was cited continually, was the story, which I find incredibly gratifying because the number one thing that a lot of gamers love to criticize about Gears is its story.

Yeah, that's interesting. Talking more broadly about narrative, David Ellis from 343 Industries recently did an informal poll on Twitter, and he found that people will finish games for the story. He was surprised to hear that, because there's a general low opinion of them.

CB: I'm not surprised, because "what happens next" has purely been motivation for thousands of years that man has been able to talk. So, that's one more thing we can use to motivate players in a game.

I wanted to know who the Origami Killer was, and that was a huge power... It's the law of economy of characters. It was clearly one of the four characters in the game, but I wanted to know, right? And that, sometimes, is enough.

Do you feel satisfied with like the way you guys have explored narrative or is that something you want to move forward with your titles?

CB: This is one thing that Lee Perry, who's the senior gameplay designer on Gears, and I have been beating this drum with Adrian [Chmielarz] and People Can Fly, this implied narrative is more effective and cheaper than doing very well staged cinematics, right?

So, we're actually, in both games, planning on having a pass of somebody going through and doing the whole like "What happened here?" Right? Go into a room, and you find a character who's dead with a shotgun in their mouth with a note left behind. You know, those kinds of things that games like System Shock and BioShock always do so well, and that's something that we had a little of in our previous games but...

And Resident Evil.

CB: Oh yeah. Of course, of course. But I think you're going to continue see more of it, especially with Bulletstorm and the new city. Like, seeing the panic of everybody as they evacuated.

One of my favorite moments from BioShock 1 was coming off the bathysphere and seeing all the suitcases left there and all the panic of everybody trying to get out of there, which is, you know, kind of like, you know, Miss Saigon, Fall of Saigon, desperate grab-onto-the-chopper type moment. We're going to really explore that a lot in Bulletstorm.


That's something I think games can do really well. You know, people are exploring environments. A corridor is not enough. That's not a new revelation.

CB: Oh, I know, but if I can get on my soapbox for a second to give something out that you haven't really alluded to yet, the fact of the matter is if you're going to make a shooter, you better make sure that those 30 seconds that you do over and over again are more fun than anything else in the game.

Like, you could take Halo, right, open up with the grenade, soften him up with bullets, melee -- that is fun, and you can just do that over and over again, right? And we are getting to the point where we're nailing that with Bulletstorm, with kicking a guy, sliding, leashing, and shooting him, things like that.

And I've played a lot of shooters that just want to be a shooter, but don't really ever nail that. It's like, okay, well, I should want to be the rat with the feeder pellet who's addicted to that one little thing in your game.

The sound needs to be perfect, and, you know, to give the Bungie guys props, their grenade sound is still one of my favorite ones in all of games, because it has that little high-pitch pshew at the beginning, and I just want to throw a grenade just to hear that sound.

You look at the Gears headshot, you look at the heads exploding in Bulletstorm, the sound of the thump in the leash. "Oh, I want to do that again." That's good sound game design, that a lot of people miss.

I'm not a violent person, but I love chainsawing guys in Gears of War because it's got such a payoff.

CB: I've always said it's the equivalent of Gallagher on stage with the watermelon, and popping it. It's silly and fun and "Ew! I got blood on me!"

When it comes to designing games, I've been thinking about this. You hear about this, obviously. Nintendo harps on about this, obviously for good reason. How much time do you have to spend prototyping out?

Mike [Capps] did his presentation at TGS last year, where he showed some of the gray box stuff for Gears 2, and explained some prototypes of changing cover. How much goes into that with these games?

CB: An absolute ton. It's kind of the core. Lee Perry did a talk at GDC about this. We call it a "proof of concept" process.

Somebody writes a pitch. "Okay, here's this one-pager about these puff balls that cause enemies to fight each other that we showed earlier." And I'm like, "Well, I don't know. I don't know if that's cool."

Our Kismet scripting language, to pimp our engine a little bit here shamelessly, allows the designer, by himself, to rapidly get something together without any coder involvement, so then when he goes to the programmer or somebody else and says, "Hey, this is going to be cool," and they're like, "I don't know," then he's like, "Well, look at this video. Look at this little demo I made." "Oh, I get it."

Then click [snaps finger], and then you can do all these different rooms with a proof of concept to kind of prove all the different uses of it. To me, you're failing early and failing often. You're finding out what doesn't work, to sift through and pan for gold. When you find the gold, you hang onto it and figure out how you can combine it all into one big... gold statue, I guess? [laughs]

[laughs] No, Scrooge McDuck-style bin, is I think what we're looking for.

CB: Yeah, a dive in the gold.

So, these guys are in Poland. How does it work for them? Do they have to come to you? They can't like, you know, grab you. "Come look over my shoulder and see."

CB: No, and I wouldn't want to micromanage them that much. I do enough of that on-site at Epic, going over somebody's shoulder and being like, "Ooh! Let's do this and that and the other!"

But, you know, I have regularly scheduled meetings where we look at the latest art assets. I read the scripts. I've played the latest version of the game. Like, so much of the game is driven by them, but occasionally I'm able to come in.

Like when they were talking about the planet and the kick, I'm like, "You need giant cacti everywhere!" And Adrian's like, "Ooh! That's cool! We can do that." I'm trying to get him to make sure the female character's tank top gets a little like sweaty as she goes, throughout. You know, just to kind of add that little bit of detail. Who knows if that will happen. But you know, just little things like that to kind of sprinkle a little bit of that special sauce in the project.


But what you talked about is definitely a process, right? A process for the way you develop games at Epic. Do you try to enforce this process across other studios?

CB: I wouldn't say "enforce". That sounds like we're showing up at gunpoint and saying, "Do it or we'll shoot you." I think "coax kindly". I'm not a parent, but one thing I know about parenting is the best way to get somebody to do something is to convince them it's the right thing instead of just saying "Do it because I said so."

And so by providing examples of our proof of concept process that's been successful in Gears 1 and 2, we've been able to convince PCF that it's the right thing to do, and that keeps them positively motivated.

And they've seen the gold in it. The weapons you're going to see at E3, the kind of modes you're going to wind up seeing out of the game, they all tie into the fruit that's to bear from this process.

This is an EA Partners title. You guys are an independent studio and you have these great relationships.

Obviously, you have a great relationship with Microsoft because of Gears -- or at least a fruitful one. How's it feel to be turning around and working with another publisher, on another big new franchise launch?

CB: It's exciting. It's kind of like dating. You know, each entity is unique. It has its own things that work well, things that upset them, back and forth. It's very much a human relationship. You kind of have to like the people you work with.

And thankfully, I kind of get the best of both worlds because I get to go one minute and be in a Microsoft Gears meeting, and then the next minute, I get to go be at an EAP Bulletstorm meeting, and it's been fascinating for me to watch how each individual publisher works. I'm fairly certain it's going to create some great opportunities in the future.

I'm wondering if popularity of the shooter genre is leading to the evolution of the business in a certain way, at least in terms of the genre. If you look at obviously what happened with Infinity Ward. Those guys break off. Bungie became indie. You guys are still independent. Is that something that's because of the success and the revenues that are being generated, that allows that sort of leverage to stay independent, or become independent?

CB: There are so many things going on with the industry right now that I really can't even drill into too much detail. Those who are smart will recognize where talent is and will aptly take care of the talent, and if they don't, the talent will go and figure out a way to do something.

Tim Sweeney is an incredibly intelligent guy who knows how to take care of the talent at Epic, hence the retention rate at Epic. We have a very low turnover rate. The industry? Who knows what's going to happen. I'm glad that independent developers can stay afloat and 150 development teams can still make great games, right?

You own this IP, I'm assuming, right?

CB: Yes.

You own Gears. But at the time Gears was first announced, it was a bit of a surprise, I think, to people that you guys would be able to retain the IP.

CB: Well, to be frank and to be honest and fair, our business guys are very, very good, and they know that it's really where a lot of the value is. And I, in the foreseeable future, will not be working on any sort of licensed IP or anybody else's IP. I like working on ones that we can control and foster and allow to grow and breathe within our own umbrella.

But do these relationships impact you in terms of the direction you want to take? If you take a game to a publisher.

Tammy Schachter: At least speaking for the Partners side, David DeMartini and Sinjin Bain, who go out and talk the partner program and work with developers who remain independent, they're focus is very clearly around finding the best of breed, and people that we want to encourage to remain independent and allow them to cultivate their own culture and foster their creativity and bring the best out -- like, allow Epic to cultivate the best in PCF.

So, our role as a partner, and I'm sure you guys count on us for this, is to kind of stay out of it, stay out of the creative process so we can focus on the business side and we can do the publishing and distribution while leaving them to focus squarely on the creative.

CB: And that's absolutely correct, but that's not to say that there's not feedback, right?

TS: No, of course.

CB: You know, there's feedback like "Hey, what do you think of this?" But it's not a "This game needs to be about apples!" or whatever would come up.

One thing I've learned in the years that I've been in the business is to know when to give creative people enough rope, right? There will be some that will hang themselves, but ultimately I want the guys at PCF to get out of bed in the morning and feel like it's their game and that they're contributing to it. I don't want them sitting here feeling like they're making "Cliff Bleszinski's Whatever", right? It needs to be PCF's title, and they need to own that. That's crucial.

Real quick, to summarize everything here, the publishers that have been the most successful in acquiring a studio have not messed with the studio and have kept them as their own little bubble, and their own incubation, and their own family. Whereas the ones that acquire a developer and then systematically go, "No, do it this way and do all that," everything just crumbles, and then they wind up with nothing that they paid for, and they lose value.


Right now, you can observe the tumult over Infinity Ward. It's basically understood that they didn't want to make Modern Warfare 3; they wanted to work on their other game. At the same time, Activision turns around and says, "Yes, we wanted to let Bungie do whatever Bungie wants, because Bungie are geniuses."

TS: That's a question for Activision.

CB: I do want to say something about that, and I have said this one before. The Infinity Ward guys, you know, they worked on Medal of Honor, and then they weren't happy with how things were going, then they went on and created Call of Duty.

And now they weren't happy with how things are going, so I have a feeling they're going to create something special, because ultimately you need to value people over process.

When you look at whatever's happening in social games pulling in these huge audiences, and also about the Wii with making games more accessible, there's a lot of talk.

Do you think that we're running down a road with making games too complex, and endlessly making them more complicated, and shrinking our audience?

CB: Just because a new section of the market opens up doesn't mean that a previous section of the market has disappeared, right? The PC is a device that is built fundamentally for work, but people will always find a way to blow of that work and do something else on it.

I don't want to make FarmVille. I respect what they did. They have done a great job of that, but there's a huge market there for people playing these kind of turn-based kind of... you know... game designs, that are based around envying somebody's stuff online, right? As well as farming people's social networks in order to kind of continue the growth of the product.

That said, I think there are very key lessons to learn from what Zynga has done -- same thing with Blizzard as well, by the way, in World of Warcraft -- that we can apply to games that are traditionally seen as more hardcore while also continuing to do things like make easy easier and better tutorials to expand our audience base.

Well, you take Gears, for us -- it's very easy to just jump into this world, come to terms with it very quickly. I have over 20 years of gaming grammar in my head already, but that's already probably a little bit complicated for people, which has been illustrated by people's reaction to the Wii. At the same time, to add like now another layer of complexity...

CB: Possibly, but I think the human mind is capable of so much if you tease it in right.... I always like to use driving as the example, right? Like when you first sat down and turned on a car and got used to driving, it was very, very scary.

And then before you know it, like five years later or however much later, you're on your phone texting, going 90 miles an hour on the highway, changing lanes while eating a cheeseburger. It becomes second nature, right?

It's the same thing with typing on the iPhone. I first saw that, I'm like, "I need buttons. I'm a Blackberry guy." Six months later, I see my friend just going brrrrrrrr [makes quick tapping gesture]. The human mind can adapt as long as you properly teach people's things.

So, you look at... World of Warcraft is a very complex, deep game that takes so many hours to master, but they have, what, 10 plus million subscribers on a regular basis, who are incredibly drawn to that world. So, people are not dumb, and you will only lose money by assuming your customer's an idiot.

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