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Gamasutra sits down with Epic Games' design director Cliff Bleszinski to reflect on the conclusion of the first arc of the Gears of War franchise, and discuss the future of the games industry, and the studio itself.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

September 19, 2011

14 Min Read

[Gamasutra sits down with Epic Games' design director Cliff Bleszinski to reflect on the conclusion of the first arc of the Gears of War franchise, and discuss what the future of the games industry, and the studio itself.]

Six years ago, Gamasutra had its first interview with Cliff Bleszinski about the Gears of War series at Tokyo Game Show 2005 -- before the Xbox 360 had even been released.

Now, the series -- or at least its first arc -- is drawing to a close. Tomorrow, Gears of War 3 is released across the globe, and players will be able to see exactly how everything concludes.

Things have changed tremendously for the game industry since that first interview. The rise of mobile games has fundamentally changed the operation of developer Epic Games, as Bleszinski discusses below.

Bleszinski's career has progressed alongside the series, and while that original interview talks about the potential of the series, and stars Cliffy the kid designer, who was always concerned with cool gameplay, this interview -- with Cliff the design director -- is more thoughtful and self-assured. Read on.

Here you are with the third game in the series. You said in the presentation you get all misty eyed when you watch the ending. Did you get to where you wanted to be, when you envisioned the series?

CB: Oh, absolutely. The problem is, we never had the entire trilogy laid out, with the beats. You know, we made a game, left it open so we could put a sequel, had a general idea of where we were hoping it could go, and then watched the sales cautiously.

And thankfully, the first game, and then the second game, did well enough to facilitate doing a third one. So to kind of have this kind of little bundle of three games together as its own arc, that kind of ends and wraps up nicely, is incredibly gratifying.

Who knows what other content will come out in the future? But for me, right now, I'm looking forward to the time when we can put all three on the shelves and sell it as a triple pack, and you can have the full Gears of War experience.

Something that you talked to us about when the first game was on the way, was that you were interested in pursuing environmental storytelling. Has that progressed for you?

CB: Yeah, we've gotten a lot better with it. One of the things that we actually have our meshers do, is do a pass at that. Where they will go through the level, and then do a "What happened here?" pass. So you come in the room and find the guy who holed up when the Locusts attacked, and decided he had to end his own life with a shotgun type thing.

There are multiple ways that we can tell stories in games. We can always have the proverbial cutscenes. Our wonderful cinematic director Greg [Mitchell] has done an outstanding job with them this time. But he also jokes, "I make the part of the game that you like to skip," right? Which is a shame, because they're quite good.

We also have players walking and talking for narrative, we also have collectibles that you can read, and things like that throughout the world. But environmental storytelling is one of my favorite ways to do it. It's something that Valve has always excelled at, and it's something that I aspire for us as a studio to be better at.

How do you feel about storytelling at this point? Especially with the second game -- obviously I haven't played through the campaign of this one yet -- you brought in more emotional storytelling.

CB: In the first game, we hadn't really told a story as a studio. We had Unreal 1, and that was pretty much it, right? And so seeing as we'd never -- we hadn't done it in years if at all -- we did a decent job at it with the first game.

The second one, we took a few more risks. Maybe some of those emotional moments weren't as fully earned as they could have been, in the game. You know, Dom -- building up in the Maria thing, and then afterward it didn't seem like it affected him that much.

Bringing Karen Traviss onboard has been a huge win. Our previous writers were good, but Karen understands the universe better than anybody. I mean, she cranked out some amazing Gears novels. That you're actually using video games to sell books right now just blows my brain.

And yeah, I'm just pretty happy with the emotional moments in it. Cole gets a great moment when he goes back to his old thrashball stadium, and the question of who lives and dies is always an interesting one, but ultimately I love the ending.

How do you feel about the necessity of storytelling in a game like this?

CB: I think it's crucial. I think it's what separates the triple-A, sell tons of copies games from the ones that sell a million or two, honestly. Not a day goes by when somebody doesn't show me their Crimson Omen tattoo on Twitter, right?

And the fact that people -- this isn't an accident that, if you look at the poster of the characters behind you, that there's one that most average people can identify with. "Oh hey, I'm a white guy, I like Marcus." "Oh hey, I'm Hispanic, so I identify with Dom." Or, "I'm a woman, so I identify with Sam, or Anya, or the Queen." So we deliberately built the franchise to have that kind of accessibility -- to hit as broad as possible.

You just mentioned someone potentially identifying with the queen. Do you feel like you could have had the Locusts be more of an identifiable adversary?

CB: There's a line there with monsters, right? Where you want them to speak English, and you want them to be understandable. If anything, this is what we refer to in a franchise as the dick moment, right? It's the moment where in Half-Life 2, the Combine guy knocks over the can and goes, "Pick up the can," right?

It's the opening of Homefront, where you see, "Oh, these bad guys are killing people," and the opening of Call of Duty: World at War, where he puts the cigarette in the guy's eye, right? And in order to maintain your enemies as the bad guys, as the antagonists, you need to have repeated dick moments.

They call them "kick the puppy" moments on TV Tropes.

CB: Well kick the puppy works as well -- or be a dick. I'd like to think, pound for pound, this game has its share of Locust dick moments, and there's some puppy kicking in there. And Gears 2, we added some of it with the torture, and things like that.

But we made sure to remind the player that these guys are bad, because it's easy to build sympathy for the devil when you know there's a three way war going on. We briefly -- for a nanosecond -- considered "Marcus teams up with a Locust" and we're like, "No, that's not going to happen." The Locusts are still bad.

It seems like you've put a tremendous effort into the graphics. As you always do, but it seems like the graphics are just phenomenal this time around. How important is the art to you as a designer?

CB: Crucial. A third of our studio is made up of talented, very picky artists. And you know, people like to believe Gears of War is Grays of War, and actually -- if you look at these levels -- they have more color than any Gears game now has. And looking at the latest Call of Duty trailers, Gears actually now has more saturation than Call of Duty, which is weird.

But again, it's an aesthetic choice. It's a visual choice that we chose to create as the designers and artists in the project. Art direction-wise, we're known for our aesthetic, right? I would rather be the game with the large bulky guys in armor than the game with the guy in the camo who I can't remember. That's just an aesthetic choice that we make consciously.

Even from the first game you've made a choice to have the characters stand out in some way. Marcus Fenix does take some flak for being the gruff sort of guy, but ultimately you can point to him. You recognize him; you know what he stands for.

CB: There's a saying in Hollywood, "an eye patch and a limp," right? And I continue to work with our guys, and be like, "Which character is this? The one with the what?"

Because Sam turned out amazing. She looks wonderful. She's attractive without looking slutty, which is a very important quality, honestly, for the girl characters in this game -- to make them pleasant, but not like "Really? You wouldn't wear that into battle."

Once we first got Sam it was like, "She's great, but she's missing a couple things." So that's where the little band aid on the face came from -- so you're not like, "Which girl is that?" It's the kind of Hispanic looking girl with the band aid on her face. "Okay, I know which one that is."

If you do a good job with your character designs, then come time for a cosplayer to get their costume together for Comic Con, they're hopefully going to have to hit 15 stores and vintage shops.

You did make an effort to add some more rich female characters, or bring them more into the central story this time around. Can you talk about what drove that decision?

CB: Well, I initially wanted to have it in Gears 1, but we didn't have the time to properly model them and everything like that. And by the time we got to the third game, the way the fiction was panning out was that now the women aren't even birthing anymore. They have to grab their guns and get into the mix as well, right?

The evolution of Anya from being just kind of the dispatcher who's your voice in your ear to someone who's stomping on Locust heads next to you -- it's an interesting character evolution.

And quite frankly, the franchise seems to have a lot of female fans. I don't know why, but I'll take it. And the fact that we're the go-to game, and girls come up to me at Comic Con and show me the Crimson Omen tattoos on their neck, is pretty crazy.

And so we felt the need to properly represent them in the game, and make sure that they have characters that they like. That are confident. That, again, don't look like prostitutes.

Because the traditional video game methodology used to be that. But if you look at the new Tomb Raider (pictured below), she actually looks great. She doesn't look like the traditional Lara Croft with the big boobs anymore, she looks more like a Hilary Swank who's been fighting for her life in the jungle and I think that's the maturity of the industry growing up a little bit.

I feel like people tend to forget that large generic groups are made up of individuals. We tend to forget that -- not just the game industry, but people tend to forget that. Just because you say "women might not like Gears of War," it doesn't mean that some women can't like Gears of War.

CB: Yeah, yeah. For some reason, I don't know if it's the third person nature, or the fact that you can kind of hang out behind cover and pop up, and the fact that Gears fans generally tend to be more cooperative, as opposed to adversarial. And it might be a combination of all those factors, but it's a good problem to have, for us.

Has your role changed over the course of the franchise?

CB: It has a bit, because being promoted to design director means I get to participate in all the different projects, across the board, that Epic works on. And so I get to playtest an Infinity Blade expansion, or a game like Bulletstorm, and then also make sure Gears gets its love. And it's been tough to balance that. I'd like to think I've hit a decent balance, but there's always little things that I'd love to make sure that I touch and polish in a game, that you don't always have time for.

Mike Capps spoke recently about how you know Chair abandoned Shadow Complex 2 in production to move to Infinity Blade, and how it was the right decision. How do you feel about those shifting priorities, and the shifting market?

CB: Well, the industry right now is like the Wild, Wild West. Look at the amount of platforms out there, from iOS, to social, to Facebook, to Xbox, to Vita, and everything. It's crazy.

You know, we are an engine provider, and not only do we make great games, we also provide technology to help our partners make great games, and we needed a flagship product for iOS, plain and simple.

And we could have ported Shadow Complex, but it would have been a lot of work, and it might not have been the right fit. And then Donald Mustard [co-founder, Chair Entertainment] suggested Punch-Out!! with swords, with RPG layers, and we're like, "Yes."

So that's where the majority of the effort is going, for our Utah-based studio of Chair. And Shadow Complex 2 is sitting there; it's actually largely designed, we just need to find a partner that will help us to finish it, so we can bring it to market.

How closely do you work with Donald?

CB: Not incredibly closely. I mean, I have like a weekly phone call with him, and then I'll play builds once a week. It's 15 percent of my time. But every interaction I have with him is a pleasure, because he's a joy to work with.

Nice guy.

CB: He's great.

How are the learnings from the stuff they're learning on iOS? Are they feeding back into the way you look at console, triple-A design at all?

CB: Oh, yeah. I mean, one thing that the beauty of iOS is, you can take the game with you everywhere, and that's one of my big drums that I've been beating for next generation consoles. He who makes a game that you can always have with you is going to win.

I want a way to play Gears when I'm in the elevator or at the coffee shop. I want to be able to play it at the pub. I want to be able to play it on the bus, and then come home and have the full experience. That's what I want, and I hope everybody's moving towards that.

Do you think that that is the future of triple-A franchises? EA has been very public about its "We want to be with you everywhere" kind of thing. Do you agree?

CB: Oh, absolutely. But it's not just about multiplayer, though, right? Because people think you just want to take the game, and attack on multiplayer, with deathmatch. People are not being very creative when they think about that.

Look at what things like Dragon's Dogma is doing, or Dark Souls. You can have multiplayer, and a large RPGish-type environment, just with asynchronous elements.

The big takeaway for us is having an enthusiasm for asynchronous gameplay, because that is where a lot of the future is going to go. Right now a lot of online gaming is based upon the whole ,"Okay, we're all going to meet at the bar at eight o'clock, and we're going to have fun."

And you have to schedule that, as opposed to people come and go as they please, and you tag the graffiti wall when you want to, and check out what somebody else did, and that's where a lot of the business is going with multiplayer.

Would you say that Demon Souls and Dark Souls are very influential?

CB: I think for the industry, yeah. It's a game that's based around being hard, and then because it's hard, you leave clues for other people to help them out -- and they're blazing new trails that not a lot of people have done yet, which is why that game's getting some nice buzz.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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