Sponsored By

What if Cliff Ran the World?

The opinionated designer discusses what might happen if he left Epic and became a consultant -- and talks about how he'd take existing franchises, such as Resident Evil and Uncharted, and change their gameplay if given the chance.

Brandon Sheffield

May 11, 2012

18 Min Read

If the game industry were high school, Cliff Bleszinski would be the popular kid. The design director at Gears of War studio Epic Games understands the importance of maintaining a public image and getting his name known, which can rub some people the wrong way -- but it's hard to deny that he's good at what he does. Gears of War was the "true" beginning of next-gen, not only in terms of visuals and technical excellence, but also tightness and expansiveness of design.

Bleszinski has a strong sense of game design. He grew up playing Zelda and Mario, and has incorporated the lessons he learned from those games far better than the Japanese game industry is currently able to. We started by discussing the changing game landscape, and the interview quickly turned to how Bleszinski might alter a number of game franchises and genres. It was fascinating to hear his thoughts unravel as they did not stem from a desire to criticize other peoples' work, but rather from a clear, informed enthusiasm for video games and design.

You grew up on Japanese games, as did many of us, and now you're one of the more respected designers of blockbuster video games in the Western world. At GDC, Keiji Inafune was talking about how he feels Japan has lost the drive to win, and that's why the West has essentially taken over the traditional game industry. I just wonder what it's going to take for them to get back there?

Cliff Bleszinski: One of the things I've wondered about, I always do my doomsday scenario -- if [Epic Games CEO] Tim Sweeney wakes up tomorrow and goes, "Man, Cliff you're really an idiot. You're fired; get out of here," what would I do? And hopefully there will be multiple options because, you know, I'm a pretty good game designer.

But I've also recognized the value of putting your face out there, building my own brand as a person as well as surrounding myself with brilliant people to make great games, right? One of the options I've thought of was what if I left Epic right now, and became a consultant to help Japanese developers make games that are more Western-friendly -- not only from an IP perspective, but also from the game mechanics and features perspective. I could seriously have a very healthy consulting gig doing that, right?

The Epic team and I have made what is, in many ways, one of the most definitive Western games, as far as Gears being the "dude-bro" game, and the perception of that, as well as the online feature set, and the co-op, and cover, and even the narrative, and things like that. But we can always do better with it, of course.

And so my advice to Japan is that in a disc-based market right now, you cannot [ignore multiplayer]. I'm not saying tack multiplayer onto every game. But for instance, Shadows of the Damned, that was a wonderfully crazy adventure, the dialogue had me laughing out loud, just even the key-door systems in there; it was a beautifully crazy game with really fun gameplay, but no multiplayer co-op experience in there. I'm not saying tack on a versus mode; there's a billion different ways you can do some sort of "players interacting with other players" mode.

For instance there's Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. That's ironically one of the most innovative games with what we call "mingle player" that has had those kinds of blending and blurring of single player and multiplayer -- and it came from Japan! So clearly some of the developers over there get that, because that game is going to continue to inspire a lot of Western developers to figure ways that you can have connected elements in campaign games, and have more of a blended experience.

I would've loved it in Skyrim if my fiancee could have left a treasure in a chest in my house while she was playing, Animal Crossing-style. You know, Fable with the orbs in the world, that's where we're all going, right?

And if you're going to make a third-person shooter... the fact that Vanquish didn't have a multiplayer suite was a crime. That IP, it was pretty good as far as being Western, the gameplay was great, and the vibe... I've often said on record that if Gears is the kind of Wild, Wild West coal train chugging along, then Vanquish is the Japanese bullet train, with style and everything. There is absolutely no reason I shouldn't have been zipping around, doing the mega slides, diving up in the air in an arena with other players.

And whatever reason they had... The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I'm sure the development team got together and was like, "Well, we probably shouldn't do multiplayer because of the budget," or the time, but at the end of the day you have an amazing product that was [handicapped] by the fact that it was seen by many gamers as a campaign rental or a used game, and not the $60, day one, gotta have it game.

So that's my initial, just-off-the cuff advice that I would give, because I love all things Japan. Growing up I realized everything I loved was derived from Japan, from Transformers to Nintendo to Force Five, Mazinger and Voltron, and all of it. So I don't want those games to go away.

I've seen it from the other side, too, where I was working on a multiplayer game for a Japanese company and then it got canceled. And you know, that was their one multiplayer game that they were working on at the time.

CB: I'm afraid people will see my big advice as "just tack on multiplayer." No, don't ever just tack on multiplayer; it's a huge mistake. Make the multiplayer soar and make it relevant to the game, and make it key to the DNA of what the experience is.

Reading a lot of postmortems, there are times where people say, "Okay, we've got the single player experience mostly nailed down; now let's think about what kind of multiplayer we want," instead of thinking of it as, "Here's our game experience that we want to have, and how does multiplayer and the campaign fit into that world?"

CB: Why don't I have a multiplayer Fatal Frame yet? What if I had a Fatal Frame where anonymous people could join my game and be ghosts and try to scare the crap out of me, and then I rate how well they scared me? Basically a fancy hide and go seek.

Why don't I have an augmented reality version of Fatal Frame for the Vita, in which ghosts hang around the world? I think Nintendo had something similar to that, right? Why don't they have ARGs where they then actually hide real ghosts in the real world, maybe where even real people died?

That's maybe a little too crazy, but this is the kind of thinking that I think needs to kind of push everything. Because I will never forget playing Fatal Frame II, where I had to pull my feet up from underneath the sofa, because I was afraid a ghost would grab me. And I was like 30 at the time, and I had to actually stop playing the game, and I have watched every horror movie imaginable. Everything from the scariest -- the J-horror to the K-horror to everything -- and to then play that game in the power of the interactive medium of fear is amazing. And that's a whole genre that just seems dead in the water right now.

And Silent Hill 2's one of my favorite games of all time; I miss that experience. But mark my words, if we get to just fully-connected consoles that have e-shops and everything like that, you might see the rise or re-emergence of the scary horror genres as $20 or $30 games. Maybe it's only six hours and scares the crap out of you, and you're good and that's it, or they'll be delivered in episodes.

Silent Hill 2

Yeah, Silent Hill is a really squandered opportunity now.

CB: If I were to rate the Silent Hills in the order of the best ones... The Silent Hill series for me was like Highlander, which for me stopped after the first one. So in regards to Silent Hill, after Silent Hill 3 for me there are no Silent Hills. And that sounds really mean; I apologize to anybody who works on the Silent Hills.

Horror is like comedy -- it's really hard. A nudge in one direction it's scary, and a nudge here it's not. Making that yourself is really hard, because it's kind of like trying to tickle or scare yourself; having that sensibility is really rare.

I would say, in order [from favorite to least favorite], Silent Hill 2. and then actually I would go for Silent Hill 3 and then 1, because 1 for me was a great game but the graphics on the PS1 just do not hold up. It's that just getting into 3D, the textures are not perspective-correct, things are swimming everywhere, and I'm just like, "Ahh... I can't deal with this."

Silent Hill 2 for me was one of my favorite games of all time because, as I've said before in interviews, it touched on some next-level stuff that games very rarely touch on, the themes that were like Solaris and all of that, which was just amazing.

I feel like the low-res graphics in 1 were really excellent actually, because at least for me, the less I understand exactly what I'm seeing, the scarier that can be.

CB: Excellent point. Eventually I'd love to do a horror game someday, and I have all these mechanics I'd love to implement. One of the ones I've fantasized about is to have a game that's first person, and the monsters essentially are the most clear when they're in your periphery, and then when you actually look at them, that's when they become more and more vague. It's all about what's unseen, right?

The other mechanic I want to do -- that somebody can feel free to steal, because I'm never going to get around to doing it -- is make a game in which it's first-person and you're being stalked by giant scary creatures, and you can turn invisible, but the only way to turn invisible is to close your eyes. And then you're trying to play this Metal Gear-ish stealth game around these creatures, and you hear the alert state, at which point you close your eyes and you just have to then listen.

There's this sound technology, I can't remember the name of it, where it really feels like the things are around you, and then you can only stay invisible for so long and find the right time to open your eyes. And you're either going to be in the clear, or there's going to be this thing just breathing down on you or whatnot. I thought that could be a fun mechanic to do. But who knows, right?

I sort of feel like Resident Evil 4, as good as it was, was this kind of turning point where horror games changed into, "we need to have action, because RE4 was popular, and it had more action." But it wasn't really popular because of the action per se.

CB: Well, what happened is that it ceased being a horror game; it became an action game. And as much as the player was [handicapped] by pivot controls, he's still a badass dude with a laser sight and he's wiping out hundreds of zombies, right? You know, we weren't a scared girl running away from a giant guy with scissors anymore [Ed. Note: a reference to PS1 horror game Clock Tower], and that's okay.

Again, though, I would be terrified if suddenly, the doomsday scenario came along. Tim Sweeney says, "Hey you, you're fired!" and then Capcom's says, "Hey, come work for us and do the next Resident Evil game!" I'll be like, "Oh my God." When you look at action and horror the two are really, really hard to pull off, because in one scenario you're Rambo, and you're killing tons of things, and in the other one you're the scared little girl.

And I think the proper way to do that -- if I were to work on an RE game, hypothetically -- would be to alternate between those moments. Maybe do an RE game where there's two kinds of characters -- you know, you've got a Leon-type guy, and then mix in a scared little girl, and so you alternate between the empowerment and the fear. We had a little bit of that, actually in Gears 1, right?

And I think you can pull that off, and then maybe have a choice, even, and you can appeal to two types of gamers. You know, if you're the guy who wants to be the badass and you don't even want to do that little scared girl stuff you can, or if you're the person who just wants the scared girl sections, you can play as that character. But then you're building two types of games, and I think that's what might be necessary to maintain that horror DNA strictly, and not full-on become [a Resident Evil action game]. And please be careful how you word that, because I have nothing but respect for that franchise and those guys.

Resident Evil 4

I know that you really like Resident Evil 4 because it was a big influence on Gears, and of course Gears is an action game, so that makes a lot of sense.

CB: You know what else I would consider, from a production standpoint, is what if I was running Capcom? I would split Resident Evil -- and this may be a mistake but I'm just throwing an idea out there. I would do the Resident Evil, you know, "Merc Ops," where you're these badass soldiers who clean out zombies and you're just like "the guys."

And then do Resident Evil: Special Victims Unit. Where it's the stories of the ordinary people, where you see one zombie and that's scary and maybe you can fend that one off, but you get more than two or three and you do nothing but run, Walking Dead style. And see it from both sides.

Yeah, I think they're sort of trying to do that right now, but they're not really going as far in either direction as they could.

CB: The RE6 trailer was amazing, but I look at that and I'm like, "That thrills me; that doesn't scare me." Fear is all about what's unseen; that's the root of all horror, right?

Another good lesson from Resident Evil 4 was the mini sandboxes for all the scenarios. There's this whole town area, and you have to figure out how to survive in this big area.

CB: Yeah, well that's Halo's combat bowls, right? We tried to get more bowl-like in Gears 3, and in the future we'll continue to get more bowl-like and just overall less linear. This is my thing I've stuck to -- the more replayable your game is, the better of a game it is, even if you never replay it once.

And that's the big block that people often use with replayability. They say, "Nobody replays games; don't bother making it replayable!" No, you're frigging wrong. You're wrong because the player has more decisions, and more ways to play the game their way, and then it just drives conversations and YouTube videos, and all that stuff.

Yeah, if two players can have a different experience, then even if they don't play it again they realize that there's a lot more depth, and the perception of that game is much higher. There gets to be a mythology about it.

CB: And then once you train players that that kind of stuff can happen, you make a sequel [that plays off of those expectations]. I've played Oblivion for example. Now when I play Skyrim, I'm going to try and be a werewolf, I'm going to try all this crazy stuff. People come back for the emergent stuff that feeds the internet, as far as message boards and, again, the videos. So that's where I really want to keep pushing things.

We both did microtalks at GDC this year, and mine was about making a game that targets yourself, as a developer, and not targeting an anonymous group of players that you can't define. Target your own specific, weird interest and make that. That's what a lot of indies are fantastic at, but I don't see it enough from larger teams, and I think that's because there's less of an emphasis on auteurship and directors.

CB: Absolutely.

I wonder if you think that's a good thing or a bad thing, especially as we discuss how you might alter all these other franchises.

CB: I think you have to find a way of having a super creative, collaborative auteur. And I've always said I don't have every idea for the Gears of War franchise or games, but there's a lot of my own personal DNA that's running through the projects. There's a reason why in Gears 3, the game ends with Marcus and Anya on the beach, because that's my fiancee and I -- whenever we have a nice weekend we go to the coast.

I would love to have the opportunity to make something that's deeply personal. I've spoken fondly of my childhood in New England, and going out to the woods. There's a hill behind our old house in where somebody just had cast out six or nine old tires they threw away, in an old field.

And as I kid I quickly learned that if I lifted those up I'd find snakes and interesting little critters underneath them. And every day before school I'd go up there and, guaranteed, I'd always find something, and it was like the Zelda secret moment, right?

And I don't want to get into too many details, but finding abandoned pieces of plywood in the woods and then taking it back to build a fort or whatever, that is your initial way of trying to have your own apartment as a child, essentially. Some of that DNA I might be able to weave into Fortnite, since that's what I'm primarily working on right now.

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

It would be great to have a really discovery-oriented game, like you're talking about. When I was playing the first Uncharted, I felt there was a bait and switch, because I was really enjoying exploring and finding things. I thought, "Oh man, I'm discovering this world; this is fantastic!" But then I was just shooting Mexicans for a long time.

CB: Well, that game was really a thinly veiled metaphor for border tensions in Nevada -- no, I'm just kidding. But yeah, I love Naughty Dog and Uncharted. What they do is top tier; they're a top tier developer at what they do. But one of the things that I find missing from Uncharted is that if I'm a treasure hunter and I'm playing Uncharted 3, I'm finding like a random Faberge Egg every once in a while, and I'm in this jungle and I try to go off the beaten path and I can't.

If I were at Naughty Dog now -- wow, this is turning into an "if Cliffy ran the world" interview -- but yeah, I would do a version of Uncharted that's multiplayer, in which every person is their own version of a Nathan Drake and you're doing global treasure hunts. And have dynamic events where "A new rune has been found in Peru!", you know?

Right -- you've got to race to get there.

CB: The race to get there, and then if somebody else got there first they actually left traps behind or bait/switch, and people backstabbing each other, and really have that be player-driven, and have a lot of emergent gameplay. Don't focus on the script-y stuff.

You know, make the jungles and make the players race to get to it, and make The Amazing Race with treasures, you know, a version of what Indiana Jones was -- globetrotting around the world. And then let me be that. Let someone make her character with a fedora and cool leather boots, and let me be the guy with the vest and all that, and just customize it and then set it in like the '40s or something. There's so much fun you could have with that.

What would stop you from doing a smaller thing like [Epic subsidiary and Infinity Blade dev] Chair is able to do? I guess you're supposed to be the blockbuster guy.

CB: Just time. The biggest thing we grapple with at Epic is that one of our little mantras is "Everything we do is epic," and we actually have a really hard time just making a little thing that is what it is and we put it out there. And I'm amazed we were able to do [iOS tech demo] Epic Citadel -- it's just a tech demo, not really gamified, we put treasure chests in and then say "Trade with your friends!" and all this stuff. Because with Infinity Blade when I talked to [Chair's] Donald [Mustard] about what he's done, I'm like, "Dude, you were setting out to make a great little mobile game, but you made almost a full console game with a campaign and all these rich social features."

Read more about:


About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He is a member of the insert credit podcast, and frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like