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Gearing Up for Next-Gen: Cliff Bleszinski Chats About The Epic Future

At the Tokyo Game Show, Gamasutra sat down to informally interview Epic Games' lead designer Cliff Bleszinski, getting a sense of his perspective on game design, how and when to use narrative, and how to merge the mainstream and the hardcore.

Gearing Up for Next-Gen:
Cliff Bleszinski Chats About The Epic Future

Epic's Unreal Engine 3-powered Gears of War is, at this stage, one of the best looking games planned for the upcoming Xbox 360, and the game was shown as one of the centerpieces of Microsoft's Tokyo Game Show keynote, being demonstrated live to members of the media thereafter.

Gamasutra took one such opportunity to chat with Epic Games' lead designer Cliff Bleszinski (AKA Cliffy B), and, through a series of game-centric questions, formed a picture of his perspective on game design, how and when to use narrative, and how to merge the mainstream and the hardcore - Epic's VP Mark Rein came along for the ride in this relatively casual, but also relatively revealing chat.

GS: Why are the characters so huge [in profile]?

Cliff Bleszinski: Well it's like Master Chief, he has that huge suit on - it's iconic. You play Halo and you can see the character – it's iconic. In video games, silhouette is everything - you need to be able to see the guys.


Cliff Bleszinski

Mark Rein: Especially in a video game where there's so much darkness.

(Cliff begins to demonstrate Gears Of War, and an NPC emerges to show the main characters into a safe building )

GS: Can you shoot that guy?

CB: We're still figuring that out.

GS: What's the choice there?

CB: Well, he's going to help you out by offering you some items, and potential weapon upgrades. And if you kill him, you won't get that opportunity.

GS: But is it a moral choice as to whether you can kill him?

CB: No, we're not making Knights Of The Old Republic or anything here. Who these characters are is largely pre-defined, as far as Marcus being an anti-hero, and Dom being his buddy. Part of it is just my own game design philosophy because, for me, whenever I play those games, I always go evil. And I have a feeling that if they made those games, if you could only choose the dark path, and you only thought you could choose the light path, nobody would notice, because it seems to me that everyone who goes for the Force chokes.

You can't shoot Dom [in Gears Of War] either. The fundamental problem with making an interactive narrative is like – how would you make Lethal Weapon 2, the buddy cop movie - if in the first scene Danny Glover turns to Mel Gibson and shoots him in the head? Never underestimate the ability of the user to undermine the narrative you're trying to tell. You have to allow for every single scenario. You're empowering the user's ability to make the game look stupid, essentially.

GS: It seems like every once in a while the normal mapping isn't quite there right away, like in Halo 2.

CB: The mipmaps should all be loaded – but it's still early, we've only had this on the box for two weeks now. A friend of mine works at Bungie and he said the mipmaps in that game drove him crazy.

MR: But that's because they only had 4 megabytes of memory and we've got 512.

GS: Will the framerate be improving?

MR: Well we've been working on this (actual hardware) like I say, for about two weeks [as of Tokyo Game Show]. We've done very little optimization, I'd like to say the lowest of low-hanging fruit optimization. We're only running on a single core now, so we'll get at least double that, it'll be super smooth. We didn't even expect to get onto the final box until X05, and here we are. So the Xbox 360 really exceeded our expectations.

GS: Can you shoot that sign up there?

CB: You will be able to make it procedural and everything, we have that ability, but right now it's canned animation. This demo doesn't leverage physics nearly as much as the final game will. With that cabinet there, in the final version you'll be able to shoot it and move it procedurally, with realtime physics.

GS: What are you using for physics?

CB: We're using Novodex. By the way, all of the animations you're seeing aren't final either, we're beefing them up a bit more.

GS: Why did you choose third person over first?

CB: I wanted to have a scenario where you can see the character, and we develop him over time through the story, and you get the benefit of third person - seeing him when he gets hit and so on. And then you get the tightness of first person aiming when the camera pulls into his shoulder. In a lot of third person games, the character either feels tiny, or he's blocking your cursor and line of sight.

GS: This seems a bit more Resident Evil 4 style.

CB: Oh really? You don't say? What a coincidence? (laughs) What game is that? That wasn't the best game of last year, no! I didn't like the previous Resident Evils, though, I don't like the tank controls. I was more of a Silent Hill guy. But even then with Silent Hill it was more about the narrative and the atmosphere.


The locusts provide your primary opposition in Gears of War.

GS: How long will it be?

MR: We really haven't figured out how long this game is. We really want to fill the whole story out, then go back and figure that in.

GS: Who wrote the story?

CB: Eric Nylund is writing the story – he's the officially assigned writer from Microsoft, he wrote the Halo book. I created the universe for the game.

GS: How many other games do you know of that have official writers?

CB: I think Valve does. I mean, you need it. I'm really good at game mechanics, and I'm pretty good at universe creation, but as far as dialogue goes – the dialogue you see in here is kind of first-pass, just basic stuff like “Go get him!”, and stuff like that. But a lot of the material we're working on is the dialogue within Delta Company, and establishing each character individually. Eric is a well-established sci-fi author, he loves this stuff.

GS: How did that relationship start?

CB: Microsoft has been great to work with. We worked with Howard Philips on the gameplay side (of Nintendo Power fame), he was the original Nintendo Game Master, with the Nintendo tie. My name's in the first issue of Nintendo Power, by the way. Super Mario Bros. high score – you know how you could take a picture of your high score and send it in?

GS: What was your high score?

CB: 9,999,950

GS: How did you do it?

CB: Just jumped on a shell over and over again, grabbing one-ups and such. I had a lot of time back then.

GS: You played a lot of games back then, too, it seems. What do you play now?

CB: I'm playing a lot of Live. Unreal Championship 2 and Halo 2 on Live. Live is just hilarious, it brings out the best and worst in people. I just played a bunch of Darkwatch, which was… cool… but jumpy. Played some Battlefield 2, God of War was great. I warn you, though, if you play God of War, other games aren't as good anymore. It's like eating a really good steak, and then going back to Sizzler.

GS: I like that arc on the grenade [in Gears Of War].

CB: My logic here is that we give you a cursor for your gun, why not give you an arc for your grenade? If you're a soldier, and you're going to have a good idea of the weight of the thing, and how far it's going to go, so why not just give you a visual indication of it?

GS: How would you do that with the Nintendo Revolution?

CB: Just throw the controller at the screen.

MR: I'd get tired after a while.

CB: Yeah, you'll have an entire generation of gamers with Popeye arms.


GS: So how much story are you talking about? People complain about how the action stops in games like Metal Gear Solid.

CB: Nowhere near that much. I love Metal Gear, but I'm not that guy.

MR: It's all in-game, it's all in-context.

CB: We're going to start with a cut-scene, but I'm of the mind that you play games because you want to play, not because you want to watch. Eric and I have been going back and forth with the writing, and we've continued to pull it back. Less is more, as far as I'm concerned in dialogue. One thing that I'm very impressed with that Valve does is a lot of that kind of interpretive story. The posters on the wall, the overhearing of dialogue – if you're want to sit there and listen to it, and get more out of the narrative, you can do that. But if you just want to go in and blast some creatures, you can do that. So I guarantee that every cutscene in this game will be skippable the first time playing.

There's nothing more frustrating to me than a game designer who says “No, we put all of this effort into the story, you have to watch it!” No! Games are about choice. If the gamer wants to just get into the game and play it… Maybe there's a gamer out there who will skip the first cutscene, play the game a little bit, then be like “hey, this is kind of cool, I'm hearing all of these little details about this universe” – then go back and watch the cutscene. But I'd rather have the option than not.


Marcus, the main protagonist in Gears of War.

GS: What's your target length for a cutscene?

CB: A couple minutes for each one, maybe.

MR: It's more like establishing shots. The helicopter comes down, you see some people get off and look around, then you're back in the game again.

CB: Whenever you're showing a cutscene, you're not playing the game. To me, this is the most powerful medium out there, as far as that story element, because since you're playing, you feel more emotion with it. I'm flashing back to crying when I was playing RPGs as a teenager.

GS: What game was that?

CB: Lunar.

GS: What part?

CB: When Luna revealed that she was the goddess, and you're going up the stairs saying that you are still you, and… you look at it in hindsight and it's kind of cheesy, but back then, I was all emotional.

But my mantra here is – if you can tell it during the scene, do that. The cutscene is the absolute fallback, if we absolutely have to show you a little bit of exposition. Here's a minute of some guys chatting and some [stuff] going on, then it's back to the action. Another one of the techniques we're using is the forced look. With the over-the-shoulder view, we'll kind of pull your attention over to something for a second or two. God of War did some of that, they did a little bit of it in Resident Evil 4… in a first person shooter, the camera move is a little more upsetting, so you can't do it there.

GS: What about Burnout 3, when you hit other cars, and it pulls you out.

CB: Burnout is brilliant. But did you notice what they did to make that viable? If you were about to knock into something, they'd do the whole crash thing, but then after, they kind of re-center you on the track, move some of the cars over, because taking away the control like that is a very dangerous thing, and it could've become very frustrating very quickly if they weren't forgiving with it. But if Burnout 3 didn't do it, it wouldn't have been as dramatic.

As long as we establish that, we're going to be cool when we do it with the gamer. You're not going to be in the middle of some moment where you're going to be upset that the control was taken away. Kind of like checkpoints - if we do our job right with the placement of checkpoints, you'll never feel like you have to back out to the menu and save.

To me it's like if I'm playing an first person shooter on the PC, and I can hit F5 to save, if I kill an enemy with 10 bullets, and I know I could have used six, I will reload, and I'll go back and try it again – and that becomes the game, and that's not necessarily a good thing to me. I want the game to automatically say – ok, you got to this point, we'll autosave. If you die, we'll only put you back 30 seconds to a minute, we'll let you continue. We'll be very forgiving with it.

GS: What's the most important thing you want the player to do?

CB: Have fun.

GS: Do you want them to beat the game, is that important to you?

CB: Yeah, I want people to beat this game.

MR: Because then we can sell them more games!

CB: Well, when you've got the guy who's married, he goes to the store with his wife and sees Gears of War 2. He says “Oh, Gears of War 2!” and she's like: “Hey idiot, you didn't finish Gears of War 1, go finish that before you buy this one.” We're telling you a story, and we want you to finish it.

MR: We want to make it fun, we want to make it that it's not so hard for the novice player. We have all of these different character animations and techniques. Hardcore players will be able to use them right away, and do cool stuff like cooking the grenade. An average user won't do that – they might do it by accident and say: “Oh look at that! I got the grenade to explode in the air and it blew up this thing!” The novice player will get to enjoy the game, and most of the animations, without actually having to learn the mechanics. The advanced players will get the most out of it, but the novice won't be left behind.

GS: So how interactive are these environments going to be? If you put a cool house like that in front of me, I want to go inside it.

CB: By doing this single player experience, there's kind of a path that we have to have there, because things have to happen to let the story unfold. It's not a large open city like a GTA-like setting, so it's almost like "Pirates of the Caribbean," where you can get off the ride and walk around a little bit.

And I want to actually give you motivation to move to those locations – like we have these stranded people who were left behind on Emergence Day, and they've been living as squatters, and have been very clever about how they hide, and how they get from point A to point B, avoiding the locusts, so there's a lot of potential for secrets. As far as cover though, we do a lot with cover – like knocking over a pillar to hide behind it, moving the large physics objects – like there's a car that's kind of a husk – you can push it from the front, and there are sparks and everything, you can push it in the back and blow out all the windows, and if you blow out the windows and the doors you can't take cover behind it anymore – you can shoot off the hood and things like that. There's also destructible cover, so the visual language of the game says that if you're behind a wooden armoire or bookshelf it's not safe, and you can actually destroy the cover.

GS: I like being able to find things, so secrets are good.

CB: *Makes Zelda ‘treasure discovery' noise*

GS: Will the game be about progression, or will there be backtracking?

CB: There's going to be a bit of backtracking, but in some ways I think that backtracking can be abused in games as padding. Super Metroid is a classic example [of well-done backtracking.] They would intentionally let you into a new area, and you'd struggle to try and wall jump up there, and you eventually realize you couldn't. Then you go back to another area and get the power up, then you come back and see that you can use it there. You start off with a core, and build out from there.

That's a way to do things, and if you're doing that, then design for it. Gears is a slightly more linear experience, with the variety being within that linearity - how you're going to take in this cover, or some splits in the game. Like there's an area where the character that gets there first chooses the high road or the low road, and you're flanking each other's enemies, and aren't using the same cover. If you play that area, you may want to go back and choose the other path the next time.

GS: Will there be a multi-player co-op mode?


Concept art of the war-torn landscape of Gears of War.

CB: Absolutely. The first player is always Marcus, and the second player plays as Dom. So it's not like player 2 is Marcus with a blue doo-rag, it's a different guy. Player 2 is Dom, he has his own character and his own story. You're playing through the single player, and player two can pop in as Dom at any time, and take him over. You can do that over Live as well, via split-screen.

GS: Will there be jumping?

CB: There will be some select context-sensitive jumping, but I'm a big believer that if you're really being shot at, you want to keep your head low. The thing is, if you're going to put jumping in, make it part of the mechanic – make the puzzles involve jumping, and it's like – no, that's not a good fit for this game. You evade, you run out of the way, you look for cover.

GS: As long as my progress isn't impeded by random boxes that I can't get around.

CB: If something is too high, you can't get up it, but there's a certain threshold, I think it's around 24 Unreal units when you can just walk over it, but if it's over 64, you take cover, and you can mantle over it. And if it's long cover, you can mantle up or mantle down.

GS: And how will it be structured?

CB: Well, I'm not a fan of the games where it's like 10 missions where you just randomly go over here and do some things. In any given war, if you're a soldier, you're not the one winning the war, and that's the fundamental problem with doing a war game. War is won by intelligence, planning and strategy by the commanders, and each soldier being, for lack of the better term, a cog in the war machine.

So you want to get that sense of personal victory, without winning the actual war. So we have a number of things we're doing there to give a sense of that. And we don't want to have enemies that are just zombie-like. Yeah, these guys are savages, but they're intelligent. They don't want to die.

GS: Cliffy B, you look pretty tired.

CB: The majority of game developers have sleeping problems, because their brains are so hyperactive. I'll be alright.

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