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New, Better, More: Epic's Cliff Bleszinski on Designing Gears of War 2

With Gears Of War 2 just around the corner, Gamasutra talks in-depth to Epic design director Bleszinski about the franchise's evolution, game prototyping, and expanding game narrative.

Cliff Bleszinski has spent nearly half his lifetime at North Carolina-based Epic Games, where he serves as design director. At only 33, Bleszinski (who earlier this year formally divorced himself from his "CliffyB" nickname) is one of the industry's best known designers, heavily contributing to the Unreal Tournament franchise and spearheading the Xbox 360 flagship Gears of War series.

The Microsoft-published Gears of War, a showcase for the industry-leading Unreal Engine 3, was a major hit for the console upon release in 2006, and its third-person cover mechanics proved to be influential to other developers. Two years later, Epic has wrapped up work on its sequel.

With Gears of War 2 complete and releasing next month, Gamasutra sat down with Bleszinski to discuss his development process, the divide between games and Hollywood, the role of a designer in modern game development, and why as a well-known personality it's important to pick your battles.

How long have you been in development? Basically since Gears shipped?

CB: Just two years. It was shortly after when we realized what the ship and sale [figures for Gears] were going to be. Then review scores started coming in. We had ideas what we could do with the sequel. It wasn't to the point where we were like, "Okay, all hands on deck" until we were sure the game was going to be a hit.

You weren't operating on the assumption it would be a success?

CB: Deep down we were hoping but we never make that assumption. Same thing with looking at [Gears of War 2]. I believe the response from the journalists has been very, very positive and very exciting but I never take anything for granted in this day and age. Always remain cautiously optimistic. It's a lesson learned. I never get cocky.

cliff.jpg So, going right from Gears into Gears 2's develpment, did it basically feel like you were just extending the first game?

CB: Well, I mean we sat down and we had this whole process we called "New, Better, More." It was just what was going to be new, what was going to be better, and what we were going to have more of. All the leads got together and put our heads together and said, "What features will we add?"

The funny thing is, bots came out on top. It was such a no-brainer for us to do and it's great to have those in there now.

In regards to the campaign, we knew we wanted to be longer. We knew we wanted to do a better job with the story because the story in the first one was very straightforward, very simple.

We wanted to get into who these guys were with regards to Dom and his search for his wife. Then lots, lots more nasty Locusts. We really shot for the more robust multiplayer this time around, hopefully knocking it out of the park.

You had no bots in the first Gears, and yet you guys have a strong history of bots with Unreal Tournament.

CB: Yeah. Steve Polge invented the bot.

You tapped the UT team for this game, I assume.

CB: Oh yeah. Once you start getting to the point you're getting close to shipping a product, everything gets very incestual in the company. People who are working on one thing spend a month chipping in and helping out to ship the product.

So some of the guys from Unreal Tournament were working on this. You get to the point where it gets dizzying towards the end, to be honest, when you're working these 12 plus hour days for a few months on end.

Also, when you think about now, forget about bots for just a second and think about what it means to be a game designer in this day and age. You not only have to try to make a game you think is amazing but the second you're done, you have to go on a whirlwind press tour now.

Sorry for my contribution to that!

CB: Well it's part of the job, man. I love doing it. I wouldn't trade it for the world, but you compare it to a movie director who gets a few months off when the project's in the can and he can go to the beach and relax and recharge. I'm just like, "Ahhh!"

I had to do the five European cities in five days recently. It's not like you have time to go see the Eiffel Tower. You're just -- boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, which is part of building the hype in this day and age.

It doesn't matter what kind of game you make if nobody knows about it, if the journalists don't write about it. You're not building that buzz making an event launch. Anyway, I don't know how I got on that from bots.


Well, in regards to the idea of being a game designer today, I'm curious as to your thoughts about the evolution of that role. Titles are changing. We now have "creative director" which seems to be displacing "lead designer" in top billing at some studios -- whereas, that movie director you mentioned is much more codified.

CB: I still think the roles are shaking up in the video game industry. If you were to compare shop to shop, sometimes things are done drastically different, whereas Hollywood is this big mercenary freelance system where the director helms it.

Just the little bits I've learned from my experiences as executive producer on the Gears movie -- it's a very structured, yet organic, process in Hollywood, where in games it's still the Wild Wild West in some ways right now.

And as creative as I am, I'm not anything without that guy over there, Rod [Fergusson], the producer, because he's the order to my chaos. He's got a great design sense.

I'm like, "Hey I'm thinking about a gun that does this, Rod. What do you think?" He's like, "Dude, how's that going to work with this and that and this?" I'm like, "Oh fuck, you're right."

You need that kind of give and take. You can't be designing in a vacuum. You just can't. So we have a cabal process where the leads ould sit down once a week. I'll say, "Alright. Here are my issues I need to go over." They bring up other issues and we hash through things and all stay in kind of a hive mind in regards to the direction of the project. I think the results ultimately turned out very, very good.

So would you say design is a less technical process than it would have been in sort of the older days of game development?

CB: Well, the way that I design is a very organic, kind of holistic approach. I design by feel rather than by the checklist of a spreadsheet.

Not a lot of design documents, per se.

CB: We do. There's a time during the project where my job is basically just to sit and work. When I'm on site, my job is a combination of meetings, playtests, emails, and Microsoft Word, with the occasional PowerPoint thrown in.

Sometimes it's about being a communicator. It's about being a facilitator. It's about developing a cheerleader. Then, also creatively pushing for the things I think should be in the game as far as my own ideas, but also harvesting the really cool ideas of the people who I work with.

We'll sit down and figure out, "Okay, here's what the layout of this level is going to be, the start and finish. Here's all the cool stuff we came up with that we want to see in there." We give the level designer the plan, the two-pager. Then he starts shelling it in.

He may come up with this new creature idea that we could play out very well in a chase sequence or something and we'll say, "Okay we need to figure out a way to fit that in because that's very, very cool."

You have to have structure but also have enough wiggle room to stay liquid because fun is a very imprecise science.

Do you think it might become more precise, or is that just contrary to the interactive nature of games? I suspect a film director or screenwriter sees a much more linear path from conception to execution. In games, it's not so much like that.

CB: Well that's the problem with games -- or the challenge with games more than the problem. When you're doing a movie, it's a very linear. If the script reads, and you can't put it down, it's kind of hard to screw that up.

Whereas for the game, you could have a design document. You could have all the artists ready to go. But you could still screw it up because you're doing a Ouija board-type challenge of technology versus narrative versus game mechanics.

Sometimes you'll push something one direction because it makes sense for the narrative, or you'll pull it this way because the game mechanics makes sense, or the technology will allow you to do something else. In one section the writer has to account for the fact that we decided to have hundreds of locusts pouring out of the ground and make it a crazy action sequence, whereas it was quiet before.

That's kind of the delicate balance that we have to walk right now with the video game. That's why a lot of people are still sorting through all of this. Then when you mash that against gamer expectations that continue to change year after year with what they want, what they expect out of their entertainment experience, it is still the Wild Wild West out there.

You're probably still going to see a lot of shakeups and a lot of consolidation as people continue to figure out what works and what doesn't.

But do you see that changing? Will it become less scattershot?

CB: I hope so, because I think in order for any industry to ultimately grow and thrive, you need to have the shakeups kind of settle down, and you need a little bit of stability. The fact that we're able to pull off a game like this isn't an accident. It's not like this team was just put together overnight.

The people who are at Epic, we've been building this team steadily over the last 15 years, and there are people who have been with the company for almost that long. There's people who are at the company who were working on Unreal Tournament, and people from Ion Storm, and all these other companies throughout the business that we know.

There are times when Rod can anticipate what I'm going to think about a design issue, or vice versa, or we're finishing each others sentences, because we all kind of jive. You need a lot of that time in any development studio for people to gel and become part of a greater machine of the assembly line of creating a good game. It's like a band, you know?


Do you ever have time to do level design these days?

CB: No, I haven't done that in a good long while. I'm more of a facilitator at this point. It gets to the point where the game is up and running, and I just get to play it and make notes -- it's what we call "shoulder surfing."

Lee Perry, our senior gameplay designer, does a ton of it as well. [He'll] just go into a person's office and ask, "What are you working on?" -- looking at it, and saying, "Can you move that cover over by five feet?" or, "That guy really annoys me when he spawns. Can you spawn him from a different angle?" or, "People are getting kind of lost here, can you put a little ammo at the end of the hallway to kind of lead them through?"

All those little things make the difference between good to great, right? And, you know, it's also just saying, "I have to see a gun with a chainsaw on it," and knowing when to dig in your heels.

There's a lot of mutual respect amongst the leads in regards to when people pick their battles. I'm not going to sit there and dig in my heels and say, "Oh, I have to see a character with a bozo hat on or clown shoes."

I'm not going to sit there and be stubborn about something that I'm not a believer in. I know if Lee says, "I have to see a Boomer with a shield and an explosive flail," I'll say, "Dude, that sounds cool. Do that."

What do you think makes a good game designer? Is it more of an instinctual thing?

CB: It depends on the game, it depends on the designer. For the kind of games we do, I think I'm fairly effective at what I do because I know when to pick my battles. I know when to push for the things I want to see, but I also know when to back off and give people enough rope to be creative, not sitting there and saying, "Here's the exact blueprint for how your level's going to pan out, and don't deviate from it."

You have to trust people enough. Look at the design process for the tickers, where we knew we had this level where the truck had to make it through and we wanted to have obstacles for the player to clear out before the truck would advance.

The initial idea was that the Locusts just had straight bombs or land mines that the player had to clear out. I said, "That's not that interesting." So Dave Nash and I sat down and were like, "What can we do to make this cool, man?" Well, the locusts usually use creatures. Well, what kind of creature would it be? What if it's this kind of small thing that scurries around and has a bomb on its back?

So Matt Tonks went and did the AI for it, and he made it more cockroach-like, so it avoids you until the last minute when it charges. I thought it would be cool if you melee this thing and you could send it flying on its back, and turn it into basically a big portable exploding barrel. So then it got built, and we saw the big beaver teeth that were on it -- okay, those teeth need to chatter.

So all of sudden there's this iterative process, and we wind up with a very cool memorable creature that you're then fighting in a dark tunnel. Suddenly the fun and the magic happens, and you kind of let things happen organically.

You need to allow for time for iteration. Thankfully, our tools also facilitate that with things like Kismet and UnrealScript.

gears2_shot2.jpg

Even with that iteration, though, these games didn't take as long as some modern triple-A games to develop. By the time you actually get to the point where you're modeling everything, do you feel you've basically figured it out? Do you do a lot of redevelopment? I've talked to Valve about this, and they seem to be happy to toss essentially-completed stuff away.

CB: I think it completely depends on the shop and what their development methodology does. If Valve is happy to throw out a bunch of completed stuff, cool. Valve makes a lot of amazing stuff, and if that works for them, more power to them.

We do a lot with levels in shell form, or when we're prototyping. It costs money to have an artist sit there for months and build a character that's eight trillion polygons, right? So the more we can answer that question before we commit to something, the better. I think we've done a pretty good job of it.

One of the reasons we're able to develop this game in two years is because we have tools that allow you to rapidly prototype. A level designer can have a level shell up and going in a matter of days, if not hours. We rough in all the levels before one artist lifts a finger. We have designers who are able to use our Kismet tools to cobble together a prototype version of the Bloodmount or the Mauler Locust before anyone even builds the thing.

We have these maps called POC -- proof of concepts. Lee would sit there with Kismet. He would cobble together a Boomer with an epic flail, and create what the gameplay mechanic would be. When he shoots, he deploys, and when he gets close to a certain point, then he charges, and all that kind of stuff. Then you show that to a programmer, and who codes it up, and then the concept gets done.

There's very much a pipeline that way. That's the way we work. I think a lot of it is building a better Swiss Army knife, in many ways.


How do you work with the writers? They're external, right?

CB: Yeah, Josh Ortega. That's also organic as well. Starting off on Gears 2, I came up with a two-page treatment. That was then torn to shreds by the other leads. Then work cycled on again and again, sat down with a whiteboard, beat on it some more until we had something we thought was compelling, then brought Josh in.

We had basically the bullet point of what the major plot points would be throughout the campaign. Then Josh was just unleashed on all of the scripts, which went through like eight to 11 cycles on each one. There were times where Rod and I would edit those scripts to the point it looked like somebody got chainsawed on top of them, there was so much red.

Josh, thankfully, is such a tenacious person he was able to see it through and do a great job with the story and the scripts. But it's an exhausting process, and there's not a lot of people that could do what the video game writers do in this day and age. It's very much a rare thing.

You get your Rhianna Pratchetts. You get your Susan O'Connors. You get your Josh Ortegas. There's just a handful of them, man. There's just not a lot of people that can do it. They're incredibly valuable for the business, because context and writing are going to be increasingly important.

Were you considering working with Susan O'Connor again?

CB: The scheduling didn't work out. She's a great girl, a wonderful writer. Really smart. But she had a lot of other stuff going on, and there was a little while there we didn't know what was going on, we didn't know who was going to write the game. I had lunch with Eric Nylund who wrote the Halo novels, and was very much involved in Gears 1 with regards to the Gears story. Chris Taylor was there too.

From Gas Powered Games?

CB: Yeah. We were having curry in Seattle. Josh happened to be along. We were talking about politics and porn and things like that. Josh and I just kind of clicked. We were like, oh, you seem cool. We kept in touch. I read his graphic novel The Necromancer, which I just loved, and read some of his other work. He's done so much stuff in regards to writing his book, writing for [comics series] Death Dealer, things like that. He was a no brainer for us.

So he came out, and he was so enthusiastic, and he had the tenacity to pull it off, really. If you look at this campaign [compared to] the first game, there's a lot more going on in the story. It is such a delicate balancing act. It is really tricky to pull off in this day and age. I'm pretty proud of the team for doing it.

gears2_shot1.jpg

Is it a challenge for this genre? I'd imagine a lot of people would just say, why bother finding a writer you click with, because it's an action game.

CB: There's a certain amount of people that will always not care about the action. I'm a big believer in empowering the user. If the user wants to skip all the cutscenes, if he wants to ignore the collectibles, if he doesn't give a crap about the story, fine, let him do that.

But if we can grab you with the first couple cutscenes and show you this is something that's compelling, then maybe people will want to hang around and pay a little bit of attention to what's going on in the universe. Because if you don't have a certain context to your game and your game mechanics, it's not as powerful.

I think if you can believe in what's going on in the world around you and really believe that this is a desperate situation, and that Dom is becoming increasingly frustrated with the search for his wife, those are narrative hooks. And television and theater have been getting by with plot points for hundreds if not thousands of years, right? Well, theatre, of course.

So if you can infuse a little bit of that in your game, why not? Because ultimately, if you fail, and your game's still fun, you still have a great game. But if you have a great story and your game is fun, then you just might have a classic, like Silent Hill 2.


From a design or story perspective, would you ever be interested in exploring more of a nonlinear, open-world kind of game?

CB: All that remains to be seen. I mean, I'm not going to lie -- Gears is a pretty linear game. We do break it up a bit with path choices, and there are some areas in Gears 2 that are what we call "optional splits" where the players can kind of circle around.

They're more porous areas, something we're very cautious of, but for the kind of narrative we have in Gears, ultimately it is a very linear narrative. It's not one where you're choosing a light side or a dark side.

But who knows what will happen down the line, you know? I think it's certainly a compelling thing to consider, but it all remains to be seen how it shakes out.

Yeah. Do you have any grand soapboxing ideas about which direction is more appropriate for games?

CB: There are multiple directions right now. It's really fascinating to see your Spores, and your LittleBigPlanets, that are kind of empowering the user to create all sorts of cool stuff. I think that's really compelling.

And you have your GTAs that have the really cool narrative, but are also more open-world. Then you have MMOs, where it's users interacting with each other and crafting their own parties and going on raids and things like that. Gaming is splintering into so many different directions. As of right now, I'm a fan of sci-fi space operas.

And regardless of all those thriving design routes, when you see a game on TV, they still dub in the Pac-Man sounds.

CB: Yeah, that drives me crazy. That's a huge pet-peeve of mine. They see the little kid playing, and it's like (imitates Pac-Man sounds), and you're like, really? Really? That hasn't been the case forever. The average age of the gamer has consistently remained consistent with my age -- it's 33 right now, which is how old I am. Next year, I'll be 34, and they'll say the average age of a gamer is 34.

And you know what? These guys are having kids and there's a whole new generation of gamers that just grew up playing, and it's no longer this weird thing that dirty people do in the basement. It's just something everybody does. Nobody thinks anything of it. It's no longer weird.

And as an industry, we're actually getting to the point now where we have people you could call senior statesmen, the first generation of real veterans who have spent a whole generation in the field.

CB: Yeah, right. That's good. And sooner or later, we're going to have a president in office that grew up playing video games. And suddenly, video games aren't going to seem so scary. Which, I think, will be good politically for us, but I'm kind of going to miss that little rock and roll edge that we have right now.

(laughter)

Right.

CB: The parents are like, "Oh my God, the violent video games are responsible for everything evil!" And you're like, "Come on."

You're relatively young despite having been in this industry for a while -- in the late '90s you were much more outspoken or brash, but you've managed to smoothly transition into your current position.

CB: Yeah, you've got to pick your battles now.

(laughter)

All that comes out of working with very talented people and managing to produce a great game. You know, the second I produce a game that's crappy, no one's going to keep listening. As sad as it is, you're only as good as your last game, in many ways.

In Hollywood, at least, you get movie jail for like a year, and you're out, and you get to try and make another good movie. In games, you screw up once, and no one ever wants to hear from you again. It's pretty sad.

Do you think that's related to issues with developer recognition in a broad sense?

CB: I don't think the industry values visionaries as much as it could. I really don't. And I think you look at a guy like Ken Levine or [Peter] Molyneux or Chris Taylor or [Hideo] Kojima, I mean, we all need to celebrate these people.

And yes, it absolutely is very much a team effort, and I'm nothing without the 100-plus people who worked on Gears, but if I can go out there and evangelize the game and help sell the vision of it, that's a very useful thing, and we're all able to put gas in our gas tanks as a result of it, right?


I'm curious about something you said recently about Gears 2 not being on the PC due to piracy issues. Is that indicative of the direction Epic's going to be going in the future?

CB: Well, I don't want to focus on that too much because it's such a hot-button thing and people are so sensitive about it. But it's safe to say we're going to focus on, in regards to Gears, that Gears is a console franchise, and it just doesn't make sense for us right now to be dealing with a PC version of Gears 2.

So people shouldn't assume that Epic is not going to be developing PC games generally?

CB: No comment on that, really.

Outside of the Gears franchise?

CB: Can't predict the future right now, with that.

Anything you can say about what Chair or People Can Fly are doing? Are you working directly with them at all?

CB: Yeah. It's part of my job as design director. There's just some cool stuff coming through. PCF, there's a lot of talented guys there and they're producing some exciting things, but I'm also really excited about what Chair's doing.

And very soon, you're going to be hearing a lot about what they've been working on for a while, and I think gamers are really going to dig it.

Do you think they had any idea you guys would approach them? You approached them, I assume.

CB: I honestly, I wasn't -- that was [president] Mike [Capps] and [VP] Mark [Rein] and them kind of doing all that stuff. I just came in to work one day, and they were like, "Alright, you're working with these guys." I'm like, "Cool."

[laughter]

It just seemed very unexpected. The game they made was a small-scale Xbox Live Arcade title.

CB: Well, a lot of those core guys started off with Advent Rising, which had a lot of cool things to it but maybe made a few mistakes along the way, and learned from them. T

hen [they] just scaled back significantly, made Undertow, which was very well received, and then are working on some other cool stuff now that will... It sucks, because I can't talk about it yet, but I'm really geeking out about it, because it's really cool stuff.

Do you work with Orson Scott Card at all?

CB: No, he works directly with Donald Mustard and those guys. But I get builds of what they're working on, and feedback, and play, and things like that, which is also just a fun part of the job.

Is it nice to be able to have your hand in different projects like that?

CB: It's tough to not be distracted, though. You have to intentionally set up meetings and look at your time, sort of make sure you have to have plenty of hands-on time with the big baby, here.

It's just incredibly gratifying now to have been working on something for a couple of years and be able to just sit down with a journalist now and talk about, "What did you think of this part? What did you think of that part?"

These events are always stressful because, [while] I don't have kids, I have a feeling that I know what a father feels like when he's sitting outside the room waiting to see. "Ten fingers and ten toes, please."

gears2_shot3.jpg

Often in games you often have to spend two or three years on one thing, which again compared to film is crazy.

CB: Yeah, they can bust out a movie in like nine months, man. They take four months to film it, and they're done, right? Put it in post and ship it. Whereas this is a Herculean effort.

It's the ultimate blend between art and science in every department, and when you find people who are like technical artists, that they can do both, in regards to learning all the tools and making things optimized and making things beautiful, hang on to those people, because they're talented.

That's why I was asking earlier whether you think it'll become more of a precise science.

CB: I'm hoping the schools are doing a better job of teaching students. I mean, we can't hire people fast enough, but we're also very picky. But in regards to the mainstream media, it's been very interesting to see how this business continues to flourish every year. And everybody plays games, but a lot of your mainstream press still kind of ignore it.

We also seem to be weathering the current economic storm. [laughter]

CB: Well, because you've got your younger generation with disposable income. They're not going to give up their games, man. Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, this is still the most value-packed form of entertainment outside of going outside with a soccer ball and kicking it around.

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