Epic design head Cliff Bleszinski is launching Gears of War 3, the final part of the IP’s initial trilogy. He speaks to Patrick Garratt on this, the next generation, Bulletstorm’s future and more.
Gears of War 3
Last part of triple-A, Microsoft-published action series for Xbox 360.
Ships next Tuesday globally.
Headed up by Cliff Bleszinski, Epic’s design director.
Bleszinski, now 36, has been a professional developer since he was 17.
It’s difficult to know if TheRealCliffyB is just that, or if you’re talking to a media plan. Cliff Bleszinski, Epic’s design lead, has pushed himself forward as one of very few true games development celebrities, a man who’s not afraid to showboat with the press or appear on Fallon, and is regarded by the likes of Irrational’s Ken Levine as an “ambassador for what we do”.
Is the camera-loving face genuine, or is Bleszinski something self-manufactured?
The exec’s been touring as part of Microsoft’s efforts to launch Gears of War 3, the last part of the Gears trilogy and what looks to be a clean cut-off point against whatever happens next for the franchise. I caught up with him by phone yesterday. He sounded tired. Maybe I was talking to the real guy: he told me he wants to learn to surf and joked about missing his dog, that he wants to make a game more personable than the brutish Gears.
He also believes Gears of War 3 is the best part in the series. He was sure about that. And he still can’t resist dropping in the oh-so-tempting headline quote. Naughty Cliff.
VG247: Were you pleased with the review scores this morning?
Cliff Bleszinski: Doing great, apart from a couple of haters.
And who are the haters?
A certain gamer of the Euro.
And what was their problem with the game? I haven’t read the review.
You know, I didn’t quite gather it. I don’t want to come across as defensive. How do I phrase this properly? When people rated Gear 2 higher than Gears 3, it kind of upset me because I know Gears 3 is a better game on every level.
That was my next question. Is this the best Gears game? It’s promoted a lot of discussion on VG247. No one seems to be able to agree on whether or not it’s better than Gears 2. You’ve said it, and Mike Capps [Epic's president - Ed] told me the same thing at gamescom. What is it that makes you believe that?
The added development time is one of the things that allowed us to make it like that. We’ve embraced Gears 1’s strengths, learned from Gears 2’s weaknesses, and hit a sweet spot between the two. Honestly, I think that’s the gist of it all.
Which weaknesses did you pull on from Gears 2?
The fact of the matter is that the online didn’t work from day one. We steadily patched it to a decent state over the course of development, and then realised it still wouldn’t be enough, that we’d need dedicated servers there at the start. Thankfully, we convinced our partners at Microsoft to work with us to make sure that could actually become a reality.
I hope we spoil gamers with this game, so they expect to have dedicated servers for their shooters from here on out, to prevent lag-switching and all that crap that comes when people make a meta-game out of hacking it.
We spent a lot of time making sure the story’s all wrapped up, making sure we still have that Gears vibe, but that we also take things fairly seriously in as far as what’s going on in this world; cut out a bit of the pulpiness, like the giant worm and things like that, get rid of the tanks on the ice and ultimately give gamers the game that they really, truly want.
Are you going to be pleased to move on from the trilogy itself? It’s been a real roller coaster for all of us, not just for you, and I think the fact it’s finally drawing to a close is what’s causing such a level of discussion. Are you glad to be able to put all this behind you?
I’m glad we’ve been able to put the trilogy in its tidy little package with a bow on it and put it under the Christmas tree for gamers. I won’t spoil it for you, but when you finish the game and the credits roll there’s no magic thing after the credits saying, “Now there’s a new threat coming.” It’s a gag that’s played out right now in the business, and if we were to do something else in the future, I hope we’d find a fresh take on it. Fresh, not only for us as developers, but also for the consumers.
It’s fair to say that Gears of War is one of the most successful action franchises this generation, for lots of reasons we’re all aware of. How do you feel it holds up to the competition in a gameplay sense, though? A lot of people have been comparing it to Vanquish: do you look at these other games and consider Gears to be the best of breed?
I look at games with the magnifying glass and the lens of what I think it interesting from a fiction standpoint, and I also look at it from a content standpoint and I look at it from a business standpoint. Vanquish was an absolutely outstanding experience. Beautiful. I often say that if Gears of War is the 1800s locomotive, then Vanquish is the Japanese bullet train. The thing about that game that broke my heart, though, was that I wanted multiplayer. In this world of used and rentals, it’s really difficult for a game that doesn’t have those elements in there. Users are smart. We have a global economic crisis, and they’re going to rent a lot of games or buy them used, unfortunately. You have to have enough to ensure they want to pay $60 day one and keep your game with a steady trickle of DLC.
It was interesting what you were saying there about removing the pulpy aspects of Gears 2. A lot of people liked it. Do you think there was a danger with Gears 3, as you stripped away the less serious bits, that you were going to become a little mawkish?
I mean, I’m not going to lie; Gears has a little bit of pulp in it, obviously. You’re chainsawing a locust in half and his blood’s spraying across the screen; there’s a little bit of that Evil Dead in there, right?
But once you start fully embracing all that then you start to become a niche product, and the small amount of people that love and worship the cult film that was deemed really cool back in the day is fine, but I want to make sure Gears drifts a bit more towards Band of Brothers and bit away from Evil Dead. It’s really hard to empathise or shed a tear over Bruce Campbell’s dilemma in those films.
You clearly want people to empathise with Marcus and Dom, but surely the gamer really just wants to cut someone’s head off?
You can hit that back button and skip every cut scene in the game if you want to.
Fair enough. You were pushed quite a way back from your original release date. Mike told me at gamescom that Microsoft just said you could get a better window, and that he was pleased he got to make the better game. How would the game have differed if it had been released when it was supposed to have been released?
‘Joe, our programmer, said, “Yeah, based upon the April ship date we can’t do a beta.” I walked out of that room thinking that this could be the end of the studio.’
I can tell you that I sat there looking at April, with my leads in the room, and Joe, our programmer, said, “Yeah, based upon the April ship date we can’t do a beta.” I walked out of that room thinking that this could be the end of the studio. You need to ship with functional online day one right now, or even within a week they’re going to move on to another new game, or they’re going to go back to the game that already works.
You only have a brief window in this connected, distracted world to get people and keep them. Microsoft pulling that switch on us seemed like quite a mean move at first, but it was a huge blessing in disguise for the franchise and the studio. The fact that we were able to do the beta was huge.
I can tell you that it would not have the level of polish that it has, and nor would it have Beast mode. That would have probably been the first thing to be taken out, and it’s become the dark horse contender for one of the favourite game modes, based on the reviews.
Gears of War is well known for its campaign. To be honest, that’s why I love it. It’s not about multiplayer for me. It’s about the story and the fact it’s blatantly ridiculous. It’s a tonic. What did you learn from the first two games in terms of storytelling?
Each writer we’ve worked with has brought in their own unique take on the franchise, and we had good luck with Susan O’Connor and then Josh Otega, but we’ve become better at working with writers and integrating their work within the narrative. When Karen Traviss came along – who is ultimately the person that understands these characters better than anyone else, having written multiple Gears novels – we were able to really, comfortably earn the moments in the game. I’d like to believe that, at least.
As a creative working on it, I can’t force someone to feel an emotion, but when certain characters die in the game, or certain characters feel a moment, it doesn’t feel out of the blue or tacked on. It’s something about the whole Maria bit in Gears 2 I think we could have done better; Dom makes one comment about it, and then suddenly you find her, and then that’s it. And you’re like, “OK, I’m not feeling anything here.”
But in Gears 3, when these bubbles of narrative ultimately burst, I’m hoping you feel something. I realise that the style of the characters and the world is very unique to what we do, but I’d like to believe we earned a lot of those moments through a combination of good writing, pacing, music and sound.
You, personally as a developer, are well known for your action games, but you constantly talk about emotion, and wanting people to feel characters. Do you ever wish you could move into a space where that might be more possible for you? I’m thinking in terms of games like Heavy Rain; they’re a million miles away from Gears of War and Bulletstorm. Would you like to make a more personal game?
I would. I have a couple of designs kicking round in my head that I’ve been fascinating about for a long time, that I’ve been dwelling on, but I don’t really see them as a good fit for Epic and Epic’s DNA as a studio. We’re able to stretch our wings with our partners at Chair in terms of doing games like Shadow Complex and Infinity Blade, but doing a game about beachcombing and surfing? I love to beachcomb and I want to learn how to surf. That might not necessarily make a fit for Epic as a studio to show off the engine characteristics and the things we’re best at. Who knows. In good time.
Are you looking forward to moving onto the next generation?
The graphics aren’t good enough yet, goddammit. And anybody who says they are is full of shit.
We did the Samaritan demo as a way of saying, “Hey, there are plenty of video chip manufacturers that could absolutely push things further.” I want to see Avatar in real-time, and I want to see beyond that. Gears 3 looks outstanding, and the new Modern Warfare and Battlefield look great, but we can absolutely do better.
We need to make that leap into a next generation that is not only beautiful, but is visually connected in terms of being online all the time and having social aspects.
‘The graphics aren’t good enough yet, goddammit. And anybody who says they are is full of shit.’
We’re getting a decent indication of how the next generation’s going to turn out. Obviously, we had your GDC demo and Mike told me at gamescom that we’re probably looking at a lot more cores in the CPUs for the next round. It looks very power-based. We’re going to get better graphics, but is that really what creative like you want from next generation consoles?
It’s not just graphics. One of the things that used to drive the industry was that you could just have better graphics and take an old, stale game design and put it together and players would be, like, “Ooh.” I mean, no offense to Altered Beast, but if you go back and play that it really wasn’t a very good game design. You move from left to right and you had a shallow beat-‘em-up, but graphically it was like nothing you’d ever seen before, so you were forgiving of it.
I don’t know if that’s going to be the case in this connected future. Gamers expect to have their beautiful, 60” plasma experience, but they also want to be able to take the game with them so they can contribute to that overall experience at the bus stop, or the bar, or the coffee shop. I think solving that connected problem in the future is going to be one of the numerous challenges we’re going to have to deal with, in addition to what it takes in a manpower sense to render a game that looks like Avatar in real-time.
That’s the obvious question. A lot of studios really suffered when we switched over to 360 and PS3. Are you envisaging a similar period this time?
I can’t really comment on what we’re working on engine-wise. That would be looking up the kimono too soon. If you look at what we did with Gears, we were able to get ahead of everybody else initially due to the fact we were doing some long-term R&D with Unreal Engine 3. If history were to repeat itself, you might have to keep your eyes peeled.
You’ve always said in past interviews related to Gears of War that there’s more to squeeze from 360, but it really does look as though you’ve topped it out this time. When I saw it last month I could barely believe it was running on 360. Surely this is it? There’s no more, right?
You never know. You’d be surprised at what tricks coders can pull. It’s a matter of squeezing ever more water from that stone. We’ll see how much longer the console generation lasts.
Now you’ve finished the trilogy, is there potential for Gears of War to branch out into other genres, or will it always be the same formula? That’s assuming you do move on, obviously.
I can see 8 billion types of ways we could spin the Gears of War franchise. Some sort of crazy first-person shooter, or a strategy game? Sure. It’s just a matter of how much bandwidth we have as a studio to produce content. We also don’t want to burn the franchise out.
You announced that you’re working on five projects at gamescom. Are you pleased that Epic’s being given room to diversify a little?
Yeah. There’s multiple projects that are being spearheaded by multiple people, and I get to be the fun uncle, come in and play them all and tell them what I like and what I don’t like. Who knows which of those will sink or swim inside the studio?
There’s a fracturing in the industry right now: 3DS, iOS, social, Vita, Wii U, all that. For us as an engine provider, it makes sense for us to diversify the types of products we have to make sure our engine runs on your average iPhone all the way up to whatever next gen hardware might be.
How have you managed the transition away from the traditional model of Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft to anything with a screen that can run a game? Surely that’s more than greenlighting different projects?
Well, Infinity Blade for starters. It was very successful for us. I think Mike Capps has gone on record to say that, man-for-man, Infinity Blade is actually more profitable than Gears because of the number of people that worked on it and the amount of money it made. We have a good relationship with Apple, and we’re fascinated with the direction that’s going.
I can tell you that the hardware manufacturers, especially in the console space, that understand online the best will be the ones that succeed moving forwards. It’s going to be all about how good that connection is, how easy it is to get online, to find friends, how great it is to play with others and have a connected, social experience.
Following on from that, Sony’s talked a lot about Vita in Tokyo this week, and appears to have a far better grasp of the fact that a mobile console needs to be constantly connected than Nintendo did with 3DS. Would you agree with that? Are you excited by Vita?
To be fair, I’ve barely seen anything on Vita. Basically, I know we have an interest in it, and I know it has two thumbsticks. Outside of that, I haven’t had a chance to research it. I don’t mean to dodge the question, but I’ve been so swamped. Today I’ve just been reading Gears reviews and commenting on the GAF forums and keeping my head above water. I’ve had a total of four days at home over the last month-and-a-half. I miss my dog.
You’ll see your dog soon, Cliff, don’t worry. Getting away for Gears a little, but on the same tack, diversification has led to an environment where there’s so much more competing for gamers’ time and attention, and the triple-A space itself has clearly become a lot more difficult. It was said recently that Bulletsorm didn’t turn a profit: is that correct?
Did we consider the game a success? Yes, in regards to launching a new IP in a very crowded marketplace. Honestly, I’m not responsible for the numbers. You’d have to ask our finance guy about that. I’m responsible for gameplay.
I can tell you we were immensely proud of the product as it turned out. If I could go back in a time machine and do something differently, I’d make sure that the game had a far larger and far deeper multiplayer suite. In the world of used games and campaign rentals, when you release a game with an eight-hour campaign and light multiplayer, it’s going to get gobbled up. That’s the reality of the marketplace.
Are you going to do another one?
Not as this time.
I have to ask this, or it’s going to look a bit a weird. You had a bit of a fight with the press last year about selective quoting, and so on, but nothing’s been said about it for a long time. Are you glad that’s all died down?
Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to train journalists to be my lapdog. That would be the worst thing possible. I enjoy being challenged. Those are the most interesting questions. There’s just a certain amount of sensationalism that occurs when a pullquote is taken out of context and becomes the headline. And let’s be honest; a certain amount of the readers don’t ever read the quote in context and then jump immediately into the comments for the flame war that provides all the hits.
But hey, business is business. All’s fair in love and war. It’s the ones where people are blatantly misquoted that upset me. There was a particular instance, I can’t recall if it was you guys or not, where the quote was about Japan not being able to keep up with western developers.
No, that was a UK magazine.
That was the worst offender. It really upset me. I have nothing but love in my heart for Japan and its developers.
We said you thought Heavy Rain’s children were hideous.
That was the thing. It was a huge joke.
I know. It got blown completely out of proportion.
That broke my heart also, because I’m a huge fucking fan of that game, and I was riveted by it. Us personally, for the foreseeable future, will be stylizing our characters, because it’s really easy to start drifting into uncanny valley issues.
Cliff, I think that’s it. I sincerely hope the launch goes well, and the best of luck.
Thanks very much. I appreciate it, man.
Gears of War 3 releases on September 20 for Xbox 360.