Cliff Bleszinski is one of the most established figures in game industry, the face and the voice of Epic Games. An ironic sceptic, a talented designer and an earnest companion. In recent years Cliff has put a lot of effort and talent in one of the most important franchises of current generation — Gears of War. With the series being an amalgam of his creative and design skills, Bleszinski always aims higher and he keeps reasoning about it in numerous interviews, sharing his dreams and future plans with readers.
Our Round Table couldn't manage without his thorough opinion on several questions regarding the industry. And here is how Cliff Bleszinski, the man who influenced the genre in many ways and defined its modern look, answered them.
So, why don’t you start with telling us a little about yourself and how did you get into the game industry?
My name is Cliff Bleszinski, and I’m the Design Director for Epic Games. I’m responsible for The Fun. I made my own game when I was 17, started making money at it via the “Shareware” method, and haven’t looked back for 20 years thus far.
Where do you see innovation in game development going in the future?
The market is completely fractured at the moment, it’s very much the “wild wild west” out there. It’s anyone’s game right now which is amazing for gamers and a bit terrifying for the developers and completely painful for the finance guys and investors. What are Sony and Microsoft going to do next? How does Apple’s prominence affect Nintendo? Why is Steam killing it lately? How long is this current console generation going to drag on for? These are the issues that keep us in the industry awake into the wee hours.
As far as innovation, I personally believe we’re going to see some unique things on all fronts, but the one thing I’m excited for is the return of Virtual Reality. Products like the Oculus headset make me a believer in this immersive hardware and I can’t wait to integrate it into our products.
Imagine you can give both Sony and Microsoft a list of what you’d like to see in each of their respective next-gen consoles…
There are dozens of things to list here, and some that I could mention would violate my non-disclosure agreements, so I’m just going to focus on pushing for digital distribution for both consoles. The other night I went to fire up Batman: Arkham City again and I couldn’t find the disc, so instead I opted to download and play some Xbox Live Arcade games like the lovely “Dust” purely out of convenience.
In perspective, how long do you think it will be before real-time computer graphics become 100% photorealistic?
That’s more of a technical question for someone like Tim Sweeney, who is the founder of Epic and is much more proficient in this area. I will say that, however, even if we’re capable of rendering photorealistic graphics it doesn’t necessarily mean a developer should. Pixar can render astonishing landscapes, many photoreal, but they still stylize their world to match the tone of their story.
I’m worried that as graphics improve we’re going to see a different kind of “uncanny valley,” one in which you see an amazing CG scene and the ONE texture that’s improperly mapped or flickers stands out like a giant sore thumb. (This was the kind of stuff we just put up with in, say, the Playstation 1 era.)
Who of modern game designers would you like to mention specially? Which FPS and\or TPS developing studio impresses you?
I have a huge respect for most of what Valve produces. With Steam and Team Fortress 2 and Portal they’re just right on the cutting edge of the industry. It took Valve to make a free to play game that doesn’t make me feel like I need a shower after I play it. I don’t get that same “dirty” feeling that I get when I stroll through a Las Vegas casino that I do with many free to play (and “social” games.) A core game for core gamers that’s free to play and hugely successful? It can be done.
FPS games were always quite linear from the very beginning, though in the past it was well hidden behind various approaches to in-game situations. Nowadays many gamers complain about gameplay being much less variable and FPS titles turning more into a plain shooting range. Do you agree? Please name one FPS game you think has the most non-linear gameplay.
Yes, I’ve been very clear about my criticisms of where things have gone in the past, and we’re partially to blame for that. Many shooters are just a variant of hallway, cutscene, scripted moment, repeat. It’s okay for a player to get lost once in a while. We’ve softened our games to a fault this generation of consoles in order to try to expand our audience.
A first person game that has some shooting but also much variety in it that I’m very much looking forward to is Harvey Smith’s “Dishonored.” It looks like a mash up of Thief, Bioshock, and Half-Life 2, and is really embracing the mantra of “here’s your goal, how are you going to get to it?”
Early shooters had everything to make one feel like the world's real savior — huge rocket launchers, jetpacks, medkits and non-stop action. A lot of modern shooters are either too serious or mostly multiplayer-oriented. Is it the dead-end or should we expect next ten years to change much in FPS genre?
I can’t predict the future, I can only speculate based on my instincts. I think the lines between single player and multiplayer will continue to blur. Mark Cerny and I call this “Mingleplayer.” Imagine if my actions in my campaign could have an impact on my friends’ campaign, or if I research a particular type of technology he could benefit as well. The possibilities are endless. Look to Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls for some great innovative ideas as well.
What is importance of a non-linear gameplay and freedom in FPS and TPS games? Do you think linear shooter games have aged well, despite the continuous success of several franchises?
The problem with super linear games is they all yield nearly the same Youtube video. Bugs notwithstanding, there’s often a direct correlation between how cool your game is and how many Youtube videos it can create. My mantra for our studio lately is to let the gamers “Play Their Way” and hopefully you’ll be able to see more of that coming out in products like Gears of War: Judgment and Fortnite.
What do you consider to be the key moments in the genre's evolution — like, its most significant stages, events, people? What game influenced the genre and its development the most?
Doom, obviously, was the grand-daddy of them all. John Romero and John Carmack birthed a genre by putting the camera in the player’s eyes. Deathmatch was a revolution that was then refined nicely in Quake. I’d like to think we brought some of our own special sauce to the genre with Unreal Tournament — many games seem to have “Headshots” and “Killing Sprees” and “Double Kills” as a result of the success of that title.
Halo broke the mold for truly solving how to make a great console FPS, something that Goldeneye started years prior. And then Call of Duty knocked it out of the park by having 60fps and actual unlockable items that modify how you play the game. It was the start of the FPS “WaRPG” genre, really.
What were your biggest mistakes at the beginning of your career and later as a recognized developer? What in development process takes most of your time and resources?
I’m not perfect, I make my share of mistakes, the key is to learn from these mistakes and apply those learnings to the future. I made an adventure game called “Dare to Dream” that flopped, that was my lesson in puzzle building. (I was attempting to do some Babelfish style puzzles and it was just way too out there.) Unreal 1 taught us to test your networking code in all areas, which, sadly, was a mistake we would repeat with Gears of War 2.
Unreal 2 was a solid game, but it taught me that gamers didn’t want a sci-fi game with the Unreal brand on it, they wanted the magic of the first game.
The list goes on and on, really.
As far as what takes most of my time? The most important thing, naturally, and that is iteration. Great ideas are like panning for gold, and that takes time, and the ability to rapidly prototype.
What changes do you think should be made in a classic F2P formula for it to become a leap forward for the industry?
Don’t charge for everything. If you’re going to do any form of “Pay to Win” proceed very carefully. And for god’s sake let’s get rid of “energy” as a concept, please.
What changes in the genre are leading it to a dead-end? What disappoints you the most in modern shooter games? What it’s going to look like in ten years, in your opinion?
I’m a bit worn down by the glorification of the American Military Industrial Complex. I prefer my games when they attempt to give me the feeling of really being a soldier, as opposed to a Michael Bay film. Give me more “Black Hawk Down” in my real world set FPS and less “Battleship.”
If it's not a secret, what is approximate budget for an action game and how high should sales be to cover development costs?
I’m not Epic’s finance guy. I do know that we’re in a world where marketing budgets are as huge as development costs. The best way to combat that is with better, more efficient tools, and we’ve carved out a great market for that with the Unreal Engine and editor.
With each new generation development costs rise and new technologies require expanding the staff of qualified professionals. How are you planning to avoid these difficulties in the future and what measures did you take entering current generation?
As I mentioned in the last question, better tools go a LONG way for that. Studios seem to be using a hybrid of an approach. License technology to get a head start. Shop some artwork out. Motion capture cleanup? Shop that out as well. Batch solutions, say, procedural facial animations for character one liners in combat. There is no silver bullet and it’s up to every studio to try to solve this problem.
Famous series have been showing decrease in overall sales for a few years. Can it be changed by equivalent replacement of core-brands, fresh new approach to controls and interaction with environment or does it require major reconsideration of the genre?
In the wake of the economy and the trouble we’ve been seeing there we’ve seen users become more wary with their dollars, only purchasing perhaps a few games a year as opposed to more. When the option to get these games discounted used or to rent them also emerges we see fewer first-run sales.
The market will bear what the market will bear. If users are tired of a trend then it’s someone’s job to buck that trend and find out what’s new; what makes their title stand out from the rest.
Modern game industry is comparable to a boiling pot full of philosophy. There’s half a million books written, teaching how make game the only right way, some people rock the crowd with long-forgotten tricks, others blame the lack of photorealistic graphics. What is your vision of genre’s development according to your observations and experience?
Have strong leadership, but also know when to tap the team and delegate and share the vision. Always play the game and pan for gold. Know when an idea isn’t working and don’t endlessly iterate on it. Empower your creative staff. Trust those you’ve hired to do their jobs, but keep a keen eye on the direction of the project.
What are the main reasons FPSs is dominating other genres? Is it because of well-established public opinion on games, simplicity of learning the basics, aggressive marketing through last two decades, or because of something else?
Because aiming down the barrel and shooting your friend in the online space will always be fun, no matter the setting or trend.
Did the over-the-top FPS/TPS accent become an obstacle for other genres’ development?
We’ve got more venues now for indie games to succeed than ever. Look at Minecraft. Look at Day Z. So much good stuff that’s come out that’s not even done by a big publisher. With the connected world we live in now it’s possible for anyone in their garage to potentially birth a great product.
Questions: Anton Zhuk & Ivan Kapustin
The other members of the Round table, related to FPS genre, are: