This man wants you to know his name. He is the face of Gears of War and its creator Epic Games and is clearly the most gregarious of the new breed of developers that are taking video gaming to the masses.
Call him Cliffy B, call him Dude Huge, or call him Mr. Bleszinski, he has something to say and he want you to hear it. So read on as we discuss everything from the secrets of great game design to the Gears of War movie, chat about the Xbox 720, the PS3, Gears of War 3, Marcus Fenix starring in a platform game and even discover what weapon he uses to pick up chicks!
Chris Stead: We’ve played the first Act of Gears of War 2 - everything is bigger, meaner and prettier. Does it all come down to the middleware?
Cliff Bleszinski: I think it comes down to having an extraordinary team. It is a combination of that and having the best tools in the business that enable our designers to rapidly prototype. Lee Perry, our senior gameplay designer, had a rough of the shield mauler boomer in like a day and he had the shield swinging around and he just passed that concept straight to the programmers and they just code it up.
So it is a combination of that and thinking quick on our feet and being well managed, as well as having what I believe are the best artists in entertainment. All together I think that is The Perfect Storm and the formula that allows us to make the perfect game.
Chris Stead: Gears of War is the figurehead for Unreal Engine 3: do you ever feel like there is added pressure on the sequel to prove the engine is still the bizz with so many more middleware solutions pouring into the market?
Cliff Bleszinski: Well we make the game because we like to make games, but of course it has plenty to do with the tech and Gears of War is essentially an advertisement for the engine. So when the [engine] programmers came up with the crowd system we were like, ‘oh well, I guess we could probably use that in Gears 2.’
So then Dave Nash, one of the lead designers, went through with all the LDs (level designers) and figured out some spots where we could have hundreds of locusts pouring out into the game world, - you know in areas where we have fracture faults. So it’s very much a case of showing off the technology, but also where it makes sense and makes for a better game.
Chris Stead: We’ve kind of become conditioned in this generation to seeing tech demos - take MotorStorm or Force Unleashed - that promise something on which the developer cannot deliver. Were you conscious of that, as Act I certainly delivered on what the hype promised?
Cliff Bleszinski: I always prefer to under-promise and over-deliver and to always remain humble. There have been quotes from me saying ‘this is the best game ever and we are very proud of it’ but at the same time you know you’ve made it great for you, but are other people going to like it? I don’t know, nothing is a sure thing. All I can do is wake up in the morning, put my pants on and go and make the game I want to play.
Chris Stead: It seems like there are only minor changes to the core gameplay: do you feel like there was no need to rock the boat?
Cliff Bleszinski: I think you’ll find the cover system has a lot of subtle improvements. Once you have a chance to play the second game, if you go back to the first game you’ll notice a lot of things that will bug you. While I think we really did a good job in the first game, I think we now have hands-down the best cover system in the business.
Everything kind of adds up to the sum of its parts, especially with some of the heavy weapons. You played up to the part where you just enter the hollows, so you haven’t had a chance to use the Burst Pistol, or the Flamethrower, or the Mulcher. You’ve seen the Mortar which is cool. Taking hostages, doing executions, crawling when knocked down - all that stuff kind of adds up so it feels like Gears but taken to the next level.
So if you go back and play Gears 1 there is a huge amount of things that you will find missing from the experience now that you have played the sequel.
Chris Stead: With that in mind have you had any thoughts about putting Gears 1 into the new engine, touching it up a little and releasing it to the hardcore?
Cliff Bleszinski: We don’t have any spare time. It would be the same answer if you asked me whether I was going to do a Gears RTS, it would be like, ‘no!’ We don’t have a basement full of programmers looking for something to do. It is all hands-on-deck all the time with our AAA game cycles to think about making a platforming game with Marcus Fenix in it. Although that would be kind of cool.
Chris Stead: So you’d never think of doing a Halo with Gears and making an RTS or a Stealth spin-off? Like way down the track…
Cliff Bleszinski: I can’t really commit to that. Maybe we will find a partner that would be interested in doing something like that but we would also need to consider whether it would make sense to the franchise or whether there was enough demand for it. But really that would be so far down the line it’s really not worth me commenting on it now.
Chris Stead: To us it seems like Gears of War found a specific gameplay mechanic, honed it perfectly and then repeated it against ever bigger baddies, much like the classic 16-bit games. Would you say this is true and if so, is that the key to great gaming?
Cliff Bleszinski: I think what you need to establish is what we call a ‘core loop’ of good gameplay. So if it is a brawler make sure it is really good fun to punch people in the face. If you’re a shooter make sure shooting is fun. We have a very simple map that we call Stonehenge which is basically two colours and a bunch of blocks.
Every day I would fire up that map and work out where I can tweak the camera to make it more fun and ask ‘how can we adjust the rumble? How can we make getting to the cover more gratifying?’ and such. Once you make that kind of core loop fun then you can expand it out with enemies and once you have that fun, then you start twitching it up even further.
So when you play the campaign in Gears 2 there are different locations and different plot points, different set-pieces such as the truck sequence, or where you get to ride a Reaver... you get to drive a tank and eventually you even get to ride a Brumak.
There are environmental hazards that you will see later on as we are not redoing the whole Krill gag again, there’s actually something else. Little co-op puzzles, going underground and coming back up, boss battles...
Establish a loop and then continue to twitch up that loop so you can keep things interesting and fresh throughout the campaign is basically the key.
Chris Stead: We’ve seen a dramatic decrease in the length of single player experiences in games this generation…
Cliff Bleszinski: It’s because making games is expensive.
Chris Stead: Well that was one of the key criticisms of the original Gears of War: what’s your take on the whole phenomenon?
Cliff Bleszinski: Gears 2 is longer. We take that feedback to heart from gamers. It is kind of a good problem for gamers to say ‘hey, I want more of that’ but at the same time you need to give the customer what he wants, which is something new and unique around every corner through the entire campaign.
We never do that whole ‘hey, now you have to fight your way back through the same levels you had played previously’. We’re not that kind of shop. So we responded by making the campaign in Gears 2 longer and I think gamers will find it very fulfilling.
Don’t ask me how many hours it will take. It depends on the person.
Chris Stead: Is Gears of War 2 on PC an inevitability?
Cliff Bleszinski: Nope, definitely not. Not going to happen. It doesn’t make sense for us. We want to put all of our development resources into making this a very well established console franchise.
Chris Stead: You say console franchise so what about the PS3? Is it good enough for Gears of War? Does it have what it takes?
Cliff Bleszinski: It could work on PS3... you could probably do it but our publisher probably wouldn’t be a fan of that. This is an Xbox franchise first and foremost. Exclusive franchise that is.
Chris Stead: Does the Xbox 360 have enough left in it for a Gears of War 3, or will you be hoping that the next-generation of consoles rocks up in time for its release?
Cliff Bleszinski: Well we’ve never said anything about any sort of sequels, so it is all guess work and hearsay now about what anybody will come up with. But in terms of what the Xbox 360 is capable of... anytime you are doing console development you cannot count on anybody popping in a new video card or adding new memory or anything like that - we are working with that box. But I have a feeling that if we were to do a future product, which might be a possibility, our programmers will have a way to work their mojo and make something that really feels like a leap.
Because if you look at the classic lifecycle of consoles like the SNES, right. The first games came out and you went, ‘wow, this looks way better than my NES’. But then the games get better and better so by the time you get to the third and fourth generation games you’re like, ‘Jesus, I can’t believe they’re doing this with mode 7, how did they even do that?’
You get better with your craft, better with your tools and your staff get better at everything. After doing Gears 1 I wouldn’t have thought we would be able to pull-off some of the sequences we have in Gears 2.
Chris Stead: There has been a bit of a push around the industry to bring the next-generation of systems forward, but you don’t think there is a need to do that?
Cliff Bleszinski: Honestly that is a bigger industry question I cannot even begin to answer. Right now we are happy working on this box and who knows what is coming next?