Epic's design director talks Natal, Nintendo, Levine and Gears

Bleszinski: Looking ahead

In the first half our our two-part interview with Cliff Bleszinski, we discussed with Epic’s design director his views on the id acquisition, his taste for new styles, and the Unreal Engine.

The discussion continues below, with Bleszinski offering his thoughts on Natal, Nintendo, Gears of War, today’s influential game designers and the extent of his own ambitions.

You’ve said before that Shigeru Miyamoto was your big influence when growing up. Who do you think are today’s biggest influences on the next generation of game designers?
Ken Levine is brilliant. He’s been in the game for years and he’s finally getting a new set up and kicking butt. There was a time when the industry warmed down, and then Bioshock came along.

When I first saw Bioshock I thought, “how is this going to sell?” As a nerd I thought it was amazing but I was worried that a fifteen year old kid would pick it up and think “what the fuck am I looking at”?

But it pleased me to no end that the game did so well. I had a conversation with Harvey Smith – one of the lead designers on Deus Ex – and said to him the future of shooters is RPGs. He said he completely agreed.

I think Harvey Smith is a brilliant, under-used designer as well. Randy Pitchford at Gearbox is an absolutely brilliant designer and business man, and I think Borderlands is not getting as much hype as it should, because it really looks like a more accessible, shootery version of Fallout.

Though Nintendo was a big influence for you when growing up, the company has now visibly turned to the casual and social market, as have a number of other developers and publishers. Do you feel that these games can still get young people interested in game design?

As long as someone’s playing a videogame – at home, on an iPhone, anywhere – that’s a good thing.

It’s funny to think about musicians right now who are so terrified of Guitar Hero, whining [pedantic voice] “oh it’s a crappy way for a kid to get into music” and it’s like, you know what, in this day and age, the music industry should get what it can by any means necessary.

The music industry completely shot itself in the foot with DRM issues and exploitation of artists for years. Everything has imploded on them, and these poor musicians have to tour 24/7 just to make some money. Just from my experience of going to five European cities in five days to promote Gears, I can’t imagine how they do a thirty city tour.

The main point is that people shouldn’t be afraid of what kids are in to. That’s the future right there. At the same time – I’ll get back to talking about Nintendo in a second – I can’t believe how many music-based games are out there. There’s too many rhythm games out there now. It’s ridiculous.

Back to Nintendo; people will play whatever they can. They could start off with a casual game and move on. The person who starts liking fluffy popcorn summer movies is often the very person who becomes the greatest film buff.

More people playing videogames equals good, and Nintendo has found a gap in the market; the Wii has caught on like wild fire and Nintendo is playing to the strengths of the market.

I recall my mother phoning me up one day, saying “Clifford, I want a Wii Fit for Christmas” and I thought “holy shit it’s officially happened.” She uses that thing every day, and you can criticise Nintendo all you want, but they’ve found their market and they’re going with it.

You made your feelings about the Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers clear in the past. As a developer, does something like Project Natal interest you?
Microsoft came down a few weeks before E3 and gave us a demo, and they’re now shipping out the dev kits; I think it’s great. When you start combining the motion-capture, the facial recognition, and the vocal recognition you can create some unique experiences. And of course more accessibility is always a good thing.

When you build an interface like that though you need to [specifically] design a game for it. It can’t just be tacked on.

It’s not hard to imagine how Natal will interest investors – market expansion tends to pay well – but a big question is whether that interface will give developers ideas for fresh game concepts, and indeed if such original ideas will be go beyond the drawing board.
As game creators, anytime we see new tech like that the ideas always come out. I can’t go into the ones I’ve had because, obviously, someone else might do it. Y’know, we’ll take a look at Natal – no promises – but it’s likely that the classic control interface is what Epic will be working on in the foreseeable future.

But I think there’s ways that you could merge the two interfaces and supplement a classic game with Natal controls to make something compelling.

Many would say Gears of War was the originator of the cover-based shooter and Gears 2 was the accomplishment of that goal –
Actually, WinBack was the first cover-based shooter.

And Wolfenstein 3D was the first FPS, but it was Doom that got the genre moving, much in the same way that Gears opened up the cover-shooter system.
Yeah I hear you.

So, many would say Gears of War was the originator of the cover-based shooter and Gears 2 was the accomplishment of that goal. For the future of the franchise, is it important that you innovate again?
It depends on where things go. I mean, one could wean that from the comments I made earlier about the future of shooters is RPGs and see where things are going with us.

But, I mean, I love the jokes about Gears of War not being an innovative game. Suddenly everyone has cover, everyone has roadie-run, everyone has integrated story-based co-op.

And it always amuses me that the Gears games get criticism for their narrative. We never said we were making Shakespeare; this is a Michael Bay Film, go with it.

Obviously we hear the ‘testosterone-laden jock’ criticisms as well, but seriously, the reason the one-liners exist in Gears is to acknowledge what the player has done. It’s not that we are determined for the characters to say something like “hasta la vista baby”, it’s there for feedback. When you kill an enemy in Gears, a bark like that will ensure the player knows what’s going on, which is why Fenix often will say “two left” when killing a guy.

Just like a script, everything in the game exists for a reason.

Perhaps the source of such antipathy is that the characters and themes are clear commercial entities; they are designed in the knowledge that they will clearly allure certain demographics.
We’re a business. We want to pay our bills and take care of our employees. One of the ways we are able to do that is by taking care of them financially. That can’t happen unless we sell millions of copies of our games.

I would much rather be the guy who makes a game that sells millions of copies that people love to make fun of – because that’s what people do on the internet – than the guy who makes a critical darling that no one really knows about.

At the end of the day, the lights have to stay on.

Since joining Epic, what’s been your biggest personal achievement so far?
Honestly? Establishing the Gears property.

Epic, for a while, was just so fixated on making Unreal games. At one point my brother came up to me and said “what’s next, Unreal the musical?”

So I said “please, please can we make a new IP, please?” So we finally got round to doing it. 11 million sales later and here we are.

New IP is a risky thing, but I would rather take that risk than work on established IP.

What’s your ultimate ambition for the company?
To continue to make very trans-media-friendly properties, and maintain our existing ones, and see what happens with the Gears series, and create new universes, and leverage our partners at People Can Fly, and Chair Entertainment, and continue to get our properties into comic books, and novels, and film.

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