Cliff Bleszinski is the game development celebrity incarnate. He has a famously devoted Twitter following, and is mobbed by fans wherever he goes.
By his own confession he is a brand almost as much as his recently completed Gears of War series, and as a result he has enjoyed a very successful career. So how can you do the same?
Develop asks the man himself.
When you spoke at GDC this year you talked about presenting yourself as a brand. Should all developers aspire to become one?
I’ve found that the talk was well received. I was able to – I hate to reuse this term because it sounds so cheesy, and it’s from 30 Rock’s Tracy Jordan I believe –’drop truth bombs on your ass’.
It was just a lot of things on my chest that I believe not a lot a lot of developers really have it in them to say, or the capacity or the ability.
The funny thing was that when I said I’ve never met a Rockstar employee in that talk, shortly after that I got an email from Sam Houser saying ‘anytime you’re in New York let’s have dinner’. I said ‘sure man, but who built your games? I’d love to meet them too’.
This is why if a developer Tweets me and I can check them out and really see that they’re legit, I will follow them and we’ll have back and forth interactions. Not only because I’m an advocate of developers, but because its also a nice recruiting tactic.
I go from being that guy who does all the interviews and talks to becoming a real person and we can actually work together and be creative together.
Developers by nature were the ones at the back of the class drawing in their pad, and not the ones going to parties and things like that, so they have a hard time of putting themselves out there. Its not always easy for the majority of them, but the best thing you can do for your career is to be an actual name as opposed to just, and I hate to say it, a gear in the machine.
In terms of becoming a brand, what advice would you give to the new school of indie developers?
With Notch, a lot of the news from Minecraft comes directly from his Twitter account. He and I have a playful banter back and forth on there which is great because he’s a cool guy and helps gives me indie cred to talk to him and know that the first PC game I bought in years was Minecraft.
But look at him, he’s got over 300,000 followers and he has the hat. Clearly the guy gets a certain amount of the branding right, he’s got the cool nickname, he’s got the hat he wears everywhere. You spot him and know what he looks like. He’s an example like Jon Blow.
I know who these guys are more so than others. I mean, I’ve had developers send me their resumes who worked on triple-A titles and I’m like: ‘I’ve worked in this industry for 20 years and I’ve never met you?’ They say ‘Oh, I never got to go to GDC or anything like that’ and I’m like: ‘Yeah. That’s probably by design, or people aren’t getting paid what they’re worth’.
Now you only see agencies getting involved to make sure that developers do get paid well because by and large, those who are creative will always have the money surgically removed from them by those who are business people.
And what about those indies that have the potential to be in that position in a couple of years time, or a few months?
Well, first you have to make great games. If Gears of War 3 was getting horrible reviews then suddenly next year, if we’re working on something, nobody would want to talk. It’s just the truth of the matter. You go into what is the games equivalent of movie jail.
First and foremost, make a great game but also have a personality. Be the guy with the hip glasses, with the one gauge earring and the gamer tattoo all the way to the sleeves with a skateboard. Stand out.
Don’t be a developer archetype: There’s the big chubby guy with the beard. There’s the super skinny guy with the glasses. There’s the creepy guy who smells funny who’s awkward and hovers around people. There’s the different types, right?
Be a person, be a brand. Just do something so that people know who you are. Have an online presence more than ever. Understand social channels. Look at people like Veronica Belmont who puts herself out there and now has over a million followers.
I know actors who have been in Oscar winning films who don’t have that much. It is the digital age in which we live.
You’re a normal person, but you’re living a life in the public eye. What advice would you give dealing with the pressure and experience of that?
It’s fine, honestly. It’s fun. I haven’t had anyone be overly negative with it yet.
I do occasionally get in trouble for some tweets once in a while. There is a comedian that I follow who tweeted at one point ‘Drinking cum makes pineapple juice smell delicious’ which I thought was quite hilarious, but PR pointed out the point that it’s not edgy; just pretty fucking gross.
I’m honestly having the time of my life and I feel this weird responsibility to share it with people.
Being a games developer and getting to work on all this creative stuff and travelling the world, meeting celebs – all that stuff. This is hopefully helping to redefine the image of what it means to be a creative in 2011.
Gears of War 3 is the final game of the series. So much of brand-Cliffy B and Gears of War are interlinked. How does that leave you feeling?
I’m relieved. There’s so many stories that can be told in this world. The brand is stronger than ever. Hopefully the game sells more than Gears one or two, but we’ll see.
The final cut scene still gets me a little bit misty eyed when I watch it. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been working on the franchise for so long or just because a lot of it is personal for all of us on the development team.
My main advice that I tell a lot of developers is just make sure you make your game personal.
Don’t make just what you think the market will want. Don’t make it like ‘I loved bunnies when I was growing up so I’m gonna make a game about bunnies’. Make something that’s deeply personal.
You know, a metaphor for family or abuse or experience or loves lost. I guarantee you the creator behind the cult PS3 game Catherine has got some stuff going on.
So make games personal and ultimately they’ll resonate, and you know if the game sells well maybe you’ll have a chance to keep exploring those themes.
Obviously Gears of War has done well. Do you feel satisfied at this concluding point?
No. We can do better. We can always do better. The number of gamers playing the game online – I’m hoping Gears of War 3 has more than Gears 1 or 2 ever did, especially considering how competitive the market is.
You look at the numbers that Call of Duty and Halo pulls and we’re not at that point yet. I’m hoping Gears of War 3 brings us closer to that point. People forgot also that we’re only the third game of the series.
There’s been a couple more Halo’s and a few more Call of Duty’s so who knows, maybe we’ll be able to build upon that success.
I want with this game, more so than any other game we’ve ever made, for people to avoid the perception of what the game is. If you haven’t played a Gears game, now please give this one a try. We really do think you’ll like it a lot.
Concluding a creative opus like Gears of War must have been difficult. Calling it a wrap in particular, must have been near impossible for you.
Creatively, the second you ship a game all you see is the holes. Earlier, me and some colleagues were talking about George Lucas and how he can’t resist putting his grubby little mitts all over everything.
That’s because, if I could go back, there’s tons of things I would change about Gears, tons of things I’d change about Gears 2, and even Gears 3. I’d tweak things in it.
The key is knowing when to stop because we’re still a business and you have to ship a damn game and sell it at some point.
So, from a creative culture perspective, how do you balance that need to respect business and your vision for your games?
I have an amazing producer. That’s the ebb and flow. Whereas I’m asking for 40 weapons, and Rod and the other producers are certain we can only do 25, I have to make a choice.
There’s a certain minimum that you can ship with a game that will make your gamers happy. As a creative you will always want an infinite amount and it’s your job as a creative to push for that too much and when the pushback comes, be mature about that decision and ultimately shift the product.
And that’s part of building that role as a what you call a ‘power creative’?
That’s one of the things I said in my talk. If I went off tomorrow and some investors came along and gave me a billion dollars to make my dream game I’d be terrified because I need that system of checks and balances. I think as a creative you need to be edited.
There’s certain film directors who have a certain amount of success and then they go and make this one movie that they want that’s three and a half hours and you end up thinking: ‘really dude? I liked your old one that was two hours long’.
There’s the same thing with authors who reach a certain amount of success. Book one is a normal thickness, book two is a normal thickness as well, and then book three becomes 1,000 pages because they have this sense that ‘this was the story I had always wanted to tell’.
Half of the time when you see the director’s cut of a movie, you’re like ‘actually I can see why they cut all that out’.
You need that system of checks and balances to keep creators in check sometimes. We’re not just art, we’re still a business.
Having finished Gears of War, do you have a feeling of creative freedom, or is that intimidating to you?
I feel like we’ve wrapped it up and put a bow on it. It is what it is and we’ve put it under the tree for the proverbial Christmas morning.
But that said, there’s the long history of this war, tons of different stories to tell and thematically if you figure what makes a Gears game in the future, there’s a lot of different directions we could go in. I’m not burnt out on it anywhere as some might assume or think.