Cliff Bleszinski is one of the most famous games developers in the industry, best known for creating the leading Gears of War franchise, which has been sold on to Microsoft since his departure from Epic in 2012.
Following a lengthy hiatus, Bleszinski is back with Boss Key, his new development studio and his first gaming venture since his depature. Shortly after it opened its doors, his North Carolina-based business revealed it is working on a free-to-play arena shooter BlueStreak. But things at Boss Key are different to what the famous developer has dealt with before.
“This is my first time being CEO and I’m learning a lot,” he tells Develop.
“Having to walk that line being the CEO and being the main creative at your studio, versus getting along with people and knowing when to be the boss is a line I am still learning.
“A lot of it reminds me of any personal relation where you pick your battles. You don’t micro-manage, you hire people to do their job. When something isn’t going right you poke in, but other than that, by not micro-managing everybody, I can find the time to spend cycles on environments, the IP and what the game mechanics are going to be. If I don’t I go crazy, by the way.”
RETURN TO FORM
But his long career in the games industry and the critical praise he has garnered over the years hasn’t made him complacent, the developer insists. Rather, he is determined the re-earn the trust of his audience.
“You’re only as good as your last game,” he says. “The last game that I shipped that I was directly involved in creating was Gears of War 3. I provided feedback for Judgment, but that was its own thing.
“It’s one of those things, a combination of being brutally honest to a fault over social media. There are some users I might have alienated when I try and remind them that this is a business, which I want to make a fantastic game first and foremost, but it will have to make money. I have to have money to keep the lights on in the studio and give bonuses at some point.
He adds: “I’m not resting on my 20 years of experience laurels. I’m going to re-prove myself. The world moves fast. Today’s YouTube celebrity is tomorrow’s has-been. That’s the world we live in. It doesn’t matter if in technology you have 20 years of experience, – it only matters if you look forward.”
Working at Boss Key is a very different experience for Bleszinski. While his former employer Epic Games woke up to the idea of open development with Unreal Engine 4, this time he is free from the off to make his game as he sees fit – and he’s chosen to do it publicly.
“One of the things I want to try as we get the game up and running is be transparent and get user buy-in as soon as possible,” Bleszinski says.
"The old way of keeping it completely secret is not for me anymore. My former employer really woke up to the right way with weekly live-streams and showing white-box maps and things like that.
I’m not resting on my 20 years of experience laurels. I’m going to re-prove myself.
Cliff Bleszinski, Boss Key
“The thing that they have to deal with that I luckily don’t have to is the shooter conundrum: the inventor’s dilemma where if they change it lots or don’t change it enough they get people annoyed. I’m starting with a new IP. Any weapon idea, any movement idea, any environment idea that anyone at the studio has is fair game.
“And that’s incredibly exciting turf, and it’s something that I haven’t had the chance to do that since Gears of War in 2005. I’m back at the helm where I have my baby again.
“We’re trying to figure out how to reveal the pillars of the game. Maybe we’ll do it with the press initially, then go for a deeper dive with weekly podcasts and talk about the features. It’s still a little early to go into specifics, but there are plenty of things that can be done in the FPS space. One of my main inspirations is looking to platform games and the bullet-hell shooters that we all played growing up.”
Boss Key’s first game, BlueStreak, is a free-to-play title – a business model that continues to divide the games industry. Bleszinski himself insists that in the game, the model isn’t going to infringe into the enjoyability of the title.
“People like to talk about the DOTA way, where they try to monetise with hats and cosmetic stuff,” he explains. “The things that people forget is that the game already has the built-in ecosystem that is Steam, which can cross-promote the game to other titles. They don’t really have to do a pay for variety of pay-to-win. From talking to the fans, they hate to pay to win. But they think that League of Legends is a little bit pay-to-win. I haven’t played Riot’s game enough to make a proper commentary on what’s best for them, but clearly what it is is working.
“I’m hoping to have a hybrid to pay for a bit of variety with a heavy leaning on cosmetics. If you have the community in place, even if you just have a small number of people actually giving money to the game, people suddenly start caring about the appearance of their avatar more than they normally would.”
Bleszinski goes on to say there are a variety of methods to tackle monetisation, but admits he is new to the world of free-to-play, having previously worked in the premium triple-A space at Epic, and is starting from scratch with BlueStreak.
“Thankfully I have a partner in BlueStreak’s publisher Nexon, which has done a variety of free-to-play games,” he says. “They are determined to make a great game that builds a community first and foremost and then figures out how to make players throw money at the game after, as opposed to digging into their pockets from the start.”
It’s clear that Bleszinski cares about what his fans think of him and his games, and enjoys being open with them over social media, and this is forming an integral part of the development of BlueStreak.
“We’re trying to figure out how to reveal the core pillars of the game right now,” he says. “The way games development works is that you go in a certain direction and think you are making a certain game.
“I call it the potato chip accident, where a lady invented chips by accident. That can happen in games development. You are designing a title with certain pillars in mind, and then you find out that pillar one is terrible, but pillar two is a great idea, once it’s modded with pillar three. The game ends up being a mix of two and three, and one and four drop off.
“By being transparent to the users, if you’re not smart about it, you might look like you have no idea what you are doing. Nobody in this industry knows what they’re doing – we just have a gut assumption based on the games that we can play in our head and sometimes you get it on screen and it’s fun, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes variables pop up that you hadn’t even considered you’d have to work around. The thing is you pan for gold, you chip away at the marble and hopefully make a sculpture if you don’t knock the nose off.”
We have multiple pillars for the studio for its philosophies. One is no bullshit, and I tell people that if that upsets you then the studio isn’t going to be a good fit for you.
Cliff Bleszinski, Boss Key
One way that the team has been open is telling fans about who has been hired, publicising this information over sites such as Twitter to ensure the developers behind the game are known and receive recognition.
“When you hire someone you are raising their professional stock as a developer,” he says. “You know who they are. You only seem to learn someone’s name when they have left the company,” he says.
“Recently there was Dan Adelman, who was responsible for Nintendo’s indie outreach. He did a lot of great things, and I was wondering why I had only heard about this person once they left. For me it comes down to confidence. I want people to come to see the culture, to see the offices and see the game I’m building and be excited to come work at the studio with people who are passionate about what they do and aren’t working on the assembly line of standard console triple-A development these days.
“The identities of our people can be made public, we put their photos up on the website. You can’t ruin a good marriage that’s on the way out. If they’re unhappy, they’re going to leave, if they’re happy they’ll stay and we’ll all make a better product for it.”
THE RIGHT PEOPLE
Recently, Boss Key has made a number of high-profile hires, including the likes of Chris Mielke, Joshua Parker, Chris Wells, Shane Smith, James Hawkins, David Rose and Ryan Palser.
“We have multiple pillars for the studio for its philosophies,” Bleszinski explains. “One is no bullshit, and I tell people that if that upsets you then the studio isn’t going to be a good fit for you.
“It’s not about having some Lord of the Flies mentality, it’s about people who have been to corporate companies, who have been middle management, where they can’t do the right thing for the game. People I’ve talked to who have worked on a game that has a patch in progress and aren’t allowed to post in the forums to let them know that is coming to make them feel better.
“I spoke to the main designer in a high-profile game at E3 who told me that he’s not allowed to have Twitter. That’s where my no bullshit mantra comes from. One of the other pillars is old bones and fresh blood. Hiring people that are not experienced, who are not jaded, is one of the goals. One of the people we are thinking about hiring right now is a level designer who has no professional experience in the industry outside of making fantastic Team Fortress 2 maps. Those were actually picked up by Valve.”
Bleszinski concludes that it’s these fresh young hires that also give the old guard a new sense of inspiration, fuelling creativity amongst all employees at the studio who feed off each other’s energy.
“That’s one of the studio’s goals,” he says. “Get people who are experienced, people who worked on Call of Duty 12 or Assassin’s Creed 8. They want to work in a studio that is a medium size where they think they can make a difference creatively.”