Epicâ??s design director talks id, Unreal and new frontiers

Cliff Bleszinski: shifting gears

It’s fair to say that Cliff Bleszinski – much like his work – has an equal share of enemies and admirers. Opinions on the Gears franchise, and indeed CliffyB’s media-savvy persona, are polarized to love and hate. There is, however, one thing that everyone should be able to agree on; one thing that’s unequivocally clear. Cliff Bleszinski absolutely adores video games.

In fact, when speaking to Epic’s design director, you get the impression he doesn’t have enough time in the day to say all he wants about the medium and the people that drive it.

Ask him about game engines and he’ll hurry through everything he can, talking at a thousand miles per second, before turning his attentions to something half-related, excitedly, and and moving on to something completely unrelated, but nonetheless interesting.

I’m convinced he cannot help it. Throughout our discussion he recommends DS games, explains why LittleBigPlanet has more soul and character than any game he’s played in fifteen years, confesses that thought Molyneux’s Milo secretly wanted to drown Kate, and claims that Halo was a console masterpiece.

Everything else on his mind can be found below.

It’s been well documented that a lot of games that use the Unreal Engine for mature action games. Do you feel this trend undersells the engine’s potential and versatility?
Well, if you look at the upcoming Shadow Complex game, or the Wolverine melee game that came out; we’re just offering a canvas and a paint brush; it’s up to you as a developer to paint whatever you want. 

If you look at Borderlands; okay it is a shooter, but it has a beautiful cel-shaded look to it.

I just think that the technology of this generation just happens to be very good at rendering metals and stones and dramatic lighting, which is why you see a lot of pillars and girders and destroyed blown-out areas because that’s what the bump-mapping happens to do very well.

At the same time, in this generation the translucent effects are very hard to pull off. That’s why everybody sees a lot of these bald characters and wonder why games feature so many fucking space marines. Well, the tech is good at showing off amour and it’s not that good at doing hair. That’s why we have bald space marines. There’s your answer people.

There’s also the idea that a game engine is best explained by games from its creators. In that sense, despite their critical and commercial successes, do you ever blame Unreal Tournament 3 and Gears of War for initiating the current era of space marine action heroes?
Not really, I don’t have regrets. We ultimately set out to make a game we wanted to play, and the tech ultimately winds up being formed around that.

I do know that we’ve set off a certain visual style. Sort of blown out, desaturated, war-torn universes that seem to be all the rage right now. 

Actually if you look at Gears of War 2 we actually tried to get away from it a little bit by doing things like letting the colours breathe and come through a little bit more. 

Stylistically though, I’d love to play in a different field in the near future in regards to what your typical expectation of a Gears of War game actually is.

Such as?
I can’t really get into it right now.

I love new intellectual properties. The game designers of this day and age are creating these universes that will stand the test of time in many ways and – just like comic book artists leverage new things out of the comic book medium – game designers are leveraging new ideas from the interactive medium.

So, for me, whenever I see someone create a licensed game I think, yeah fine, I understand why you’re doing it, but I believe we have an obligation to create new universes and new IPs. 

When you make a world from scratch you can design whatever interesting things you want and make the fiction to suit the fun.

In a development project of a game that uses a license, you might ask if the main character could, say, teleport to different places. [Pedantic voice] ‘Well no it says in page 34 the character can NOT teleport’, and you’re just there thinking how fun a teleport could actually be.

There’s just something amazing and raw about creating something from scratch.

Crytek’s new engine looks to be new competition for you. Is it a positive step forward for the whole industry that there’s more diversity in AAA game engines?

That’s the nature of capitalism. If there wasn’t a competitor out there we wouldn’t have Tim Sweeney coming in shouting “oh my god we have to upgrade this, that and this! We’ve got to stay competitive!”

Without a competitor you just get lazy and fat and complacent. I like the fact that there’s competition out there, it keeps our programmers up at night.

Crytek is continuing to make strides on making its hardware more console friendly, which is certainly an intelligent direction.

ZeniMax’s acquisition of id Software marks the sale of a historic independent developer, what are your immediate thoughts on the acquisition?
My mind is blown. id was always the studio I had my eyes on in the early days as far as wondering if we could be as good as them if not better. 

When we had Unreal Tournament they had Quake 3 which is one of those legendary showdowns between two games. To see this happen to the id guys just blows my mind.

To see the old standbys go through these kinds of changes – like with 3D Realms closing up Duke Nukem – it’s really shocking. We all came from the same mould from the shareware days; these studios have been around forever, and to see them acquired like that is a surprise.

I think in the long term it will probably be a good thing for id. It will add stability, it will help them leverage their properties more; but in the meantime it’s so surreal. As they say, the one constant is change.

Does the move suggest that even the most high-profile independent developers – such as Epic – have a price?
Well, we always make the joke that someone tries to buy us once a year and that every time they ask the price goes up. There was once a Mark Rein quote that went around with him saying that Epic is worth $1 billion dollars and Mark was like “bullshit! I want $2 billion”!

We’re doing fine as is right now. The Unreal Engine is extremely prolific, Gears is a success and I’ve got like five projects going on right now, all a guarantee that we’ll keep the lights on for years to come.

The number of big independent studios out there is visibly on the decline. How do you foresee the future of the independent scene?
I don’t think it’ll ever go away. It’s kind of like game genres; they don’t go away but they evolve in different ways. The adventure genre died, but other games picked up adventure elements, while the shooter games are turning into RPGs, right?

I think if you look at Epic, we’re actually a decent sized entity. We have a Shanghai office, we have [PC Gears dev] People Can Fly in Poland and Chair Entertainment in Utah; we have a number of subsidiaries, we’re not exactly 30 guys in a garage.

History has shown that a small number of guys can create change and we pulled off Gears Of War with a fairly small team, which was a tremendous amount of risk.

Moving forward, we’re certainly going to be taking our share of risks but also having a few safe bets that people won’t be surprised to see coming [laughs].

What do you feel is the creative impact when a studio becomes less and less independent?
I think it’s very possible for a studio to be acquired and maintain its own identity. But, if you look at previous acquisitions that have happened in the past… I don’t want to name names… but there have been studios that have been bought out, reformed into the purchaser’s image, lose their soul, lose their employees and essentially negate the whole reason why they were bought in the first place. 

If you look at how Bungie was working when Microsoft owned them, that was actually a very good relationship there. They had their own offices and really could do what they wanted – that’s actually really good thing, you want to keep that magic.

If ZeniMax know what they’re doing – and in working with Bethesda it shows they clearly do – they will allow id to maintain their identity and culture.

A studio’s identity and corporate culture is its backbone, you need those guys who get along and have worked together for ten to fifteen years and can read each other’s thoughts and just are able to get all the bullshit out of the way and come to a decision on designing a game.

When you’re interviewing potential new workers, what do they often say attracted them to Epic?
I think it’s our stability. It’s kind of funny because with the recent downturn obviously there’s been a lot of layoffs and we’ve been interviewing people who wouldn’t have initially applied because they seemed perfectly happy where they were, or maybe they didn’t think they would have been accepted.

We have guys here who used to work in the Dallas shooter scene [home city of id Software, Ion Storm (defunct) et al, home state of 3D Realms, Retro Studios et al] and they’re hitting up their friends and saying Epic’s a great place to work, we take really good care of our employees, and come check it out.

The interview process can be a bit gruelling as far as getting out the firing squad of employees coming in to ask questions, but that’s good; that’s how you separate the good from the bad and the people who want to really be at Epic and the people who see it as just a destination.

I mean, we have an extremely low turnover rate. It’s like maybe one person leaves every year and, nine times out of ten, those who leave under their own volition come and ask for their job back eventually… I know that sounds cocky, but I believe we have a really special thing here.

We have a lot of great people to work with and a lot of fun projects. 

We have a great work environment, we pair our guys very well, we’re flexible on what our guys can work on.

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