Cliff Bleszinski Talks LawBreakers And Standing Out In A Genre Of Juggernauts
The first-person shooter genre is about as crowded as it gets in the video game industry. Cliff Bleszinski is best known for his work at Epic Games with properties like Unreal and Gears of War, but since his departure from the studio, he's been looking for more. We sat down with the creator of Gears of War and the director of the upcoming shooter LawBreakers to chat about the game, his thoughts on the genre, and how he thinks the upcoming title stands out in such a busy segment of the industry.
For more on LawBreakers, check out our recent hands-on preview.
So the big news about LawBreakers right now is that it's coming to PlayStation 4.
[Sarcastically] Oh yeah, because I hate Xbox.
Oh yeah? That's the reason? [laughs]
No! Fanboys have a hard time being objective and Xbox fanboys are particularly salty. From a business standpoint, I have 65 employees. The majority of them have families and I don't want to re-retire. I would get bored. So I'm enjoying what I'm doing and I want to keep the lights on and I need to keep the coffers full. We took a surgical look and we looked at the install-base of PlayStation vs. Xbox and we're like, "We're doing PlayStation first because Microsoft f---ed up the launch of the Xbox One. They doubled down on Kinect and their messaging on "Always Online" was s---ty. Everybody's always online now and no one cares right now because it was the frog in the boiling water. We slowly started tuning all those things and lo and behold here we are. But they're catching up, which is cool! And the thing is, I wouldn't rule out an Xbox, or Xbox X, or XOX or whatever the hell they're calling it these days... eggplant emoji, peach emoji [laughs] But I can only do so much, so we're hoping to do some of that Rocket League magic where we launch on PC and PlayStation 4 at the same time, maybe get the zeitgeist, and then maybe later come out with an Xbox version with added features and class 10 and whatnot. But one thing at a time. I can only do so much.
It seemed like you initially had other concerns about a console version beyond the scope of your team.
So if you play the game on PC, it's bats--- insane. That actually might be a bit much for people. The console version is still pretty crazy, but it's about 85% as crazy. So it's one of those things where you can only have an FPS be so crazy with a controller. That's where the crossplay question comes up, because for an action game, I think crossplay is stupid. I don't see the benefit of it, I think it's a waste of resources, and actually the negatives outweigh the positives. I've seen other action games like, "We're going to do crossplay!" and I'm like, "Why?! Why waste your money and time to make sure that controller players are dumpstered by keyboard and mouse players?" It's going to be Floyd Mayweather versus f---ing Conor McGregor boxing. Come on. It's physics, man!
What do you think about how you decrease that craziness for consoles?
Like I said, it's about 85% as crazy, but sometimes that's a good thing! Because if you're leaning back in your sofa, relaxing at the end of the day, and you just want to shoot some s---, then it's that. But if you want to lean in and have a hardcore experience, PC is the one you want. It's one of those things that, $29.99, and fun, hardcore, gravity-defying combat... all the marketing terms... we just wanted to make something fun that doesn't have the fuzziness and cheesiness that a lot of the shooters have these days.
Games like Overwatch are completely blowing up and there will obviously be parallels drawn to LawBreakers. How do you differentiate your game from a title like that that's currently dominating?
Overwatch is a great game. My wife mains Mercy, I main Pharah. It's fine. Overwatch did a lot of things to deliberately expand the market with regards to allowing a more casual user to get in. A lot of the ultimates feel like "Press 'Q' to win." Ours you actually have to aim. It's one of those things where I'm not going to freeze the player, I'm not going to have Roadhog's hook, I'm not going to have Hanzo's arrow collision. We're very much a one-to-one ratio where what you see is what you get. What I like to say is that this is a shooter that also has abilities and characters, and Overwatch is a great game that has characters and abilities that's also then a shooter. We are very much gunning for the Counter-Strike crowd.
Something that makes Overwatch so successful is the personalities of the characters. How are you cultivating these personalities so that players fall in love with them?
There's always multiple ways to do it. There's the barks - the character sayings game - when you select them, there's also the animation that's played. We have this Japanese character Kintaro who's on the Breakers and his weapon, the Aerator, has a spherical magazine and when you select him, he pops out the magazine, you see the magazine roll down his shoulder and go to the other side, and then he pops it and puts it back into his gun and [makes an arrogant face]. Just that little character moment alone, you're like, "This guy's a Dick. I like him!" You have that with other characters like Takki, our Korean battle medic. She shows up, her little battle spheres show up looking all cutesy and everything like that. I believe in our Blur trailer if you've seen that with the remix of "Spirit in the Sky," it shows off a lot of the personality of the characters. We also have lore that you can read up on, as well as we're working on some other videos, maybe motion comics and whatnot, that'll basically tell you the story of these characters.
There's basically two levels that you want: There's the person who's like, "Oh that character's kind of funny or cute. I like them," and then there's the "Did you know that Feng is the principal scientist for Shirocorp and that's why he's so cocky. He experimented on himself and that's why he has the robotic jaw and the prosthetic arm!" And you're like, "Jeez, dude, calm down with the nerd s---!" [Laughs] You want that kind of stuff, right?
Also, tonally, Overwatch works for what it is, but it's got a kind of Pixar kind of look. We're gunning very much for the Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo crowd. We're going for less bright colors, characters that are slightly more sinister. And also, of course, we have blood and gibs and a little bit of swearing once in a while.
What kind of post-release support are you planning?
I've already played class 10. We're shipping with nine, but that's the thing: When game developers ship games, we sometimes get bummed. It's, "All the excitement, all the excitement... it's out!" and then we're like, "Okay, now what? Oh, time to nickel and dime people for some s---ty DLC." So what we're doing is we're going to release the game with nine roles, 18 characters, Law vs. Breakers, then there's going to be another role coming out in a couple of months. They're already working on it. I've already played maps that aren't yet released, they're just going to show up one day. We'd also like to do what we call the Test Kitchen for servers. What if we had a game mode that's 2v2, Cronoses vs. Kitsune? A lot of games have been doing that and we want to get in on it and kind of iterate on it. We know the balance of the game is going to be utterly f---ed on launch and it's up to the community to help us fix it.
Are free updates to keep your community engaged the future of your post-release support?
Well, you know, we do have a crates system and cosmetics. That's kind of become the standard with this sort of medium-priced game. My main thing is I want people to play the game... hopefully buy it, hopefully spend a little bit of money on the crates. We have a very generous price-point at $29.99. I keep seeing games coming out that are multiplayer only at $60. I saw [founder of Titanfall studio, Respawn Entertainment] Vince Zampella last night and he was like, "Oh, that $60 multiplayer-only bulls---," and I'm like, "Yeah, Vince, that's why you made the campaign." [laughs] You've got to justify the $60 because gamers aren't stupid. They can smell value, so we have our $29.99 price-point, and then we also have a $39.99 price-point if you want some more sweet skins. You can get in at a very, very reasonable price, which I hope makes it sort of an impulse buy.
We've been hearing about LawBreakers for a long time now. Now that we finally have a release date, what do you think is the biggest lesson you've learned over the course of the game's development?
We wanted to be very transparent with our development, however we found out that's not very good for PR and press beats. If I could go back in time, I would have the alpha that we did not be public because it was okay, but it wasn't really what the full game turned out to be. But we did learn a lot of things from it. [... Now] the game really feels like it's hitting its full stride. That's one of the problems. I wanted to be fully transparent, but the problem is the game looks too good; we look triple-A, but you can't act like you're indie at the same time. It's that kind of dichotomy of what Boss Key is. If I could go back in time, I'd be a little bit more closed and kind of wait for the beta to get the word out. The good thing is that our publishers are finally only now getting behind the game marketing-wise, so a lot of people who only heard inklings of the game are like "Oh my god! I saw that advertised on my YouTube page! It looks great!" and people on my Twitter feed are not talking about chainsaws, they're finally talking about this f---ing game. [laughs] You have no idea how good that feels.
So now more "What was on your mind when Gears of War 1 was in development?"
I get "Please fix Gears!" and it's like, "Yes, let me abandon my company of 65 employees and their families to come back for your nostalgia." [laughs]
Alright Cliff, when you were developing Gears of War 4 [laughs]
You'd be surprised how much your average person doesn't understand what an intellectual property is and how ownership works. Stan Lee was a contractor when he made Spider-Man, who later had to sue to get the royalties that he deserved. It's basic business, you know?
I feel like I still see you on Twitter saying, "I don't make Gears of War anymore!"
You know, I'm not an actor, but I have a lot of empathy for actors who have had an iconic character who are like, "Hey! Say the thing! Say the thing!" Like, really dude?
"Alright, alright... I am the danger."
[Laughs] Yeah! Exactly! Exactly. You see Liam Neeson, and "I don't know who you are, but I'll find you..." [laughs] "I have a very special set of skills." For me, it's like... to back up for a second... This is my studio. This is my IP. I'm doing it on my own volition. It's not [Epic Games co-founder] Tim Sweeney's company anymore. For me to build this company with a bunch of badasses and to see the logos around the [Los Angeles] Convention Center, to see the banner, and to see people lining up and hear them hooting and hollering, this is seriously a huge career milestone for me. At the end of the day, I get back to the hotel with my wife and I do a thing I just savor this. And I tell my employees who are here that this doesn't happen very often. I tweeted a photo earlier, and I don't know if you were outside of the Convention Center earlier, but looking at the banners, this is the only new IP that's outside of the Convention Center on a banner. Everything else is a f---ing sequel. Gamers say they want new stuff, but it comes back to South Park's Memberberries. "'Member Marvel vs. Capcom? 'Member Call of Duty?" Like, yeah, that's fine, but try something new for once! We have an open beta on the 30th. Give the game a go. What do you have to lose?
How many laws can you break in one match?
That's a very obscure question... [laughs] All the laws of gravity and physics, essentially.
And murder. [laughs]
Well, yeah, but my whole thing is this game kind of represents where my mind-state is because I hate repeating myself and I'm very impatient and I'm just like "Go, go, go, go, go." That's for me, hanging around programmers my entire life, I'm all about being efficient. I don't care about your bulls---. I don't want you to cry because of a cinematic. Give me verbs. I'm sliding, I'm jumping, I'm grappling, I'm jump-jetting, I'm rocket-launching, I'm rocket-jumping. I'm doing all these crazy things that lead to a game that I believe is fundamentally watchable. I find myself going to the kitchen and getting a glass of water, and I find myself where I get caught watching and then like, "Oh yeah, I gotta get back to work," because the game is really, really fun to watch. [...] The game has this amazing sense of flow. I've had so many years of working on Gears where it's stop and pop, and stop and pop, and it's like, "No, I want to roll around all the time," and "I want to wall-bounce." Gamers want to, in that 3D space, continue to have that flow, which is why, as much as I like Overwatch, I think Mei is the dumbest character ever. You never freeze somebody in a first-person shooter ever. Just kill me. I'd rather be in the spawn queue. Or put me to sleep like the other character does.
Something you said was it's "fundamentally watchable." Do you feel that's something that's just necessary with games these days thanks to the prominence of streaming culture?
That's the esport question, right? The only MOBA I ever liked was Smite because it has this cohesive fiction. There's gods, there's a phoenix, and titans and all this stuff. Okay, I get it! Every other MOBA is like, "This is slappedy slap from fluppy flu, and he's a catfish with a tophat on..." What the f---?! [laughs] And you know, hey, I would kill to have one-tenth of the success of League of Legends. Far be it from me to criticize them, but I watch League and I'm like, "I have no idea what's going on." And I talked to [Riot Games founder and CEO] Brandon Beck some years ago and he was like, "Yeah, we've pretty much accepted that League of Legends players are going to be the ones watching League." I'm hoping with our game, we kind of have the equivalent of American football, where you don't necessarily need to know what a two-point conversion is, but you can understand "big-guy-throw-ball-get-tackled" and understand. You cross the line, you score. It's that simple, right? So for us, it's "guy or girl shoots each other, takes ball across goal and scores." There you go, you don't need to understand the nuances that the Starfall creates a zero-g pocket that you can blindfire through and what your acceleration is and how you can bunny-hop out of it.
Do you think that kind of desire for an understandability translates to the way your modes and their objectives are set up?
The mantra I gave them was "Don't make the same exact game modes everybody else did." Don't just do payload. It's like, "Why? Why don't we come up with our own stuff?"
So are we going to have straight team deathmatch?
Nope. We're a class-based game. Each class makes sense depending on the section of the level, depending on the context of the match, depending on the timer and everything. So we may introduce a mode that's kind of like TDM, but I've challenged our design team to find our own twist on it. Don't just do the same s--- everyone else does.
What have you learned from creating games like Gears of War and Unreal Tournament?
For me, it's movement. I went back and I studied the movement of Quake 3 and Team Fortress 2, and I went back and I played the new Unreal Tournament and the old Unreal Tournament. One of the mistakes I made back in the day was when you move in Unreal Tournament, you go from not moving to full acceleration immediately, and then you stop immediately. In Quake and TF 2, you accelerate a little bit, then when you stop, you glide a little bit. And also, the walls are very, very smooth in those games. Whereas the default code in Unreal Engine, when you hit a wall in Unreal Engine, you hit the wall at a slight angle, you still rub up against the wall slowly. The only time you stop in LawBreakers is if you're perfectly perpendicular to the wall; if you're at all at an angle, you just glide along. All that little stuff, as well as maintaining your momentum when you jump, gives a little bit of that movement feel. Like I said with Gears, I wanted to create a stop-and-pop game, but players didn't want that. They wanted to roll around and shotgun people because they wanted to be as efficient in movement as possible. So I said, "Alright, let's design an entire game around movement being as efficient as possible." So you take out the enemies, you can see the health above their heads, and you can actually gib people again, which people forget that gibbing is fun.
In the past, when you've talked about your regrets about Gears of War, you've spoken about wanting it to have been more serious and thought-provoking from a narrative perspective. Do you think you'll ever want to do another story-driven game after LawBreakers?
Not anytime soon. You have no idea how much work it is to make a campaign. If I were to do something that is somewhat story-driven, it would be a lot more procedural. I was talking to a journalist yesterday, and one of the random game ideas I'd love to do is a game about a lost dog. It's one of those things I've wanted to get around to, because I have a 12-year-old Australian Shepherd who's slowing down, I have a five-year-old American Eskimo and they are just like my therapy. When I come home, they treat me like a Marine who just came home from Afghanistan every time. It's amazing. It's one of those things where that would be the game I'd love to do. When you think about verbs and my game, dogs have a lot of verbs; they can sniff, they can nibble, they can bite, they can bark, they can wag their tail, they can move their paws, they pee, they poop... they do all these crazy things. There's a lot you can do with a dog and how the dog interacts with humans and I think that would be a really compelling thing to do. Hopefully somebody Kickstarts is and makes it for me. I'll do it in my spare time! [laughs]
Did you have a chance to play Gears 4?
Yeah, I played through the campaign with my wife.
What'd you think?
A lot of my old ideas were in there. I'm flattered. I ran into [Gears of War series producer] Rod Fergusson in the hotel bar the other day and gave him a big hug. We caught up for 15 minutes. There were some things I wanted in that game that didn't quite come through. I think they've pumped the brakes on some of the things I wanted to see in that game. But they're kind of bootstrapped because they have to make this game that's about big, buff badasses for a new hipster generation of millennials, and that's why the new cast of Kait and J.D., they're kind of the younger crowd like, "We're not quite as gruff as you are, old man," which is kind of the metaphor for Rod, myself, and Gears trying make a game to appeal to a new generation of gamers, right? I enjoyed it, but Gears is going to continue to suffer from innovator's dilemma. I'm so happy that I can make a new IP and put whatever the hell I want in it. I'm not going to have someone saying, "You ruined it!" or "This isn't the core game anymore!" or "You're not innovating!" It's always that catch-22, right?
LawBreakers launches on PlayStation 4 and PC on August 8.