The Techland Interview: Cliff Bleszinski, Part 1

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It was a long weekend for one Mr. Cliff Bleszinski. When the planned reveal of two major video games got bumped by the shifting sands of late night talk show booking, the design director for Epic Games found himself with a whole weekend in Manhattan. Over the weekend, he caught a Broadway show with his girlfriend Lauren, went to Morimoto and, y’know, helped to polish the trailer for Gears of War 3. By now, most time zones have gobbled up Blezsinski’s appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and the Gears of War 3 trailer that debuted on Tuesday night.

But, before that, I had the chance to interview the Raleigh, NC resident about Gears 3, the newly announced Bulletstorm and a wide range of topics about the current video game landscape. What follows is Part 1 of a very long talk. (Part 2 will most likely be select cuts of the audio interview presented as a podcast.) This isn’t the first time I’d talked to the man sometimes known as CliffyB and I was reminded just how hyperactive his brain can be. Read on for and see if you can keep up.

How do you feel about the leaks that trickled out this weekend?

I would rather that there be leaks than have there be no interest. When people stop talking, that’s when you have a problem. The fact that there’s a desire, the fact that there’s an urge for leaks… it sucks when it happens but it’s actually an inadvertent press bomb. The rearranging on the schedule allowed us extra time to polish the trailer. It allowed me to enjoy the city and tease people on the Twitterverse. So it became telling people to come by the GameStop on Union Square on Saturday because I was going to be in New York a little longer. It’s not a big publicized event but when we show up there’s like 50 fans who’ve showed up with their schwag that they want signed. Technology seems to distance us so much, where people never actually talk on the phone instead of just texting. But at the same time it’s able to bring us together in certain ways.

And now, you’ve got everybody on the hook for another year…

Spring is the new fall for game publishers.

There’s hope yet that we might get decent releases all throughout the year?

Well, the business traditionally orients by look back at the past. “History has dictated [such and such] so therefore you can mitigate risk in the future…” That doesn’t lead to innovation. That leads to a cycle of me-too, or the kind of thinking that says “Oh, I haven’t seen that done before, so therefore you can’t do it.” That doesn’t make any sense.

So, you feel like innovation is better pegged to…?

I believe in a few things. I believe in trusting people over process, in putting your value in people’s guts and instincts. Then, mitigate risk as best you can but ultimately trust that if you put enough talented people on something and have them work hard enough.

I was going to save this for later but you’re providing me with a really nice segue. The whole Jason West/Vince Zampella thing with Activision and Infinity Ward. You talk about valuing people over process. What do you think happened there?

It’s a very, very sensitive topic and I know those guys and have a lot of respect for them but I also understand that this is very much a business. I’m going to have to be very careful with my wording right now. I do think you’re seeing fundamental shift where you’ll see creatives valued sometimes over the rubber stamp of a video game sequel brand. And people forget that those guys did it before [left to form their own studio] when they were working on Medal of Honor and then they went and made Call of Duty. There’s nothing to say that they can’t do it again.

What you see a lot of with the publishers, though, is there’s multiple types of creatives but you see different buckets. There’s one type of creative who can create what is essentially a new mold and David Jaffe’s one of those guys who I have a lot of respect for. He was able to do that with Twisted Metal, with God of War and the games that he makes. And once that mold’s established, the businesspeople who are responsible go, “Okay, well we have our mold now. Screw you. We’re not going to pay you what you’re worth.” Then they basically go “fa-foomf, fa-foomf” [which is an assembly line noise]. Once they have the formula, as long as they apply more and enough talented people, they can make a solid sequel. Look at Bioshock 2; they did not have Ken Levine involved. But, because the template was there with Bioshock 1, they could apply a few teams and make something that I believe was a worthy follow-up. Which is a perfectly fine business thing to do. But, you have to make sure the creators are being taken care of. Now, you’re seeing creators being represented by more by agencies and I think you’re seeing a shift in the business.

Do you feel like this is going to lead to more creative control on the part of the designers?

Um, maybe? I can only speak to my own personal experience within Epic, where I’ve got a tremendous amount of creative control and freedom, because Tim Sweeney’s a smart guy. He recognizes the need to take care of the creatives and those who really build the games. He’s not saying, “Screw you, you’re expendable. We’re going to get somebody else!” Which some publishers do with some developers. So, yeah, y’know, you have to be careful when you’re spending millions of dollars to make a product. You have to pick your creative bullets to fire very carefully. If you make something that’s too weird or too unique, you make something that’s heralded as a classic like Shadow of the Colossus but doesn’t sell as well. I prefer to operate in the space of something where it’s a shooter but we take a risk with cover, we take a risk with something like Horde [Mode, from Gears of War 2]. And then we innovate in a few areas but also give players something that’s familiar, right?

It’s funny, the median age of a gamer’s almost always been my age. Every year they’d announce it and now it’s, like, 35-ish. The perception is that it’s the pimply 12-year-olds in the basement but the reality is that a lot f them are dads right now and they’re raising the next generation of gamers. And the worm has turned in Hollywood. A lot of producers and directors are that age; they grew up playing video games and they get it now, whereas the old guard is fading away.

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