A Post-release Gears 2 Interview: Cliff Bleszinski Talks Design, Promotion and Trilogy Denial

Sometimes it feels like there are two Cliff Bleszinskis.

On the one hand, there's Cliffy B--the brash promoter that relishes the spotlight, existing on internet forums, in video interviews and wacky photographs.

And then there's Cliff Bleszinski, intelligent, renowned game designer, responsible for leading a team of dozens to create one of the most successful, critically-acclaimed video game franchises in history.

It's that same balance between over-the-top presentation and understated design that makes Gears of War what it is, and the traits are so strongly related to Bleszinski's personality that you can't help but acknowledge how key he was to its design.

I caught up with both Bleszinskis at a review event for Gears of War 2, where we had a chance to talk about Gears 2 in a post-release light.

Shack: In your role as creative designer on Gears 2, were you more in charge of the over-arching design, or did you also dig into the minutiae of development?

Cliff Bleszinski: It's a mix. There's times where, working with Josh [Ortega] and Rod [Ferguson] on the high-level story elements, the themes and things like that, as well as, "Would this character say that? What would be a cool moment to add here?"

As well as also coming off the playtesting and bumping up the flamethrower damage by five percent because it wasn't quite effective enough, or whatever. So I like getting somewhat hands-on with those kinds of numbers and getting my hands dirty. But it's really a mix of very broad strokes, and also knowing when to pick your battles and drilling deep in regards to nitty-gritty hands-on.

Shack: This is something I was talking about with Peter Molyneux recently. Does it frustrate you that some people don't think of you as a developer in the trenches? That they only see the promotion side?

Cliff Bleszinski: There was one quote, where--it was the photo of me with the chainsaw gun, with the red shirt, where somebody on a forum was like, "Oh, he needs to be working with his team instead of sitting outside all day long doing photo shoots." They don't know that that was me grabbing Aaron Smith, who was one of the artists, for literally ten minutes outside and taking three shots because we didn't have a chance to set up a proper photo shoot, and then getting right back to work.

People assume because you do the public work that you don't actually work on the game. I know for a fact Jade Raymond is one of the hardest working people you'll ever meet, but then they love knocking her because she's intelligent, well-spoken and pretty, and she therefore is very good at being a spokesperson for the product.

So I mean, whatever, there's always going to be haters and things like that, but I'd go crazy if I wasn't able to significantly affect the product on a day-to-day process. If I was just doing interviews all day long I'd put a gun to my head.

Shack: Do you ever get tired of being in the spotlight?

Cliff Bleszinski: Oh I like that, I have fun with it. I'm a masochist for reading message board comments. I'm like, "Ooh, there's a quote from me that's been taken out of context that makes me look like a smug asshole, let's read the comments."

And you know, half of them are like, "Ahhh I hate that guy," and half are like "Ahhh I love him." Like I said recently, you can call me whatever the hell you want as long as you give Gears 2 a fair shake. Call me a fucking douche.

Shack: Speaking of Jade Raymond, one of the things people were saying about her was the idea that she might somehow distract or overshadow the other designers working on the game--

Cliff Bleszinski: Anybody who looks at a videogame and assumes--unless of course it's an indie project--anybody who looks at a game like Assassin's Creed or a game like Gears 2 and assumes that it's built by one person is a fucking idiot.

There's a team here, and I have a personal responsibility when I evangelize this product to throw essentially shout-outs to Ray the lead programmer, Rod the producer, and Lee the lead game designer, because ultimately this is a sport, and when push comes to shove I need them to pass me the ball so we can score in the end-zone. And if I don't acknowledge them, then they're not going to continue to make the great products that I'm able to go out there and look like a smug asshole for.

Shack: I thought the credits in Gears 2 were a nice touch. [The credits feature a personalized message and photograph for each team member.]

Cliff Bleszinski: Yeah. Not a lot of companies do that. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: What were some of the major goals when you were initially approaching Gears 2?

Cliff Bleszinski: Having a better narrative this time around, and also just continuing with tremendously cool setpieces, you know, just something new and interesting around every single corner, and kind of maintain that cool pace right from the get-go.

I'm not a fan of games, where I've talked to other players--it's like, "Oh I couldn't get into this game," and they're like, "Oh, after the first three hours it's great." And I'm like, "Really?" I don't have three hours to spare on something that's not fun. There's people on Madison Avenue that would kill to have your attention for 15-30 seconds, and you can't grab me in the first three hours?"

Shack: It's interesting that games so often miss that part of the formula, because it seems that with other forms of entertainment, the opening hook is always very important.

Cliff Bleszinski: Well in games, [it's] because you're learning. So sometimes you have to have the kid gloves on to just kind of tease in a new game mechanic. But we're big fans of empowering the player with stuff like that. You want to skip the tutorial? Fine. You don't even have to do it. You want to skip all the narrative? Cool. That's not your thing, you just want to get in and kill some stuff...

But we're hoping that players will want to see the little bits of dialogue with Carmine, and learn some of the new things they can do, as well as stick around for some of the cutscenes. Because you know, if you do a good job with the first couple of 'em, just watch em.

It's funny when you look at a game like Uncharted, that had very, very well acted, very well edited, very brief, cool cutscenes--you forget you're watching a game, you just enjoy it. And then all of a sudden you're playing, and then you're back in this cutscene, and it juts flows perfectly. And hopefully we did an even better job with that element this time around.

Shack: The volume of cutscenes has gone up from Gears 1.

Cliff Bleszinski: But they're also still three to five minutes. Never longer.

Shack: It seems like cutscene design has been split into the in-game and cinematic approaches, with developers like Valve mastering the former. Are you ever concerned about cinematic cutscenes interrupting the pacing of your games?

Cliff Bleszinski: That works extremely well for Valve, and I have a huge amount of respect for what they do, but that's kind of their thing. And you know, on the other end you have [Metal Gear Solid director] Kojima-san, they're masters of machinima with their very long, dramatic cutscenes.

We think there's a lot of wiggle room between point A and point B, and it's just simply a matter of what your studio and designer's philosophy is on how you tell narrative. And you'll notice Gears has plenty of stuff that goes on around the player. There's plenty of things where he has a little communication with the squad, and things like that. Cutscenes are one way that we advance the story. Collectibles are another way, dialogue in the levels, voiceovers on the PA system sometimes, or reading the little newspaper that's in the display case--things like that.

Shack: What is the scripting process like for one of these games?

Cliff Bleszinski: Well for this project in particular, I wrote a two-pager which was then torn to shreds by the leads. We cycled on that, and had some knock-down, drag-em-out meetings until we came up with something that we felt was pretty compelling. Then we brought in Josh Ortega, the writer, and he proceeded to start writing to what we were building for the levels. And we knew the major plot-points, the bullet points for what would happen with this character and that scenario at this moment.

And just between Dave Nash, Rod Ferguson, Josh and myself, we cycled on the scripts--there was like eight to ten iterations on each one. There was a while there where Josh would send us a script and he'd get it back with so many comments that it'd look like somebody got chainsawed on the thing. Thankfully he's an incredibly talented writer who's very persistence and very tenacious, and he was able to really pull it together and ultimately I think the results really do speak for themselves.

Shack: Do you find it challenging, or even risky to attempt a fleshed-out story in a videogame?

Cliff Bleszinski: I think it's the wild, wild west in the game industry right now. And I think we can get away with a few things that you might not see in a Hollywood movie in regards to some dark story elements and things like that. I think ultimately what we do in Gears 2--it's dark, but it's compelling, and I think it's the kind of thing that will keep people talking for a while. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: One of the significant differences between Gears and Gears 2 are the number of large setpieces, typically featuring varied gameplay--on-rails shooting and the like. What was your inspiration there?

Cliff Bleszinski: We call those moments palate cleansers, like sorbets. Like if you're ever doing one of those big meals, at the big fancy restaurant, and the sorbet comes out and at first you're like, "Is this dessert?" And they're like, "No, there's crispy fried duck coming up." And you're like, "Jesus Christ, I'm going to explode Monty Python-style."

But what we do, we have these moments where you know, there's the part where you're in the tank, and you can drive around wherever you want. When you're in the truck, the truck yes is on a linear path, but you're in a big bathtub at that point, so you can kind of take cover here, or get in the turret and kind of do other things. So although certain sections like that are on rails, we try and give a certain amount of freedom within that.

And you know, I don't want to get into too much with the Reaver ride and things like that, but it's all about just using cool little mechanics, from turret moments to sections that are pseudo-on-rails, to other surprises like environmental hazards and things like that. Yeah, establish the core of your stop-and-pop gameplay, and then have fun with it, play with it. We're trying to surprise the player with something new around every single level. That's what keeps it compelling.

If it was just shooting guys the entire time, you'd get bored. You have to have story bits that people want to know about, you have to have one-offs, you have to have water-cooler moments. You know, cover falling down, choppers crashing and all that cool stuff that people don't expect.

Shack: More than the shooting itself, it feels like the trademark of Gears games is the pacing.

Cliff Bleszinski: Well, pacing is a carefully orchestrated formula. There's a reason why you're in the snowy mountain hamlet, and you don't have your sniper rifle yet, Carmine has one. So you're looking over at him and you're like, "When do I get my sniper rifle?" Or you see the Centaur earlier in the game, and you're like, "I have a feeling I'm going to drive that." Or you see certain creatures and you're like, "Oh god, I'm going to have to fight that at some point."

Stuff like that, that's all just seeding the player's head. Same thing with narrative bits, and reminding the player what he needs to do with his objectives, and reminding the player that Dom is frustrated and upset. And hopefully if you do a good job with all of that, the player, if he plays through the first act, hopefully it will resonate and start kicking around in his head. He's like, "I want to go back to that, I want to see what kind of cool stuff comes next." And then hopefully he'll want to talk to his buddies at work about it, and share the experience, and play co-op, and start playing all the other cool stuff.

Shack: Before the game came out, there was a lot of speculation that it might include four-player co-op. Was that ever even considered?

Cliff Bleszinski: No. We always knew there would be two. It wasn't like we tried to do it and we weren't able to do it, it's like--the game is built for Marcus and Dom.

Shack: Is that born out of the story?

Cliff Bleszinski: Yeah, we're not doing, "Player two is a clone of Marcus who awkwardly stands to the side." Player two is Dom, and he has something to say, and they interact with eachother in the world. Once you start adding three and four players, then the quality of the narrative just starts going to hell.

And right now people are having a blast in Horde. We said, "How can we have a [multiplayer] mode that leverages what's fun about co-op," which is going back to back with your buddies and killing a lot of enemies. And that's kind of where the genesis of Horde came from.

Shack: You guys have shipped a huge multiplayer component. What is it, seven modes?

Cliff Bleszinski: Yeah. That's a lot more than we shipped with the first one. There's a lot of game in there, dude. I think pound for pound, videogames are still the best value for your entertainment value. Hands down. If you were to break it down, the amount of hours you get out of a game like Gears, or your Call of Dutys, or your GTAs, it's way more for your dollar than any movie.

Shack: Do you ever say to yourself, "What the hell are we going to put in the next one?"

Cliff Bleszinski: No, I assure you that we're very restless creatives. Any future product--we would never consider doing if we weren't 100% sure that we couldn't beat ourselves at our own game. Of course, if we did something else in the future, I don't know how many more crazy moments we could do. [laughs] But I guarantee the well is deep in regards to creativity. _PAGE_BREAK_
Warning: Minor action sequence spoiler ahead.

Shack: Have you kicked around anything in regards to Gears 3 yet? Is there an outline for that?

Cliff Bleszinski: We're in a wait-and-see mode with Gears 3. I almost got into a little bit of a tiff with a journalist a couple weeks ago who sat down and was like, "You said Gears of War would be a trilogy," and I was like, "I never said that." Some random person at Microsoft made a comment like a year ago about something like that. That is absolutely not the case, and we are taking it on a game-by-game basis. I think if you come out and say your game is a trilogy, it opens you up to a certain amount of cynicism that can just backfire on you.

So we'll see how the sale increase for this is, we'll see how the review scores are, and then we'll make the official call on what we're doing. But I can tell you, narrative-wise with Gears 2, we do answer a lot of the burning questions that people have.

Shack: But there are obviously some major unanswered questions.

Cliff Bleszinski: But you know what, it's the Lost formula. Answer questions people want to know, but also leave them wondering, so that if you get around to doing something else in a future product, you have some cool stuff that people will salivate over for a while.

It's no accident, man. In the game you hear from one of the other squadmates, who is actually the star of the comic book. That is the kind of seeding that [writer] Josh [Ortega] likes to put into things, which is very cool and part of making a little trans-media empire I guess.

Shack: I'm sure you have ideas of what you'd want to do with a Gears 3.

Cliff Bleszinski: I have ideas about everything, man. I have other universes I want to do too. I'll tell you what we're not going to do--we're not gonna be making a Wii game, we're not going to be doing an Xbox Live game, we're not going to be doing Jazz Jackrabbit, we're not going to be doing a fucking puzzle game, and we're not going be making a Gears of War RTS. [laughs]

Every single person--nobody is sitting around Epic going, "Hey what do I do now? I've got nothing to work on." Everybody has all sorts of stuff to be doing. People are like, "Yeah, why don't you do a Gears platformer." It's like, are you high? We're all swamped, man. We're hiring as much as we can.

Shack: You guys are getting pretty big now.

Cliff Bleszinski: We're over a hundred people now. It's manageable. You try and grow smart, grow intelligently, don't grow too quick. And you know, Epic is very picky, and it's a very excruciating hiring process. We put them through the ringer. Those that come through the other side usually stick around for a while. We have a very low turnover rate.

Shack: I don't want to throw out too many spoilers in an interview, but let's talk about the Rockworm sequence. That was probably the only time where I felt myself getting physically ill while playing a game.

Cliff Bleszinski: It's worm blood, dude. [laughs] We knew we wanted to have very large creatures that you had to deal with, and we didn't want the player dancing around while this giant worm was sticking out of the ground, and you had to like lob grenades or something.

We have different bosses that are there for that, you know, the water beast. We just wanted a giant worm, and what would be the ideal way to kill it? From the inside out. Let him get eaten, and what's cooler than killing the arteries of three hearts with your chainsaw? And then try to avoid drowning in its own blood? [laughs]

Shack: That's going to horrify a lot of people's girlfriends.

Cliff Bleszinski: [laughs] It's almost like The Shining, where the elevator doors open up.

Shack: Yeah.

Cliff Bleszinski: This is all theater, man.

Shack: What was the line--something about coughing up somebody else's blood?

Cliff Bleszinski: [laughs] Hey, the goal is to give people something to talk about.

Shack: People will be talking about that. It almost felt like a stab at the anti-violent video games movement. "You want violence? Get a load of this!"

Cliff Bleszinski: Well, you're not a guy in Yankees hat beating down a guy in a Lakers jersey with a crowbar. You know, you're guys in big space armor, in an alien-looking disgusting environment. It's still very over-the-top, but you had to make sure the blood was right.

Shack: My favorite Gears moments are when it goes over-the-top for comedic effect.

Cliff Bleszinski: But at the same time, we tried to make sure there's still a little bit of heart this time around, no pun intended. Make sure you get to know Dom a little bit more, and put him through his paces. We do some stuff in this game that I haven't seen another game do story-wise.

Shack: Do you think people will be surprised by the story?

Cliff Bleszinski: I hope so. I think we're more confident in our storytelling abilities than we were the first time around, and we can take certain risks.