Interview with CliffyB

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It's often the most refreshing thing in the entire world to speak with a game designer who's not completely out there. Sure, those guys have to be "out there" to a point, but as the gaming industry has grown, it's often been my fear that many game designers seem to lose all touch with reality (no names... JOHNROMERO) as well as with what brought them to the dance in the first place: a love for gaming, and a love of everything that has to do with gaming.

What could inspire such craziness? I've often wondered. Is it the money? Because let's face it, if you're the lead designer behind a game that makes it big, money isn't all that much of a problem. How many famous game designers have you heard of that have to take 15-20 minutes every morning to select which sharp sports car they'll be driving to work that morning?

Cliff Bleszinski, or "CliffyB" for short, Epic Games' designer of titles such as Unreal Tournament and the upcoming Gears of War for Xbox 360, is not insane. At least, not in any "normal" way one can be insane. His hype hasn't gone to his head, and according to Cliff himself, it never will. He's got the dream job, the cool look, and a passion for gaming that hasn't yet been diminished by the looming shadow of gaming as big business. Read on to find out CliffyB's feelings on Tetris Attack, his ideas on storytelling in gaming, as well as a few answers on this holiday season's release of Gears of War.

Shack: CliffyB... how the heck are ya?

CliffyB: I'm kind of hungry right now. I could use a body massage too.

Shack: What was the game that made you say, "Yes, this is what I want to do with my life." You know, that one defining experience every gamer, whether player or designer, seems to have had?

CliffyB: I usually say "Space Invaders" since that's the first game I saw but truth be told it was probably the one-two punch of Zelda and Mario. Do you know that when I was a kid I used to actually believe that "secrets" in a game were things that the designers didn't want you to find? Like Miyamoto was putting stuff in the game and thinking "I really hope no one sees this; if anyone uncovers it I'll be so humiliated" like I was digging through his secret Hentai stash or something.

Shack: How do you feel about the downsizing of E3?

CliffyB: Completely torn. E3 was the ultimate "mom" test for a game developer; it helped everyone show their family that yes, this is in fact, a multi billion dollar business. At the same time it was the worst possible venue for evaluating new games. Best way to look at a game is in a darkened, cool room with a handful of people with no outside noise. E3 was the exact opposite of that. That and the fact that LA is simply not built for conventions. The thing should have been in Las Vegas all along.

Shack: Do you think consoles will ever adopt online distribution? For example, allowing me to purchase and download Gears of War via Xbox Live instead of running out to the store?

CliffyB: It's really hard to say. Never underestimate people's desire to go out and buy stuff; America is built on the idea that you spend your week working for money that you then go out and hemorrhage on the weekends on Stuff You Don't Need.

Shack: Many designers are excited about the possibilities for new gameplay the Nintendo Wii will offer. What are your thoughts on Nintendo's upcoming console?

CliffyB: I'll buy one day one if I can get my hands on it.

Shack: Though the Atari 2600 Jr. is what propelled me into the wonderful world of gaming, I've been a PC Gamer since way back. However, in recent years, I've grown frustrated with the PC as a gaming platform. It seems like the better technology gets, the more crap PC gamers have to deal with: more hardware conflicts, more games requiring tons of patches upon release, video cards that cost more than a console.... Many would say that besides near complete customization and better online options (though services such as Xbox Live are just as good, if not better), the PC as a platform is, for the first time, considered inferior to consoles.

What do you feel is the state of PC gaming at the moment? Do you think it still is (and will always be) a viable platform for gaming, or do you think consoles are (or will be) the best option for gaming?

CliffyB: The PC will always be a viable platform for gaming but I'm not going to lie in the fact that I've shared those very same frustrations. There are many forces at work to make sure that the PC gaming market remains a large, viable place to make, buy, and enjoy games, I assure you.

Shack: If you had to pick a top 5 list of your favorite games, what would they be? Any fond (or not so fond) feelings that go with each title?

CliffyB: In no particular order....

Tetris/Tetris Attack: Because both of them still hold up as remarkably engaging versus games to this day. Last Saturday night my girlfriend and I went over to a friend's place and we all threw down. I still have my Tetris Attack skillsÂ… my classic Tetris skills have waned a bunch since the days of the Nintendo World Championships.

Resident Evil 4: An exercise in gratification, pacing, and overall fun. Also the only game I've yet to see with an escort mission that's actually fun.

Burnout (series): My kind of driving game. Go fast, drive like an idiot, plow through stuff, generally it's like my commute to work.

Super Mario 1,2,3: For all the wonderful memories. I can still hum so much of the silly music from those titles.

God of War: For showing me how a melee game should feel as well as having excellent pacing.

Shack: Do you find it difficult to sit down and just enjoy a video game, or do you constantly find yourself analyzing the experience from the perspective of a designer?

CliffyB: I have devoted my adult life to making games and I've found that yes, this has in fact ruined a lot of the gaming experience for me. I can't just play and enjoy something, I have to call out what I don't like or try to figure out what the developers did to make a sequence work so well.

Shack: Many feel the gaming industry is stagnating. Concepts being regurgitated endlessly, sequels being churned out at Tomb Raider-esque speeds, et cetera. What are your thoughts on the current state of the industry? Do you see things as picking up, or is some real innovation needed?

CliffyB: I think things are stagnating a bit because it's hard enough to do what's been done before and even do it right. Games that make you play for an extended period of time without auto-checkpointing. Unintuitive controls. Horrible dialogue and voice acting. Crappy cameras. The list goes on. Making a videogame is such a difficult process that quite frankly I'm surprised any ever actually get done and that some of them are fun.

Now, I'm not saying Gears is going to be a perfect game – how much people like it remains to be seen. What I do know is that we as an industry have to perfect what we've got before we continue to try to completely reinvent it.

Shack: During Microsoft's GameFest 2006 in Seattle, the company announced XNA Game Studio Express, which will allow almost anyone to compile and run their own code on Xbox 360 units.

Do you see this as a step in the right direction for the industry? What are your thoughts on homebrew in general?

CliffyB: I think it's awesome. I get emails all the time from people who want to get into the biz; it's trickier now than it was when I was a teenager and every possible venue for these eager gamers to get in is a step in the right direction. It's that young blood that's going to be able to take the design risks that the big guy just can't afford to do. It's the guys at gaming school who do a portal game that Valve then works with to make a new and innovative game like Portal.

Shack: What's your preference for story telling in games: scripted events that still allow you to run around and do stuff, or cinematics, which force you to sit still and watch? Why?

CliffyB: Storytelling in the interactive realm is based on a series of tradeoffs. If one chooses first person the entire time then the player may feel more immersed but that immersion can easily be messed with by shooting other characters or jumping around like an idiot while they're speaking to you. Cutscenes are a more deliberate way of advancing story but when you're playing a game you'd rather actually play rather than watch a movie.

Gears uses a combination of techniques. We had a priority for these; the ideal way was to always tell story when the player was moving in the world (BTW, this is usually the cheapest way to do it.) The next fall back was to use seamless camera moves while you were playing along with points of interest (Basically, hold Y to see cool stuff.) Finally, we use the occasional (brief) cutscene to inform the player of critical data.

Shack: What do you feel is the best way to relay an emotion (anger, sadness, whatever) through video games to the player? Should emotion even be considered when developing a game?

CliffyB: When you're playing a game you have a captive audience for hours on end. It's possible through careful and intended manipulation of the player to get an emotional response. The easiest is empowerment – feeling like a badass. Fear and anxiety are behind that. Sadness and empathy are the hardest emotions to pull out of your average gamer.

Shack: What games have provoked the most emotion from you?

CliffyB: I was rather saddened by oldschool RPG games. Lunar got to me. Phantasy Star 2 saddened me when Nei was killed by Neifirst. But as I grew older and my anime RPG fetish wore off I realized that for your average person it's going to take a hell of a lot more. That's the million dollar question – can a game make you cry? And everyone in the biz is wrestling with it.

Continue on to page two for information on a little game I'm sure you've heard of... Gears of War.

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Shack: How long has Gears of War been in development?

CliffyB: The idea has been kicking around for many years; actual development has been two years.

Shack: How would you describe the game to someone who had never heard of it?

CliffyB: It's a lot of things. It's third person done right. It's a war in which you combat a monstrous and tough as nails enemy from the underground who happens to fight just like you. A story of redemption set against a backdrop of beautiful architecture. A violent, thrilling, exhausting rollercoaster of a ride. It makes pancakes too.

Shack: What, in your opinion, is the core element of Gears of War that will make shooting/action fans froth at the mouth for the game?

CliffyB: The cover system has turned out extremely well. It's basically a platform game on the X and Y axis; instead of leaping up into the air like in many other shooters you're leaping through the environment. Slamming into cover, hurdling over it, slipping and shooting around corners, all of it wrapped up with a tight polish pass.

Shack: What sort of arsenal will players have access to in Gears? (Please say the flak cannon!)

CliffyB: If we put a Flak Cannon in Gears you wouldn't have a reason to go buy UT now would you? Naturally, we've got lots of great guns in the game. The Hammer of Dawn is a satellite beam weapon that you can not only call in but also drag around once the beam hits so you can chase your foes around with it. You can also melee your foes with grenades and stick them on their heads. (This is especially fun with smoke grenades, by the way.)

Shack: Is story an important element in Gears of War? Tell us more about it: who wrote it, how did you meet the head writer, et cetera.

CliffyB: Story is yet another potential motivator that we as game designers can use as a carrot to get the user to play just oneÂ…moreÂ…level. Why not leverage that? The writing team was comprised of Eric Nylund and Susan O'Conner. We worked together to make sure that you gave a damn about the humans in this universe.

Shack: Tell us about the decision to develop Gears of War for a console instead of your tried-and-true PC platform.

CliffyB: Microsoft wanted a killer application for their system. No big conspiracy there.

Shack: What are the odds we'll see a PC port (or perhaps a port on another console) in the future?

CliffyB: It remains to be seen.

Shack: Seems there was a bit of consternation on gaming blogs and forums when the "big announcement" for Gears of War turned out to be the release date. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think the announcement lived up to the hype?

CliffyB: For Epic to commit to a date is huge. We've always been fans of "when it's done." We stepped up and drew a line in the sand and we're going to deliver.

Shack: How interactive are the environments in Gears of War? Please provide an example or two of what the player can do.

CliffyB: I like our destroyable cover, especially in versus. When your foe takes cover behind a couch and you tear it to shreds with your lancer and he suddenly finds himself standing there, feeling naked, and you cut him down by popping his head with a well placed sniper shotÂ… that's pure and beautiful.

Shack: Tell us about other multiplayer elements in Gears of War: what's available, how the modes work, etc.

CliffyB: Gears of War is truly a team-oriented game. As a result, we have placed increased emphasis on cooperative multiplayer--success cannot be achieved by going at it alone. Players who decide to put on a headband and do their best "Rambo" impersonation will be cut down in short order. It's all about working as one well-oiled machine and we will be rewarding those who decide to work together.

We're also working hard to blend together the single and multiplayer aspects of the game. You'll have to wait until the final product to see what we're talking about but we're certain that you'll be blown away. Let's just say that we're giving you yet another compelling reason to join the millions of Xbox Live subscribers.

Shack: Any particular reason you went with a third-person view over first-person?

CliffyB: I love first person, don't get me wrong, but it just felt wrong for this game. It's so cover based; but what does taking cover mean in first person? I feel like a five year old who was told to stand in the corner when I take cover in that view. I like seeing my character on screen as long as the camera is consistent and fair and then, by holding LT, you're damned near in first person view when aiming. So I believe that we have the best of both worlds in Gears.

Shack: What goes into designing a Gears of War map when compared with, say, an Unreal Tournament level?

CliffyB: Well, the single player maps are a huge undertaking because you're traversing a long space with many scripted moments and combat. Versus maps generally have less verticality than a UT map since you're not leaping around the map in the traditional sense of things. We also make sure that there's more of a "front" in Gears versus levels so that players can hold the line and try to flank one another in a tactical fashion.

Shack: What has gone into making Gears of War a cinematic experience?

CliffyB: Beyond the music and nice (but short!) cutscenes it's all about the in-game camera. When you're just playing it looks cinematic because we've put a ton of work into the in-game camera. Every bit of its positioning and movement has been labored over for months on end and the end result is something that looks like some sort of Sci Fi CNN.

Shack: Like any Epic game, Gears of War is riding quite the tidal wave of hype. How do you feel about that?

CliffyB: A little scared and a whole giant bunch of excited.

Shack: Have you ever reached a point where you say to yourself, "I'm CliffyB; my games will deliver, ALWAYS?"

CliffyB: No, because that's the point when I start believing my own bullshit and start to screw up.

Gears of War will be released this November for Xbox 360.

Long Reads Editor

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