Lawbreakers: Cliff Bleszinski on free-to-play, diversity, and eSports

In a wide-ranging interview, Cliff Bleszinski talks about what drew him back to game development, where he'd like the industry to go, and the pet peeves he wants to avoid in Lawbreakers.

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Cliff Bleszinski doesn't slow down. He's glad to be older and wiser than he was when he began making games, but he's still constantly moving, talking a mile a minute and always thinking. That may be why, after a brief retirement from game development, he came right back with a new studio called Boss Key, a fresh idea called Lawbreakers, and lots to say about the direction of the industry.

"I couldn't see more than five feet in front of me," he told Shacknews. "I didn't know what my headspace was, and it took me six months to figure out that I didn't really want to sit by the pool, drink craft beers, and read sci-fi novels anymore. At the end the day, for my marriage, it was good for me to come back to work. I'd sit there at dinner and be like 'hey hon, how was your day?' and she was like 'you were there.' Oh. I have nothing to talk about with you. The days kept running together."

He said he had to fight the impulse to wake up in the middle of the night and jot down ideas. He acknowledged that a big part of his creative spark comes from engaging with media, so one of those sci-fi novels he read by the pool seems to have manifested itself in Lawbreakers. 

"It's because I'm a big consumer of media, so when I watch a lot of shows or read a comic book or books in general or films, stuff goes into my head and goes out in a unique way," he said. "The thing that really triggered it was reading Leviathan and they're talking about what happens when you fire a gun in zero-G. That triggered a lot of it in a good way for me."

At the same time, the break from game development was partly borne out of frustration with the lack of risk. He wanted to explore new ideas with different kinds of characters, and Epic wasn't open to it at the time.

"It's one of those things, towards the end of Epic--and again it's something that Epic has since remedied--but back when I was there at the end I would pitch any idea and everyone would be like 'I don't buy it.' You're like, dude, we just made a trilogy that's a billion dollar franchise, have a little faith," he said. "I want to see a character, young 20-something girl, robo-legs. How often do you get to kick someone with robo-legs in first-person?"

That kind of diversity is important to Bleszinski, because he said he wants his games to feel welcoming to people of all stripes. When asked what would make this a successful debut project, he quickly pivoted away from sales numbers and into a more unquantifiable kind of success that impacts fans. 

"It's the tattoos, it's the cosplayers, it's the couple coming up and telling me they met in the game and now they're getting married," he said. "You contrast that with the fact that I'm depicting a very diverse cast of men and women and hopefully eventually everything in-between. So everybody feels like they can identify with a character in a game."

His comment about diveristy couldn't have come at a more apropos time. I had arrived in North Carolina at the height of national controversy over the state's passage of HB2, which restricts bathroom access to trans individuals. Given Bleszinski's own ties to the area, and to the game industry itself that has been going through its own cultural shift in the last few years, I asked for him to expand on that thought. After some gentle teasing for the "clickbaity question," he opened up.

"There is this weird culture war in gaming, where most of the people I know in the industry are very progressive. I'm putting my money where my mouth is in regards to how I'm depicting women, and basically anyone who's not a white male--being very careful and I'd like to think pretty smart about it. I have all of these characters who kick ass who also then happen to be African-American, or women, or whatnot.

"If the time comes when I'm able to depict a trans character, which I hope, I'd like to be able to do in the future, I would want to have extensive conversations with trans folks I know, and really treat it properly. My whole thing is, the older I get the more I have of this thing called empathy where I can put myself in someone else's shoes. It's one of those things, knowing the folks who have transitioned and what they go through and what suicide rates are. It's a tough thing, man. We're in this situation where there's this weird little culture war going on that's amplified by the Internet."

There's also a measure of hometown pride in it. Bleszinski wants to be part of the movement that pushes North Carolina toward more progressive values. He remarked that he wants to make North Carolina, and in particular the downtown Raleigh area where the Boss Key studio is located, a more appealing place to work "in spite of recent laws."

"They call it a purple state," he said. "There are those of us who are trying to make it the new south--and are trolling Governor McCrory on Twitter on a regular basis because he's a bit of an idiot." 

Of course, including diversity is only a starting point. Bleszinski's seems just as passionate about gameplay, and talked about in terms of feeling and intiution and mechanical precision with equal measure.

"The big thing I wanted to emphasize was that I didn't want to do the cheesy parkour stuff. If I die because an animation's playing that's not a reload, I'm going to get really pissed," he said. "At one point we had it so if you fell a certain distance and landed, the camera did that whole bob thing. I'm like, no, nothing for cosmetics can make gameplay suffer. It needs to be crisp, fast, and movement needs to really flow through the world. Looking back at TF2 and CS:GO and that old Quake code, that movement, there's actually momentum there. When I started tweaking those physics in [Unreal Engine 4], it started leading to a lot of cool moments where you can fly up, land, then hop multiple times for a little extra traction." 

The moment-to-moment gameplay does feel crisp, as he put it, but our demo was limited to simple arena-style matches within a single mode. I wondered if this meant a more limited scope for the game, without elements like character progression, but Bleszinski assured me that's not the case.

"It's just not ready to be shown or talked about yet. You've got to nail the 30 seconds of gameplay, then the 30 minutes, then the 30 days, and then the 30 months. What we're showing today is the 30 seconds and 30 minutes. I think we have our base four archetypes of classes. It'll be a while before people master the game but still, you do need that outer shell. How we handle it remains to be announced, because a lot of games feel grindy for grindy sake right now. I'd like to avoid that if possible." 

He also said character progression will probably be cosmetic-based, since he doesn't want players who put in more time to get gameplay advantages. Cosmetic items will also serve as the backbone of the paid content. He was open about how the studio struggled with its initial free-to-play model, having recently switched to a paid (but not full-priced) model instead. 

"I'm just of the belief that there's an impulse-buy gamer out there who's played a lot of my prior games and Arjan's games, who'd be willing to cough up 19, 29, however much money for this kind of game that feels like an impulse buy. Focusing on free-to-play is one of those things that was so distracting. Do we make a hero roster and you only get these three heroes free? Do we do energy meters? Pay five dollars to respawn? Nah, it felt sleazy. When we announced that we weren't going to be $60 but also not free, the reaction was wonderful."

He said Evolve and Titanfall faltered by setting themselves at $60, despite being great multiplayer games. The connection to Evolve also brought up eSports, especially since a gameplay demo between developers showed off the potential for high-tension spectating. If Lawbreakers becomes an eSport, it will be a happy accident.

"A good gameplay experience would be a good sport. We're not doing a whole 'definitely going to be an esport' thing but it's always the thing that's on the tips of people's tongues these days. I'm setting this game up to have maximum drama and likable, identifiable characters. The first months we're going to be letting the dust settle on the balance, patching bugs, things like that, even if it's in early access. That's going to be a full-time job, so it's a long journey before this can even be potentially an esport."

So what happens after Lawbreakers? Bleszinski mentioned that he might have a few more ideas in him, adding as an aside, "VR might be big." But, like much of the industry, he was unsure in what way it will break out.

"A lot of the games that I've seen feel like they're 15 minute demos. I haven't seen a lot of real, honest-to-God, deep dive experiences. I think EVE: Valkyrie is, from what I gather. But even then, I love VR, but do I only love VR for 20 minutes, tops? Do I want to do VR for hours? Once the quality gets better, once the headsets get lighter, and the screendoor is gone, I think that fatigue might just go away. Clearly this game isn't VR, I'm not doubling down on it right now. Every year at GDC there's what Mark Rein would call the smoke chasers. This year it was all the VR. VR everywhere. I love VR, I'm invested in Oculus, Palmer's a friend, but is it viable for a long-term experience? I don't know yet." 

That said, he is open to pie-in-the-sky thinking. He said he has ideas that he'd love to do that just aren't viable yet. Tying back to Lawbreakers as an eSport, he says he'd like to make a Dota-like spectator mode with multiple screens available in VR. He also suggested that VR's real potential is in non-game applications: medical applications like PTSD treatment or even virtual tourism. He gestured to outside, where it had been raining all day.

"On a day like today, and this is a Saturday and it's just a rainy day, I'd just put on my headset and go to the beach," he said. "Picture this old person who lives in Boise, and they can suddenly see what it's like to ride the elevator at the Eiffel Tower."

For more on Lawbreakers, check out our hands-on preview and interview with Boss Key co-founder, Arjan Brussee


This Lawbreakers preview was based on a pre-release PC demo of the game at an event where transportation and accommodations were provided by Nexon.

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