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Life after Epic: Getting to know Cliff Bleszinski (exclusive interview, part one: his past)

I recently complained on Twitter/Facebook that I had to trim a 10,000-word interview down to something a little more manageable for our readers. But once people learned who the interview subject was, the response was clear: Don’t cut any of it.

Turns out people want to hear what Cliff Bleszinski has to say. Every word. The brash and outspoken 37-year-old developer is certainly polarizing enough to warrant such attention. You might hate him for his pretty Barbie-doll wife and his hot-rod Lamborghini that costs more than most people’s annual salaries [update/correction: make that two Lamborghinis]. You’ve probably spent more than a few hours of your life, however, totally lost in games like Unreal Tournament and Gears of War. Games that he helped create.

But right this instant, Bleszinski isn’t creating anything. He recently left Epic Games, his employer for the last two decades — yes, he started there when he was 17 — back in October 2012. No doubt, he’s up to something (more on that in part two of our exclusive interview tomorrow — we didn’t cut much, don’t worry). For now, he’s content to talk to GamesBeat about his past career and persona, what went right and wrong with Gears of War, and kids these days.


GamesBeat: You mentioned on G4 that you didn’t want the Gears of War Lancer chainsaw gun to define your career. But in a way, hasn’t that helped? Very few developers get to have a gaming cultural icon attached to them.

Bleszinski: Yeah. It doesn’t hurt that I was mugging for photo ops for two or three years with the damned thing. [Laughs] There’s that one iconic photo that goes up there, and that becomes you. That’s fine and everything, but at some point you want to do something else and be something different.

People forget that I did a colorful platformer with a rabbit in it or that I did a colored-lighting shooter with goo guns in it. It’s the 10-year rule. Every 10 years, what’s old is new. The kids who love Twilight and True Blood, they don’t know that Buffy existed. Every 10 years, you can take an [old] idea and reintroduce it to a new group of 17-year-olds, kids who were seven when it first came out and never experienced it.

That’s true of game mechanics, right? My wife’s first learning of “double kill” was through a Counter-Strike mod on her server because she hadn’t played the original Unreal Tournament. When she played UT2004, she thought that UT had taken it from the Counter-Strike mod. It’s the same thing.

You remember when Alien Ant Farm remade “Smooth Criminal”? People were like, “Oh, I love this song! I love Alien Ant Farm!” And you’re like, “No, that was Michael Jackson.” Now that we’re in the era of Google, ignorance is inexcusable, by the way. You have the portal to infinite knowledge in your pocket at any time. You can look up almost anything.

Image (1) chainsaw-duel1.jpg for post 101613

GamesBeat: If not the chainsaw gun, then what do you want people to think of when they see your name or face?

Bleszinski: Geez. There was a Kotaku article where they said one of the best things I did for my career was be visible. I’ve never been shy about going out there, talking to people, and doing interviews. I hope that there’s somebody out there who saw what I did over the last 20 years and what I’m going to do next and says, “Here’s a guy who is proud of his work and proud of his industry. He doesn’t sit behind a desk. He goes out there, and he’s an evangelist for gaming as a cultural thing.” If that makes any sense.

You can make your impact by doing a cover shooter and creating chainsaw guns and all that, but being known as a person who makes great games and also isn’t afraid to evangelize them and be visible is kind of my whole mantra. I got into this business for three reasons: to make amazing products, to be visible doing it, and to get paid, of course, because I do like having a fancy car.

GamesBeat: Along those lines, you had this public persona that’s a little divisive at times. You obviously have your fans and Twitter followers. A lot of people love your games. Yet at the same time, there are some people who think you’re kind of a douche. Like you said, you put yourself out there. You drive a fancy car. You also went through this phase with the “CliffyB” nickname and the frosted hair. Some people haven’t forgotten about that.

Looking back now that you are older, are there some things you would’ve done differently? Or did it all work out for you?

Bleszinski: Oh no, I was clearly trying too hard for many years there, obviously. When you have a community that’s more the quiet Reddit type of crowd, and then you have this kid who comes in with flashy hair and earrings, talking shit … what is this guy doing?

Thankfully, I largely had the track record to back it up, but at the same time, I was clearly the small dog that was barking too much, as opposed to the big dog who sits in the corner and knows that he’s big. I’m not [Valve Software founder] Gabe [Newell]. Gabe’s an amazingly successful, brilliant guy, but Gabe has his own way of doing things. He’s opinionated, but he’s also kinda quiet. Nobody knows what Gabe drives. I don’t think Gabe has an earring — although I haven’t had one for years.

Each person has their own thing and what they represent. I always just wanted there to be some younger kid out there who looks up and sees how much fun I was having with what I was doing and says, “Hey, I want to make games like that someday,” as opposed to saying, “Hey, I want to be a football player or an astronaut.” That was what I wanted to go for.

EGM intro (Gears of War)

GamesBeat: What was your reaction back in the day to me calling you a dick in the first line of my cover story for Gears of War in Electronic Gaming Monthly?

Bleszinski: I was just happy to be in EGM at that point. I grew up reading the fucking magazine. I still have some of my old issues in my drawers over here. It’s like the guy who became the lead singer in Judas Priest. He was a big fan, and then he became the singer. Or … I don’t know if it was Priest; I think it was. [Editor's note: It was.]

I approached this industry from the outside wanting to get in, and then I was able to rise to damn near the top. Even the first EGM cover we had for Unreal Tournament was a monumental career moment for me. The irony, of course, is that most of print is going away, but still, I have a lot of those framed in my house because they were huge career milestones even if you did call me a dick.

To be fair, writing that article as an objective journalist, you couldn’t come in and be like, “Cliff’s the man!” When Tom Bissell wrote that New Yorker article on me, he was like, “Oh, he could be a model or a small-town weed dealer.” I was like, “Thanks … I think?” There’s this fine line between a piece that tears somebody apart and a piece that’s just a fluff piece. That’s the line that a journalist walks.

GamesBeat: Do you think it’s weird or inappropriate that Gears of War toys are marketed to young children?

Bleszinski: Yeah, that’s always an issue. The thing is, I’m 37-years-old, and I’m still collecting cool new Transformers. That’s not a cop-out answer. The fact that they’re in Toys “R” Us … it’s one of those things. Yeah, it is there. But at the same time, it’s a fantasy, sci-fi experience. There are Prometheus action figures that I saw the other day at Toys “R” Us. Like, really?

The bottom line is that you want to get your game and your franchise in as many people’s hands as possible, when it’s appropriate. I’ve always defended Gears with the fact that it was an over-the-top chainsawing-aliens game, as opposed to a sticking-ice-picks-in-gang-members’-ears type of game.

GamesBeat: That reminds me: I’ve mentioned to you in previous interviews that I’ve always had this issue where Gears of War seems to have two personalities. It’s almost like when you see a trailer for an action movie, and they made sure to insert a scene that might appeal to the people who don’t like action movies –

Bleszinski: I’ve seen them do it. I’ve seen the Lifetime movie version of the commercial and then the ESPN version of it.

GamesBeat: Exactly. It seemed like Gears of War went through that but not just marketing-wise. On the one hand, you have the “bigger, better, and more badass” mantra. There’s the chainsaw guns and all the weapons blowing people up into bloody bits.

On the other hand, you had the “Mad World” commercial, trying to show the humanity that was lost in this world. You have the Dominic storyline, with him reuniting with his comatose wife in Gears 2 and what happened to him in Gears 3. It’s all touching, but for me, it just really didn’t fit the action and violent theme of the series in general.

Bleszinski: Part of that was just pacing. You’re going to have this incredibly emotional scene in the midst of an IP [intellectual property] where you say, “Shit, yeah!” and cut through 50 lizard men. How’s that going to work? Is it a square peg in a round hole? Yes. Why did that happen? Well, a lot of it is down to how the Ouija board of the development team panned out, but part of it is also my own imprint on how I operate and think.

When I was a teenager and I was working on games like Jazz Jackrabbit, I would listen to basically two types of music: hardcore gangsta rap and then musicals. It’s honestly that DNA coming through. I’m in two modes. I’m either in go-go-go-fuck-shit-up mode, or I’m in let’s-go-cry musical mode. Moving forward, if I’m working on something, I’ll have to adjust for the fact that not a lot of people can operate in those two spaces.

That’s the duality of who I’ve always been. One minute I want to watch something really sweet, a rom-com, and then the next minute I want to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I can appreciate both. I’m not all black or white. So I think that might have been some of that DNA making it through all the way to the final product.

This is also, by the way, a sensibility that [former Gears of War executive producer] Rod Fergusson shares. Rod loves action movies and explosives, but he’s also a big musical geek. He’ll have a big porterhouse steak and then have an apple martini with it. It’s just that kind of sensibility that I think came through myself and Rod and ultimately into the franchise.

Could it have been done better? Absolutely. I think the pacing of the levels before and after, leading into the whole Maria thing, probably could have been handled a lot better. The Dom thing, in regards to sensitivity — you can debate whether it worked. I think the scene worked rather well. I think that’s a better example, where the level started off super quiet, and then it ramped up to get crazier and crazier. It ultimately built up to everybody attacking you, and your back is absolutely against the wall. You realize, as a player, that you can barely counter this. Dom finally making his sacrifice at that point, I think, worked better than the setup and the payoff to the Maria scene, personally.


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