Video game designer Cliff Bleszinski always speaks his mind — except for this one time. A few years ago, when I asked the creator of Gears of War and Unreal Tournament to give his thoughts on his competition — other shooters like Halo or Call of Duty — he declined.
It was a business decision. His former employer, Epic, makes the Unreal Engine software toolset that developers use to make games, so some of his competitors in retail might also be potential clients on the development side. It’s not a good idea to talk shit about them.
Bleszinski recently left Epic after a 20-year stint, however, which now frees him up to say what he really thinks of other shooters. I took advantage and got a full download in the final part of our exclusive interview. Enjoy this blast of Bleszinski. Who knows if we’ll ever get him to open up this much in the future.
GamesBeat: A long time ago, I wanted to have this frank talk with you about all the shooters on the market. At the time, you were wary about that because some of these developers were potential or active clients with your company’s Unreal engine. Maybe …
Bleszinski: It’s possible to say anything about any franchise that you don’t like as long as you mention what you do like because then it comes from an honest place. It’s the same thing as, “Oh, hey, I like your hair, but I’m not so big on the boots,” and then she’s like, “Oh, man, he doesn’t like my boots, but he likes my hair.” It’s just basic communication, right? As opposed to just saying, “Your guns are shit!” and then people are like, “Wow, you’re an asshole.”
GamesBeat: Let’s do that, then. Let’s run through a few shooters and get your thoughts about what you liked and didn’t like. Not from Cliff Bleszinski the gamer but Cliff Bleszinski the game designer. Let’s start with any recent Call of Duty.
Bleszinski: I’ve always said that shooting your friends in the face at 60 frames per second through iron sights will always be fun, no matter what. One of the things that franchise has always nailed is the smoothness.
I have this little game design trick I’m going to give you. I only learned this in the last year. Fire up any shooter — a twin-stick shooter. Start turning and looking up and down. If you can easily control the shape of the parabolas that you’re doing — if you can say, “OK, I want to make a really tight parabola” or “I want to make a really wide one” — that’s basically balancing the “patting your head and rubbing your belly” of twin-stick shooters. You can do a very good job of that, always, in Call of Duty and in Halo as well.
The single-player [in Call of Duty: Black Ops II] … I started getting into it, and I heard that they made a lot of effort to get rid of the linearity, but I just couldn’t get past it. It still felt like there’s an infinite amount of enemies spawning at me, and I’m just trying to race to a checkpoint as opposed to clearing out the room. It’s not my thing. I can’t do those campaigns, especially when I have a campaign like Far Cry 3’s, where it’s really open and so many crazy emergent things happen.
The multiplayer in Call of Duty — it’s that great grind of unlocking all the perks and gizmos. I found a lot of multiplayer maps this time around to be extra small in the first batch. The one on the aircraft carrier, the one on the boat. Anytime you’re on something that’s on the water, most of the time it’s going to be too confined.
There are these kids who have an infinite amount of time to play, and if one or two bullets take you out, it comes down to who shoots first. When you introduce latency, a lot of the times it’s a roll of the dice in regards to who wins.
If I want to play a game that has a more back-and-forth cadence, that’s when I want to play Halo. When I play Halo multiplayer, I don’t feel that whoever acquires the other guy first is going to win. In Call of Duty, the guy who acquires the other guy first wins. In Halo, you have your shields. The guy may miss with the grenades. You may jump. You may have a chance to recharge. Your friends may show up. It feels like there’s a lot more trading paint back and forth.
It’s like boxing. You get two boxers who are trading back and forth, [and] it winds up being an entertaining match as opposed to when Mike Tyson used to box, and he’d knock a guy out with one shot. Halo feels like the former. Call of Duty feels like the latter. I guess it’s a matter of what you want as far as lethality and twitch gameplay.
GamesBeat: What don’t you like about Halo 4?
Bleszinski: The story is still a little confusing, man. I gotta be honest. Once Halo 2 started introducing Gravemind and all these things and Forerunner stuff … .
It’s one of those franchises where they do a really good job of a lot of that. I felt like Master Chief and Cortana were more believable than they ever have been. Cortana had these great little moments where she’s like, “You wouldn’t lie to a girl, would you?” You’re just like, “Wow.” That was a great, sincere little moment. But by the end of the game, I was like, “Wait, what is going on?” I haven’t read the books.
If I were to make another franchise, the goal [would be] to make it so you can still understand the story in a nutshell without having to read the books or play the previous games. Halo fans are so into their universe and their franchise that sometimes they leave a couple of the Muggles like myself behind.
GamesBeat: What about Battlefield 3? Did you get a chance to play a lot of that?
Bleszinski: I couldn’t get into it. I gotta be honest.
GamesBeat: Why not?
Bleszinski: The campaign felt like the very scripted kind of thing that I didn’t want to play. I also felt like it was the kind of game where, if you’re really going to get full enjoyment out of it, you have to play it on a high-end PC, which I do not have right now. I haven’t moved into my new house, where I can have a nice desktop setup. I’m just on a laptop right now.
When I played the multiplayer, it felt like everybody was camping with sniper rifles. I’d just walk out and die, walk out and die. Once I get a high-end PC, I’m going to reinstall that with all of the downloads, and hopefully, I’m going to get on one of those servers where all the vehicles are going around. I’ll be running it in full high resolution, and it’ll look amazing. That’s the way to experience that game, at least for me. I’ll get around to it.
GamesBeat: One of my favorites of this generation is BioShock. Let me hear your thoughts on it.
Bleszinski: Of course. Here’s the thing. There are games that come out, and my wife will watch me play it for a couple of hours. Then she says, “Are you going to go back to that game?” And I’m like, “No, I got the idea.”
It’s the same thing with restaurants. These restaurants are all pretty good, and you say, “Yeah, maybe I’ll go back there eventually.” Then you [go to] one that’s that good … and you’re hooked. Resident Evil 4. BioShock. Even BioShock 2, to their credit. As much as I complain about Halo 4’s story being a little bit confusing, I beat it. I don’t beat a ton of games. I thoroughly enjoyed Dishonored, but I haven’t had a chance to go back to it because we got interrupted with all this travel.
Where were we? Beating games and quality and all of that. BioShock was phenomenal. I think [BioShock] Infinite is going to be amazing. If anyone can ship that game, [former Gears of War executive producer, now executive vice president of development at BioShock developer Irrational Games] Rod Fergusson can. Ken [Levine, the creative director at Irrational] is a mad genius, man. The shit that he puts in his games … .
That was my joke at Epic before I left. If I came to this studio and I pitched a robotic George Washington and a giant clockwork bird, people would be like, “Dude, are you high?” That’s the joke about screenwriting and script development. “You gotta cut out the monkey.” “THE MONKEY’S THE BEST PART!” I always joked that it was Johnny Depp’s performance in Pirates of the Caribbean that made that movie work, but that was also the thing that the studio was the most worried about. Sometimes it’s the thing that’s the weirdest or quirkiest that’s also the most interesting.
My concern for that game and that franchise is making sure that they keep that disc in play. Even if that campaign is 16 hours, a die-hard fan will rock that in a weekend, and then he’s going to be like, “Why am I going to keep this disc?” I don’t know how long the game is. I don’t know what their DLC [downloadable content] plans are. But if I was running that game or franchise and I knew that the multiplayer might not work out — I don’t even know what their plans are for the multiplayer — I would start some sort of plan to have consistent DLC every quarter. However big or however small.
That’s what Randy [Pitchford] and the guys at [Borderlands developer] Gearbox get. In the current era of disc-based games with DLC, you have to add DLC relatively quickly to fight the battle against GameStop putting out those flyers: “Trade in your game in a month!” They’re winning the battle against used games.
GamesBeat: Is there anything you didn’t like about the original BioShock?
Bleszinski: I felt that the setting was a little oppressive for me, as much as I love it. I have this whole underground theory. I’ve thought back on Gears 2. You worked underground in the Locust lair for too long. That’s why we cut out the section of DLC that later appeared, where it was more underground.
When you’re playing a game, psychologically, being underground … it wears you down. I don’t know what it is. Maybe we’re just raised to know that being six feet under is bad or something like that. In that movie The Descent, being underground is very scary. Being underwater like that, it applied some of the pressure of the game, but it was slightly alienating as far as the setting.
Which is why, as scary as the fear of heights is going to be, I’m actually more excited for Infinite because it looks like gorgeous blue skyboxes everywhere. Big, flowing vistas. It’s what I think makes Halo so great. Yeah, the landscapes look great, but half the game is outside, and all these skyboxes are gorgeous.
GamesBeat: Borderlands 2.
Bleszinski: I’m loving it to the point where I saw the magic formula. Every [role-playing game] pulls this although every RPG does it to a different extent. Basically, they keep it to the point where you’re strong enough that anything can wear you down to a certain point but not do too much, and then you level up for a little while, and then you’re kicking their ass until the new bigger enemies come along, and then they’re harder to kill. There’s that cadence that’s been going on since Ultima and everything. Even Skyrim had it to some extent, right?
There’s a point where the game breaks. It didn’t happen to me with Borderlands, but it happened with my wife in Skyrim. She’s taking out bone dragons with one arrow. There’s a point where you can’t die anymore. The game kind of breaks there.
Anyway, we co-opped a great deal of the way through [Borderlands 2]. The universe is amazing. The writing is just great. Claptrap could have easily been an annoying character that everybody hated, but he turned out to be one of the most beloved. It puts the fun in a postapocalyptic environment, which is really hard to do. But I got to the point where the game started feeling a little grindy for me. I haven’t gone back to it yet, but I probably should at some point considering they’re all dear friends of ours.
GamesBeat: Switching directions –
Bleszinski: You want to talk about Resident Evil?
GamesBeat: Sure, we can talk about Resident Evil. You want to talk about 6 specifically? It’s not a traditional shooter, but —
Bleszinski: I know, I know. I even talked to Capcom about [Resident Evil 6]. I’m sure they’ll figure things out.
It felt like there was this point where Resident Evil 4 influenced Gears of War, and then Gears of War influenced Resident Evil too much. I don’t want to run from too many explosions in my Resident Evil, you know? I want to run from zombies. Put more of the Walking Dead type of experience into a Resident Evil.
The stupid little Slender Man game was a thousand times scarier than anything I saw in the four hours that I’ve played so far of RE 6. It’s all about that nuance and subtlety that Silent Hill 2 nailed. Even the original Resident Evil had a lot of it. It’s even cheaper to do that!
It’s like the shark not working in Jaws. You didn’t see it that often, and therefore, it became more suspenseful. It’s all about that tease of the monster. Is he there or is he not? That’s the powerful stuff that people sign up for with horror. But this stuff [in RE6] is all action. Nothing feels scary to me in 6 at all.
GamesBeat: Did you like anything about Resident Evil 6?
Bleszinski: I thought the zombie A.I. was actually pretty cool — the way they crawl along and dodge your attacks a little bit, things like that. Visually, it was quite good. The set pieces are cool. The quick-time events were used a bit too much, maybe, but a few of them were nice.
I think doing the multiple campaigns is a very good idea. I just think they should alternate between something like a Leon and then a helpless character, so you get this feeling of empowerment, and then you feel threatened, and you keep alternating between those. In my opinion, that’s good pacing for a game like that.
GamesBeat: Any other games you want to talk about?
Bleszinski: I’m going to go back to Far Cry 3. Far Cry 1, for me, I wrote off as just, “Hey, here’s a game to see if your PC runs well.” Far Cry 2 I barely played because I heard it was the game where you had malaria and nobody wants that. Tom Bissell, who’s my friend and who’s a great writer, says that I need to play it and that it’s one of the greatest games of all time, but I’m just like, “Look. I’ve moved on.”
And so Far Cry 3 … I didn’t want to like it. It didn’t feel like a property to me. But firing up the third one — the bad guy, Vaas, he looked like he was very compelling. Apparently, there are some great evil moments with him throughout the game. I do feel like the protagonist is what a video game designer thinks your average gamer is. He came across kind of douchey.
I was saying that I want to play the game where I’m Vaas, and I get to torture these college kids who came to get fucked up on my island. I identify with the bad guy more than the good guys. But at the same time, what they did with the wildlife and the crafting system, and even the tattoo branching stuff, the perks and all that … it’s a great game. Also, as much as I don’t like firefights in jungles — I think it makes it too hard to see — I’m in paradise, right? That’s a cool environment to be in as opposed to being an underground miner on Mars.
GamesBeat: What didn’t you like about it?
Bleszinski: Well, the protagonists, again, don’t work very well for me. Some of the travel distances are a little bit far. It feels like you have to drive forever. The fast-travel system also isn’t very clear. I’m wondering why I can’t fast travel to any village that I’ve discovered, like in Skyrim. I might be missing something. The [user interface] could have been a little better.
But those are minor quibbles. Overall, it deserves its accolades.
I’ll tell you, Assassin’s Creed III, I started getting into it, but that first hour or so was just agonizing. It’s hallway, cutscene, hallway, cutscene, hallway, cutscene. Get me to Boston. Let me just run around Boston and start doing what I signed up for.
That’s one of my big, big pet peeves. You have this amazing system, this city I can go and explore. I can assassinate people and then hide and deal with the authorities. Let me get to that. I know that the left stick moves me around, OK?
The thing with this generation is, it used to be that you’d start a game. You’d fall down into a room with this dude, and the first thing you’d do is hit all the buttons on your controller. “Oh, OK. A is jump. B does some sort of sword thing. I don’t know what Y does yet.” Now it’s just like, every little thing is fucking hand-holding every two seconds. “OK! Fine! I don’t need a new tool-tip! Let me learn by myself!”
GamesBeat: I liked what you guys did for the start of Gears of War 1, which was, “Here are two options. Do you know what you’re doing? Go this way. If you don’t know what you’re doing, go that way to see the tutorial.”
Bleszinski: We evolved that for Gears 3 to the point where if you picked it up and you actually knew how to do everything — you could hit all the buttons yourself — you never got any of the tool-tips. In my opinion, that’s the best hybrid way of doing it. If I’m the guy who goes, “OK, I’m in the first room. I’ll hit A, B, Y. Now I know what to do,” I don’t need a tutorial. I’d rather be the one pushing for it as opposed to having it pushed on me.
It’s part of what I think has been a dumbing-down of games in this generation. I myself am personally partially responsible for that, with the games that I’ve worked on. It’s what I’ve called the E3-ification of the industry, where you’re not always building the best systems to interact with. [Editor's note: E3 is the annual games industry trade show with hundreds of demos.] You’re building the best demo that shows the monster and the tower falling and all the exploding stuff around you. Yeah, that’s cool, but that doesn’t yield infinite gameplay possibility, which is far more compelling to me now.
GamesBeat: Was there anything you played in the past few years that really wowed you? It doesn’t have to be a shooter. Anything that made you think, “This is done right on all levels, from the top down.”
Bleszinski: BioShock, I think. To a certain extent, Dishonored did that. It seems like Dishonored has hit that balance where it has some scripted stuff, but overall, you felt like you always had a choice between sneaking or going guns blazing. And when you wanted to go in guns blazing, you felt like a badass. When you wanted to sneak, you felt cool.
A lot of that is because of that teleport move they put in there. The Nightcrawler “bamf,” going across from dark spot to dark spot. The world had this kind of Half-Life or BioShock vibe to it. It was very compelling. It was unflinching with the brutality, too. I hope it sells well because I think it deserves to have a lot of commercial success and a sequel. It’s a very good game.