Cliff Bleszinski retired from Epic Games in 2012, after two decades making Unreal and Gears of War video games. Two years later, he started Boss Key Productions, and in 2015, he revealed LawBreakers, a first-person shooter set in a sci-fi universe. It’s a game where you can float through the air in areas where the laws of physics are “shattered” and players have to decide whether to uphold the law or break it.
Nexon will publish the game on August 8 on the PC and the PlayStation 4 for what Bleszinski calls the “no bullshit” price of $30 (or $40 for the Deadzo Deluxe Edition). I played a round of it at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the big game trade show in Los Angeles last week. I was totally bad, getting just two kills and dying seven times. But I enjoyed it, and then I interviewed Bleszinski afterward.
He said he still enjoys E3 and seeing old friends in the game industry, and he was remarkably open, as usual, about LawBreakers’ prospects, as it will go head-to-head against Blizzard’s enormously Overwatch in the first-person shooter free-to-play genre. Bleszinski said his game would either bomb, do well, or be successful beyond the team’s wildest dreams.
“I’m just proud. I got a little emotional this week,” Bleszinski said. “For me to un-retire because I was getting bored, to have a seat the table here, and to know that with my scrappy team of 65 folks I can compete with the heavyweights—it’s a pretty amazing feeling.”
LawBreakers will have a “Rise Up” PC beta event on June 28. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Cliff Bleszinski: My voice isn’t fucked yet.
GamesBeat: That’s not bad for Thursday.
Bleszinski: I love it, dude. So what’s doing?
GamesBeat: I’ve confirmed that I just want to use an Xbox controller for everything so on. I’m so bad at a mouse and keyboard now.
Bleszinski: Have your abilities atrophied that bad in your old age?
GamesBeat: Yeah, yeah.
Bleszinski: The only reason I’m half decent at our game is because I play it every damn day. We have playtests once or twice a day. We do the bullhorn announcement, everyone comes running down, and honestly it’s still fun for me. I still enjoy playing and watching the thing, which is a really good sign. I’ve worked on games that shall not be named where we’d have to schedule playtests to force people to come down and play the game. We don’t have to do that at our studio.
GamesBeat: So it’s August 8 and a no-bullshit price.
Bleszinski: I ran into Vince Zampella, because everyone goes to the hotel lobby and has a couple of drinks and catches up. Vince is like, “Oh, multiplayer-only $60 bullshit, huh?” I said, “Well, you know, Vince, even you put in a campaign at $60 the second time around.” What’s a good way of putting it? There’s a rash of games coming out that are multiplayer-only at $60. I swear there’s some kind of GameStop illuminati saying, “No, if you put it on disc, it’s got to be $60 so people can trade it in and we can keep our stock price up.”
I’m not going to play that game. We’re going to be digital only, and we’re actually on the front of Steam right now, which for me is a career milestone. It’s amazing. We’re going to be $29.99, or $39.99 if you want a bunch more cool skins. We’ll have a crate system with microtransactions, kind of like Overwatch. If you want to do it, feel free, but we hope that people buy the game, play it, tell their friends, and participate in the stash drop system. We can keep the studio going, make more games, and keep LawBreakers going. I’m not ready to re-retire yet.
GamesBeat: It must be nice to be able to speak up on behalf of your fans.
Bleszinski: I announced that at the PC gaming show. We had already announced the price point. But I was over at the Ace Hotel theater. I came out and the crowd was happy to see me. I’m like, okay, contrary to the popular belief, the internet doesn’t always hate me. I said, “Hey, what’s up, how’s it going? We’re at $29.99, August 8, PC, PS4, and none of that $60 multiplayer-only bullshit.” The crowd lost their minds.
I’ve been fortunate in life that I’ve done well with Epic and some of my investments. It’s easy to forget that $60, for your average kid, is a lot of fucking money. I remember when I was—the standard price of games has always been $50, $60, occasionally $70 in the SNES era. I remember scraping together my paper route money. I’d get $20-25 a week on my paper route as a kid, eventually building up enough to buy a Nintendo game. Or I’d borrow them from friends. The local video store started to rent them out. I was so voracious, getting my hands on anything.
When it comes to having a fair price point, Overwatch is the elephant in the room, obviously. It’s a damn good game. I have my issues with it, though. There’s a bit of cheese in that game. I want to make something a bit more mature. I’m hoping that with the lower price point and the open beta, people at least give it a go and see that myself and my team–the majority of us have been making shooters for many years. We might have a decent idea of what we’re doing. We made a damn fun game.
GamesBeat: I notice how I do in my first game these days. It was interesting. I got two kills for every one death in Battlefront. I got about one kill for every four deaths in Battlefield. It was about two to seven here. That tells me a bit about skill level.
Bleszinski: That’s where matchmaking comes in. We use Glicko in the game. When we did our first alphas and betas the success rate was maybe 20 percent for the average person. They’d win 20 percent of their matches, which ties in to what you were saying. Once the matchmaking kicks in, we got that close to 50-50. You want your game to be literally win some, lose some. Nobody likes a blowout. Even if you’re the one doing the blowing out, it’s not fun. The sweet isn’t that sweet if you haven’t had some bitter. You need it from both ends.
With the game types we created in this game, we wanted drama. The marketing term that’s thrown around is buzzer-beater moments. Looking at the way the Super Bowl went down this year with the Patriots, it looked like they were going to lose, and then in the second half they rally. You have drama. That’s what eventually leads to compelling esports. Everybody’s trying to force the esports thing without building a community and a compelling game first. They’re just throwing money at it. You’ll get something that way, but I want to build something watchable, something compelling.
I find myself going to the test lab on the way to the kitchen to get a glass of water. I end up slack-jawed, staring at the screen while people are playing. We’ve tested all these verbs strung together to get this amazing sense of shooting and flow. Right now, I’m enjoying talking to you and I know this is part of my job, but I really want to be watching the match over there. Good problem to have, I guess.
GamesBeat: What do you feel like is the defensible niche that you’ve found yourself in?
Bleszinski: If Overwatch is Coke, I’d be happy to be RC Cola or Pepsi or whatever. There’s room for more than one or two of these games. I think our art style—everybody chased that Pixar look that Blizzard does. I’m gonna make a character-based shooter for the Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo crowd. That’s the look we’re going for. I don’t want to go full MOBA and have a catfish with a top hat. You’ve probably heard me say that before.
I’m okay being mature. I’m okay with the occasional swear. We have blood in there, not because I’m a gorehound, but because I like feedback. When somebody has low health you can slide in and kick them with the Wraith, shoot them with the specter gun, and then stab them and they explode. It’s incredibly gratifying. Especially in low gravity.
GamesBeat: What do you think of some of the things you’ve seen here at the show?
Bleszinski: I’ve been able to walk around the show a little bit with my wife. This hall, I actually prefer it to the other hall. The other hall feels like the hall of insecurity. “Look at my booth and how big my booth-dick is!” Right? Guys, do you know how much money this costs? Booths are about functionality. We actually got an award for best-looking booth. It’s not the biggest, but it gets the job done of filtering people in and out, having stage shows, showing the LawBreakers experience, giving out swag. Replay did a fantastic job with the booth. You need a quality partner like that with Nexon to get the word out there.
I feel like now, finally, we’re kind of coming around the corner. People are starting to be aware of the game. I’m happy that they weren’t before, because I like said, the alpha was kind of “eh.” It was okay. Now the beta is going into open beta, and the anecdotal evidence is on my Twitter feed. People aren’t saying, “You should go back to Gears!” They’re saying, “Oh my God, LawBreakers looks great! I got the beta! It’s so much fun!” I was walking around the Marriott last night and I saw YouTubers and Twitch streamers wearing the Deadzo hoodie. Culminating in a point where this fan got that tattooed on his arm the other day. I reimbursed him the hundred bucks for it. That’s the least I could do.
This is incredibly important to me. You knew me when I was under Mark’s wing. For me to start the studio by myself with Nexon and build the team over the last three years, to have the banner on the side of the convention center—by the way, that’s the only new IP on the side of the convention center. It’s kind of weird and telling as far as what people think they want. To see the logo in the wild, to see that guy getting the tattoo, it’s like I’m back. It feels amazing.
The thing about this business is—you’re press, so we’re always on the record, off the record, blah blah. But when it comes to so many people I know in this business, when I see them we hug. I saw Phil Spencer the other day. I gave him a hug. I hugged Vince. This industry is just—when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. It’s very much family. I just went full Fast and the Furious on you, I apologize.
GamesBeat: It’s good to have that kind of place in the industry.
Bleszinski: I remember when I first started dragging my poor wife around all these events. “Oh, this is so-and-so, we go way back.” “How far back?” “15 years? 20? 25?” Now she’s gotten to the point where she knows so many people and she’s such a wonderful person that if she goes on the show floor, she can barely see any games. She runs into so many friends we know. It’s a good feeling. The big thing after these shows is coming down after it all, though. Coming down from all the noise and chilling at the house.
GamesBeat: What do you think about bringing consumers here for the first time?
Bleszinski: I have mixed feelings about it. I’m flattered to get recognized. “Let me get a selfie with you” and all that. It fills a bit of the gap. But a lot of them were getting in anyway. The ESA and E3 realized that PAX has been eating their lunch for years, and the energy at PAX is really palpable. I’d honestly rather have genuine fans showing up and being excited about the game than a bunch of hungover and jaded journalists. Journalists, to be fair, have been very fair to me over the years.
Just getting the people out there going, though. We’re giving out cool hats and I’m up there on the microphone. They’re screaming. I’m happy that we’re able to staff the booth with some of our people, because they take that energy and it carries them through ship. They come home and they’re like, “You have no idea. This was amazing. People were lining up and screaming. It was so good.” We show them the videos back home.
GamesBeat: Are you going to do a shift manning the booth?
Bleszinski: The most I do is I go up there and start throwing hats and take the microphone. I’m too busy trying to talk to nice folks like yourself. I have to make sure my voice doesn’t get fucked. It’s E3. It’s the Super Bowl. I think the show needed to evolve. Nexon’s been getting behind us. There’s been a lot of people who say, “You’re all over my YouTube and Twitter feed because of Nexon ads.” People want to know that I can make another game, me and the studio. It’s a goddamn fun one with a lot of great characters in it.
GamesBeat: With all the DLC coming for games like Call of Duty, they want to own the consumer for the whole year.
Bleszinski: Right. Until next year.
GamesBeat: I feel like generally that’s a bad thing. People should try new games.
Bleszinski: I think Activision’s addicted to the annual spike in stock price that comes from annualizing Call of Duty. It’s a business. They’re welcome to do that. To make Call of Duty an esport, what I would do is make a separate Call of Duty that’s deliberately made for esports, that stays that same Call of Duty.
GamesBeat: Like Counter-Strike.
Bleszinski: There you go, right? They’re essentially reinventing the sport every year. Maybe they can do it. Quake Champions may be able to be an esport, because there’s plenty of people who play Quake and love the Quake mechanics. It’s been around for 20 or so years. Call of Duty, though, who knows? What system are they putting in now? Wall-running? Another perk system? Air drops? The good lord knows. But they’re a slave to the stock price. I respect the hustle.
GamesBeat: Where would you like to see this go after you launch in August?
Bleszinski: I’ve said before that it’s going to go one of three ways. It might bomb, though I hope it doesn’t. I think we’ve made something pretty fun. It could do well, which is a good problem to have. Or it could explode in a good way, in which case we’re frantically hiring and oh my God what are we going to do, the servers are on fire. Are we going to turn into Riot Games? I don’t know.
I hope what happens is really a mix of two and three. It does really well and we skirt that point so it’s just, “Okay, let’s get the next character up. Let’s get the next environment going.” That’s already being worked on, mind you. But let’s get it out there for the fans, because it’s going to be a straight-up download. It’s not going to be nickel-and-diming people with bullshit DLC like we used to. We’ll keep the fans engaged.
I also have another couple of game ideas I want to get around to. I’m already noodling with my art director on a few ideas. I like creating IP. I always have. When Kojima—I was flattered when he said, “Do you want to work on Silent Hill?” I couldn’t believe he asked me. I love Silent Hill. But that’s not for me. Now more than ever, me being the primary owner of the company and owning the IP, I need this to be all of my own volition. It needs to be my gig. I need to make this world that I believe in, that I think is going to last.
GamesBeat: Some companies feel the stress of having to constantly produce updates and add-on content and DLC and so on, as opposed to doing new IP.
Bleszinski: Right, so people won’t trade their game in. It’s the perils of the disc-based market. That was our mantra on Gears 3: keep the disc in the tray by any means possible. The problem from a development standpoint, what gets tricky, is you have a team that’s trying to get ready to ship a game, which is hard in and of itself, and then you have to surgically pry a few people away to work on the next characters. We’re shipping with nine roles and 18 characters, but I’ve already played the tenth. I know what that is. It’s coming. We already have a ton of ideas for what we’ll do with 11 and 12.
The other thing is, when we do our betas we actually listen to feedback. We did the alpha and people said, “The game’s too slow.” We sped the game up. With the beta they said, “The shotgun’s too spammy.” We dialed that back. “Overcharge feels a bit boring.” We made Overcharge faster. All the stuff that we’ve been listening to—like I said at the PC gaming show, these aren’t bullshit marketing betas. These are real betas. We’re listening to feedback. You establish a cadence with your audience, where they know you’re listening and adjusting. You’re not just giving them lip service.
GamesBeat: There’s an interesting indie feeling at this show. It’s funny how Microsoft seemed to flip it and embrace the indies this year, while Sony dropped them.
Bleszinski: Right. That was always the million-dollar question — why didn’t you do Xbox? Because PlayStation has more installed base and I only have 65 employees. We’ll probably get around to it. Just calm the fuck down, salty fanboys. It is what it is.
GamesBeat: Any final thoughts on your mind?
Bleszinski: I’m just proud. I got a little emotional this week. For me to un-retire because I was getting bored, to have a seat the table here, and to know that with my scrappy team of 65 folks I can compete with the heavyweights—it’s a pretty amazing feeling. Being at the Marriott and catching up with everybody, everybody was coming up and shaking my hand and saying, “Congratulations.” I’m like, “Okay, I guess we’re doing all right?” They weren’t putting their hands on my shoulder and saying, “My condolences.” It feels good to be back on my own terms. I’m gonna sleep well after this show.