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Cliff Bleszinski feels vindicated. The former game designer at Epic Games felt like he had to leave his old company to make a new game that he wanted to build from scratch. He has done that at Boss Key Productions. PC gaming giant Nexon is publishing his new multiplayer-only first-person shooter, Lawbreakers, sometime soon. And we got a good look at it during a play session at a recent event. It’s a lot of fun.
“It feels good to be back. The stakes are pretty high considering that it’s my company, and I’m CEO now, as opposed to just design director,” said Bleszinski in an interview. “But it’s a kind of redemption. Toward the end at Epic, people were a bit jaded. I think they’ve turned it around, as I’ve said before. I could walk into a room and pitch any idea, and I’d have somebody with their arms folded in my office saying, ‘I don’t buy it.'”
Bleszinski left to start his own company and hired a big crew to turn his vision into a reality. Lawbreakers is the result.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
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GamesBeat: How long have you been working on the new game?
Cliff Bleszinski: It’s been almost two years now. More than a year and a half. It’s one of those things for me — you have an idea, and you think it’s going to be cool. You don’t know. When it comes through and people like it, it’s really rewarding. Everyone at Boss Key knows that I could always say, “Do it because I said so,” when it comes to features. But I’d rather not do that. I’d like to convince them that things are a good idea.
The first example is the character of Hellion, the bubbly blond character we have in the game. She looked cool. She had two swords. She’s the Laws version of the assassin. It’s one of those things where … she needed more to her character to bring out her history and everything. It’s the future. Fashion can be unique, so she has these gems fixed to her face.
Then there’s the idea that she lost both of her legs from the knees down from an IED. I went into [art director] Tramell Isaac’s office and said, “Dude, robo-legs.” He says, “What, like in Grandma’s Boy? ‘I hate your face. I have robo-legs?'” I’m like, “No, dude. If anybody can make that look really futuristic and awesome, it’s Jay Hawkins, our concept artist.” Lo and behold, he did it, so now we have this iconic character. When you kick in first-person you see these really tough prosthetics kick someone off the map. It’s a good feeling.
The other one … I think the term Andrew Witts, one of my designers, used, was “Palpazinski hands,” as in Emperor Palpatine [from the Star Wars saga]. When Chronos gets big and Bomchelle as well, you shoot lightning out of your hands and just fry the other team. As it turns out, that’s incredibly rewarding. But developers sometimes get cynical and skeptical.
GamesBeat: I got a couple of double kills that way.
Bleszinski: When they said, “We want to do Palpatine hands,” I was like, “Yes, that’ll be awesome.” And then the first time in the play tests everyone was hooting and hollering, and I was like, “I fucking knew it!”
Not every idea I have is always the best. I always use the example of [gameplay programmer] Matt Fischman coding the class of our skirmishers, Maverick and Toska, which I had basically nothing to do with. That’s when he earned my trust as a programmer. It’s been a fun, awesome journey but lots and lots of travel.
GamesBeat: Nexon CEO Owen Mahoney gave a talk at our summit a couple weeks ago. He was saying that inevitably, one of the conversations he has with seasoned game developers is, “Can I talk you into making the game you really want to make? What’s holding you back from making that? Why do you make a game you think will sell well instead of making the game you want to make?” I don’t know if you had that conversation with him.
Bleszinski: Not in detail, with Owen. One thing about Nexon is they know we have a lot of vets, and they knew to get the hell out of the way. Not have some mid-level producer saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t have that character because of sales in this one country.” They know we can make something cool.
I know the game I really want to make, eventually, for a personal project. I think I’ve pitched it before. I’d love to make a game about a lost dog. Family’s at the Grand Canyon. They leave in the station wagon, and the dog has to make his way back to New Jersey. He encounters all these other kinds of dogs … like a Dreamworks film and whatnot. Because I just love dogs. At the same time, who knows if that would be profitable?
Lawbreakers is the kind of game I want to make, but also, everything in there is made based on a surgical decision to make some money and keep the darn lights on. This is a business. As much as I’m a creative, I do like to feed our employees and their kids.
GamesBeat: How do you like this dual role as both CEO and game designer?
Bleszinski: I did a talk on this. One of the last boondoggles I allowed myself to do was going to the [Reboot Develop] in Croatia. We went out there, and I did a 40-minute lecture on being a creative CEO, finding that balance. I wouldn’t be able to do what I did if I didn’t have the leads and the team I have, especially [Boss Key cofounder] Arjan Brussee.
With him as COO … the other day I went on Amazon, and I bought him the Hand of the King pin because he deals with so much crap to let me focus on the fun. I get to focus on doing lightning hands or the Grand Canyon or tweaking weapon balance or getting disco balls for the studio to hang in the office. That kind of stuff. I get to focus on the game, the fun, and the studio culture. He unfortunately gets to deal with a lot of the crap on the back end.
GamesBeat: Did you get more responsibility for making the final decisions?
Bleszinski: They can buck it up the line, and I can make the call. But I generally hire people to do their damn jobs. Three-quarters of the time, they’re able to make the call for me. Sometimes, you do have to step in and say, “Look, this is what you’re doing.”
That was never more useful than at the start of the project. When I hired people on board, they’d ask, “What are our pillars?” “Gangs, guns, gravity. They’re all fighting over grams of supplements.” Any time anybody asked what kind of game we were making, I’d point to the board and say, “See those four Gs? That’s what we’re doing. If you don’t like it, there’s the fucking door.”
To some extent, you have to be like that at the beginning of the project, as far as being a defiant creative and knowing what you want. Otherwise, your game winds up being pulled in 18 different directions because programmer one likes Dark Souls, programmer two likes Mario Kart, programmer three likes Final Fantasy. You wind up getting nowhere, and the ship never makes it to port, just drifts in the middle of the damn ocean.
GamesBeat: Did you ever feel restrained, creatively, in the shooter market? Because there are just so many games out there.
Bleszinski: If you were to put it into buckets, you have military fantasy type games. Not just Call of Duty, but Gears comes into that as well, even if it’s sci-fi. The other bucket is the character-based games. You look at games like Overwatch and Battleborn. Sometimes people like to lump us in with that. As flattering as that is, we made a conscious decision to double down a few months ago on being a more grown-up version of that.
Overwatch is fantastic. I haven’t played Battleborn yet. But Blizzard can do no wrong. We’re going to be the kind of … when they zig, we zag. If they’re releasing the romantic comedy, we’re releasing the movie about an assassin.
GamesBeat: So that wasn’t really difficult for you? You knew you could do something different.
Bleszinski: The saying I always go back to … it’s like with game modes. “You gotta have [capture the flag].” Says who? Where is it written you have to have team deathmatch? Is there some kind of first-person shooter guy who’s coming by the office to see if you’re observing the building codes? No. You look at MOBAs. They’re incredibly intricate and deep games. People learn them. If we make our own new game types that make the most sense for our drama, we’ll do that.
In my heart of hearts — this game is more colorful than a Gears type of game, but it still has blood. I always wanted to see what blood would look like flying through zero-G, which is something we put in the game as well. And gibbing people and all that. These character-based shooters still feel like they skew toward a younger demographic. We want to be the more adult version of that.
GamesBeat: For players, is mastering the shift, control, Q, and E keys the way to get there?
Bleszinski: That’s how we get the depth. I play some recent titles that came out that try to hearken back to the glory days of an arena shooter. Like I said in the presentation, I feel like I’ve seen everything I needed to see in 30 minutes. I’ve gotten the 10 weapons. I’ve shot some dudes. There’s a jump pad. Big deal. By having these characters and these roles that each have their own unique Q, E, shift, double jumps, alternate fires and everything, we can put the depth on the character as opposed to having 8,000 maps like the traditional arena shooter.
GamesBeat: How many maps and characters and other bits of content do you plan to come out with?
Bleszinski: As far as the roles, for the first version, we’re targeting five or six. Remember, the fiction is asymmetrical, but the game is actually symmetrical. We plan on launching with a good stable of maps. We’re not ready to commit to what the number will be.
We’ll probably have an alpha with friends and family. We’ll start with 500, move up to 1,000, move up to 5,000, and so on. The big takeaway, though, is that when the game first comes out, officially, that’s when the real work starts. Traditionally, in the triple-A space, you’d have the $60 game, maybe pump out some shitty DLC, and then move on to the sequel. You’d look at the sales trajectory with the majority of your sales at the beginning, and then it spirals downward. We want to reverse that.
You look at the concurrent users for [Counter-Strike: Global Offensive], it starts out small to medium and then just builds and builds and builds. You wind up with something that becomes a staple in the shooter community.
GamesBeat: Does it help you to be able to focus on the PC?
Bleszinski: Yeah. We’re only 55 people right now. If we were doing a console version ourselves, that would crush us. The verticality would be tricky. One thing I can tell you I don’t want to do is cross play because keyboard-and-mouse players would absolutely decimate controller players, especially in this game. Some people tout that like it’s a feature. I don’t really see the benefit.
But I was going to make a weird comparison. If we were a restaurant, we’d be the restaurant you go to because it has three things on the menu, and they’re all amazing. As opposed to the Cheesecake Factory, where [there are] 5,000 things, and it’s all spectacularly average.
GamesBeat: And single-player was never something you were interested in?
Bleszinski: When you look at the cost to benefit, it’s one of those things. If you’re going to do single-player these days, you basically have to be Skyrim or GTA. Especially at a $60 price point. For us, being at the lower price point — we didn’t want to be a multiplayer-only game that was $60. That’s a huge mistake that a lot of traditional devs have made in the last couple years, which has led to games not being as successful as they could have been. The amount of effort compared to the outcome with single-player … for this game, it’s not worth it.
GamesBeat: Do you miss Epic in any way? Or do you feel like you have your own culture here now?
Bleszinski: I’m still friends with [Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney and cofounder Mark Rein]. Tim was like my big brother, like the whole Polygon article was kind of outlining. Epic’s trying to be the many-headed hydra made up of so many different entities now. They’ve grown. It’s one of those things. I like the size we’re at right now. I like our office. I like our studio culture. I wouldn’t change it. I like their engine, so we still stay friendly.
GamesBeat: Has working with Nexon gone well for you?
Bleszinski: They’ve been a good partner. No publisher is perfect. It’s just one of those things. We need to take our partners at Nexon and hold them off the balcony by their ankles and make sure to shake millions of dollars of marketing money out of them. As much as we’re using multiple paths to get the word out about this game, like talking to journalists such as yourself — later on, we’ll have some YouTubers and Twitch streamers as well — you gotta throw a bunch of money at it. We’re in a world where you have to do TV spots, trailers, firing across all fronts. That’s one thing we need to keep them honest about.
GamesBeat: The new world of influencers.
Bleszinski: Yep. It’s yet another venue for getting the word out.
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