Gearheads of War Exclusive CliffyB Interview

Mon Aug 07, 2006 at 08:04:38 PM EST

Folks, here is Gearheads first exclusive interview with Cliff Bleszinski.  Since I'm his older brother, I can actually pin him down on occasion (and I mean that literally) for a touch-base interview about Gears, life and where things stand now that Emergence Day has officially been announced.  I think you'll enjoy the discussion below on the kind of trickle-out effect in relation to the game.

Enjoy the interview.

Gearheads:  First of all, there was a lot of anger on the message boards and blogs about the big announcement being JUST the release date.  Do you think that's the anger is justified?

Cliff Bleszinski:  To us this was an absolutely huge announcement. Mark thought it was a good idea to let the fans know to be on the look out for the announcement. We had no prior knowledge of the MFenix stuff so it seemed like a good idea at the time. Seriously though, for Epic to commit to a date like that is a pretty rare thing. The older I get the more I start to think "when its done" means "we're not quite sure what the hell we're building."

Gearheads:  Are gamers just being too jaded on these things?

Cliff:  Gamers are the savviest consumers out there and they call bullshit when they see it. It's the nature of the beast, make them happy and they'll carry you through the streets cheering your name... piss them off and they'll burn you at the stake.

Gearheads:  Why release it on a Sunday?

Cliff:  The Sunday date is the date Microsoft believes all of the major retailers will have the game in stock so that's the date they want to build excitement around. What we've been told is that hardcore game shops like EB & Gamestop will have their trucks lined up at Microsoft's warehouse as 12:01AM on November 7th (the date the game actually ships) and will get stock to their stores as quickly as they can - at their own additional expense no less! They'll be able to sell it the minute they get it so some of those stores will have the game well before the 12th. It could take a few days for the game to work through the distribution channels of the giants like Wal*Mart and Best Buy but they should all have it in stores by the 12th. Microsoft figures this is a game that will sell well to the mass market so they want to make sure that when people show up in the stores the game is there. So that's why the 12th is being called Emergence Day. Microsoft also told us they're going to be planning something cool to coincide with that date.

Gearheads:  Was there any thought to the midnight release parties that could see gamers up all night and they could avoid having to call in sick the next day?

Cliff:  No this was simply a way to ensure that they're advertising around a date that all of the retailers would be solid with.

Gearheads:  Since it's on a Sunday, you could have the marketing campaign say something like, "And on the seventh day, God created Gears."

Cliff:  Oooooh, that's good. I'll pass that one along.

Gearheads:  The release date is about 100 days away at this point.  How far along is the development of the game?

Cliff:  At this stage it's all about the polish and bug fixing. Play the game. Enter bugs. Is this area too hard? Too easy? Tweaking the pacing. Ammo counts. All of those bits that amount to dotting the "I's" and crossing the "T's."

Gearheads:  Is the game fun yet?  I mean do you want to just sit down and play it.

Cliff:  It was fun at E3! So it's only become more enjoyable since then. In fact,  I was showing off the e3 build recently and I found myself annoyed by the lack of polish/tweaks that weren't in that build that we've been able to implement since.

Gearheads:  The camera control has killed many games in the past.  And the over-the-shoulder view can sometimes complicate that a little because the main character often blocks off a portion of the screen.  How are you feeling about the choice of the over-the-shoulder camera?

Cliff:  Generally speaking when you're targeting the character covers up a similar amount of screen space that you see in your average FPS game. The gun is smaller than your normal shooter, but you've got the character's head there. Now, that said, when targeted you have a very tight FOV and a limited periphery. This is no accident; you can target and see better/gain accuracy but at a cost...

Gearheads:  Will gamers get a demo on XBL before the game is released?  I believe people have said in the past that they won't.

Cliff:  It's unlikely there will be a demo on live before we ship. We've got to focus on getting the game itself out the door.

Gearheads:  Gears of War has been riding quite the hype-wave for a while now.  Does it make you nervous to have so much hype around the game?

Cliff:  Quite frankly, yes. I've never, ever seen a new IP hyped this much by the publishers, the press, and the gamers. No pressure... right?

Gearheads:  Are you afraid of it getting critically panned because of all the expectations the hype creates around it?

Cliff:  There's bound to be a bit of backlash eventually, sure, but we sincerely believe that this game will be the "show my friend what my HD setup and 360 can really do" through the sheer mayhem that we put on the screen (and through the speakers.)

Gearheads:  If I was to make a list of your top five influences in designing Gears, what would they be?  Any movies, other games, etc.?

Cliff:  Let me break it down by category...

Game: Resident Evil 4
Television: Band of Brothers
Movie: CHUD
City: London

p.s. Just kidding about CHUD. Mostly.

Gearheads:  How much focus are you putting on the multiplayer portion of the game versus the single player campaign?

Cliff:  I'd say our resources are split at roughly 70-30 on single player versus multiplayer. That doesn't mean versus is not a priority for us, it just means that we're building this enormous rollercoaster ride of a cinematic single player experience which requires a lot of hands on and polish!

Gearheads:  Does the statistics that reveal 60 percent of the people on 360 are on XBL influence your decision-making process on that at all?

Cliff:  People come for the single player and stay for the multiplayer and co-op. It's as simple as that and a similar thing could be said about graphics. They come for the graphics but they stay for the gameplay.

Gearheads:  Epic is well known for its multiplayer online gaming, can we expect any innovations in Gears when it comes to multiplayer?

Cliff:  I believe that our cover system, pacing of the combat, arsenal and Active Reload really add up to make something that feels familiar... yet completely unique. We just had a gaggle of press in NYC beating on the latest version of the multiplayer and they were having a blast. This was in the rainy versus map which takes place in and around an old, decrepit mansion... the wind is blowing the trees around, you can see the mist of the rain around the lamps, the sheen of the water on the cobblestone. When you go inside you're almost more vulnerable as the interior is filled with destroyable cover...sofas, drawers, chairs all explode in a splintery mess underneath a hail of bullets. It's good fun!

Gearheads:  Eric Nylund, of Halo novels fame, helped with the storyline development for Gears.  Do you think people will be sucked into the story portion of the game?

Cliff:  Susan O'Conner also wrote on the project and what I believe we've wound up with is a compelling universe filled with believable guys in a shitty situation. Ever watch a movie or TV show and hear a line of dialogue that doesn't work? It's like that one bitter peanut you find in your bag when you're hanging out at a baseball game. You know, Cary Elwes' entire performance in Saw or the guy who plays Dante in the Clerks films. You cringe. I don't find myself cringing at all with the characters in this game, I just forget it's a game and enjoy hearing what they've got to say.

Then again, maybe I'm believing our own bullshit. Gamers will ultimately decide!

Gearheads:  How much importance do you place on storyline development when starting out the process of the game?

Anyone who says story is to games as story is to porn is an idiot. As a game designer you need every single carrot to get the player to get to the next level or scenario. Is it a new weapon? A stat upgrade? A new arena or game mechanic? Or... story progression? Other mediums have used narrative progression as a way of hooking people through hundreds of hours of entertainment. We've collectively sucked at it as a medium because it hasn't been a priority. If you can make a good story then by all means... put it in your game and let people enjoy it.

Now, it's important to note that Gears isn't filled with cutscenes the entire game. Yes, there are some in there...but they're well shot, cutting straight to the point without hour long rants from ancillary characters.

Gearheads:  How much does it evolve and change from when you start building the game?

Cliff:  The design goal from the start was always centered around four men and the hell that they go through. The not so subtle story of personal redemption for Marcus. Many, many details outside of that have changed as we've felt through what works and doesn't work.

Gearheads:  How many weapons do you think will be in the game and will there be weapons specific to the Locust horde (such as the energy sword and plasma weapons for the Covenant in Halo)?

Cliff:  We've got plenty of guns, remember, we're Epic! There are 3 categories of weapons - Coalition ones - usually shiny and higher tech - Locust ones - lower tech, cobbled together - and Stranded ones - old military issue leftovers.

Gearheads:  I know you don't want to divulge too much right now, but will there be vehicles on both sides of the war as well?

Cliff:  I can confirm that we have a very unique and interesting twist on the driver/gunner formula in the game. That's all I'm saying at the moment!

Gearheads:  So many people are in awe of how beautiful the game looks.  Many folks said it was like the Killzone target video the Sony people released at E3 2005 only in live motion.  First, did you guys make a conscious effort to make a statement in response to those PS3 rendered movies from 2005 by just immediately showing some real-time gameplay?

Cliff:  We never, ever showed any pre rendered bullshit for Gears. It's always been 100% Unreal Engine 3. We would always do what we do regardless of what anyone else does with "target" videos. It's just who we are.

Gearheads:  Second, do you ever just sit back and think about the early days of video gaming and how far it has come when you look at how gorgeous Gears looks?

Cliff:  I do occasionally and then I think to what my kids are going to be playing in the years from now and I get a little nervous!

Gearheads:  Many folks have said that the development of a true next-gen game can cost millions.  How have you found the process in developing one of the most highly-anticipated next gen games?

Cliff:  Making games is a pain in the rear, sure, but we take steps to make sure that we can pull off something "epic" while keeping a manageable team size. The key is to have a better toolset coupled with well managed, talented people. And we just might pull that off.

Gearheads:  What kind of hours are you and the boys at Epic pulling right now?

Cliff:  We're in varying levels of crunch right now. Some team members are working twelve hour days, some are working more. We make time to make sure few people are here on the weekends since we don't want to burn anyone out.

Gearheads:  In the game design process, who is the ying to your yang?  Who counterbalances you?

Cliff:  Ha ha, good catch there ... that would be Rod Fergusson, the big bear of a producer on Gears. He drives me crazy sometimes but hell, he's always there to poke holes in any of my designs or ask the questions that no one else asks. Plus he works like a demon ... and he looks like a Viking.

Gearheads:  When exactly did you realize that you wanted to do game design for the rest of your life?

Cliff:  What, you don't remember it? It was over on Russet Lane in North Andover - we were over the Melvin's house and they had acquired an Atari 2600 and we were jumping up in down in front of the screen doing jumping jacks because that's what it looked like the top row of aliens were doing. (They were always that family that didn't seem to have the money for a new mailbox but would put in a pool or buy a pinball table for their basement.)

Yeah, that was pretty much the moment.

Gearheads:  What has been the single-most defining moment of your life?

Cliff:  Proudly standing onstage and showing the world Gears of War at E3 this last year.

Gearheads:  You were quite the hellraiser as a kid as I probably kept you from killing yourself with stupid stunts on several occasions.  Do you think that your personality helped you develop an "edge" which translates to games?

Cliff:  I'd just get bored and look for stuff to do as any kid in the suburbs does. Lighting fires, building forts, exploring the woods, ordering Ninja outfits out of a magazine and then dressing up in them and sneaking out at 4 in the morning and breaking into farm stands... you know, the usual stuff. You remember that story, right? I had my whole outfit on and Jeff (other brother) came home hammered out of his mind. I just sat there, crouched down, hoping he wouldn't see me. "Cliff? What are you doing in a bathrobe?" "Uh going out to play with the guys." "Go to bed." "Sure!"  He then stumbled in and I went out to raise hell. We also stole a gas can and lit it on fire in the middle of the road which eventually resulted in a large mushroom cloud.

Gearheads:  What are some of your favorite video game memories as a child?

Cliff:  Camping out on Saturday mornings and playing through Goonies 2 on the NES on a black and white TV in the bedroom while trying to keep the volume down so I wouldn't wake your ass up. Furiously cursing the game Athena by SNK because it was the one I could never, ever beat, no matter how hard I tried. The hot summer spent in anticipation of the first issue of Nintendo Power arriving. Reading the instruction booklet for Zelda that my friend brought the summer I worked briefly at the country club and still, to this day, recalling the smell of the manual. Becoming nauseous at the sight of Dirk the Daring getting cut in half in Dragon's Lair while the skee ball machine blooped in the background and my nose filled with the smell of Orange Julius at the Dream Machine arcade. Playing in the Nintendo World Championships in Worcester and somehow getting onstage versus that other kid... and choking! (Shit, at least I got a copy of Mario 3 to burn through at home...)

The list goes on and on...

Gearheads:  I suppose you don't remember you and I working our way through Contra together, do you?

Cliff:  Yeah, but you needed the code for 30 lives because you sucked at shooters. Still do; letting our 16 year old nephew kick your ass at splitscreen Halo. Dude. Seriously.  [EDITOR'S NOTE:  Cliff is a pathological liar.  He was even part of a research product on the problem... ;-) ]

Gearheads:  So, why did you always cheat when we played the NHL game on Genesis back in the day?

Cliff:  Because I can! It's called "Groking the system." Finding the path of least resistance through an exploit in the game that allows you to get ahead. Problem is you almost strangled me for it.

Gearheads:  Can you believe that the same little kid who used to catch frogs and salamanders has become one of the highest profile designers in the biz?

Cliff:  Truth be told I'm just chasing the feeling I had back then; the feeling of exploration and discovery. If others want to join for the ride and I can make a living at it, why not?

Gearheads:  Why not indeed?  Thanks for your time, Cliff.

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