If the game industry were high school, Cliff Bleszinski would be the popular kid. The design director at Gears of War studio Epic Games understands the importance of maintaining a public image and getting his name known, which can rub some people the wrong way -- but it's hard to deny that he's good at what he does. Gears of War was the "true" beginning of next-gen, not only in terms of visuals and technical excellence, but also tightness and expansiveness of design.
Bleszinski has a strong sense of game design. He grew up playing Zelda and Mario, and has incorporated the lessons he learned from those games far better than the Japanese game industry is currently able to. We started by discussing the changing game landscape, and the interview quickly turned to how Bleszinski might alter a number of game franchises and genres. It was fascinating to hear his thoughts unravel as they did not stem from a desire to criticize other peoples' work, but rather from a clear, informed enthusiasm for video games and design.
You grew up on Japanese games, as did many of us, and now you're one of the more respected designers of blockbuster video games in the Western world. At GDC, Keiji Inafune was talking about how he feels Japan has lost the drive to win, and that's why the West has essentially taken over the traditional game industry. I just wonder what it's going to take for them to get back there?
Cliff Bleszinski: One of the things I've wondered about, I always do my doomsday scenario -- if [Epic Games CEO] Tim Sweeney wakes up tomorrow and goes, "Man, Cliff you're really an idiot. You're fired; get out of here," what would I do? And hopefully there will be multiple options because, you know, I'm a pretty good game designer.
But I've also recognized the value of putting your face out there, building my own brand as a person as well as surrounding myself with brilliant people to make great games, right? One of the options I've thought of was what if I left Epic right now, and became a consultant to help Japanese developers make games that are more Western-friendly -- not only from an IP perspective, but also from the game mechanics and features perspective. I could seriously have a very healthy consulting gig doing that, right?
The Epic team and I have made what is, in many ways, one of the most definitive Western games, as far as Gears being the "dude-bro" game, and the perception of that, as well as the online feature set, and the co-op, and cover, and even the narrative, and things like that. But we can always do better with it, of course.
And so my advice to Japan is that in a disc-based market right now, you cannot [ignore multiplayer]. I'm not saying tack multiplayer onto every game. But for instance, Shadows of the Damned, that was a wonderfully crazy adventure, the dialogue had me laughing out loud, just even the key-door systems in there; it was a beautifully crazy game with really fun gameplay, but no multiplayer co-op experience in there. I'm not saying tack on a versus mode; there's a billion different ways you can do some sort of "players interacting with other players" mode.
For instance there's Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. That's ironically one of the most innovative games with what we call "mingle player" that has had those kinds of blending and blurring of single player and multiplayer -- and it came from Japan! So clearly some of the developers over there get that, because that game is going to continue to inspire a lot of Western developers to figure ways that you can have connected elements in campaign games, and have more of a blended experience.
I would've loved it in Skyrim if my fiancee could have left a treasure in a chest in my house while she was playing, Animal Crossing-style. You know, Fable with the orbs in the world, that's where we're all going, right?
And if you're going to make a third-person shooter... the fact that Vanquish didn't have a multiplayer suite was a crime. That IP, it was pretty good as far as being Western, the gameplay was great, and the vibe... I've often said on record that if Gears is the kind of Wild, Wild West coal train chugging along, then Vanquish is the Japanese bullet train, with style and everything. There is absolutely no reason I shouldn't have been zipping around, doing the mega slides, diving up in the air in an arena with other players.
And whatever reason they had... The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I'm sure the development team got together and was like, "Well, we probably shouldn't do multiplayer because of the budget," or the time, but at the end of the day you have an amazing product that was [handicapped] by the fact that it was seen by many gamers as a campaign rental or a used game, and not the $60, day one, gotta have it game.
So that's my initial, just-off-the cuff advice that I would give, because I love all things Japan. Growing up I realized everything I loved was derived from Japan, from Transformers to Nintendo to Force Five, Mazinger and Voltron, and all of it. So I don't want those games to go away.