Gearing Up for Next-Gen:
Cliff Bleszinski Chats About The Epic Future
Epic's Unreal Engine 3-powered Gears of War is, at this stage, one of the best looking games planned for the upcoming Xbox 360, and the game was shown as one of the centerpieces of Microsoft's Tokyo Game Show keynote, being demonstrated live to members of the media thereafter.
Gamasutra took one such opportunity to chat with Epic Games' lead designer Cliff Bleszinski (AKA Cliffy B), and, through a series of game-centric questions, formed a picture of his perspective on game design, how and when to use narrative, and how to merge the mainstream and the hardcore - Epic's VP Mark Rein came along for the ride in this relatively casual, but also relatively revealing chat.
GS: Why are the characters so huge [in profile]?
Cliff Bleszinski: Well it's like Master Chief, he has that huge suit on - it's iconic. You play Halo and you can see the character – it's iconic. In video games, silhouette is everything - you need to be able to see the guys.
Mark Rein: Especially in a video game where there's so much darkness.
(Cliff begins to demonstrate Gears Of War, and an NPC emerges to show the main characters into a safe building )
GS: Can you shoot that guy?
CB: We're still figuring that out.
GS: What's the choice there?
CB: Well, he's going to help you out by offering you some items, and potential weapon upgrades. And if you kill him, you won't get that opportunity.
GS: But is it a moral choice as to whether you can kill him?
CB: No, we're not making Knights Of The Old Republic or anything here. Who these characters are is largely pre-defined, as far as Marcus being an anti-hero, and Dom being his buddy. Part of it is just my own game design philosophy because, for me, whenever I play those games, I always go evil. And I have a feeling that if they made those games, if you could only choose the dark path, and you only thought you could choose the light path, nobody would notice, because it seems to me that everyone who goes for the Force chokes.
You can't shoot Dom [in Gears Of War] either. The fundamental problem with making an interactive narrative is like – how would you make Lethal Weapon 2, the buddy cop movie - if in the first scene Danny Glover turns to Mel Gibson and shoots him in the head? Never underestimate the ability of the user to undermine the narrative you're trying to tell. You have to allow for every single scenario. You're empowering the user's ability to make the game look stupid, essentially.
GS: It seems like every once in a while the normal mapping isn't quite there right away, like in Halo 2.
CB: The mipmaps should all be loaded – but it's still early, we've only had this on the box for two weeks now. A friend of mine works at Bungie and he said the mipmaps in that game drove him crazy.
MR: But that's because they only had 4 megabytes of memory and we've got 512.
GS: Will the framerate be improving?
MR: Well we've been working on this (actual hardware) like I say, for about two weeks [as of Tokyo Game Show]. We've done very little optimization, I'd like to say the lowest of low-hanging fruit optimization. We're only running on a single core now, so we'll get at least double that, it'll be super smooth. We didn't even expect to get onto the final box until X05, and here we are. So the Xbox 360 really exceeded our expectations.
GS: Can you shoot that sign up there?
CB: You will be able to make it procedural and everything, we have that ability, but right now it's canned animation. This demo doesn't leverage physics nearly as much as the final game will. With that cabinet there, in the final version you'll be able to shoot it and move it procedurally, with realtime physics.
GS: What are you using for physics?
CB: We're using Novodex. By the way, all of the animations you're seeing aren't final either, we're beefing them up a bit more.
GS: Why did you choose third person over first?
CB: I wanted to have a scenario where you can see the character, and we develop him over time through the story, and you get the benefit of third person - seeing him when he gets hit and so on. And then you get the tightness of first person aiming when the camera pulls into his shoulder. In a lot of third person games, the character either feels tiny, or he's blocking your cursor and line of sight.
GS: This seems a bit more Resident Evil 4 style.
CB: Oh really? You don't say? What a coincidence? (laughs) What game is that? That wasn't the best game of last year, no! I didn't like the previous Resident Evils, though, I don't like the tank controls. I was more of a Silent Hill guy. But even then with Silent Hill it was more about the narrative and the atmosphere.
The locusts provide your primary opposition in Gears of War.
GS: How long will it be?
MR: We really haven't figured out how long this game is. We really want to fill the whole story out, then go back and figure that in.
GS: Who wrote the story?
CB: Eric Nylund is writing the story – he's the officially assigned writer from Microsoft, he wrote the Halo book. I created the universe for the game.
GS: How many other games do you know of that have official writers?
CB: I think Valve does. I mean, you need it. I'm really good at game mechanics, and I'm pretty good at universe creation, but as far as dialogue goes – the dialogue you see in here is kind of first-pass, just basic stuff like “Go get him!”, and stuff like that. But a lot of the material we're working on is the dialogue within Delta Company, and establishing each character individually. Eric is a well-established sci-fi author, he loves this stuff.
GS: How did that relationship start?
CB: Microsoft has been great to work with. We worked with Howard Philips on the gameplay side (of Nintendo Power fame), he was the original Nintendo Game Master, with the Nintendo tie. My name's in the first issue of Nintendo Power, by the way. Super Mario Bros. high score – you know how you could take a picture of your high score and send it in?
GS: What was your high score?
GS: How did you do it?
CB: Just jumped on a shell over and over again, grabbing one-ups and such. I had a lot of time back then.
GS: You played a lot of games back then, too, it seems. What do you play now?
CB: I'm playing a lot of Live. Unreal Championship 2 and Halo 2 on Live. Live is just hilarious, it brings out the best and worst in people. I just played a bunch of Darkwatch, which was… cool… but jumpy. Played some Battlefield 2, God of War was great. I warn you, though, if you play God of War, other games aren't as good anymore. It's like eating a really good steak, and then going back to Sizzler.
GS: I like that arc on the grenade [in Gears Of War].
CB: My logic here is that we give you a cursor for your gun, why not give you an arc for your grenade? If you're a soldier, and you're going to have a good idea of the weight of the thing, and how far it's going to go, so why not just give you a visual indication of it?
GS: How would you do that with the Nintendo Revolution?
CB: Just throw the controller at the screen.
MR: I'd get tired after a while.
CB: Yeah, you'll have an entire generation of gamers with Popeye arms.