With new perspective on life and games, Cliff Bleszinski plots next move
When I called Cliff Bleszinski, it was his 39th birthday, and an unusual snow storm had just begun to hit the eastern seaboard. I told him I wanted to talk about things that had changed for him since the launch of his Gears of War
franchise, how he felt about its recent sale to Microsoft
, and what he wanted to do next.
"The older you get, the faster it goes," he says thoughtfully over Skype. What goes, I ask, and he laughs: "Time!"
"You spend those first 18 years struggling to grow up, and then the next 18 years struggling to get back," he reflects. He says part of his time in games has been about trying to cling to the sense of wonderment he felt as a child in love with the gaming world (his Super Mario Bros.
score of 9,999,950, published in Nintendo Power's first issue, is a widely-publicized sign of the commitment of his youth).
Bleszinski was 17 years old when he made his first commercial game, and spent the 90s helping lead Epic's Unreal
franchise. By the time work on Gears
began, he was in his early 30s, widely-reputed as some kind of video games bad boy -- tight tees, spiked hair. He looked like the kind of guy who would definitely imagine that the thing a gun needs most is a chainsaw attached to it.
But the birth of Gears
came at a tough time. "I was in a marriage that wasn't ending well," he says, suggesting that Gears
protagonist Marcus Fenix was named in reference to the mythical bird that rises from ashes. "I left my ex wife, I started dating again, and I started building this franchise."
Bleszinski, who frequently admits to crying during musical theatre, has a romantic way of thinking and speaking about the world. "I got my dog, Teddy, right when I moved out; he was my Gears 1
crunch dog, and he's nine years old now. He's starting to hit the age where he has all the random lumps on him... Louis C.K. says owning a dog is a countdown to heartache," he says.
"I'm worried if I'll be miserable enough to make something compelling again."
That he finds himself on the phone, snowed in, his hand resting on Teddy's graying muzzle as we discuss the sale of the Gears
brand to Microsoft, seems fitting to him, he says.
Then, in the background, the sound of an enthusiastic squeaker toy can be heard. It's energetic Eevee, the smaller dog who joined Bleszinski and wife Lauren as a puppy just a couple of years ago. Cliff married Lauren, his "co-op buddy for life", in 2012. The couple commits to traveling everywhere as a pair and seem rarely seen without one another.
"I'm incredibly happy right now," Bleszinski says. "I'm worried if I'll be miserable enough to make something compelling again."
As a game developer, Bleszinski is a rare celebrity figure, widely known, caricatured, adored and critiqued by fans in equal measures. He has over 200,000 Twitter followers, has been on Jimmy Fallon, and has his autograph requested in public by fervent folks sporting Blood Omen tattoos.
Magazines are still using years-old pictures of Bleszinski enthusiastically hefting a replica Lancer ("I'm happy to be immortal on the internet and never age," he says acerbically). Press and fans still sometimes refer to him as "Dude Huge" or "CliffyB" -- the latter a childhood tease he once re-appropriated, but has since aimed to retire.
"As far as [Gears], at the end of the day, you're shooting fucking lizard-men in the fucking face with a fucking chainsaw gun. It didn't wind up what I'd hoped."
He's become a figure in an industry desperate for personality in part because he's a very good talker -- opinionated and decisive about the industry, aware of just how much of his own personality to reveal. When he says he likes action games and sports but also cries at musicals, I remind him he's given me that line before. The careful self-presentation suggests on some level that it's important to him that people know he has a vulnerable side. That they don't get him so wrong.
"As far as [Gears
], at the end of the day, you're shooting fucking lizard-men in the fucking face with a fucking chainsaw gun," he says candidly. "It didn't wind up what I'd hoped; I'd pitched it as 'Band of Brothers with monsters' -- you know Band of Brothers is well-done and emotional, telling the story of the Greatest Generation and what they did in the war. Yet somehow we landed on 'Predator'... the characters being all 'buff and manly', I'd never planned on that."
"You can't plan for that," he says. "With game development, it's like doing a Ouija board. With [dialog barks] it gets easy to slip into Schwarzenegger territory."
We do some pretend barks over the phone and laugh, but then he's being serious again: "People love to criticize the dialog and make fun of the story -- but they'll be quoting it the entire time. I love, say, the last Splinter Cell
, but I can't remember any quote from that."
As a kid, Bleszinski once saw an ad in Electronic Gaming Monthly for game composer Tommy Tallarico's Greatest Hits. In his memory Tallarico posed dramatically, in ripped jeans -- Bleszinski remembers feeling alienated, like trying to be one of the cool guys was a ridiculous thing for someone in games to be doing. He expresses a generous attitude toward haters, assuming they must see him the same way.
"I've said my share of dumb shit," he says. "We all have." He pre-empts my question by highlighting the time he compared offering a game demo to "hooking up with a girl," whereby no one would buy the full experience if they'd already had a taste. "What a terrible, misogynistic comment that was," he reflects apologetically. I believe he means it. But I also believe he knows who he's talking to (a journalist who once lectured him about Nicki Minaj and feminism during an industry party).
"When it comes to public image, for me it always comes, first and foremost, from being my own insurance policy," he says. "I have a fair amount of suitors as far as starting a studio."
"I don't want Gears to be my defining legacy. It's known for being a fun, fantastic franchise. But I'd like to think there's more to my creativity than that."
"I don't want Gears
to be my defining legacy," he adds. "At the end of the day, it's known for being a fun, fantastic franchise. But I'd like to think there's more to my creativity than that."
Bleszinski left Epic a year and a half ago; he says the company is not the same organization when he departed as when he joined. "There was no one reason. I'd sold a bunch of stock, I had enough of a nest egg to work or not work. Creatively, I was a little beat down."
If you read between the lines, you could infer he's frustrated in general with traditional studios' hesitance to leverage emerging markets. "Game developers are the most intelligent people you'll ever meet, but they'll always be the most insecure people about how smart they are," he says. Making decisions based on risk aversion doesn't work, he suggests, as nothing works until one company makes it, and then everyone else follows along.
He refers to the part of Raleigh, NC in which he lives as an "emerging market," a developing community he's excited to be a part of. He seems to take deep offense at a reticence to innovate and explore: "Unless you have a zillion dollars to spend [in an established space], good luck with that," he says.
"Your game is as good as how many YouTube videos it can yield," Bleszinski says. "My wife and I are totally hooked on Rust
right now. It's not about the 'new user experience'; in these games the new user experience is utter shit, and it's okay. There are two lessons people have not learned from Minecraft
: Get the game out there and build it. Some kid will put out a video. Players will teach each other. You don't need the 'press A to jump.'"
Starting his own studio is the direction in which he's leaning, and he wants to benefit from a modern online environment that allows development teams to have closer relationships with their players and welcome them into the iterative process.
"The whole 'old guard,' where you get a Game Informer cover and an E3 reveal, is dead."
"PC is where I'm going to wind up. That's where the community is," he says. "The trend will always be the core. If I start a studio, I want a community manager there day one. I want weekly video or podcasts; I want task lists available on the subreddit. When my wife and I play Rust
, before we play, we check the subreddit. Whenever you get a little bored with a game, someone issues an update. I feel like a game developer again, where I get to check out the build list."
"The whole 'old guard,' where you get a Game Informer cover and an E3 reveal, is dead," says Bleszinski. "I'll never make another disc-based game for the rest of my career, and [at E3] they're trying to woo buyers from Target and Walmart?"
"I can't wait for the next thing from Fullbright," he says of the developer of Gone Home
, which he loved. "It was 'Heavenly Creatures: The game.' I'll buy anything they make. As a developer myself, I will probably always make shooters. It's in my DNA."
"Money is one thing. It's nice to get a nice dinner and not sweat it. But I want to get back to the point where I go to PAX, and a couple comes up to us and tells us that they met in a game that my team made. Cosplayers. Kids with tattoos. That sense of camraderie with developers. That's where I want to get back to."