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With new perspective on life and games, Cliff Bleszinski plots next move
With new perspective on life and games, Cliff Bleszinski plots next move
February 18, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

February 18, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
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More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Programming, Art, Audio, Design, Production, Business/Marketing



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."


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Comments


Alex Nichiporchik
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"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. "

Can't upvote enough

Jennis Kartens
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Very interesting article/interview. Thanks Leigh!

Good to read some extended and in-depth thoughts from him, given that his tweets and overall published thoughts are often of controversial nature.

Alan Wilson
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Just goes to prove that he is a smart guy. And probably deserves the Lambo :)

Andre Nekoi
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Cliff Bleszinski looks like a really cool guy, i like the way he thinks about many things. I was never a big fan of the Gears of War franchise, but i've always loved the Unreal series (spent uncountable hours playing the original Unreal Tournament game) and i truly miss this kind of pure arena shooter focused on the PC, it would be a dream if he were to make a new arena shooter or something like that with a huge PC focus.

Ryan Christensen
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I don't think that Gears would be a bad legacy at all, very moment defining when released. But keep making great games though! Great read and lots of truths in there.

Bob Johnson
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What I'd take away from Minecraft's success is there are so many interesting things that can be done in videogames if you aren't a slave to cutting edge photo-realistic graphics.

I think the shooter genre could be reinvigorated if someone made a shooter with much lesser graphics.

Michael Joseph
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Minecraft came along at just the right time. It rejects the old guard both in the visual fidelity race and the publishing \ distribution model. It needed the visual fidelity race to expand the market and to become the visually odd stand out game for graphics fatigue suffering players and it needed the proliferation of blogs/youtube/reddit/twitter to succeed to the degree it has on the self publishing side.

Michael Thornberg
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It's actually worse than that. If Zachary Barth had not stopped his development of Infiniminer, and given away his source code for it. Minecraft would have never existed at all.

Prafulla Oimbe
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great article, thnx!

Isaac Gibbs
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"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."

For someone like myself, who's trying to break into the industry; it's nice to see that even the giants of the industry are still human.

MrPhil Ludington
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I wish someone with Cliff's media presence and experience would create an incubator studio, and hire lots of new, unknown talent and mentoring them make small "experimental" games. Sure, there'd be some duds but a lot of interesting things could be explored and tried that the entire gamedev community can learn from. All these masters need to pass their knowledge on and, I bet, they'll find inspiration and new growth from mentoring fresh new talent. In my mind, once money is not longer a goal or motivator, leaving a mark on the field is the next logical step.

Ian Richard
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If I could get into that incubator... I agree!

MrPhil Ludington
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YEAH! Sign me up too!

sean lindskog
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Good interview.

Benjamin Quintero
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great article. I love to read these kinds of posts. As a now Raleigh resident, I can definitely say that more community in Raleigh will be a good thing. I do hope to see more happening here in the future as this might become my forever town; at least for another 10 years or so =).

Kostas Yiatilis
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39 year old Cliff is mature, yet not jaded or losing the idea that gaming is wonderful. I prefer this version of him.I can relate to what he says and the details about his marriage ring true to someone who has recently lived through similar situations. I guess that also contributed to how he was during Gears of Wars to the press and online. We easily forget that celebrities are human and we judge them like they are not.

Josh Larson
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I liked this, but I'm going to have to call BS on this quote:
"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."

You can definitely plan on it. What you do is you decide, firmly, to make "Band of Brothers with monsters." And every step of the way, you look at what you created, and ask yourself, "Is this Band of Brothers with monsters?" If it's not, you change direction, or you throw that piece out, or whatever. Then, at the end, you have Band of Brothers with monsters.

That's literally how simple it is. Sure, it can get hard, but it's not complicated. And most importantly, you CAN plan for it.

It's takes resolve. Apparently the leadership did not have that at the time. And that's fine, own it and move on. But don't dismiss it.

Helder Pinto
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Easier said than done, specially when you have a publisher forcing your hand.

Genna Habibipour
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Or a development team that gets excited about the "Predator" version and runs with it? There are many elements that can affect the direction of the project.

Still agreeing with Josh- resolve can be really hard. Especially if you end up having to tell a team (or publisher) that they can't do their 'really cool idea' because it's not the idea that you had. Especially if they've already had the initiative to put a lot of work into it, you hit the point of adding injury to insult by throwing out that work.

Then it's not long before everyone's griping about how their ideas and work aren't being valued, etc.

Resolve usually involves quite a lot of unpopular decisions- and not everyone is prepared to be the bad guy.

Josh Larson
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Very good point. That certainly could have happened. If it did, I wish he would emphasized that.

But it was a Skype call that happened in real-time. Sometimes that stuff just comes out, even if you don't really mean it. He could have even backpedaled and that didn't make it into the article. So I won't hold it against him.

I still feel it's good to bring up this issue, though.

Helder Pinto
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"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"
Damn this hits close to home, my wife keeps telling me day in day out.

Anyway, great article! My respect for this man has upped +20! :)

Luis Guimaraes
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No checkpoints in Band Of Brothers.

Thomas Happ
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I missed the interview the first time around. Thanks for elevating it back into my RSS feed :-)

Christian Nutt
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That's what we're trying to do!

Heng Yoeung
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>You spend those first 18 years struggling to grow up, and then the next 18 years struggling to get back," he >reflects


I would never want to be a kid again ever. Too ignorant and stupid about so many things. I still do stupid things and they hurt more, but that's a good thing.


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