Epic's Cliff Bleszinski is an oft-discussed figure in the game industry, vocal and visible -- and that's exactly the way he intends it. Video games and their developers can become more successful by employing "power creatives," individuals whose personalities and ideas are recognizable and closely correlated with the products they create.
It's not necessarily the most intuitive tactic: Most developers fear putting themselves out there, either because they're nervous about reactions on a mass scale in an internet-connected world or because they think they have the wrong kind of personality.
And most publishers don't want it, either -- in Bleszinski's view, the bigger reason there aren't more game developers with his kind of persona. But he sees his role at Epic, as a creative voice as strong outside the company as it is within it, as crucial to the success of the games on which he's worked, like the Gears games -- a franchise whose iconography many a fond gamer has literally had tattooed onto themselves.
"I'm not the best game designer in the world," he asserts. "I surround myself with people who complement me."
Speaking to GDC 2011 audiences, he said that given the opportunity to "start over", in a theoretical independent situation with his own budget, "I wouldn't want that absolute control," says Bleszinski. When "power creatives" attain a certain degree of success, "nobody edits them anymore," he says. "You need that system of checks and balances."
"There's always been than person... that grounds me, who says, 'dude, you can't have fifteen thousand guns. It's just not do-able'," he notes. "You want that... on Gears it's been Rod Fergusson, the yin to my yang."
Designers should make their project personal, Bleszinski says, crediting the success of some of his games to the way they reflect his own ideals, identity and consumer habits. "Gears... I was actually going through a very tough time when we were doing the first game," he says.
"I was actually going through a divorce and it was a tough time on me. ...There's a reason Marcus has daddy issues in Gears of War 3," adds Bleszinski, who lost his father when he was young and was part of a team where others had lost parents and saw their experiences reflected in the game.
But it's not all about self-expression, naturally. Power creatives also understand the sales element to making games, he says. "You need to convince people that your ideas are good," he emphasizes. Bleszinski relies on what he calls a "chain of excitement," wherein if his peers can't get excited about a concept, he knows that a publisher won't, nor will press or fans.
The voice behind the game should very much be part of its brand-building, Bleszinski says, while remaining humble and keeping sight of being a "we."
"It's great that we know who Jon Blow and Notch are," he points out. "Yet in 20 years in the industry I've never met a single Rockstar employee. Isn't that weird?"
Power creatives know how to think ahead, are market-savvy and understand the ways people consume entertainment today. They understand that game development is ultimately a business, and know how to be "surgical and devious" to retain their players' attention. They should focus on recruiting "uberfans" who will effectively help sell and market the game on their behalf simply through their engagement with it.
Most of all, developers should put themselves out there and advocate for their own work, he says. "This is your baby," Bleszinski emphasizes. "You need to take care of it."