E3 2010: Gears of War 3 Interview - Cliff Bleszinski, Design Director (Part 1)
Written Thursday, July 01, 2010 By Dan WebbView author's profile
Whatever you say about Epic’s Design Director, Cliff Bleszinski, you can’t take one thing away from him. No, I’m not talking about the Ferrari... well, actually, there is that as well. I’m saying, you can’t deny that he does make for some of the best interviews.
This is only my second time that I’ve got to chat to Cliff – for interview purposes – but I can say that he’s one of the most enthusiastic and candid people in the industry – he ranks up there with Mr Molyneux – and that almost always makes for an entertaining interview. It was so entertaining that we had to split it into two parts – well, actually, the fact that it went on for nearly 4,500 words is the real reason.
The first part of the interview looks at the upcoming Gears of War 3 (obviously), a few things that they thought went wrong with Gears 2, the announcement snafu, Gears of War Lemmings and so much more.
I’ll add a disclaimer now, there are a few f-bombs throughout – even from us – so if you’re offended by that, I suggest you don’t read on. Check back for part two tomorrow.
Gears of War 1 was quite an intimate experience whereas Gears of War 2 spread the battles out a bit. With Gears 3 having a squad of four people always present, are you keeping the action spread out or do you plan to return to the more intimate combat?
Cliff Bleszinski: Well to be fair, one of the things we probably messed up with Gears 2 was making the game a bit too linear. If you were to look at a top-down view of the maps in Gears 2, there are a lot of these snake-like corridors, whereas the best parts of Gears 1 maybe had some areas like that, which kind of opened up into like a bowl, got narrow again and then opened up into another bowl and that's the thing we really want to get back to with Gears 3.
We think it kind of limited what we wanted to do with Gears 2 you know, there weren't that many flanking opportunities and the combat distances wound up being really long down these tunnels. And so especially with four-player co-op, those bowls make a lot more sense as it's essentially an arena... so you might go up that hill over there and snipe while your guys go around, you guys get the grenades and one might go to the back, get the Boomshot and all take out the enemies that way.
So those great strategies come out and when the levels are too linear you really can't do that. Also, with regard to intimacy, we're keeping the combat distances snug, keeping it in your face and we're not a sniper game. You know, some sniping sections are fine, but then we have some moves like 'bag-tag' where you knock somebody down, take them as a hostage, stick a grenade in their head and kick them into a crowd, which is always fun, right? Then we have the Pendulum-era Lancer – which you can see Anya has here behind me - where you have the charge, you just run towards somebody and now you chainsaw, kick somebody away and clearly if you're going to chainsaw an explosive enemy, you don't want them exploding on you, so you kick them away into other enemies. So, we're adding more intimate combat moves to ratchet it up a bit.
Gears has always been a very bombastic game. The kind of game you'd equate to a summer blockbuster movie. Is that something you're looking to crank up, or will there be more subtle dynamics and pacing rather than bigger, better, more bad-ass?
CB: Well, I'm not going to sit here and say this is the bigger, better whatever. I mean, that was very played out by the time Gears 2 shipped. To bring it full circle, one way I like to explain Gears 3 is that it's going to be the best-looking, most enjoyable, most feature rich, but most importantly the most polished Gears game we've ever shipped. The beauty of shipping in April is we can sit there and polish it until it shines. But that said, in regards to storytelling and things like that, one of the things we're doing this time around is having a narrative past in the maps. By narrative I don't mean cinematics. I mean, come into a room and a designer has deliberately placed a guy in the corner with a shotgun in his mouth who's dead, and you're like, what happened here? Or you have propaganda posters on the wall that explain things.
We have the 'Char' level that we debuted in the Ashes to Ashes trailer, where you see a mother huddling a child that just got destroyed by the Hammer of Dawn. Kind of amazing, passive narrative elements where the player absorbs the story because it's more effective, it's cheaper and it's just something gamers can seek out story-wise instead of having it forced upon them. So that's one example of us being a little more soft-handed as opposed to beating people over the head with the chainsaw anvil.
Were there any particular games that you looked at that did a great job with that kind of thing?
BioShock obviously, but in the period between Gears 2 and the development of Gears 3?
CB: It was largely BioShock and BioShock 2. BioShock 2 I was very sceptical about, but I thought it was a very solid follow-up to the first game. Those were the two big ones that did it recently. You know the other game that surprised me with regards to the way they dealt with narrative was Heavy Rain. Every ounce of my being wanted to dislike that game as a gamer - I was like, “It's just Dragon's Lair!” And then I saw the trailers and I'm like, “I'm not going to play that!” Then I played the demo and I’m like, “I don’t like this,” and everybody at work was like, “No, play it, play it, play it!” and then like two days later I'm burning through it like “This is amazing” and I think it's the birth of a new genre. I think it's great.
Has your experience with Heavy Rain impacted on Gears of War at all then?
CB: Not really. You won't really see us do the amazing branching narrative that they do in that game, which is the core of what they're doing. That said, we're more confident in our abilities as storytellers than ever, and we're taking a little bit of narrative risk here and there. Each character has great personal moments to them. Cole has his moments. Marcus' dad has suddenly contacted him when he thought he was dead - things like that. But we also have parts where in the campaign you suddenly, after the first act, player one is Cole and player two is Baird, and you're entirely new characters. You actually have two plot lines that overlap Pulp Fiction-style and ultimately merge in one great cool point. So we're able to take these kind of risks now that keep it interesting instead of just Marcus' perspective.
You mentioned Gears 3 will be the most polished Gears game yet. Is that a response to community feedback regarding Gears of War 2's glitches and online issues?
CB: Well, the first thing is the internet hates a vacuum. You look at the iPad, right? People were dismissing it initially because like, well my iPhone has a bad battery life so I'm going to wait and see. It's like no, that thing lasts for ten hours easy and it's great. But you still have to fight that much harder against that perception. We're not perfect. We make our mistakes. We have made them in the past, but we just continue to support our games.
If you look at Gears 2, the matchmaking upon ship was not the best, it was very very slow and clunky and so we've continued to refine that over the course of the game. Six title updates later - which just came out a few weeks ago - helped put Gears 2 back in the top ten of Xbox Live. It's one thing to release your game, but you can't have abandonware, especially in a world where there are rental games and used games everywhere. So we're continuing to support our products and continuing to refine our online experiences and it's the same thing with Gears 3.
What was the mood of the team following the announcement fuck up where the Gears of War 3 advertisement went up on Xbox Live on the Thursday prior to your Jimmy Fallon appearance and the official Gears 3 reveal on the Monday?
CB: Shit happens, man. You know Murphy's Law: there's always going to be something that goes wrong. It doesn't mean we still didn't get the great impact from the Fallon thing. Originally we were supposed to go on Fallon on the Thursday and it had to get rescheduled to Monday and I was like, “Damn it!” Then I'm like, “Wait a minute, we're stuck in New York for the weekend. Sweet!” That was a silver-lining there - go to museums, go to restaurants and have fun. So you know, you've got to roll with the punches, man. You can't get too hung up on things or it'll wind up driving you to an early grave.
Do you see more of these mainstream announcements on the likes of Jimmy Fallon rather than the usual press release or E3 announcement?
CB: Once Microsoft was talking about the whole Fallon thing I was at first nervous and excited. I was like, “Sweet! This is going to be cool,” but then I was like, you know this is really brilliant, because if we are going to have a Microsoft press conference and then, “Oh and that's all for today,” and then the lights lower and suddenly I burst out with a double chainsaw or something, and everybody's eyes - you could hear everybody's eyes collectively roll in their head - that would be totally stupid. So I was like, you know, this is a cool way to get news. It's a cool way to announce the game. It's a cool way to spread the word to a more mainstream audience and I hope we do more of it.
The end of Gears of War 2 came in for a lot of criticism from gamers saying it was too easy. Has that in any way affected how you've approached Gears of War 3?
CB: Well boss battles are a complicated, difficult thing. They're a game development sink hole. You can spend like six man months on one 15-minute encounter as opposed to putting that into 15 new creatures that you can put into a new mode like Beast. But, yeah, to be fair, the end of Gears 2, the final boss battle really wasn't a boss battle as much as it was almost like a just pull the trigger moment. What we were going for was that final Call of Duty moment where you have the gun and you shoot the guy type of thing. In hindsight, gamers want a big fucking monster to slay and they want to spend 15 to 20 minutes doing it and hopefully that's something we'll deliver in Gears 3.
Watching the demo you played during Microsoft's press conference, the entire game seems a lot more colourful this time around. Is that a reaction to feedback from players saying Gears of War is just brown and grey?
CB: I go back and forth on that to be honest with you. The defensive side of me is like, “Oh hey, you know what Zack Snyder, you suck! Your sepia tones you used in 300 suck!” And you're like, “What are you talking about? That's the style of the movie, right?” Or The Man Who Wasn't There, the Coen brothers using black and white, like “Who do you think you are? Man, I saw The Road and I didn't like it because it was desaturated,” and you're like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” But at the same time you spend hundreds of hours in these worlds.
When Gears first came out, it largely - not to sound too cocky about it - but in many ways it defined the look of the games for this genre, in regards to that desaturated look, which maybe now is getting a little played out and gamers are having a little bit of fatigue on it. So bit by bit, we did a little bit in Gears 2 - we let a little bit of colour bleed through and in Gears 3 with the updated global illumination we'll have a little bit more colour come through. That's not to say we're anywhere near Uncharted, their rich greens and their super lush colours they have with their blues or waters and what not. We're still Gears, but we've drifted a little bit more colour in there and I think gamers like it, so we've kind of hit a nice medium point.
You've said that Gears 3 marks the end of the three-pronged arc of the Gears of War trilogy, which seems very popular in the games industry at the moment. When that third game comes out and is very popular, obviously it's not the end of this series. What does that mean now when you say this is the end of the current Gears trilogy, does it mean we can't have any more games with Marcus Fenix, like Halo games since Halo 3 haven't had Master Chief?
CB: I think sometimes you get to the point where the universe is bigger than the heroes and the lore is large enough that you can tell multiple stories in it, as we have in the comic books, as we have in the books. But that said, when all is said and done you'll look at Gears 1 to 3 and see it as its own bucket of storyline, kind of like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Will there be a sequel or a Hobbit or something like that? Who knows? But there's potential for other characters in this world. There's potential for other things in the universe to happen, and it just remains to be seen, right?
Who from the Gears cast do you think has the most potential for their own self-contained story for a game?
CB: I think it would be great to make a game like Lemmings with all the Carmine family.
For a second there I thought you were going to be serious!
CB: You never know.
Keep your eyes peeled for part 2 of the interview soon.