A conversation with Cliff Bleszinski, creator of one of the most significant games of the last year, Gears of War
Apart from authoring the fastest selling new IP in living memory, Cliff Bleszinski is a regular jack-about town happily corresponding with his fans via forums, blogging smartly on modern culture and confidently appearing in public or media events. He’s not a bad games player either.
All this makes him a media favorite and, you can just imagine, darling of Microsoft’s PR machine. Bleszinski is outspoken without being especially controversial; accessible without being trite; camera-friendly but not entirely wholesome.
He is happiest talking about the mysteries of game design. ‘Why are things done in such-and-such a way when that way manifestly sucks?’ is the kind of thing he likes to consider. It’s this thinking that has led to the release of Gears of War; 3 million copies sold to date; top game on Xbox Live and review average of 94%.
It’s been this way for many years. Back in 2000, during the Unreal Tournament years, he presented to GDC on the art and science of level design; a document that still bears reading today. At GDC 2007 he was back again this time to talk about ‘iteration’ in game design.
Next-Gen caught up with him on Epic’s booth at GDC, to talk about the creative process. How, we wanted to know, had Gears come together?
One of the driving factors was the desire to try new ideas, without getting tangled up in so much new stuff that the project became difficult to manage.
A key part of the creative process is to try new stuff; to actually do it and see how it works, without wasting too much time on dead ends. Example; there was no way of knowing if mounting a chain saw onto a machine gun would work out. It had to be built, played, polished and then approved. Then again, a plan to include economic incentives in the game was pulled together, but had to be scrapped. It did not work out.
He says, "You can have many ideas of what you think is fun in a game—what’s going to be cool—but you can never really see into the future as far as what will work.”
The business of leading a project involves coming up with the key idea and staying true to that vision – in this case a shooting game in which cover could be utilized convincingly. But it also involves choosing all the secondary ideas that make a game unique. It involves taking charge of the whiteboard and deciding which ideas go to the next stage. Then, it involves letting go of the ones that don’t make it.
He adds, “You make your best guess. You make your best assumption. But, ultimately, the best way to do it is to implement. Try it and then nudge it. Modify it and repeat and get that cycle going.”
Back in 2000 he told GDC that the days of level designers working alone had passed into history, and it’s clear that the much-vaunted design of Gears has been a team project. “You get a good back and forth between the designer and the programmers and the guys who know audio or art or anyone. You all try and feel your through that dark forest of unpleasantness in trying to find the treasure pot of fun. And that’s the best way to work.”
There are many games – some of them might even be good games – that have spent years in the development process, eating up resources, consuming margins, edging forward at rate of snails. Epic recognized that there would be a window of opportunity for a shooting game, reasonably early in the life-cycle of Xbox 360. Making the game truly great was as important as making it to market prior to the 2006 Holiday Season. It’s hard to calculate what the game might have lost had it taken six more months to create. In this case, a ‘when it’s ready’ attitude could be seen as self-indulgent and perverse.
Bleszinski says, “The key is to have a general set of rules about what the game and property are going to be, so you’re not iterating and spinning your wheels infinitely and spending ten years to make a game. You ultimately have to know what ‘done’ is in order to be able to know when you hit it, right? So, have a goal, work towards it, iterate, and hopefully you can create magic. That’s the long and short of it.”
This is not to suggest that Gears was designed according to a concrete plan, or that Gears went off without any problems along the way. He adds, “You need a really good system of checks and balances that question decisions that are made by a designer. No development is ever without its bumps along the way but I think we did a pretty amazing job in getting everything together start to finish.”
“We used a system that allowed for rapid iteration to help find that fun. Our designers were able to rapidly prototype scenarios and the programmers were able to see what was working and what wasn’t working. I was able to make the call on what was fun and what wasn’t fun and implement.”
“Making a next generation game is extremely tricky. To get it right you start with great ideas and great people and then you need excellent technology and a great pipeline.”
Gears’ success was about timing, quality and marketing; a tool that Bleszinski is happy to utilize. When the game popped up onto the media’s radar, it was already clear what it was tryig to achieve. From the first day, the game’s use of cover and its gritty environment were the focal points for all interviews and previews. There was no deviation.
He says, “The best ideas are the ones that are easily marketed. I’ve often had this conversation with our other designers. When we’re talking about new weapon ideas; if you can’t pitch this idea in one sentence then it’s too complicated or the idea hasn’t been thought out enough.
“When you do a good job of creating a universe, a game dynamic, or just a product in general then the sell-ability should transfer from the developers to the marketing people and ultimately to the customer. That message is carried all the way through, right?”
The marketing people picked up on the game’s simplicity, but also on its atmosphere. ‘Mad World’, as a campaign, sticks in the miond because it was unusual but also because it mirrored the game’s “sadness and loss” as Bleszinski says. “The proper decisions were being made with the universe and characters and those elements carried through to the marketing team. They were able to see that you can boil this game down to several key points. Gamers can latch onto the ideas. They want something that’s simple but fun to play.”
A lot of Gears success came down to clarity. The team knew what it liked and what it didn’t like. “We love games but we also find a lot of elements about games that are not very pleasurable or frustrating. We kept matching that against what we were doing with the game. Having a very forgiving check point system; cover controls that are intuitive; no-nonsense story. Those were the fundamental rules that we stuck to. We ended up with something we wanted to fire up and play ourselves.”