'Gears Of War' Creator Cliff Bleszinski on His 'Lady Gaga Moment'

'Gears Of War' Creator Cliff Bleszinski on His 'Lady Gaga Moment'

Cliff Bleszinski Bram Vanhaeren

The high-profile video game designer talks about overcoming creative burnout, his own celebrity and leaving Epic

The high-profile video game designer talks about overcoming creative burnout, his own celebrity and leaving Epic

In 2008, at the age of 33, Cliff Bleszinski became one of the only video game designers – joining a tiny club that includes grayer names like Will Wright and Shigeru Miyamoto – to be profiled in The New Yorker. He was the design director at Epic Games on Gears of War, a multimillion-selling shooter that threatened Halo's primacy on the Xbox 360, spawned two sequels under his direction (and two more without), and won the Game of the Year award at the Game Developers Choice Awards in 2006. Gears was so mainstream, and Bleszinski such a charismatic figure, that in 2010 he sat next to Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show to show the debut trailer for Gears of War 3.

In 2012, at 37, Bleszinski quit after two decades at Epic. Two years of retirement were enough, though, and so in 2014 he created his own studio, Boss Key Productions, not far from Epic's headquarters in Raleigh, North Carolina. Boss Key's first game, skill-based shooter Lawbreakers, was originally announced for PC and just held its second closed beta in May. It was just announced that the game will also be coming to PlayStation 4.

Bleszinski, whose mouth and mind race fast enough to fit two hours of words into 60 minutes, talked to Glixel about how Lawbreakers will compete with Blizzard's Overwatch, why he left Epic, and why he's tired of seeing himself wielding a chainsaw gun.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, you and I share the exact same birthday, down to the year: 1975. It was a good time to be born, the first generation to arrive in a world with video games already in it.
It was just coming around the corner. You could manipulate an image on your TV, a device that you were always so passive watching. Getting the ability to do that was mesmerizing.

It was also the era of giant robots: Shogun Warriors, and then later Transformers. Everything is cyclical. We really do run in cycles in this Matrix. Nothing really is truly original, or if it is, it's really really rare. What's the last alien design that you've seen that is unique and strange, going back to H.R. Giger's designs? Watching Stranger Things, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but the creature in that, I'm like, "Isn't that from The Last of Us?" Everything's a remix.

This is old-man-ism. It's what happens when you turn 42. "There is nothing new under the sun; I've seen it all before."
But the key is not to be jaded by it. Understand the cycle and learn how to leverage it. Go back to the Words With Friends phenomenon a few years back. Developers were like, "Oh, it's just Scrabble on a phone." It's like, "Yeah, exactly." The best things are just X meets Y.

You went to work for Tim Sweeney at Epic Games when you were what, 17, and he was 22?
I wasn't 17 when I started directly working with him. I was doing my own stuff for a while. I did a little adventure game called The Palace of Deceit where you were a baby dragon. You were trying to escape the castle from a wicked sorcerer who was named Garth, because I liked Wayne's World. I found Epic on Compuserve, I believe. That was the whole shareware scene back in the day. I did a fun, goofy little adventure game that didn't do very well: Dare to Dream. It sold like five copies. But I stuck with them.

"It was just jaded developers who didn't like any idea. A lot of programmers basically fit the archetype of Gilfoyle from Silicon Valley."

Twenty years and three Gears of War games later, you announced your retirement. Did you really mean to retire, or was that just a way to describe whatever you were going through? You were 37.

I was given the freedom to retire by Tencent buying out a bunch of my shares, so I really didn't have to worry about finances at that point. I was freshly happily remarried. And then I was at the point where, at the time at Epic, it had gotten so toxic in regards to creativity – it's gotten better since then. There was a lot of design-by-committee going on. The kind of collaborative but also auteur-driven design that led to the billion-dollar franchise that was Gears of War was just disregarded.

It was just jaded developers who didn't like any idea. A lot of programmers basically fit the archetype of Gilfoyle from Silicon Valley. "Oh, I guess what we're doing is a game that's kind of like Infamous but at an atomic level. Great." Come on, get excited about some shit, you know?

Now you're back, but you're going it alone for the first time since you were a teenager. What's it like to be the chief executive at Boss Key instead of a designer at Epic?
I'm still the key creative on the project. The way I sat everybody down when the studio started was, "This is my baby," and looked them in the eye. "Creatively, this is my thing. You're coming on to make my game, OK?"

But then, the game will become the company's teenager, and then hopefully the community's adult. At which point, I'm thinking creatively about other stuff, but still contributing to it. You have to have that core, the vision of what one person or a handful of people want to do. Otherwise, other people will just tear away at it. Sometimes that can be good stuff, but more often than not it becomes a watered-down version of what was originally envisioned.

To stand in front of these people who have relocated their families, based on a pitch that you gave to them two and a half years ago, and say some words to them to inspire confidence, or take them to coffee and talk to them about how things are going – that's the stuff that's most important.

It can also be emotionally taxing. Between doing interviews and making the rounds and interacting with everybody, I find – there was a recent article about Steve Harvey, where everybody was ripping him for not wanting to be bothered during the day – I was like, "Yeah, Steve Harvey is kind of a dick, but the older I get and the more I've done this, the more I understand the actor in the trailer who doesn't want to be bothered." There are times at the end of the day when my wife is like, "How was your day?" and I'm like, "I don't really want to talk right now." I've spent all of my charisma points. Let's just play a game or watch a movie.

It's part of the gig. But when you add in being the public face, it's one of those things that requires effort. I do understand the old grandpa sitting by the lake, fishing. Just kind of sitting there, thinking.

Recently, I've really gotten back into reading. I've forgotten how much reading is like Tetris, where you're doing something active that will later stimulate more thought, but really you're just letting your brain compile in the background.

With Gears of War, you once told the critic Leigh Alexander that you set out to make Band of Brothers but ended up with Predator. Now you're making a multiplayer shooter, Lawbreakers. Have you given up on story in video games?
The logistics of the finances don't make any sense, especially if you're doing something in the traditional Triple-A space. That bubble is bursting. Are you going to compete with Uncharted 4 and Naughty Dog, owned by Sony? Are you going to compete with Horizon Zero Dawn and Guerrilla? Sony owns those studios, so Sony can afford to spend as much money as possible on those games to sell PlayStation 4s, and then make it up later. Good luck doing that with a 65-person studio.

You've called Lawbreakers a "Double-A" game, and you say you aren't competing with Triple-A. But you are competing with Overwatch, right?
The interviews that I do lately, it's the elephant in the room. Blizzard made a great game that's gorgeous with very cool world and characters. I think price point is going to be a big thing that we're able to compete on. As well as just feeling different.

I still want to adhere to the aesthetics of a character-based shooter for the Call of Duty, Halo, Battlefield crowd. We're a core shooter first, and then a character-and-ability-based game second. Overwatch is great, but it feels like abilities and characters first, and shooting second.

Why did you abandon your plans to make Lawbreakers a free-to-play game?
It was gut. You could follow the chain of comments on message boards a few years ago when I started the studio. It's like, "Cliff's coming back! Sweet!" "He's making a shooter! Awesome!" "It's free-to-play! What?" "It's published by Nexon! Fuck you." Right?

Price point is going to be announced very shortly. I think people are going to find that it's within the realm of an impulse buy. However, people get so hung up on the prior performance of any entity. It's always been a pet peeve of mine. Who's to say Nexon can't crack the Western market with a reasonably priced, character-based shooter? Maybe in the West they start to get known for that instead of MapleStory and KartRider and things like that. The leopard can in fact change its spots when it comes to business.

Why do you make shooters?
When I look at the current state of wrestling games, or MMA games, or Madden, with their animation systems, I'm like: "Yeah, that's not in my wheelhouse. Why don't you stick with the shooty-shooty-explosion type experiences?" That's the way I'm wired in regards to interactive creativity.

"I loved getting on stage and people seeing the performance of what you did and worked so hard on. And getting attention. It probably stems from some deep-seated junior-high insecurity or something."

Shooting someone with a gun in a video game is a solved problem, unlike, say, interacting with Trico in The Last Guardian?

There are so many other interactions you can have, with nuance and emotions, in video games that other people are trying to solve. I don't want to. Games are art, but also, when I make games, I am a commercial artist. I want to pay the bills, keep the lights on, and keep everybody employed here.

I expected the active-reload minigame in Gears of War to become standard across all shooters.
We all did.

Why didn't it happen?
That's a cool mechanic that I'll pat myself on the back for. I think everyone assumed everyone else would put it in their game, and as a result, no one ended up doing it.

How did you become the face of Gears?
I got into this business to make great games, to be well known for it, and to make some money doing it. It's that theater-geek background of mine. I don't mind being on stage, or being in front of people, or doing interviews. I had this conversation with Tramell Isaac, our art director. He was like, "Dude, if I had done that Tencent share acquisition and was retired, I don't know why the fuck you came back to work."

I had that Lady Gaga moment: I live for the applause. I loved getting on stage and people seeing the performance of what you did and worked so hard on. And getting attention. It probably stems from some deep-seated junior-high insecurity or something.

Did you really not work for two years?
It was about year and a half or so. About six to nine months of basically, "Hey, do you want to go to L.A. and hang out with friends?" Sure! I was just enjoying wedded bliss. But then the creative boredom kicked in.

You went on The Tonight Show to promote Gears of War 3. Did you ever feel a responsibility that you were representing more than Gears, that you were an ambassador for video games to the broader culture?
I guess I never thought about it quite that way. I think about the history of Gears and where it's led me now, and it's like, "Fuck, if I could go back and realize the stakes for my personal and professional life, I'd be shitting my pants." It was a responsibility I didn't really know I had at the time.

If I didn't have a theater background, I don't know if I would have been able to do it. There's a certain amount of cockiness in being able to walk out and hold your own against someone like Jimmy Fallon.

"A person can evolve and change over time, even though the Internet freezes you in a stage of arrested development every time they post that photo of you in that fucking red shirt and chainsaw gun."

You've twice mentioned theater. What kind of acting did you do?
I was in Peter Pan when I was in 6th grade, community theater. Wendy, Michael, John – I was Michael Darling. Had the whole flying rig and everything like that. When I moved to California, I got involved in high school performances during my junior year. I was Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, and then I wound up playing the lead in Neil Simon's Rumors, the lead in Ten Little Indians.

I didn't have a lot of friends when I first moved to California from Massachusetts. I didn't know how to connect with people very well. The drama club saved me from being the classic depressed teenager. It gave me an instant social circle of really awesome friends. In my high school yearbook, it says, "Good luck with the acting or video game thing."

For a while you had a reputation as the Lamborghini-driving, space-marine-game-making, Dude Huge-bro of video games. But you're a theater geek?
That's the duality: not cool enough for the cool kids, not nerdy enough for the nerds. I learned a lot about pacing from musicals. A lot of that pacing applied to the Gears campaigns. Now I'm just fucking in my 40s, don't even care about cars anymore, and I'm happily married making games. A person can evolve and change over time, even though the Internet freezes you in a stage of arrested development every time they post that photo of you in that fucking red shirt and chainsaw gun.

How did you feel when you saw yourself in the New Yorker wearing CoG armor and holding a chainsaw gun?
In hindsight, I think it looked like that famous photo of Michael Dukakis in the tank.

When Tom Bissell profiled you in the New Yorker, you told him, "One of my jobs in life is to make this" – meaning game development – "a little cooler." Do you still feel that way?
I don't have anything to prove to anybody anymore. Back then, I did. There are gamers out there who wanted the in-the-gym-five-days-a-week, Lamborghini-driving, womanizing guy. But there were a lot of gamers out there who resented me, because they didn't feel like they were at all like that. Now I just think we made something pretty awesome. I care more about what my employees think about me. The average person, I just hope they enjoy the damn game.

"I have a feeling there are people who aren't just white straight dudes who may want to give me money. So why not let them feel represented too?"

You defended Anita Sarkeesian when she was bullied for her Kickstarter for "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games." You called her opponents the "Taliban of video gaming" and criticized the "latent racism, homophobia and misogyny online" as "black marks on an otherwise great hobby." How do you feel four years later? Has anything changed?
She's still going strong. Heaven forbid that someone actually has an opinion. She's not creating Entertainment Software Rating Board rules that require a certain spectrum of sexuality or gender or ethnicity in games. She's just having a critique. Big fucking deal. They're allowed to say they don't like her and her opinions.

This is a subject that's tearing the very fabric of this nation apart. And it started a few years ago with this Gamergate shit. It's weird the way the culture wars are being leveraged by people for fun and profit. At the end of day, there's this thing called analyzing something, and thinking about the way we've approached it historically, as well as having empathy for somebody who isn't the same demographic as you. Is that really that hard?

When I make decisions about a character in a game, or what they say, or how they look, or how they're represented, I think twice about it now. If I want to make a game about all white dudes, I'm going to. No one's going to stop me. But I have a feeling there are people who aren't just white straight dudes who may want to give me money. So why not let them feel represented too?

You were an early investor in Oculus, right?
Greatest investment of my entire adult life.

Did you make more money with the Oculus deal than you did on your Epic shares?
That remains to be seen, because I'm still sitting on some Facebook stock. It's pretty sobering to have a windfall like that. It was the original windfall that allowed me to facilitate it, which is why people get angry about the rich getting richer.

What do you think about what happened to Palmer Luckey?
I don't know, man. I know him. I like him. It's just that whole, weird dynamic of red-pill guys, and things like that. He's entitled to his opinions. I don't necessarily agree with a lot of what he turned out to believe. But he's free to believe it. Part of it, I think, is age. Had I been that visible – I think about the things that I thought and said in my teens and 20s in regards to people who were of a demographic that's not me, and I thought of some really shitty, bad things.

One piece of advice I have is to read a book by someone who's not from your demographic. More than ever, with social media, we're caught in these echo chambers, where people just confirm what you already believe. Understand where someone else is coming from.

I don't think any of this stuff will get solved without continual education. Why is the history of swimming pools in America so complicated if you're a black person? I'm reading Contested Waters, a book about that right now. A lot of things in this country are not able to be summarized in a tweet.

"I love gorgeous, sunny days. I feel like a fucking Disney princess. I just want to sing."

Can you tell me about the VR game you want to make?
I'm frustrated. Funding for a VR game right now, you can raise $1 million to $2 million, maybe. And most of the VR games out there look like, either the graphical fidelity or the depth, what a $2 million game looks like. I wanted to do something, I don't know, maybe in the $3 million to $5 million range? Who knows. People are just like, "It's too rich for my blood," or "You don't have any VR experience." I didn't have any console experience before Gears. I've surrounded myself with a lot of incredibly intelligent people. We'll figure it out and we'll learn.

I've done a lot of research into what works and doesn't work, white papers and all that. I like the space. But when it comes to actually working on something, I'm a little dismayed. It would be something that would be a bit of escapism. It would be a game, a real game, a social experience that helps with seasonal affective disorder. But it hides itself as a really fun game and experience.

The older I get, the more bummed I get on a gray day. The winters aren't that bad here in Raleigh. It's not Saskatchewan or upstate New York. This is very much me being a wuss. But I will sit there on a gray day at work and put on a VR headset, and there's this program called Perfect, where you're on this gorgeous beach, with gorgeous Unreal 4 rendering, and I have these little heated USB slippers at my desk. They're great. I just plug that in and sit there, just chilling, for like 10 minutes. And immediately I could feel my mood getting so much better. For seasonal affective disorder, what do we have? Here, take this shitty lamp and sit by it. If I don't get my sun and my Vitamin D, I just wither. I love gorgeous, sunny days. I feel like a fucking Disney princess. I just want to sing.

This sounds like a game from the mind of someone who grew up around Boston.
I had a paper route growing up, and I didn't realize how bad the winters were. In the spring and summer, I would go out and do all the stuff that kids hopefully still do, catching frogs and lighting fires and stuff. For me, that moment is when I hear the spring peeper frogs. When I hear that sound in the backyard, that's the first moment where I just sit there. I have this thing that I call emotionally inhaling: "Remember this moment." Because sometimes happiness happens when you're not paying attention to it. Kind of pin it in your brain. The second time is when all the fireflies are out, which usually happens a little bit later. Usually June-ish, maybe July, is when the backyard starts looking like a Miyazaki film. It's pretty magical. If you pin that stuff in your brain, I think it helps you to be a bit happier, day to day.

Part of the whole VR thing I wanted to do – it wouldn't look like you. I wouldn't look like me. It would take a wink from the ridiculousness of Snapchat filters. We would look down, and our hands would look goofy. The escapism of masquerade balls and of looking like someone who's not you.

Even augmented reality, I had that Black Mirror thought a couple months ago, where it's going to get to the point where you'll see, with the facial tracking, there will be couples who will make love with a celebrity's face on their spouse, while they're doing it. "Who are you going to pick tonight?" "I'm going to pick Margot Robbie." "Oh, I'm going to pick Orlando Bloom." It's really, honestly, going that way. It's really interesting or fucked up, depending on who you talk to.

Ubisoft's VR game Eagle Flight made you cry?
I've had that dream since I was six. Lauren was doing something in the kitchen as I was playing it one night, and she heard me making these sounds. That giddiness, it was such a high. They just nailed the controls and the sensation of flight, the closest I've come to that dream we've all had, of actual flight. I'm a sensitive guy, and Lauren's not. It's weird. She cries like one tear if a dog dies in a movie.

I handed Lauren the headset, and she was like, "Why is it wet?" I'm like, because that was fucking powerful. You've got to be able to let yourself go and enjoy things.

Why did you turn down Hideo Kojima's offer to work on Silent Hills?
I only want to work on new IP. I wanted to go my own way, in terms of being CEO and seeing if I had it in me to make another world. I have a lot of respect for Silent Hill as a franchise, it means a lot to me, but I'd be too afraid of fucking it up. It also may have been moving to L.A. and all that, which is not going to happen.

Do you remember the first time you saw your name in the first issue of Nintendo Power for your Super Mario Bros. high score?
As you and I remember, this was pre-Internet, so all your information was coming from the Nintendo state-run propaganda machine. I remember checking the mailbox every day that summer. When it finally showed, it was like the first time I saw the Zelda manual, the smell of it. My name, of course because it was alphabetical, was at the top of the list. That was probably one of the moments when I realized, deep-down and subconsciously, I wanted to be a "name" in this business of video games.

I had the time and the tenacity back then to just do that. I beat almost every Nintendo game I came across. Deadly Towers, Contra without cheating, Rygar. I had a hit list on the back of my bedroom door, on a giant poster board where I wrote the name of a game whenever I beat it.

You left Epic and, after some time off, started your own studio. Your brother Tyler founded SB Nation. Is there a familial entrepreneurial streak?
It's a little bit entrepreneurial, but it's also about seeing an emerging market for tech and spotting it soon, instead of counting on legacy things. With my dad passing, and my brother and I had the freedom to do what we wanted.

We're the two youngest of five. If you look at the timeframe for us coming up, my eldest brother works in pharmaceuticals, the second-oldest I don't really talk to these days, I'm not sure what he's doing; the middle child is a banker who works in finance and wanted to be Gordon Gekko. By the time it got to us, that's when all the technology was emerging.

That's one of the business and life lessons I've found. Even a city like Raleigh: Find an emerging market and ride it up.

You mentioned your dad. Is it true you were playing Blaster Master on the NES when you heard that he died and then never played it again?
That's when I learned that he had his heart attack. He was golfing, and we had to speed to the hospital. That evening is when I learned that he had passed. I never went back to it. In hindsight, it was such a great game. It was just bad timing.

During that whole period, I think I ended up playing Willow. My brother bought me that to occupy me, because I couldn't go back to Blaster Master.

This interview has been edited and condensed.