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Cliff Bleszinski Believes AAA Games Are Taking Less Risks (Exclusive Interview)

An exclusive interview with former Epic Games Design Director Cliff Bleszinski.
This article is over 11 years old and may contain outdated information

When it comes to the video game industry, Cliff Bleszinski is someone that most everyone knows thanks to the amazing success of Gears of War. For most of the two decades he worked at Epic Games, he spent a lot of time as the face of the company, especially as Design Director. Now temporarily retired, Bleszinski is recharging his creative battery and enjoying life in North Carolina.

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I happen to live in Raleigh, not far from Cliff. And I’ve been a semi-neighbor for the 11 years I’ve lived in the Triangle, which is blossoming into a hub of game development thanks to companies like Epic Games, Insomniac, Virtual Heroes, Bitmonster Games and many others. I caught up with Bleszinski, who’s spending his free time writing for his new blog, Dude Huge Speaks and enjoying the Carolina beach season.

Bleszinski will be one of the keynotes at the April 24-25 East Coast Games Conference (ECGC) in Raleigh, North Carolina this month. He talks about retirement, BioShock Infinite and risk-taking in this exclusive interview.

What was it like for you being able to go to GDC and not have to worry about nonstop interviews and things that you normally would have to do?

Bleszinski: “It’s weird. I’ve known you for a while. I consider you a friend. But how many times did it take for you to actually get me on the phone?”

Yeah. I felt like I was bugging you when I was doing that.

Bleszinski: “No, it’s fine, but you have to understand for the better part of 20 years I was living by my email replies and my Outlook calendars and my interview appointments and my meetings and my design reviews and everything that had been going on. It’s just so nice for this brief period to not have to really care. Now it’s just sit back and go to bed whenever I want and get up whenever I want, play whatever I want, read whatever I want, and live unscheduled. Be like the guy in Office Space. But I’m a creative person and I’m always thinking about new ideas. The key is to find out what the right venue would be to return and it’s nice not to have that pressure right now.”

You’ve told me in the past when you were in the midst of all that non-stop work as design director that you weren’t able to actually sit down and enjoy a movie or a videogame. Has that changed since you don’t have that pressure anymore?

Bleszinski: “No, that never goes away because you know how the sausage is made and you can’t not look at the machinery or analyze the sausage that you’re consuming, to use a very weird metaphor. But even for BioShock Infinite, I played  that on 360.  I’m sitting here going, ‘God, what they did to probably ship that game across three platforms and the amount of edge case bugs they had to close.’ Elizabeth has to carry her lamp and there’s this one point where it actually is not in her hand, it’s not attached properly and she’s kind of holding it off to the side. I’m like, ‘Hey it’s not a deal breaker.’ But there’s still little edge cases like that that happen. It doesn’t go away. But at the same time I’m thinking, ‘I wonder what the algorhythm was for adding Elizabeth helping with health or ammo because she obviously didn’t find the coins or anything near you.’ What I think they did is you could read what the situation was so if you needed a coin she’d toss you a coin. If you’re low on health she’d toss you health. That’s actually very smart because the best games help you. Don’t get me going on the game because I could keep talking about how brilliant it is and how much I loved it.”

BioShock Infinite is also one of the best reviewed Unreal Engine 3 games ever.

Bleszinski: “It’s weird everywhere right now, where there seems to be a lot of games that are just trying to slip in one more sequel under the radar before the next generation shift happens. I think reviewers are calling them on it because I don’t think enough games are taking enough risks right now because the budgets are getting close to the next generation. I think the reviewers are a little bit jaded, but then something like Infinite comes along and the review scores are there and they are because the game just resonates with you. You can have so much to say and you have to say it under the guise of shooting thousands of people in the face in order to have good sales because shooters are popular and that’s the bottom line. But at the end of the day as much as I enjoyed this game, I once had a version where it actually doesn’t focus on combat so much as it focuses on the exploration and the narrative because those are two things that the game does so, so well.

I know Ken (Levine) and his crew did enough research because I’d seen the very first movies that were made. They just filmed a sunrise and called Sunrise by S. J. Peterson or whatever; or here’s a hummingbird. It wasn’t until later when we realized if you put a camera in the bushes you suddenly raise the tension because you realize our protagonist is being watched by somebody who watches. Games are starting to solve all of that, but with AAA games we’re seeing less risk due to the fact that there’s a lot of money involved.

We’re seeing a lot of experimental products that can really play with that and do things that you wouldn’t normally see done in the independent space. Look at Portal, which was years ago. Gabe (Newell) and his crew realized that there’s something pretty special there and they took that unique aspect of the photo gameplay and made not only a AAA layer paint, but also AAA foundation and production behind it and you have this phenomenal success with Portal 2. That’s where those risks can be taken in that independent space and fly to the AAA space.”


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John Gaudiosi
John Gaudiosi has been covering the video game business for over 20 years for outlets like The Washington Post, Reuters, Fortune, AOL and CNN. He's EIC of video game site