Epic Games design director Cliff Bleszinski is one of the most prominent game developers in the business. He’s just a smart, talented, and quotable guy (though he whines like a little girl when you hit him…more on that later). Whether he’s talking about digital distribution, what games he’s been digging lately, used-game sales, or bars in San Francisco Chinatown, the man always has something interesting to say. Here’s my interview with one the main minds behind Unreal and Gears of War, the infamous Cliffy B.
Raymond Padilla: With games like Shadow Complex and systems like the Sony PSPgo, digital distribution is becoming a bigger part of the gaming business. How does digital distribution impact you as a game designer?
Cliff Bleszinski: A couple weekends ago, I was up in East Village at “Videogames New York”, a combination new/retro game store. On the front counter, they had Borderlands and in the back aisles, they had the Vectrex and Game & Watch. My feelings went from initially geeking out to immense nostalgia to overwhelming pride for how far this business has come in my lifetime alone. We go digital and that physical history starts drying up and eventually vanishes. Older games become the same as a 45 record.
Digital distribution has the potential to end the used game debate that’s currently raging across the business. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. On one hand, I love having that pipeline into my house: Look, a new game is up on Live; download the title right to your hard drive and fire it up. At the same time, I love having games, movies, and books on my shelves at my home. It feels like an IRL representation of the facets of your personality and tastes whenever people come over to visit. The Kindle and other devices are equally fascinating. I fear not leafing through a book ever again but at the same time I cringe at the thought of having to deal with a CD and a jewel case in a world of digital music.
Finally, as far as the kinds of games I’d like to design and contribute to? Digital frees up some risk. You can make that little dream game you’ve always wanted to make and take more chances, which is incredibly appealing as a creative.
Ray: You’ve done large-scale PC and console games and smaller — in terms of space anyway — Xbox Live Arcade titles. Do you see you and Epic crafting something specifically for cloud consoles like OnLive or Gaikai?
Cliff: I was skeptical about OnLive until I had a chance to be hands on with it at GDC, and it does appear to be the “real deal.” I think the PC space will benefit the most initially from this technology, however, I doubt Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo are ready to yield to an on-demand cloud console quite yet.
As far as our future plans, I’m unable to comment much about anything we’re doing at the moment.
Raymond: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a thousand times, but what’s your stance on used games? Obviously it impacts developer royalties, but what do you say to a gamer that believes it’s their right, similar to how they have the right to sell a car they bought new?
Clifford: I touched upon this earlier and as a developer I need to tread lightly as this is such a hot button topic. I want as many people as possible to be hands-on with our products. We have found that stores such as GameStop have been great partners in launching games like Gears of War. The key to working through this issue is to positively motivate people to purchase a game new and fresh, and I guarantee you that everyone industry-wide is having many meetings to discuss this very issue.
R to the Izzo: Project Natal has been getting strong reactions from gamers and game creators. As a designer, what do you see in Natal?
C to the Izzay: I see an amazingly fun system that will expand the Xbox user base in a direction previously untapped by Microsoft and currently owned by Nintendo. When all is said and done, there are probably going to be “Wii Fit”-like games, more “hardcore experience”-based games as well as some that lie somewhere between the two.
I don’t believe that motion or gesture-based controls of any sort will replace the controller any time soon. They will merely enable yet another way to interact with your console, and Natal could potentially enhance classic controller-based games in many, many different and exciting ways. (None of which I’m ready to talk about at this time, so Internet, don’t go reading into this too much and start drawing random conclusions.)
R2P2: How about as a gamer?
Cliff-3PO: I’m looking forward to moving around like an idiot in front of my friends, not having to wear the Xbox Live microphone, puppeteering various digital characters, and having a good ol’ time with Natal.
Raymond Padilla: How about Sony’s motion controller (that looks like a sex toy) — what creative possibilities do you see with Sony’s controller?
Cliff Bleszinski: I honestly haven’t been hands on with it yet to make a proper evaluation. If some of our friends at Sony want to stop by with a demo I’d love for nothing more than to check it out!
RP: Hideo Kojima recently wrote some amazing prose on President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Want to try to outdo him?
CB: I could try, but the fact that I am not on a StairMaster and am presently sober would make for a failed attempt. Kojima-san is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a crispy tortilla shell.
Raymond: A lot of my readers would love to know what games you’ve been enjoying in the last month or so. What have you been playing and what do you think about them?
Cliff: Uncharted 2 sets the new bar for polish, bar none. It’s Indiana-Jones-as-Travel-Porn and it’s brilliant. It feels like Jason Rubin’s Greatest Travel Adventures: Volume 2.
The writing, animation, lighting, texture work and voice acting are all top notch. Naughty Dog has really kicked ass on this one, and we’re all loving it over here. In fact, if any of their animators would like to come work for us they’re welcome to go to the Epic website as we are in fact hiring.
Borderlands is a great example of the evolution of the shooter genre. As I’ve said before, the future of shooters is RPGs, and “Borderlands” shows this off perfectly. Having co-op in a game like this is a stellar addition, and I like the updated art style that they chose.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is the penultimate Batman game. They somehow make you feel like a badass instead of some crazy nut in a rubber suit jumping around.
It’s going to be a messy fight for game of the year.
Raymond Padilla: I think the statute of limitations has expired. Would you explain to the world what really happened at GDC 2005 when I supposedly punched you outside of Buddha Bar?
Cliff Bleszinski: I believe I was telling a group of people the story about the one time in Vegas we all went out and got really stupid. We pre-dated The Hangover by at least 5-6 years.
RP: Wait, let’s not talk about that story. Getting back to San Francisco….
CB: You, at that moment, underestimated your post-human strength and proceeded to clock me with a right. I believe Tom still has the text I sent out “Ray just clocked me in the face and gave me a fat lip.”
(You really should blame that blonde friend of yours, as she was egging me on to share the story.)
I still can’t go to that bar without experiencing a bit of PTSD. In fact, last time I was there it was after a Mirror’s Edge press event I crashed where various journalists who shall remain unnamed stole the Faith standee, brought her along, and proceeded to tear off her head and take pictures with their head instead, like it was a fair attraction or something.
Raymond: For the record, Patrick Klepek stole Faith.