Unlike the star-studded film industry, real gaming celebrities are few and far between. You might find a Molyneux here, a Levine there, perhaps even a Newell or two, but the names that tend to cause pricked ears are those of studios or publishers.
Much like the faces listed above, Cliff Bleszinski is one of the few individuals with his head above the parapet. Unlike legions of passionate game designers, his oeuvre, which in this case includes titles like Unreal Tournament and Gears of War, doesn’t overshadow his presence in the public sphere. Known for being a straight talker, sometimes courter of controversy, and general lad (or whatever the trans-Atlantic equivalent may be), Cliffy B is known to pretty much everyone.
News that the B Man was retiring from games was a shock to all, but now he has returned at the head of a new studio, Boss Key, to develop a brand new arena shooter by the name of LawBreakers. We managed to steal five minutes with the man himself to pick his mind about cucumbers, the rapture, and whether the FPS is losing its lustre.
Existential Gamer: What’s your spirit animal?
Cliff Bleszinski: My spirit animal is a cheetah because they work in bursts and then they get lazy, which is kind of like me. Plus, all jokes aside, we actually do donate to the cheetah conservation fund in the San Diego safari park, so whenever we go we get to hang out with baby cheetahs. They’re actually pseudo-domesticated and you can be in the same room as them without them tearing you limb from limb.
EG: You decided to base your studio in Raleigh, which is a long way from the traditional epicentre of game development. Why?
CB: That’s because if you look at the epicentres of game development it’s kind of like sixth-grade dating where everybody dates everyone and it gets very incestuous very quickly. I wanted to help build Raleigh into its own mini-version of that in a good way. The cost of living here is amazingly cheap compared to the west coast, where other developers are, and parts of Dallas. It’s a little southern town and it’s growing, and one of the things my business partner in the restaurants taught me is to find an emerging market and ride it up – Raleigh is an emerging market, hopefully it will go up, and step three: profit.
EG: You’re a celebrity in an industry almost devoid of real celebrities. Does that ever make you feel weird?
CB: It’s the best kind of fame. In real life I don’t really get recognized, maybe once a week or so, and so I’m not having paparazzi taking photos of me at the supermarket buying cucumbers, but when I go to a convention it’s non-stop – so then I get to go home and buy my cucumbers and no one bugs me.
EG: FPS games have taken a very different direction of late, they’re borrowing a lot from other genres. Do you think the genre is reaching old age?
CB: First-person is just a perspective. Shooting is merely a mechanic. If you notice in LawBreakers, shooting’s only part of it. You’re soaring through the air, you’re kicking, you’re grappling, you’re exploding into a character with lightning hands – we don’t just have shooting as much even though we’re a core shooter. So when I considered making an arena shooter… if you go back and play the classic UT or even the recent redux, it’s toxic and I feel like I’m done in 30 minutes. You need XP grinds, you need unlocks, all that crazy stuff that is required of shooters these days like RPG elements in order to keep the game sticky.
EG: Do you think we’ve said goodbye to the bare simplicity of Unreal Tournament or Quake III forever?
CB: Well there IS a new UT and it’s doing decently from what I gather, but it’s one of those things, if you update a classic game like that you get innovator’s dilemma – if you change it too much then you ruin it for the old fans so [Epic] have to deal with that, which I thankfully don’t. In order to be successful my money’s on making a game that has arena shooter DNA but feels like it’s for 2016 and beyond.
EG: Lots of games since the rise of MOBAs have started to erode the distinction between work and play with leagues, ladders and esports. What do you think about the direction the industry is headed?
CB: I don’t have a problem with that – if you’re going to be a skill-based game like we are you need outstanding matchmaking, ‘cause if you’re a terrible player and you go online and you’re pitted against a player who’s amazing and plays the game eight hours a day on Twitch you’re gonna get dumpstered. They’re working on the secret sauce for our matchmaking right now, I can’t really divulge what it’s going to be, but it’s so essential to have a kiddy pool, a mid-range pool, and a shark tank. You’ve got to recognize what the person’s skill level is and match them with someone who’s pretty close to where they are, either above or below.
EG: Would you say it’s fair that people at the very bottom and very top are having altogether different experiences of gaming?
CB: Oh yeah. Just from having journalists and streamers out here – I’ve watched people pick up the game in ten minutes, people who play games all the time, and I’ve watched people flail in the same play session and get completely wrecked.
EG: If the Rapture came to pass and you could see the end in sight, what would the final moments of Cliff Bleszinski look like?
CB: Jeez, let me think about this for a minute…. I’d probably be in the hot tub with my wife.