Interview: Epic Games’ Cliff Bleszinski on Bulletstorm, the future of gaming and Gears of War

As the Design Director and public face of Unreal Tournament and Gears of War developer Epic Games, Cliff Bleszinski is somewhat of a celebrity on the gaming circuit. Now back on it as the studio looks to crank up the hype machine for Bulletstorm we met up with the man often known as Cliffy B to talk about what makes Bulletstorm different, how it was inspired by Mega Man, how to prevent games from ending up in the bargain bin and more.

Bulletstorm, which has been developed by People Can Fly, with Epic’s own creative input is a new First-Person Shooter for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC due to release on 22 February. Bulletstorm tells the story of a crew of space pirates who’ve found themselves stranded on a planet infested with unfriendly weapon-wielding mutants. Here we talk about what makes Bulletstorm different, some of the inspirations behind the game, how it could have turned into a Gears of War clone, and the possibility of Gears of War ever releasing on PS3.

The Bulletstorm demo has been very well received. That must be a great feeling?

Yeah, we’ve still got 10 per cent haters, which every product averages. This is a game that needed a demo; especially [when] launching a new IP because people see screenshots and  don’t know what to make of it all. [They say] “That looks like Borderlands, that looks like, Gears…that looks like BioShock. Make up your mind man, what do you think this is? It’s a whole bunch of different things mashed up into its own thing, right.

The first days of Bulletstorm, you see a screenshot and go ‘this is kind of interesting, I guess.’ And then seeing the videos of it, you’re like ‘wow, thats kinda cool.’ And then playing going ‘I can really get it’ right. So what we had is, we released one of the Echos (one of the modes in Bulletstorm) as you saw earlier. It’s literally three to five minutes gameplay, which is intentionally short so that people can play through it again and again, and so you have that great loop going on. Reading the Twitter feed has been immensely satisfying.

Because it’s been so well received, you kind of get the feeling that you know it’s going to be a hit. Does that feel like it’s job done?

That’s not guaranteed man. We live in the era of the cautious consumer, where, I call it the middle class gamer, but there has to be a better term for it. It’s the same for me, for films. Y’know for a person to go and spend $10 U.S on a 3D movie, or spend $60 day one on a game, it had better deliver and also have a fairly deep experience.

So it’s basically three games in one between the Echo Mode and the competitive leaderboard, between Anarchy Mode, between the great campaign. You need to get over that hump, otherwise you’re a campaign rental. Or you’re in the used bin, right. You need the combination of a feature-rich game, a great marketing campaign raising awareness…and hopefully you can have great sales.

Where did the idea of implementing the Skill Shot system come from? Is that a consequence of wanting to make First-Person games different. Did you consciously think ‘we have to make this different’?

Yeah-yeah. When Adrian and the guys were first working on the game it was like ‘OK it’ll be a shooter’ It started off as third-person cover-based and it was like “nah we don’t need another Gears”.

It was going to be a third-person. It was going to be like Gears of War meets Quake 2 in a mental world. That’s what it felt like initially. So we were like you need to keep iterating on this because it isn’t working. What happened was they [developer People Can Fly] implemented a couple of the weapons, they went to first person and then they started playing with verbage, because the game is about all of the verbs that you do, right. So, they implemented the kick, and the kick sent the guys flying. They were figuring out the slow-mo for that. Then they implemented the slide, because I’ve always been a fan of the Mega Man slide, right.

They put that in, then they put in the leash, which is Scorpion’s [a character from the Mortal Kombat series ] “Get over here”, right. We’ve taken these 16-bit moves and put them in a first-person shooter. So you have these verbs, and then they started putting in all these unique weapons, which I believe are the most unique weapons since Unreal Tournament and Pain Killer and really putting a new age twist on it all.

So they had a couple of the connections there, and that was cool. People were toying with their enemies like a cat plays with a mouse before it kills them. And that was cool but it wasn’t really connecting. And then they’re like, lets reward the player for these actions. So you pull of these tricks [called Skill Shots] like Tony Hawk with your enemies. That started getting cool; it only gelled when you could spend the points that you earned.

Once you could spend the points that you earned you could get cool stuff. And then they had a working machine of a game mechanic, and then the depth could spill out of that. So people would check their score and use the Skill Shots to unlock them all, and that’s the depth that the game needs to again overcome that hump of what gamers expect out of a contemporary 2011 game.

Quite a lot of games are now implementing RPG elements. Y’know: levelling up, upgrading abilities. Do you see that as a key element of future titles?

Honestly a couple of years ago I was quoted everywhere saying the future of the shooter is RPG. And I think even Bioware was like ‘no, what’s the future of the RPG?’ And they were like ‘A shooter?’ It’s like Mass Effect. The lines are blurring. I think genres don’t die, they just morph. You look at Heavy Rain. It pays as much homage to Dragon’s Lair and Sierra Games as it does a choose your own adventure.

Sometimes older ideas people have forgot about or haven’t thought about in a while you can do new with it, with updated technology to have something new and completely cool. So yeah, I think more RPG elements are better in order to make gamers stick with your game for months on end if not longer as opposed to just playing it over the weekend and abandoning it.

We’ve already touched on it, but with the Skill Shot system, did you go out of your way to make this an addictive game?

Well, that’s a tricky question. It’s a tricky question to answer. Because if I answer…however I answer could be taken out of context in any sort of blog and I’ll be compared to a heroin dealer. I’d like to refer to it as stickiness, as opposed to an addiction. Because, you could be addictive to cookies, y’know, you could be addicted to anything providing you have the right twist in your brain that’s cause and affecting that.

So we deliberately tried to make the game sticky at a core level as far as shooting down the barrel of a gun is fun, the ragdoll explosives are fun, and the world is interesting to explore and further on from that you have the Skill Shot system and even further out when you want to play with other people and unlock different shoes and boots for the characters and things like that.

So on every single level you try to make every single thing gratifying. Moving up a level in the multiplayer Anarchy mode to the sound effect on the Bouncer [a weapon that lets you shoot bouncing cannonballs at enemies] the way it bounces up and down and explodes the guys, the way they shred with the gatling gun; every little thing you try to be surgical about it. And it’s hard, I’m not gonna lie. It’s a hard thing to do.

Has there been any negative reaction to Bulletstorm? In terms of its ‘violent’ content (Note: this interview took place before Fox News ran a piece asking whether Bulletstorm is the worst game in the world because of such concerns.  Publisher EA has since responded)?

If people try to criticise this game I’ll  be very taken aback because this is taken to the extreme. If Gears is Evil Dead, this is Looney Tunes with buckets of blood. It’s so silly-over-the-top that it’s really hard to give crap to.

So people should realise it’s just a game, right?

Video games are video games and there’s entertainment for children, there’s entertainment for adults.

With the Skill Shot system you’ve created something that people evidently love, judging from the reaction so far. Is Bulletstorm going to be a hard act to follow? Fans are going to buy one of your games in future and think “There’s no Skill Shot system in this game.”

I’m hoping…you never know.

Are you worried you’ll be forced to shoehorn the mode into other games?

Gears of War was the same when it came out because everyone was like “there’s nothing new or unique in that game, it was just the execution and the graphics.” And then suddenly everyone started having cover in their game. And everyone had co-op and all of these things. And I was like “Oh!”

My sign of innovation or evolution of a genre is when you implement something that, suddenly when you go back to playing any other game or shooter you miss it. You know, I played other games that didn’t have double-kill and dodge and I missed it. When I played a third-person game that didn’t have cover after Gears [Of War] I missed it. That’s one that a lot of people have borrowed. That’s fine with me.

Then suddenly everyone has a Horde Mode. It’s been very interesting to watch that, especially considering that Epic as a studios sometimes doesn’t get a reputation innovating with games, but we do for technology, but I’d like to believe that there’s so many things that we’ve implemented and influenced in the industry that will continue to send ripples throughout.

Does that mean we’ll see Skill Shots in future Epic-developed games?

I don’t know how it’ll could fit into the Gears franchise [laughs] but I wouldn’t rule it out, right. Who knows, maybe there’s some sort of mode that we could play with but our plate’s pretty cool right now.

Other developers are sure to implement some sort of Skillshot-based system in their game. How would you feel about that?

We’d be flattered. And I can tell you that Gears 3 will be shipping with an integrated calendar and mark my words, because WoW [World of Warcraft] had that and you’re going to see every online game have a calendar next year. Will Skillshots take off to other games? Who knows man? I’d like to see it happen, but I don’t want to get cocky and be like “This is the sh*t.” One can only hope.
You’ve said on your Twitter account that when critics get it”, referring to the whole Bulletstorm concept, it’s “Better than sex.” Were you worried that critics wouldn’t get it? Why so?

Yeah. You trust your gut when making a game you think is cool. Unless I’m horrible at reading peoples reactions over the course of the last several days since we’ve had various journalists going to play the game from start to finish you’d be pleasantly surprised. It’s been really satisfying. You can’t imagine how satisfying it is for Adrian.

I was working on the project a bit, but they were bleeding out of the eyeballs to ship it. People’s perception of Bulletstorm is interesting because they see it and go “Huh, that looks like a dumb shooter” because they hear lines like “Dicktits” and “Ass maggot” and things like that, right.

And then they play it they’re like “Wow actually this campaign is fun with some great moments, and the characters have a lot of cool texture to them and the Skillshot system is amazingly deep. Who’d have thought.” It’s the same with Gears. People just see the chainsaws and the big buff guys and they go “Oh it’s like Monday Night Nitro WWE Raw” and suddenly you go to the YouTube video of Dom and Maria [from Gears of War 2] and you’ll find hundreds of comments about their tears. People see the trailer for Avatar and go “That looks like Smurfs in space” and they actually go and see it and it’s a great movie. So it’s an entertainment issue I think.

And because we’re running out of time, one quick question, because gamers keep asking. Gears of War for PS3; would you like to see it happen? Could it happen?

I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. I think our current set with Microsoft dictates that for us internally it makes more sense for Gears to remain a 360 franchise for the foreseeable future…plus I don’t like the PlayStation 3 controller [laughs].

Thanks for your time, Cliff!