Interview: Talking "Gears" and Learning Industry Terms With Cliffy B

Interview: Talking "Gears" and Learning Industry Terms With Cliffy BCliff Bleszinski Derping Around With Gears of War 3, Followed by Terry Tate Who Voices Cole Train
System Justifier. Tunnel Syndrome. The Kano Problem. These are some of the effective terms Cliffy B has adopted while he and Epic Games have cultivated the Gears of War franchise which has now reached the end of its game trilogy. Always approachable, Cliffy chatted with us recently at a Gears of War 3 multiplayer media event to briefly reflect on this series, as well as share his thoughts on what it takes to succeed as a game developer in 2011 and beyond.

Considering this prolonged console cycle where developers like yourselves are reaching your third installment on the same console that your franchise started on...

Yeah, you don't see that very often in video games; seeing a full trilogy in a console generation. This period is unique to the industry I think.

And I suppose that speaks to the convenience of being that much more familiar with the same dev tools year after year without having to worry about learning a new toolset of "the next console".
 

Anytime you have a new console transition it's usually bumpy and rough because everyone is trying to figure how to get a leg up on everything.

 

Yes. Anytime you have a new console transition it's usually bumpy and rough because everyone is trying to figure how to get a leg up on everything. And we invested early for this next-gen--the current gen now--and when the first Gears came out, it was head and shoulders above a lot of the other games that had come out for the Xbox 360. It gave us not only a visual lead but also the ability to pull ahead and show off and be what I call the "system justifier". It's the one gamer product that you show to your wife and say, "See! This was worth the $300!" We've done that to some extent with mobile gaming with Infinity BladeAngry Birds is great and all but you can see from Infinity Blade how great an iOS game can look. This isn't a new concept;Unreal and Unreal Tournament were "those games" for 3D accelerators, Myst was that for CD-Roms, and if you can be that game, you often wind up pulling ahead of everybody else.

What is the one aspect of Gears of War 3 that stands out in terms of Epic's familiarity with the dev tools, something that didn't happen in the preview installments?

I think our level designers are getting better and better. We were able to build some of the best combat encounters yet, in regards to enemy texture, variety and the play space. Gears 2 had a lot of what I call "tunnel syndrome". There's was an image that went around a couple years ago that showed "First person shooter design in 1993 vs 2010". It showed a map of Doom and next to it showed "line-cutscene-line-cutscene-line-cutscene" and Gears 2 was too much toward that latter version as opposed to Doom and I'd like to think that with Gears 3 we've shifted it more toward the more porus map where you can explore a little bit and have wide combat.

Have any other trilogies influenced this third installment?

I think the original Star Wars trilogy definitely. I don't want to spoil too much but the end of Gears 3, we felt like it had to have the "ceremony" moment. This is spoiler territory but it's like, "Hey, we might not be fucked after all. Everything might've actually turned out ok." So going with the beats of characters evolving too, when you look at Luke evolving from farmboy to badass Jedi, I'd like to equate that to Anya as far as her being the girl in the background with the pencil skirt who later winds up being playable in the third game, stepping on Locust heads.

But that's not what you guys had planned initially, right?
 

We make games that we believe stand on their own with hooks for a sequel and ideas of where the franchise can go. If we're blessed enough to sell as many copies to justify it, then we go full bore with it.

 

Not initially. We make games that we believe stand on their own with hooks for a sequel and ideas of where the franchise can go. If we're blessed enough to sell as many copies to justify it, then we go full bore with it. I wrote a two-page treatment about what I would like to see happen and my leads tore it to sheds and rebuilt it stronger, better.

Based off the first act alone, Gears 3 seem to have a more emotional pull and a sense of reflection, particularly with Marcus' persistent Daddy issues.

We're letting the emotional character arcs breathe a little bit more in this game as opposed to "Where's my wife!? AHHH! Monsters!" I don't want to slag our previous work because everything we've done has been learning up to this point. But the game opens with Marcus having this nightmare about reliving the moment his father dies in front of him and his dad's voice seems to keep creeping from beyond the grave and popping up throughout the game reminding Marcus what's going on. When you play as Cole, you get a sense of who Cole is this time around. You have this guy who is always the optimist in every scene but you start to get a sense that all the bravado might be all an act for a guy who's back is hurting a little bit, who misses his glory days. You look at Dom being this utterly broken man; nothing says a man who's given up faster than showing up with a beard or a bathrobe. He's got the "let himself go" beard going on and you wonder what's going to happen there. Then there's Carmine; is he gonna live, is he gonna die? We have all these fake out moments with the campaign that you look for. It's turned out to be a really great ride.

Will there be a similar scene with Anya later in the game?
 

The Gears franchise is often about "going home" and themes of home, I've realized. It's also about homelessness...

 

The Gears franchise is often about "going home" and themes of home, I've realized. It's also about homelessness when you think about The Stranded; we've sunk Jacinto, our last home; we've gone to Marcus' childhood home; you go back to other locations that mean a lot like Cole and the Thrashball stadium.

Anya's home is Marcus. As the world is going to shit and everything is unravelling and Marcus starts losing it a little bit, it's Anya who steps in there and says, "Marcus, we'll be ok, we'll get through this." We're not the studio to depict a love scene. Bioware is the one who can pull that off and great for them. You'll just see a lot of interaction between the two where you understand their bond a little bit more, outside of reading the books which does go into depth with that.

That does say something about how the Gears Universe outside the game itself is a lot more fleshed out compared to other game franchises.

It blows my mind that we're using video games--which a lot of parents believe are the downfall of Western civilization--to get people interested in books again. It started with the Halo: The Fall of Reach novel that Eric Nylund wrote and it's continuing through to people Tweeting me photos of the Gears books people are reading in preparation for the series. What we do and what we're fortunate enough to have here is creating is uber-fan of the franchise. It's the kind of evangelist who has all the tattoos and all the books and buys the Underoos he sees at Wal-Mart. He will ultimately be the guy who evangelises to a friend, "You know Call of Duty is great, but you might want to try Gears now."

Have you played the first Gears recently?

I played it about 6 months ago.

As you said it is a learning experience, but it is interesting how much monotone gray there is in the Gears 1, not to mention all the right angle level design.
 

...the cycle of shooters seems to be: 1st game = Great start, establishes IP, 2nd game = People don't seem to like as much, and the 3rd game seems to strike that happy balance between the two.

 

Some of it holds up, some of it doesn't. It was a little bit blocky. The story was very much rushed, but it established the IP thankfully. Gamers are VERY GOOD at being in love with a memory. I actually Tweeted the chart that somebody posted: "If <game> = the exact same game = Rehash! Not gonna buy it! If <game> = in any way different at all = You ruined my franchise!" You're damned if you do, you're damned if you don't. And the cycle of shooters seems to be: 1st game = Great start, establishes IP, 2nd game = People don't seem to like as much, and the 3rd game seems to strike that happy balance between the two. Many Halo fans weren't fans of Halo 2Counter-Strike SourceUnreal 2Unreal Tournament 2003, the list just keeps going with shooters, so hopefully the third time's the charm with Gears 3.

One reader asks if Cole will have a rap battle with the Queen.

The Queen don't rap. She has people for that.

Another asks if the Golden Hammerburst is gold plated.

It's gold plated. We went away from the "dip the entire thing in a vat of gold" with a more gold trim look which fits in the world more.

Is the season pass region-locked?

I don't know actually. The season pass has been one of those things that've been controversial because people thought it was an online pass when we announced it. No, you won't have to buy it to play Gears online. It's just a way of pre-buying all the DLC. It's the industry's way of saying, "Keep your fork. There's pie." Don't trade-in that disc just yet because there's more awesome stuff coming and it's not just multiplayer maps.

We may find a creative solution somewhere down the line to allow players to essentially collect all the stuff with all the preorders across all the retailers. The problem is we have our retail partners; Amazon needs a cookie, BestBuy needs a cookie, Gamestop needs a cookie, what's the one thing you get for going there? Unfortunately that's created a divided universe where players don't feel like they're getting everything. That's the reality of the retail landscape in 2011. We recognize that players might want everything and we're looking to see if they can acquire that stuff at a later date.

Considering how Epic was also responsible for Bulletstorm, do you feel you have to maintain a certain degree of groundedness and restraint when pitching new weapons for Gears 3?

Oh yeah, for Gears we fought back. One of my points with Adrian (Chmielarz, creative director) with Bulletstorm was, "Dude, I just want a regular gun sometimes." And that's where their Flare Gun came from.
 
Gun nuts are crazy, in a good way. They care about the reload speed, they care about the stock, they care about the kick, they care about the caliber. And so when we were looking at the weapons for Gears 3, we thought, "Let's do the Pendulum Lancer." But what's going to be different? You can do a beta charge, but other than that it's just a different gun that kicks more than other guns. Moving forward we have enough wacky weapons. We have a Boomshot, we have a Torque Bow, we have a Digger. These are unique to us and they're cool. There's nothing wrong with putting a few more pistols in there that just have a different firing rate because people learn the nuances between the different weapons and learn there's different situations where you want other weapons. Call of Duty was built on that.

There is something to be said about the fat-trimming process with the game in general.

We're at the point now where if we did another Gears, we have what we refer to as the "Kano Problem" as in "Does Kano really need to be in the next Mortal Kombat?" Because when you add new characters you end up with this board of 50 characters.
 

Whatever we do in the future, I hope we have a somewhat clean break, maybe reramp up the chart of weaponry...Sometimes you just have to know when to start cleaning, just like what J.J. Abrams did with the Star Trek reboot.

 

Whatever we do in the future, I hope we have a somewhat clean break, maybe reramp up the chart of weaponry. If you take the current Gears with all the weapons or the current Halo with all the weapons, it just becomes too much. You'll never see certain guns in the multiplayer maps because weapons cycle so how do you see all the weapons? Sometimes you just have to know when to start cleaning, just like what J.J. Abrams did with the Star Trek reboot.

Outside of Gears 3, what has excited you about the industry recently?

The multiplayer discussion is a fascinating thing. The whole idea of asychronous gameplay, something that's taken over in iOS, Words With Friends and all that. You're gonna see that coming on consoles in a big way. The first two games that are doing something like that is Dragon's Dogma and Dark Souls.
 

In the next Left 4 Dead, if I'm in a safehouse, why can't I leave graffiti for my next friend? "Who drew the dick again!?"

 

Skeptics say, "You can't just cram multiplayer in any game!" First off, I wouldn't say "cram" and the second thing is that you can add multiplayer in almost any game if you're creative about it. It's not necessarily gonna be you and I syncing up for a sword fight in a game like Dark Souls. It's going to be me leaving a clue on how to beat this boss and maybe I'm stashing a sword for you that you get at a later date and I let you know about the sword via text message that you uncover. It's that kind of asynchronous gameplay where players are helping others in these unique ways. It's a whole different way of thinking of multiplayer that is largely untapped right now. In the next Left 4 Dead, if I'm in a safehouse, why can't I leave graffiti for my next friend? "Who drew the dick again!?"

And with how the genre has evolved these many years where projects are needing to have at least two studios, one to handle the campaign and another to handle the multiplayer....

Yeah, you're getting to the point where it's starting to get compartmentalized. One studio's building the co-op missions, one's building the multiplayer, etc.. Bulletstorm had a bit of that. Tanya Jessen is actually submitting a talk for GDC about managing that kind of worldwide production.

This is happening because in 2011 and beyond, in order to make a $60 game that players will pay for day one, you need to make something that's huge, that's has a great campaign, that has a deep multiplayer suite, or otherwise you're gonna be in the Redbox as I'd like to say.
 
Keep an eye out for our review of Gears of War 3 hitting tomorrow.
Tags: gears-of-war-3, cliff-bleszinski, cliffy-b, xbox-360
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