Cliff Bleszinski talks VR’s struggles, paying for DLC, and gaming’s Hollywood envy

Cliff Bleszinski is one of the most recognisable gaming figures on the planet, having worked on such blockbuster franchises as Gears of War and Unreal Tournament. 

Having released his first game when he was just a teenager, Bleszinski has been an enduring presence in the games industry, with a career spanning over twenty years. 

After having helmed the Gears of War franchise through its first three iterations, Bleszinski has since taken a step back from AAA game development to found his own studio, Boss Key Productions, which is releasing its debut game LawBreakers later this year. 

You can read more about LawBreakers in our interview with Bleszinski published last weekend, but in the second half of our interview we wanted to find out the veteran’s opinions on the games industry as a whole. 

On VR's lack of killer apps

Virtual reality has been one of the hottest new technologies of recent years, but it was curiously underplayed at this year’s E3. Sony showed off a couple of trailers for new PlayStation VR games during its keynote, and Bethesda and Ubisoft also had new titles to show off, but the technology didn’t have the same emphasis that it did at last year’s show. 

Bleszinski was a prominent early supporter of VR, having appeared in the Oculus Rift’s initial Kickstarter video to proudly state, “I’m a believer.” 

However, at E3 2017 the veteran developer had cooled on the potential for VR. “I’m starting to get over it,” he said, before outlining how a lack of support from platform holders is hindering the release of killer software. 

Fundamentally, he explains, publishers are unwilling to put a lot of money behind a VR game while the install base of the hardware is so small. 

“There’s this chicken and egg that’s happening with VR where platform holders aren’t eating the cost,” he explains.

“A game like Uncharted is not really feasible to be profitable. It’s because Sony owns Naughty Dog and they’re willing to pump an infinite amount of money into that to sell PlayStations to sell their other games. It’s called a loss-leader.

“So Facebook and Valve, HTC, and all the platform holders, they need to cough up money to get real games.”

This lack of killer titles, Bleszinski believes, will limit the appeal of VR to “location-based entertainment and then the rich friend who has it at their house for the foreseeable future. The irony, speaking of the rich friend, is that they normally live in New York, Tokyo or Los Angeles, aka places that can’t afford the real estate to have a room-based VR. So they’ve created their own ultimate Catch 22 for that.”

On the games industry’s movie envy

Although games are now a multi-million dollar industry that happily competes with the movie and music industry in terms of importance, Bleszinski expressed frustration at the games industry’s constant envy of Hollywood. 

“When the Gears movie was potentially going to happen…the number one question I’d always get from the employees [at Epic Games] was ‘What’s up with the movie?’’” he laments. 

“For some reason the employees at Epic didn’t feel validated until their IP had a movie, which is really dumb and short-sighted because everybody knows games are way cooler than movies.

“There’s a reason why James Gunn worked on Lollipop Chainsaw or why Gore Verbinski was at the Dice summit a couple of years ago trying to do the Bioshock movie. It’s because all their kids wanna make games! They don’t wanna make films.”

On paying for mods

On the topic of paying for mods, Bleszinski was clear. After discussing his desire to bring mod functionality to the game after its release he leant in to speak clearly into our dictaphone. 

“I’m not going to charge for them by the way. Note that please, because it’s bullshit.”

This view contrasts with recent moves taken by Bethesda, who last year enabled paid mods for Skyrim. After a massive outcry from the community, the company reversed the decision within the week.

We asked what exactly his objections to charging for mods were. 

“What you’re doing is you’re walling off your community. By curating it you’re getting rid of the entire reason why we have mods in the first place. I just think monetizing it is a slippery slope. I just think it’s dirty and I’m just not a fan of it,” he explained. 

In essence, he suggests that charging for mods limits their potential reach, which is a shame when some of the biggest games of all time (Counter Strike and DOTA 2 being the prime examples) started out as freely released modifications to existing games. 

On single-player games

Bleszinski’s focus is now aimed squarely at multiplayer gaming with LawBreakers, but Gears of War featured a lengthy campaign in addition to its multiplayer modes. 

We asked him whether he’d ever return to making that style of game. 

“Campaigns are only going to get more and more expensive,” he stated. “If I were to do something with a narrative basis it would be a lot more procedural. A lot of these survival games are generating the world upon spawn, which I actually really respect.” 

When we asked whether he plays story-based games anymore, Bleszinski talked about how being in the business for too long had made him very weary around those sorts of games, causing him to fixate on little elements like the anti-aliasing or fetch quests being used to pad the game out. 

“Lately seeing the man behind the curtain too much in this business has made me a bit jaded.”

On cross-platform play 

There was a lot of talk at this year’s show about cross-platform play, or the ability of gamers on one platform being able to play multiplayer against those on another platform. 

Microsoft confirmed that every version of Minecraft would be cross compatible in the future, and Rocket League developer Psyonix talked more about how the game allows players on its various platforms to come together. 

But although Bleszinski thought that cross-platform play worked well for those two games, he was less convinced that it could work with a first-person shooter because in his words, “99% of the time a keyboard and mouse player that’s good is going to dumpster a controller player”.

“Lately seeing the man behind the curtain too much in this business has made me a bit jaded.”

Cliff Bleszinski

However, he wasn’t completely closed off to the idea, and outlined how he’d design a game if he wanted to have mouse and keyboard and controller players in the same match.

“If you were to do it I would back up and I would make a game where the people on the PC only get a certain amount of characters, they only play these characters, and the console players only play these characters. I’d make it completely asymetrical, and that might work.”

However, while he thought that although aim-assists could help level the playing field, he thought that the result would be far too frustrating for mouse and keyboard players to make it worthwhile. He explains, “even if the controller player wins the keyboard and mouse player is going to be mad at the game because he’s going to see what the aim assist did for him or her.”

But with increasing amounts of PC games relying almost entirely on a controller, the potential for cross-platform play has never been greater, even if a shooter like LawBreakers could never take advantage of it. 

When Bleszinski bowed out of the games industry back in 2012 it looked like we were about to lose an irreplaceable figure. Few within the industry have the wealth of knowledge, or the confidence to express their opinions, as the veteran developer – and it's great to have him back in the public eye. 

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