The legendary developer talks to us about his new outlook, as we take his gravity-defying shooter LawBreakers for a spin
Cliff Bleszinski is as close to a game development rockstar as this industry has ever known. Like many of the great pop stars there have been nicknames, personas, and a sense of a creative evolution that has inspired and driven the industry he contributes to. He was of course originally Clifford Michael Bleszinski, a native of North Andover, Massachusetts, creator of The Palace of Deceit: Dragon’s Plight when he was just 17 years old and later Jazz Jackrabbit. He would go on to became the face of Gears Of War, perhaps more so than its lead character Marcus Fenix. The man we sit with now is the head of his own studio in Raleigh, North Carolina, making a brand new FPS, LawBreakers, and is referred to by his colleagues as simply Cliff.
“Being a little bit older, I pick my battles! It’s one of those things, you know, as you get a little bit older you don’t always have the energy or even really care,” Bleszinski begins as we discuss his personal journey to the head of Boss Key Productions. “Game developers love to argue – I’m like, ‘Is this the hill you want to die on? Pick your battle.’ There are times when I’m like ‘This is the hill I want to fucking die on. Let me win this one.’ But one of the things I’ve found as CEO is that everyone knows I have the power to say ‘Do this feature because I said so’, but you’d rather convince somebody it’s the right thing to do because it’s the best thing for the game and the project and the company.”
This is a very different guy to the one we used to see on E3 stages. More mature in outlook and temperament, head shaven thanks to a recent charity event, sporting a Rick & Morty shirt (one of his favourite shows of all time along with Game Of Thrones, he tells us later). It wasn’t so long ago that he had decided to leave the games industry altogether, feeling “fried after doing this since I was 17 years old,” but the ideas just kept on coming. Only a couple of years later, Boss Key has LawBreakers in a place where it can begin alpha testing and as we played the game and chatted with the rest of the development team, it became clear that there was a unified drive to make this shooter great.
“We’ve all been working together for probably less than a year as a group, because not all of us were here at the same time, so to have us all come together in the way that we did to create a game that’s really fun in the short period of time that we have done is a testament to everybody’s willingness to do what it takes to make this thing work,” Tramell Isaac, Boss Key’s art director explains to us. “You can’t really ask for more than that. We have our disagreements, but the mantra of the studio is ‘No bullshit’. We come into it knowing that we’re going to have a discussion about something. As long as you’re willing to have that discussion, those discussions getresolved and people get involved and invested in making something right, then you can’t go wrong. Everybody’s an open book. We wanted to get rid of all the egos, our interview process is really stringent. We wanted to make sure that we don’t get anyone in here who’s looking for glory or anybody here who wants to make a name for themselves; they just want to make good games. We’ve succeeded so far in getting people who are likeminded. It’s just an awesome feeling.”
“Only a handful of people in each department have even worked together before, but what you’re seeing in this relatively short time-frame for what it is, a game that I think is pretty darn cool, with a team that hasn’t really shipped anything yet,” Bleszinski adds. “I think that starts from the top – Tramell, Arjan [Brussee, COO] and I, Chris Mielke [senior producer], we’re just no bullshit. I always warn people before they come on board: the leaders of the company, they like to laugh but they’re tough. And they’re fair. Which I think is the best way to be.”
LawBreakers is a game that’s coming together fast, changing and evolving as the process continues. It started with a more cartoony art direction and has shifted to something a little more grown-up, “Going with more of a Quentin Tarantino type of sensibility as opposed to a Pixar one,” as Bleszinski has described it. It’s also shifted its release plan from free to play to a paid game, albeit not full price (no confirmed price point yet). There’s a recognition from the team that it is making a multiplayer only game, but one where balance is essential and the necessity for microtransaction with the free model would have sent the game in the wrong direction.
What we play now is a tight, near symmetrical shooter with a diverse set of characters mirrored on either side (the ‘Law’ and ‘Breakers’ representing this game world’s police and criminal elements) with an interested mix of low and zero-gravity effects in certain locations, power-ups, frantic battles for control and a pleasantly familiar vibe that harkens back to some classic arena shooters.
“We’ve managed to do a game with great movement that didn’t go all crazy with the parkour animations – and I don’t mean to knock parkour games – but in most shooters you’re like a 40mph turret that’s just going around 360,” Bleszinski tells us. “But the feeling I get in my stomach when I soar through zero-G and I fire a gun behind me and skate on the tail-end of it, it has a bit of that classic Quake/Tribes vibe but hopefully for a new generation of players that expect hero, or anti-hero, games, so to speak.”
Playing in the low-gravity environment of LawBreakers, which will feature in every map in some form or other, is a strange but exhilarating experience. When playing as the jetpack-propelled Vanguard class or given the ability to grappling hook around with the Assassin, your speed and manoeuvrability make you a force to be reckoned with. However, even the Enforcer and Tank classes, typically slower to get around, can propel themselves with blind fire behind them. It’s a feature inspired in part by scenes from Gravity. Every class has its own role to play.
“When we play with each other – and we do play tests every day – my role is to get the battery and to get it across the map,” Isaac says. “We’ve got two other guys who are just killing machines and they keep anybody from coming and chasing me and so on, or anyone coming into the battery room. Then we have other people who support, switching in and out with the Titan class or the Enforcer class and they’ll just hold down that space.”
The battery he mentions is the centre of LawBreaker ’s Overcharge game mode, which we played on the Grand View map, a vision of a future Grand Canyon bought by foreign interests from the US government after a cataclysmic event that has in turn been messing with Earth’s gravity. The world has recovered, but it is polarised and the sides fighting it out in the fiction of the game are a sign of this. Overcharge is LawBreaker’s take on capture the flag mixed with zone defence. In a bid to add drama to every game mode rather than simply offering the same old options because that’s what FPS games always provide, this mode features one battery that must be taken to your base to charge. Once it hits 100 per cent you just need to defend it for 20 seconds. However, if it’s taken by the opposition, it holds its charge. So you can lose it at 99 per cent and your opponent only need to defend it for a few seconds to win.
These creative evolutions of classic modes speak to the attention to detail this team is bringing. Every element of the game is tested and iterated upon. The team plays a new build three times a day to see how it’s progressing. Even character design has been driven by gameplay first. Many of the characters were simply grey-box outlines tested in barebones maps before being given any art direction so that they played right before they looked right.
“We started with Chronos,” Isaac reveals. “He was the very first character that we developed. And that’s probably got the longest tail on it because it came first and it went through a bunch of changes. Once we got that down we still continued to develop him a little bit further. Maverick was the third or fourth on the list, but it seemed like the most interesting as far as the design language and the types of colours, the abilities built into the character.
“Once we got all of that stuff I gravitated towards that character because I really liked the design and all the tools that she had at her disposal.”
This commitment to trying new ideas and only including things in the game that make it more fun has seen a lot of traditional gameplay types and classes fall away. “I remember we were trying to shoehorn a healer class into the game and it was mainly because ‘Everybody’s got a healer, we should have one too’,” continues Isaac. “And right after we got done putting that in the closet and saying that’s not going to work, we realised that we don’t have to be like everybody else. We just have to make the game fun and make everything that we put in the game work for the health of the game. That’s it. And as long as it’s fun and it works, people are going to enjoy it. And if at any point in time we get feedback that we really need a healing class, then we’ll resurface the one we put in mothballs.”
Boss Key had hoped to be as open as possible with its development plans, but Bleszinski admits that hasn’t been as easy as he had hoped with other ideas falling away and the team needing some time to find the right balance of features for LawBreakers. “We haven’t been able to be as transparent as we wanted to,” he says. “Just to go back to the original pitch for the game – ‘Gangs, guns, gravity’ – we’d always put everything against that: ‘Does this leverage either of those three. But there was a fourth thing: ‘grams of supplements’, aka futuristic drugs. We had visions of players having this meta-game where they can mix different ones for their percentages, to affect their powers and things like that. But the more we thought about it, the more we thought that these three main pillars were enough, this is just going to be a fiction thing.
“And if we’d promised that to the players up front, they’d be all like ‘But you prooomised! You suuuck!’ Right? And that gets exponentially worse with a Kickstarter, because with the reality of game development, you try and predict it, you try to do your best and stick to a schedule, with the finances and what you have in the bank, but there’s always something unpredictable. People get sick, people come and go; there’s a lot you can’t control. It’s a miracle a game ever even ships. The moment we have the game potentially in some sort of pre-release, where we’re considering a pre-alpha or anything like that, that’s where we can pull back the curtain and really start to be a lot more transparent.”
The result is a game that while it harkens back to those arena shooters Bleszinski mentioned, like Quake or even Unreal Tournament, it also offers a fresh take on classic setups. The excitement was real as we reached the final moments of each match, frantically switching classes as we respawned to make sure we were best placed to support our team depending on whether we were attacking or defending. Unlike Battleborn or Overwatch, games this will undoubtedly be compared gainst, you don’t necessarily need to stick with two or three characters out of a cast of dozens. You can master one or two for the scenario and that’s fine. LawBreakers does however represent another FPS that’s trying to shake off the last decade of the genre.
“The FPS genre feels like for years it’s been about the military fantasy, murder-boner thing,” says Bleszinski. “It feels like it’s either split into that, or into Fisher Price, Pixar colours. I don’t want to render an AR-15; there are plenty of games that do that great. And I don’t want to render a Desert Eagle; I want to get back to playing with some fun sci-fi weapons that look pretty cool and realistic but that don’t take up like a quarter of your screen or have that plasticky toy look to them. I’m really hoping and banking on the fact that there are a lot of players out there who play the military fantasy games or the super-bright colour ones, and they want something that’s half-way between the two.”
Right now his key ambition to simply to see the game out in the world, gaining fans and building up potential for updates and expansions. “[My ambition is] to get it out, but to get in a good cycle where the train is running and the game is a live product, where we have updates planned and staged and we’re also managing the community expectations and the balance of the game. Continually looking at the next phase: ‘What’s the next phase?’ ‘A Mexican drug cartel shows up!’ ‘Yeah, and what’s the next phase?’ ‘Robotic characters!’ Something like that. Whatever, I’m pulling ideas out of my butt right now.”
And what of the future of Boss Key? How much has Bleszinski thought on that? “We’re at a fork right now,” he tells us. “With the game coming out in a reasonable time-frame from now, hopefully when it’s warm, if it becomes a huge thing we’re going to have to staff up immensely. If it fizzles, we’ll still iterate and support it, but it’s one of those things where we’d have to consider a ‘Project Two’ at that point. You’ve got to keep the lights on, keep the families fed. The beauty of that is that I already have lots of game ideas floating around in my head, so I know plenty of what I want to do. Maybe play a little bit with VR. We’ll see.”.
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