Cliff Bleszinski: A Chat with the Man with the Golden Chainsaw Rifle

We had a chance to talk to superstar video game developer Cliff Bleszinski about LawBreakers, Gears of War, and "method developing."

I’ve never been part of an entourage before, but this is probably the closest thing to it: I’m following superstar developer Cliff Bleszinski, who’s accompanied by his wife, his partner Arjan Brussee, and his publicist, into a hotel lobby for a chat about his new studio, Boss Key Productions, and his next first-person shooter, LawBreakers. As we enter the lavish hall in search of a quiet place to chat, fans call out to Bleszinski—”Yo, Cliffy B!”—which is not something that happens to game developers often. They usually remain faceless behind their beloved creations. Like writers, artists, and poets, developers might captivate millions of people but they’ll never enjoy (or suffer) the feeling of being recognized on the street.

Yet with titles like Unreal Tournament and Gears of War under his belt, Bleszinski has established himself as one of the biggest names in the video game industry, a mastermind of the shooter genre who’s about to go through a bit of a rebirth with LawBreakers, the game that almost never was.

Here’s my chat with Bleszinski:

You have a great shooter legacy after developing Unreal Tournament and Gears of War. Why was LawBreakers the next logical step for you?

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CB: I was retired and I just got really fucking bored. After six months [of retirement], I was waking up in the middle of the night and just writing down ideas in a notebook. Since Gears was third-person, cover-based, and had a campaign, I wanted to just get back to first-person verbs that lead to moments. That is the goal of the game: to let players craft the combat the way they want to.

What lessons did you bring from past games to LawBreakers?

As much as I do love Gears, you look at where third-person games are going, and they are going increasingly animation-driven, to the point where if you are playing a match and you get killed, you are going to blame the game and the animation, and not yourself. Whereas in [LawBreakers], we are not going to let the animation drive gameplay.

LawBreakers envisions a world full of gravitational anomalies. Did you guys look at any science-fiction or real-life science when you were creating the concept for the game?

A lot of it. For me personally, as far as the gravity stuff, came eight or nine years ago. I was able to do zero-g on the airplane that does parabolas. It goes up at a 45-degree angle and then down. They call it the “vomit comet.” You get mad sick in the morning, I will leave it at that. The next time we rent out the plane, we will bring you guys.

And you rode in that thing?

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Yeah. It’s a tourist thing. The sensation of zero gravity is something I will never forget. It is kind of like being underwater without any friction. They tell you when we hit zero-g don’t push up, because there is no water to slow you down. You will hit your head on the ceiling. Basically, the ceiling of this 747 that’s going 400 miles an hour, and I’m walking on it, and water globules are going by and catching in my mouth. It is pretty freaking amazing.

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It sounds like you did a bit of “method developing” for LawBreakers.

Well, it’s like I’m sitting there thinking, “What things am I doing in my life that will affect the game I may work on in a few years if I am still doing this at that time?” My wife and I went to Puerto Rico, and we did the Bioluminescent Bay recently. And we booked it during new moon where it was like, so dark. We’re on the Bio Bay and you’re sticking your hand in the water and you’re throwing it. And we had translucent kayaks, so it looked like a star field going beneath us and you could see the fish beneath us going in the water.Then it rained halfway through and it was just us out there, and the entire thing just lights up. It’s like James Cameron Avatar-type stuff. That was one of the other experiences, and I was like, we got to figure out a way to get this into the game somehow.

So you’re an adventurer then?

Not as much as you’d think. The resorts need to be really good. I am a spoiled brat, to be honest. [Arjan Brussee, co-founder of Boss Key,] is like, “You should do this thing in Africa where you live in a tent.” And I’m like, “No.”

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Cliff, in a previous interview with Destructoid, you mentioned that you thought you were done with games after leaving Epic. What ultimately made you come back?

What is a good way of putting this? It was good for my marriage to go back to work. At the end of the day, we’d have dinner, and my wife would ask, “How was your day?” And we didn’t have anything to talk about. Now, when I get home, I’m like, “Oh my God, you should see this new concept art. Check out this whole thing!” And she’s like, “Oh, you should give her purple hair!” Or she comes in and plays the game with me. We are a big gaming couple. It’s about the camaraderie.

Epic seems like they are in a great place now, but a few years ago I could pitch anything there and I’d get some jaded developer in my office with their arms folded saying, “I don’t buy it.” Everything is in the execution. It’s one of those things where I was concerned that people would just do some of my ideas because it’s like, “Gee, please don’t get rid of me! That’s a great idea, dude!” But I have surrounded myself with such brash interesting leads [at Boss Key] that I have to sell them on every idea.

I would never think you’d have a tough time pitching, especially since you’ve been so successful.

Well, you have to re-earn that respect. We have to check our egos at the door and start over, which is what we are kind of doing.

Have you had a chance to look at what Microsoft is doing with Gears of War 4?

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Yeah. I played the beta. It looks good. I’m just dying to see what stuff that I pitched to Rodd [Ferguson] when I was back at Epic, actually stuck around.

Yeah, I was curious about that. Did you actually notice anything that was yours?

Well, JD being Marcus’s son.

That was your idea?

It was collectively ours, because when it was Lee Perry, Rodd, and myself, Gears was about a lot of things. Chainsaw gun yada yada, but it is also about fatherhood and parenting, and family. Delta squad was essentially a family.

Gears of War 4 has that aspect of Star Wars: The Force Awakens where it’s about passing the franchise on to the next generation.

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Exactly. I have a feeling that Marcus might show up probably later on in the game, and you will hear the voice first. We will see what they do with it. I am curious where they take these Swarm/Locust enemies. It should be interesting.

You’ve said that Hideo Kojima asked you to come work with him on Silent Hill, and you said no. I think the quote was something like you felt like you’d fuck it up. Could you elaborate on that?

I do love horror. I love horror films. I love good horror. It Follows is one of the best horror films in the last 10 years. Horror is about subtlety and timing and pacing. Jump scares are easy. Horror games are so hard to make, because I like to say you can’t tickle yourself. What do you think is scary? Are people going to find it scary?

I also like to make new worlds and I don’t work in existing stuff. The only IP I would ever consider that’s not ours would be Firefly, because I think that’d be a great game. Doing space combat and the wild west first-person shoot-em-up.

I have a lot of respect for Kojima. He’s somehow become a good friend of mine over the years, which is really fucking weird. I actually got to do the speech at PAX a couple of years ago for the 20th anniversary of Metal Gear. I just got roped into it, and I’m like, “Okay, this guy is one of my heroes. This is weird.” He is cool. One of these days, we are going to get around to doing karaoke together.

You guys do karaoke together?

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We haven’t had a chance to yet, but we can do “Bust a Move” by Young MC. I think that would be a good one.

A version of this story appears in Den of Geek’s San Diego Comic-Con special edition print magazine. You can read the full digital edition here: