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Cliff Bleszinski talks moving on from Gears of War and starting fresh with Lawbreakers

"As much as it's a shooty shooty bro game about chainsaws and lizard men, it's always been about dad issues."

Over the course of five years, Cliff Bleszinski led production on all three original Gears of War games. Together with Halo, the series came to define an entire era of shooters, and though each Gears game represented the collective efforts Epic Games' large and capable development team, Bleszinski nonetheless became the de facto face of Xbox 360's flagship franchise.

Now five years have passed since Bleszinski left Epic, and his first big project since Gears 3--a frantic, multiplayer-focused first-person shooter called Lawbreakers--is finally on the horizon. We recently had our first chance to play the game and came away brimming with questions about its distinctive traversal systems, obvious old school influences, and ambiguous relationship with older brother Gears--all of which Bleszinski addressed during a post-demo interview.

For more on Lawbreakers, read GameSpot's most recent hands-on impressions: "Lawbreakers is everything Gears of War is not."

GameSpot: You guys were talking during the presentation about how this is a return to classic arena shooters -- Unreal Tournament, things like that. I was curious if you could talk about your overall goals for the gameplay. What's going to separate Lawbreakers from other upcoming multiplayer shooters?

Bleszinski: I want it to really have a sense of flow. There's that sense of nonstop movement going through the environment. The thing about making an arena shooter is you really need to make something that has depth. I go back and play the new Unreal Tournament and it looks fantastic, but I feel like I've almost seen everything there is to see within a couple hours. For us, when we added in character abilities and the various classes and the sizes and different health, we shifted it from being about the map to being about the player in the role. That was the goal with making this kind of game -- like an arena shooter for a new generation.

It seems like the theme underlying all of this is variety in gameplay. Breaking away from aim, shoot, kill; adding more to layers to gameplay...

For me it's the verbs. What are you doing besides shooting? As much as we are a real core shooter, there's a lot of other things that you're doing. You're kicking. You're blind firing. You're doubling your size and using lightning hands. You're grappling. You're using jet packs. You're doing all these crazy different things that, for me at least, add up to the watch-ability that we are going for in this game.

You were talking earlier about how you want some drama in the game modes and how you've designed the game with streamers or YouTubers in mind. You want those big sports moments.

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Cliff Bleszinski spearheaded production on the first three Gears of War games

It goes back to everyone wanting to be an e-sport. Hopefully one day, but I don't know if that's going to happen. For me, watching American football... I always joke, you don't need a kicker until you really need one, and if you don't have one, you're f***ed. At the end of American football games, it comes down to: can this one guy stand in front of this arena of 80,000 people and kick this stupid little ball between a goal post? My mantra is to end with drama, last minute reversals, and upsets. That's what creates entertaining spectacle to begin with.

It sounds like this game was designed specifically to achieve those types of moments.

Deliberately. We are not a heavily physics-based game. If you look at what makes a lot of great YouTube videos and animated GIFs, it's a lot of physics-based stuff. You look at our friends at Rocket League, at Psyonix. They create this great sense of drama with their physics. We don't have a lot of physics, so we double down on verbs.

Players learn by discovery. Generally speaking, they'll just hit the button and see what happens. What kinds of things empower the player to do that [and] enable him to create that sense of maximum drama? For me, cutting through the bulls**t, being in a multiplayer arena-based shooter that has a certain amount of depth, I don't want to make people cry because of a cinematic. I want to make them cry because they lost a match where they bet the shirt off their backs. That's the kind of thing I want to go for.

What made you guys decide to focus on character abilities over something like different types of weapons? It seems like this game is very character-driven.

We are kind of in the golden era of the hero game. I don't want to be labeled as a hero game. I almost want to be labeled as an anti-hero game because all of our characters have the Quentin Tarantino vibe to what we are going for with the IP. For us, it comes down to characters and heroes and, honestly, cosplayers. When we are designing the nuts and bolts of these characters, we want to make the job of the cosplayers as difficult as humanly possible so that they have to run around to 15 stores, which, for me, is a sign of an interesting character design. It's giving people aspirational characters and abilities that they want to actually be instead of just having 15 guns in your butt, which is what the old shooter mentality was.

It seems like Lawbreakers in a lot of ways is the anti-Gears. It's much faster. It's first-person. It focuses on unique classes. I was wondering if you could comment on the differences between the two and possibly explain what you enjoy about Lawbreakers now that you've had the freedom to do something totally new?

I think about Gears and it is a little bittersweet because I knew where I wanted to take the franchise, and I think that it's in good hands with Rod and everybody at The Coalition. Watching the new [Gears of War 4] trailer ... I got a little misty. It was really powerful for me, but creating another whole new world is also very important to me.

I knew I wanted to get back to first-person, I always did. I get in these conversations with my concept artist--he'll be like, "Yeah, I drew a new gun." I'm like, "Show me down the barrel. How does it look in first-person?" Then to see kicking people in the face in first-person ... it's pretty cool stuff.

When it comes down to tone and color, Gears and Killzone took over an entire console generation 10 years ago, which lasted for years. Now the rubber band is back with Overwatch and Battleborn, where everything has completely rubber banded to the point where it's super colorful; every single character, every single color. I want to hit a halfway point where we're not gritty but we're not cartoony. We are kind of in the middle of that.

It sounds like the tone you've now landed on is slightly different from the tone you started with. Was that a direct reaction to seeing stuff like Overwatch and Battleborn and deciding to separate yourselves a bit?

Well, [Gearbox Studio Head] Randy Picthford himself said to me, "Look, you're not the cartoony game. Battleborn's a little more cartoony. Double down on being [M-rated]." To hear characters say "s***" and occasionally say "f***"--like, oh my goodness, think of the children. I'm not sure if we are going to be full ESRB considering we are digital only, but that kind of M-rated type experience, that's pretty much what we're going for here.

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Boss Key Productions

Do you worry at all about being compared to hero shooters like Battleborn and Overwatch and other more MOBA-inspired games?

MOBAs are great for what they are. You look at my former employer and they're making what's essentially Smite 2, which is cool for what they're doing with Paragon. I wanted to make a darn good shooter. As much as the MOBA formula does work, I'm burnt out on it. There's too much of it out there for me. I wanted to go with counter-programming. "There's a lot of these games that are shooters, and they look like they're for kids. Let's go the other way."

In addition to the tone, it seems like you've put a great deal of thought into the narrative aspects of Lawbreakers despite the fact that it's a multiplayer-focused game, which traditionally don't offer many opportunities to convey story to players.

We have a map in the pipe that's in Santa Monica where you can see pharmaceuticals advertising and you can see what are the banks like in the future -- assuming you stop and don't get killed because the game's pacing is so crazy. You start to really learn what the brands are in the world. If you look at the weapons, [you'll see] our Italian energy weapon company that makes these awesome, carbon fiber Lamborghini looking weapons. These are things we put a lot of thought into. It's really, really f***ing important to have that stuff if you're making a multiplayer-only game.

When you guys started talking about the project almost two years ago, you framed it as a free-to-play game. You were pretty adamant that you were going to make it work. Then a few weeks ago you announced, okay, it's a traditional single-pay game at a lower than standard retail price. I was curious if you could comment on that decision.

At every GDC you see what are called "smoke chasers," and a few years ago it was, "We are going to make Facebook games." Then it's like, "We are going to make mobile games." Then it was free-to-play. Now it's VR. It's one of those things where I think the rubber band has come to the middle. You look at John Blow and The Witness. He put The Witness out at $39.99 and sold how many copies? The more we considered free-to-play, all we thought about was monetization. And yeah, we want to keep the darn lights on here and feed all of our employees, but we realized we were getting distracted. We weren't focusing on making the most fun game imaginable.

You also recently announced Lawbreakers will be exclusive to Steam at launch. Can you comment on that as well?

We are talking to Sony and Microsoft. We'll see where it goes. Obviously, we're not going to do it ourselves. I want to keep the studio medium-sized. I know almost everyone's names. I know their spouses. I know a lot of their damn dogs. I don't want to grow to two, three hundred people. If Sony or Microsoft want to figure something out, we can talk.

You don't feel like the game is designed so specifically for PC that it couldn't be...

Oh it's going to be a tricky port, I assure you. You can see the pacing of it's pretty f***ing fast and pretty vertical, so good luck adapting that to controller. I'm not saying it can't be done, but whoever ports it--if they do--has their work cut out for them.

So what is it about shooters that keeps you coming back? What do you love about this genre?

I don't know. I'm not even that big of a gun guy. I'm the shooty guy. It's what I do. Even Jazz Jackrabbit was a shooter. It's an easy way to interact with the world. Once you have that... I like to call it the dance. I think Call of Duty doesn't have much of a dance. People die in Call of Duty in about three-quarters of a second once you get the iron sights on them. I haven't seen a good PC game have a dance in a while. Halo has the dance -- when you spot the enemy, you actually have a shot at taking them out before they take you out, or if they get the drop on you, you might actually be able to counter and take them out. When you add in variable classes and all the different verbs we put in -- as well as the variable gravity -- it starts suddenly getting very, very compelling and very, very visually interesting.

I'm going to circle back to Gears, just for a second. Does it bother you that people constantly associate you with Gears of War? Is it like fans showing up to a concert and just shouting the title of the band's biggest hit over and over?

I'm at the point now where it's like... Look at Mark Hamill. Mark Hamill's owning the fact that he's Luke. Gears will always be a part of me. The whole series was developed during my 30s, which was such an instrumental part of my life. Gears 1 was developed when I was going through a very difficult separation from my first marriage. Then, ultimately, going through to Gears 3 where I met my now wife.

The thing that got me in the feels in the new trailer is the fact that I always saw myself as Marcus and [my wife] as Anya. I'm stalling on the whole kid thing, but to see that trailer where Marcus is planting the tree and it's JD's, I'm like, "Aww." A lot of really, really good feels because Gears... At the core of it all, as much as it's a shooty shooty bro game about chainsaws and lizard men, it's always been about dad issues. Lee Perry, Rod Fergusson, and I lost our fathers at early ages. Then to see Marcus with a kid... It's pretty cool stuff. I'll play the s*** out of that game, as long as I get a free copy. [Laughs]