Cliff Bleszinski is at PAX to talk about his new game, a five-vs-five free-to-play first person shooter called LawBreakers, due to be published by Nexon some time next year.
Sitting at a table in a hotel corridor, the one-time Gears of War designer explains to me exactly how he runs his company, Boss Key Productions, and how it’s all very different from the management-heavy culture of many large AAA studios.
Boss Key’s management doctrine, it turns out, is pretty simple to grasp.
“Fuck off and fuck it,” he says, gesturing to his COO Arjan Brussee, also sitting at the table. Brussee, evidently an adherent of this novel approach to hierarchical and workflow structures, nods agreeably. Bleszinski spent two decades working at Epic while Brussee is a veteran of Guerrilla Games and Electronic Arts. They know what it’s like to work at big studios. They want to do things differently.
“If somebody’s wasting your time, you could be doing something productive to make the studio or the game better? Fuck off, I don’t have time for this,” explains Bleszinski, before moving onto the second prong of his approach.
“The other thing is ‘fuck it’. He [Brussee] was literally looking at the UI and the fact that it hadn’t been coded from what we knew over the current version of Unreal. It’s like, fuck it, I’ll code it. That’s the whole thing. It’s roll up the sleeves and just get it done. Whatever it takes to get things out the door. That’s the kind of people we brought on board.”
“It’s a terrible feeling to walk down a hallway and not know somebody’s name.”
Bleszinski, 40, came out of retirement to make this new game, a team arena-based sci-fi shooter set in a gravity-lite world.
“I was at Epic when they started to grow,” he says, talking about the company’s success as a developer and as an engine service provider. “They’re 300 or 400 people now. They ran out of parking.
“I just want to make a cool game. I want to know everyone’s name. I want to know their spouses’ names. Having worked in the slightly larger environments it’s a terrible feeling to walk down a hallway and not know somebody’s name. That’s not for us.”
There is a financial as well as an emotional reasoning for keeping Boss Key at its current size of 40 people.
“When you get to a certain size, you need people to watch people to watch people,” says Bleszinski.”The more management you have, the more second-guessing there is. When people make decisions they say, ‘oh God, will this get me fired?'”
Brussee says that when he was working for EA on one project, there were as many managers as actual creators. “We had like 40 producers and 40 developers. The overhead on these big teams is insane, because they’re trying to do everything at once,” he says. “They want to make a movie experience out of the single-player, plus multiplayer, plus DLC. We’re just focused on multiplayer. We have an IP in the background we can tell stories with. We can make trailers and allude to these events. But we’re just focused on developing that multiplayer game.”
LawBreakers isn’t the only arena shooter coming up in the next year. Overwatch from Blizzard, Battleborn from Gearbox and Bethesda’s Battlecry are all aiming to grab for the fantasy / sci-fi Team Fortress 2 shooter crown.
“Things get interesting when someone uses their jump jets.”
It’s set on Earth in the years following an event that destroyed the moon, thus messing up gravity in some way. On the ground, society is divided into those who obey the law, and those who don’t. Performance enhancing drugs and techs are in wide-use.
This sets the stage for lots of free-jumping combat, a la Quake 2 in its gravity-well LAN shooting heyday. Each character, shown in a recent trailer, has a long list of abilities, weapons and special moves. Teams can choose between any variety of characters from either side.
“Right now, each character has a throwable, a grenade-type item,” says Bleszinski. “They have a superpower. They have a movement ability that’s unique to them. Often it can include a double jump or a dodge. They have unique sizes and hit points. They have two weapons, each with a primary and an alt fire. They can all blindfire and kick.
“Each of them could be a character in their own game. We’re finding that each character is a ton of work. It yields a lot of depth.”
As well as the trailer, in-game action videos are beginning to emerge that show a shooting game with a lot of movement, in all directions.
“It’s about everything working together,” says Bleszinski. “Things get interesting when someone uses their jump jets and grappling hook in a low grav zone. There’s somebody else flying through and reverse blind-firing their rocket launcher and they kick them in the face in midair. This creates moments I haven’t seen a lot in shooters.
“Everything works together to make what I like to call an action gumbo. These moments become animated GIFs and YouTube videos. It’s moments. That’s what it is for me.”
Ultimately, LawBreakers will be a team-based game, and strategy is a desired component. “There are guns you can pick up and guns that are tied to your character,” says Brussee, who was a key developer in the Killzone series of shooters. “We want people to be able to switch characters on the fly. Guess what? The enemy team is now coming en masse in our base. How do we defend against it? I die and respawn as another character to counter them. We want to get that chess-type play going on.
“We want people to understand how to counter the abilities of the other team and learn that language and build that deeper type of strategy.”
Bleszinski says the team are focused on delivering the game, as originally envisioned, with tweaks and iterations coming as a result of long play sessions, rather than middle-management meetings.
“Sometimes you have to say ‘fuck you, this isn’t right for us.’ he says, recalling situations when game developers are pushed into bad decisions by bosses. “Well behaved people rarely make history. Sometimes, I’m sorry, this is what’s right for the game and the company. Fuck it.”
Disclosure: Cliff Bleszinski’s brother, Tyler Bleszinski, is the founder of Talkgamer sister site and Vox Media progenitor SB Nation.