Interview: Cliff Bleszinski on Project BlueStreak, PC gaming, FPS design, moddability

Evan Lahti

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Earlier this month Cliff Bleszinski revealed his next project: a free-to-play, PC-focused arena shooter called Project BlueStreak created by Boss Key Productions, his new studio. Following a Reddit AMA that answered some surface-level questions about the game, I spoke with Bleszinski about what sort of shooter he's hoping to create.

PC Gamer: What's interesting to you about PC gaming right now?

Cliff Bleszinski: What's not? If you want the highest-end experience, you go to a high-end PC. If you want to go where the majority of the Twitch streams and the YouTubers are, it's mostly on PC. And not to flak the consoles, but for me, making a classic arena shooter that wants to have the maximum global reach possible and explore the free-to-play space, the PC absolutely makes the most sense, first and foremost.

Randy, over at Gearbox, he's doing that interesting looking pseudo-MOBA game Battleborn , and I looked at the platforms planned and it's PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and a lot of developers intelligently do that to mitigate risk. And I get and respect that. But there's a little bit lost when you're not laser-focused on developing a project specifically for one platform initially to kind of maximize what that product is best at. And for PC, it's that classic keyboard-and-mouse aiming ability and the ability for players to maneuver in a nimble fashion on all axes.

PCG: How much of a priority is it to you that BlueStreak be a spectator-friendly experience?

Bleszinski: It all goes back to skill. When I watch the Dota championships—and I'm not a big MOBA guy, I play them enough to respect them—they're deep and they're complex. When I look at your average Call of Duty match it's “twitch to ironsights, pop-pop, randomly come around a corner…” that's fun as a core loop, but for me it doesn't have that first-person shooter dance , that Halo still nails, to be fair, where one person acquires another, starts opening up shots, and the other person has a shot at turning the table if they either find some health or a pickup or get lucky.

As long as a game is skill-based, and it yields those kinds of interesting “plays,” hopefully it'll wind up being watchable. But it comes down making a great, airtight game, and once those variables, those verbs are all in place and cool enough for the skilled players, that's when people want to watch it because it becomes aspirational.

PCG: In terms of achieving that “tightness” you're talking about, do you feel like a lot of it comes down to map design?

Bleszinski: There's a myriad of issues when it comes to map design in the single-player space and the multiplayer space in the shooter arena right now. And, you know, we were partially responsible for it in the Gears days… I always pull up that famous GIF where it's like “straight line, 90-degree turn, hallway, cutscene, hallway, cutscene,” as opposed to, you know, System Shock's map where it's like “Here you go, have fun, you might actually have to map this up.” Or Doom, E1M1 .

And what I think has happened in the single-player space is that it's gotten very linear, not allowing the player to just kind of explore on their own volition and get lost, which is part of the fun of a game. As well as in the multiplayer space, the multiplayer maps have become way too porous. And/or large. So we're at a point where if the map is too large, you walk out for 30 seconds trying to find some action and you get sniped from somebody you never saw. That is not fun. It's only completely fun for one person. And is that skill-based? No, it's not. That person just found the right grassy knoll to sit on and just pick people off. It's fun for him, it's not fun for anyone else who doesn't have a chance of getting back at him, right?

In the other multiplayer space, with the maps being too porous, it's literally… you come around a corner and you check one door, and there's two other doors where somebody comes through that you didn't check and they pop you because they saw you first. And that's very fun from a moment-to-moment kind of… “rat with a feeder pellet” type of gameplay, but it doesn't lend itself to the dance that I alluded to before, or very dramatic comebacks in an e-sports kind of space. So getting to a kind of medium-sized, arena-based shooter with the right balance of tight corners and open spaces is important to me. I think open spaces in a shooter like this… they're where that dance happens and they're also risky spaces to be in. But again, with map attractors like good weapons or power-ups, you have the tradeoff of risk to reward from that location's spaciousness as well as the desirability of the pickup.

PCG: When you talk about that dance, what do you expect your approach to player movement to be?

Bleszinski: When you look at movement in the majority of your average military shooters, you know, it's a contemporary world—and even, I think the people working on [Call of Duty] Advanced Warfare have realized how limiting that can be when you're just a regular soldier without any sort of boosters or speed-ups, jetpacks, things like that. And so what you have is run, prone, dash, maybe a dive, and just a jump. And that's fine for what that is, but there's so much more that can be done in sci-fi that can be done in regards to giving the player whatever movement we think is cool, we can come up with a creative fiction to explain how it's physically happening.

I don't want to spoil what I'm thinking of with this, but I think what I want to do on PC is get back to that sense of verticality that we weren't afraid of with a lot of the older shooters. Because on consoles we're always afraid of the twin sticks and looking up is too confusing if someone's above you—all that kind of stuff that Halo rightfully taught us—but leading with PC first, literally and figuratively with game mechanics.

PCG: What do you consider to be the best FPSs right now, and what do you like about them?

Bleszinski: What I liked about Titanfall was the variety of gameplay that, just when shooting by itself started to get a bit old, your Titan would be ready and they knew how to switch it up a bit. I think introducing a little bit of minion gameplay without Titanfall turning full MOBA was a good step for them. But outside of that, the new Wolfenstein was in my opinion, and I daresay this, one of the best first-person shooter campaigns since Half-Life 2. And I think I'm about halfway through right now, I'm stuck on this bridge section but I refuse to lower the difficulty because I hate having to do that in a game.

But when I saw that game at E3 a couple years ago and then PAX East, I was completely underwhelmed, I was writing it off. I didn't want to be a dick and say something about it on social, but my expectations were really low—I thought it seemed kind of cheesy and just weird. And then when I got hands-on, it was extraordinarily well written, graphically gorgeous, and the maps were extremely well built. And the combat was just fantastic, it was a labor of love.

PCG: What do you like about a five-on-five format? What does that provide for players?

Bleszinski: It provides intimacy. It provides a chance to matter. When you're playing in a 10-on-10 or more and you're in the bottom third you feel really bad. But if you're four out of five, for some reason psychologically that doesn't feel as bad. Five is a good number for people to get online as opposed to corralling 10 people at once, especially if you have some adults with responsibilities on your team who have to put the kids to bed.

Five just seems like the magic number. It allows for maps to be medium-sized, and it doesn't encourage enormous, mech-based, vehicle-based, sniper-based maps. I want to be able to see the enemies that I'm fighting and kind of get a sense of what they're firing before they even shoot at me.

PCG: For me, a smaller scale is opportunity to develop a relationship with your enemy, too. Rivalries.

Bleszinski: Bigger is not necessarily better. When I talk about these combat distances… I wrote up a gun design doc the other day—it's so good to get back to doing this stuff—that outlined a lot of my philosophies about first-person weapon design. Generally speaking you should be able to tell what the gun does the second it comes up, before you even fire it. If it's super stubby, it's probably something more pistol-like or short range.

But the other main thing that we're doing, it's one of those cool little details, we're doing concept art of what the gun looks like pointed at you. I really want to get to a point where, just at a glance, you have that kind of “Oh, he's whipping out this weapon or that weapon, I need to figure out my maneuverability to get out of this situation because it's a fast-firing weapon,” or, “He's going to shoot that, but if I can dodge the first shot, he'll have to reload.“ All of that kind of metagame that happens in the background beyond people just slinging things at each other, you know?

PCG: What will you charge for in BlueStreak? Is the business model integrating with the design of the game at this stage?

Bleszinski: So, I like to use my restaurant metaphor: we've picked out the space, we know what genre of food we're going to be in, we're currently crafting the menu… how much it's going to cost for a side of butter, I don't know yet, right? And that's one of the things with working with Nexon, they're like, “Go build a fantastic game and a community around it, and we'll work on figuring out how to make it hopefully make a lot of money.”

As opposed to everyone else that I talked to about the free-to-play space, they're like, “Oh, you've gotta lead with your monetization strategy.” And I'm like, well, then I'm going to wind up with a game that's about crafting hats or something. I don't want that. When you look at the success of League and Dota, those are fantastic gameplay experiences first but they then kind of worked through figuring out what each one's monetization scheme was in that space. And one monetization scheme does not rule them all. I still see a lot of hatred in the pay-to-win category, and I said initially in the AMA I would like to avoid that as much as possible. There might be pay for slight perks, or pay for variety, but it's anyone's guess right now. And the thing is, with using the community to help develop this game, they can help dictate this a bit.

PCG: Is moddability something you've examined yet?

Bleszinski: Well, it will be. What I love about the modding community is that they keep the developers honest. You look at what happened with Watch Dogs, and the conspiracy theorists continuing to wonder why that stuff was cut out. A lot of the best games, a lot of the best talent comes out of the mod community because the mod community doesn't have all of the bullshit red tape that keeps innovation back sometimes in this industry. You look at… there's a new mod that came out for Portal 2 that's just the paint gun, I love that kind of stuff. Will we embrace that? Hopefully. But again, let's figure out the darn game first.

PCG: Do you feel like publishers in general are more interested in or more hesitant about free-to-play right now?

Bleszinski: My gut is saying that a lot of them… what's a good way of putting it. They find it interesting, but I don't know if they know how to transition or do it properly. And it's like this weird, struggling to maintain the old model of E3 and, oh, you know, shocking press roll-outs and conferences… and that just feels so 2008 to me in regards to “let's get GameStop excited about our pre-orders and Walmart gets the blue hat,” and I'm like, “Really, this still happens now?”

When you look at traditional publishers, and they look at their bottom lines, they have their established, killer franchises which are still doing rather well, but it's like… you've got to be planting the seeds for where things are going to be in three or five years, especially technology. Take some of that Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed and Halo money and have incubator teams that are working on small, free-to-play projects, small new original IPs that could be the next god-knows-what as opposed to just wearing that rubber stamp out and wondering “Where's the next rubber stamp coming from? Oh, wait, I'm sorry, we pissed off those developers and they all left, darn it, we don't have anyone else,” and that's the cycle that continues.

PCG: Will BlueStreak use a skill-based matchmaking system?

Bleszinski: Have not worked it out yet. That's further down the line. And that's a full-time job—I hear rumors that there are a lot of people working on that for Destiny. During Gears 2, our matchmaking was broken when the game launched. It might just be a situation where we let the internet sort it out by itself and people can wind up with really bad or really good players. I mean, we didn't really have any of that in the Unreal Tournament days, it just sort of sorted itself out. So we'll cross that bridge when we come to it and we'll have many, many passionate meetings where we throw many, many Nerf guns at one another.

PCG: What else can you tell us about the game at this point? What feelings do you want players to have?

Bleszinski: I can't really give you much more on that without tipping my hand. One thing I have alluded to is what I've learned from the NFL, and the sense of tribalism and local pride, that is incredibly powerful. That's something I really want to lean on.

PCG: Right, it's tough for multiplayer shooters to have lore, to build a story or context that people are invested in. Titanfall's an interesting attempt at that.

Bleszinski: You have to be careful. If you look at a game like Hawken, they put a little bit of the IP first before they really nailed a lot of what the core of the game was supposed to be about. When you do a multiplayer, sci-fi game, you need to tell as much of the narrative in an ancillary fashion as possible. We have enough of a budget that we'll get some live-action, animated shorts pumped out once a quarter from some really talented LA studios, kind of like the live-action Portal video. The more you're multiplayer, the more you need all that lore and supplemental stuff to flesh out the universe.

That's one thing that Blizzard does… when you click on the characters in their games or you play Hearthstone. Yeah, the voice acting's over the top, but it's so chewy and fun. Blizzard realized this many years ago: if you're clicking on these tiny, five-pixel characters, they have to say really grandiose things and have portraits, and they need to be rendered in spectacular detail in these CG movies, and then they become beloved characters worldwide.

PCG: Thanks for your time. Anything else you want to share?

Bleszinski: It's good to be back on PC.

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