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The Engadget Interview: Cliff Bleszinski on next-gen gaming, Oculus Rift and the always-on console

The Engadget Interview: Cliff Bleszinski on next-gen gaming, Oculus Rift and the always-on console
Billy Steele
Billy Steele|May 9, 2013 12:30 PM

What's life been like for the outspoken Gears of War designer and former design director of Epic Games since his departure last fall? Well, a lot of taking it easy. Cliff Bleszinski (or CliffyB to many) may not be manning the design reins of an upcoming game, but he's still quite active -- especially in chatting up the blooming dev community around Raleigh, N.C. We caught up with Cliff after his keynote at the recent East Coast Games Conference to talk next-gen, annualized game franchises and anything else we could think of. Join us on the other side of the break for the full discussion and some unabashed love for the Tarheel State.

DNP The Engadget Interview Cliff Bleszinski on nextgen gaming, Oculus Rift and the alwayson consoleWith the Gears of War franchise being such an integral part of the current generation of gaming and gaming consoles, based on how influential it was to that generation, what are your thoughts on the immediate future of gaming in the next six months to a year?

Well it's kind of like what I was talking about in my talk. It's kind of all over the board. Right? And I'm at the point where there's not a lot of console games coming up that I'm really looking forward to now. It's weird. So it's like I'll just go back to Candy Crush Saga right now?

I mean, once you announce next-generation consoles, that's pretty much [the start of] the death toll for people playing whatever generation is out there right now -- because of a lot of us core gamers will not buy what's out there right now because they're saving their dollars for what's coming next. But even then, releasing a next-generation console into the upcoming market is still a decent risk because there are, like I said, more platforms than ever. I play games on my iPad. I play games on my PC. Am I going to want another dedicated box? I'll play the hell out of it, but will it catch fire?

"This generation's ending with a whimper, not a bang it feels like."

I don't know if we'll ever see the same level of success that the PlayStation 2 saw, which is one of the number-one-selling consoles of all time. So it's a very risky endeavor right now. I'll still check it out and play it, but right now we're seeing a lot of... This generation's ending with a whimper, not a bang, it feels like.

A lot of the major franchises have sort of locked themselves in to a 12-month cycle.

I know, right?

I love playing Assassin's Creed, but you get Assassin's Creed every...

I can't keep track of them. No offense to Ubisoft.

The last one just came out, and a couple months later, they're already announcing the next one.

That was the thing that got me. Holy crap, we're in a world where the last Assassin's Creed just came out, and they're already running TV ads for the next one. Holy $#!*. I don't want to know how many dev teams they have working on that franchise right now. It's amazing.

Games like Call of Duty are the same way. If they're going to make money that year, they pretty much have to come out with a new title in time for the holidays.

And you know, it's a free market. If people buy it, they buy it. If those are good, solid follow-ups, more power to them. If they're just phoning it in, you can fool the gamers once, maybe twice. Eventually it's just going to go the way that Tomb Raider did the first round, where one was a phenomenon, Tomb Raider 2 was not bad. Then they just kept rubber-stamping it, and it got old for gamers.

The Engadget Interview Cliff Bleszinski on nextgen gaming, Oculus Rift and the alwayson console

With that said, not just in terms of content per se, but what do you feel the next generation in gaming is going to offer other than just flashier graphics? That's pretty much a given.

I think those who get it with the next generation will get the idea of connectivity and sharing and allowing the user to build the content. There was a great article in Wired a while back where they talked about the next generation of consoles, and could Minecraft happen on your console? I have a very good relationship with Microsoft, but [there are] a lot of TCRs you'd have to go through, all the stuff you'd have to go through to get your game on Xbox Live Arcade, or even issue updates on; it was a nightmare.

They just announced that they're doing some sort of presser with some of their future plans. I'm curious to hear some of them because it feels like Sony's embraced a lot of that vibe thus far, as far as indie games go and whatnot. I feel like Sony's really embraced that vibe, and [the] homebrewed and homegrown movement that's really taken over, and what a cool thing that somebody in his garage made as a mod that is going to go viral tomorrow. Somebody I think posted a video at the top of Reddit of somebody [doing] a 50-limo race in Just Cause 2 and it was hilarious. Bugs notwithstanding, there's a direct correlation between how great your game is and how many viral videos it can make. Honestly, whoever embraces that for this next generation of games on console is going to win.

You said in your talk, too, that people want to create content and not just consume content. The share button that's going to be on the PlayStation controller, and the ability to record, easily record segments of your game...

Think about how hard it is right now to livestream your game.

Yeah, you have to have a separate box and plug everything in.

Yeah, my wife here's built her own computer and sees plenty of that stuff, and getting it properly set up with good resolution with a reliable stream on Twitch or Ustream is a gong show. It's an absolute mess, and so that's the thing. Look at Kinect -- I have a camera right there. Could I livestream me playing this guy or even buffer it and record it for later where you could have it on your console where I could play a game on my console and have my face in the bottom-right reacting to whatever cool moment's happened? And that's more of a software issue than a hardware issue. Bandwidth is an issue too, though.

"I feel like Sony's really embraced that vibe, and [the] homebrewed and homegrown movement that's really taken over, and what a cool thing that somebody in his garage made as a mod that is going to go viral tomorrow."

What do you think about the climate for mobile gaming on like non-iOS platforms? Because iOS sort of blew up, and then there's Android and Windows Phone.

Quite frankly, every developer that I've spoken with or worked with has always had their concern about piracy on Android.

Because it's so open?

Yeah. And that's an issue. The other thing about next-generation consoles and whatever phone wins is it's not just about having the better hardware; it's also about what your ecosystem is. I know I can get great songs on iTunes. I know I can get great apps on the App Store. I have an Android phone, and the store in there is not bad, but I can't even find Vine yet for my Droid. Like, is it out there? I don't know. I've searched for it. I don't think it has even been released. I want to be part of this little mini-phenomenon.

There's an app that you can make animated GIFs with, but no Vine-like app.

Yeah, I know that one. So it's like, "Get with the times." And so I find a good balance in my personal life -- the fact that I enjoy my iPad for the iOS ecosystem, and then I use my Android phone for everything else. But it's all about the ecosystem, and you know if you have a secure platform where developers can make money and potentially users can create content and make money doing that.

And as far as Windows Phone goes...

From what I hear, it's an amazing phone, but I often joke, "Only Microsoft employees own them."

"Quite frankly every developer that I've spoken with or worked with has always had their concern about piracy on Android."
This sort of piggybacks off that: two Android-based, console-esque gadgets (OUYA and the GameStick) have garnered a lot of attention lately.

Well, I think they'll be garnering a lot of attention due to their open nature. Right? And that's what I was talking about earlier with the next generation of consoles that are embracing that. It's crowdsourcing. It's letting the good stuff rise and the bad stuff go to the bottom, and we're in a world where we're all so connected that if somebody makes a great game on the OUYA, we'll all know about it because it'll go viral, right?

In terms of all of those new platforms -- things like the Oculus Rift, Steam Boxes, all of those avenues that are now available for developers -- if you had to choose, which of those were the most appealing from a developmental standpoint?

Full disclosure that I am an investor in the Oculus Rift. So I have an agenda, but I wouldn't have put my money in it if I didn't believe in it. The fact of the matter is they're porting Team Fortress, they're porting Skyrim and they're finding it kind of works. But the best experiences for that product will be made for it. It's the one that excites me the most because I believe in the vision of VR. I think it could be really amazing once you start getting haptic feedback gloves and things like that. I don't know about the treadmill stuff -- it's touch and go with that. But I think it's a very exciting thing.

All you have to do is see that video of the 90-year-old grandmother go viral, and that's magic. You know, when grandma first swung the Wii controller. You know, when your mom first used Dance Central. That's when the technology is actively improving the experience, and it's light. People are [saying], "Oh, it looks heavy." No, it's light as... it's like wearing ski goggles on your head. And I really think it's going to be big, and that's the kind of experience that I think excites me the most as far as making some sort of experience that sort of leverages virtual reality, and not just porting a Gears [of War] or a Halo. Because Halo was designed for the pacing of using an Xbox controller, not a mouse and a keyboard. And just like that game, somebody needs to design games that have [a] different type of pacing for that headset. Because your head is turning and your body is turning, right?

"I have a lot of respect for Sony and Microsoft, but it's weird that I see a lot more buzz for the Rift than anything else right now. That's a sign of something."

Do you see any potential for that to be more of a widespread technology that's included with things like consoles? Maybe instead of a Kinect, you get a VR headset?

Who knows if one of the big [companies like] Sony or Microsoft is talking about purchasing it? I have no idea. I'm not involved in the business side. I let Brendan [Iribe, CEO of Oculus] handle that. That's one possible outcome for it, but it could also just be a great PC peripheral. And I'd be OK with that too. If Sony or Microsoft were smart, they'd recognize that this is... I have a lot of respect for Sony and Microsoft, but it's weird that I see a lot more buzz for the Rift than anything else right now. That's a sign of something.

It also speaks to where folks are right now. People are fascinated with crowdsourcing and being a part of making these things.

Here's the thing about crowdsourcing and Kickstarter, and there was all this [hoopla]. I've mentioned this before, but I enjoy reiterating because it's important to me. There was this controversial thing where there was a woman who was allegedly a millionaire or multi-millionaire, and she wanted to kick-start some money for her nine-year-old daughter for her to do her own video game and things like that. And the internet of course attacks her, and there was probably some weird misogynistic, you know, purpose behind it. "How dare she ask for crowdfunding money? She's already a millionaire." And yet at the same time, nobody gets mad at Richard Garriott when he asked for a million dollars to do an Ultima-style game when he's the guy who spent $30 million to go to space. And I love Richard, and I think he's brilliant and he's one of my development heroes, but at the same time, people don't recognize Kickstarter is only one-third about the money.

It's also about the community; you get it instantly built and the PR marketing you get. You have "boom." People invested their money, and now they care. They're reading your updates. We bought that cool LED light bulb that you could switch the colors from your iOS device. We were following the updates with bated breath. And you're invested and it's really a cool thing. And yeah, there are plenty of Kickstarters that don't make it, but you know crowdfunding and crowdsourcing... it's really none of us are as dumb or smart as all of us.

Recently there was a bit of a debate about the next generation of consoles being always on and cloud-streaming and so on. Your comment was that you felt that the always-on console is probably closer than we expect, and it's something that's probably going to happen sooner rather than later. Do you think gamers really care about technology like that, or do they just care that it works?

If SimCity and Diablo III launched without any errors, I guarantee you we would see a drastically different scene. We wouldn't have seen the uproar that we did, and once those games start working fine, nobody seems to mind. Are there people who don't have broadband? Absolutely. And that sucks. Is it bull$#!* that people don't have a great connection in many parts of the world like in the United States? Absolutely. Is that going to stay the same? I really frickin' hope not. You hear about Google Fiber and some crazy broadband WiFi being rolled out in various cities. It's coming.

I talk about Microsoft and Xbox, and they bet on the Xbox One. If you want to be on Xbox Live, you have to have broadband, and they said, "For all those dial-up people, forget it. It's not going to happen." And we're in a world where American Airlines has WiFi on all their flights now. It's just... the internet is an amazing thing, and everybody wants it everywhere -- if for anything just for e-commerce so I can just one-click something on Amazon on my damn phone. So who knows what that always-online console will be. Maybe it'll be broadband, but then there's a backup for 3G connection or 4G, right? There are always options for this sort of thing, and maybe it's not always on. Maybe it checks in once in a while. I don't know what the answer is there, and if I did, I'd potentially violate several NDAs throughout various companies. But at the end of the day, if the ecosystem is great and the service just works, people won't mind.

"...you're on the road with your phone, and you can polish your sword in some sort of mini-game so when you get back online it's that much sharper. That's the way to keep the game always with you, and whoever figures that out will win."

Right, if it's reliable. I think that's one of the big things people are getting bent out of shape over is "always online" or "always connected" doesn't mean that you're pulling down like streaming wide-open all the time.

That's what they assume, that you're streaming 1080p video. It's like, "No. This is just an encryption check to make sure that you're not stealing content that people work really hard on." And it's one of those things you could potentially do with a 3G connection -- just to check in. They don't understand. They think it's black and white with that. And also, if you're able to stream games, there are ways of developing a game that the first part you're playing is the first hour, with maybe similar textures that you don't notice that they're procedural or something like that, while the rest of the game backloads, or you can tell it to download before you go to bed or auto updates -- all sorts of crazy options that are available in this space in order to ease the pain.

Another thing that Microsoft trotted out at E3 last year with SmartGlass was the second screen. Right now, it's really just used to consume content. What about a place for something like that in gaming? Maybe you're playing on your console, you have a tablet with SmartGlass, where you're working through Halo or whatever, and you have your maps and whatnot.

Yeah. We had talked about this at Epic a while back, and I think they're doing something like that on Watch Dogs. One of my visions for that type of thing was the classic I'm playing some sort of game and I get to a door that's locked, and my wife is on her iPad, and "Hey Hun, would you load up that little app and hack this door for me?" She stops what she's doing, goes into some game that's some sort of, you know, some version of a puzzle game, some fun little puzzle. She gets points. I get points. Doors unlock. Boom. Or she goes to an overhead map and changes the street like so the cars crash for me, right?

So it's co-op and it's second screen, sort of?

Exactly, and then you're on the road with your phone, and you can polish your sword in some sort of mini-game so when you get back online it's that much sharper. That's the way to keep the game always with you, and whoever figures that out will win. And there's another variant of that that I'm spacing on right now and I can't remember.

Live-tweeting something is fun to do, right? I haven't had a chance to use SmartGlass yet, to be fair, but one thing I know is, a show like [The] Walking Dead is fun to tweet about it when it's on. You kind of feel like you're participating in this big conversation, and you're watching not only with your spouse, but also with thousands of people if you have a big social following. The problem with the second-screen experience with a [show] like Game of Thrones, is the world is so deep, there are so many things that you can't do much alongside of it. I don't need to be reading Daenerys' history while Tyrion Lannister's [doing a] monologue because I want to catch every delicious bit of dialogue that's been written for him.

You have notoriously loved Nintendo, and the classic Nintendo titles, but you've never developed anything for Nintendo.

They never called. Plain and simple.

Lastly, in your talk, you spoke about and we chatted a little bit about advocating for the Raleigh area and the East Coast gaming scene. Is that what you're focused on now in the interim?

I'm gestating a few ideas. I also have a couple local investments I'm working on. I'm enjoying the time off right now, to be honest. It's kind of nice to go to bed whenever you want, get up whenever you want. But sooner or later I want to come back, and I have some ideas for some things I want to do, and I want them to be here. I mean, there are direct flights to LA now, you know? Like I said, bet on an emerging market, and I'd wager that I could attract a pretty good talent pool -- hopefully from just being visible in the business. Hopefully I didn't scare everybody away for the various things I've said. But hopefully [I'll] build up a team and do something cool again, but you know, not for a little while. I want to enjoy the summer first.

Thank you.

Thanks, man.

[Image credits: Epic Games]

The Engadget Interview: Cliff Bleszinski on next-gen gaming, Oculus Rift and the always-on console