Overwatch’s Summer Games began last week. If you’ve been too busy praying to Jeff Kaplan that you’d be blessed with Mercy’s Winged Victory or McCree’s Lifeguard skin, you might’ve missed the release of LawBreakers. It’s a competitive first-person shooter from Boss Key Productions that’s been in the works for three years, bringing the speed and skill of PC arena shooters to the PlayStation 4. However, its arrival hasn’t produced the bang that you’d expect despite garnering a positive reception, including from our review.
We decided to get in touch with Boss Key Productions and spoke with none other than Cliff Bleszinski. He’s not only the founder and CEO of the studio, but also well known for his work on the Unreal Tournament and Gears of War series. So, here’s the candid conversation that took place.
Push Square: Congratulations on your launch earlier this week. How did you celebrate? Or did you throw a five-minute party and throw everybody back at their desks to work on that PS4 patch?
Cliff Bleszinski: Oh yeah, that’s the funny thing. It’s that we pride ourselves at the studio. My COO, Arjan Brussee, and I, we made Jazz Jackrabbit on the PC over 20 years ago, which was known for having a very smooth frame rate. And, you know, I threw some zings at other first-person shooters that are 30 frames-per-second on console, and then our game came out with a hitch initially. But I have a really hard-working crew here; the programmers stayed for 16 hours and ironed that day one patch to get rid of that, so thankfully it was one of those things where that kind of news came and went.
But the evening of the day before when the game fully went live, I was at the office. I put on a good face like, “What’s up, guys?” but I was joking. I was calm on the surface but paddling fears underneath to stay afloat. Once the game was out there, I felt so much better. Went out with half of the team and had a few beverages to celebrate and had one of the best nights I’ve had in my entire adult life. And then I woke up to a community that...we’re not huge yet, to be honest, but we’re growing, and what we have right now is kindling. We have that, you know, the scene of a movie where the person is in the woods or cast away on an island and starting a little fire with a spark. What we have is this solid foundation of fans that love what we’ve done, and we’re going to continue to blow on it and get the flames going and eventually build it up to a bonfire and anything beyond. Every journey starts with a single step, and that little spark, and what we have is an impassioned fan base that believes in what we’re doing.
We think you’ve got a solid game on your hands. It’s understandable that there would be a really dedicated fan base, so we think it’d only grow from here on out.
The catch-22 that people are saying that I was talking about on my Twitter feed is that the Internet loves to pattern match. It makes everybody feel intelligent. “This looks like this, that, or the other, or blah blah blah.” The comparison that we get is Overwatch. Just the art style alone? We look nothing like it, but I’ll just put that over here to the side. And, you know, the Internet trying to feel smart saying we’re an Overwatch clone, but everyone’s talking about what a learning curve we have and I’m like, “Well, if we were a clone, wouldn’t we have the dude who builds the turret and the sniper and the person with the healing beam?” We don’t have any of that. We have our own variation on everything, so we actually do have a learning curve.
It’s one of those things where we’re leaning on our publisher to support the game in regards to marketing and just get people to try it. It’s $29.99. Basically an impulse buy at this point. Give it a go and have fun! You know, it’s funny because when the game finally went live I caught myself up till two in the morning with my wife at a party just playing. It’s a pretty good sign that if you’re still playing your own damn game three years in, you have something pretty special.
You know, we went out of our way to not mention Overwatch, but you already did it for us.
It’s fine, man. Blizzard did a fantastic job with everything in that game and it’s got a lot going for it. We want to be the slightly grittier version of a game like that.
You came out of retirement to make LawBreakers. The call of game development never ends. Where did that come from? And besides your multiplayer shooter, we’re sure there were different ideas on the table before you started work on it. Were there? If so, are there some loose concepts you’re planning on pursuing once things settle down with LawBreakers?
First thing is retirement. Basically, Tencent – a Chinese company – bought out most of my shares in Epic Games. And I was like, “Ok, that’s great. I have a bunch of money now.” I was freshly remarried and immensely happy. And I was thinking about how creatively frustrated and burnt out I was at the time and I was just going to...stop. Take some time for myself and hang out with my wonderful wife and dogs and do whatever. But I found myself just, as I joke, drinking crap beers and getting fat by the pool. And I’m like, “Yeah, I miss game development. I miss game developers.” It’s frustrating as an experience but can be so rewarding as a lot of endeavors are in life. I joke that I started the studio so I’d have a lot of people to geek out with over Game of Thrones with on Monday mornings, which is still, to some extent, very much true.
You know, one of the books I was reading was Leviathan Wakes, which wound up being turned into the TV Show The Expanse, and they were kinda going on and on about what would happen if you were to fire a weapon in micro gravity, and I couldn’t get that idea out of my head. I kept thinking about the current generation of gamers that didn’t remember Unreal Tournament and Quake’s low gravity maps and what would happen if you were to not just pack that onto a game, but build a game around that. And then, you know, the gameplay programmers and designers – we’re big fans of MOBAs – realized we couldn’t just do a simple arena shooter type of game; it wouldn’t have a lot of depth. The characters needed their own movement abilities, weapons, abilities in general. And that was where things kinda started gestating out from.
As far as other game ideas, I have three sides of my brain where I think about things from the CEO/legal standpoint, production standpoint, and then, of course, the ultimate is the creative standpoint. Back in the day, I used to only think about things creatively, and then when I started working with Rod Fergussen on the Gears of War franchise, I started thinking in regards to production. Now, being the primary owner of [Boss Key Productions] and understanding the way a lot of things work legally, that’s where that CEO/legal angle comes from. LawBreakers, for me, is the carefully calculated result of all that. You look at what the game is, its positioning, the release date, and the price point, and it’s one of those things, you know, it all makes sense.
I’ve joked before how I’ve always wanted to make a game about a lost dog where the family’s at the Grand Canyon and leaves him behind and the dog has to find his way back to Jersey. [Along the way], he encounters all the other different packs of dogs and there has to be all of these challenges and there’s a whole bunch of mechanics I could go on with. But would that make money to keep the lights on? I don’t know. That’s not really a gamble I want to take. You look at a game like LawBreakers with our really reasonable price point and the fact that cosmetics in our first-person shooter are pretty compelling. We looked at the numbers behind the scenes and people are plenty happy to plop down a little bit of money to get the Stash Drops to have that shot at the cool character or weapon skin or weapon sticker. From that angle, keeping the lights on...keeping my 65 employees fed is also a factor in regards to running a business, so I can’t just lead completely with my creative brand these days.
We love how passionate about and deeply connected you are with your team. It being smaller seems key so you can interact and form relationships with everyone and have a more conducive work environment to get stuff done. What would you say separates Boss Key Productions from other studios because of this? What lessons learned did you learn from your time at Epic Games?
I always say that I’m the creative lead of the company, but also the CEO. But to be fair, Arjan handles 90 percent of the crap that I don’t have the bandwidth or strength to deal with. I like to say that this job would be so much easier if I was a sociopath because whenever somebody leaves the company – and we haven’t had a lot of turnover, but one or two a year in the three years we’ve been in operation. But you know, I get to know everybody fairly well here, and whenever I have to stand in front of the company and let someone depart, I get a little...verklempt, for lack of a better term because I care.
Some say it’s a weakness, some say it’s a strength, depends on who you talk to, but I know everybody’s name at the company. I know almost all their spouses’ names. We’re dog friendly, and it’s such an amazing, small thing because the day was coming out and everyone was stressed, the elevator door opens and [Office Manager Sarah Asby’s] dog, West, is the sweetest, big, old brown mutt. She comes up like, “Hello, I love you.” There’s a reason they bring therapy pets to hospitals, right? And it’s those kind of little things: to know all the dogs. I’m the kind of CEO that will get his s*** done, but you come around the corner and you’ll find me on the ground wrestling with one of these dogs.
The space we have is great, like Sam and Max: Detective Agency vibe. It’s cozy, but also somewhat modern with the furniture. Everybody knows everybody and, any given day, people are happy to wear the game or company logos on their shirt. You know, they all f*** with each other, play pranks, and everything. I think we have a good environment with the studio being 65 [people] – yes, we are first and foremost a business, but we also function as and feel like a family.
Why did your team decide to go with the PlayStation 4 over other platforms? What was the overall process like of bringing LawBreakers to Sony’s console? Any particular hitches or surprises along the way like with adapting the controls to a, well, controller?
For us, it was strictly a business decision to go with the PS4 because of the install base. Microsoft...and I know the focus here is Sony, but that’s the other elephant in the room. They’re quickly fixing mistakes from the Xbox One’s launch and getting better and ramping up. We may be on Xbox one day, but for now, having a team of only 65 people, we had to pick one platform. Doesn’t mean we won’t necessarily be on other platforms eventually.
The challenges of putting it on PS4 was making sure the frame rate was a consistent 60, going back to the top of the interview and squashing that minor hitching. And it’s one thing that your average gamer may not be necessarily hardcore and may not see the frame rate difference or understand it, but it just feels better. It goes back to the argument of wanting 24 frames a second because it’s cinematic. It’s like, f*** off. You can have that in your cutscenes, but give me as high of a frame rate as I can get with 4K on PS4 Pro.
The team worked really hard on it. It was weird to sit here and be tuning friction and adhesion and aim assistance and two-zone stick controls with [Senior Gameplay Programmer] Matt Fischman because I helped tune all that on the original Gears of War 10 years ago. Time is a flat circle! So, we wanted to have a little bit of aim assistance on console but not too much because there’s a point where the game plays itself for you which, I joke, the game is masturbating.
Will players be able to further customize controls in the future on PS4? We feel like the sensitivity could go even higher, and I’d like to remap Blindfire to L2. LawBreakers also puts you right into the action without any in-game tutorials, which surprised players like myself considering how it’s a bit difficult to adjust to. Will you be implementing any tutorials in the future for new players? A training mode, perhaps?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but there should be a mode where you can kinda jump around and hop in any level and shoot for some basic tutorials. [We doubled-checked. You can create custom games and mess around, but they’re not tutorials.] There is a longer-term, scripted one being worked on by [Junior Gameplay Programmer] Steve, and that is a concern of course: On-boarding, [which is] throwing people in the mix and telling them to swim. You might wind up drowning.
And I just made a note to myself about – one of the things I’d liked to see is the ability to not only remap controls, but also potentially key-bindings for each role depending on what you want because the problem with our game is that the run button is not the same thing for characters. Sometimes it’s a dodge, run, this, that, or the other or blink. You might not necessarily want them all on the same button. Blindfire on the D-Pad is okay. We experimented with it on stick click, and I found myself accidentally moving too much and getting killed as a result, but it’s one of those where we can rely on the community to find a better solution than we could every dream of.
You know, Blindfire in this game is rather important and it’s one of those things people don’t really think about. If you need to shoot behind, why not just turn around? When you have the objective and you’re trying to get across the map quickly, it’s a great way to propel yourself, as well as for the larger, “tankier” characters to gain the speed of the smaller ones.
Back in early 2016, your team decided to re-approach the style of characters and environments to be more mature. If you watch the cinematic reveal trailer detailing the premise, it seemed pretty dark then, but when you played the game, it came off as far more cartoonish and playfully obnoxious. We still feel a fair amount of it remains with some goofy one-liners, but we couldn’t help but feel some of that irreverence conflicts a bit with the seriousness you’re trying to aim for. But some of it doesn’t, like Justin Roiland’s lines for Blitzball. Tone is such a fickle thing that’s exceptionally hard to balance and get right. What brought about that tonal change in 2016? How would you personally describe the game’s vibe?
Tone, in one way, it [can be] too kiddy, and in one way, it’s trying too hard. It’s one of those things I was going back and forth on with the audio department and the fact that characters occasionally curse, and we thought it was a little bit too much. Like, “Wow, you’re such an edge lord,” right? We didn’t want to go too far with that. The fact of the matter is that we do have blood and gibbing to separate us from the other character-based shooters and, again, that’s actually good for feedback in a videogame in general. When you shoot somebody and you see blood on the wall, you know that you made contact, which is good.
There’s also finding the right amount of irreverence and we had this nice point where we’re kinda halfway between Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, and I’m pretty comfortable with that spot. Initially we started out with the Battery mode, right? Okay, we’re charging our base, fine. Who the f*** cares? It’s just a fun game type. And Uplink is about uploading and hacking data from the enemy team, I get it. And then Blitzball came about and I was like, “Stop.” And I asked myself, “What would Valve do?” Can we make the ball actually have some personality to make myself want to shepherd that damn thing? Okay, you can put a face on the ball. Can we have the face be digital? Can we put the face in the HUD now? [...] We kept going and going and then I finally called Justin and said, “Dude, hey, do me a solid. I know you’re swamped with season 3 [of Rick and Morty], but can you slip this in here? And he did because he’s a good guy and friend. He got paid of course, but this is the kind of stuff that winds up becoming iconic that wound up being what the lore trailer was about.
So tone is a hard thing. It’s funny because every videogame I’ve worked on, reviewers always made fun of the tone and the dialogue, but they’ve always quoted it for years later. When I was working on the Gears franchise, it was like, “Oh, look at you and your bro shooter,” and then you go to YouTube and look up any cinematic of any character dying and every comment is people talking about how it moved them to tears. You know, it’s the same thing. [...] The criticism I’m happy to take. People loved to rip on Bulletstorm when it came out, but ask anybody now and they’ll remember it as classic.
We love how the gravity anomalies add so much verticality and momentum to gameplay. I think this is where LawBreakers shines most as a unique arena shooter. However, I think it’d be awesome if you went even further with the concept. Perhaps have the gravity become harmful or change in intensity at random points during matches to heighten tension and change map flow. Perhaps have smaller instances of these anomalies spread across maps for particular shortcuts or interesting traffic areas where there’s great risk. Have you toyed with ideas like these? What can players expect in the future for even more gravity-defying combat?
We toyed with a fair amount. We had completely inverted gravity zones, so instead of falling down to your death you fell upwards. But we found with the learning curve that it made the game even harder to get into, so how much of that in the levels remains to be seen. We still have a couple tricks up our sleeves. We talked about the pillar of the game being gravity-defying combat, and the team ultimately decided that it was going to be a combination of one or two unique anomalies in a level, but also on the player’s abilities to not touch the ground. One of the problems we had about a year ago playing the game is that, traditionally in first-person shooters, one of the ways you know where someone is coming from is to hear their footsteps, and we’re like, “How come I don’t hear any footsteps?” And we’re like, “Oh my god, you’re seldom just walking on the ground between the grappling hooks, jumpjets, dodges, and wall jumps and everything.” This is pretty much The Floor Is Lava: The Game.
We’re not going to go completely insane and start flipping a level anytime soon because the pacing and clarity of what’s going on is already confusing for some.
What are some plans you have for post-launch content? Is your team considering seasonal modes, limited modes and skins, and the like? Might you be planning some surprise content and approaches players aren’t expecting like completely new types of cosmetics?
All of it.
All of it?
Well, I mean, I’m not confirming it right now, but I will tell you that we’ve shipped with nine initial classes. I’ve already played the tenth. That character’s in full production right now. Every Friday, the company gets together and I try to say a few inspiring words and a little bit of housekeeping for everybody. Production does a bit of housekeeping, but Tramell, the Art Director, shows up with what the art team’s been up to, and I’m already seeing skins for the various characters that have themes that people will be seeing in the coming months. You know how it is. We’re in a world where you launch a game or service, and with our price point and Stash Drops, we’re hoping people will keep coming back.
Not only that, but we’re also going to continue to telegraph people and be like, “Look, this is where the real work begins.” You talked about what I did after launch day and I’m like, “Yeah, I came to work and we’re working on what’s next." You can’t just put a game out there and abandon it anymore. That’s the reality of making a game in 2017, especially when you look at the sheer amount of awesome competition coming out in a month or so.
What are some videogames that have inspired you and your studio this year? What are you looking forward to in the near future and why?
Destiny, honestly, I played it for a couple weeks and dug it, but I didn’t wind up sticking with it. Of course, I’m going to play Destiny 2. I’m friends with the people who made Tacoma; looking forward to firing that up. My biggest problem is that I’m a summer guy and I play most of my games when the weather’s bad, so unless it’s a rainy weekend or it’s cold out, I usually like reading comic books or just relaxing with my wife and my dogs and my pool. I’m saving up my library for when it gets really crappy because I get bummed in winter and I need my sunshine.
I’m looking forward to Call of Duty going back to World War II, and I’ve been saying for years that they should’ve done that. Now that it’s the next generation, it should be a pretty exciting experience for them.
Any closing comments?
I started off creating a core PC first-person shooter, and then when we announced it on PlayStation 4, – apart from the Xbox fanboys getting upset...stay patient, Xbox guys – it’s one of those things where we found a very much hungry and dedicated PlayStation audience for a game like this, and it’s amazing how if you build it, they will come, and PlayStation gamers have shown up and we really appreciate the support.
We’d like to thank Cliff Bleszinski for taking the time to speak with us. What do you make of LawBreakers? Are you interested in its gravity-based action? What would you like to see from the game in the future? Propel down to the comments section below to let us know.