Cliff Bleszinski needs no introduction, especially for people familiar with the games industry of the 90s and 2000s. Although he now produces Broadway musicals, creates comic books, and is involved in the restaurant business, he still has countless stories to tell from his gamedev days.

Cliff Bleszinski on lack of innovation and new IP: "Take a chance, motherf**ers, and trust your gut!"

Bleszinski was a special guest on the latest episode of The House of The Dev podcast co-hosted by Raphael Colantonio, founder of Arkane Studios and WolfEye Studios, and Peter Salnikov, video game composer and founder of indie team Book Burner Games.

Innovating, taking risks, and working smarter, not harder

At the beginning of the conversation, Bleszinski recalled his old phrase that the future of shooters is RPGs. The point is that blending genres is one of the most fascinating things about video game design, not to mention that it may lead to innovation and make familiar game mechanics deeper.

Bleszinski noted that more titles are now trying to use roguelike elements. He believes that the reason is that adding runs and those neverending loops is one of the easiest ways to implement replayability — especially in an era when AAA development is getting “so ridiculously expensive.”

That’s why Bleszinski’s former boss Tim Sweeney used to say that you need to work smarter, not harder. In the case of Epic Games it was about providing developers with ultimate and intuitive tools like the Unreal Editor that could make the creative process easier even for people who know little about coding.

When companies make these tools available to modders and other enthusiasts, it could spawn really innovative projects and even new genres — e.g. Dota, Counter-Strike, PUBG, etc.

It's not always going to be the AAA developers from Activision or EA, or Microsoft that are innovating; it's often the person in his parents' garage in Middle America that takes a game and modifies it and comes up with something that goes viral. And that's just the beauty of it all.

Cliff Bleszinski

former design director at Epic Games

According to Bleszinski, the problem with large companies and people who control the money is that they don’t want to invest in new IP and innovate, only sticking to what already works. “Where do you think the existing IP came from in the first place, you f**ing idiots? Somebody had to take a risk,” he said.

One of the things that can make a game stand out from its more big-budget rivals is the stylized graphics and art style. Bleszinski cited Borderlands as a prime example of this approach: it became a more succesful IP than Rage, althouth the latter was technically a more advanced project.

Colantonio also noted that “constraints always help with creativity somehow.” He recalled how, during the development of Prey, Arkane needed to add more monsters to the game despite running out of time and budget. That’s why the studio decided to create invisible enemies (Poltergeists) so that they didn’t have to work on full animation and other stuff. “If we had the budget, we would never have thought of that,” Colantonio said.

Action doesn’t matter without context

Bleszinski, who has a hand in iconic shooters such as Unreal and Gears of War, believes that even if you are making a brutal, action-packed game, you should give it meaning and additional context. He recalled how Dominic Santiago was looking for Maria, and finding her in an overtortured state, he had to kill his beloved wife.

At the time, Epic Games was trying to fight the narrative that Gears of War was just a “dude bro shooter”, and that’s why Bleszinski loves seeing comments from players that the game made them cry. The Maria scene is not something you would expect in a project like this, but it adds an extra layer and works great on an emotional level.

That’s what Colantonio also tries to do with his games — bring context, meaning, and choices to the action and core mechanics.

One way to achieve this is player agency, which gives players opportunities and interactivity to do certain actions and make decisions that affect the game world. It is not about encouraging them to, say, kill a dog or a child, but choices that each player could make or not. That’s why Bleszinski thinks “player agency really reveals the true nature of a person.”

Later in the episode, Bleszinski also touched on how many action game developers don’t pay enough attention to weapons. Every gun should not only play but feel different, otherwise the shooting mechanic won’t work to the fullest.

In the restaurant industry, especially fast food and snacks, they have this idea called mouthfeel. So the idea of gunfeel in video games. That's one thing that so many developers miss sometimes. How does the weapon sound? What do the tracers look like? If it's an energy weapon, does it sound punchy? Does it feel powerful? Does it look cool in your hands?

Cliff Bleszinski

former design director at Epic Games

Publishers don’t want to create new IP

Doing some consulting these days, Bleszinski is urging developers to seek VC funding, because publishers, in his opinion, don’t know what they want. He believes that most publishers are just chasing after the trend, which is why his former boss, Epic Games VP Mark Rein, called them “smoke chasers.”

A lot of publishers are just like, 'Oh, this game works, so therefore this is going to work.' But no one could have predicted Minecraft, Roblox, Fortnite, or PUBG. As Jason Rubin from Naughty Dog (now at Oculus) told me, past success or failure is not an indication of future success or failure.

Cliff Bleszinski

former design director at Epic Games

Sometimes games with breakthrough ideas that were ahead of their time fail, but Bleszinski has mad respect for developers that at least try to do something new and innovative. So their ideas could lay the foundation for future trends. For example, Gears of War’s cover system was inspired by Kill Switch, whose lead designer Chris Esaki eventually joined Epic Games and helped develop the game.

Big publishers, however, care more about their stock and shareholders than taking risks and cherishing innovation. Bleszinski thinks they should at least incubate smaller projects to test new design ideas and concepts that could be then implemented in bigger games.

Take a f**ing chance, motherf**ers, and trust your gut!” he said, addressing companies that care about nothing but money and numbers.

However, while the industry lacks innovation, many players still stick to endless sequels instead of supporting bold ideas. As Colantonio pointed out, “the same people that complain that there’s nothing new will probably buy whatever number four.”

So listening to what players want is not always a good idea. Bleszinski cited Devolver Digital and A24 as companies in the creative industry that always come up with risky and innovative ideas, greenlighting projects that big corporations would shelve and not chasing trends.


Below you can watch the full episode. There are many more highlights, from Bleszinski’s wife Lauren sharing her amazing Skyrim story to a deep conversation about social media and its negative impact on our lives.

Got a story you'd like to share? Reach us at [email protected]