The road to Bluestreak: Cliff Bleszinski on his mysterious new project

The legendary game designer talks about his last year, how to capture great moments in games and the importance of diversity.

"I thought I didn't need press anymore. It turns out that's not actually true."

Cliff Bleszinski is one of the most recognizable names in game development, an industry veteran known for making strong statements and standing behind them. But as he makes the admission above, he seems almost meek.

Maybe it's the setting of the interview — an E3 media lounge packed full of the very journalists he had decided to ignore, where we've squirreled away a couple of seats for a quick chat. Or maybe it's the context of Bleszinski's strange position in the game industry right now.

After making a name for himself as a game designer with a nearly 20 year career at Epic Games, Bleszinski departed the popular shooter developer in 2012. He took a break from game development and then founded Boss Key Productions last year. Despite the big news, he mostly shied away from interviews.

"I was going to pull a Molyneux."

"After doing thousands of interviews over my career, I decided I was not going to talk to the press," Bleszinski says. "I was going to pull a Molyneux, right?"

Something changed, though. Boss Key Productions announced its first title, Project Bluestreak, and Bleszinski realized that his initial plans needed to be tweaked:

"Although YouTubers and Twitch streamers have taken over, if you're launching a new entertainment property in 2015 and beyond, you need every bullet you can fire — from social media gurus and influencers to journalists to hardcore millions of dollars in marketing that will be spent at some point."

So now, as he begins the slow build toward revealing exactly what Project Bluestreak is, Bleszinski is back to speaking with the press. And his extended silence hasn't dulled his enthusiasm for creating games and telling us all about the process.

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How to build a game worth talking about

The switch in approach to the press is not the only change that Bleszinski and Boss Key Productions have undergone in the short time since its launch.

"There are a bunch of things I assumed when I started the studio nearly a year ago that may or may not have been true," Bleszinski says. "The first thing I wanted to do was be completely transparent with how the game was developed."

In Bleszinski's mind, this transparency would help build a relationship with the eventual playerbase for the game. His plan included releasing art assets to the public the moment they were available. But the reaction was not what he hoped.

"I realized that until people get a reveal of what the verbs are of a game, the universe, the name and the sense of it, they're really not going to give a shit," he says. "The other problem with sharing information too soon is — when I first pitched the game, it was four pillars. I'm not going to tell you them right now, but it was A, B, C and D. Then it turns out that as we've iterated in the game, D has kind of turned into more of a fiction thing and not a game mechanic thing. If we told people that they'd get that as a game mechanic, they'd feel like it was something that was promised. They'd feel betrayed by that change."

This desire to avoid making would-be fans feel betrayed explains why Bleszinski is so hesitant to talk about Project Bluestreak in anything other than broad details. There are some promises he's ready to make, though. For example, he hasn't been shy that Bluestreak is a first-person game, a perspective he's excited to get back to after years of working on the third-person Gears of War franchise.

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Though Gears of War and Project Bluestreak are both shooters, Bleszinski sees first-person and third-person games standing in stark contrast to each other. In the former, he says, you control "a 60-mile-an-hour turret; in the latter, "a fancy puppet." His preference is to be a turret.

"Third-person is great for an immersive, adventurous single-player game like an Uncharted, where Nathan Drake is stumbling around stabbed in the leg and really struggling to reach the next ledge," Bleszinski says. "It's perfect for that. But when you're making a core, multiplayer shooter, if I die because I'm waiting for an animation to finish, I'm mad at the animators and the designers. I'm not mad at myself."

Bleszinski believes that a great first-person shooter cannot let animation get in the way — that it has to focus on "looking down the barrel and flowing through the world." This is especially true, in his mind, for competitive multiplayer-focused shooters, which is the direction he's focusing Project Bluestreak.

That competitive focus also means that Bleszinski is strongly considering the new game's potential in the realm of eSports, though it's not his most immediate concern.

"Everybody who's in the know knew that eSports would be huge 10-plus years ago," he says. "But you can't just do that. You have to make an airtight game with an airtight community, and then maybe you can make the leap."

Rather than attempting to be an eSports smash success right out of the gate, Bleszinski and crew are considering "hooks you can put in your game to make it eSports-friendly" without committing to anything. "I want it; everybody wants it," he says. But Boss Key Productions wants to keep its energy devoted to creating a strong core game first and foremost.

Whether eSports awaits in Project Bluestreak's future or not, Bleszinski is clear about two of the game's goals: to create memorable moments and to allow players to easily capture those moments.

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"The way that I'm designing and building the game with my team is making sure that cool moves can be pulled off," he says. "There's one thing in the game that I've only pulled off twice in the year that we've been making it. But I guarantee there are going to be people who get really good at that stuff, and there's going to be YouTube highlight reels."

Bleszinski points to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a current Boss Key office favorite. He notes how Global Offensive is full of incredible, once-in-a-lifetime moments. Those keep players talking (and sharing) long after matches have ended.

"They always pop up as animated GIFs on r/gaming or GAF," Bleszinski says. "I want to have a built-in animated GIF maker for the game. Record the last X seconds of gameplay and dump it out. Your game's only as good as how many of those moments you get."

An expanding audience

In addition to building a game, Bleszinski has also been building a brand new studio. Boss Key Productions is based out of an office in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. Over the last year, it has expanded to 36 full-time employees and four interns. What began by taking up a fraction of the building's third floor has now enveloped the fourth floor as well.

As the studio has expanded, Bleszinski has wrestled with one of the most talked about topics in gaming right now: diversity, both in game design and hiring practices.

"It's one of those things where diversity, even at the studio level, it just makes for a more interesting environment," Bleszinski says. "Apart from that making sense just in general, financially it makes sense."

This financial point of view is key to Bleszinski's theory on diversity, which is that it's not just a morally good thing but a financially good thing as well. He has actively sought more people of color and more women to join his team, and he believes that will lead to a better product with a wider appeal.

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"As a capitalist, even if I didn't care about diversity — which I do — I want everybody's money, of all walks of life," Bleszinski says. "I want an Asian person to see a character who they feel like they can rally behind. And then maybe they want to spend money on that too."

Bleszinski offers some examples of how diversity on his staff has helped in the game. He mentions Tramell Isaac, Boss Key's African American art director, who has helped him design black characters in the game. Then he switches subjects to a more recent hire to the art team, Ana Kessel, one of the handful of women to join Boss Key Productions thus far.

"We had one character we were doing that had some interesting leggings go on," Bleszinski says. "The other day, I asked Ana what she thought of that. She said, 'Well, the laciness was kind of weird and oversexualized.' So, yeah, we should probably change that. Just having that perspective is useful."

"As a capitalist, even if I didn't care about diversity — which I do — I want everybody's money."

While diversity is clearly and increasingly important to Bleszinski, he's also careful to couch it as a pragmatic decision, something that doesn't necessarily represent him falling in line with any single perspective.

"There's very passionate people out there right now debating all these different sides," he says. "You've got the term 'social justice warrior' and all those things like that. Listen, nobody is going to force me as a creator; nobody is going to pin me down and tell me what to put in my video game. If I want to make it all-white characters, I'm going to do it. If I want to make it all-black characters, I'm going to do that too. However, when I read all these articles about why it's cool to do this and why diversity is important,  it's like this little voice on my shoulder saying, 'Hey, you know, you might want to pay attention to this.' I treat it as a factor."

Diversity isn't the only issue that Bleszinski views through the lens of future financial success. That was also a major part of his decision to pursue Project Bluestreak rather than a smaller or more personal indie project.

"I've always been public that I want to make a game about a lost dog," says Bleszinski. "There's nothing more powerful than the dog not making it home, and the kid on the porch, and the dog never shows up. Then you finally beat the game, the music swells, and the dog comes over the hill and Niagara Falls for everybody."

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The problem with this pitch, he says, is a matter of saturation.

"That yields one YouTube video," Bleszinski explains."The business side of me is saying I want to make an amazing game and an amazing community. At some point it has to get eyes. At some point it probably has to make money to keep the lights on."

Of course, that doesn't mean Boss Key's development decisions are being driven by money alone. Bleszinski says if he wanted to get rich quick, he'd focus on making "the dumbest game I could think of, just the goofiest thing." He points to Goat Simulator as an example of a silly, small game that blew up because of Twitch, YouTube and Twitter. Bleszinski believes he could follow that formula, if he wanted to.

"But my guts about what I want to make are something a little more serious," he says. "Not like 'war is war, mad world' serious. But it's a little bit more tangible of a universe than something so silly."

Disney vs. Vegas

In addition to dealing with the shift away from a huge triple-A studio, Bleszinski is also tackling another issue that's new to his time as a game developer: creating a workable free-to-play model. While he's not saying much about Project Bluestreak yet, he has revealed that it's a class-based game that will be free to download and rely on microtransactions of some sort to survive.

"We considered having the classes that are free that week, and then it rotates through, kind of like a lot of the hero games do," Bleszinski says, referencing the format made popular by games like League of Legends and Smite. However, the Boss Key team eventually decided this model didn't really make sense with its game.

"My guts about what I want to make are something a little more serious."

"However many heroes we ship with, you'll be able to play as all of them," Bleszinski confirms. "Hopefully you get to know and like different characters, and we'll have ways to monetize with getting an ultimate rare skin for people. That's kind of the initial direction we're looking in."

While this model may get in the way of player choice less than others, it does still affect game design in surprising ways. Bleszinski laughs while recounting conversations he's had with Boss Key's concept artist: "The default character has to look pretty cool ... but not too cool. 'Hey, can you do a version of that that's not quite as crazy? Maybe lose some of those crazy colors and flames?'"

In addition to full player skin and customization options, Bleszinski says Boss Key is looking at offering unique weapon skins and other cosmetic choices. Anything that looks awesome but won't affect the core gameplay could be up for sale.

Earlier this year during a PAX East panel, Bleszinski told attendees that he wants his free-to-play model to "be more Disney, less Vegas." He clarifies what he meant to us:

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"Disney's obviously not cheap. The price is actually pretty ridiculous right now. But forget about the fee, and think about the experience. Maybe it's because Disney is so family-oriented, and Las Vegas is Sin City. Whenever I go to Disney with my family, you know, you're eating out, you're buying the Indiana Jones fedoras. You walk home exhausted and happy about it. Whenever I go home from Vegas, I just feel terrible. It just feels like everything was surgically designed to pry money from me. At Disney, it feels like everything is surgically designed to provide joy first that you have to spend money on. That's kind of the philosophy that I run with."

Bleszinski has of late become invested in the food industry as the co-owner of two restaurants, including a comfort food restaurant in Raleigh. As such, he often finds himself slipping into metaphors related to that field to help explain what he wants to achieve in gaming.

"I'm creating the pub, and you can still go in it without buying anything," he says. "Or even Starbucks — you can go in it and plug in your laptop and get some work done. But sooner or later, you might be a little tired and get a coffee or a scone or a sandwich or something. You need a well-operating venue around it. That's the game's ecosystem and world."

He describes his most recent restaurant as "like Cheers for Raleigh, where everybody knows their name." He wants his game to provide the same level of comfort for players, even if they're just passing through and not planning to spend any money for the evening.

"I'm creating the pub, and you can still go in it without buying anything."

All of this leads back to one challenging issue with discussing Project Bluestreak and whether or not it can successfully pull people into its community or its economic ecosystem. That is: Nobody outside of Boss Key Productions and publisher Nexon knows what Project Bluestreak is yet.

While Bleszinski is clearly enjoying finally starting to open up about the game and the development experience, he's also not ready to do a proper reveal for Project Bluestreak yet. Curious fans of his work won't need to wait much longer though.

"I tweeted that we're going to be ready for a small sort of reveal in the timeframe of August to September," says Bleszinski. "That's what we're currently working toward."

He says many followers have asked whether the reveal will come at a major event like Gamescom or PAX (both taking place in August). Bleszinski will only tell them to "wait and see."

"The way that I want to do it is very low-key," he says. "I don't want to to spend the marketing money on a banner outside of E3. We're not that kind of game."

Bleszinski points to League of Legends, the way that now-massively popular game grew itself slowly over years. This is why he's not rushing with Project Bluestreak. It's why the game will launch in North America, then Europe, then Russia and then China, one by one. It's why the game will only be available on PC at first, and why initial access to the game might be for only a few thousand people.

"Again, walk before you run," Bleszinski says, as calm as he could be on the verge of his next project finally being revealed to the public. "I don't want to conquer the world overnight. Let's take one territory at a time."Babykayak

Full disclosure: Cliff Bleszinski's brother, Tyler Bleszinski, is the founder of Polygon sister site and Vox Media progenitor SB Nation.