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Bleszinski’s fall and the perilous fame game

What does the end of Boss Key mean for celeb game developers?

Bleszinski on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2010
Cliff Bleszinski on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2010, along with actor Alan Cumming and actress/director Greta Gerwig.
Dana Edelson/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

I sent Cliff Bleszinski a message earlier this week, asking him if he’d be willing to talk about the closure of his studio, Boss Key Productions. Although generally a chatty figure, he replied that he preferred to lay low. I couldn’t blame him. After all, in his official statement, released earlier this week, he said he wanted to “withdraw” and spend time with family.

This has been a bruising time for one of gaming’s most recognizable figures. His team-based shooting game LawBreakers was a flop. His dream of making his own studio, one that would reflect his own vision of what games ought to look like, is over, and is unlikely to return. He laid off dozens of his employees, and he had to tell the world that he’d failed.

But Bleszinski’s fall is more than just the story of one man coming short of his goals. It’s a moment to reflect on the peculiarities of video game fame, its value and its costs. The bar for success is so high that — even for those with all the right connections, financing and talent — it is difficult to reach.

In Bleszinski’s case, it’s entirely possible that his renown was a factor in LawBreakers’ failure, as the game’s rocky launch attracted negative press, suppressing its chances of growing organically.

The popular image of an ever-youthful Cliff Bleszinski
Epic Games

A curious celebrity

In the context of game creation, Bleszinski — who was known by the moniker “CliffyB” when he first rose to fame — is one of a handful of people who can reasonably be called celebrities. He’s appeared on Fallon. He was profiled in The New Yorker. He’s recognizable to millions of people who play games, or who follow games, particularly those of us of a certain age.

Here lies a part of the issue. Fame is fleeting. Tastes shift. This is especially true in the world of entertainment, of which gaming is a part.

To a huge chunk of the gaming audience — the young — he is unknown, or unimportant. The video game names they recognize are streamers, not developers. We’ve reached the point where people who play games are more famous than people who make them.

This dynamic is unthinkable in movies, music or sports, where stars are still lionized. Commentators in those fields can and do find fame. But it’s a marginal sort of fame, compared to the artists themselves.

Fame through game development has always been a slightly discomforting notion. It’s often been manufactured, by companies in cahoots with the media. But still, it’s been a thing, even if that thing is little more than “Cliffy B” bouncing onto stage at E3, or Tim Schafer being recognized in the street.

When Sony execs spend money signing up an artist like Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima, they aren’t just buying his talent, they’re buying his personality. They intend to monetize his enigma. Microsoft spent years trotting Bleszinski out to promote the company’s gaming aspirations, and its fathomless desire to be hip. And why not? He’s certainly more presentable than your average stuffed shirt executive.

The tangible benefit of game-fame is difficult to quantify. Whatever it is, or was, the nature of Bleszinski’s failure looks like a dimming of its lights. There are many decent games that fail to ignite. But not many are made by one of gaming’s biggest celebrities. It casts the concept of game-fame as a sodden firework.

Cliff Bleszinski with his wife Lauren Bleszinski, who also works in gaming, at a 2016 awards ceremony
Getty Images / Anadolu

Compensated handsomely

To be fair to Bleszinski, he understands the weird nature of game-fame. In an interview with Eurogamer last year, he acknowledged that there’s “an entire generation of 15-year-old kids” who don’t know him. His generation includes those who played Gears of War games, who’ve read his innumerable interviews in games magazines, who’ve watched him yukking along on stages and studio sets with the likes of Geoff Keighley.

He is a talented game designer, no doubt about it. And he’s been compensated handsomely for his work. He’s also been rewarded for working the media, through status, and because he likes to be recognized.

During his time at Boss Key, he valued his name enough to wield it as a marketing asset, offering many, many interviews throughout the beats of LawBreakers life. He also made use of social media, knowing full well that his posts would be used as press fodder.

He’s been free with his opinions on subjects ranging from effective managerial styles to the art styles of shooting games to the games media — “as far as I’m concerned, they can fuck off,” he said.

He’s always enjoyed acclaim. In school, he enjoyed being a part of drama groups. In an interview with Rolling Stone last year, he recalls playing a leading role in Peter Pan in 6th grade. “I live for the applause,” he said. “I loved getting on stage and people seeing the performance of what you did and worked so hard on. And getting attention.”

When he was interviewed by The New Yorker in 2008, he turned up in a bright red Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder. Tom Bissell’s perceptive profile of him noted his various tastes for fashion down the years — from white snakeskin shoes and bleached mop to fur-lined coats and crimson crop — but added: “One has the sensation of watching someone observing himself.”

A free hand

Which brings us to an uncomfortable position. Just at the point when his fame looks least useful, he may already be finding it difficult to leave behind.

Bleszinski has spent the last few days sending out tweets, hardly the act of a man who wants to retire from publicity. Some are wistful revelations of games he wanted to make. Others are angry denunciations of his treatment in the media. At least for now, it looks like Bleszinski isn’t quite ready to exit the stage.

Perhaps his most revealing moment was at E3 last year, when he was talking to Keighley about running his own company, separate from his old mentors at Epic. “To know that I can do it on my own, without Tim [Sweeney] and Mark [Rein], means a ton to me.”

Via the money he made at Epic, a canny investment in Oculus Rift, and the deal he did with publisher Nexon, he was empowered to take a free hand in the development of LawBreakers. That free hand was earned by his previous work, but also by his high profile, by his fame. It is unlikely that he will get the same chance again.

The sad part of all this — apart from all those people losing their jobs — is that LawBreakers came with some great ideas, and deserved a chance to establish itself. Despite its faults, such as a forgettable art style, and dull characters, it’s a tightly constructed arena shooter. You could make the argument that LawBreakers’ low concurrent player stats were more of a story because of its developer’s fame. It’s certain that those stories badly hampered the game’s ability to grow from a small base, as other PC games have done in the past, after slow, obscure beginnings. Warframe is often cited as an example of a flawed game that earned its way into success through iteration, and time.

LawBreakers was made for people who love shooting games, and who don’t mind a challenge. Bleszinski has value as a game designer. When he speaks freely on this subject, he offers insights that are well worth hearing. I hope he comes back and make something new. In his statement this week, he left a return open as an option, writing that video games “will forever be a part of who I am.”

I also hope he leaves behind the public persona poppycock, once and for all. The world has moved on. More importantly, he’s moved on.

“A person can evolve and change over time,” he said last year. “Even though the Internet freezes you in a stage of arrested development every time they post that photo of you in that fucking red shirt and chainsaw gun.”