Epic on Bulletstorm
It's the second day of the preview event for Bulletstorm and it's late in the afternoon. Cliff Bleszinski, Design Director at Epic Games, and Adrian Chmierlarz, Creative Director at People Can Fly, have been doing interviews all day. The evidence: a mass of empty snack packets sitting on the table in front of them. I found out later that Cliff has just tweeted about being stuck in the London hotel we're currently in, joking "If EA doesn't get me more green tea I'm going to trash this fucking press junket by tossing chairs off the balcony into the street below." But he seems calm enough as I ask him and Adrian about their upcoming game and the relationship between PCF and Epic.
NB: Gears of War 2 spoiler ahoy.
Adrian, Cliff, What would you guys say was your main aim with Bulletstorm?
AC: There are a couple of answers. At the beginning we hoped that we'll push the genre forward, that we'll make people rethink the core combat, like the point of a shooter. That's what we managed to achieve with Bulletstorm; possibly for the very first time in shooters, just killing the guy is not enough. You get +10 points for that still, which Cliff calls a very petty tip...
CB: It's worse than a bad tip.
AC: (laughs) But you're disappointed. Previously, you know, killing the enemy was always good. If your sidekick killed the enemy, always good, that's great, move on, right? But in this, you see a +10 and you go, "No no no, I did the first part for you!" So I'm not necessarily thinking about other developers using this particular system in their games, but just thinking about what is the point of all this shooting? Are we telling the story, is that the most important thing? Are we allowing the player to own a battlefield so they can really feel like they influence the game, or are they just actors in somebody else's play?
Anything to add to that, Cliff?
CB: It's good, clean fun. I think it's a game that on initial perception seems like it's filled with one-liners and kind of crazy actions, but I think when people really dig in they'll find there's a cool story in there with really good characters and surprisingly good gameplay.
Following on from that, in terms of the tone of the game in relation to what Epic's done before, and with Gears in particular, do you feel like the tone in Bulletstorm is a bit more obviously silly and ridiculous?
CB: Gears started off as deadly serious - deadly serious. We couldn't help ourselves. We started with Band of Brothers and drifted off to Predator, which is maybe the way our entertainment compass lies, I don't know. But Gears, it's a game that's got Dom killing his own wife in the second game, that's some pretty dark shit, right? We're dealing with some Seven, David Fincher stuff here. So at the same level it was very refreshing to work with these guys and just say, you know what, let's just have fun with it. There are lines of dialogue in there that I figure will be quoted for some time.
Have you got a favourite line from the game?
CB: For me it's the moment when Grayson meets Trishka, and she's like, "If you follow me I'll kill your dick!" and Grayson's like...
AC: "I'll kill your dick!"
CB: (laughs) "I'll kill your dick! What does that even mean?" It's such a great moment not only because it has that Rick Remender weirdness about killing dick, but it's also establishing Trishka immediately as a girl who will not put up with any shit and taking Grayson, who's been king ass up to this point, and then he meets this girl and it disarms him a bit. Steve Bloom's delivery right there nailed it, where he's like, "What?" and you're left wondering who this girl is.
So this is another People Can Fly and Epic collaboration, but the biggest for PCF. What would you say, Adrian, your team has brought to the project and the same to you, Cliff, for Epic?
AC: I would say raw talent. Basically we were very talented amateurs at the beginning of this project, talented but amateurs. We also brought a certain kind of madness. You (turning to Cliff) talk about the DNA that we share, right, and I think it is absolute truth. I remember when we started this project we started to come up with all these weird, over-the-top ideas, and Mike Capps, the boss at Epic, told me, "No, no, no, no. You have to make an absolutely normal game. We're paying for an absolutely normal game. I know you will end up making a crazy game anyway, but if you start this game as crazy then it will spin out of control very quickly."
CB: I think from the Epic side, we've learnt a lot over the last ten years. I think we've got to the point where we're hitting a nice balance between being corporate and just being the old Lord of the Flies type of development house. There are several processes now with regards to production and with regards to concepts that we've been able to share with PCF, and just helping out with creative stuff - things like this guy does X and Y, but how about Z? Helping polish up things too, you now, piecing through sections, and just generally having a very good relationship with PCF - we fight every once in a while but any good relationship has that.
Focusing in on the combat mechanic and the skill shot system, a couple of games come to mind when playing Bulletstorm: MadWorld on the Wii and The Club by Bizarre Creations. Did you guys look at those games, see what they did right and wrong, and try to evolve any of that at all?
AC: You know, when we talk about this internally, it's always like - we have not been inspired by any particular game but at the same time we have been inspired by all these games. It's weird, people don't believe me that I haven't, for example, played MadWorld.
CB: Me either...
AC: Or that I've only played a demo of The Club...
CB: (laughs) Me too...
AC: At the same time you read about this, right, and it somehow gets into your consciousness. It's funny because I'm sure right now at this moment there are some great ideas that can push gaming forward that are buried under, you know, some bad design decisions or bad execution, or..
CB: Just bad marketing...
AC: Yeah, just bad marketing. I always use the example with bullet time. The first game to use bullet time was Requiem but Max Payne was the first game to make it famous because it was done right there. So the idea was created earlier, but a lot of people have ideas, but to make something - a success out of it - that's a completely different story.
CB: As far of the scoring mechanic, people like to cite MadWorld and The Club, and a couple of others. There's also another really good example [of what Adrian's saying] with Gears and Kill Switch. We took the cover mechanic, tweaked it right, and had a cool IP on top of it with all the marketing, and now every game has cover, right? So hopefully a similar thing might happen with skill shots because I think the game nailed it, and it seems like from talking to reviewers that they dig it.
AC: To give you one small example of how Bulletstorm was affected, actually, by these titles, is that they all had one thing in common: time. The clock in Wet, in particular - but we said no to that. In Echoes mode, yes, but in the single-player if you want to toy with these enemies then we cannot punish you for taking your sweet time. It was very tempting for us to have something like time-based skill shots - a stream of head shots, three head shots in 10 seconds - but constantly whenever we had this thought we were immediately killing it, no, give the player as much time as possible.
Personally, I would've said the problem with some of those games it was tough to really string combinations together with the environment and have variety. In Bulletstorm there's a focus on variety and stringing moves together, what for you guys was the key thing in achieving that?
AC: It was a lot of hard work and a lot of iterations. The thing is that when you see the end result it all seems logical and simple and easy - "OK, yes, skill shot this, skill shot that, I get it." But to get to this point from the initial idea it was just hundreds of iterations and tests and discussions back in forth between us. There's a saying, everything is hard before it's easy. That was exactly it for this. When you do your job right, at the end of it there's something that looks effortless (turns to Cliff). You were using that example the other day, right?
CB: Yeah, the dancers and the gymnasts, you know, those professional athletes make it look easy. I think what managed to happen with this product is a combination of special sauce and body moves - with the unique weapons, with the environments, with the scoring. Once those all hook in then your machine starts going and it works. I think if one of those elements wasn't there it wouldn't have worked. You can look at The Club - playing the demo, there's interesting mechanics in the time attack, but there's some issues there, you know, it didn't feel quite right to me. To be fair, I don't mean to criticize too much. With MadWorld, if you looked at it on paper: we're gonna do this really gory game on the Wii - eh, pretty significant risk there, don't know if it's crazy or not. And with marketing and things like that there are other factors there, so it's a matter of finding the right formula.
We've played the co-op Anarchy Mode today and Echoes mode but at present there's no traditional competitive online multiplayer mode in Bulletstorm. Is that something you might think of bringing in the future or is it just not on the cards?
AC: I think we've just managed to present to everyone what we have right now. We're going for that quick summer Blockbuster movie experience, right - dive into the story and then go ahead and have fun. If you want to just have a good time with your friends, to crack open a couple of beers and just have fun online, you go for Anarchy. But if you really have that that competitive bug in you then we allow you to do this on your own terms [in Echoes mode]. I was actually a hardcore Quakeworld player; I remember just starting a match - that was a nightmare. Like 8 guys only, right, but it was like "OK, Johnny's not here, I'm going for a smoke" and then Johnny comes back and that guy's gone for a smoke. It was a nightmare. So we said with this, right, you can compete with your friends indirectly on your own terms - (turns to Cliff) you called it at the presentation "slugging".
CB: That same thing happens online, as far as co-ordinating everything, right?
AC: Even if you play Anarchy you can still be the best in your team. Some of the rewards are taunt animations so you can be that guy who has the taunt animation at the end of the game that nobody else has. So you can still show off a little, even in co-op mode.
CB: The problem with co-ordinating everyone in QuakeWorld: smoking (Adrian laughs). You all quit you could have just had endless games.