Cliff Bleszinski On Saving LawBreakers

LawBreakers, the first game from Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski's new studio Boss Key, launched in July on PC and PlayStation 4. It wasn't the out-of-the-gate success that the studio might have wanted, however, with player figures reportedly very low. In an interview with GameSpot, the industry veteran spoke frankly about the game's launch and told us what Boss Key plans to do in the future to get more players into the game.

We published a portion of this interview last month, and now we're bringing you the full thing. In our conversation, Bleszinski talks about the feedback since launch, why launching in "Destiny season" might have been a little problematic, support for new consoles like PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, and if Boss Key might ever consider bringing LawBreakers to Nintendo Switch. You can find the full interview below, edited and condensed for clarity.

LawBreakers is available now on PS4 and PC for $30.

GameSpot: What were some of the key pieces of feedback you've heard since launch?

Cliff Bleszinski: People who sit down and play the game see that, apart from it looking very different, art style wise, it actually plays quite a bit different. However, it's because I didn't do the same archetypes of the guy who builds the turret or the sniper or the traditional kind of healer that follows behind people, the healing ray, we kind of rolled our own archetypes. That ultimately proved to be very confusing for a lot of core players who were getting into it, in regards to, are they gonna watch the tutorial video? What happens if people like to go online and then they hit all the buttons or all the keys and they just want to figure out, kind of in a vacuum, what they can do with that?

So, what we've done is you kinda double back. And I'm not going to go into all the future content yet, in terms of things we're working on, but creating a far better onboarding experience where it works on PlayStation, it works on PC, it'd have more of a scripted tutorial and continue to look at ways we can improve our offline mode, so people could quote, you know, practice their lines a lot better before they get on stage. So, that was the big take away, honestly, from us.

"We made a skill-based shooter that people who actually play it love"

What are some of the things that you think went well?

Well, I think we made a darn good shooter. And the elephant in the room is our fledging CCU, which we totally understand. We remain committed to the project and those that we have who are our fans are dedicated and we're engaging with them constantly and they're doing fun things like grassroots tournaments that they're organizing themselves. But we made a skill-based shooter that people who actually play it love and continuing to double down on marketing and awareness of it and committing to the product, is something that we're very much intent on. But, if you look at ... If you Google the game right now, the first thing you see on the top right is aggregate of nine out of 10 on Steam. And for me, that's the feeling that, "Yeah, we did our job. I did what I set out to do three years ago."

And like I always said in the other interview, it's a marathon, not a sprint. We're just gonna keep iterating and keep working on it. And at the end of day, I just didn't want to make the exact same archetypes that everybody else did and I wanted to make a game that was, first and foremost, a shooter for shooter players.

The CCU's and just how many players are in the game today, that's ... I guess, how are you feeling about that? You said it's not exactly where you would want it to be, but if you could just talk a little bit more about that, that would be great.

Yeah, I mean, so the thing is, is we're now officially in Destiny season.

Right, yep.

And God bless Bungie for the fantastic job they did. The first one I played for about a week and I was like, "Okay, I get the idea." But, it looks like the second one addresses a lot of those issues and is a, really, knock it out of the park, especially with a really good frame rate on the PC version that's forthcoming. But, in regards to that, it's one of those things that there's a situation where players look at numbers on Steam, that doesn't happen on PlayStation 4. And I don't have the numbers in front of me, but in regards to, you look at PC CCU health versus PS4, PS4's doing fine. Because people just chop up, cough up 30 bucks and hop online and they just play and they don't overthink it. On PC, there's this immediately wanting to declare something a success or a bomb by this kind of internet culture that loves to just observe things.

And it's like, "Well guys, the small bit that we have, we're gonna continue to iterate with and engage." And as we issue content drops, maybe there's gonna be sales or a potential free weekend somewhere down the line. You know, continue to fluff that CCU up and I continue to go back to games like Warframe, that slowly built their very small audience as a bunch of dedicated fan and then, continued to fluff it up. And you watch the graph of the CCU and it's so low, so low, and then eventually, over the course of a year, year and a half, two years, it became this phenomenon that a lot of people weren't even talking about it. But, my friends at Digital Extremes committed to that and that's what's required. Especially in such a crowded market when you're launching a new IP.

That and of course, rebranding of the marketing, showing all the new content and saying, "Hey, if you gave it a go, come back or if you haven't done it yet, try it." And maybe other techniques like send out a, "Hey, here's a free code for your friend." So, you could write a dissertation or an entire GDC talk on the keeping, care, and feeding of maintaining a healthy player base.

One of the things that goes along with that I think would be matchmaking times. It's something you've said is maybe a little bit slower than people would have liked to see and that goes along with the player figures. Here in Australia we've been testing and it's been difficult to find a match on PS4.

Yeah, well, it's one of those things, the Australian market is one that we want to definitely support. But, when it comes to actual number of CCU with a game that has a fledgling player base, it's not a lot to be frank. So, the big thing we have to do is continue to pump into this. People said they want a team deathmatch, they've played the dart game like teamdeath match so we're like, "You want team deathmatch? Here, have it." And you just want to get around and shoot people and ignore the objective, stick with it. So, even further on down the line, we've got new maps coming, such as Valhalla, which is our first forest map, which is our first asymmetrical one.

We got our rapid fire updates hitting and it's just, that's the main thing that we do right now and continue to remind people of it. It's one of those things that whenever I talk about the game on Twitter with my pretty good following there, people respond when our LawBreaker's Facebook page posts about this, that, and the other in regards Balance. People who are playing the game are engaging and so, we're gonna continue to remind them that, in the words of Megatron, "I still function."

That's good. And kinda just what you just said there, with scrimmages, you're adding team deathmatch and that's something people had obviously been really, really asking for. But, if you could go back a little bit and talk about why that wasn't included in the product to begin with?

That was part of my design mantra in regards the way the classes were designed. I didn't want to do the exact same stuff everybody else did. And the funny thing was making a character-based, class-based shooter where it has those ... Even though it's not as simple as a traditional arena shooter, it still, it kinda has a lot of that kinda feel underneath it all. In hindsight, I think it was a mistake to not ship with it. I was stubborn. And I'm like, "Oh, everybody's done TDM, you've done it." Even Blizzard's like, "Screw it, we need to put some TDM action in Overwatch," because fundamentally, at the end of the day, players just want to get in and shoot some stuff sometimes. They don't want to think about, "Okay, what am I carrying? This objective, am I selecting the right? I just want to hop in, shoot some friends or enemies for 20 minutes and have a good time."

And in hindsight, that's one of the other mistakes, you know, you asked about things that I felt were mistakes. Not having that from the get go, honestly. I mean, that's one of my things that I consider my strengths, is I'm willing to admit when I'm wrong. I think the people in the public eye would do them a great benefit to do that more often.

I have a reputation for being brash and loud and everything like that, but I'm the first person to admit when I'm wrong. And we certainly did make our share of mistakes with the game. In spite of the mistakes, we're going to continue to update and iterate and the reviews do not lie for me.

And one of the other elements going forward, too, that I was reading about was Boss Leagues mode. It seems like a more competitive level. We don't really know too much about this. Is there anything more you can say about boss leagues and what that mode is going to entail?

"Those of you who have been kind enough to drop 30 bucks on this. We got your back and we're sticking with it."

Yeah, it's basically kinda like ... Almost like a season zero for kinda testing kind of what our kind of season based game play would be and kind of dipping our toe into that water. And again, that's admitting things we should've shipped with. Shipping with an actual ranked mode instead of just one way would've, of course, made sense. The problem with what we were trying to pull off with this company and this title was shipping a quality product with a team of 65 people without ruining everybody's marriages. And so, certain concessions did have to be made from a production standpoint. And it's easy for me to sit there and go, "Oh man, we should've shipped with this, we should've shipped with that. You know, changed the date and everything like that."

In hindsight, it would've made sense. But, as you know, hindsight's always 20/20. And if I could go back in time, I would've figured out a way to re-change the schedule and ship with more of those things and maybe not even before the crazy holiday season. But, you've gotta work with what you've got now and telegraph it to everybody. And there's a reason why we did that kinda cool little graphic that's my Twitter header profile right now that kinda just graphically lays out, boom, boom, boom, stuff is coming, those of you who have been kind enough to drop 30 bucks on this. We got your back and we're sticking with it.

Before launch, you had the big news that switching from free-to-play to a premium product and I think now, some people have been suggesting or stating online, which doesn't necessarily carry any weight, but that the game could be looking to go back to a free to play model. Is that something that's on the table or no?

"I don't want to get into Candy Crush type-tactics 'cause I just won't be able to sleep at night and I don't sleep well to begin with."

Which just boggles me, my brain because my ... I've got a decent business sense. Especially when it comes to this industry. It's gotten me fairly far. And under the assumption that games are expensive, 60 dollars is a lot of money. Even 100 dollars for all the special editions that you see coming out. And I was of the belief that $29.99, it's a little bit over ... It's pretty much an impulse buy. And did it help? Did it hurt? Should it have gone free? Maybe. Would we consider experimenting with that in the future? I wouldn't remove it from the table. But, I just ... I don't want to get down into sleazy free to play, as much as I want to keep this game afloat and with our, like I said, our fledgling community, I don't want to get into Candy Crush type-tactics 'cause I just won't be able to sleep at night and I don't sleep well to begin with.

But yeah, I wouldn't rule it out in the future, especially if we consider rolling the game out ... Well, we're considering in the future, rolling the game out in Asia. It's one of those things that you almost have to do that in Asia, so we'll be considering doing that, maybe one of those things if we do it there, would it make sense to roll it back out to the states? Possibly. But, I don't want to start doing gun rentals any time soon in game.

Another thing that's gonna keep people coming back is new roles and you've released a silhouette teaser of this new character and confirmed that, I think it's a guy. So, is there anything else you can tell us about this new hero and why people should be excited about it?

He's very good at defense, I guess that's one thing that I want to say. And it's ... He's got ... His device that's, were jokingly called a thumper, that when placed by multiple players playing as that class can essentially turn the enemy team into almost like a human pinball machine, which provides for some highly amusing moments. Oh, by the way, in hindsight, this just reminded me, I ... Having class limitations is something we also, in hindsight, would've made sense to ship with so you don't have five Wraiths stacked on one team, which just, players are merciless with each other and they ruin somebody's experience and a person's like, "Well, these guys are being dicks. I'm just not gonna play anymore," which certainly didn't help the situation.

So, in the latest patch, we limit it to two per team, which we think is fair. We don't have the ridiculously large cast that games like Overwatch has. So, limiting it to one would not have made sense. We felt like two was kind of a good compromise, which we got that feedback and that idea directly from the community. So anyway, he's an interesting character. Trying to make sure the silhouettes keep getting more and more unique as we move forward 'cause that's one thing I think we could be better about as well. Again, in hindsight.

Whenever we introduce these new classes, they're probably gonna wind up overpowered in the build, but that's an old kind of technique, taking some moments to kind of try and get people to try the new hero and then, of course, massage your back and balance it once players get a sense of it.

Is there a ceiling that you might have in mind for how many characters you might want to have in the game at the end of the day?

You know, if we can fluff up our CCU and if we can keep people engaged, I would love for it to go on as long as humanly possible. I love what we built, we have playtests and I still come out sweaty and I still thoroughly enjoy myself. And this is our baby. This is three years of blood, sweat, and tears. And the news story of the CCU is not much right now and everything, it's ... You gotta maintain a positive attitude about it. But, one thing I'm happy about is, even anecdotally from my Twitter feed, it's no longer about Gears. As much as Gears will always be a part of me, it's nice to say, "Oh, went bowling the other night," and people aren't replying and saying, "Did you chainsaw the lanes?" They're talking to me just in general about everything I post and they occasionally talk ... They're having a dialogue about the game.

Which, for me, was one of my actual goals in starting the studio and the product. I'm not going to deny my legacy of what Gears was and I'll be happy to comment and give my opinion on any future things that come out of it. But, it's nice to be known from this generation for more than one thing.

And you had kinda touched on it earlier, too, though, and I was reading in a blog post about a revamped marketing campaign. Can you talk about what that might entail and why you wanted to change things up in that regard?

Here's the thing; I really like and enjoy the characters we shipped in the game because I wanted to go in the opposite of the kind of style that's really popular right now. And is it a little bit retro? Sure, it's a little bit '90s. Maybe it's that my love of the whole '90s Spawn archetype's coming through. Who knows if that's the case? But, the thing is, is we're not gonna beat some of those other games in regards to their crazy, 400 Pixar animators creating these amazing ... The five-minute shorts that make you care about a robot and a bird, right? So, it's like the direction that I've been working with with [community manager Rojan Rivas is to] double down on the verbs you do in the game and in particular, the guns. Let's put the characters in the background, but let's really double down on the sliding, the shooting, the stabbing, the sexiness of the manufacturers of the weapons.

And remind people that what I've been saying tirelessly in interviews is we're a shooter that then, also has characters and I feel that the marketing campaign should've represented that. I also think in hindsight, leading with the [Blink 182-like logo] probably wasn't the best move to do. The example I use is going to Comic Con this year and Game of Thrones was there, of course, everywhere. But, only now, after how many seasons, they're at the point where they can just do the font with GoT? When you look at Grand Theft Auto, only when they got to GTA four or whatever, they did the Roman numerals. Only now, could Gears just pop out the crimson omen. You have to ... Eventually, if you want to get to the point where people you're Nike swoosh, that's the point. But, leading with that ... You look at that logo and actually, I like it. It's on the back of my phone.

People love the hats. People have already got some tattoos of it. But, if you're a casual person who just sees that, you know that we're a cool ... Kinda gritty, class-based shooter. You just think you're gonna have a bad time, right? So that's, the other things ... Hindsight, once again, is 20/20, which could be the damn name of this interview.

So, the concept art for the new map Valhalla looks really, really gorgeous and it's unique, as you said, and it's the first asymmetric map that you have in the game and I was also reading that it's gonna have some environmental hazards and fresh ways to mix up the game play. So, I was just wondering if you could offer an overview of Valhalla and why you think you're ... Or, why you're so excited about it?

Well, one of the trips I want to take eventually is to go to the redwood forests. And it's kinda like almost like a high tech Ewok village. It's essentially kinda the training grounds for the Valkyries. And the idea is that certain sections of it have had to be deforested because some of the trees were dying and the way that they have to do that with these large trees and they have these giant kind of wood chippers that are there. And as the battle breaks out in this location, it just so happens that you may accidentally kicked into one by an enemy and kinda go full Fargo in this game. And for me, this is ... That's one of those just things that you can do in our game that you can't see in a lot of the other kind of hero-based shooters where we could mulch people.

It's just ... We aren't gonna make it completely disgusting. When it happens, you're gonna laugh kinda like the old school Unreal Tournament. And also, just for me, this is gonna be probably one of our most vertical maps yet because the stacked layers of kinda the high tech Ewok village and since the trees are mostly vertical and for me, it's a full circle moment because that was one of the very first images that just, I had concepted all those years ago, four years ago, when I was initially kinda conceiving the game. And it's one of those things that I'm excited to break out of kinda that cycle of techy doo doo. We have a lot of really great, fun maps, but some of them are just kinda ... It's a reactor. Fuck it.

And yeah, the map looks great and it's cool, but you want to really get that sense of atmosphere and location that if the crap hasn't hit the fan or the mulcher in Valhalla, hearing some birds tweet in the background or kinda having that kind of contrast of a beautiful nature environment with the over the top verticality and violence is what Law Breaker's kinda entails and it's a good map and yean, it's fun.

All of your DLC, the maps and everything is free and this is the case for a lot of multiplayer games these days, but it definitely was not always that way. So, I'm wondering if you could talk about just why it was important to have the DLC in that way be free?

Well, first off, separating the player base, especially when you have the fledgling one that I've said multiple times of course, through the course of the interview. But also, it's just that nickel and diming that happens with players. It's like, "If I sell as a player, it's like oh hey, you're at this even, this party at a bar. But, if you want to go in the other room where your other friends are, now you have to pay an extra cover charge. Oh, then there's another one with another cover charge," and it's like, I love how I always use restaurants and bar in my analogies. But, it's just, it's kind of an old school, flawed way of thinking. And for me, I if I get these kind of cosmetic crates, which I'm rewarded and encouraged to kinda stick around and play the game?

When there's DLC, I'm just like, "Yeah, okay, you just lost me now. You're just gonna split your servers and I have to just cough up more money for a game that I felt like should have had this in the box from the get go." So I think that's why the movement's shifted that way. I think there is a lot of gamer resentment, based on the old techniques that everybody used to use, throughout the industry, which is why we're here now. It just took a while to get here.

And another big topic these days is new consoles and the power inside them. And we know LawBreakers is gonna have enhancements, or already does, for PS4 Pro and obviously, Lawbreakers is not announced for Xbox, but I wonder if you could speak more generally to what the power of new machines can do for a game, specifically like LawBreakers.

I think it always goes back to Moore's Law, where the computing power doubling, and what you saw with this generation of consoles, is very, very quickly the power kind of really kicked in, hence the need for the new Xbox and the PlayStation Pro. And in regards to considering doing an Xbox version. I'd love to, but there's still other discussions that need to be had. And I think, you look at Xbox ... from my prior work, and I think they felt miffed and kind of rejected, that we chose PlayStation, but for us it was just a matter of install based for PlayStation at the time, and then considering we'd see for Xbox down the line.

Obviously there has been solid third-party support already from companies like 2K and EA, but is Nintendo Switch something you're ever thinking about, or you have ever thought about for LawBreakers?

We would probably consider the Xbox first, and then we're very much in wait and see mode right now. It is a fine console, the Switch. I am taking my wife to Japan on a trip tomorrow, and I'm finally going to take the time to sit down and continue digging in to Zelda, because the entire concept of it is just brilliant. Nintendo just really knocked it out of the park with this one. Would definitely love to have even more games on it. But I sit back and think about what kind of experience. If we were to do the Switch, would it be like a Rocket Arena, 1v1 with nearby people or something like that? I don't know. But if we were to do it, we'd want to switch the game up in a fun and interesting way, that would make itself work with the portability aspect of the console.

Rabbids is also wonderful too, if you're looking for something to do on Switch.

Is it? You mean Minions?

Yeah, basically. Basically.

Somebody at Minions is like, "Hey, those rabbits? Let's just do that."

I think it worked out for them. I think it did. And then, I saw some of your recent tweets about the realities of living and working in San Francisco as a game developer. I know this is very different. I know that you had talked about making North Carolina a game dev hub. So I was wondering how you think things are going in that regard, and would you ever consider running for a political office, to try to push that initiative forward?

That's a lot.

Sorry about that.

So the first thing is, I've been here since 1998. I'll talk about North Carolina first. And I have a shirt that says, "I used to be a Yankee, now I'm a Southerner." And the South is a fantastic place. It's not without its faults, but I'm doing everything I can to kind of help encourage the South to kind of be this new South, that's more known. Not just known for sweet tea and BBQ, but also technology, with my small crew of 65 folks. But also, I have gotten involved with local politics. I'm on a first-name basis with the Governor, that helps kind of get him elected with all the HB2 garbage that was going on. And to kind of steer this state right back in the, what I consider the better direction.

But the thing about San Francisco is it's a fantastic city. There's a great documentary I'd recommend watching on Netflix, called San Francisco 2.0, that kind of basically outlines the thing the drew the tech companies to San Francisco in the first place, is the very thing that they're driving out with the gentrification and all of the money in tech. Yeah, San Francisco is such a great town, with such an amazing Bohemian art scene and everything, and then here come the tech bros, then the rent goes up and all the awesome artists that made San Francisco what it is and was, are driven out. I saw that image a couple years ago, it was a public bus that had gotten in an accident with a Google bus and it was like the ultimate metaphor for the contradiction that that city has.

But if you're a game developer, especially if you have a family, the main thing that they consider often is, "Okay, well if things don't work out in one studio, there are a bunch in the area that I could potentially move over, without having to uproot my family and the kids have to go to a new school." Because I don't have kids, but the one thing I've learned the last few years of moving people to the state of North Carolina, it's basically they find the proper school that they want their children in and then they put a pin there, and then they put the radius out for what house they're gonna pick. And the school is the deciding factor for that. And San Francisco's expensive. It's ridiculous over there. But also, the West Coast has a very large concentration of game development, and for me, I always talk about North Carolina. You can buy a beautiful house for a quarter million dollars out here. And help bring North Carolina forward.

It's one thing I learned from my business partner in the restaurants is, find an emerging market and ride it up. Raleigh recently is, the shared working spaces are starting to explode out here. We finally have Barcades, restaurant wise. Putting the beer garden out here when there was none. And the beer garden's doing rather well. My buddy put a meatball shop down here, 'cause he saw there's a bunch of those doing well in New York. And make Raleigh happen and watch it change. And one of my favorite things to do is, if I have to do a temperature check with employees, on a nice day go outside, just go for a walk and see, "That old storefront has cardboard on it. I wonder what's going in there. Oh, it's going to be a new coffee shop." And to see our little Southern city grow, it's very much one of my favorite hobbies to do.

That's really nice. Another question, I'm sorry, this one goes back to Gears. What's your take on Gears of War 4 and the future of the series in Microsoft's hands?

Well, I have fans tweeting me occasionally, "Come back to Gears, the screwed it up." And it's like, if you love something that much and you love your memory of it, I don't know if anything can ever compete with what your memory is of it, right? And so I played through Gears 4 in co-op with my wife. I really enjoyed it. Would there be things I would have done differently? Of course. That's because I wasn't working on it.

I'm not going to delve too deep in to what Rod's going for in the [Gears of War] mythology, but there's a lot that he layered in there, in a very, very smart, tricky way. And I remember, we were always grappling with, "So, are we going to be in a civil war at the beginning and are we just gonna have a protagonist that's just going to be killing other people? Are we going to have the Nathan Drake problem, of he's charismatic and swagger, but he just murdered 4,000 people."

That's true.

That the internet was losing their brains over. It's a video game, but why did he shoot that guy? He shot at him first, he was defending himself. He just happens to be a mass murderer. But also, what they wound up doing was going with the robot that you're fighting in the first are killing people, which is a really smart and creative solution to that.

And I guess just the last one, I know we're running out of time here, but what kind of future would you say you see for LawBreakers, potentially as an Esport? Now that the game is out there, are you looking at this as a new path maybe to grow, for the growth and visibility of the game?

I believe that I made a very fun core shooter, that is very watchable and it has a lot of, the marketing term, the buzzer beater moments. I would love for it to potentially eventually happen, we just, we need the bodies. We need to keep fluffing up the CCU and then once we get to better numbers, do the things like that phase match that's going to be happening, I think it's tomorrow. Where you get the phase players playing the game in this kind of almost eSport like setting, because there's so many times in our lab, or when we've done events with influencers, that people don't see, where the energy in the room is amazing, where people are streaming and hooting and hollering and getting sweaty. And I've seen influencers get up from their computers, literally shaking after playing it.

And that's not coming across right now. So we need to do what we can to let people know that this is a really sweaty palm type of experience, that hopefully can lend itself to ESports, but I have to keep this game alive first and foremost. I could be very cocky and very brash on social media and realizing that the fledgling player base that are very humbling for me and I'm gonna continue to iterate on this game, continue to add to it. And try to be less of a dick, honestly.



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