Cliffy B on building the power creative

GDC 2011: Epic design director discusses learning from the past, building more open new intellectual property for the future, and avoiding glory holes.

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Who was there? Epic Games design director Cliff Bleszinski presented the "Industry Lessons Learned and Applying Them to the Road Ahead" panel.

What they talked about: At a time when consumers are bombarded with viewing and playing options and unsure which brands to trust and buy, it never hurts to have someone who can yell louder to get above the din. Bleszinski preached the importance of starting and fostering conversations with game audiences, establishing brands, and maintaining player loyalty.

Cliff Bleszinski and a friend.
Cliff Bleszinski and a friend.

The presentation began with a look back, chronicling his own experiences growing up with the games industry; a theme continued throughout the panel and foreseeing the changing nature of the market, its desires, and habits. Bleszinski moved on to define and explain the rise of what he refers to as "power creators." These are industry personalities who call the shots, are visible, unique, and valuable people who have carved out their own profile.

Power creators can come from any aspect of the business, and while often designers are thrust into the limelight as gaming industry spokespeople, power creators can be coders, artists, or rooted in any other skill set. Moving from behind the code to in front of the camera is not an easy task, though, with Bleszinski saying that it was important that the person had paid his or her dues to the industry, serving time in the development trenches and singling out current luminaries, such as Irrational's Ken Levine, Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, and Disney's Warren Spector.

Identifying and knowing your weaknesses was cited as an integral part of the learning process, turning the tables and using flaws as strengths by learning to let go of the reigns for someone else who has more time to take over. Bleszinski said the best way to overcome failings, such as time poorness or gaps in skills, is to find complementary talents within the studio, matching the yin to your yang and creating mutual respect. This becomes crucial in the form of checks and balances that keep power creators grounded. The example given was Peter Jackson's King Kong film ending up much too long simply because no one wanted to tell Jackson that it needed to be cut--for fear of stifling the filmmaker's creative genius.

Many developers allude to wrestling with their own past and demons, but Bleszinski used the panel to explain the importance of tapping personal feelings and emotions and channeling them into constructive outlets. For example, he explained that Marcus' "daddy issues" in Gears of War had to do with the death of Bleszinski's own father during his teens, while the divorce he was experiencing during the first game's production found its way into the title.

Certainly never one to be referred to as a shrinking violet, the designer went on to reveal how building a public profile means you need to take the good with the bad, showcasing a snippet of some of the comments about him from Internet message boards. Sage advice for potential power creators was to never forget where you came from and that if you do become the outward face of your brand, then remember the people you represent. Thank the fans, take photos with them, and replace "I" with "we" to carry the flag for those still back at the studio working on the product.

The marketing machine, though nasty, has become a necessary evil. Study it, understand how it works, and embrace it to get your finger in every pie available on your game suggests Bleszinski. Two box shots were shown: One was Deus Ex: Invisible War and the other Sega's Condemned 2. Bleszinski said that both were prime examples of marketing-led (rather than studio-led) art, quipping that since there was almost no information on the type of game from its image, the latter could be some kind of glory hole simulator. Screenshots, box art, and gameplay videos released need to be the best possible representation of your product, and simply being involved in the process rather than handing it off greatly helps achieve that goal.

Disposable content and fickle audiences mirror the advancements made in television sets, with the effort required to get up and physically turn a knob to switch channels replaced by the instant gratification of flicking quickly between stations with a remote control. Now with the device in their hands, players can pick and choose a seemingly endless number of options at will, and in the process, they have become more migratory in their content consumption, ready to shift to the next big thing.

To counter this, Bleszinski believes that if you really want to establish new intellectual property it needs to be open, friendly, and moving forward; become experiences that will span devices, such as hacking control panels on the iPad to open doors in your console version of Dead Space 2. Once you as a developer have hooked a player to experience your game, Bleszinski recommended regularly rewarding them with badges, bonus experience point weekends, and incentives to continue playing consecutive matches.

Even in the face of the meteoric rise of casual gaming, Bleszinski believes that AAA games are here to stay. The middle class is dead, and the global recession continues to impact on the number of entertainment products sold. For this reason, burning players with poor products pushes them away from your brand. He believes that Steam is part of the solution, while social media allows game developers and publishers to have personal and direct contact with the audience.

Bleszinski also urged developers to consider including social functions like Twitter integration as part of the development process rather than an afterthought, as well as bringing games into the real world with geocaching-style games that blend the two settings, such as hiding physical objects for players to find that are then tied to in-game rewards.

The presentation concluded with Bleszinski suggesting that if game developers really want to get rich and create great new IP, the only way to do so is by retaining the rights to the content. Failing to do so will only result in making someone else rich.

Quote: "I'd rather be loved and hated than ignored." - Cliff Bleszinski on learning to harness the power of Internet rage.

Takeaway: Every game developer strives to make good content, but good content will only get you so far. By understanding, tapping into, and encouraging communication with players, social media offers a previously unseen level of feedback and loyalty. New IP remains as risky as ever, but by building a universe people will want to explore and play in and retaining all the rights to do so at your discretion, developers stand a much stronger chance of making it big by shipping that next big franchise.

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