The past couple of years have been quite a ride for Cliffy B, the bad boy of game design, with the launch of Lawbreakers and it’s lukewarm reception to the attempt to chase the Battle Royale trend with Radical Heights.
So, before we get into this… for people who don’t know lets talk for a moment about who Cliff Bleszinski is. He has a relatively long history in game design going back to one of his first games released in 1994 called Jazz Jackrabbit which at the time reminded me of an emotionally broken Bubsy who went full Rambo. The biggest claims to fame on his resume are his extensive work on the Unreal and Unreal Tournament Series games which can be credited with really kicking off the Arena Shooter genre. The other jewels in his crown are the Gears of War games which were, the first two anyway, massive hits for Microsoft and the Xbox consoles. Outside of the early Unreal games my personal favorite that he was responsible for was the title Bulletstorm and, that really is going to bring us to the point of why I’m even writing this. About a year ago they released a remastered version of the game and the difference in the launch trailers from the original to the new one I think illustrates something about the mentality of the developer.
If you look at those and then say, “Well, sure, they’re playing up all the new features of the game while the original trailer had to sell it as a new IP.” You would absolutely be correct. The funny thing about that original launch trailer was just how much it ignored the real selling point of the title which was the rough edged dirty humor and over the top violence codified in their Skillshot mechanic. I actually thought, unlike a lot of people apparently, that the narrative of the game was a decent selling point but looking at Cliffy B’s most recent development efforts it clearly wasn’t what he wanted to sell about Bulletstorm. Especially apparent by the fact that one of the earliest jokes in the game includes the phrase, “Murder boner” which is a pretty accurate setup for the tone of the overall game. The comedy was something of a minor sticking point for people as many rightly viewed it as juvenile attempts to see how many different words they could hyphenate with -dick. I certainly can’t argue against that but however you felt about it that was part of the core fun of the game, ridiculous, over the top and at times beautifully nonsensical. It was a pure expression of a game that was just there to entertain whatever audience it garnered to its fullest potential, which I think is as legitimate a goal in game design as any other. A focus on the entertainment value of a game can often avoid the pitfalls with getting bogged down in the weight of your own narrative.
Anyways, fast forward to present day where Cliffy’s most recent offerings have been a bit puzzling and with the recent announcement that his current studio, Boss Key, was shutting down it had me thinking about what led them here. A couple of years ago we got to see an E3 trailer for a new game called Lawbreakers which appeared to be positioning itself as an edgier, more hardcore version of Overwatch. Certainly their subsequent gameplay trailers like the Between Our Guns started sporting that much more explicit edge and the Skilled AF which asked if you were even good enough to play in the first place. For anyone who was a big enough video game fan in the late 90’s or early 00’s this should sound eerily familiar to John Romero’s hilarious attempt at an edgy marketing campaign for Daikatana.
These trailers are also coupled with the media tour that Cliff did for the game which had him hyping up core aspects which he felt would be important to potential consumers come launch time. Going back and comparing some of the interviews even for Bulletstorm to Lawbreakers was somewhat eyeopening because of the shift in their overall tone and intent.
In an interview with Games Radar you can listen to Cliffy talk about the fun and entertaining design behind Bulletstorm and how they were trying to get away from the gritty, dour military shooters which dominated the FPS market. He also appreciates a question from the interviewer about how even in games like Gears of War there were still softer emotional moments for the characters.
Well first off I appreciate you mentioning that because a lot of people assume Gears is this big testosterone fest but we try to pace the story so it actually has some slightly softer moments… …. But with regards to Bulletstorm it’s more over the top than Gears but it has it’s moments where the characters get to know each other and it does have these great emotional peaks and valleys which we haven’t really spoiled too much of what happens but you never know who is gonna die or live in a given game campaign.
Versus quotes from his Lawbreakers media tour when you got things like
There is blood in it and people explode and they curse. Y’know, I wanna be, I wanna be the rated R version for all these rated PG shooters.
Whats funny to me about that quote is that it almost perfectly sums up the entirety of Bulletstorm and yet for the life of me I can’t remember it being sold that way during their pre-release press tours. He certainly spoke about the Skillshot mechanics and its overall irreverent take on violence that a lot of the more mainstream shooters treated with a more somber tone but the centerpiece of his talking points remained the entertainment. Lawbreakers and the consumer pitch seemed to be squarely aimed at the concept that it was only for the most hardcore of competitive shooter fans. A move which seems decidedly strange given what the competitive shooter scene looks like and has looked like for much of the last decade. Especially when you consider the place of Arena Shooters in that picture which have garnered little more than small nostalgia based communities around their current releases. Not exactly a market that is begging for a new IP branded as meant for the hardest of hardcore competitive players and of those only the ones interested in a specific game-type. This tactic seems to utterly ignore the fact that one of the largest hurdles for new IPs is appealing to a wide enough audience in order to build a sustainable community. Not to mention the additional hurdles of establishing a new multiplayer only IP that is being marketed to an already tiny sub-demographic of gamers. Additionally the poor decision was made to release the game on a date close to when their target demographic would be returning to school and within a few weeks of Destiny 2 launching. Whatever it was that led Cliff and the leaders at Boss Key to make those decisions they can’t really be ignored when discussing the eventual closing of the studio.
After a release that garnered less than 5,000 concurrent players on Steam for launch day Lawbreakers was at best a game that earned a DOA tag with flying colors. Although possibly the saddest aspect of the entire confusing road to its release was at the center the game wasn’t actually all that bad. It was a bit buggy, it wasn’t nearly as hardcore skill intensive as it was sold and it didn’t revolutionize the shooter genre upon arrival but at its base level it was a game worth the $30 asking price. That realization more than any other cemented for me just how ill advised this genre entry was and how detrimental the marketing campaign for it truly was.
A lot of the time when people write articles like this or break down decisions after the fact it always easy to undercut the arguments with sentiments like, “Hindsight is always 20/20.” which isn’t completely unfair. I think however its important to remember that while things are clearer in hindsight I do believe its pretty plain to see the very avoidable pitfalls Boss Key and Cliffy stumbled into on their way to releasing Lawbreakers. Personally looking back on Cliffy’s contributions to gaming overall I have a lot of respect for the work he has done but as it stands right now all that really does is make the current stumbles seem all the more painful from a fan perspective.
I’m going to cut this off here and pick it up tomorrow with Part 2 where I’ll discuss the second release from Boss Key, Radical Heights, the flaws with its conception and the continuing baffling decisions made by Cliff and his studio. In addition Cliff has begun releasing concept art for some other games he had been hoping to release with the now defunct studio and why I think it offers some important context in regards to the failure of Lawbreakers and Radical Heights.
For now, have a great rest of your day and happy gaming!