Read on to find out what piles of cardboard, Japanese puzzle games, and books on cats have in common with Epic’s third-person shooter.

Marcus and Dom’s adventure is about to reach a conclusion as the Gears of War 3 trilogy comes to an end. We recently chatted with Epic Games design director, Cliff Bleszinski, about building personal game experiences, establishing a profile in the games industry, and developing the Gears of War movie.

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GameSpot AU: Tell us a bit more about the Gears of War 3 season pass, how it will work, and whether you were surprised by the fan response after its announcement.

Cliff Bleszinski: The first problem is that we exist in a world in which there are online passes, so when this was announced, there were perceptions about having to pay money to play Gears online, which was, of course, not the case. It’s a season pass for the DLC; it’s kind of like having an up-front version of the [Gears of War 2] All Fronts Collection that you can pay for. The other thing is that people are thinking it’s just a bunch of multiplayer maps, and that’s not the case. There will, of course, be some multiplayer maps at some point, but there’s going to be other stuff, like new things for Horde mode, as well as new single-player campaign content. It’s one way to get a nice discount and to eliminate the hassle of manually buying each. It’s a smart business decision.

GS AU: You have previously said that thematically, Gears of War is a personal game for you. As the trilogy comes to a close, with so much of yourself represented throughout, are you finding emotional closure?

CB: Absolutely. Personally, when the project really started, I was 29 and 30 and going through a split, as far as my first marriage. If you’re ever going through a rough time in your life and you’re a creative person, the best thing you can do is pour that into your work. You hear about artists who are going through a tough time and it’s cathartic; it’s therapy for them. And some of the things that came out of Gears 1 were the result of that. Coming full circle to the end of Gears 3, let’s just say the ending is very personal for me. I don’t want to spoil a lot of it, but in regards to what happens–and the final shot–it’s not only personal to me, but also Rod Fergusson and Lee Perry, who also lost their dads at a young age. My advice to developers often is make your products personal. Take things from real life, names of friends, locations you’ve gone to, and do that. That’s what makes it not feel like a manufactured product; it makes it feel real and tangible.

GS AU: Given that you are drawing on your own personal experiences, were there aspects you didn’t want to explore in the game?

CB: I’ve had my share of ups and downs and good and bad relationships, but I don’t think I could ever pull off a game like Catherine. I applaud them for going in that direction. Catherine is the first game to touch on themes of stress, infidelity, and uncertainty in a relationship since Silent Hill 2. And that’s an area I wouldn’t even want to touch because it’s tricky.

GS AU: Recently at PAX, 343 Industries spoke about having great new ideas for Halo but that they don’t always fit the universe and support the fiction. As design director, were there gameplay concepts you’ve shelved in Gears 3 not because they didn’t work, but because they didn’t fit?

CB: Yeah, at one point we briefly considered prone [stance], as well as having the ability to be on high cover and peek over, but it felt like added clunkiness to the cover system that didn’t need to be there when we were making it as refined as possible. Those were a couple of examples of things that were floated at one point but wound up being cut.

GS AU: Back in July, an incomplete version of the Gears 3 campaign leaked. What impact did that have on studio staff morale?

CB: It sucks and it breaks your heart, but you’ve got to roll with the punches and dust off your shoulders and keep moving. Keep in mind that anyone who’s a true fan would ignore that build or those YouTube videos. We’re doing what we can to track down anyone who still has it and ban them from the game because it’s not only theft, but you’re also spoiling the game for everyone else. But that’s the world we live in; things just seem to want to be leaked, and all you can do is prevent it from ever happening. Stuff gets out there, cutscenes don’t have facial animation, and there’s debug text. You want the product to be polished, and you never get a second chance to make that first impression, and that’s heartbreaking when that happens.

GS AU: You’ve got an executive producer credit on the Gears of War film. What stage is the movie at right now?

CB: It is in development limbo at the moment. There’s a lot of discussion about where the project goes and what happens with it, but as of right now, it’s stalled a little bit. Hopefully, once the game is out, we’re hoping to resume traction on it.

GS AU: During GDC, you talked about your image and the need for spokespeople to be a brand above and beyond your product. Is that now a necessity of modern game development?

CB: It’s a difficult thing to do. It requires a thick skin, and most of the time, the publishers don’t want that because they want employees to be interchangeable factory workers. No one asked me to do this. I actually jumped up, and any time press came to town, I’d volunteer when I was younger because I knew deep down that it was an insurance policy that if Tim [Sweeney] woke up one day and didn’t like me, I could probably go and get a job at a lot of places just based on people knowing my name. Plus, it’s fun; it leads to a lot of great opportunities. I live in Raleigh [North Carolina], which is a lovely, sleepy, little southern town, but I get to travel around and see the world and then come back here and make cool games. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds. I’d love to see more of it; I’d love to get to know more developers. I think we should all stick together as much as possible.

Read on to find out what piles of cardboard, Japanese puzzle games, and books on cats have in common with Epic’s third-person shooter.

GS AU: Gears stands on its own merits as a game, but do you attribute any of the success of the franchise to your social media initiative?

CB: Knowing how to use it is useful, and I think it has probably helped a lot, but I think in some cases it can hurt. I’ve been polarizing to certain gamers in the past because the way I dressed was goofy…and the hair and the earrings. And I have said my share of stupid things, but I’ve had quotes that were misquoted. So, if you’re Peter Molyneux or John Carmack, you get a lot of that respected nerd cred, and I’ve had to fight and continue to fight and work on and make great games in order to make my nerd cred.

GS AU: Looking back, there has to be a lot of 20/20 vision hindsight after you ship a game. Tell us about the lessons learned between each iteration of the Gears of War franchise.

CB: The lesson I learned I like to call “I did not sign up for this.” A recent example of a game I had played was…well, they didn’t do it in Dead Space 2 but in Dead Space…was that asteroid sequence. I signed up to kill necromorphs and be scared; I didn’t sign up to play Asteroids [laughs]. The same thing applied to Gears 2 with the damn tank on the lake. Most Gears fans signed up to hear the story of Marcus, Dom, Cole, Locust…and chainsawing, cool weapons, and awesome set pieces. They didn’t sign up to drive a tank over slippery ice that breaks [laugh]. That’s one of the very important lessons we learned. So there are sequences in Gears 3 where you are on the back of a truck or in a submarine, but they’re not ones where you’re piloting the darn things because we realized we should put the vehicles on ice [Ed note: metaphorically speaking] for a while and let those sequences be their own co-op rail-shooter sections.

GS AU: How do you juggle fan feedback of what the audience wants and still forge ahead to include elements you think would be good new additions?

CB: We use a multitiered system. The first thing we do is always pay attention to forums, Twitter, and social networking; that’s a good temperature check. That said, you have to be careful with that because there are a lot of super diehard fans, and sometimes they’re the most vocal people speaking, as opposed to the casual gamer who buys a few games per year and wouldn’t go on a forum. The second thing we use is metrics; we’ve found sometimes there’s a difference between what people are saying in the forums and what’s actually going on in the wild. For instance, there was a big perception when the [Gears of War 3] beta came up that the sawed-off shotgun was the best weapon ever, but then, we looked at the backend and found that four times as many kills were being had by the gnasher shotgun as opposed to the sawed-off shotgun. It’s just the fact that those guys who were used to getting through a match without dying once because of their shotgun proficiency were occasionally getting killed by the digger launcher or the sawed-off shotgun. And I was saying, “Good, they should be able to get killed once in a while!” We added a big, old emissive dot on the tip of the sawed-off shotgun so you could see the guy coming a mile away, and then, the final thing we use is our gut. If we can’t trust that, we might as well pack it in.

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GS AU: You mentioned Dead Space and Catherine. How much of the game design that you do comes from correcting the things you think other developers are doing badly?

CB: Visual language is a big thing for me. When you work in an industry, it can ruin the product, which you experience. Eric Holmes, one of our designers, convinced everyone to read this book series called Save the Cat!, which breaks down the beats of story writing for film…which has kind of ruined movies for me because [the author] has these terms for these things that make a good movie. There’s always the dark night of the soul or when the character is worse off than he was at the beginning of the film and usually has a rainy dark night, and we transition into the next act. I find myself turning to my fiancee in the movie theatre anytime it happens and whispering “Dark night of the soul!” And she’s like “Shut up!” And that’s what it is. The same thing happens with games, and one of my big things is visual language. On Gears, we’ve had to continually remind people that if it’s wood, it’s usually breakable; if a door doesn’t have any metal strapping over it, you can usually go through it. If you’re in a high-tech environment, a green or a blue dot means a door is open; a red dot means you can’t go through it. And this is something the earlier Halo games were great at. Playing certain other games, I notice that I can break this barrel in front of me, but there are three other barrels next to me that look exactly the same that I can’t break, and I’m like “What the hell?” Or what I call lazy barriers. You come to the end of a hallway, and there’s an invisible blocking wall and two pieces of cardboard stopping you, and I’m like “Dude, why can’t I go through this?” Put a giant pile of rubble there; obviously, I can’t climb over that. A lot of those little things I’m a nitpicker about when it comes to design.

GS AU: Cliff, thanks for your time.

By Dan Chiappini