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Why We Don't Hear From Cliff Bleszinski Anymore

Known to many as CliffyB, Cliff Bleszinski is one of the most recognizable faces in the video game industry. He first found fame as a game designer with the likes of Jazz Jackrabbit, Unreal, and Gears of War, and championed a more consumer-friendly pricing model. He graced the cover of PC Gamer magazine as one of "the next game gods," and was always good for an entertaining interview, either in print or on television. But we haven't heard much from the outgoing developer lately, which makes us wonder — what's CliffyB been up to?

He quit Epic Games

In October 2012, Bleszinski quit Epic Games — the studio that helped make him famous. "I've been doing this since I was a teenager," he wrote in a personal note to his colleagues, "and outside of my sabbatical last year, I have been going non-stop. I literally grew up in this business ... And now that I'm grown up, it's time for a much needed break." The studio professionally wished Bleszinski the best in his future endeavors.

Behind the scenes, however, Bleszinski's departure wasn't quite so smooth. "It's simple: a big Chinese company comes along and I had a chunk of ownership at Epic and they buy out 40 percent of it without any strings attached," Bleszinski told IGN Unfiltered. "Epic at the time, and I say this very carefully because they've really kind of changed into their own entity.... But at the time there was this whole like 'Gears was kind of a fluke,' you know, and I could pitch any idea to the company and inevitably I'd have somebody in my office going 'I don't buy it.'"

Unhappy with his situation at Epic and unable to come to agreeable terms in regards to his contract, Bleszinski just stopped showing up. "One day I just stopped going to work, which in hindsight was really unprofessional and not cool and disrespectful to Tim [Sweeney], but — you know — they tried to negotiate for a couple months, couldn't come to terms, so I just strong-armed it. I was like, 'f*** it, I'm just not gonna come to work."

He retired young, but got bored quickly

After Bleszinski quit Epic Games, he took some time off from the gaming industry. "I honestly thought I was done," he told Destructoid. "It was a combination of gamers feeling jaded, as well as working with some very talented people who were also very jaded...I don't mean to slag anyone, but people get jaded in this business."

Bleszinski's early retirement didn't last long. In an interview with Eurogamer, he explained how he started to get bored with not being involved with the industry. Fewer than two years after calling game development quits, Bleszinski officially announced his comeback. "I'm officially coming out of retirement to make video games again," he wrote on Twitter.

He started his own studio

Bleszinski decided to start his own video game development studio, Boss Key Productions, with Guerrilla Games co-founder Arjan Brussee. It didn't take long for him to think of his new studio like his family.

"Some say it's a weakness, some say it's a strength, depends on who you talk to, but I know everybody's name at the company," Bleszinski told Push Square. "I think we have a good environment with the studio being 65 [people] — yes, we are first and foremost a business, but we also function as and feel like a family."

Bleszinski is proud of what his studio has accomplished in rather short period of time, telling VentureBeat at E3: "I'm just proud. I got a little emotional this week. For me to un-retire because I was getting bored, to have a seat the table here, and to know that with my scrappy team of 65 folks I can compete with the heavyweights — it's a pretty amazing feeling."

Unfortunately, Boss Key Production got knocked out by the heavyweights pretty quickly...

Their first game flopped, hard

Boss Key Productions' first major release, Lawbreakers, has largely been dead on arrival. The first-person arena shooter only managed 3,000 concurrent players the night it launched on Steam and has since dropped steadily, despite receiving generally positive reviews from both critics and fans alike. In a market saturated by competitive shooters, Lawbreakers has struggled to gain a foothold.

Bleszinski has been humbled by Lawbreakers' lack of success and realizes it might be — at least to some degree — his own fault. "I have to keep this game alive, first and foremost," he told GameSpot. "I can be very cocky and very brash on social media. And realizing that, you know, we have a fledgling player base. It's been very humbling for me."

His studio was "stuck in the middle"

One reason why Cliff Bleszinski isn't quite as visible as he used to be is due to the fact that his studio — while full of AAA talent — is sandwiched somewhere between major development powerhouses and small, independent outfits.

"It's hard," Bleszinski admitted. "The moment you start making stuff that looks AAA but doesn't have a 300-man team behind it, people are still expecting to have full cutscenes and more depth — but we can't provide that. We're stuck in the middle: we either make something for Early Access that's super broken and looks mediocre at best, or we make something super polished but people miss the story or that kind of stuff."

He doesn't have the best relationship with the games press

Cliff Bleszinski has always had an outgoing and brash personality, and he's admitted he can rub people the wrong way. Throughout the years, however, he's also rubbed some people in the games press the wrong way — and he partly blames them for Lawbreakers' failure.

"They're just looking for clicks, man," Bleszinski says of the games press, referring to headlines mentioning Lawbreakers' launch numbers coming in lower than those of high-profile flop Battleborn. "They're just looking for ad revenue. We're going to keep doing what we're doing, and they're welcome to print whatever they want  — but as far as I'm concerned, they can f*** off. We're going to keep making our game for our fans."

Bleszinski still does plenty of interviews and has throughout his career, but saying the games press can "f*** off" is never going to do yourself, your studio, or the game you're trying to sell, any favors.

He turned down Hideo Kojima

Hideo Kojima is a bonafide rock star in the video game world, known as the mastermind behind Konami's famous Metal Gear series. He recently collaborated with Guillermo Del Toro on the now-infamous PT demo and has since teamed up with Sony to produce the PlayStation 4-exclusive title Death Stranding. So if Kojima wants to work with you, you should probably take him up on his offer. Cliff Bleszinski, however, turned him down.

When Kojima approached the former Gears of War guy to work on Silent Hills, Bleszinski said no. "I only want to work on new IP," he told Rolling Stone. "I wanted to go my own way, in terms of being CEO and seeing if I had it in me to make another world."

He wants to make a VR game, but it's too expensive

Even though he's not giving up on Lawbreakers, Cliff Bleszinski would really like to make a VR game. There's only one problem — they're too expensive.

"I'm frustrated," Bleszinski told Rolling Stone. "Funding for a VR game right now, you can raise $1 million to $2 million, maybe. And most of the VR games out there look like, either the graphical fidelity or the depth, what a $2 million game looks like. I wanted to do something, I don't know, maybe in the $3 million to $5 million range? Who knows. People are just like, 'It's too rich for my blood,' or 'You don't have any VR experience.' I didn't have any console experience before Gears."

Nevertheless, Bleszinski is determined not to let funding get in the way of what he and his studio wants to achieve in the VR space. "I've surrounded myself with a lot of incredibly intelligent people," he says. "We'll figure it out and we'll learn."

He wants to help people with Seasonal Affective Disorder

When it comes to the exact type of VR game Bleszinski wants to make, he explained in his Rolling Stone interview that he'd create "a real game, a social experience that helps with seasonal affective disorder. But it hides itself as a really fun game and experience."

Bleszinski himself feels the effects of SAD, and wants to help others get through the winter by virtually escaping it. Using a VR game called Perfect, he's already felt the potential curative effects that virtual reality can provide. "I just plug that in and sit there, just chilling, for like 10 minutes. And immediately I could feel my mood getting so much better." 

The technology's ability to transform not just your surroundings, but your actual sense of self is a key part of Bleszinski's plan for virtual reality: "It would take a wink from the ridiculousness of Snapchat filters. We would look down, and our hands would look goofy. The escapism of masquerade balls and of looking like someone who's not you.

What's next for CliffyB?

Unfortunately, the commercial failure of LawBreakers and Radical Heights' weak numbers were too much for one studio to bear. As of May 2018, Boss Key is "no more," according to a note from Bleszinski himself. For his own part, he will be taking some time to himself to reflect on what happened, spend time with his family, and determine what his next steps will be. While we can't know where he goes from here, he is a gamer to his core: it's the only career he's ever known. Here's hoping he'll come back to it soon.