It’s not easy competing with the big guys, but that’s exactly the position veteran game developer Cliff Blezinski has found himself in with LawBreakers, the debut arena shooter from Boss Key Productions.
It’s been a long time since Blezinski has been in this position. For 20 years the developer worked on some of the videogame industry’s biggest titles at Epic Games, and for the latter decade he became one of the most recognisable faces in the games industry as he helmed the Gears of War franchise to become the defining series of the Xbox 360 era.
And yet Lawbreakers is hardly a small game. As we sit down to chat about the multiplayer shooter at its impressively sized E3 booth, Blezinski is quick to point out the numerous cosplayers idling around the convention centre. It’s hard to think of many other developers that could amass a similar cult following after having gone it alone with a brand new studio.
"Game development is a lot of work, it’s mentally and emotionally taxing, but coming out here and meeting the press in the flesh and people who like the game and they’re wearing the brand that you and the team came up…that high carries you through the rest of the development," he says as we watch another pair of fans excitedly point out Blezinski as they walk by the booth's press area.
It’s easy to see why Blezinski inspires this kind of fan following. Having been in the industry his entire adult life (he released his first game, The Palace of Deceit, when he was just 17), Blezinski is an impressive fount of knowledge when it comes to games, which he doles out at a machinegun pace.
Yet even as he recounts a story about meeting a fan who has an Unreal Tournament tattoo, a Gears tattoo and a Lawbreakers tattoo (“Goddamnit! Next you’re going to pull down your pants and have a Jazz Jackrabbit on your ass,” he jokes) Blezinski appears humble, as though it’s an accident he’s surrounded by a cult of personality.
A strong debut
LawBreakers is fast, very fast. It’s so fast in fact, that Blezinski reckons with a mouse and keyboard that it’s, “batshit insane and actually slightly hard to follow.”
It’s Unreal Tournament on steroids, a fast and frantic arena shooter that’s as much about deftly flinging yourself through space as it is tracking your enemies through its maze-like arenas.
But as well as bringing the classic arena shooter gameplay of Unreal tournament into 2017, LawBreakers brings classes into the mix.
At the outset of each match you have a choice of nine classes (well, technically the game calls them ‘roles’), each with their own characteristics, weapons, and special abilities.
There’s the Assassin, for instance, a close combat fighter capable of zipping around the map at dizzying speeds, or the shotgun-toting Juggernaut capable of dropping shields at a moment’s notice.
Making a class-based shooter in 2017 was always going to invite comparisons to Overwatch, Blizzard’s currently multiplayer behemoth.
Overwatch is a recurring theme in my discussion with Blezinski. So dominant has it become in the online shooter space, that it’s inadvertently become the bar against which all other upcoming releases in the genre are measured.
The game’s comparison’s to Overwatch began internally at the studio almost as soon as the game was first announced.
“We saw the trailer for Overwatch and my programmer, Matt, goes, ‘Fuck’,” Bezinski recalls, “[and] I’m like, ‘Matt, this is ok. Now we know what not to do. Let’s make our own versions of classes, let’s have our own art style.’”
No more rock, paper, scissors
But this distinction from Overwatch goes far beyond a superficial art style difference.
For starter, Blezinski was keen to emphasise that the team wanted to avoid the rock, paper, scissors, dynamic that has become a staple of the class-based shooter genre.
Overwatch is a game that relies upon you recognising your opposing team’s hero composition and picking effective characters as a result. If your enemies are playing as snipers then you want to get near to them as quickly as possible with a character that can tear them apart at close range.
But on public servers it can be tough to coordinate these choices with a group of strangers (or as Blezinski calls them, ‘random asshats’) that each have their own characters they like to play as.
LawBreaker’s solution is to ensure any character has a decent shot at taking out any other character.
“Any role in this game, played right, can take out any other role,” Blezinski explains, “In our game there are health packs around and… healing stations so if you’re playing as a ‘squishier’ class and you’re trying to take down, David and Goliath style, a juggernaut, you get the drop on them then you get a few hits and they start to shoot you and take you down, zip across and get a health pack, get the drop on them again and you could actually take them down.”
Additionally, whereas other shooters rely on teams having a solid backbone of support characters that are useless at pretty much anything else, LawBreaker’s has characters that can hold their own in a fight when they’re not acting in support.
“All of our support classes are fire and forget. You want to heal? Boom, you get a heal, boom you get a heal, and then you get back to shooting. You play as the juggernaut and you do a shield? You drop it and you get back to shooting. You want to be the Harrier [a sniper character] and you want to drop out some health and fuel? Boom, drop them out with [the] ‘E’ [key] and get back to flying around and shooting your lasers.”
Blezinski admits that there are problems with this approach that the development team is yet to address. He doesn’t yet know whether the game will allow two or more players on one team to pick the same class for instance, which is an eventuality Overwatch’s rock, paper, scissors nature makes impossible.
In the end though, Blezinski concedes that Boss Key will have to respond to how the community likes to play their game. Citing Gears of War as an example, he says, “I wanted to create a game that was stop-and-pop and it was about the chainsaw and the community’s like, ‘Nah we’re just going to roll around like idiots and use the shotguns’ and I fought that for so long when I should have just rolled with it in hindsight.”
After all, no one ever criticised Counter Strike for its overwhelming reliance on de_dust2.
Room for two?
It feels unfair to draw constant comparisons to Overwatch, but multiplayer games are always at their best when they build a critical mass of players, and there will always be those for whom playing the more popular game is better than playing the better game.
But then again this isn’t the first time Blezinski has released a game going up against an industry juggernaut. Back when Unreal Tournament was first released Quake was the biggest multiplayer PC game around, but the team at Epic Games still managed to find an audience of their own despite sitting in the same genre.
“It’s just like when I looked at Quake back in the day and was like, ‘Let’s not do gothic dungeons, let’s do bright, colorful sky castles. Let’s not just do a rocket launcher let’s do a rocket launcher that can load up multiple shots. Let’s find our own formula for it,’” Blezinski recalls.
The veteran game developer has been the underdog before, and his path ended up with him being the Xbox 360’s most prominent developer alongside one of its tentpole franchises.
LawBreakers might look like the underdog now, but we can’t wait to see what Cliff Blezinski makes of the position this time.