Editor’s note: Gears of War 3 hits stores on Sept. 20, surrounded with hype and expectations to be a blockbuster like its two predecessors. In addition to winning numerous awards, the Gears franchise has sold more than 12 million copies, spawned a franchise of books, toys, action figures and, perhaps someday, a movie. In advance of Gears 3 release, WRAL Tech Wire is publishing a series of stories by widely published videogame journalist John Gaudiosi that will take readers inside its developer, Cary-based Epic Games. We start by interviewing Cliff Bleszinki, one of the most recognized figures in the gaming industry today.

By JOHN GAUDIOSI, special to WRAL Tech Wire

CARY, N.C. – Cliff Bleszinski, design director at Epic Games, has emerged as one of the most recognizable faces in the video game industry today. He’s been booked on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and taken center stage at E3 numerous times. He’s the public face of Epic Games, which has grown into one of the most successful independent game studios in the world today.

With Gears of War 3 done (and hitting stores Sept. 20 – details here), Bleszinski sat down to reminisce about the bestselling franchise and how it’s evolved in this exclusive interview.

Can you explain what your job title, design director, means?

My role at Epic is design director, which means that in a large way I’m creatively responsible for the majority of titles that we put out. I have titles that I tend to nurture on a more regular basis such as the Gears of War series and then I have new universes that I’m developing from the ground up with internal teams as well as external partners. So there are other shooters that we’re working on. There are other games. We had another game come out for Xbox Live Arcade, which is called Shadow Complex, which is kind of old school Metroid-type video game that was very successful. My involvement with these games was to creatively encourage better gameplay, cooler narrative, offer suggestions for the visuals, and things like that to help foster the creative process.

How did you create Gears of War as a transmedia franchise that spans novels, comics, action figures, and other entertainment today?

Many video games start with faceless protagonists so that the player can put themselves in the setting. When we developed Gears, we deliberately wanted to build it so that it would be easy to translate into action figures, easy to translate into movies, easy to translate into graphic novels and whatnot. Because we had that mindset when we were building it, we have been able to have some success in those areas and continue to do that. I think when you create a universe, you want to create characters that are iconic characters that have key tag lines, characters that have good silhouettes and have very exciting adventures together. You want to put them in a world that’s very memorable and that has a lot of very cool hooks, creatures from the underground those are very large and very scary. You want to have fun and unique weapons, and things that people can talk about that are very tangible. Frankly, by doing that, we’ve had a world that’s been translated into other mediums and has been very successful in that department.

How has other media influenced you in creating the Gears universe?

Initially, when we were crafting the Gears franchise, we were going for a “Band of Brothers” type vibe as far as this camaraderie…that sort of World War II mini-series feel or the Saving Private Ryan film. But ultimately we wanted to build something that was a little bit more ‘80s style in regards to /Predator type of vibe with very muscle bound heroes that say very iconic one-liners and ultimately save the world and it’s kind of a wink to those kind of eighties movies, but it’s also kind of an evolution of them.

How did Gears of War evolve over development?

The first iteration of Gears was not at all like the final game that wound up shipping. It was very much a large terrain-based war game with multiple vehicles, kind of like a Battlefield 1942-type, multiplayer game. Players were controlling multiple bases and taking over things like that. Once we got Unreal Engine 3 online, we saw how good the characters looked and we saw other games that used over-the-shoulder camera views like Resident Evil 4. We shifted direction to do something that had a full single-player story-driven experience. We created something that allows you to see the character, like you’r looking down the barrel of a gun, the entire time. And we decided to name the characters and give them identities. Then we put multiplayer and cooperative play on top of that and it boiled up and evolved into what the current iteration of Gears is that everyone knows and loves today.

How do you collaborate with external talent like bestselling author Karen Traviss on these transmedia prosperities?

Managing a property that exists in multiple media is basically a full-time job. You need to have a very good collaboration. You need to have an excellent relationship with the people who are externally working on your products. Karen Traviss, for example, who’s working on the novels. We go over drafts of the script. She basically gives us high-level ideas about what she wants to do with the next book and we collaborate on that.

What role do fans of the franchise have on how you decide what to add to each new game?

Gamers are very passionate people and whenever we release a game, or we release an update for a game, they’re on the Internet forums posting on a regular basis. Any game developer that is smart or savvy will pay attention to those comments and will read them and implement as much as you can. Because these are people who pay for the game and are passionate enough to fire up a Web browser and post on a forum. You better listen to them if you want to have life-long customers.

Is there a secret to the success of the Gears of War franchise?

What we did with Gears was have a large amount of success beyond the hardcore community. We have our serious hardcore fans, but we managed to hit a lot of people who only play a few games a year. I’m not sure how we did it. Maybe because we made it more of a transmedia type of property with recognizable characters and iconic lines of dialogue and iconic weapons. Maybe it was the addition of a tremendous amount of support and marketing from our publisher, Microsoft. Maybe it was just that the game was so darn pretty or most likely it was a combination of all those factors.

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