Check out the full notes for 3 Takeaways: “Control Freak: My Epic Adventure Making Video Games” by Cliff Bleszinski
I grew up playing video games and computer games. I have some hazy NES memories, but mostly SNES to Xbox 360. Then I just sort of stopped for 10 years. I’d pick CS:GO and Starcraft back up here and there for a few weeks. I got curious about the Soulsborne series (a coworker would take a day off on every release day) and eventually tortured myself with Dark Souls III for about a month. That’s the last single player game I beat.
Gears of War was one of the last games I was playing as video games slowly left my life.
I mention all of that to say that I have video game memories but read this book with no preconceived notions about CliffyB. A quick Twitter search and I learned he’s polarizing, to say the least.
He has incredible insight into what it’s like making games in different eras. (Yes, he loves Lamborghinis and a good name drop.)
Anyway, I loved his book and will recommend it alongside The Making of Karateka, The Making of Prince of Persia, The WoW Diary, and of course, Masters of Doom.
The power of a live demo (when others demo things held together with duct tape)
And I was going to play it live. Which is just not done. Not when your microphone can shut down. Or your controller can fail. Or the monitor you’re playing on can go on the blink.
Cliff was the face of Epic Games and one of his biggest demo’s was the Gears of War demo at E3 (18:20 in this MTV documentary).
A lot of demos were pre-rendered without actual gameplay. Some had gameplay but they were recordings. Cliff practiced and played it live. A lot can go wrong: a bug could show up, you could just mess up and die instead of making it to the end of the stage, it might just be boring, etc.
But he demo’d perfectly and it built up to a chainsaw kill.
Nothing better than an engaging live demo.
The feeling of getting something (anything) moving on the screen
My little Thunder Burner game had a helicopter that scrolled upward and took out enemy aircraft carriers and supporting ships. It was crude, but it gave me that same excitement of manipulating things on the screen, except now I was making them.
Always cool to hear about the early days of personal computing.
There’s a recent Neal Stephenson interview with Steph Smith where Stephenson talks about how there was a period where one person could create something as impactful as large companies. Tooling got better, team workflows got better, and now a single person can’t create at the same scale as a AAA game studio. (Yes, indie hits can sell better than a AAA flop, but the games will just be entirely different in scope.)
This reminded me of learning HTML. I wish I could remember exactly what I was reading to learn. But I remember feeling excited to change the page background and then get some text to show. I ran to my aunt (I’d go to their house after school) and pulled her to the room to show her and she wasn’t quite as mind blown.
That’s probably how some of the generative AI things will go for a bit. They’ll be amazing for people who are familiar with how hard it is. For the rest the AI will just be creating somewhat interesting images.
Getting Jazz Jackrabbit ready to ship that summer required endless patience and a devotion to perfection. The only way to find all the bugs, errors, misspellings, and glitches was to play it. Endlessly.
One pattern through all of the game development memoirs is that playing your own games is just a known part of the process.
I did an internship one summer writing technical documentation for a database (DB2 for z/OS, to be exact) and wrote it without having an emulator to actually see the interface. We would translate very technical documentation to less technical documentation.
There must be great joy in building a game and having fun playing that same game.
That said, there’s also something similar to learning game testers aren’t exactly having fun playing the games—dogfooding the game in its early stages often isn’t fun.
For example, in the World of Warcraft diary, John Staats says things like combat and quests weren’t added until many many months into development. So you just have characters that can move but not do much around a world that exists but doesn’t have much.
Still, it sounds way more fun than inputting dummy text in a a form over and over and checking that the right things were sent over the network.
Money, money, money
All of us already had our own magic number that corresponded to a percentage of whatever went into the bonus pool, so I quickly did the math. After taxes, I wasn’t going to be a millionaire, not yet, but I would be able to pay off my mortgages and have a tidy six-figure sum left, and the game was still selling! So this is it, this is happening, I thought. I knew how it felt when life changed suddenly in a tragic way. But this, I told myself, this is what it feels like when life changes in an incredible way.
For whatever reason, this was surprising. I just assumed leading design and being the face of the studio when Gears of War came out would mean millions already. (That did come pretty soon after, along with much more money.)
He’s also another example where you work all your life on some craft but your biggest windfall comes from some investment later on. (Though you need the initial work to set yourself up to (1) run into the opportunity and (2) be able to afford to invest.)
He made the Gears of Wars games and started his own studio but the big payout came through an early investment in Oculus, which of course Zuck bought a few years later.
Sloppily tying things together, I started listening to The History of the Future, a book about VR and Oculus. In it, there’s a story about Palmer Lucky and how excited he was that John Carmack wanted one for demo-ing at E3. Carmack was really gracious in how he did it—he gave Palmer a heads up that he would make sure to mention that it was Palmer’s headset, not his, but invariably (and he was right) some of the press would get it wrong and credit it as Carmack’s headset.
Years before all of that, Cliff was studying Carmack and Romero, masters of rocket launcher feedback:
Carmack and Romero had perfected gibbing. I mean, it was the first time a rocket strike would explode someone into chunks of flesh. To this day, that’s one of the most satisfying ways to take someone out in a first-person shooter. It’s also one of the most misunderstood elements of gaming.
Check out Control Freak, it’s a fun read.