“On the cereal scale, how crunchy is Gears of War 3?” I ask, very much aware that the media minder might jump in at any moment to inform me that I’ve asked an inappropriate question. “Hmm…” says Cliff Bleszinski. I continue: “Would you say it’s like a granola? Or does it have the crunch of a cornflake?”
I’m speaking with the design director of Epic Games (commonly known as CliffyB) about the forthcoming Gears of War 3. I’ve been briefed in advance that he has nothing to say about whether or not there will be a Gears of War 4 or why Gears of War 3 is not Kinect-enabled. This is fine. I am not here to learn about the possible existence of a sequel to another sequel that is yet to be released, nor do I want to know about Kinect. I’m here to talk about crunchiness.
“I often speak in metaphors about food or relationships when it comes to explaining how a game works or how things kind of stick or resonate, and adjectives like ‘crunchy’ and ‘sticky’ are, for some reason, what a good game feels like to me,” Bleszinski says.
Where other developers are using a game’s crisp graphics and range of weapons as a selling point, Bleszinski is talking about texture. He is talking about crunchy gameplay; he says he wants a game to be sticky, and for the movement and sound within a game to feel good to the player, but what does any of it actually mean?
“When something is sticky then it sticks in your mind and hangs around,” he says.
“If it’s crunchy, it feels good and has really nice feedback. I mean, any shooter worth its weight in gold will know that at the core the shooting action needs to be crunchy, from the nice muzzle flash coming off the weapon, to the resonance of the sound and the sound of the shells dropping, to the impact of blood spatters of the enemy having a squishy sound… it’s all that pleases the little dopamine response in the brain, and that’s where it all comes back to.”
He says that not every game needs to be “crunchy”, citing RPGs as an example of a genre that can get away with less crunchy shooting action because of the other elements within the game that make it worthwhile, such as the combat, questing, and role-playing. But when it comes to shooters, he believes that texture is paramount.
“I do think texture is lacking in a lot of games. I’m not going to name names because I have lots of industry friends, but it’s surprisingly hard to have that sensibility of whether a sound has that impact, whether or not taking cover feels good, whether or not an execution feels proper, and it’s surprisingly hard to get that right,” he says.
“Call of Duty is bigger than ever, and it’s great not just because it’s 60FPS and has great shooting action, but they nailed that — when you pull out a gun and pop a couple of rounds into a bad guy and he drops, that feels good upon the core. Infinity Ward got that right and then passed that ability onto Treyarch and now Sledgehammer.”
Bleszinski says that exaggerating reality is one of the keys to a crunchy game, and that when people say they want realism, what they really want is the perception of reality.
“In a movie, if the hero gets shot, he limps along and still manages to kill the bad guy even though he’s been shot in the gut. In real life, if you get shot you fall over and pee yourself.”
“You need to give that sense of empowerment. Tracers really need to look like a Zeus-strung lightning bolt. If you were to use the real gun effects from a real-world gun it would be more like a firecracker going off, so we use canon-like sounds to make the player feel like he’s a god with his weapon.”
Bleszinski clearly knows what he looks for in a game. When asked what makes a game particularly crunchy, he has no trouble listing features that he believes shooters should have, from the way sound, images, and movements can all be manipulated to create the desired experience for the player. But the trouble comes when it’s time to communicate all this to the team that will help him craft the gun effects, the muzzle flashes, and the cereal-like crunchiness that he finds so important. I ask him how he makes sure that everyone on his development team is on the same page as he is, and his method seems straightforward enough: lots of caffeine and time spent explaining everything in detail.
“I can break it down to the individual things,” he says.
“In a first-person shooter, the gun shells have a good feng shui of pointing towards the crosshairs, and they have a good outline.”
“Looking around looks nice, the muzzle flash should be fast and it should be sharp and violent – it’s one of the things we learned originally from Bungie’s explosions in Halo. A lot of these games have these slow explosions and it’s kind of like a mouse farting, but Halo just had these kind of lightning-strike visceral explosions that are quick, and it’s one of the lessons we learned and applied to the Gears franchise.”
He goes on to explain the texture of Gears of War 3, describing it as “brackish” because of the level of chaos in the game world and in the personal lives of the characters.
“The game has come to its full chaos with everyone going on with the characters to the mutation to the three-way fight – the overall package makes it a brackish game.”
This is all well and good, but I’m still waiting for him to give me a crunch rating on the cereal scale.
Bleszinski thinks for a moment. He mutters a few cereal ingredients to himself as he ponders the precise crunchiness of Gears of War 3. I hear him say something about corn, before finally deciding that the game does not sit on the cereal scale of crunchiness at all.
After some thought, he comes back to me with an answer: “I’d say it’s a potato chip crunchy. One of the super crunchy ones.”