Epic Games’ Cliff Bleszinski Gets Unreal

Epic Games put on quite a show at this year’s Game Developers Conference. Every day, designers and publishers checked out the technology behind the new Unreal Engine 4 game development framework. Meanwhile, journalists watched demos of games powered by Unreal Engine 3, including the new Infinity Blade: Dungeons and the pumped-up version of Mortal Kombat. Not to mention that some of the most popular games at GDC 2012 were running on Unreal Engine 3, including Hawken, the free-to-play PC shooter, and TERA, the massively multiplayer online action fantasy game.

Cliff Bleszinski, the company’s design director, is at the heart of Epic’s new game development. DIG caught up with him before he went on to host the 2012 Game Developers Choice Awards.

Can you explain what it is that you are doing now that you’re involved in so many different projects at Epic?

Cliff Bleszinski: I’m trying to maintain productivity while having my fingers in many different pies. As a person who’s slightly ADD, that can be tricky at times. Thankfully, I have a good management staff to help keep me focused.

What I do the majority of the time is I bust out work on Fortnite. I have a lot of meetings, but I also try and make time for free play. So if Donald Mustard -- the co-founder and creative director at ChAIR Entertainment, Epic Games’ award-winning studio -- comes to town with a new Infinity Blade idea or proposal, I can make time to see his stuff as well. And hopefully sprinkle a little bit of that fun magic on top of it.

What excites you about the game industry today?

C.B.: The fact that if you’re a 17-year-old kid right now and you have an Internet connection and you’re somewhat dev-savvy, you can go get something like Unreal Development Kit and you could be the next overnight sensation if you are smart and play your cards right. Now, with a fully connected Internet and developers checking out indie games and the Independent Games Festival going on next door, the chance for visibility is higher than ever. I always say the brass ring is there, and it’s up to you as a young gamer to seize it.

Speaking of the Independent Games Festival, what opportunities does it offer to developers?

C.B.: There’s actually a real-world instance where a game, which years ago was called Narbacular Drop, got picked up by Valve. I think Kim Swift, now chief creative officer at Airtight Games, was one of the developers. That game ultimately evolved into Portal, which of course is now the beloved global sensation that we all adore.

I’m going to be there Tweeting about games that I think are cool. I’m going to be spreading the word to my 150,000 followers, and maybe somebody else who’s a developer is over there talking to his followers. This is such an organic world where the good stuff can rise up more than ever and the bad stuff sinks away. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago. You had to really fight, kick and claw your way to the top of the heap back then.

What role does the Unreal Development Kit play in this new gaming ecosystem?

C.B.: Well, UDK is the toolset for a young developer to really get cracking. I’ve told many people before that if I could go back in time and have UDK when I was 17, I would have killed for it. One thing Tim Sweeney (the founder of Epic Games) realized very, very early on is that by empowering creatives who may not necessarily be that tech-savvy, he can get a lot of great results and also have developers be more efficient. That’s something that’s carried out through Unreal technology all the way through Unreal Engine 4.

Photo: @Getty.com/Mark Davis

GDC 2012: Plenty Developed Among a Record Number of Attendees

Record crowds converged on the Game Developers Conference 2012 at San Francisco’s Moscone Center earlier this month. About 22,500 attendees came to share techniques, troll for jobs and hunt for the best new tools of the trade. The conference -- now in its 26th year -- hosted hundreds of panels, workshops and talks that were aimed at educating, inspiring and inflaming video game developers. Here were my highlights:

During an earnest “fireside chat,” SpyParty designer Chris Hecker grilled Mojang’s Markus “Notch” Persson, the creator of Minecraft. Persson took an evenhanded stance on piracy, rejecting the notion that the illegal downloading of games leads to significant losses in sales. “It’s wrong,” he said, “but it’s such a minor thing. It’s ridiculously small.”

Microsoft veterans Matt Whiting and Ted Woolsey explained the lengths to which their company goes to bring games like Disney Adventures to hundreds of markets. Talk highlights included moments when Woolsey, who helped import many Final Fantasy classics, told of all the death threats and late-night phone calls he received for tweaking the beloved role-playing games.


Renaud Bedard, the programmer behind the forthcoming indie game Fez, sketched out the technical tricks he used to render the game’s colorful and complex game world. He also described the tools he created to help designer Phil Fish craft the game’s ornate levels.

During the “Localization Microtalk” discussion, developers outlined the technical and marketing difficulties of importing games from one region to another. Particularly interesting was the tale of Knight Online, an MMO that flopped in the states but found massive success in Turkey.

On March 8, designers filled a Moscone Center ballroom for an evening of awards ceremonies. First came The 14th Annual Independent Games Festival. The event, hosted by Monaco designer Andy Schatz, celebrated homegrown video games crafted by small teams. Fez took home the Seumas McNally grand prize as well as $30,000. The Nuovo Award for experimental games went to Daniel Benmergui for Storyteller, a puzzle game that asks players to create their own comic strips.

Later that night, Cliff Bleszinski of Epic Games hosted the Game Developers Choice Awards, chosen by the votes of the winners’ peers. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim took the coveted Game of the Year award, while Valve’s Portal 2 won for Best Audio, Best Narrative and Best Game Design. Atari veteran Dave Theurer was recognized with the 2012 Pioneer Award for creating Missile Command, Tempest and I, Robot. Warren Spector, the creator of Deus Ex and System Shock, inspired the crowd after receiving a lifetime achievement award: “We can do things no other medium in human history has been able to do,” Spector told his fellow game-makers.

The closing of the convention hall doors cued the start of a wild array of parties, press events and meet-ups. Electronic Arts threw two different events as coming-out parties for The Sims 5 and Medal of Honor Warfighter. In Firaxis Games hotel suite, developers offered intimate glimpses of new games, including the expansion of Civilization V: Gods and Kings.

Indies plied their wares just as eagerly. Independent designer Jonathan Blow offered a close look of his ambitious and immersive puzzler The Witness, while Klei Entertainment designer Nels Anderson lugged a laptop around the convention center to give lucky attendees hands-on time with the Mark of the Ninja.

That’s just a sliver of GDC 2012, but it’s proof enough that anyone who cares about how and why games are made may want to start making plans for 2013.

What’s Hot for Video Game Artists in 2012: Limitless Possibilities

It’s the year 2012. It’s the year to unleash your creativity with speed and mobility in mind. With the technologies available in 2012, video game artists are no longer shackled to the desktop. You are able to take your work anywhere, without worrying about performance.

Game Development Goes Mobile

The best way to recreate reality for a video game is to get out into the real world. Take your work where your muse is, with no graphics limitations. The Ultrabook is thin, light and mobile, yet it doesn’t sacrifice performance. With multicore processors standard in every Ultrabook, this sleek, responsive platform merges the luxury of mobility with powerful performance to run the most complex graphics software on the go.

3D on the Go

Three-dimensional gaming is in full tilt with companies, like Dynamic Digital Depth, that bring hundreds of 3D-supported games to the market. Rendering 3D technology is a CPU-taxing process, but with the latest technology, even the smallest computers can quickly handle robust 3D graphics.

More Speed = More Productivity

Smaller and faster defines technology in 2012. Computers are not only small enough to travel with you wherever you go, but also more powerful than the most advanced computers of the early millennium. Today’s computers can maximize multitasking and encode graphically intensive files in the background while using CPU-taxing software to increase productivity and performance.

2012 is the year of mobility and speed. Video game artists are no longer bound by the limitations of technology; they are only limited by their own creativity.

What Lies Beneath the Sea: Shooting in Stereo 3D

Scott Cassell and Dave Faires are on a mission. Cassell is a wildlife filmmaker and underwater explorer. Faires is his director of photography. Together, they’re out to help marine researchers, educators, students and “citizen scientists” discover and safeguard what lies beneath the ocean. As Cassell puts it: “People are motivated to preserve and protect the things they understand and appreciate.”

To accomplish this, the duo has been documenting Cassell’s underwater adventures using cutting-edge digital video technology. So when Cassell attempted to break a world record by swimming underwater from Catalina Island to the California coast -- a dive of 30 miles -- they assembled a support crew and armed them with an array of 2D and S3D video cameras, which included Sony XDCAMs, Sony HXR-NX3D1Us, Panasonic AG-3DA1s, a Panasonic HDC-Z10000 and multiple GoPro 3D Hero rigs. In addition, they used Canon EOS 7D Digital SLRs to shoot both 2D still pictures and HD video. Their documentary, 30-Mile-Dive, is currently in production.

“We decided to complement traditional 2D video with stereoscopic 3D (S3D) footage because it has such a powerful effect on audiences,” says Faires. “We had cameras everywhere you looked. A Sony XDCAM caught the action above water from the deck of our boat. On the tow sled, we had 2D and S3D cameras covering Scott. The support divers used helmet cams.”

Underwater Shooting in S3D: The Challenges

files for digital projection in theaters with RealD S3D technology. “Our goal has always been to produce, shoot, edit and finish 30-Mile-Dive in 2D and S3D for broadcast and theatrical release using cameras and lenses characteristically not designed for the cinema,” says Faires.

“We feel we have a compelling documentary on the declining state of the ocean and how we need to pay attention to her,” he adds. “If her health goes away, so do we.”

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The Dead Rock: Hollywood Undead on Cakewalk SONAR

In 2005, six musicians from Los Angeles started dissecting life as they knew it in a torrent of hip-hop, metal and industrial soul. Drawn together by their love of music and determination to have fun, the members of Hollywood Undead hunkered down in their bedrooms and started recording.

“For the first six months, we were just doing it for fun,” says J-Dog, who, like the other members of Hollywood Undead, plays multiple instruments and contributes vocals onstage and in the studio. “We put our music on the Internet and next thing, people were buying it. It shocked us.”

Making Music on the Road
The band’s debut album, Swan Song, was released in 2008. It sold more than 800,000 copies. Since then, the band has toured the world and released their second album, American Tragedy. They have just wrapped up a two-month U.S. tour and have started recording another album, bringing ideas they started recording on the road into the studio.

“We’re always coming up with songs,” says J-Dog. “During days off, we’ll bring our gear up to the hotel room to write, but we’re usually working in back of the tour bus.”

To accomplish that, J-Dog leans heavily on Cakewalk’s SONAR digital audio workstation (DAW) software. “We use all of our road gear when we’re writing -- recording stems and bouncing them down to tracks to bring into the studio with us when we come off the road,” he says.

SONAR acts as the hub of their digital audio production work, both on and off the road. “All of the software synthesizers, the on-the-road recording interfaces and keyboards run off it,” explains J-Dog. “Rapture, Dimension … We love the sounds of those soft synths. I use a Korg Triton at home, but I don’t want to lug that around. With SONAR soft synths, I don’t have to.”

To control his software synths, J-Dog uses a Cakewalk keyboard. “I forget the model number, but it’s got the ACT button on it,” says J-Dog, describing Cakewalk’s Active Controller Technology, which automatically remaps parameters to the knobs, sliders and dials on the keyboard, saving him hours of tedious work. “The ACT button works for any Cakewalk plug-in. It’s really cool. It lets me automate things on the fly and makes automating stuff 10 times faster.”

The Tech Behind the Music
Hollywood Undead runs SONAR on PCAudioLabs Music Computers (MCs). “They’re workhorses; we’ve been using them for years, and they’ve always run perfectly. They’re really important to the show,” says J-Dog. “Most of our first album was recorded exclusively with SONAR and a PCAudioLabs computer. When it came time to do stems live, we decided to bring PCAudioLabs computers on the road with us. We’ve used them ever since.”

Hollywood Undead carries two PCAudioLabs MCs with them on the road. They’re linked, so if one were to cut out, the other would kick in without missing a beat. But as J-Dog puts it, “we’ve never had a problem.”

The band recently added a new MC from PCAudioLabs. “It’s a quarter of the size and a quarter of the weight of the older machines,” says J-Dog, “but I was shocked by how fast the new machine is. It’s the fastest computer I’ve ever used.”

What other benefits does he see from the new machine? “It lets me run more tracks and instruments. I can have way more stems -- I might have 36 running at the same time. With the older machine, I had to freeze a few of them.” (“Freezing” is the process of rendering effects into a track to free up processor power to handle other tasks.) “Before, when I’d be writing, I’d have to stop and freeze tracks so I could record vocals. Now I can just go and go. It’s a luxury,” says J-Dog.

“PCAudioLabs MCs are built for this stuff,” he continues. “They know what kinds of problems you’d encounter with a typical PC and work the kinks out ahead of time. I don’t have to worry about incompatible drivers and stuff. It’s a dream come true.”

Getting the Right Sounds
Fitting keyboard and synth sounds into heavy metal–laced hip-hop is no easy feat. “That’s why I’m really into Dimension Pro and Rapture,” explains J-Dog. “Their strings and piano really stood out. They have a good flavor that fits our band. I spent a lot of time looking for the right sounds and finally found them in SONAR.”

Another reason J-Dog turned to SONAR is that its soft synths integrated seamlessly with his keyboard controller. “It’s really user-friendly,” says J-Dog. “It lets me turn different sections of the synth on and off, which makes it easy to customize a preset to quickly build the sound I want. With other synths, you have to spend hours loading presets until you find one you like or sit and fiddle with oscillators and filters.”

That immediacy fits right into Hollywood Undead’s writing and recording workflow. “When you’re recording on a bus, looking for a synth sound and someone says they don’t like what you’ve done, you can’t sit there for half an hour reworking it,” says J-Dog. You’ve got to be able to stay in the creative flow.”

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Photo: hollywoodundead.com