Few titles describe a game as well as Bulletstorm does. It’s edgy, it’s 'badass' in a corny, self-aware way, and it doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. Bulletstorm is a game about shooting, kicking and cursing your way through the endless swarms of enemies who're unlucky enough to get in the way of this storm of bullets. They don’t make them like Bulletstorm anymore. Hell, they didn’t even make them like that in 2011. Hence Bulletstorm’s failure to turn into a long-running series, despite the backing of a big publisher and a middleman with a Midas touch. Bulletstorm, however, made a splash big enough to be revered by shooter fans and receive a remaster a couple of years ago.
Bulletstorm’s creative director was Adrian Chmielarz, one of the pioneers of the Polish video game industry, founder of People Can Fly, co-founder of The Astronauts, and someone whose past forthright perspectives, to say the very least, divide opinion. Never one to mince words, he talks us through the game’s misguided marketing campaign, his relationship with Cliff Bleszinski, what Bulletstorm got wrong and the next stage of his career.
Too many cooks
The Polish game development scene was still in its infancy when Epic Games approached People Can Fly, a studio known for the fantastic, gory Painkiller, to port Gears of War for PC. This represented more than a one-time business arrangement. It was one of the very first instances of Polish game makers being recognised at the highest level of the industry, the first handshake in what could be a long and fruitful relationship. Most of all, it was a test.
“We passed, and then they basically said we could now make a game of our own design and they’re waiting for a pitch,” Chmielarz says. “Bulletstorm was one of the proposals, and actually the only one they liked.”
Chmielarz for his part had his doubts about Epic's choice.
“I was worried the game, as originally proposed, was a bit too mundane,” Chmielarz says. Words like mundane don’t readily come to mind when thinking of Bulletstorm as we know it. That’s partly thanks to the trust that Epic put in the Polish outfit’s ability to leave their unique bootmark on the game. “I remember Mike Capps, the head of Epic at the time, saying something like, ‘Oh, but I know you. You start normal and then things turn into madness. So we can’t have madness as the starting point,’ Chmielarz recalls.
“He wasn’t wrong.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the subsequent madness was published by Electronic Arts. To say the least it seemed an unlikely publisher for a raunchy, violent new IP which introduced us to words like "dick-tits." Chmielarz believes he has an explanation for the strange pairing.
“I’m not sure EA was particularly interested in Bulletstorm as such, I think they were more into cooperating with Epic,” he laughs. “I’m not saying they didn’t care about the game. It’s just that they had a larger thing in mind, I believe.”
Motivations aside, what was the relationship like?
“It was not the most pleasant experience, but I am assuming things would look exactly the same if it were any other big publisher. It’s understandable: they funded the project, they wanted to have a say. I also like being able to control what happens with the money I invest.”
And, to their credit, the EA big wigs didn’t attempt to neuter Bulletstorm.
“Whatever troubles we had on the way, censorship was not one of them,” says Chmielarz. “There were push-backs or cuts or redesigns, but they had more to do with the time and budget or sometimes with people having their own vision of the game rather than any form of censorship.”
That said, like with most threesomes, things were bound to get awkward sooner or later.
“Having three entities – us, Epic, EA – work on the same game was frustrating.,” Chmielarz says. “That’s just the nature of the beast. It’s not that anybody was evil, but, you know, sayings like ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ exist for a reason.”
One of those cooks was Cliff “CliffyB” Bleszinski, the allegedly retired enfant terrible of 'bro dude shooters' and then the face of Epic Games.
“Cliff had some good input, he’s a smart guy with good intuition,” Chmielarz says. Still, their relationship turned sour at times due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of their cooperation.
“The cooperation was awful at times due to a silly misunderstanding. One day, long after Bulletstorm, I was reading his article on developers he categorised, and I saw this:
“‘Filibuster, or TL;DR Guy. This is the person who responds to a design suggestion or discussion with three-page emails. Every time. Without fail. Eventually, you make a custom filter for this person.’”
“And then later one day we talked and he said it was about me specifically,” Chmielarz says. “And I laughed bitterly because I fucking hated writing him these emails. I wrote them because I felt like I had to, with him being my boss in a way. What he considered a dev buddy’s casual suggestion we could ignore or use, I felt was more like a message from the studio that owned us: ‘do this or else.’”
It wasn't a great position to be in.
“And some of these ideas I disagreed with, so I felt I had to justify the rejection. And I cried every time - this thing was taking the time off the project and it was actually pissing me off that I’m spending half of my day in Outlook instead of actually making the game. Had I known earlier he considered these conversations more casual and non-binding, I probably wouldn’t have appeared in his lexicon.”
Probably... but not certainly.
“I say ‘probably’ because I do like mixing the theoretical with practical. I agree that intuition is important, but I’m into theory and long fat discussions and soul-searching, too.”
Another of Chmielarz’s gripes is with marketing for the game. Bulletstorm announced itself to the world with a sucker punch to the crotch of the shooter establishment. The trailers for the game focused on the fun of killing while shouting outlandish obscenities, while stunts such as Duty Calls, a tiny free game spoofing Call of Duty and mercilessly mocking the genre stereotypes, pandered to the popular sentiments among gamers. Chmielarz regrets that approach.
“I wanted different marketing for the game,” he says. “Bulletstorm is a pulp sci-fi, but it’s not a parody. Even if it has moments that can be considered a meta-commentary on video game clichés. Honestly, it’s only the launch trailer, meaty and more serious, that’s something I imagined the perfect marketing for Bulletstorm should have been from the start. Everything that came earlier made the game look like it lacked any weight to it.”
Here’s the trailer that Chmielarz liked.
And here’s an example of one he didn’t.
But Chmielarz refuses to blame others.
“To be fair to anyone involved, not only did I not fight for the right marketing particularly hard, I also kind of liked at least some elements of what we had,” he says. “I liked that we laughed at the constipated marine trope, and I liked the action in our teasers and trailers. I think we had a nice show at E3, too. So it’s not a story of one man against the machine, it’s more of a story of a guy who wanted something else for the game and was vocal about it a couple of times, but ultimately went with ‘hey, this is not bad either.’"
That doesn’t lessen the damage the campaign might have done to the game's chances in the market.
“Yeah, it was a mistake. Bulletstorm’s marketing should have been about Bulletstorm.”
Kill with skill
One of the most memorable things about Bulletstorm is the Skillshot system that rewarded players for creative kills with the use of environment and tools at their disposal. Or for shooting an enemy in the arse. The system was fun, creative and remains fondly remembered. Adrian Chmielarz, however, thinks it was a mistake.
“I guess this might be surprising to hear, but I’d get rid of Skillshots. I know they seem to be the essential elements of the game, the heart of it, but I think they’re sabotaging the experience in a way,” he says. Hear him out. “In theory, the combat was about freedom: leash, kick, use weapons and abilities, use the environment to your advantage, etc. In reality, it turned the encounters into ticking the checkboxes off the Skillshot list, sometimes forcing the players to do non-intuitive, arbitrarily designed things in order to get these extra Skillshot points.”
There’s even more.
“The combat loses intensity if you are the hunter, not the prey. I remember making a point of it during the press tour: ‘in most shooters, enemies are the danger, but in Bulletstorm, that’s you, and the enemies are the toys you play with.’ This can work if there’s a justification for this like it did in the first God of War where you just whipped the hell out of mobs, but I don’t think it was the right solution for Bulletstorm,” Chmielarz says.” I wish our combat was more primal, more visceral, and more of a struggle that’s about survival and outsmarting the opponents rather than about executing Skillshot combos for virtual currency.”
Chmielarz has clearly given it some thought in the years since Bulletstorm came out. All in all, everything boils down to motivating the players in the right way.
“Basically, I wish there was more intrinsic value to the combat rather than the reliance on extrinsic rewards. It’s better if the players headshot enemies because it kills them faster and saves ammo rather than because there are more points for it.”
I ask Chmielarz about any other regrets he has.
“I wish we found a way to keep the player-versus-player component in the game,” he says. “We had it in our internal builds and it was so fun we had zero issues filling the seats for the test sessions. We were literally coming up with silly excuses like ‘I moved the tree one meter to the left, need to test the map ASAP!’ just to play the PvP again."
In the end, the game shipped with only a cooperative mode in the way of multiplayer.
"It was just too much for us to get it to the required scope and expected quality on time."
That last sentence makes a lot of sense within the context of how new the whole experience of making Bulletstorm was to People Can Fly. And how it completely transformed the company.
“We were a studio inexperienced in the AAA world, one that grew from thirty people to almost a hundred. And the bureaucracy to that and everything [that comes with it] took longer than it could and should have taken.”
Still, Chmielarz and the team learned a lot in a very short time.
“It was a fantastic lesson on what quality means, though. We got some tough love from Epic and their uncompromising approach to quality, but it was totally worth it. Everyone in the studio became a better game developer because of this cooperation.”
And Chmielarz emerged on the other end of this experience with a game he’s proud of.
“I simply like the game. Every now and then I stumble upon a Bulletstorm gameplay video, I watch a bit of it and I’m thinking: ‘hey, this is actually good, it looks fun and still holds up visually.’ I’d really like to play the whole thing again one day.”
Gears keep on turning
Bulletstorm didn't do gangbusters numbers, but it wasn’t a flop either. The game sold well over a million copies and built a vocal fanbase that welcomed the remake with open arms. It was, however, a commercial disappointment when judged by the usual metrics of Epic Games and Electronic Arts. Why didn’t it sell as well as expected? Chmielarz has a theory.
“I’m sure many will disagree but to me, the main issue was simply the global financial crisis. People still played video games but they started to be very careful with their money. And 8-10 hour single player experience? No, thank you,” he says. “We were to first to be hit this way, and then things got even worse. The crisis basically killed this type of game forever. At least for the price attached.”
And Chmielarz has no hard feelings towards that shift.
“That’s fine, I get it, I’m a gamer, too. The first Uncharted has eight hours of average time completion. The fourth one is twice as long, has big, tasty co-op and PVP modes, and costs the same. The first God of War? Nine hours average, twelve if you’re a completionist. The last one, my personal 2018 GOTY? Twenty hours, and fifty if you’re a completionist. Again, same price. What’s not to like?”
In his assessment, Chmielarz also factors in other circumstances for disappointing sales.
“We were just unlucky. It happens. I’m sure there were other contributing factors: the marketing campaign, the vibe surrounding the game, people angry at Gears beta added to the game – and many other things, including the fact that some people just didn’t like the game. But to me, the financial crisis had the biggest impact.”
Whatever the reasons, Bulletstorm not meeting sales projections brought big changes for People Can Fly.
“We were working on Bulletstorm 2, and actually had a lot of work done before the game was cancelled,” says Chmielarz. I guess there was not a lot of belief that the game could really become a franchise. I get it, it’s business. Again, I’m not the one to tell investors what to do with their money.”
But that didn’t mean that Epic lost faith in the Warsaw-based studio.
“Epic then proposed Gears of War to us, and personally I was ecstatic about it, as I was always a big fan,” Chmielarz says. But when People Can Fly, by then a subsidiary of Epic Games was busy working on what would become Gears of War: Judgment, Chmielarz was ready for a new challenge.
“We also really, really wanted to be truly independent again for quite a while back then, so when the opportunity arrived, we just went for it and started The Astronauts,” he says.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Chmielarz founded The Astronauts with his fellow People Can Fly departees Andrzej Poznanski and Michal Kosieradzki. Their first game, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, had very little in common with Bulletstorm. However, it turns out that making an adventure game wasn’t a huge departure for Chmielarz.
“The first few games I made were adventure games. And between Painkiller and Bulletstorm we were making an action adventure for THQ called Come Midnight. So it’s not like the genre was alien to me,” he says. As always, there was a little more to the story of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
“There were both personal and practical reasons for Ethan Carter,” Chmielarz says. “The personal reason was that I believed we could advance the walking simulator sub-genre by increasing engagement through interactivity, and I was a Don Quixote on a mission to prove how storytelling and interactivity can be indistinguishable from one another. Whether we achieved that or not, that’s not for me to decide, but that was the goal.”
And then there was simple pragmatism.
“The practical reason was that we felt this type of project is the one we could handle both financially and organisation-wise. Anything bigger in scope, or more complex, and we’d be in trouble.”
Following the success of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, The Astronauts made another bold turn. Their next game, the upcoming Witchfire is a frenetic shooter with big guns and even bigger demons to slay. What tempted the team to go back to what they’ve done so well with Painkiller and Bulletstorm?
“Ethan Carter was very successful for us and secured us financially for a few good years. But we felt that what we’ve done with Ethan was one-off, and not a template for future projects,” says Chmielarz. “We all love shooters – I mean, Painkiller was made out of love for shooters, the three of us who founded The Astronauts spent countless hours with Doom and Quake – so it wasn’t really a hard decision to make another one ourselves.”
Eight years after Bulletstorm, Chmielarz appears more than ready to shake the shooter firmament once more.
“We’re more experienced now, and many exciting things happened in game design in the last ten years,” he says. “We’re hoping we can combine the two well enough to offer something worth the player’s time and money.”