Yesterday, on an Instagram post reminiscing about his defunct studio Boss Key, Cliff Bleszinski offered a theory about why the company’s first title, LawBreakers, failed to find an audience. In it, he speculates that during the game's publicity and marketing efforts he came across like a "woke bro" trying to force his politics onto people who just wanted a classic shooter.
That statement has since proven to be easily misinterpreted as an attempt by Bleszinski to blame "wokeness" for Lawbreakers' failure. Some video game websites have taken this angle, a narrative eagerly picked up by grievance-culture gaming blogs like One Angry Gamer. But what Bleszinski is saying isn't nearly that simple, even though it undeniably plays into the “get woke, go broke” narrative used to attack any game making even bare-minimum appeals to diversity. He writes:
One big epiphany I had was that I pushed my own personal political beliefs in a world that was increasingly divided. Instead of the story being "this game looks neat" it became "this is the game with the 'woke bro' trying to push his hackey politics on us with gender neutral bathrooms." Instead of "these characters seem fun" it was "this is the studio with the CEO who refuses to make his female characters sexier." Instead of "who am I going to choose" it became "white dude shoehorns diversity in his game and then smells his own smug farts in interviews" instead of just letting the product ... speak for itself.
Later, Bleszinski edited the post to include another line: "In case I didn't make it clear I mean that this was *A* factor, not THE. Marketing, timing, being on ps over xbox, and more were also factors. Stupid clickbait headlines I hope you the hits you wanted."
I don’t blame anyone in Bleszinski’s position for engaging in self-deception about why a project like LawBreakers failed. But it does seem pretty clear to me that his postmortem is completely wrong. For one thing, the obvious counterargument is that Overwatch, the game that clearly won out over LawBreakers, had its own gamer rage “controversies” surrounding things like the representation of women, and it puts its own diverse cast of characters front and center.
But the rapid-fire game news reaction cycle is distorting Bleszinski’s own (erroneous) take; he regrets making “wokeness” too much part of the pitch of the game, but not the underlying politics or the actual design choices that went into the game. This nuance is lost on those reactions, which also engage in some pretty uninformed dunking on a game that sold poorly. But having actually played LawBreakers, I need to set the record straight on a pretty important point: LawBreakers was a dope game let down by dated aesthetics and confused marketing.
It was a perfectly-tuned expression of what the PC arena shooter can be, supported by graceful level design, thoughtful mechanics, and a stratospheric skill ceiling. In my review at the time, I called it a “game for people who pay real money for a mouse and have opinions about keyboard switches.” I meant that with affection, and I still think there was a fantastic game lurking inside LawBreakers.
Unfortunately, the game’s art direction seemed intended to make it unmarketable. It hewed to a slick photorealism that was already tired in 2017. The characters had clever, beautiful, juicy move sets and mechanics, but they came up short on personality and appeal. It very much looked like a game stuck in the glory days of Gears of War.
The comparison with Overwatch is instructive. I found Overwatch to be a worse game in every way that matters; it had worse mechanics, worse levels, and worse game modes. I’m also not fond of Blizzard’s approach to character design; but if nothing else, Overwatch’s heroes have appeal. They are inviting and filled with personality, even if whenever I see them I personally feel like a Funko Pop was melted down and poured directly into my eyes. LawBreakers seemed not to bother with appeal at all. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how good your levels are or how strong your mechanics are, if nobody will actually download and try out your game.
It didn’t help that Boss Key was a fledgling studio that found itself in the unenviable position of going up against Activision-Blizzard. Overwatch had worse fundamentals, but it was polished to a high sheen, marketed with overwhelming force, and accompanied by an entire esports league at birth. It also had a much broader appeal that made LawBreakers, a much more niche title, a tough sell when all your friends, shooter enthusiasts or not, are jumping on the Overwatch bandwagon. LawBreakers’ early disappointing sales prompted Boss Key to pivot away early. Maybe updates and added attention from the developers wouldn’t have gotten enough people to take a second look at LawBreakers, but the studio was in no position to try at all.
I can’t get into Bleszinski’s head to see why he might regret centering the game’s diverse cast in marketing; it seems to me like the game was generally marketed in a confusing and ineffective way, but that’s orthogonal to politics. There’s a tension between Bleszinski’s bro-ish image and holding sincere progressive beliefs; perhaps that’s the fear: That the audience for the kinds of games he’s known for is too white and male to vibe with “woke brand” marketing. I think that’s a misconception about who actually plays video games, one that’s very much disproven by the success of things like Overwatch. But I also know the self-punishment of dealing with a game’s commercial failure invites looking at everything for possible reasons; the more unpleasant, the better. Certainly thinking that “woke politics” turned people off LawBreakers is not a charitable view of the audience.
Boss Key didn’t have the runway to put out a whole other game, but they tried anyway. Radical Heights, their disastrous attempt at a battle royale, launched into early access as a naked and dismal thing. The studio shut its doors in mid-2018. But in video games, even recent history quickly turns into conventional wisdom, just-so stories, and bad mythology. So it’s important to get it straight: LawBreakers didn’t die because of Cliff Bleszinski’s politics.