It’s unreal: Game time in Raleigh

Cliff Bleszinski, CEO and founder of Boss Key Productions. His studio is the latest and largest crew to join an easily overlooked – but widely respected – cadre of video-game developers in the City of Oaks.

Cliff Bleszinski, CEO and founder of Boss Key Productions. His studio is the latest and largest crew to join an easily overlooked – but widely respected – cadre of video-game developers in the City of Oaks.

by Andrew Kenney

photographs by Tim Lytvinenko

Cliff Bleszinski lived on the Internet before the rest of us did. The video-game chat rooms of the late 1990s buzzed about his work, and they exploded when “CliffyB” himself logged on. He was a hotshot developer with dyed hair of various shades and a love of Lamborghinis. He was the outspoken playboy of an industry that wasn’t then known for playboys or a whole lot of speaking, public or otherwise.

You lived in Cliff’s world if you owned one of the 20 million copies of the Gears of War series, which he created at Epic Games in Cary. If you have ever dug a spinning chainsaw mounted on an assault rifle into a juiced-up albino alien, then you have experienced Bleszinski’s sensibilities. The guy is a Steven Spielberg of sci-fi shooters, a demi-god among gamers.

“Well, it’s the best kind of fame,” he says over beer at The Raleigh Times Bar. “I go to a video game conference, I walk two feet and everybody’s saying hey. In town, I only get recognized every week and a half, you know? Unless I drive one of the fun cars.”

Now he’s the latest Raleigh player to join a new version of the game. Last year, Bleszinski crammed a brand-new development studio into a historic office overlooking downtown’s Fayetteville Street. The new company, Boss Key Productions, is the largest crew to join an easily overlooked – but widely respected – cadre of video game developers in the City of Oaks.

Together, they represent a smaller, leaner breed in the gaming industry. A block east of Bleszinski’s office, the four brothers at Foursaken Media have left steady jobs and put off traditional careers to make games for mobile devices. Bleszinski’s neighbors just west are BitMonster Games, a favorite for its richly painted games. In North Raleigh, Imangi Studios has distributed more than a billion copies of its Temple Run series.


“There was a time when the means of production and means of distribution were locked up. You needed $20 million to make a game,” says Mike Capps, former president of Epic Games. New technology has torn that barrier down, he says, seeding the revival of a recession-wounded industry.

Nowhere more than here. From the Triangle’s suburbs to downtown Raleigh, industry veterans and upstarts alike are making new worlds.

Hidden in plain sight

The lettering on the door gives nothing away. No hint of a virtual celebrity behind it, no sign of Boss Key Productions. The building’s early-1900s facade would fit on any of downtown’s major streets, and its front window reveals nothing but an empty hall. The keypad-locked elevator opens to a small room on the third floor, barely wide enough to fit two desks.

“We’ve had a big hiring spurt, so now this is my office,” says Sarah Asby, office manager for Boss Key. She was the company’s third employee, hired last year. Now there are nearly three dozen staffers.

In this rabbit warren of old-timey offices, where magistrates once signed arrest warrants behind frosted windows, Bleszinski has gathered some of the industry’s best programmers and artists. The rooms are packed with workstations. Explosive sounds rattle one door. Anguished battle cries echo behind another. Developers type away, their tables and shelves crammed with models of monsters and life-sized sci-fi guns. Their screens are filled with virtual objects, rainbows of code, and sketches of fantastic places.

It’s a motherlode of talent. “They’ve got the situation that his reputation deserves,” Capps says.

Boss Key programmers, artists, and executives gather on Fridays to share their work.

Boss Key programmers, artists, and executives gather on Fridays to share their work.

The boss sits wearing headphones near a back-corner window. He’s testing the studio’s first game, tentatively titled Project BlueStreak, with some of his team.

They have a prototype, but their building’s antiquated infrastructure is challenged by the intensity they bring. When too many people are playing in the office, Bleszinski says, the power starts to waver. (Their landlord, Greg Hatem, is working on it. Hatem’s company also rents to Foursaken and BitMonster)

Most of Boss Key’s first project is still cloaked by non-disclosure agreements, but at this early stage it resembles one of the chief executive’s early hits, a multiplayer game called Unreal Tournament. 

Bleszinski’s role in making the game is closer to movie director than programmer: He thinks about how others’ work should come together, bringing thousands of design choices together in a single experience.

“It’s the sound the gun makes when you fire it. If it’s an energy weapon, it’s a crackling, a burning sound,” he says. “When it hits the enemy, what kind of blood effects come off them? You know, movement – how’s the player’s acceleration? What’s the arc of their jump?”

These are questions that developers have been asking for decades – starting with the physics of Pong and other early hits – but the work that’s happening in Raleigh’s small studios feels brand-new.

Bleszinski plucked some of his developers straight out of the modding scene, where hobbyists reprogram and remix commercial games. Others have jumped ship from Epic, the far-larger company in Cary. The whole place buzzes with the excitement of a start-up.

“That’s the exciting but scary thing about this stuff. We’ve never set up a company before,” says Chris Mielke, senior producer and a longtime colleague of Bleszinski.

A whiteboard at BitMonster.

A whiteboard at BitMonster.

Spawning a cluster 

The Internet, as usual, has changed everything. Digital marketplaces, like Apple’s App Store and Valve’s Steam, have allowed small studios to reach billions of potential customers on phones, tablets, computers, and gaming consoles without printing boxes, discs, and

Bleszinski has the backing of a larger company, Nexon, but Raleigh’s smaller studios have fought their way into the market with largely self-funded titles.

“You don’t need a publisher,” says Aaron Smith, an artist for BitMonster who worked 16 years at Epic. “Like with music – you don’t need a record deal to get your music out there any more.”

And the market’s changing faster than ever. A small studio with a good product and a lucky break can rack in $50,000 a day, as Foursaken did with the construction-combat gameplay of Block Fortress. BitMonster, meanwhile, has seen nearly 5 million downloads of its biggest hit, Gunner Z.

“We get to scratch whatever itch. We get to be super current,” says Mikey Spano, another co-founder of BitMonster. “It makes the games really fun, and it makes them modern.”

The industry’s evolution has “given a voice to creators, and so we’re seeing more creative products as a result … If you’re only spending $40,000 on it, you can really take some risks” says Capps. “That’s getting games made that would have never been made before, and it’s wonderful.”

Relentless engagement

Bleszinski’s mind seems to be working away almost all the time. In conversation he waits alertly for his turn to talk. He thrives on interaction, answering nearly 150 questions in a recent “ask me anything” session on Reddit. This is how he finds out how people are reacting to his creations: relentless engagement.

His hundreds of thousands of followers thirst for the details that come out of his new studio, as does the gaming press at large. He also electrifies some of the industry’s angrier types, who dismiss him as a showboat or worse. No worries. Some of his most vitriolic haters have tattoos of his games’ logos, he says.

“I was getting bullied on the Internet before half the kids on the Internet were even born,” he says at Raleigh Times. “I’d rather have people be mean and say something than say nothing at all.”

Bleszinski’s career follows the arc of the video gaming business at large. He started an expensive hobby and, two decades later, took a break from a multi-billion-dollar industry.

At BitMonster Games, former Epic Games employees Mikey Spano, Demond Rogers, Aaron Smith, and Matt Tonks use an open-access platform to work on GRAV for PC.

At BitMonster Games, former Epic Games employees Mikey Spano, Demond Rogers, Aaron Smith, and Matt Tonks use an open-access platform to work on GRAV for PC.

The developer first made his name as a teenager, when he dropped out of his first year of college and pitched his way into a little company called Epic MegaGames. He had been working through school nights on his ideas for programs, popping caffeine pills to stay half awake. Like a lot of kids, he was more intrigued by the primitive virtual world than its physical counterpart.

“We were raised on television,” he says. “So, the second you can manipulate an image on a CRT tube, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God.’ You get, like, a sense of power.”

The 17-year-old’s first project for Epic was a flop. The second was Jazz Jackrabbit, which pitted the player as a Rambo-esque rabbit against armies of turtles in the casually bonkers style so particular to early video games.

It was a smash – and Bleszinski had no idea what to do with his success, except to make more games. He worked and lived in the isolation of Southern California’s deep suburbia – “the valley’s valley,” he says.

“All I wanted to do was work on the game,” he says. “I didn’t care what I ate, or if I went out and met people. All I cared about was work back then.”

Eventually, Epic moved Bleszinski to its headquarters in Cary. He landed near Crabtree Valley Mall and began to cycle through a series of personal styles. CliffyB was at times bleached, then red-headed, then shaggy. There’s a PC Gamer cover, he recalls, where he and his colleagues are dressed up “like bad extras in The Matrix.”

“Yeah, I was just trying too hard,” he says now. In truth, behind the devil-may-care image, he ended up in his late twenties with huge responsibilities. By 2005, he was driving the project that would become Gears of War, a tent-pole franchise for Epic. And he was, he says, “suburban as hell.”

“I enjoyed the fact that I had a house that could remind me of the suburban house outside of Boston I grew up in,” he recalls. It helped too that he was an Internet connection away from legions of people who generally adored him. Why go out?

“I used to sit in my old house, during my first marriage – I’d sit in chat rooms, have a Heineken, and just chat with the fans,” he says.

A low-tech action figure of Mr. Vendroid from BitMonster's GRAV.

A low-tech action figure of Mr. Vendroid from
BitMonster’s GRAV.

It was the end of that marriage, in a way, that set him on a new path, away from Epic and toward the new indie scene that eventually would emerge in Raleigh.

“I got unplugged from the matrix,” he says of those years. He headed first to house parties off Avent Ferry Road and clubs on Glenwood South. There are more than a few frat boys with drinking stories about meeting the dude who made their favorite game.

“I did my whole college, learning how to drink and be an idiot, in my early 30s,” he says. “ … I didn’t know what beer pong was. I didn’t know what flip cup was.”

Soon, he had a new set of designer jeans and a downtown Raleigh condo. He first met one of his future employees, Romain Dura, at the Hibernian Irish Pub on one of those party nights.

“Cliff ended up buying us a bunch of Jägerbombs on a weeknight,” recalls Dura. “He’s kind of a celebrity. It was intimidating, a little bit.”

All this socializing was grist for Bleszinski. He started thinking about nightlife the same way he thought about video games – about challenges and rewards and flow. He figured out that he was more approachable standing than sitting. He observed the city’s architecture to see how it dictated people’s movement through a place.

“If I were to make a level where you’re fighting online with space marines, Cary Towne Center would make a terrible space,” he says of the suburban mall. Too many dead-ends, too few clues of how it all fits together.

“How well can I get through the restaurant, the egresses?” he asks. “You want to be able to get a beverage, have good service, have a conversation, and use the restroom.”

This is the stuff that would keep him busy after he “retired” from Epic in his late 30s, three years ago. It manifested in two ways. First, he teamed with Niall Hanley, owner of the Hibernian pubs, to open The Station at Person Street.

Bleszinski certainly wasn’t designer-in-chief, but the philosophies of virtual combat translated well. One eatery under his belt, Bleszinski launched another project with Hanley: the Raleigh Beer Garden, recently opened on Glenwood South.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the real world alone couldn’t keep Cliff occupied – especially not when a new gaming scene was just emerging around him.

Demond Rogers works on a trailer for GRAV at BitMonster's office in downtown Raleigh.

Demond Rogers works on a trailer for GRAV at BitMonster’s office in downtown Raleigh.

Smaller competitors

Big-name, blockbuster studios employ hundreds or thousands of people to churn out titanic franchises like Call of Duty, or Madden, or Bleszinski’s Gears of War. The most reliable games can bring in hundreds of millions of dollars per year – often, to hear hardcore gamers tell it, by recycling the same stale styles of gameplay in sequel after sequel.

That stagnation became an opportunity for smaller competitors. Unburdened by over-conservative management and high expectations, independent studios have invented genres and found new ways to make money. They’re experimenting not just with the form but with the process, often creating and changing games on the fly as their customers respond.

“It’s just a whole new world in game development,” says Tom Jackson, one of the four brothers who make up Foursaken Media. At BitMonster, the team already has welcomed hundreds of players into the prototype of its latest game: GRAV, a multiplayer galaxy of massive and lush three-dimensional worlds. One fan in particular plays the game like it’s a full-time job, maintaining custom-built bases and a kingpin reputation. The team can barely control his virtual powers.

Yes, this stuff is serious – and the game’s developers figure this kind of gameplay might never have happened at a larger studio.

“It never would’ve gotten green-lit, because it’s kind of insane, because of the open-ended nature of it,” says Matt Tonks, a BitMonster programer who also cut his teeth at Epic.

And yet it is Epic that sowed some of the seeds for Raleigh’s small-studio boom. All of BitMonster’s staff came from Epic, and so did many of Bleszinski’s team. Moreover, it’s Epic’s technology that is powering both studios. The company’s Unreal engine – an open-access platform that pulls art and code into gameplay – is the skeleton for the studios’ games, helping to place alien suns in alien skies, and to calculate how light should filter through leaves. In the past, most small studios would have needed a huge budget to score an engine so powerful.

“The tools have gotten so good – people with a natural talent aren’t obstructed by archaic tools. They just make what’s in their head,” says BitMonster’s Spano.

Meanwhile, Boss Key’s game, Project BlueStreak, is in “pre-alpha.” Unlike its peers in Raleigh, the year-old company hasn’t yet released a commercial product. But the buzz is building, and the studio staff is trying to keep it that way.

“A lot of places, in the past, would begin a conversation with the community a couple months before the game came out,” says community manager Rohan Rivas. “We started two months after the studio started.”

Every Friday, Bleszinski’s programmers, artists, and executives gather in their third-floor conference room to share their work, whether that’s a model of a head or abstract digital sketches for the menu screens. Just as often, the company is posting screenshots and artwork, or lengthy videos of the CEO and his staff discussing their gameplay philosophy.

Backed by Bleszinski’s money and experience, Boss Key has huge potential, but its payroll is growing and expectations are high. There also is an unprecedented level of competition. Millions of people have the ability now to build their own worlds.

Small studios seem to publish smash hits every week, an endless stream of virtual machines designed to stimulate and to addict. And Bleszinski may end up competing with Epic itself. The larger company is reviving Unreal Tournament, a game that cemented Bleszinski’s career and whose gameplay resembles some of Project BlueStreak’s kaleidoscopic action.

Boss Key will find few role models among the current industry players. Many studios have far more employees, or far fewer. Bleszinski doesn’t have the bottomless budgets of the largest studios, nor does he have the limitless flexibility of the smallest. And yet his staff believes.

“He’s this idea generator. He’s got a vision of what this game is supposed to be,” Dura says, echoing countless others.

The burden, and his age, have lent Bleszinski the air of a dad. He’s remarried now, with no kids but two dogs. So he gets excited when he sees his new hires going for lunch together, out into the physical place that is downtown Raleigh. He takes his company on group outings to the movies. He wants them to figure out the other half of life faster than he did, perhaps, even as the industry shifts under their feet.

Bleszinski figures Boss Key might double again in size, topping out near 70 people. He wants it to be comfortably mid-size, the way he sees Raleigh.

“I wanted to know everybody’s name in the studio, and I like to preferably know their spouse’s name,” he says.

“That’s honestly as big as we need to get. Big enough that you can be anonymous when you want to be, but small enough that you can know the people you see on the street, right?”

From left: Brothers Jamie, Tom, Miles, and Connor Jackson

From left: Brothers Jamie, Tom, Miles, and Connor Jackson

Foursaken Media 

When you hear about four local brothers starting a business together, you might guess: Pizzeria? Barber shop? Bar? How about a boutique video-game studio focused on the mobile market?

The Jackson brothers, who span nine years in age, grew up amusing each other in Holly Springs.

“We were mostly homebodies,” says Tom, the oldest of the quartet. “You had all your socialization right there.”

Video games like Tekken 2 or StarCraft were part of that homebody social scene. So was fraternal ambition. Some combination of the brothers was always planning some project or career path.

“We had always assumed we’d go into web development,” Tom says. But by the time the youngest two, Connor and Miles, finished college, they’d all gone different ways. By then, Jamie, the oldest Jackson, was teaching math in Mecklenburg County and Tom was arguably at the top of his field, working as a multimedia producer for The New York Times. And maybe things would have continued that way, if it hadn’t been for one good idea and a kitchen-table talk over Christmas in 2009.

“I think I know what we can do,” Tom told his brothers. For months, he’d watched his boss toy with an early-model iPhone, at that point on the market barely a year. Tom thought the games in Apple’s new App Store were far more primitive than the polished titles that ruled consoles and computers.

The brothers quickly converged on the idea for their first game: New York Zombies, a shooting gallery of a game that was among the first three-dimensional games to be sold for smartphones.

There wasn’t much of a rulebook for the then-emerging market. Miles, the second youngest, started coding the game’s engine from scratch while the eldest brothers contributed in between days of work at their full-time jobs.

Together, they figured out how to navigate the odd dynamic of working not just with friends but with family, and from a distance.  They tinkered not just with the spread of a virtual shotgun’s pellets, but with the tone of their emails to one another. (“Why are you mad?” “I’m not mad!”)

The brothers had no idea what to expect when they submitted the finished program to the App Store in 2010. But they knew that if it worked, they wanted to make games for a collective living.

It worked. Money started to materialize in their account, seeming to flow out of the Internet in a way that intoxicates every successful first-time developer.

The four got going right away on several other games and by 2012 all four were working full time on the studio. They mixed and matched genres into games with catchy names  – Bug Heroes, Sky Gnomes, Block Fortress – and nuanced, addictive rules.

Their first successes were early examples of the style that would turn mobile gaming into a multibillion dollar industry. Rather than simply solving puzzles or slicing fruit, the Jackson brothers let their gamers build characters, earn upgrades, and compete against others.

Of course, those early years came with low points as well. When their games weren’t doing well, the brothers starved for cash. One month, they earned just $200 apiece.

So they adjusted and invented. They split into teams, building multiple games simultaneously, allowing each brother to explore his own ideas. “When it was a communal design, it was a lot more friction,” Connor says. The team also experimented with economics, switching some games to a free-to-play model that allowed players to buy virtual weapons and items for real money.

When it all clicked, the studio’s engine roared. Block Fortress, boosted by some fortuitous endorsements, was at one point earning $50,000 a day. And as the studio built a library, it built a revenue stream from older games that continued to earn with little maintenance.

Today, the family venture resides on Wilmington Street above the restaurant Gravy, and enjoys a devoted following. Each of the company’s announcements on social media is met by fans eager for updates or thrilled by the team’s work, which has grown consistently more ambitious.

In their latest game, Heroes and Castles 2, players fight medieval battles in fantasy landscapes, managing armies and huge castles powered by the game engine that Miles started building all those years ago.

Foursaken’s devotees love the company for its attention to detail, and especially for the way it upstages larger competitors – even as those competitors loom larger every year. Mobile games are expected to surpass console games (Xbox, Nintendo, and the like) in total revenues this year, and games like Clash of Clans are big enough to warrant advertising in the Super Bowl.

“More and more, people see the Super Bowl ads. More and more, big developers are jumping into the market,” Tom says. But he wants Foursaken right where it is – same size, same brothers, same name that none of them necessarily love.

“Despite my fear, we’ve really held on.”