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Where next for Epic and Cliff Bleszinski?

Few studios correlate as close to hardware cycles as Epic Games does.

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The company opens console generations with all-new Unreal Engine tech and then, like with Gears of War, uses that platform to create a flagship game series that is hoped can survive a decade.

This means that Epic enters acute transition periods. Today, as the console cycle winds down, the lights are going off for both Gears of War and Unreal Engine 3. There is a sense of new beginnings at the North Carolina studio, but also an air of finality.

It was at this point that Cliff Bleszinski, looking ahead at another ten-year development stretch, will likely have considered his position. Yesterday, the famed design director announced his departure from the studio, following two decades of dedicated work.

Epic now will almost certainly hold internal meetings to discuss the departures of key staff, though it probably has done so already. Bleszinski is the third development exec to leave in the past three months, following Rod Fergusson (Gears of War) and Adrian Chmielarz (People Can Fly).

At the centre of Epic Games' challenge to hire the best staff is the perception of its location in North Carolina. Few developers complain about the south-eastern state once they live there, but from a hiring perspective it is clearly not as big a draw as New York or San Francisco. So when a big name departs, head-hinting for direct replacement is an uphill challenge.

But there is a commendable quality to Epic Games' senior management who are open about their own challenges and face them head-on. Last year the company's president, Mike Capps, told me it was time for Epic to give its younger developers their chance to lead projects.

The loss of Bleszinski will leave a creative vacuum that Epic Games will need to fill as a matter of urgency. The company has also lost its star spokesman; a man who draws attention to projects through his personality, passion and popularity within the industry.

There are senior candidates at Epic already who have the talent to vie for that role. Perhaps more importantly, the loss of Bleszinski opens the door for up-and-coming developers at the studio to take more responsibility. Considering how Epic raised Bleszinski for two decades and moulded him into one of the dev industry's star talents, there should be every confidence the group can produce another leader again.

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Where next for Cliff? He's been the face of Epic Games for so long that it's hard to even imagine him anywhere else, let alone predict his next career move.

Key to his decision will be whether he wants to stay in North Carolina. If he remains, it's more likely that he'll start up his own games studio, or head up a new local studio that hasn't been announced yet.

But the seniority packaged with running a games studio, one suspects, goes against the passions of the Gears of War design director. He clearly loves building on ideas and exercising his creativity. Operating a studio and eating spreadsheets will be a waste of his design skills, so he may not want to focus on management or run a business himself.

If Bleszinski leaves North Carolina, the possibilities open to him will flourish. Valve is a reasonable candidate, especially considering the close relations it has with Epic, and the Half-Life studio's credo of eliminating management structures and fostering creative freedoms - an ideal philosophical fit for Bleszinski.

But elsewhere in Washington is the possibility for a senior role at Microsoft and 343 Industries - perhaps as a company-wide games design director. Considering Epic Games' tight arrangements with Microsoft, Bleszinski's departure is also a blow for the Xbox manufacturer. Unless of course they hire him directly.

But most publishers and studios that can afford Cliffy B will likely have an interest in hiring him. He is a talent and a voice.

Directing a publisher's whole development portfolio - which is what Peter Molyneux was doing at Microsoft - sounds like an interesting role but there is no solid hands-on work involved. It is essentially a consultant role that involves dipping in and out of projects and nodding your head.

Wherever he goes next, we imagine he'll want a games engine running at his desk.

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Image Credit: Digital Spy

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