I recently read the autobiography of Cliff Bleszinski, better known as “CliffyB” and the creator of the Gears of Wars franchise, which was huge in the late 2000s. The story of this guy’s life is relevant even for those among my readers who have no interest in video games, however, as this guy, despite having been very successful, made classic mistakes, and in such a way that you would applaud him for his perfect execution if you were full of schadenfreude. This is not really my angle, though, as I genuinely believe that his book “Control Freak” (2022) serves as a great warning tale to men out there in general as it serves as a great cautionary tale regarding women, success, and money.
First, let me get the obvious out of the way: CliffyB has enjoyed stellar success in life. He taught himself coding as a boy and was a hustler. Thus, he made money already as a teenager by selling games on floppy disks (remember those?) via mail order when this was a burgeoning trend. The big players back then, in the early 1990s, were ID Software, Apogee, and Epic MegaGames. He joined the last one in this list and within a few years, he was making $100k a year when that kind of money amounted to some serious cash. To get there, he took the calculated risk of dropping out of college. Well, he could have gone back anytime, but he wanted to strike the iron when it is hot and double-down on making money by creating video games.
If you end up making a lot of money very quickly, often problems emerge. In CliffyB’s example, this came in the form of women. Overall, his outlook on relationships seems very idealistic. He married some random chick very early in his life, despite knowing that they were incompatible. This came from a place of scarcity, and an added problem was that he seemingly had not internalized that there are more women than just this one that he could get, in particular if you are making six figures in your early to mid-20s, and in the 1990s. Well, him wanting to own expensive sports cars did not help as you get the wrong kind of attention.
As he still had professional goals he wanted to hit, his relationship suffered and eventually it ended. Unfortunately, his first wife was apparently also motivated by money, so she got quite a payday when she divorced him. However, it does not seem that this guy has learned much from this experience. He mentioned that he hit the dating scene, and his usage of Mystery-style PUA lingo such as “negging”, in a book published in 2022, seems to indicate that he went from being some chick’s simp to a wannabe player who did not realize that he could get chicks just by having status and a lot of money.
His “playa” phase does not last long as he eventually meets his ideal woman, some chick who worked for ID Software in a non-technical role as the assistant of a game producer, if I understood it correctly. She was also into games, which not a lot of women are, and this got her some Internet fame. Well, this was enough for CliffyB to fall in love with his “manic pixie dream girl”, which are his very words. He ended up marrying this woman who still keeps up a fairly active web presence. Now in her 30s if not 40s, she still does “cosplays” instead of raising children. From what I can tell, CliffyB does not have kids and no desires of having any, so I wonder what he gets out of financially supporting an aging cosplayer. The foundation this relationship was built on is none that, in my view, can last a lifetime. You may as well marry a stripper or a fitness model because you are physically attracted to her, but this would be a similar exercise in vanity.
I think that guys commonly make three big mistakes when it comes to relationships: they settle too early, they settle with a woman who is getting to old to have children with, or they enter a serious relationship without considering whether they want to have children. This is by no means an exhaustive list, of course. In CliffyB’s case, his first marriage happened to soon, which cost him a lot of money. Judging from subsequent choices, it is also not clear if he has learned a lot from this experience. His second marriage was seemingly also entered on a whim, and without any kind of long-term plan. If there is one, then it is not obvious from reading his autobiography.
There are also some good lessons regarding success and money in CliffyB’s book. As you may know, Gears of War was his big hit, and the entire initial trilogy did very well. This is how he made his money, largely because his employer, which had changed its name from Epic MegaGames to just Epic, had a very generous bonus scheme in place, which rewarded employees for successful games. CliffyB also mentions that he got the chance to invest early into Oculus, which was later on bought by Facebook (now Meta). This may all sound great, but this guy could not just be worth his estimated 10 million. Instead, he could sit on a $100m+ pile.
Arguably the biggest mistake this guy made is believing that the world evolves around him. He had a fantastic gig at Epic, which was riding high not just on Gears of War in the 2000s. Their Unreal Engine was taking off at that time, with Unreal Engine 3 becoming the default choice in the industry. However, playing a critical part of a very successful company, as the design director of Epic, was apparently no longer appealing to him at some point. Instead, he wanted to strike out on his own. Now, keep in mind that this was before the release of Unreal Engine 4 or 5, the Epic game store, or Fortnite. Epic was nonetheless on a trajectory to massive success, and this was obvious to outsiders. To him, it should have been even more obvious. Furthermore, CliffyB was instrumental in birthing what would become one of the top gaming franchises in the world: Fortnite, which brings in billions of dollars per year. There are estimates that this game has made between $20 and $25 billion in total so far. The exact numbers are not that relevant. The key part is that Fortnite is one of the biggest gaming franchises on the planet. It makes more money than GTA V.
I was not even aware that CliffyB had a hand in Fortnite. Him walking away from Epic after Gears of War had ran its course — the franchise ran out of steam after the third game but Microsoft happily paid top dollar for it — would have been very understandable. However, him parachuting out of a rocket ship is baffling. Many men make a similar mistake, i.e. leaving a good to great gig for an uncertain one that almost always will leave them worse off. His life after Epic has been quite unremarkable. He released one game, LawBreakers (2017), that was one of the biggest flops in the industry. In doing so, he joins a long list of game designers or directors whose own hubris seems to make them dismiss the contributions of the teams they lead. Off the top off the head, I can think of several who did not come anywhere near their past success as their own boss or leaving for another employer. To make them easier recognizable, I put their key works in parentheses. We have the following: John Romero (Doom), Ron Gilbert (Monkey Island 2), Stieg Hedlund (Diablo II), David Jaffe (God of War), Hideki Kamiya (Resident Evil 2, Devil May Cry), Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil 4), Tomonobu Itagaki (Dead or Alive, Ninja Gaiden). I was pondering on whether to include Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3), but he was kicked out of Konami instead of resigning. Also, the first game he put out as his own boss, Death Stranding has been a commercial and critical success.
Moving on from the world of video game development to more common jobs, the same exists. In tech, you often have people who rise to a certain level, which inflates their ego enormously, but I have heard similar stories from other fields, e.g. nursing, physiotherapy, or even law. By this I do not mean that you cannot make a decent living as a lawyer with your own practice. However, in all likelihood you will do a lot better financially if you work for a profitable, well-run organization, than if you strike out on your own. The occasional outliers do not invalidate this claim at all. For instance, I have met independent contractors in tech, here in Europe, who make pretty good money on paper. However, there is an upper limit to you earnings, and if you take downtime into account, it is not even clear that those people make more than they would as employees, and the “superstars” who may pocket $20k in a good month could probably make as much, if not more, as regular employees. This is particularly true if you get stocks on top of your regular compensation.
A bit of humility goes a long way. In the case of CliffyB, it could have made the difference between being worth $10 million or $200 million, and if the average “hustler” out there engaged in a bit of long-term thinking, he would realize that he does not make the best decisions either. Today, CliffyB produces theater plays. No matter how much he tells you about how rewarding this is, I just cannot see how this can remotely compete with being the literal man behind a game that is played by millions of people in this very second. He could be one of the biggest names in the industry today. Instead, he is a has-been and likely will not produce anything of significance again for the rest of his life.