At his Paris GDC session exploring the development of 2K's critical success BioShock, lead programmer Chris Kline started off by saying his main point would be that "BioShock should’ve failed."
"In fact," he continued, "it did fail a lot, over the course of time. A series of big mistakes and corrections and slipped ship dates, but all of these helped make it a good game.”
In early 2002, realizing that the team needed to make a big budget title, then-Irrational Games decided: “Here was our idea: Let’s just make System Shock 2. This was easy because we’d already made System Shock 2. We knew it was a critical success, and we thought we knew all the things that kept it from being financially successful.”
“I said this was going to be about failure," said Kline, "and the very first failure was that we wanted to base this whole thing on System Shock 2.”
Irrational decided that the two main areas where the game needed to innovate were on narrative and AI -- specifically, an AI ecology that was not singularly focused on attacking the player -- but development abruptly stopped on the game at that point, for the next two years.
When they returned to the game, there was some concern about the fact that they were trying to sell to publishers a sequel to an unsuccessful game, so the developers "faked it," said Kline, by giving GameSpot an exclusive on the game alongside a planned System Shock 2 retrospective for its five year anniversary.
“The design team’s core assumption was that Shock 2 was a near-perfect game design. And we could just fix a few flaws. So what did we keep? Resource scarcity, the customization of the character through different systems, and we wanted the player to be cautious about moving through the world,” Kline explained.
Ecologies and Evolutions
Irrational went for the concept of life existing around you but without you, but found that the AI ecology - why the enemies would fight each other - made no sense. “The world needs to revolve around the player,” Kline said.
“Another mistake we made on the art side was focusing too much on the monster models," he continued. "The real problem at this time was that we didn’t know what the main focus of the visuals was. What we now know is that it’s not the monsters, but the city of Rapture.”
He continued by saying in designing the 'gatherers' -- what would become the Little Sisters but began as designs as varied as insects, a frog with a bottle, and a dog in a wheelchair -- nobody was focusing on what the end user experience was, and everyone was moving in different directions.
That changed for the E3 2006 demo, where everyone had to pull together and really make it work. “In order to show we could create a compelling user experience, we had to change how we were thinking about the game. We had to start thinking about what the player was really going to feel in this game,” Kline said.
Shoot For Success
Following the demo, though, he said that while it was getting critical acclaim, it wasn't actually gaining much interest from users, so they changed marketing to say that it was a shooter – and then found they had to prove it.
“What’s interesting is that even though it was the same game," Kline said, "when we presented it as a shooter people started getting more excited about it. Even the team.”
“We were actually so focused on the big details that we actually forgot how important the little details are,” he said, so they changed the game to make it more exciting, but still found that there was a lot they weren’t paying attention to.
The harvest or save mechanics weren't implemented yet, the money versus Adam mechanics, how to encourage plasmid use, balancing, framerate, even the script -- "There were a lot of problems," Kline sighed.
In the end, though, he confessed, “Some people think that constantly messing up, and pushing dates isn’t a good way to make a game, but as far as I’m concerned it’s the only way to make a good game.”
Developers need to doubt everything and listen to everyone, Kline concluded. “Always remember that you might be totally screwing everything up.”