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Thinking BioShock: From Tech to Philosophy
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Thinking BioShock: From Tech to Philosophy

August 8, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

Christopher Kline, technical director for 2K Boston, recently gave a lecture at Paris GDC on modern classic BioShock - co-developed by Kline and his colleagues at 2K Australia - and it's particularly notable how much honest talk of iteration was discussed in the lecture.

As he explained, the project, which has debuted on PC and Xbox 360 and is now coming to PlayStation 3,  was "...a series of big mistakes and corrections and slipped ship dates, but all of these helped make it a good game."

Thus, we sat down with the game's technical mastermind to discuss issues such as getting gamers interested in seeing the sequel (and thus driving publisher interest) to the hard philosophies of technology use, UI design, and respect for the audience.

This wide-ranging Gamasutra discussion also touches on everything from the health of the PC as a medium for hardcore gaming, to why Kline felt confident working with Unreal Engine 2 on a next-generation game.

The Terrible Secret of 2K Boston

Great. I noticed that you aren't actually in Boston...

CK: Yeah, we're in Quincy, which is a suburb of Boston; it's about 10 miles south.

Why do you call it "2K Boston"?

CK: Well we were in Boston originally... We moved. We were into the production of BioShock, we had this really cool space -- it was an old schoolhouse from, like, 1900, and they decided to turn it into condos, so while we were writing code they were actually demolishing the building out from underneath us. So, yeah, we had to make a move. And we were trying to get bigger, so...

That's a good motivator to do something.

CK: Yeah. "Fear of death" is, yeah.

Well it seems like that was a common theme with you guys, the, just -- as you said, in order to get motivated, sometimes you needed the fear of --

CK: Public humiliation. (laughs)

Driving Publisher Interest via the Press

Actually, one thing that really surprised me, that you were talking about at your recent GDC Paris lecture, was, well, it just struck me how much faith and stock was given to reviewers. And I don't actually, really, understand that.

CK: I guess what I was trying to point out, and maybe it didn't come across...

Actually, it was also in the [Game Developer magazine] post mortem, too, so... I guess, to clarify: taking reviewers' opinions very seriously is, to me personally, surprising.

CK: We didn't really build our game off of their opinions. We were very flattered by the reviews we got after E3... I guess the point I was trying to make was that it was surprising to us, after all of this great press had come out, and we started looking at these tracking numbers, for how much of the public was interested in the game, and we found out that it actually wasn't getting a lot of interest.

And so that was really critical for us, because we said, "OK, well, why aren't gamers really interested in this product?" And it was really just a matter of positioning; like, you have to put it in the right frame of mind, so they can envision what kind of experience they're going to have when they play the game. And once they have that, they can get excited about it, and behind it.

It was particularly interesting to me that you wound up using the traditional consumer press as a vehicle to push the concept through -- by promising exclusives to the press on BioShock by having them write retrospectives on System Shock 2, to drum up interest in a sequel. That was definitely an interesting tactic; I don't think a lot of people consider that they could use that.

CK: That was a very clever approach to the game. But, you know, we knew that if we took our case to the gamers, we knew there was an audience out there for the game, and sometimes you just need to prove that there is an audience before you can convince someone that it's a worthwhile venture to put their money behind.

Irrational Games/Looking Glass Studios' System Shock 2 

It was almost like you were convincing people that they should care, which then should convince the publisher that they should care.

CK: Well, you know, we didn't convince the gamers that they should care, we just pointed out to the gamers, "Hey, remember how much you loved this kind of game? Guess what! We're trying to do a game just like it!"

And then, you know, there was just this overwhelming response on the forums; all the people talking about their memories of playing System Shock 2, and how much they love that kind of game. And that was great, because the publishers then had to take notice.

Yeah, and it also works because in that several years later timeframe, you're mostly going to get the people that remembered it fondly, instead of the people that got stuck clipping into walls or something like that. Not that that ever happened, necessarily.

CK: Yeah. There were two groups of people: people that remembered it fondly, and those that just talk about how they were just too scared to finish it! But, people talk about, "Is there a crisis in PC gaming?" You know, there is a big market out there.

It's not, of course, just for PC gaming; it's a crisis of identifying who your audiences are. And if you can find a way to get those audiences to show their support for traditional types of titles -- even if they traditionally aren't mass-market, I think you'll see a lot more support from publishers.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Chris Melby
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I could not finish this game on the PC, but would do so on the Wii.

System Shock is the best single-player gaming experiences I've had. It's the most immersive and terrifying game I've played. SS2 was somewhat of a let down -- it was unbalanced and incomplete, but BioShock, well this was a blow to the Shock lineage. It felt like I was on a Disney ride and there's only so many times one can sit through Mr. Toad before they get bored. There was never any real concern with this game. It felt like an ordinary FPS.

This is a game I wish had only been made for the PC, then later ported to the 360/consoles.

When you guys develop games for a PlaySkool controller, there are compromises that have to be made that effect the game-play way more than visuals. No amount of eye-candy can cover up the games underlying lack of complexity.

All of the sophistication of the previous Shocks had been ripped to accommodate a thumb-stick. BioShock was nothing more than a Disney FPS. Having no menu system was a poor decision, more so than the super-fragile weapons in SS2.

I'm serious about the Wii comment. I have lots of fun with its controls for FPS games like MOH2, or games like RE4. It would add that extra something to BioShock that would at least make the experience new -- if done right, so not tacked on -- that will get me to finish it. Then just maybe I'll forget about this game's shortcomings when compared to its predecessors and see its ending on my TV, instead of on YouTube.

If you guys are making console games first, I'd rather it be built to the Wii's strenghts, because at least its controls are better suited for PC games than the 360 or PS3's default option. At least support the mouse on the PS3. Graphics can always come second in my book, since they attribute the least to what makes a game great.

Steve Roach
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"You know, I just threw away my desktop at home, because I was tired of trying to get my hard drive to work, or figuring out my power supply... It's nice to come home and just have a console, power it on, and enjoy gaming. I don't think you need to limit your audience or your style of game, based on what you're developing for."

You know, we PC Gamers are not stupid. We all get that you'd like everyone to throw out their Desktop PCs and buy a console, but we are not buying into that. Some of us take pride in our gaming rigs, and our ability to troubleshoot our PC problems.

Some of us remember the glory days of pc gaming, and don't care for dumbed-down console offerings.

Peter Park
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It seems like people are over-stressing "freedom." It must be noted that more choice does not directly translate into players' satisfaction, as some psychologists found out--less choice actually gives us more happiness, not more choice.

So, instead of overloading players with choices, give them only the ones that are really important. Give them choices how to look at events, choices on how to react to events in game. Don't give them more weapons, more magic, more items, choice to slash or shoot.

If there's one lesson to be learned from Mass Effect, it's that we can give players ability to *customize* story-telling; player can influence actors to have certain attitudes, even if it's not really story-changing. This is surprisingly satisfying. I would have loved it so much more, if it was more of an interactive-novel where it's loaded with dialogues and more interesting plot and events san run-and-gun segments where no character development (meaningful one, not level-up) takes place.