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Postmortem: 2K Boston/2K Australia's BioShock
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Postmortem: 2K Boston/2K Australia's BioShock

September 2, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

[Gamasutra is proud to be publishing notable Game Developer magazine postmortems online for the first time - starting with project lead Finley revealing the creation of 2K Boston/Australia's seminal BioShock.]

The story of developing BioShock is an epic one and isn't easily expressed in 10 postmortem points. The team and the game changed remarkably over the course of development. A company was acquired. The team size doubled. The product focus changed from RPG hybrid to shooter.

It's easy to talk about the processes we used to develop the game, but it's harder to describe the creative spark that somehow managed to turn the most unlikely of premises (a failed underwater art deco utopia set in the 1960s) into a marketable shooter. It took a visionary to make the creative choices to guide the game, and an incredibly talented and hardworking team to bring that vision to life.

What Went Right

1. Every demo tells a story.

Demos were galvanizing moments for BioShock. They led to a unified team vision, identification of problems and solutions, external excitement, and internal support. For example, the project was signed after GameSpot ran an exclusive feature based on a single-room graphics demo.

Since BioShock was a relatively unknown IP outside the game development community, the public's impression of it would be critical to building the buzz we needed to make it a commercial success. As a result, every time we took the game out in public, we put great thought into the message we wanted the demo to deliver and the level of polish of the presentation.

Our first public presentation was at E3 2006. We had developed a great deal of content before that point, but hadn't yet built a space that really demonstrated the game experience to our satisfaction. The E3 demo forced us to focus the whole team on what the user experience should be. We defined a message for the demo- player choice-and built a narrative around that message. Even though the experience was highly scripted at the time, it effectively demonstrated the feel of the game we wanted.

Another example of demo-inspired development was the "Hunting the Big Daddy" demo. Though Big Daddies and Little Sisters had been part of the game in some form since the beginning, initially the player could confront Little Sisters directly without necessarily needing to dispatch the Big Daddy that protected them.

During the development of this demo, the team discovered that with some polish and tuning changes the act of dealing with a Big Daddy could be a truly epic battle in itself. This led to the realization that Big Daddy battles should be the key to player growth, essentially providing a roving boss battle that players could undertake at a time and place of their choosing.

Another example is the graphical effects on the player's hands when using plasmids, which came out the first BioShock trailer created with Blur Studios. In that cinematic, the player uses a hypodermic needle to make his arm into a weapon; after the injection the protagonist's skin blackens and swells and angry hornets burst out of it to attack the Big Daddy.

When working with Blur to develop the trailer, we knew that the sequence didn't accurately reflect the game's visuals, but we did it because it really captured the vibe of what the "genetic modification" part of the game was all about.

2. Course corrections.

One of the true successes of BioShock's development was our ability to identify and react when the game was not shaping up to become what it needed to be. For example, the first vertical slice prototype we built was an non-navigable linear corridor shooter that looked like it took place in an abandoned box factory.

It didn't provide a compelling experience as either an RPG or a shooter. In response, we threw away that prototype and started again from scratch with the goal of building a single room that felt like the ruined underwater utopia we were trying to build.

First we did concept art passes. Once we got a concept that worked, we built it. Then we used it as a demo space. We used that single room (now Kashmir Restaurant in the first level of the game) as an artistic reference that guided us in creating an aesthetic unlike any other game on the market. (For more about the artistic style of BioShock, see the free art book download here.)

Each department went through a similar crisis moment over the course of the project. These frequently came as the result of the demos, but not always. At one point, when facing a shortfall of programmers and an overflow of tasks, we proposed removing physics objects from the game entirely in favor of having only large, constrained physics actors.

This would have allowed us to spend much less time tuning the physics of individual objects while allowing the world to seem somewhat dynamic. However, doing so would have removed a huge level of interactivity from the game, so that decision was corrected relatively quickly.

In terms of design, we created a depth and density of game systems that fit into a game about character building and choice, but would not have been competitive as an FPS. Around the time that the game went into alpha, we took a hard look at that gameplay and realized that, although there were many choices, they weren't very compelling.

This was because we hadn't been thinking as much about making a shooter as we should have, and many of our key interactions (weapons tuning, plasmids, length of AI engagement) were designed and tuned for a slower and more cerebral experience. To put it another way, nerdy RPG-like stat changes just didn't seem meaningful in the vibrant and dangerous world of Rapture.

Once we recalibrated the game to be more like a shooter, we simplified many of the deeper systems tremendously so that the user would be able to understand them. We also put more polish time into the core interactions of the game, such as the weapons, plasmids, and user interfaces. We ended up with fewer choices overall, but each one of those choices was infinitely more functional, understandable, and fun than the previous ones.

It was inevitable that we lost some progress due to these major corrections. But the team's ability to pull together and address the fundamental problems was amazing, and the results were well worth it.


Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Comments


Anonymous
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Four pages and no mention of the SecuROM debacle? Reading about changing design elements is interesting, however such finer points have no impact if your customer has trouble even getting the game to run due to DRM.

Luis Guimaraes
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I`ve just finished the game... that was a very nice experience (even if, when I saw the 4 empty slots at the metro, I knew where the game was gonna end...)

The liberty about what and how to do is the best in the whole game... that`s really an action RPG like I was missing for years...

Good job!

Anonymous
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Your game company employee (>9000) says:



DRM junk is not really interesting from a post-mortem standpoint. This is all about the game design and the process of making the game which is very difficult and hard to get right.



DRM is tacked on publisher junk and not really interesting. It's also very easy to tack on after the fact and the real developers don't ever even see it. This is about the team that makes the game, not the DRM policy decisions. Totally different set of people calling shots for totally different things.

J Y
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I have to say that Bioshock had an excellent atmosphere and a decent backstory, but the gameplay was basically doing the same thing over and over again. Picking which few of the genetic weapons you wanted to carry through the next level at those upgrade stations was a terrible, terrible design decision. Because of that I only picked the ones I knew were the most effective at killing splicers (fire, ice, and electricity) and left the other powers to rot, never to be used. Ammo for the more advanced weapons was too sparse. The splicers never changed - They just got more powerful as you went through the game. Boooorrrinnggg.

John Walsh
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This article was very enlightening. The fact that the team was originally aiming to create a FPS / RPG hybrid, but was derailed from this purpose by focus groups who couldn't cope with the game's complexities, makes perfect sense. Bioshock could have been a truly great game, like System Shock 1 and 2 before it, but in the end it was dumbed down to being little more than a fun little shooter - albeit a highly atmospheric one with amazing graphics. I suppose this is par for the course in the console age; we saw the rot starting to set in with Deus Ex 2. Perhaps one day someone will try to turn this trend around, but I'm not holding my breath.

James Qualls
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My own little post-mortem from the player perspective:



What went right: #1 is atmosphere. The Randian utopia is completely unique in gaming. The Fort Frolic level with the plaster statues was especially brilliant. #2 is AI and characterization. The way the splicers behaved made them feel very alive. There are still so many games still coming out where the enemies have perfect knowledge of your location at all times and follow a simple script of "move towards the player and fire" - not here.



What went wrong: Lack of choice. This was particularly galling for a game hyped as offering a "groundbreaking" level of choice. There are a lot of kinds of choice so let me break it down further. There's freedom of tactics, freedom of moral choice, and freedom of goals.



First, freedom of tactics assumes a set micro-goal and allows several methods to achieve it (such as force, stealth, diplomacy.) Bioshock offers pretty much the minimum standard options you'd expect in any shooter. Tripwires, exploding barrels, and hackable turrets are not groundbreaking. There are no situations to apply diplomacy. Very few locations have multiple points of entry. The other games in the Looking Glass tradition (System Shock, Thief, Deus Ex) set a standard for tactical choice that Bioshock makes no effort to approach.



Second, moral choice. To slaughter little girls or not is not a sophisticaed moral dilemma compared to say, evaluating the source of legitimacy of governments as it relates to the use of lethal force in a civil society. And yes, the latter can be the subject of an exciting and compelling game: Deus Ex. Bioshock presents similar social issues through the lens of its Randian utopia, but never invites the player to define their own position or choose their own goal until the final moments.



Finally, there is freedom of movement. Bioshock's interpretation of freedom of movement is that there are some shops you don't have to go in. On the macro scale, you follow a set sequence of levels. The levels are nonlinear compared to Half-Life 2 or Doom 3, but then Tom Cruise is tall compared to Verne Troyer. The reasons for visiting levels in a particular order were fairly arbitrary and could have been dispensed with, so that apart from a tutorial and coda the player would have been free to roam Rapture.



It's certainly not a requirement that every AAA game have the tactical options of Thief, the moral choice of Knights of the Old Republic, and the freedom of movement of GTA, but if the hype of your game is going to be about freedom, you should make a game that actually excels in offering some type of freedom. I don't know whether the focus grouping helped unit sales, but it certainly hurt any claims to originality or ground-breaking. If you make a game for the common denominator, your game will be the common denominator.



I don't want to sound completely down on Bioshock. It's a solid game, fun, and a moneymaker, but I think its destined to be a footnote to the greatness of the Looking Glass tradition, not the genre-defining experience its predecessors were. The official post-mortem here makes it clear that, hype aside, thats what its creators wanted.

Anonymous
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"[...]we weren't thinking enough about how to make it accessible to a wide variety of players."



Unfortunately, there's NOTHING that tells you whether you were thinking TOO MUCH about how to make a game accessible to a wide variety of players.



Ken Levine seems really empty eyed when he talks about his initial visions for the game, the things that he's capable of and how little he actually got to put into the game because of the reactionary handling of focus-group testing.



The games business starts to strangle its greatest visionaries and celebrates the (obviously commercially successful) results in post mortems. In the end, I think 2K was lucky. This could have ended in a "Deux Ex: Invisible War".

Alexander Muscat
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@James Qualls

I couldent agree more on your points, concerning Bioshock.

jaime kuroiwa
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After reading this postmortem, I can't help but think about what Bioshock would have been if focus groups didn't carry as much weight as it did. Bioshock was a good game, but what held it back (or made it a success in this case) are the generic gameplay elements. Now I can blame focus groups for that.



The previews made the game sound like a sandbox-type FPS where the narrative unfolded by observing the occupants of Rapture, whom operate independent of the protagonist, and where each area was patrolled by a unique Big Daddy/Little sister. Upon playing the game, it was just a linear, scripted, FPS. While I was satisfied with the art direction, level design, and voice acting, I was completely disappointed with the gameplay.



Of course, teams like Valve and 2K will sing the praises of focus groups and how instrumental they were in the success of their game -- Portal and, now, Bioshock -- but there has to be a point where you have to consider the passion and enthusiasm of the development team over the reviews of a focus group.



Would Bioshock have been better if they stuck to their guns and ignored the negative feedback? I'd insert Frost's The Road Not Taken here.

Aaron Murray
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Wow. I'm shocked by the number of generally negative/coulda-shoulda-woulda responses.



Comparing BioShock to what it "could have been" is a bit of a stretch. I'm certain it "could have been" the best game ever given clairvoyance and unlimited time and resources, but the reality is the guys were running way over on schedule and expenses.



The BioShock that we got was a fun game. Not a long game, or an overly complicated game, but enjoyable. I remember playing the demo on X360 and saying "Wow. This is awesome." The game was compelling and fun.



When I read books, I typically don't choose them solely because they are literary masterpieces. Nor do I blame the author for not creating something as robust or intricate as War and Peace. As long as the setting is right, the plot is decent, and the story takes me on an enjoyable ride, I've received what I set out to get.

jaime kuroiwa
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I realize, as comments go, this is a little late to the game, but Aaron's comment needed a response.



What bothers me about this postmortem is not only that focus groups had a strong affect on the overall design of Bioshock -- even Ken Levine was quoted to say that the endings were not his plan -- but that what started out as a truly ground-breaking event ended up a (pardon the pun) watered-down experience. This is not a case of "coulda-shoulda-woulda" but a case of "didn't-because-someone-said-so." In other words, it clearly demonstrates how marketability trumps game design/narrative. It's a very worrying trend in this industry, and it made me feel like a sucker in the end.



If there will ever be a "director's cut" of Bioshock, I would be the first in line to pick it up; THAT would be the masterpiece.

Anonymous
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"This is not a case of "coulda-shoulda-woulda" but a case of "didn't-because-someone-said-so." In other words, it clearly demonstrates how marketability trumps game design/narrative. It's a very worrying trend in this industry, and it made me feel like a sucker in the end."



It's not just a case of marketability trumping design and narrative, it's a case of *reality* doing some trumping as well. Games are incredibly expensive to make, and not only that very hard to make. What I mean is, (especially if you are doing something new) there is no standardised way of constructing games, every company does it a little different on every title, and it is a very complex a process involving a lot of people.



Part of what that means is you cannot give over power to one or two individuals, even if you think they are geniuses. People are just too fallible to turn over that much responsilbity to them. At the end of the day, you are responsible not just for a game but for peoples livelihoods, ultimately - something I wish some of the higher level staff in many games companies would realise.



Listening to focus groups *is* a great idea sometimes. They don't always (though often do) produce a diluted, selfish, lowest -common-denominator effect on everything they touch. High quality opinions from other people are worth their weight in gold and listening to others almost always gives a positive result. In this interview he goes over how many things the team initially got wrong and how they were only corrected when outside forces gave some input. The "directors cut" you envisage might have been a whole lot worse than what we got in the end. I thought Bioshock was compelling, interesting and visually brilliant. Yes it could have been better in hindsight, (which is always 20-20) but if you think about the complexity of making a modern AAA game and shaping that experience for the player and all the layers a designer has to go through to convey something effectively, we should be grateful for what we got. I would be extremely happy if there were more games of the quality of Bioshock.



Personlly I think the compexity of making a game (although the number of staff doesn't) sometimes exceeds that of making even a big movie. Game designers have far less control over players and what they see and experience than movie directors. Giving this directorial power to someone in making a game would be very dangerous, I haven't met anyone in the industry myself who I would want to work under in such a role. I'm sure it has been done many times in games in the past - and i'd bet the results were mostly crap.

Luis Guimaraes
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About the "boring" in the last levels of the game, the case is that splices don't only never change in concept, but that they never learned anything else... every movement and behavior gets easier predictable...



I've played the game a second time to see the other ending scene, so I've gone through the whole game using only the wrench and telecinetic power, bullet for bigdaddies and one single firstaid in the full game...



The final boss was VERY easy even in the first time, once more in fact that he only repeat tha same things over and over... but, after the great game, the boss feeled to be there just filling the end of the game.

Luis Guimaraes
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I forgot one more thing:



If the game was being made with a strong and deep gameplay style... depending on how that was advanced in development, why just throw the whole work in trash, why do not let the player choose if wanna play the game in basic or advanced mode?



I've showed the game to some friends and they disliked the style how the goals and gameplay works, so they forgave to keep playing (ok, they don't speak english, but can read somethings well), so even the "simple" remade gameplay was considered complex by some players. So the same players that enjoyed the game the way is was released, would probably easely figure out the first game was being made...

Ralf Sinoradzki
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Well, I like both, role playing games and athmospheric shooters.



So I think, Bioshock is a really cool game. Although I'm really interested now, how the first rpg-like Bioshock would have been :)



Anyway, it's one of those games that I completed in a few marathon sessions, because I couldn't stop.

Then I put it on the shelf, until I have forgotten most of the story, and something like after half a year, play it again ... put it away, wait some months, play again ...



I'd still do that with games like System Shock 2 and Deus Ex, but think they don't run on Windows XP anymore.


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