The original Ken Levine-led BioShock had high expectations, but even greater success than anyone expected -- it was a mainstream hit, and welcomed a huge number of gamers, including shooter fans, RPG enthusiasts, and gamers who play for the story. How to reconcile all of those audiences while building the sequel is one of the major issues the 2K Marin team must contend with on BioShock 2 -- the studio's first title.
Building a sequel to a beloved game is a delicate enterprise, moreso when you doing it with a whole new studio. Alyssa Finley, executive producer at 2K Marin, may have worked on the original BioShock along with small core of fellow veterans, but most of the studio's staff was new to the franchise.
Here, Finley, along with series newcomer and lead designer Zak McClendon, lay out the thinking behind building the sequel to BioShock, explaining what's required when approaching a property so many people have fallen in love with.
One thing is clear: the team has spent a lot of time worrying about that very issue. Just as illustrative is discussion of the process and logic that lead to the way decisions are being made while development of the game is still underway.
And of course, while perhaps most frequently praised for its atmosphere and narrative, BioShock is also about gameplay choices for the player. The tension of building a game that integrates story and gameplay has been a major factor in creating BioShock 2, and is a core concern for McClendon. He reveals his thoughts on the matter here.
Alyssa, you largely assembled the 2K Marin team after BioShock shipped, right? How did it come about?
Alyssa Finley: We got to the point [at 2K Boston] where we knew we had more projects to do than we had teams to do them, so 2K came to me and said, "Hey, what do you think? We noticed that you still have a [San Francisco] 415 area code on your cell phone. What do you think about potentially coming back to California?", which is where I had been for 12 years beforehand.
It started with figuring out who the original eight people from Boston, who those would be -- who's excited by the opportunity. Then we all moved our things across the country and started the recruiting process here.
The notion came up in late September , and we were out in Novato by November. From there, we hired the rest of the team. In the first year, we got up to 35 or 40 people. Now we have more than 60 just at 2K Marin. But I think every time we got somebody in, from then on, it was the crew of us trying to build the team together. I don't want to take credit for it as an individual thing.
Zak McClendon: But you still do pretty much interview everybody who comes into the building for at least a half-hour.
Zak, how did you get involved? Was there just a job posting, and you applied?
AF: We recruited him heavily. [laughs]
ZM: A little bit of both, actually. There was a job opening, so I knew about it, but I also had met [creative director] Jordan [Thomas] years ago when we were both under the Eidos umbrella, when he was at Ion Storm and I was working at Crystal Dynamics. That was when I first talked to him, and he remembered me from that, and had apparently been trying to recruit me out of Crystal without my knowing, because I was shielded from it.
But we had some projects winding down there, so I was looking for other stuff, and I got in contact with the people here and met a really great team.
Coming in as someone who didn't work on BioShock, how do you approach the role as lead designer? A good number of the other leads -- creative director, art lead, lead level designer -- all are from 2K Boston.
ZM: Ultimately, the same way you approach designing any kind of game, with the great advantage of it being a sequel and having a lot of things already figured out. There's also the advantage that BioShock went through a lot of different iterations and focus, and a lot of different things were tried, spending a lot of time delving into that history and finding out why those decisions were made and how they went from having, say, 50 different plasmids to the 12 that shipped with the game.
It was a matter of trying to take advantage of all that learned knowledge, which didn't necessarily transplant over with every single person. The challenge has always been, on a gameplay side, that BioShock is so different for different people. And there are people who absolutely love to use bees for the entire game, and then there are other people who are like, "That is the stupidest thing in the game. I don't know why it's there. Let's get rid of it."
There are lots of different opinions, and really trying to respect that diversity in the design and foster all those play styles was the core approach that we took early on.
Who are the different kinds of players who play BioShock? It's everything from hardcore FPS people who are approaching it the exact same way they would play a Halo game, to people who are kind of only there for the story and are creeping their way through this world, terrified.
That was the biggest triumph from BioShock, from a gameplay perspective -- taking a game that had so much diversity in gameplay and systems, and so much depth, and making something really acceptable to people that a really wide audience could enjoy, and ignore the things that they didn't enjoy.
We're trying to maintain that while taking each one of those play styles, supplying more tools, more interactivity, and more depth without alienating any of those. It would be very easy to say, "We're going to really appeal to the shooter audience," or the story audience, but we're trying to grow each of those things and add more depth across the board without cutting anybody out of the loop.
AF: I will say it was a really good thing for us to have some folks who came from an outside point of view. During BioShock, the times we made the most progress on the game were when somebody came in and challenged assumptions that we had had for a long time, [keeping us from saying], "No, we know what kind of game we're making."
I think it was a really good process for us to not get entrenched, not to have just a whole set of old-school people saying, "I know my BioShock, and it's all about this!" Having new voices in the mix who didn't go through every single painful decision, who didn't know the tortured saga of the bees and how they got from where there were going to be fewer bees in the universe to the number of bees we have -- whatever it was.