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Developing  Bioshock , 'everyone had something to prove'
Developing Bioshock, 'everyone had something to prove'
April 17, 2014 | By Alex Wawro




"Oblivious in my pride I stood to my feet, arms thrown up, and bellowed: 'IT IS DONE!' to a completely empty building. As Cohen sat there in his looping poses, admiring his masterpiece, I realised that, in a way, I had become him."
- Irrational Games expat Jordan Thomas shares stories of crunching on Bioshock.

Simon Parkin has published an excellent feature on the development of Bioshock over on Eurogamer today that includes interviews with lead team members like Jordan Thomas, Paul Hellquist and Ken Levine.

The feature elucidates the development of Bioshock, from its origins as an original Xbox game set on a mutant-infested space station through its evolution -- under mounting pressure from the publisher -- into a streamlined FPS set in an underwater utopia gone awry.

Choice quotes from interviews with folks who worked on the game are also peppered throughout the piece, and they offer insight into how the game came together and what it was like to work at Irrational during its lengthy development cycle.

"Ken's relationship with design gradually became an adversarial one," Bioshock level designer Jean Paul LeBreton tells Parkin, when speaking about how the game's development was affected by pressure from the publisher. "I think that the pressure Ken felt to deliver a successful blockbuster corresponded, at many points on the project, to his unpleasantness with the team."

"I remember the hunger," Bioshock senior level designer Jordan Thomas tells Parkin. "I came on late, but you could smell it, like an animal; everyone there had something to prove. And when we let ego fall away, and that engine of collective intent began to roar, man - there was a beauty to the naked momentum of it."

"Maybe you were at the wheel, maybe you were fuel. On the best days at Irrational, it didn't matter."

The full article, which features the original pitch document for Bioshock, can -- and should -- be read over at Eurogamer.


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Comments


Dane MacMahon
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Setting out to "create a blockbuster" rubs me the wrong way for some reason, though obviously it worked out well for everyone in this case.

Shame that Infinite was much more linear and less impressive, at least to me.

Michael Joseph
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You can't go home again.

The eurogamer piece reads like recounted war stories and it's interesting to hear how the Battle of Bioshock impacted the survivors at the articles conclusion.

Ken Levine sounds like an... interesting character. Towards the end of the article he is quoted "It wasn't a game that we made to anybody's specifications. We made exactly the thing that we wanted to make."

That characterization strikes me as simultaneously honest and untrue. Bioshock's design may not have been handed down from on high (publisher), but neither was it the product of a clear vision by anyone at Irrational. Whatever may have seemed to be rock solid design commitments at one point during development, ultimately proved very fluid. New aesthetics were stumbled upon, character designs completely changed, mechanics overhauled, play-testers accommodated, cultural taboos taken into consideration, etc. They clearly had no idea what "exactly the thing" was for much of the process.

Maybe that flexibility is necessary when you're given a huge budget, your number one objective is to win the war, but inadequate pre-war planning now necessitates having a general with a knack and willingness to improvise. But I think we all know that this is not a healthy way to make games. And it clearly doesn't bode well for the passion (or sanity) of developers in the long run to hear them regard their past work on a project as a trial under fire. That type of thinking is a bit too expendable grunt-like / drone-ish for my liking.

"Whatever doesn't kill us makes us stronger" is something people say to help them cope with trauma. Traumatic experiences can test ones strength, but military hospitals are full of people who'd rather that cup placed before them been passed.

we sure do use a lot of war terminology and metaphors to describe game dev...

George Menhal III
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I like how this story reiterates the notion that young minds sometimes fumble their way into greatness because they are driven to make something incredible but don't have the experience to know whether or not what they are doing is right. The circumstances and key players in Bioshock's development remind me somewhat of the backstory concerning the filming of Citizen Kane. At the time, Orson Welles had never made a film and most of his crew were entirely amateur. They worked tirelessly around limiting studio expectations, and Welles has asserted in interviews that Citizen Kane was "the film we wanted to make."

The end result in both cases is fairly similar. Landmark innovation. Citizen Kane is still praised for its inventive cinematography and intricate use of lighting. Bioshock has now come to be remembered for its innovations in first person storytelling, the subsequent subversion of those innovations by the narrative twist, the quality and depth of the narrative itself, and for the absurdly memorable world of Rapture.

More interestingly, Orson Welles and now Ken Levine have both been publicly questioned on their contributions to these crowning achievements. It's important to note that I'm not comparing Bioshock to Citizen Kane, but the circumstances of production. Just food for thought. There are many parallels between the nascent film and game industries.


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