Trailing major game releases with robust DLC has proven a viable avenue for extending a title's life and its relationship with audiences. Publisher Take-Two in particular has employed this strategy with gusto, regularly releasing significant DLC "episodes" for its studios' games -- like Grand Theft Auto IV or Red Dead Redemption.
But 2K Marin's Minerva's Den downloadable side-story for BioShock 2 had a particularly interesting mandate: Develop a stand-alone narrative-driven offshoot for a franchise that already has a strong story focus, without violating any of the intricate laws governing its world.
At 2K Marin, the mantle fell to Steve Gaynor to develop Minerva's Den's world and story: "We were mandated with 3-5 hours' worth of single-player story content," he explains.
"So I came up with the place, I was the writer of the plot and dialogue, I voice-directed the main characters... and I was the lead designer, I worked with our gameplay programmer on new weapons, plasmids and enemies, and I was the level designer of the first level of the DLC."
Projects like Minerva's Den offer fascinating and unique opportunities for small teams -- only 10 people worked on the project full-time, and could benefit from the chance to build an individual story in a world that is already well-established.
"It gave our small team a chance to work in a very autonomous, agile way under the umbrella of a larger studio, so we had a lot of support," Gaynor says. And since BioShock's Rapture thrives on its mystery and unanswered questions, there are numerous story directions one could conceive and explore.
What Hasn't Been Seen, But Must Exist?
"Playing BioShock, and working on BioShock 2, and seeing how much really impossibly advanced technology there was, I thought about all of the stuff that's taken for granted -- these bots and cameras and turrets and things... in Rapture's era, they would have some huge mainframe computer that they were running from," he theorizes.
The main concept, then, for Minerva's Den came from extrapolating on what already existed in Rapture's world, something Gaynor says is key to approaching this type of add-on content. "So much of BioShock was about ADAM [the world's power currency], and using the genetic technology to change people," he says. But, he reasoned, for every successful attempt at genetic enhancement that succeeded, there must have been several other approaches that never panned out, that lost steam midway or encountered problems.
Thus McClendon Robotics, the DLC's central location, was born: "We were interested in looking at other approaches that people were taking [to human advancement] that dead-ended, or maybe at the time of the fall of the city they were using other approaches to get ahead," Gaynor suggests. So it was easy to envision a heretofore unseen part of Rapture, where automation, robotics and technology had been pursued with fervor.
It's how the studio wants its designers to think, Gaynor says. As part of his interview process at the time he joined 2K Marin, he says candidates were tasked with a whiteboard test, challenged to come up with a level for BioShock from scratch: "As part of that brainstorming, I thought about what parts of Rapture haven't been seen before," he says. "There's always the computer stuff, and that was something we were just kicking around... but when it was time for DLC, I remembered my idea and thought that maybe Rapture's computer core could point to a larger story," he says.
Designing For Strong Story
It's something of an unusual opportunity: Gaynor's always mainly worked as a level designer (he worked on the first level of BioShock 2 and the 'Pauper's Drop' stage). But as an avid writer with his own design blog, he had opportunities to work with creative director Jordan Thomas on BioShock 2, developing elements like some of the game's key audio logs or dialogue for the Splicers. So when BioShock 2 finished and Thomas moved onto 2K Marin's next projects, Gaynor seemed the ideal candidate to develop the DLC.
Generally, Gaynor feels that writing and level design benefit from being tightly integrated, and that designers can find unique creative opportunities if they are experienced writers, even if it's informal: "I've spent a lot of my life writing just silly amateur fictional stuff; I've written and drawn a lot of comics, I wrote a ton on my blog -- which isn't fiction but it does kind of help you learn a lot about communicating and engaging with a reader," he says. "I've always had an interest in the fictional world of a place, and the characters and elements beyond the game design."
And Minerva's Den has been enjoying a positive critical reception, especially on the story side -- from those that have played it, at least, as the marketing for the DLC has not been especially visible. Gaynor attributes the quality of the result in part to the fact that it wasn't just him who was given the freedom to apply himself to the areas he felt were his strengths. A collaborative environment that recognizes individual contributions is essential to the often-elusive strong relationship between story and gameplay, in his view.
"I think that when you are leading a project like this one of the biggest jobs you have to do is to gauge what interests each individual working on it has, and what their strengths are and where to let them run with whatever they're interested in," he says. "You have to be really collaborative, and be able to step back in the places where you can -- and also recognize when people would rather have somebody else handle the story stuff or the visuals or any given element. It's all about balance."
A holistic view without unnatural adherence to roles helps, and smaller teams make this more possible to do without a descent into chaos, he adds. "It has to be organic as possible, and when someone has something that's not necessarily their primary responsibility but they have a passion for it and ideas for it, like... 'I want to try to shape the art in this one part even though I'm a level designer', I think you have to take advantage of that."
Evolving Gameplay Without Departures
Even with a strong story, bringing something new to the BioShock 2 world from a gameplay progression standpoint is its own challenge. Would players who had just spent hours and hours on the main game want to continue to repeat the same gameplay in an add-on? Or would they be frustrated with too much change?
Gaynor and the Minerva's Den team addressed this in part by changing the initial progression of equipment; players wouldn't be able to fall back on their same weapon-and-plasmid strategy. Further, the decision to initially give players Plasmids that promoted use of the environment and interaction with the machines prior to the standard ones that enabled direct aggression encouraged players to engage thoughtfully with the new setting rather than treat it as just another level.
Some of the design decisions involved elements inherent to BioShock; players still take the role of a Big Daddy, although it's clearly a different, plot-supported character separate from the main game's. Players still relied on the ADAM-fueled progression system for upgrades, so the system of obtaining Little Sisters in Minerva's Den remained fundamentally alike to the main game -- even though they became less relevant to the story than before.
"There are some things you have to live with; 'this is going to be here because we need it to be here, but it's going to be de-emphasized,'" Gaynor suggests. "We have to pick our battles when doing something as small as the DLC."
A Spiritual Successor
But there are some elements that could be changed by tweaking elements of the traditional gameplay: Darker environments, less abundant resources and enemies a little more directly dangerous from the get-go was aimed to provide a subtle "survival horror feel", Gaynor says.
And despite being an offshoot of an elaborate world, Gaynor says there's a surprisingly high volume of new environment assets incorporated into Minerva's Den, to make McClendon Robotics seem like a distinctly new place -- one that was a comprehensible and familiar part of Rapture, but nonetheless felt very new.
"We pulled a lot of photo references of computer technology from the time, early mainframe computers -- it's amazing how monolithic they are, with cables and wires and crazy steampunk mid-century stuff," says Gaynor.
And many of the spiritual references to the series proper are less tangible. As Big Daddy Sigma seeks a massive AI known as "The Thinker", he gets communications from an ostensible protagonist as well as an antagonist -- and ends in a twist, naturally. The story and the gameplay hand-in-hand rely on themes of "predictive equations", the idea that anyone's behavior can be anticipated and compensated for in advance if only it can be systematized according to mathematics. The film Pi was something of a reference here, Gaynor suggests.
"If anything, it has something in common with the kind of twist, and comment on being the player of a linear game, that BioShock 1 did, how they called back to all the objectives you had accomplished throughout the game," Gaynor says. "And this is kind of coming at it from the opposite direction, where the villain tells you up-front that everything you're going to do is predicted by this perfect machine."
"He's relying on the fact that he has the equation that is telling him ahead of time what is going on to happen -- and part of the resolution of the vision is that he just doesn't grasp what the implications of that are," he says.
The various facets and moving parts that the small team was able to achieve in Minerva's Den couldn't have happened without major support and direction from the larger studio, Gaynor concludes. "That said, DLC is a great way to have that indie feeling of a small team that is sitting in the pit together, and kicking ideas around -- but with AAA production values and all," he says. "The more [the industry sees] DLC become a fact of life, I hope more studios will look at them as core development projects."