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Beyond the sea: Devs look back at the influential BioShock 2

We caught up with some of the developers from BioShock 2 for lessons and memories from the game's development.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

September 23, 2016

7 Min Read

Last week’s release of BioShock: The Collection saw many developers and writers reminiscing about the original 2007 game. (Check out Gamasutra's Twitch play of the original game with level designer Bill Gardner.)

While we were all too happy to revisit the world’s first glimpse of Rapture ourselves, it’s also worth remembering that its successor BioShock 2 also had a huge impact on the world of game development. As many have noted, BioShock 2 was a clear precursor so-called "walking simulators" like Gone Home and Firewatch.

In commemoration of the 2010 BioShock sequel, we reached out to former 2K Marin developers Steve Gaynor, Karla Zimonja, Johnnemann Nordhagen and Kent Hudson to share memories from the games development as well as design lessons learned on the game that they still apply to their work today. 

Game dev lessons that still matter today

Zimonja and Gaynor (who joined up with Nordhagen after BioShock 2 was finished to found The Fullbright Company) say that if there’s one big lesson they carried over from BioShock into their own work, it’s how to use level design to both tell a story and shape the player’s ability to guide themselves through the space. “The house in Gone Home is effectively built like a BioShock level,” Gaynor says. “It has this architecture that leads you along a path without feeling like it's linear.” 

Minerva's Den vs Gone Home

Zimonja says that the audio diaries of BioShock 2 were a good guide for figuring out the timing of how long audio narrative segments in Gone Home needed to be to hold the player’s attention. “There's also something in there about the period authenticity, and how much of that can actually go across to a modern player and how much can be put in for feel and atmosphere,” she says.

Working with with a weird game engine

The first two BioShock games famously ran on a heavily modified version of a game engine that was first released in 1998. It helped give the game its defining aesthetic, but also presented a unique set of challenges for its programmers. 

Johnnemann Nordhagen, now the founder of Dim Bulb Games, says that the game’s engine, while successful, came with its own unique challenges. “The sequel was using an engine that had been frozen in time sometime back during the development of the original game. ‘A heavily modified Unreal 2.5’ was the most common way I heard it described,” he says. 

“Working with that was really an interesting challenge," says Nordhagen. "I was also the UI programmer on the game, and the UI was developed using a weird Flash library for Unreal that had stopped being supported a few years before. Luckily, we knew that this technology had already shipped one game.”

Nordhagen later gave a GDC talk, "The Programming of Gone Home: How to Succeed by Being Lazy," about transitioning transitioning away from AAA to indie development with the team at The Fullbright Company. “On BioShock 2, I had a very small niche,” Nordhagen points out. “We had multiple programmers working on each aspect of programming, and we joked that we had a Left Hand and a Right Hand programmer - one for weapons and one for the plasmids. Moving from that level of specialization to being the sole programmer on a project was a huge learning experience and really required a lot of - let's say 'efficient' programming practices."

Shocky stories

But of course, any story about game development can’t be complete without tales of easter eggs or jokes the designers and programmers snuck into the game for each other—and figuring out which ones actually made it out the door. Gaynor says that because they used BioShock’s Unreal 2.5 engine, they discovered that characters like the Big Daddies and Little Sisters could be infinitely scaled for fun and amusement.

“So there was one day where we definitely had some Little Daddies in the game, which were just Big Daddies that were scaled down to knee-height. They would just run around and hit you with their drill,” Gaynor says, chuckling at the memory. “You would still die, but they were so adorable.”

“Or just like a Splicer, scaling him up to be 20 feet tall and he would still run around and be trying to hit you with a pipe, but the pipe didn't scale up so he was a giant hitting you with a toothpick sized pipe, which is the kind of stuff that you get to enjoy when you are inside the studio.”

Gaynor also had a story about a set of assets for leftover robotic Little Sisters from BioShock that were never implemented in the first game. Apparently, during BioShock’s development, there was concern that the Little Sisters would need to be made into robots in order to release the game in Germany, due to the country’s tough content laws when it comes to games. 

That turned out to be unnecessary, but Gaynor says when he found this out, he was able to sneak them in to the Minerva’s Den DLC as a creepy easter egg. “That's one of those things where you work on a project for long enough and you're like, ‘Oh, I heard this story about how there were these robotic little sisters, do we have those?" 

“It's cool when you can bring stuff like that back to life that had been on the cutting room floor and now it's actually part of the universe in some form.”

A good team is hard to find

And while the lessons of BioShock 2’s development can certainly help other developers, all of the former 2K Marin employees said the company’s organization also helped strengthen the development process. “It was a smaller team and we were all kind of learning to work together and how to make a BioShock game,” says Gaynor, “so there were these opportunities for people to step up and be like, ‘Well, I'll jump into this role and we can see how different people on the team work together.’”

Kent Hudson, who went on after BioShock 2 to make the choice-driven game The Novelist, says that one of the biggest lessons you could take from BioShock 2went largely unobserved, because it’s not directly reflected in gameplay, He claims that 2K Marin was able to shake up how it organized its AI programming team, which directly impacted their ability to implement the games’ complicated AI. 

2K Marin team about a year into the development of Bioshock 2

“Instead of getting lost in documentation and paper design, we focused on rapid iteration in an environment where everyone had a voice regardless of their job description,” Hudson says. “All developers say that focusing on on-screen results is the best way to go, but BioShock 2 was the first time I’d ever been in a place where we had the ability — technological, organizational, talent-wise — to put it into practice, and we were all incredibly proud of the result.”

Zimonja points out that that learning process it what allowed her to help out different parts of the writing and audio team, and eventually become one of the writers for the DLC Minerva’s Den. “By the time we got there, I was totally familiar with how voice recording sessions were and the format that lines should be in when you pass them on to localization and all these little things that you definitely don't necessarily know about when you're on a smaller team.”

Hudson and Nordhagen offered similar thoughts, and were as equally excited to get to continue working with their former teammates in the years after BioShock 2. “The experiences I had on BioShock 2 made me a much better designer and developer for the projects that came after; I’ve collaborated with a large number of former teammates on my two projects as an independent developer.”

About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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