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.
What are the challenges in making a sequel immediately after the original game, with this team?
ZM: Addressing it with a fresh perspective is part of it. I think the real challenge with building any team is getting all those people to know each other, understand how they work, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and operate as one group. It's building a sequel that you know a lot of people didn't work on, coming to a consensus of what the core of that game is, what really is BioShock and isn't BioShock.
Early on, we did have a lot of discussions where people would say, "We can't do that. That's not BioShock," or, "We can't move away from that. That's the core of BioShock," trying to come to a team-wide consensus on what the franchise means and what makes a BioShock a BioShock, and what we absolutely couldn't live without.
Very carefully, we're departing or adding something new, and striking out in a new direction in a way that the whole team believes in and feels is complementary to the design that already exists there. It's a slow process of trying to get consensus and excitement of what we're going to keep and what we're going to add. It's pretty straightforward.
AF: One of the real opportunities we have with doing it quickly after the original is there are always some things that you don't have time to do the way you wanted to, or the way you dreamed you could have done.
One of the main questions we got asked a lot was, "Why can't you go underwater? I'm in an underwater city. I put on a Big Daddy suit. Why can't I go underwater?" When we picked up, we said, "We're going to be in Rapture in BioShock 2. What are some things that we ought to be doing?" And that was one of the really intuitive ones that came out of it. Being close to it helped the team be close to it.
ZM: But there really are a whole lot of questions. We had to go through a process where pretty much every single element of the BioShock design was interrogated and questioned. "What does it really add to the game?" We actually went through a process where every one of those things gets written down on tiny little cards, and we put them on a giant board to mix and match and remove and change their priority, holistically looking at how they changed the game we're making.
The bees keep turning up, so -- not to turn this into a "How many weapons are in your game?" interview -- are there bees still in the game?
ZM: Yeah, the bees are still in.
AF: Hell yes!
ZM: There are a lot of things in the design that not everyone cares about, but the people who do care about them care about them very, very deeply. If we were to remove that thing, I don't know what you would do. How would Alyssa actually play the game if there were no bees?
AF: Decoys. I would just put decoys in to every room, and I would run through. My whole thing is non-confrontation.
ZM: She's a non-confrontational player. She's a manipulator -- that's we call her play style. It's, "I want someone else to play. I'm going to stand here in the corner and watch everything go down. I don't want anybody shooting at me."
Is there an equivalent for the guy in BioShock who is a total wrench maniac and uses nothing else?
ZM: Yeah. Obviously, we have the drills. It's a little bit more robust than the wrench. Every weapon does have a gun butt now. So we're still supporting the melee playthrough.
There are a lot of weird things like that in BioShock. Some people saw it as a criticism -- "I can play the whole game with a wrench." And then some people really enjoyed it -- "I can play the whole game with a wrench!" There were all these different upgrades and tonics. You got the stealth upgrade that let you hit guys behind and kill them with a wrench.
We tried to add more depth to those different kinds of play styles, but we're also trying to not eliminate any of them, because that's one of the core tenets. One of our principles that came out of BioShock is to say yes to the player and to support every kind of player you possibly can.
Do you see any validity in the criticism that BioShock was too easily "gamed"? People have taken issue not just with the ability to go full wrench specifically, but generally with being able to just figure out one optimal Big Daddy strategy and do that forever, for example.
ZM: Yeah, absolutely. But like I said, in terms of embracing what BioShock did well, part of that actually is, I feel, a strength. There is so much diversity in the toolset, and there are so many different tactics you can use. A large part of that is if you find something that makes you feel clever and strong, that's fantastic. If you do it until you're bored, that's not fantastic. We definitely want to support those combinations -- that combinatory gameplay is at the heart of BioShock.
But we do want to make sure there are enough challenges and diversity, and that you're going to be not necessarily forced, but encouraged to change it up every once in a while. Whether that's something as simple as "I run out of that ammo type, so I have to switch weapons," or "I run into enemies that this tactic doesn't work on as well," we just try to take the approach of baiting the player towards things they want to do instead of punishing them into doing it.
The easy fix would be like, "We're sick of everybody always electro-bolting and wrenching people, so we're going to introduce enemies who are immune to electrical halfway through the game," and then say, "Haha, you can't use that."
That ends up really frustrating because they player was shot down from something they wanted to do. We take a pretty balanced approach of trying to make sure there's nothing broken when the player is getting bored of doing the same thing over and over again, but still supporting those extreme edge cases of, "If I do five things in a row, I can win against every enemy."
If you figured that out, great. Good for you. If you attach ten proximity mines to a physics object, and then throw it a Big Daddy, you can pretty much kill him in one shot, and you can play against every single Big Daddy like that. But if you figured that out and it's satisfying for you, that's great -- but we are trying to do some things on the AI side and on the core balance side to encourage you to switch it up a little bit.
The same goes for the Little Sisters, the harvest or save mechanics. One of the dangers when you try to mesh mechanics and story themes together is that there are some players who will end up disengaging from one or the other, and they will only play on the story side or the mechanics side. But I think the payoff of marrying those things together thematically is worth it.
That, I think, will always be a criticism of any game. It's the same thing with the Star Wars games. Is the player choosing evil because they like being evil, or do they just want lightning at the end of it? You can't tell. I think it's a good enough trade-off to try and support those things. There will be some players who say, "I know what you are doing. I'm just gonna game the system," but that happens with any kind of gameplay system.
I did find, however, that my enjoyment of the gameplay aspects of BioShock shot way up once I started consciously using unusual weapon combinations; for the first several hours I was just falling into the same patterns, and it got a bit repetitive. The one angle is to support any style the player wants, but do you worry that if you're too open-ended, the player might not even realize some of the fun things they could be doing?
ZM: Part of it is simply advertising the rewards and encouraging you in a way that isn't requiring anything. If a player requires something for him or herself, they own that solution, and they feel invested in it, and they feel very clever. If you just pop up a giant text box, it's, "Well, the game told me how to do that. I don't feel particularly empowered or clever or smart or fast."
You have to figure out ways through the game itself to advertise these things or encourage the player to try them out. One of the big ones we're trying to do is moving the research system over from just taking pictures of guys to really encouraging that combinatory gameplay and giving you rewards for how diverse you are, how many of the combinations you have discovered, and ingraining that into systemic aspects of the game.
The idea is, "Here's a complexity ramp that I can try to climb over the course of the game." With those, players will stumble across things as they incorporate them into their play style. That's one of the biggest systemic ways we're trying to do it, and the other part of it is just advertising those rewards a little better. With research in Bio 1, people didn't know what they were going to get out of the other end of that system.
We're also supplying more depth to the tools themselves. One of the big things we're doing is that all the plasmids ramp up in complexity, and you can upgrade them a couple times over the course of the game, and they open up more developed tactics and usage for that specific tool.
Even if you do just love using the electro bolt, electro bolt itself changes a little over the course of the game, and what you can use it for changes a little bit over the course of the game, so it's not simply a numerical "it shocks guys for longer, and I can get better at the thing I've been doing over and over again."
But yes, it's definitely one of the biggest challenges, and it's always very tempting to simply require the player to do the interesting thing. What you get from that is that the player sees it; it gets in front of them. What you lose from that is any sort of feeling of investment: "I chose to do that, and I'm a smart guy."
You mentioned the balancing act and tension between overtly game-like elements and the less tangible story or thematic elements, even in a game like BioShock, which is one of the most widely-applauded games in the arena of doing interesting things with both simultaneously. How much do you think that ongoing tension is intrinsic to the medium, and how much is a result of game design still figuring it out?
AF: At the end of the day, the best games are ones where the people making them are passionate about them. I don't think it should be the new trend in game design, that everybody should say, "Oh, BioShock did it, so we better do it, too."
I don't have a very grand philosophical point other than I think it's down to where a developer's passion lies. You make things that you believe in, and if you make something you believe in and people respond to it, that sticks out.
ZM: I tend to agree with that. I'm not a very big fan of prescriptive future of game design. That's what I love about games as a medium, that there is so much diversity. If you look at the novel or movies, those have gotten very stabilized in terms of what people expect from them, but coming into a game, a game still is the kind of thing that could be anything.
It's one medium that encompasses everything from Tetris to BioShock, and people see them as the same kind of experience in a way. It's what makes it feel so alive to me.
I think the challenge for storytelling in games is you really have to commit to it being one of your highest goals, because it requires a certain kind of gameplay and a certain kind of story, and you have to make sure those things are married together. Usually the places where it gets hard is when you are trying to do a certain kind of game and a certain kind of story, and those things aren't thematically welded together in a way that makes it easy for you.
I think one of the reasons BioShock managed to be a game with such systemic complexity but still very immersive from the story, is that they put it in a place that nobody knew. And if you took the same approach, and the game took place in New York City, you would have a lot harder of a time figuring out why there are ammo vending machines on every corner.
You end up having to build the entire setting around contextualizing the gameplay that you want to make sense within that area, so it requires both parties on the story and the gameplay side to really be committed to doing that and kind of leaving behind the things that don't end up working for that.
In BioShock, for example, it was eschewing third-person storytelling altogether. That's a fantastic tool for storytellers to get things across, but if you're trying to sell a certain kind of story, you don't get to use that tool. Same thing with the logs.
People complained about the logs not being high budget enough, that they seem a little chintzy, but they allow you tell a kind of story in an interactive environment that you just simply wouldn't be able to do.
If you took all the logs from BioShock 1 and tried to make them into a first-person cutscene that you go to see play out, they would either be impossible from a production perspective or, honestly, deadly boring. They would be really boring to watch because a lot of them are just sort of inner monologue. You don't see that in games a whole lot.
What I'm saying is it requires fitting the story you're telling to the format of the storytelling, to thematic unity with the gameplay elements. If you have a bunch of people working in parallel saying, "We're going to make the best game we can, and we're going to make the best story we can, and then let's try to match them to get at some point," it's always going to be really hard.
You kind of have to grow those things in parallel in a way that's going to make sense. And that probably is one of the hardest things you can try to do.
I was talking to the Army of Two guys about how those two games are set essentially in the modern world. They were saying making that choice ends up being costly to make in a lot of ways, because people know the real world so well that it's the developer's responsibility to actual model it extremely convincingly. But then you've brought up a slightly different angle, which is that so much of what we're used to in a game from a mechanical standpoint would be hard to fit into the real world.
ZM: And people can spot that game-iness and that contrivance in a real-world environment really, really easily. If you look at some of the best storytelling games, they take something that is familiar in the real world and do it just enough to allow them some flexibility.
Even something like Half-Life 2's City 17 is very recognizable. It's very real. But it's just disconnected enough from our reality that the things they need to help tell the story and keep the gameplay going don't seem out of place.
Another interesting tactic for that, honestly, is parody and satire. One of the reasons GTA works so well is that a lot of it is very satirical and funny. When you have that environment, things don't stick out as badly for players because they identify it as an exaggerated view of something they recognize.
That's why having restaurants restore health in GTA ends up not breaking up your immersion in the world. That's honestly the best tactic for doing games within a real world setting.
Can you speak at all about where you're falling along the spectrum of making a game that tries to really expand on its predecessor and offer a new angle on its concept, and a game that tries to hone in on and improve and bolster what made the predecessor work?
AF: That's something we talked a lot about, and we still talk a lot about -- being able to balance between somebody who's played the first game three times and researched everything and figured out every trick in the book, versus somebody who's just saying, "Yeah, my friend played that. I guess it's okay."
It is a tough balancing act. The first thing we did, and I think one of the key changes in perspective from BioShock to BioShock 2 is that BioShock was an outsider's story. It was about somebody who doesn't know anything about what's going on locked into a place and discovering it for the first time. And you, the player, are discovering it with them.
The perspective change for BioShock 2 is that it's an insider's story. It's somebody who exists in this world and lives in this world. We're not saying that you had to have played BioShock to play BioShock 2 -- not at all.
You could have seen the picture of Big Daddy and said, "Okay, that's me. I'm going to imagine what that fantasy is, and now I get to live it." But for somebody who did come in from the first game, they've got a little more context about who that guy is and what he might be able to do, and then hopefully we surprise you a little bit with what you actually can do in the game.
ZM: It's about picking very strong key departures. The biggest one obviously is playing a Big Daddy. That comes with a lot of expectations and surprises on our end in terms of how that changes the gameplay and how that changes how people expect the game to play, in terms of the toolset you get to use, in terms of how people should treat you, in terms of how you interact with the world.
A lot of the design actually grew out of that core concept of, "We decided you're going to play a Big Daddy. What should that mean for the rest of the game?" All the Little Sister adoption stuff grew out of that, honestly.
Once we made a choice to change the context for the player, supporting that really took on a life of its own in a way that this is what we know we're going to have to do in order for us to fulfill that goal of saying, "You're the Daddy."
I think it's allowed us to get a little more clarity on keeping some of the other things. We could have fallen into a mire of completely reinventing everything in the entire game, and that let us target more of the reinventions around the player experience.
For our first sequel, that was one of the best ways you can keep a lot of the core parts of the game that people understand, while making it feel like it's coming from a different perspective.
The same goes for Rapture; we don't want to throw anything out where people are going to say it's no longer a BioShock to them without it. But we have to change enough that they're not bored, that they don't know exactly what to expect throughout the entire game.
If you can choose to never adopt a Little Sister, that means you'll never have to guard her, so you'll never have those Little Sister-centric battles with the Big Sister. Can you then dramatically reduce the amount of time you spend fighting that character just by doing that?
ZM: Yeah, you can. This is part of what I was talking about in terms of trusting player choices and trusting how much you feel like you want to be involved with the system.
If we haven't done our job to make it seem interesting enough for you to interact with something in the game, a lot of times we are not going to force you. If that means parts of the story or parts of the world don't seem as interesting to you as a consequence, we are not going to rub your nose in our game design.
Obviously, as a major story character, there are places where every player will definitely run into Big Sister, but it's the same thing with BioShock 1. You could play through BioShock and ignore Big Daddies the entire game.
You could. Most people didn't. That's the model for that goal. If you make it optional but highly attractive, the player owns it in a way that feels like they chose to engage with that thing. They're much more attached to it.
If you lock the player into a room every three hours of gameplay and force them to experience your awesome content, they're going to get annoyed, they're going to tune out. They're going to turn off the game at that point and just never come back because you're making them do a thing they don't want to do anymore.
That's really hard from a development perspective. With tons of people working on this stuff very hard, they bring up the issue, saying, "Really? We're just going to let people coast through and never see this? Are you sure?" You have to trust the player, and you have to trust your ability to make those things attractive enough. If you can't make people want it, forcing them to do it isn't the right decision in the most cases.
AF: "Say yes to the player" is a frustrating rule to live by. Sometimes you have to say yes to things that you totally didn't want to say yes to. But at the same time, respecting the player is a core value of ours.
If we start telling you what to do, are you playing a BioShock game? What if we say, "Could you please do exactly what we say now? If you do these things, when you do them, we'll open the door."
That's often not how games with strong story components tend to work, philosophically -- with some exceptions, obviously.
ZM: Beyond that, a lot of people that will tune out the stories in games. They'll say, "Yeah, you know what? Most games, I don't really pay attention to the story. I don't really care. But for some reason, I liked it in BioShock. I paid attention to it." I really do think part of it is that it's optional, with us allowing them to come to the story instead of shoving it down their throat in a lot of cases.
But it's really, really hard to do because you do have to be committed to that. You do have to be committed to player agency.
You've probably been asked this a million times, so I apologize, but I'll ask again. To a lot of players, I think BioShock encapsulated an extremely strong self-contained metaphor about various things -- the danger of unchecked hubris, science, capitalism, regulation, and all those things. It was about a city that had failed. It seemed like a very final statement. How do you address that?
ZM: I'm making a BioShock 2. That's how we're addressing it. [laughs]
But no, it is obviously really hard. The worst thing about following up something that is truly great like that is the amount of second-guessing you can do and how paralyzed you can get. You think, "Oh God, is this going to have the same impact?"
But at a certain point, you do have to strike out on your own and do something that is different and not worry too much about whether it's going to have the same effect on people. If you just focus on that, you'll never move at all.
AF: You could get caught up in going, "Can we hit exactly the same philosophical notes once again?" Or you can say, "Look, at the end of the day, everybody wants an interesting character. Frank Fontaine was an interesting character.
If our notion is that we want to make sure that we continue to tell stories about interesting stories that the player can get engaged with or not, that they can participate in as much or as little of their narrative arc as the player chooses, then it's a lot easier of a question to solve.
From my point of view, we've met the challenge of whether we provide interesting characters that give the player a similar experience, that give the player something that they can dig their teeth into. And maybe at the end of the game, we've talked a little about the world we live in based on what we saw and the game we've put together.
ZM: It's up to us to try. It's up to the audience to judge whether we succeed. It's really hard for us to say, "Yes, we're absolutely doing it." Of course we're trying to do it. But ultimately, saying it one way or the other right now doesn't mean a whole lot until people get a chance to play the game for themselves.