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Chris Kline is BioShock's technical mastermind, and Gamasutra sat down with 2K Boston's tech director to discuss game engines, the PC market, multithreading, and even BioShock-like Wii experiences.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

August 8, 2008

25 Min Read

Christopher Kline, technical director for 2K Boston, recently gave a lecture at Paris GDC on modern classic BioShock - co-developed by Kline and his colleagues at 2K Australia - and it's particularly notable how much honest talk of iteration was discussed in the lecture.

As he explained, the project, which has debuted on PC and Xbox 360 and is now coming to PlayStation 3,  was "...a series of big mistakes and corrections and slipped ship dates, but all of these helped make it a good game."

Thus, we sat down with the game's technical mastermind to discuss issues such as getting gamers interested in seeing the sequel (and thus driving publisher interest) to the hard philosophies of technology use, UI design, and respect for the audience.

This wide-ranging Gamasutra discussion also touches on everything from the health of the PC as a medium for hardcore gaming, to why Kline felt confident working with Unreal Engine 2 on a next-generation game.

The Terrible Secret of 2K Boston

Great. I noticed that you aren't actually in Boston...

CK: Yeah, we're in Quincy, which is a suburb of Boston; it's about 10 miles south.

Why do you call it "2K Boston"?

CK: Well we were in Boston originally... We moved. We were into the production of BioShock, we had this really cool space -- it was an old schoolhouse from, like, 1900, and they decided to turn it into condos, so while we were writing code they were actually demolishing the building out from underneath us. So, yeah, we had to make a move. And we were trying to get bigger, so...

That's a good motivator to do something.

CK: Yeah. "Fear of death" is, yeah.

Well it seems like that was a common theme with you guys, the, just -- as you said, in order to get motivated, sometimes you needed the fear of --

CK: Public humiliation. (laughs)

Driving Publisher Interest via the Press

Actually, one thing that really surprised me, that you were talking about at your recent GDC Paris lecture, was, well, it just struck me how much faith and stock was given to reviewers. And I don't actually, really, understand that.

CK: I guess what I was trying to point out, and maybe it didn't come across...

Actually, it was also in the [Game Developer magazine] post mortem, too, so... I guess, to clarify: taking reviewers' opinions very seriously is, to me personally, surprising.

CK: We didn't really build our game off of their opinions. We were very flattered by the reviews we got after E3... I guess the point I was trying to make was that it was surprising to us, after all of this great press had come out, and we started looking at these tracking numbers, for how much of the public was interested in the game, and we found out that it actually wasn't getting a lot of interest.

And so that was really critical for us, because we said, "OK, well, why aren't gamers really interested in this product?" And it was really just a matter of positioning; like, you have to put it in the right frame of mind, so they can envision what kind of experience they're going to have when they play the game. And once they have that, they can get excited about it, and behind it.

It was particularly interesting to me that you wound up using the traditional consumer press as a vehicle to push the concept through -- by promising exclusives to the press on BioShock by having them write retrospectives on System Shock 2, to drum up interest in a sequel. That was definitely an interesting tactic; I don't think a lot of people consider that they could use that.

CK: That was a very clever approach to the game. But, you know, we knew that if we took our case to the gamers, we knew there was an audience out there for the game, and sometimes you just need to prove that there is an audience before you can convince someone that it's a worthwhile venture to put their money behind.


Irrational Games/Looking Glass Studios' System Shock 2 

It was almost like you were convincing people that they should care, which then should convince the publisher that they should care.

CK: Well, you know, we didn't convince the gamers that they should care, we just pointed out to the gamers, "Hey, remember how much you loved this kind of game? Guess what! We're trying to do a game just like it!"

And then, you know, there was just this overwhelming response on the forums; all the people talking about their memories of playing System Shock 2, and how much they love that kind of game. And that was great, because the publishers then had to take notice.

Yeah, and it also works because in that several years later timeframe, you're mostly going to get the people that remembered it fondly, instead of the people that got stuck clipping into walls or something like that. Not that that ever happened, necessarily.

CK: Yeah. There were two groups of people: people that remembered it fondly, and those that just talk about how they were just too scared to finish it! But, people talk about, "Is there a crisis in PC gaming?" You know, there is a big market out there.

It's not, of course, just for PC gaming; it's a crisis of identifying who your audiences are. And if you can find a way to get those audiences to show their support for traditional types of titles -- even if they traditionally aren't mass-market, I think you'll see a lot more support from publishers.

The State of the Hardcore Market

It seems to me, in terms of the packaged PC market, the hardcore-oriented stuff is going to have to not be as big budget as it used to be; you can't really make Crysis and expect people to play it. Did you see Ben Cousins' Battlefield Heroes talk? That's definitely a direction that PC gaming is going to get bigger, but I think the hardcore is going to have to shrink or change.

CK: I don't see the hardcore going away... I think there is still going to be a market for that audience, 'til the end of time. What we tried to do on BioShock was say that, "OK, here's this kind of game, that we love playing..." We know gamers are intelligent, we know that they want a game that's complex, with a mature story, and complicated gameplay that's very empowering.

We said to ourselves, "OK, well that's the kind of game that we made, with System Shock 2, and critics loved it, so why didn't it sell well?" And we don't think it was because the gameplay was very deep; we thought it was, really, just that it wasn't presented very well.

And so I think that's what you're seeing with stuff like Battlefield Heroes, is that people are trying to say -- this is fun gameplay, right? And there's a huge market for it on the hardcore side, but there must be an even bigger market, if you can take that kind of fun and bring it to a more casual audience.

And it's really all in presentation; that's something that we spent a lot of time on in BioShock, to try and present these very complicated ideas to the player in the right way, so that they understood it, and they enjoyed it. It's all about presentation.

It seems it's like a good thing to do, and also a difficult thing to do, in the way that it was done, because you've got all of your messaging going through the hardcore gamer channel. In the case of marketing the game as a shooter, since you're going through the hardcore channels, there are going to be people who remember how you were marketing it before, and be like, "What's the deal?" So it seems like a difficult balance...

CK: You know, we have to rely on our hardcore audience, and expand that to a bigger audience. So, you don't want to alienate your hardcore audience. And, often, the hardest thing for us is... we always hit this thing, we're like, "Oh, these guys are dumbing it down for the console gamers!"

And that's not what we're doing; getting that message across is very difficult, to the hardcore audience; we're not trying to make the game any less complicated. If anything, BioShock, in many ways, was deeper than System Shock 2, and it was just all about trying to find a right way to present it, so that more people could enjoy it.

I mean, I'm not a super hardcore player; I'm very much in the arcade style of games. I really enjoyed BioShock, because it had these really great moments, and it had awesome visuals, and scenario design, and great moments. But I stopped at hour twelve, because it took too long, there were getting to be too many plasmids, and I was going to have to make my own weapons, and it just... the slope got too high for me.

CK: Well I'm sorry you stopped, but I'm glad you were able to enjoy it, nonetheless. That was one thing we really tried to do, is try to make a game that is very complex, and with a lot of player choice, and a lot of combat choice, and emergence -- but also make it work on a lot of different levels.

If you're a guy who likes to run through and shoot things with a gun, you can play the game that way; if you're someone who wants to manipulate the world, and trick creatures into doing things for you, you can do things that way as well. So we tried to provide an experience that was narratively guided, but allowed you to branch out into whatever direction really got you excited.

The Best Way to Use Tech

You developed it, basically, on Unreal Engine 2, and do you, in retrospect, think that it was a better choice to do that, versus to completely roll your own engine?

CK: It was the right choice for us. Middleware is, I think, a critical component of any big title, going forward, because, you know, people can't afford to spend the time writing all that stuff, if you want to compete. And those guys do their job better than we do, in a lot of ways.

But at the time, we were really new into the console cycle, and we were just very worried that -- we had very specific goals, in terms of gameplay, and also in terms of schedule, and we didn't want to be stuck waiting around for middleware to catch up. I think it was the right decision for us -- on the next title, maybe we'll make a different decision, but I think it was the right one at the right time.

Some people argue very passionately for having your own tech, completely, and totally owning it, but I guess it's a big difference if you have a completely dedicated tech division or something like that.

CK: Yeah. Well, it's also -- What are you selling your game on? What's the thing you really want people to get excited about in your game? Do you want them to get excited about the fact that you have your own physics engine? Well, we don't; we want them to be excited about the fact that you can do all these cool things with physics, in the world.

So, for us, we would rather spend our time doing awesome gameplay, awesome narrative, awesome visuals, rather than spending two years just trying to get something that's not even barely equivalent to the kind of middleware that's out on the market right now.

Yeah, I think the rationale is, customizing it to specifically what you need, but then the danger is that you don't always know what you need until you need it, so...

CK: Well the thing that we learned is, you definitely have to take it and run with it; not be afraid to change it. And the critical thing is that you really need -- middleware is not an excuse to skimp on hiring a core technology team.

You still need those hardcore, low-level guys, who can get in there and do what needs to be done to make and support your kind of game. And, luckily, at 2K Australia, we have some of the best guys in the business, and they did a lot of the heavy lifting on BioShock, and that was critical for us.

For you, building this game over multiple years, how did you have to work, with the kind of technology changes that were going on? Because, obviously, you built it as high spec as possible, but over three years, that changes a lot, and expectations change a lot. How much did that influence what you had to do?

CK: Well, luckily, we set our sights pretty high when we started out on BioShock, and we designed our technology assuming that we would be working on a next-gen console of some kind -- and also on PC. Fairly high on PC, because we were starting early, we knew hardware would catch up.

There were some difficulties -- moving towards a multi-core, heavily multi-threaded game engine is a challenge. Even if you use middleware, trying to find the right way to maximize that, on a console and on a PC, is a difficult challenge. And that's why you need some core tech guys who can help you with that.

And there were other curveballs that were thrown our way, like DirectX 10 coming out, and we wanted to show support for that. I think, overall, the challenges were the same challenges as any other project, just different -- like they are every time.


2K Boston/2K Australia's BioShock 

In terms of the multi-threading and multi-core stuff, how do you think that you fared? Do you think that there's a long way to go for you guys, in your tech?

CK: Well I think we totally maxed out what we could eke out of our tech on the Xbox 360. There's probably still some room in there, by changing the way that we do things -- and that's what we're working on, on the next title -- but we're pretty happy with what we got working on the 360.

On the PC side... PC is so difficult, because you have to -- everything you design, you have to say, "OK, here's this great, awesome thing we can do, and we can put that in multi-core... Unless the consumer doesn't have that."

So it's like, you always have to be coming up with these awesome visions, and then figure out how you're going to scale them down. That's frustrating. It's liberating, because you know the PC's going to have the top hardware out there at the time, but it introduces a lot of time into the development process, and it can also be a frustrating effort, as well, trying to figure out how to make it scale, so you can hit the whole audience.

Moving Toward a True Shared Medium

While it is indeed true that middleware helps you get started, and that you have to bolt on your own stuff, it does feel like a lot of people are solving the same problems independently. Like, it would be really nice if, at some point -- like with movies, you've got a camera, you've got editing tools, you've got, like, known quantities that anyone that makes movies can use. Do you think that we'll ever get to that stage for games?

CK: You think everyone will be on the same game engine or something?

Not necessarily the same game engine -- well, yeah, I guess, essentially, like, "Alright, this is how my lighting engine will work, because this is how those work."

CK: I think that eventually the technology is going to get to the point where engines can provide enough flexibility to let people work the way they want to work, and people are going to stop worrying as much about the details, and start focusing on the art and the artifice of game development.

And that's really critical; we're going to move more toward what the movies have, where they have one game engine, and it's called "the camera and the editing suite", and what they focus on is creating these emotional experiences. And that's what we should be doing, as developers, is not creating a technological experience, and creating a menu-driven experience; what we want to be doing is creating an emotional experience for the player.

How is that going to happen when everybody's working so separately?

CK: Well, that's why we have events like GDC; we have books out there; you actually see some companies in the industry, now, looking at sharing technologies, and saying, "Hey, this is not critical intellectual property! Let's just give it to you guys; we want to see better games, too!"

I hope that starts happening more.

CK: I think that's one of the big things I've learned in the games industry: that it's really not about the technology, it's about execution.

And so, one of the great things is that at 2K Boston, we have people who've been working together for upwards of 11 years now, and we have people who are really good at what they do, so we can take our time, and focus on executing. And that's where we really want to stand out from the crowd.

I keep wondering if we're finally going to get to that place where we could stop worrying so much about graphics, and the tech, and eventually -- I mean, getting to that place where it's like, "OK, now, really, finally, yes, we have to make the gameplay be the primary thing." It felt like in BioShock there was less emphasis on "everything has to have a billion polygons", versus "the universe has to feel like a place that you can be". So it felt like one of those games that was going in that direction. Do you think that we're getting there?

CK: I think we have to get there; that's the direction you have to go in. People are reaching that plane... You can always push technology further and further, but I think people are getting tired of shelling out money for something that can push a couple extra polygons. What they're excited about is giving them those new kinds of emotional experiences, that they haven't been able to have before.

So [that's] what we're excited about, and we're starting on our follow-up project, which unfortunately I can't tell you about, but... On the record, I guess what I'll say is, we were really excited about how we were able to take a really deep and complicated and mature style of gameplay, and bring it to a much wider audience, and we're thinking, now, on the next title, maybe we can push it a little farther.

Like, now that we've figured out how to introduce complex concepts in game style and player growth issues, why don't we start introducing more depth? Can we make these games deeper, and keep the universe as engrossing and enveloping as BioShock was, but give people more choice, and even more freedom? That's our challenge, and I can't wait to show you guys.

Making a Game Work for Multiple Players

Can you do that without alienating people like me?

CK: Well, I think it goes back to what we tried to do on BioShock, which was: provide a path for every style of gamer. Or as many as you can... You know, something that Ken talked about at his GDC talk in San Francisco, was that everything has to work on multiple levels.

So, you need something there for the hardcore story nerd who's going to be picking up every audio diary, and piecing together the back story; and then people like my friend, who I watched play, and he missed almost all of the audio logs, missed everything.

But he was having a wonderful time just going around and looking at everything, and getting into crazy encounters. It's a challenge. It's a challenge to focus and drive the gameplay forward, but it's a challenge we embrace.

I think the danger is with the slightly more casual player not knowing that casual path is. I'm walking by, and I see a grate, and I see an audio thing back there, it's like, "Oh, I've got to get that thing! How do I get there?" And then I'll spend a while figuring that out. And if those options are presented, I think it's quite difficult to know, whether I am biting off more than I can chew, by going after this thing that I can see. Or by trying to mix and match plasmids, and stuff like that.

CK: Well I think another thing you'll see... We have an engineer, working for a long time, like a year, on the system. Something that we designed from the start on BioShock is something that we call the Adaptive Training System; this is a system, it's almost like a mini AI in itself, and it sits there and it knows the things you can do in the world.

More importantly, it has a concept of what it thinks you should know how to do. And it watches you as you're playing, so say, you know, you don't know how to jump, so it says, "OK, by this time, the player should know how to jump. If he doesn't, prompt him. But if he does, don't waste his time."

And that watches you throughout the whole game, because -- frankly, these games are long, and people don't have a lot of time. You play it, you put it down, and some people can't remember the controls; a system should be there to help you move forward in that kind of situation. Or you forgot that you could hide from security cameras, or something like that.

We really don't like tutorials at all; we don't want some space marine saying, "ALRIGHT, LISTEN UP! THIS IS HOW YOU'RE GOING TO WALK!" I think people are tired of that.

What they want is to jump in, start playing, and have a little system that's there, a little friend that says, "Hey! I bet you didn't know about this... Or, you used to know about it! You could use it in this situation, and I notice that you haven't used it in the last twenty times you could, so I'm just going to give you a quick reminder."

The HUD was pretty well integrated. Somehow, I think it was the graphic design of it, really, that made it feel like it was part of things. Like it was part of that world. It didn't wind up being, like, "It's me! The Game! Hello!"

CK: Yeah, yeah. We spent a lot of time on the HUD. Jake Etgeton was our UI programmer, and he was on the entire project. I think we went through, probably... oh man, there had to be upwards of eight different versions of the HUD.

And it's one of those things that you just absolutely have to get right. And it seems so simple, like when you start out, we'll put a health bar there, and put some text here... But it's always much more complicated than you think.

The Emotional Experience... Elsewhere

In terms of these "emotional experience" type games, are you going to continue being large scale? Or are you also looking at small scale stuff, like downloadable or anything?

CK: We're looking at everything right now. I think we do like the freedom of a large-scale experience, because our visions are big, and in order to convey them, we need the space to develop freely around them.

But I also think there's a huge opportunity there to provide much smaller experiences, especially with downloadable content. I'm sure a lot of people would like to come back to BioShock, and maybe have an extra hour of content on that. I certainly would. And I think it's cool that it seems like the industry is moving in that direction -- not only for economics, but for the player experience.

I was wondering if you think that with a large-scale title, you can make it more mass-market in a way, but it's still for five hundred thousand to a million people. Do you have the desire to go bigger than that? Because, obviously, games like what Ben Cousins was talking about, with Battlefield Heroes' potential, if it goes the route of these free MMOs, it could reach the tens of millions. Is that something that is meaningful for you?

CK: Are you asking if we prefer to sell our games to fewer people? (laughs)

I'm saying, do you prefer to have a targeted, "These are the kind of players that we want," or do you want it to be truly, truly, "everyone can pick that up" type of game?

CK: Well, we want to sell our game to as many people as possible, because we don't believe that the game has to be brought down to any particular group of people; we believe that all gamers are intelligent, and all gamers want an exciting, mature, intellectual, and deep gaming experience.

The big question is, you've got to figure out how you are going to present that to them, and bring them. You have to lift your audience up to that level, and that's often just a matter of presentation. So that's what we're focusing on.

Do you feel that that can really be done in the console space? Because that does limit who is picking up the game to begin with, and then you get a fraction of that audience that's picked up the console.

CK: I think it has been a limitation in the past, but I think you're seeing console audiences really growing; not only because you're having different demographics entering that market, especially with stuff like the Wii, but also, you know, gamers are aging, and they have less time to muck around.

You know, I just threw away my desktop at home, because I was tired of trying to get my hard drive to work, or figuring out my power supply... It's nice to come home and just have a console, power it on, and enjoy gaming. I don't think you need to limit your audience or your style of game, based on what you're developing for.

Do you think the Wii crowd has an appetite for a BioShock-like game?

CK: I think yeah; I think there is an appetite out there; it's just a matter of finding the right way to bring it to them.

It seems like, on the Wii, there's some education necessary for a large part of that demographic, in terms of, like, "Here's why you should want to play this game, instead of Wii Fit."

CK: Well, you know, I don't think that those aren't real games. What Nintendo has figured out is that it's all about accessibility, and finding ways to get people to enjoy your game without having to jump through fifty-million hoops, you know?

Even me, as a gamer, every time I pick up a new game, I'm like, "Oh my god, they've changed the controller mappings again," and now I've got to, you know, reconfigure my head, just so I can start to enjoy this game. And with something like the Wii? You just pick it up, and it's natural. I don't think there's anything preventing the game complexity of BioShock from being on the Wii.

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield

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Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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