[Gamasutra is proud to be publishing notable Game Developer magazine postmortems online for the first time – starting with project lead Finley revealing the creation of 2K Boston/Australia’s seminal BioShock.]
The story of developing BioShock is an epic one and isn’t easily
expressed in 10 postmortem points. The team and the game changed
remarkably over the course of development. A company was acquired. The
team size doubled. The product focus changed from RPG hybrid to shooter.
It’s easy to talk about the processes we used to develop the game,
but it’s harder to describe the creative spark that somehow managed to
turn the most unlikely of premises (a failed underwater art deco utopia
set in the 1960s) into a marketable shooter. It took a visionary to
make the creative choices to guide the game, and an incredibly talented
and hardworking team to bring that vision to life.
1. Every demo tells a story.
Demos were galvanizing moments for
BioShock. They led to a unified team vision, identification of problems
and solutions, external excitement, and internal support. For example,
the project was signed after GameSpot ran an exclusive feature based on
a single-room graphics demo.
Since BioShock was a relatively unknown IP outside the game
development community, the public’s impression of it would be critical
to building the buzz we needed to make it a commercial success. As a
result, every time we took the game out in public, we put great thought
into the message we wanted the demo to deliver and the level of polish
of the presentation.
Our first public presentation was at E3 2006. We had developed a
great deal of content before that point, but hadn’t yet built a space
that really demonstrated the game experience to our satisfaction. The
E3 demo forced us to focus the whole team on what the user experience
should be. We defined a message for the demo- player choice-and built a
narrative around that message. Even though the experience was highly
scripted at the time, it effectively demonstrated the feel of the game
Another example of demo-inspired development was the “Hunting the
Big Daddy” demo. Though Big Daddies and Little Sisters had been part of
the game in some form since the beginning, initially the player could
confront Little Sisters directly without necessarily needing to
dispatch the Big Daddy that protected them.
During the development of
this demo, the team discovered that with some polish and tuning changes
the act of dealing with a Big Daddy could be a truly epic battle in
itself. This led to the realization that Big Daddy battles should be
the key to player growth, essentially providing a roving boss battle
that players could undertake at a time and place of their choosing.
Another example is the graphical effects on the player’s hands when
using plasmids, which came out the first BioShock trailer created with
Blur Studios. In that cinematic, the player uses a hypodermic needle to
make his arm into a weapon; after the injection the protagonist’s skin
blackens and swells and angry hornets burst out of it to attack the Big
When working with Blur to develop the trailer, we knew that the
sequence didn’t accurately reflect the game’s visuals, but we did it
because it really captured the vibe of what the “genetic modification”
part of the game was all about.
2. Course corrections.
One of the true successes of BioShock‘s
development was our ability to identify and react when the game was not
shaping up to become what it needed to be. For example, the first
vertical slice prototype we built was an non-navigable linear corridor
shooter that looked like it took place in an abandoned box factory.
didn’t provide a compelling experience as either an RPG or a shooter.
In response, we threw away that prototype and started again from
scratch with the goal of building a single room that felt like the
ruined underwater utopia we were trying to build.
First we did concept art passes. Once we got a concept that worked,
we built it. Then we used it as a demo space. We used that single room
(now Kashmir Restaurant in the first level of the game) as an artistic
reference that guided us in creating an aesthetic unlike any other game
on the market. (For more about the artistic style of BioShock, see the
free art book download here.)
Each department went through a similar crisis moment over the course
of the project. These frequently came as the result of the demos, but
not always. At one point, when facing a shortfall of programmers and an
overflow of tasks, we proposed removing physics objects from the game
entirely in favor of having only large, constrained physics actors.
This would have allowed us to spend much less time tuning the physics
of individual objects while allowing the world to seem somewhat
dynamic. However, doing so would have removed a huge level of
interactivity from the game, so that decision was corrected relatively
In terms of design, we created a depth and density of game systems
that fit into a game about character building and choice, but would not
have been competitive as an FPS. Around the time that the game went
into alpha, we took a hard look at that gameplay and realized that,
although there were many choices, they weren’t very compelling.
was because we hadn’t been thinking as much about making a shooter as
we should have, and many of our key interactions (weapons tuning,
plasmids, length of AI engagement) were designed and tuned for a slower
and more cerebral experience. To put it another way, nerdy RPG-like
stat changes just didn’t seem meaningful in the vibrant and dangerous
world of Rapture.
Once we recalibrated the game to be more like a shooter, we
simplified many of the deeper systems tremendously so that the user
would be able to understand them. We also put more polish time into the
core interactions of the game, such as the weapons, plasmids, and user
interfaces. We ended up with fewer choices overall, but each one of
those choices was infinitely more functional, understandable, and fun
than the previous ones.
It was inevitable that we lost some progress due to these major
corrections. But the team’s ability to pull together and address the
fundamental problems was amazing, and the results were well worth it.