Interview with 2K Marin about BioShock 2

Fresh off finishing work on the much-anticipated BioShock 2, the teams at 2K Marin and Digital Extremes have surfaced from the depths of Rapture for a quick breath of air. Thankfully, during this time, Jordan Thomas, Zak McClendon and Hoagy De La Plante from 2K Marin and Mat Tremblay and Jesse Attard of Digital Extremes were onhand to field a mob of press questions on Friday in recognition of the finished product, which will be hitting store shelves on Tuesday. After the roaring success of BioShock, these team members have had some pretty big shoes to fill in this sequel, in which the single-player portion of the title takes place following the events of the first. However, after much work on the title, both companies came out confident, spilling a load of details and insight on next week’s big release.

Right off the bat, 2K Marin foresaw its biggest challenge: Creating a new experience that surpassed the original without stepping on the toes of the original release or the BioShock’s rabid fan base. While the members of 2K Marin and Digital Extremes agreed the biggest challenge was implementing multiplayer in a game built as a single-player experience, the developers of the single-player campaign noted pulling off the sequel effectively was still no easy chore. With a small core of members having a hand in the original title, creative director Jordan Thomas stated a team was built from scratch.

On the subject of the pressures of matching the success of the original title, Thomas stated the fact the original was so well received was perhaps the biggest pressure of producing the sequel. It was noted members of the Friday panel did have experience on previous games with titles such as Deus Ex, Deus Ex 2, Thief III and Project Snowblind being mentioned, but instead of focusing purely on the past, the two teams had a lot of work and expectations on their shoulders. “We built a team from scratch and it was mentally challenging because we were going against the weight of our own expectiations,” he noted. “Everyone was a fan of the first game and the pressure led to a lot of second-guessing and aiming to please everyone.”

Before moving on to all of the new additions to be pumped into the title, the teams had to take a step back and see what worked in the original title. Two of the biggest premises to return included the mystery-driven story along with the moral choices. “We wanted to keep the player’s choices … while growing the ecology of the world,” said McClendon, the lead designer of the project. “We wanted to expand upon the idea of the world being self-sufficent and keep everything acceptable and friendly to a wide audience. We wanted to respect anything the player decided on in the original game.”

It was stated that neither ending, based on the ethical choices of the player in the first game, was considered as “canon” for the story. Instead, the hope is that players will carry their morality from the first game over to the second. However the teams still treated the path of events very seriously and the game’s lineage unfolds in a manner that does the first entry justice.

BioShock had an extremely full mythos,” stated Thomas.“Adding new history into that canon was a huge challenge. It was something we took very seriously. The writing team had to become painfully familiar with the first game in order to prevent contradictions.”

The goal in the sequel was painted out be surpsing to the player without removing what happened in the original entry, which is what the team would have referred to as a “simple-minded reboot.” Once again, the Little Sisters are running rampant in Rapture and moral decisions lie in your relationships with these ADAM-infused entities. “We wanted to focus on choice,” noted Jordan. “The player is granted freedom and can make a number of ethical decisions that shape the plot and how the story unfolds.” One of the main goals of story progression this time around, however, was in shaping the game well before the end, as it was carried out in the original title.

Not everything is new with the mythos, though, as De La Plante did indicate a small handful of characters and themes will be returning to the sequel, including Dr. Brigid Tenenbaum, along with the very obvious inclusions of the Big Daddies and Little Sisters. The one certainty De La Plante did spell out was the fact Andrew Ryan is dead.

“Through Rapture, you can see Ryan’s legacy and see his messages and ideals around the game.” he noted. “In this way, Rapture is a character of its own. (Ryan’s) story ended in a satisfying way. The player ended the game with conquest or redemption and we needed to allow the story to conclude and not interfere with that.”

After Jack Ryan leaves the “utopia,” the opening of the massive tower vacuum has allowed Rapture to evolve and feature the story elements introduced in the sequel. Fast forwarding to 1970, Rapture is now under the guidance of Sofia Lamb, who operates under the reverse philosophies of Andrew Ryan. Instead of focusing on the individual, Lamb stresses collectiveness in society, implementing vibes of Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill into the game’s philosophical tones, which still reflects writings such as those seen by George Orwell and Peter Watts. While a lot has essentially remained the same in BioShock 2’s premise and themes, though, the gameplay has been retooled to take the sequel beyond the original.

The most dramatic departure is obviously in the shift of the player’s role. Instead of Jack Ryan, players are placed directly under the mask of a prototype Big Daddy, a mechanic that 2K Marin admitted was one of the very first items decided upon for the sequel.

“Making this game was challenging and we felt changing the protagonist was the best focus,” said Thomas. “It provided a fresh perspective and it was hugely requested by fans. Most importantly, though, he has a purpose: He’s out in search of his original Little Sister.”

As a prototype, this Big Daddy does differ from those seen in the original entry. “In the original single player game, the Big Daddy was powerful, but slow,” recalled Thomas. “We just couldn’t do a game at such a slow, trudging pace – (the prototype) is more agile than the classic daddies and he can utilize the plasmids. He also has free will. The encounters with Big Daddies are still as rewarding as they were before, though. The ‘rumbler’ is a new type and the Big Sister is more challenging. The game’s situations are not always meant to be an even battle.”

Big Sisters, implemented as a new face of terror in the sequel, are Little Sisters that have matured physically based on an overabundance of ADAM. They embody an awkward transition into adolescence and feature a softer edge (detailed by items such as ribbons on their baskets or innocent drawings), but still carry quite the mean streak. However, this doesn’t mean the Little Sisters have been pushed out of the title. In fact, they are crucial element to BioShock 2. When a player encounters a Little Sister, not only can they be harvested for personal ADAM, but the player can adopt them in their search for more dead bodies full of the material. If the player allows the Little Sister to harvest from a body, it will be up to the player to defend her from incoming dangers. If players really sink low into morality, they can adopt, allow a Little Sister to absorb ADAM and then harvest a double dose of the precious entity. Such decisions are what really shapes the game, according to McClendon.

“It really undermines the moral value to force players into a specific morality choice,” he commented. “(BioShock 2) makes the choices around them a little more gray. It can be a little more rewarding to harvest in BioShock 2. You can be starved for ADAM if you do not adopt and you will have tons if you adopt then harvest. We’re hoping the choices are a little more reflective of the choices that go on in your head with such complex moral choices.”

Outside of the big baddies, the 2K Marin also noted even the general enemies have received a boost in performance thanks to reworked AI and players will be encountering these battles with more frequency. It was noted players will see some ambushes and the enemies are just a lot smarter overall, using cover, throwing grenades and effectively traversing ledges. Diversity also allows the enemies to be more threatening against your Big Daddy, with brute splicers throwing large blocks of concrete and being able to go toe-to-toe with you and other splicers that can climb walls and ceilings. The team even admitted the final boss from BioShock was something the original didn’t do very well so BioShock 2, without throwing out any spoilers, is “taking a different approach.”

However, thanks to being a Big Daddy, players will find they have more tools at their disposal to counter these threats. A lot more character growth has been implemented into the sequel with three upgrade levels to every single weapon, the ability to “dual-wield”plasmids and weapons and, of course, the trademark Big Daddy drill. The dual-wielding was admitted to being one of the very first mechanics the team implemented when doing early work with the BioShock toolset and the final results have the teams pleased.

“The Big Daddy really worked to our advantage.” noted Thomas. “Jack could go down quickly and by people’s expectations, (it) would be more durable, so there is more survivability. There are fewer stumbling block to your tools and with varying difficulty levels and internal play testing, we have made sure the levels are balanced. Everyone asked for the drill and that was something we put in, but it needed to be robust. We worked on upgrades and it became a core tool that was rewarding and visceral to use. With the way tools combine in defensive scenarios, we’re pretty happy with the end results.”

As mentioned, every weapon has three upgradable levels, which gives players something to work for and each changes up the game style a little bit. For example, reaching level three with the drill adds a magnetic coil, which can be used to reflect projectiles. Also, new plasmids have been worked into the experience for both the single-player and multiplayer modes with new single-player skills including a scout ability to leave your body and explore ahead for a short time. It was noted the single-player plasmids are meant for the players to use to have fun at the expense of punishing the AI while multiplayer plasmids need to be, “fun to use on others as well as fun to have them used on yourself.” Jesse Attard lead multiplayer programmer for the project at Digital Extremes stated the mode will feature a plasmid that allows players to move at extremely fast speeds and tackle enemies, one that allows players to become invisible and another that will freeze enemies into blocks that can be thrown around for more damage.

The combinations of attacks between plasmids and weapons is the goal of the teams involved, creating tactical and defensive gameplay. Other small tweaks to the gameplay include a simpler hacking system integrated into the core gameplay, forcing players to balance combat and hacking as simultaneous actions. Also, the research camera has been changed into a video camera that not only records subjects, but also judges how the player combats it and rewards the player accordingly. The vita chamber issue from the first game has been looked at as well, giving players the option to turn them off and while combating a Big Daddy, if the player dies, the enemy’s Little Sister will heal them to eliminate the cheap tactic of respawning to whittle down the Big Daddy’s health bit by bit.

Perhaps the biggest departure from the original title is in the fact players will get to explore a little more of Rapture by being able to traverse more of its outside environments. All of the environments are brand new, presented with improvements to shading and rendering and implementing areas the team imagined “players didn’t see the first time around.” 2K Marin did toy with possibilities such as implementing a flooded Port Frolic, but the team didn’t feel it worked out; however, the multiplayer mode will feature some familiar environments exclusive to that mode.

“(BioShock 2) is the same style in art with new environments and more art,” said De La Plante. “We created new manifestations of that style as reinvention was contrary to our goal. We played on an environment that was already strong and tooled with them a little bit. The setting of Rapture will never be new, but changing that wouldn’t work.”

Seeing Rapture from the outside will also allow players to not feel confined as the team noted the enclosed areas of the original made the title never feel safe so, perhaps, players couldn’t fully explore the beauty of the surroundings. The player will also encounter characters that are normal human inhabitants and these characters help progress the narrative.

The multplayer portion of the game was developed externally by Digital Extremes and actually takes place in a civil war storyline preceding the original title. The civil war explains the transition from utopia to dystopia and Attard felt utilizing the story in multiplayer as opposed to creating a full-fledged prequel was a perfect fit for the series.

“An honest prequel would be a very different game.” he explained.“We felt it didn’t speak directly to the values of the first game. The civil war and going from utopia to dystopia, translating those events into multiplayer was extremely honest and the competition over ADAM was compelling to us.”

The multiplayer aspect will feature modes such as the “civil war”team deathmatch, “capture the Sister” (similar to capture the flag) and a free-for-all “survival of the fittest.” Some of the modes will allow the player to become a Big Daddy, which comes with its additional strengths (a rivet gun, stomps and proximity mines) and weaknesses (doesn’t regenerate health, bigger and slower target). Unfortunately, there is no support for system link or LAN, but online, the game will accommodate for up to ten players. Taking place prior to the events of either game, the multiplayer mode will feature unique characters and players can learn more about them by unlocking diaries.

Obviously, taking the foundations of a single-player title and crafting a multiplayer experience from that was quite a task for Digital Extremes. Attard noted the team not only had to contend with a proper networking code and making sure the game was accessible, all the while not sacrificing the feel of the game’s universe. For example, he felt it would be out of place if an announcer called out a headshot; instead, a headshot may do something such as shooting a player’s mask off their face. Balance was another concern and Digital Extremes has noted many focus groups and interview have helped them identify areas to improve the mode and make it more fun. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the mode for fans, though, is in the familiar Rapture environments that have yet to be ravaged by the civil war and the events of the two single-player games.

“Rapture is rich with narrative elements,” said Temblay, the art director of multiplayer at Digital Extremes. “With the experience of the single player, there is so much to look at and experience and that’s what made Rapture. Rapture is pristine and new before the fall and the single-player mode freed us up to go back with multiplayer while the other mode drove the story of Rapture forward.

Looking at the sequel, 2K Marin did comment on the direction the team had to take in developing for all three platforms – Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC – simultaneously. The original title landed on the PS3 much later than the other formats and the teams shared the goal of compromising with the strengths and weaknesses of each format.

“We had a goal to make each format an identical experience,” said McClendon. “We don’t want to reward or punish someone based on their system.”

Commenting on the delay into 2010 for the title, both companies stated the extra time allowed for more balance and polish and Digital Extremes noted the delay allowed it to place in four more multiplayer modes that weren’t originally going to make it in the original 2009 release. Giving the title more time allowed 2K Marin to take a long look at the early moments of the game in order to bring forward the best impression for new and veteran BioShock players.

As a wrap-up to the panel, on an aside, even though Thomas did not jump on board the development of BioShockduring its planning stages, he shared one of the proposed premises of the original title focused on World War II, with Nazis having a secret lab underwater for use in inhumane experiments. Also, 2K Marin commented on the collector’s edition, stating the pressed soundtrack vinyl was felt to be a more meaningful collector’s item and better sets the tone of the game.

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