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Interview:  BioShock 2 's Finley On Designing For Player Desire

Interview: BioShock 2's Finley On Designing For Player Desire Exclusive

June 23, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

Hard as it may be to remember now, the original BioShock was anything but a surefire hit. The game had a long, difficult development cycle, and during that cycle, studio Irrational was acquired by publisher 2K, becoming 2K Boston in the process.

Of course, the game went on to be one of the most lauded of the current console generation -- and despite its heavy themes of Objectivism and its unusual setting and art direction, also became quite a commercial hit at the same time.

The sequel is currently under development by 2K Marin, a new team that includes key members of the original game's staff alongside newcomers to the project. One of these original staff members of executive producer Alyssa Finley.

Here, in an interview extracted in part on Gamasutra a few days ago, the full chat with Finley ruminates about what elements of BioShock's game design led to its wide popularity.

Topics also covered: how a deep story can allow for different hooks into the game's setting, and how building a new studio with the right people is an essential piece of the puzzle when creating a game like this.

You came out to California to build up the new studio alongside the project -- how do you feel about it?

Alyssa Finley: Well, first of all, it's an awesome team. I mean, I am happy coming to work every day, because we've hired some great folks, like Zak McClendon, our lead designer, and the team that came out -- Jordan Thomas and JP LeBreton, who had worked on the original game; and Hogarth de la Plante, the lead artist...

I saw JP and Hogarth give an art talk at Gamefest on combining the art of Rapture with the realism of design.

AF: I'm glad you saw that talk, because that was really some of the principles that we tried to build the studio around, and it's been a really interesting thing to start with a small group of people where you can agree on a philosophy, and then hire to fit that philosophy.

But yeah, it was a really small group of us that started off --- I think everyone I mentioned, and Carlos Cuello is the lead programmer --- and then we just hired such a tremendous team. And we've also been working with our Australia team, which has been great as well, because it's been a lot more folks who worked on the original BioShock. A lot of people who had that history, and had that knowledge base.

So, I don't know -- I think I just told you: "Building a studio is awesome!"But that's the short version of that answer; really, it was.

It's essential, right? Because it's not just a job -- at all.

AF: No -- you spend so much time with these folks. You spend so much of your energy every day, solving problems with people, and having a set of really smart, really creative people to solve problems with? It's totally the best.

You have these great days where you, like, go like, "Wow! We totally went through stuff that was so hard, and could have been so frustrating, and could have been so infuriating. But doing it with a great team of people who all want the same thing -- who all want to make a great game -- makes it fun."

One thing about BioShock in particular is that it appeals to traditional players, PC fans, fans of System Shock, and yet it drew in new audiences on the console, too, who may not ordinarily play that kind of game. Now adding multiplayer is again potentially a different audience -- How do you worry about the audience issues when you're working on the game?

AF: Well I think the arc of developing the first game was really the arc of us trying to figure that out as we went. You know, we went through a couple of pretty big reboots over the course of building BioShock 1, and the core of that game is a game where choice is paramount; where you can customize, sort-of tweak around the things and customize things.

And as we got it closer and closer to done, we played it more ourselves; we were able to take a step back from it, and we realized that if you go too nerdy, you're not appealing anymore.

So, the first game was really use trying to figure out the right balance of the nerdy side and the accessible side, and trying to make sure that we were inviting people to try the things that they could do. This was as opposed to assuming that they were going to walk in with a full knowledge of all of our nerdiness and go, like, "Yes, I am so glad you provided crafting, because crafting is the best!"

I think its accessibility as a core paradigm has been really good for us, and that has allowed us to appeal to both the people who have played System Shock 1 and System Shock 2, and really understand that side of the genre, and people who come from consoles, play Gears, and love Gears.

Multiplayer... I think our hope is that we're going to be able to show the multiplayer community a different set of tools. You know, being able to play around with the BioShock. Like, what is it that Jordan says? The marine corps in one hand and a lightning bolt in the other hand.

And, you know, just bringing that -- bringing just a new dimension of play to multiplayer, and see if folks like it; see if they enjoy that. Because I think at the end of the day, BioShock is always about letting people find their own style. And some people just want to play BioShock like a shooter: Play with the guns, use the guns. You can do that.

But if you want to play with it? I am the antithesis of that. I'm like the non-confrontational player of all times. I love bees; I love decoys. Like, if I can just play and make them shoot at something else? I am totally happy. So, being able to support different play styles, and if somebody can find a style that makes them happy, hopefully they can play it in our game.

The fact BioShock had strong art direction really distinguished it, too. There are just so many different ways to hook different people into games.

AF: Yeah, and especially if you don't force it on them. You put it there, and it's there to appreciate, but it's not like, "Hey! We're REALLY ART DECO!" It's just like, "Look: it's a world that you haven't seen before. You might like it; you might not."

As the core audience ages up, BioShock actually had adult themes in a real mature way. More outside of the box than just BioShock, what do you think about that trend, and the necessity of doing that in the games space?

AF: Well, I don't know about "necessity". I think that when a team is passionate about making something, then that's what they should make -- because you're going to get the best stuff out of people who care about it, not people who are sitting there thinking about, like, "How can I be just like another game?"

So, what I'm really interested in is when people do have an idea that they're-- a story that they're burning to tell. And I think that's where you're going to get the best stories; the best games; the best experiences.

The game ended up with a condemnation of Objectivism at the same time it was failing in our actual real-world political space; I don't want to say that was a "happy accident", but it's interesting... You ended up with something that actually had a lot of cultural currency in a package that didn't look like it did.

AF: Fair enough. Fair enough.

I guess I'm saying: you can arrive at a destination you maybe didn't even expect, by going down that route.

AF: Absolutely. I think that at our core, the story we were trying to tell was a story about what happens when you try to take anything too far; whether it's Objectivism or idealism. When you push past the point where you're making sensible decisions about things, and you're just being ideological -- when you're being an ideologue, there can be consequences to that.

But what's interesting is telling stories like that in a narrative form, because they sound -- it sounds really dry, actually. And if you read Atlas Shrugged...

AF: Oh it's not dry. It's hot stuff.

Keeping it working in a game context, those high concepts, is that something that you found is a real challenge? Keeping some of this high concept, intelligent stuff going?

AF: I think the thing is that if you force it on people, that's when it starts feeling dry. Like, nobody wants to be lectured to. At the end of the day, if you put something out there, and let people choose to participate in it or not, the people who are interested will go there.

And I think that's the principle we took with BioShock, and it's definitely the principle we're taking with BioShock 2. Look: there is content there -- it's interesting; it's deep -- but we're not going to make you listen to it. If you want to listen to it, you might find something there that resonates with you.

You don't want to spend time, money, effort, and creative energy creating content that people don't see, but you do want a certain amount of volition on the part of the player, in how much they want to engage with the different elements of the game, and I feel like that's something that's paramount with the way you guys are designing the games.

AF: Well, you have to know the story be able to make a good story. Right? Like, we can't skip that part and say, "OK, we're going to make a story-light game, so we're just not going to write the back story and figure out who lived in Rapture." Again, I think it comes down to passion.

It comes down to saying, "If we're going to build a world, we're going to need to understand that world; and if we're going to understand that world, we need to think about who lived in it, and what they were doing, and what their experience was like."

And that's what leads to things, like there were a couple little log books that are just total snapshots into one person's point of view, who's just like, "You know what? This stuff made out of recycled fish sucks, you know? It's just not very good." You get this little window into what it might have been like to live in Rapture, and it helps fill out the world; helps you engage your imagination.

I think those kinds of details are things that people often remember about games. But knowing how to apply those details has got to be tough, whether it's a little touch that no one will notice, or that everyone will notice and love. Is there a technique for that, or is it just luck?

AF: At the end of the day, we spend a lot of time building the levels, and playing the levels, and taking feedback on the levels. Like, our designers: one of the things they do is they'll get a version running, and then they'll just grab somebody and say, "Hey, come play this," and they'll watch them play it and see, like, "OK, did they even notice this thing over here? Did they do into this room?" Like, "I put all this energy into this room; did they even find it?"

I really think that experience is the best way of tuning it. I'm always super happy when one of those guys grabs me, or I see them grabbing someone else. I think that's the way they're going to have the best anticipation of what you, the player, when we actually ship the game, are going to experience.

That's something that you hear a lot, and I think it makes a lot of sense, that just getting a perspective from somebody, and seeing and observing their reaction to something, it really teaches you a lot about what you're making.

AF: Oh, yeah. Because you can assume a ton of things; you can think you know. You can be like, "Hey, [2K PR person] Charlie, I totally know what you're going to do, but play my level." And you'll be totally wrong.

Like, you think Charlie's going to go in, and he's going to shoot straight in and go to the thing you want him to see, and love it. Or he might just go off and look at the walls for a while, or poke around in the corner, and you're like, "Ah! I didn't even think somebody would do that..." So it just expands your mind past what your preconceived notion of what people are going to do is.

Ultimately, the interactivity is what provides the compelling thing, but it also provides the player the opportunity to do something you never imagined.

AF: Yeah. Exactly. But that is one of the core tenants of BioShock: "say yes to the player", right? One of our jobs is to think of things that the player might want to do, whether that's make a molotov cocktail out of a liquor bottle, or move that little stool over there with telekinesis [indicates stool in interview room] and whack Charlie with it.

Charlie Sinhaseni, 2K PR: I am just getting abused left and right!

Earlier, I said the word "necessity" and you said you don't know if there's a necessity for the maturation or whatever, and I think that that's a valid point. I mean, I enjoy Gears of War, so there's room for that, right?

AF: I really think that the best experiences come out of passion. So, I don't want to say anything is "necessary", because I thinkey that forces you away from your passions. And, frankly, if there's someone who has a story that they want to tell, they should tell that story.

I do wonder that the problem, very often, is that things get watered down because people become worried that it's not appealing to a broad audience, or whatever.

AF: Well, I think "Art Deco Underwater Failed Objectivist Utopia" is pretty unappealing to a wide audience. At the end of the day you can get caught up in labels, or you can try to make a deep experience and hope that if you invite the right people there, they will come.

And I think that's absolutely our approach here, is that we're trying to invite people into the BioShock world. Look, I don't know. In BioShock 2 you play a Big Daddy; is that a core fantasy that people have? I think so? I hope so. I mean, I think our goal is to invite them to say, like, "If you've seen a Big Daddy, do you want to be a Big Daddy? If you do, we're going to offer you a lot!"

But at the same time when the first game started, you were not part of the 2K organization. Do you think that the same opportunity to make a game that was so idiosyncratic could have happened within an organization, without a prior success?

AF: 2K's been pretty terrific. They've been pretty supportive, and I have seen them support other projects, that maybe didn't seem like they were totally on the beaten track. So I'm pretty impressed with what they are willing to do with their organization, and, you know, the crazy ideas that they're willing to support. I think it's possible. Is it easy? No.

It's funny; when you think about some of the best games, the best-loved games. Look at the new Ueda game [The Last Guardian] that got finally, after Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, got unveiled at Sony's press conference, and people are calling it the crown jewel of the conference -- where, when Ico came out, it was like the little event that just touched people deeply.

Or, look at Portal. First of all, I think Portal is bordering on perfect, you know what I mean? But again, it's something that I think is a little left of even what Valve is generally doing. And Valve is already a little left, in being more creatively free, than a lot of other people. So it's like: how do you get those experiences to happen? How do we foster that kind of stuff?

AF: The only answer I have is that you try to find people who have a passion, and support them. And if you can find an organization to do that --- or, you know, if you find if there's a way to do it as a student project. I think Portal is the ultimate success story in that regard, right? You find a way to make something small that demonstrates your idea, and if you can get excitement behind it, the world, apparently, is possible.

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