I took part in a conference call earlier today with some of the people from 2K Marin and Digital Extremes, the developers of BioShock 2 and its multiplayer portion respectively. Included in the discussion were creative director Jordan Thomas, lead designer Zak McClendon, lead environment artist Hoagy De La Plante, multiplayer art director Mat Tremblay and multiplayer lead programmer Jesse Attard. Since the call was not transcribed, parts of the discussion are paraphrased. They talk about design decisions, gameplay and narrative aspects and much more.
Much of the discussion surrounded design decisions in the game. BioShock 2 respects players’ choices, 2K says. The Little Sisters are now gone, whether they were saved or not in the first game. Andrew Ryan has fallen. Jack left Rapture. The story is “mystery driven,” and players will be asking “who am I?”
2K also briefly touched on returning characters in BioShock 2. The only (mentioned) main character who will be returning is Tenenbaum. However, Andrew Ryan returns in spirit in that his philosophy and ideals can be seen throughout the game. “You’ll see Andrew Ryan’s messages and Andrew Ryan’s ideals,” said Thomas. “Ryan as a character plays a big part in BioShock 2.”
Many gamers have asked why Jack, the main character in BioShock, is not returning. Thomas answered this, saying, “His arc ended in a satisfying way.…We needed that story to come to a conclusion….Playing as a Big Daddy offered an interesting new gameplay perspective.”
“[Playing as a Big Daddy] was the first thing we decided on,” said McClendon, who also described that the changing of the protagonist was a way to bring a fresh perspective to BioShock. It was “hugely requested” by fans. People really wanted to have the drill and the guns, and McClendon explained that 2K “wanted to deliver on that experience.”
The agility of the protagonist Big Daddy was a gameplay choice 2K made in the beginning of the design process. They explained how players don’t want to lumber around. The Big Daddy players control has free will.
Around the time BioShock 2 was announced, it was thought that the game would be a prequel. Thomas explained why such a concept simply would not have worked for BioShock 2. “An honest prequel to BioShock would be a very, very different game – [it] would sacrifice what made BioShock work….The chaos would not be possible….”
BioShock 2’s theme was determined “very early,” according to Thomas. He also brought up one of the questions the 2K team had to address. “Shortly after deciding the sort of father-daughter bond,…[we had to decide] what would make for a meaningful antagonist?…That’s how Sofia Lamb was born.”
The BioShock narrative draws an obvious influence from the works of author Ayn Rand, but, according to Thomas, there are a lot of other contributing factors to the game’s story. “There’s the obvious influence of Orwell….That said, a lot of the other influences are non-fiction. The works of Marx, Mill, and more modern philosophers….It’s kind of a blend of fiction and non.
“There are many games [scripts] where the author read philosophy,…but they didn’t wear it quite so much on their sleeves….I wouldn’t say that games are the ideal way to experience literature,” expressed Thomas.
Going hand-in-hand with the theme, was another change BioShock 2 made. Unlike the first, 2K explained how BioShock 2 will focus less on isolation and more on Rapture’s inhabitants. “Not only is the frequency of encounters greater in BioShock 2, but also there are genuine normal human inhabitants who aren’t spliced up, murderous lunatics,” said De La Plante. “We did want it to be a little bit less about being isolated….We had a lot of people who said, ‘it’s sort of weird how all I see are these murderous splicers.’…There are a handful of characters you meet who are important to the narrative.”
Speaking to the game’s soundtrack, Thomas mentioned, “We were very careful about enforcing the specific [time] period. I guess the challenges were to not simply repeat the formula. In multiplayer, we have several tracks that echo the original game. That’s very deliberate. In single player,…we have things that would have been banned by Andrew Ryan….”
One of the new enemies players will encounter are the Big Sisters. The Big Sisters are “immensely challenging.” It’s “not an even battle most of the time,” McClendon added.
A question that was posed to Jordan Thomas was who exactly were in the Big Daddy suites, to which he answered, “We won’t spoil that one.” Thomas did explain, however, how Big Sisters are Little Sisters all grown up.
“Big Sisters embody an awkward adolescent phase.…They’re awkward in their posing,…but they’re still kind of graceful,” explained McClendon before saying that there’s a lot of “small personal details that you’ll notice.”
Your goal is to track down your original Little Sister. You can adopt other Big Daddies’ Little Sisters when you defeat them. You have to protect them when they gather Adam from corpses. All of this is optional, but it creates a new “lateral” way of thinking. Regarding the moral decision to harvest or save Little Sisters, Thomas maintained that players are still called upon to make choices, but they’re not forced upon them.
“We tried to make those choices around the Little Sister a little more gray….If you just save them, you’re going to be starved for Adam….If you’re a terrible person, you’re going to be really, really flush….We’re hoping that gameplay choice is a little more reflective of complex moral decisions.”
Some are concerned that the whole aspect of protecting Little Sisters would make the game seem like one big “escort mission.” McClendon reiterated by saying, “It’s an optional system. It’s something players can do or not do.…It’s up to you.”
“The setting of Rapture will never be as new as it was in the first game,” Thomas explained. “That said, there are a significant number of new surprises. We don’t follow the same template as the original game. We’re trying something a little bit different. Whether or not we’ll be successful, that’s left to the individual to judge.”
2K explained how they “toyed” with the idea of allowing players to return to some of BioShock’s locations, such as a flooded version of Fort Frolic, but they ultimately decided it wasn’t working well. However, the locales in the new game will have the same style. “Yeah, it’s gonna have the same style,” said De La Plante. “New characters, new environments, new manifestations of that style, but it feels like Rapture.” In the multiplayer, however, there are “familiar” locations. “There are recognizable areas in the multiplayer,” added Mat Tremblay, who worked on the multiplayer aspect at Digital Extremes.
Regarding Vitachambers, they will return in BioShock 2, but 2K clarified how they are used. “Unlike BioShock 1,…you can turn them off immediately,” McClendon noted. “The other key difference that we did – if you kill a Big Daddy, their Little Sister will start to heal them after the battle, which means you can’t really do the old strategy [of continuously dying, re-spawning at the Vitachamber, and attacking the Big Daddy].”
McClendon also talked a bit about one of the major new features in BioShock 2, which will be the ability to explore the ocean floor. “The big advantage is being able to see Rapture from the outside for the first time.…There’s some exploration value.…You can find some of the original Adam slugs in their natural habitats.”
Another concern that was addressed was the game’s AI. “We did a lot of small build-up on the AI,” De La Plante said. “They’re a lot smarter than they were in BioShock 1. There’s a lot more diversity in the AI….”
“Playing as a big daddy worked to our advantage,” added McClendon. “With playing as a Big Daddy, we knew what the expectations would be….We focused on some AI improvements to give players a little more space. Players of all skill levels will have a chance to sort of think on the fly.…[It] made it easier for a more diverse audience.”
Speaking of diverse audience, this brought up another interesting point. How does the game cater to BioShock veterans and also newcomers to the franchise? “BioShock 2 had a very obvious two-audience problem,” Thomas pointed out. “Our approach to that has really been kind of a layered one. The introductory level is designed so that the players who know the city [see it] as fresh. At the same time, for new players, that level serves as a crash course in Ryan’s philosophy, the city, and so forth.”
The biggest challenge? “That would be the fact that the original was so well received,” joked McClendon. “In all seriousness,…going up against the weight of all our own expectations.”
“BioShock has an extremely detailed mythos. Adding new history into that canon was certainly a challenge that we took very seriously,” added creative director Jordan Thomas, who also defined the game’s biggest technological challenge as being the integration of multiplayer. “Digital Extremes took much of the brunt of that challenge [the multiplayer].” Other tech challenges included upgrades to the AI and facial expressions, but, as Thomas reiterated, “The biggie was the inclusion of a multiplayer component.”
One question brought up was about boss battles. Many argued that BioShock’s boss battle was weak. The only answer that was given was that they are taking a “very different approach.”
As for gameplay, one of the major combat changes was the addition of dual-wielding. “[Dual-wielding] combines all of your powers and weapons much more fluidly and on the fly,” explained McClendon. “We basically have revamped every single weapon and every single plasmid in the game….We also revamped the hacking and research system.
“We’ve expanded the weapon-upgrade system,” he continued. “There’s now a third upgrade for every single weapon….On the puzzle elements,…we changed the hacking system substantially to integrate it with the core gameplay….It’s something that you have to balance with the combat going at the same time.”
As you probably know, BioShock had multiple endings. According to Jordan Thomas, neither ending is considered “canon.” And when asked if BioShock 2 would feature multiple endings like its predecessor, he replied, “Endings are at once more dynamic, but more importantly, your choices start to affect the story before the ending. It’s not ‘Gosh, I’m either Jesus or Hitler!'”‘
Both photography and research will make a return to the game, which will help unlock “upgrades, different perks, new tonics, and stuff like that.”
The team also spoke about the game’s multiplayer component, which some feel might draw away from what BioShock is known for, it’s brilliant narrative. “Balancing [single player and multiplayer] was naturally what led to the decision to hire Digital Extremes,” Thomas stated. “Splitting the focus internally at Marin would have been silly.”
The game’s multiplayer will allow players to play as a Big Daddy, but multiplayer lead programmer Jesse Attard explained how it’s not something that throws the game off balance. “For most of the game modes, the Big Daddy is a pickup.…In some games modes though, such as Capture the Sister, one of the players is randomly chosen to become the Big Daddy.
“We stressed the balancing process for a long period of time. We brought in a lot of focus groups….They helped identify key areas to make the game more fun.”
Mat Tremblay pointed out a few of the game’s multiplayer modes — seven in all — including Civil War (deathmatch), Capture the Sister (CTF), Survival of the Fittest (free-for-all), and Adam Grab (which, Tremblay explained, is like Odd Ball). The multiplayer aspect will support a maximum of 10 players.
“Multiplayer environments are still familiar, but largely untouched,” Thomas added. “On the other hand, the single player component drives the mythos of Rapture forward.”
BioShock 2 will not have any type of co-op aside from the team-based game modes. There’s also no system link or LAN play. Players’ ranks are determined by Adam, which can be affected by many actions in-game.
“We think [the game’s multiplayer can compete with other games]. Progressing your rank, plasmids, tonics – the multiplayer is a deep game strategically,” Attard said, “the way players combine plasmids and tonics.”
McClendon was asked what his favorite plasmid was. “I would actually say that there isn’t one,” he responded. “It depends on how you like to play the game.” He also stressed how they embrace the fact that some players love certain plasmids while others hate them or find them useless. “There are new plasmids both for single player and multiplayer,” he revealed. “In terms of the number of combinations they provide, it’s pretty endless….The idea is those combinations is what we want players to discover as they play the game.”
As for the team’s favorite multiplayer mode, Mat Tremblay, the multiplayer art director, said his favorite is Capture the Sister. “Capture the Sister is really my favorite,” he said, “but what’s really great about it is there are elements everyone knows and loves, but with the Little Sister,…it adds a dynamic element to what is a pretty standard game.”
The group also made a point to note that the game is nearly “identical” across all platforms. “It is difficult to develop the game for three platforms simultaneously,” De La Plante divulged. “The main goal that we set out at the beginning was for the experience to be identical for all three platforms. It’s the same game for all three platforms, and yeah, it was tricky to do that.”
“As Hoagy [De La Plante] kind of mentioned, it’s really our goal to offer the same exact experience across all platforms,” McClendon reaffirmed. “There’s nothing really exclusive.”
When asked about the game’s delay, Thomas responded, “The extra time for us was really focused on balance, polish, and getting to take a good, long look at the early moments of our game and that we were adding the smoothest on ramps for new players and old players.”
BioShock 2 is out on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC February 9. Look for our review shortly after that date.