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Old 12-02-2006, 04:44 PM   #1
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[Live Interview] Ken Levine - Shock series - Part 2

Ken Levine and Irrational Games' BioShock - Shock Series, The Role of the Protagonist, Next-Generation Emergent Gaming
Jonathan S. "Liquidize105"

Ken: Ready?

Jonathan: Born ready, Ken.

Ken: Cool, where were we?

Jonathan: Last time I got in there during your self-intro, so please continue.

Ken: Do you have the text where I left off?

Jonathan: Its after you mentioned Thief.

Ken: Ok.

So in the middle of Thief, I got a bee in my bonnet to start a company. I left Looking Glass with Jon Chey and Rob Fermier and we started Irrational Games.

Looking back on it, it was probably a stupid idea. We had no money. Neither Jon nor I had ever shipped a game before. Frankly, Im surprised rob, who was pretty experienced at the time decided to join us. A leap of faith, I guess.

Our first game at IG was Shock 2, and my first game as lead designer. Then came Freedom Force, SWAT (and xpack), Tribes, Freedom Force vs. the 3rd Reich and now BioShock.

Jonathan: What do you think would've happened if you 3 didn't get together to found Irrational?

Ken: Wow, who knows. It's kind of hard to imagine another path. I was a pretty ambitious young guy.

Jonathan: How much of LG is in you? Or should I say that you are you and LG's LG?

Ken: I think IG and LG share a love for player-driven gaming. I've always loved games that rely on simulation and user-choice rather than Metal Gear Solid-esque storytelling.

Jonathan: Yeah, a good number of us out there are counting on the few of you left to keep the fire burning into the next-gen.

Ken: Well, the good news is that I think games are going this way. Theres no way a game as ambitious and as player-driven as BioShock could have been made five years ago; not at its price tag.

Trust me, I tried to get it made!

Jonathan: Guess it's time: Tell me about BioShock.

Ken: That's a broad question... Can you narrow it down a bit?

Jonathan: Sure.

What makes BioShock an RPG other than character modification?

Ken: BioShock is a first person shooter. That's the first thing.

Our goal with BioShock, however, is to redefine what gamers expect when they play a first person shooter. It's a shooter where, yes, the gamer will encounter things they either have never seen in a shooter, or have generally encountered in other genres.

Jonathan: Give me some examples.

Ken: You know when you played Gran Turismo, and then you tried to go back to other racing games where you couldn't tune your car and buy new cars? You know when you played Grand Theft Auto and you then tried to go back to other action games where you played a bunch of missions in sequence and the gamer had no say as to their path?

After you play those genre-redefining games, it's really hard to go back.

Jonathan: But we've had non-linear shooter going 6-7 years now, what makes BioShock so accessible to the mainstream, like the other titles you mentioned?

Ken: Yes, Shock 2 was a non-linear shooter. Deus Ex was a non-linear shooter. We learned a lot from making/playing those games. There are certain expectations the modern gamer has that those games didn't fulfill.
From the Shock 2 perspective, a) it was too hard to get into b) it didn't make the choices clear to the average player and c) it, frankly, wasn't visually competitive.

The key is giving the player a huge amount of expression, but giving him access to understanding that expression and those choices. If the player doesn't understand he has a choice, why bother giving it to him?

Jonathan: Were talking dangerous crossroads here.

Ken: I think you have to ask yourself why it wasn't successful in the market (and that's our goal the only way these kind of games keep getting made is by having them succeed ... especially when they're as expensive to make as BioShock).

And it goes back to those 3 issues: hard to get into, unclear choices and visual appeal.

Jonathan: Well, it's been THE question for a long long time now: the market value vs. the inherent value.

Ken: I think they can merge. It's not a choice of dumbing down vs. not selling.

Jonathan: Oh yeah?

Ken: It's about having your cake and eating it to. In video games, that's possible if you have the resources.

With shock 2, we didn't have the resources. We were really trying to redefine the FPS even back then, but we didn't have the engine, the time, the staff, the money or the experience to really achieve that goal.

Our goal with BioShock that it's not the game that 100k people and all the game journos say "that's the game that changed the way I look at games!" If that's the case, there's no more BioShocks.

Our goal with BioShock is that 2 million people and all the game journos say "that's the game that changed the way I look at games!" (Well at least, FPS games)

Jonathan: I don't think any of the non-linear shooters, when pooled, have gotten 2 mil.

Ken: Not even close, probably less than 500k all totaled.

Jonathan: So BioShock has those 3 things the others dont have: that it's easy to get into, clearly defined choices and visceral appeal.

Ken: Visual and visceral, yes good you added visceral.

Jonathan: Is clearly defined choices not dumbing down? That the outcome is of the cardboard-cut-out variety, and that theyre predictable?

Ken: No. It's making sure the player doesn't fall out of the bottom of the game.

Hasn't there even been a game you really wanted to get into but didn't have the time and energy to understand it? Ive had that experience with some hard core strategy games Europa Universalis, Dominions 2, etc. All I really wanted was a buddy to sit behind me and help me learn how to play it and when I got stuck to point me in the right direction.

While BioShock is certainly nothing like those 2 games, the metaphor holds. Yes BioShock innovates in ways you won't find in a traditional linear shooter, but we've developed a system called dynamic training that sits back and watches the player. And if the player gets lost, or clearly is not getting the game systems (for example, different ammo types vs. different foes), the system will speak up and lend the player a hand, point him or her in the right direction.

But it's also how you design your missions, how you motivate the player.

Jonathan: Sell it to me Ken!

Ken: Look at the opening of Deus Ex vs. Deus Ex 2. In DX1 I had a pretty clear idea what I was doing near the statue of liberty. In DX2 I had no idea what I was supposed to be to be in the first mission.

Jonathan: Bingo

Ken: You had a lot more choice, I guess in DX2 about which factions you aligned with, etc. early on, but you had LESS choice about where to go, what tactics to use, etc. Their engine choices had a lot of impact on that too.

Listen, Im not criticizing those guys. There's not a lot to go on when you're making a non-linear fps. You're making it up as you go along.

SWAT 4, that was a breeze from a design standpoint.

Jonathan: Well, it's uncharted waters, I think the journos should really take it easy with developers who try.

Ken: Well, at the end of the day the question has to be "is it fun?" And that's something we never forget with BioShock.

Jonathan: Everything is worked into the equation of fun, including technical nuances. There's a lot of incentive for devs to NOT try.

Ken: ?

Jonathan: The game sells for $50 regardless right? I recently played [that movie adaptation] the other day, and it's a piece of ****.

Ken: Oh, yeah, but even if you're a brutal mercenary, you want people to like the game so they buy it, no?

Jonathan: I think that's the way to franchise.

Ken: Yeah, and from a $$$ perspective, franchise is everything. But Ive never approached it that way. Not because I don't like money. I promise you, Im quite fond of money. With every game Ive ever made, from Shock 2 on, I had a commercial goal. Ive never done it for the "art!" These are just the kind of games I make, that IG knows how to make.

Somebody once said to me when i was a screenwriter, "I love your stuff, but why don't you write something more commercial" and I told them, "if I knew what that was, Id write it." But I only know how to make what I know how to make, and my tastes are what they are.

Life would be easier if one were Brett Ratner. But instead you try to be the guy you are, and try to understand the audience and make a game they'll enjoy.

Jonathan: It'd be easier, but you can't really call that a happy life.

Ken: I don't know, it's like that great line on the Simpsons when Kent Brockman asks Rainer von Wolfcastle "How do you sleep at night?" and Wolfcastle says "on a pile of money with many beautiful women."

But you either are Ratner or you're not. Im not.

Jonathan: Plenty of guys who sleep on pile of money with beautiful women are miserable.

Ken: I sleep on a very small pile with one beautiful woman, and Im pretty happy.

Jonathan: Well there you go. Ratner be damn.

Ken: Hey, to each his own. I do wish he's leave the Xmen alone, though!
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Old 12-02-2006, 04:45 PM   #2
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Jonathan: Hehe sigh, it must be done.

Jonathan: SO, how many enemy creature types have we got in BioShock?

Ken: I think one of the core ways BioShock is going to make people rethink what they want out of an fps is that we're really rethinking what role AIs have in the genre.

Jonathan: Ecological AI.

Ken: Yes. The AI ecology is really the heart of the game. In BioShock our goal was to build AIs that have deep relationships with the world, one another, and you.

First, you have the twisted father/daughter relationship of the Big Daddy and the little Sisters. She wanders the halls of the lost city, looking for the game's most important resource: a genetic material called Adam. His role is her guardian. He protects her from the mutated scavengers who roam the hallways of Rapture.

We've done a huge amount of work on their interaction. She gets tired on long walks, he gets impatient with her, she gets excited and points out cool things she sees. In combat, his only job is to protect her. In the X06 demo, people actually got to see him lifting her up by the scruff and pulling her out of danger. It was tres cool. And it's all emergent. They're not scripted entities. They literally walk the halls of Rapture, looking for corpses to recycle the Adam from.

Jonathan: Are there loading zones, if so, do they walk past those?

Ken: We're really trying to minimize the loading zones in the game, so I don't have an answer to that yet.

Jonathan: As for the natural predators, we have the ... what's the name?

Ken: Splicers.

Jonathan: Right right.

Ken: They're also scavengers, trying to survive, but they'll happily pounce on an unprotected little sister, or you. But they're generally terrified of the big daddies, and with good reason.

Jonathan: As I understand it, there are different types of splicers? Any others?

Ken: Yes, there are numerous types of splicers. and the other cool thing is that any of our splicer models can have any of our splicer powers ... the girl in the green dress isn't always the one who can crawl on the ceiling, etc.

There's also the security system, which is comprised of security stations, security containers, security monitors and security bots and turrets. Like every AI type in BioShock, you exploit them to your own advantage. There's not a single AI in BioShock that you can't interact with in a meaningful way to turn a challenge into an advantage (or, if you screw it up, the other way round)!

Jonathan: And the player character, why does he do any of this? Does he have a history prior to the plane crash that puts him in the middle of the ocean?

Is he ... related to anyone important?

Ken: You'll have to play the game to find that out, my friend.

Jonathan: April 07?

Ken: Spring 07, that's all Im saying. You wouldn't want me "disappeared" by my corporate overlords, now would you?

Jonathan: Haha the first time you mentioned "corporate overlords" in an email, I knew you were a good fella.

Ken: They'll update all this stuff at www.bioshockgame.com, dates etc.

Jonathan: The objective interaction from Deus Ex, is that in?

Ken: What do you mean?

Jonathan: I.e. items in the world will affect other items in one of several ways, say I can shoot the cameras with armor-piercer or I can hack it with tools.

Ken: Hey, man! From Deus Ex? Didn't you ever play Shock 2? Sheesh.

Jonathan: You know I did. Theres a story there too.

Ken: (Sniffle, wipes away single tear) but to answer your question, yes, the heart of this game is about player choice. Security camera? Hack it, shoot it, take control of it using genetic powers, etc. etc.

Jonathan: If you play a game at the time of the release, time basically sits still for that one particular game and everything remains as is regardless of how well the graphics age.

I played Shock2 late in 2002 and I can't help but feel that I've missed something.

Ken: It's true. X-COM is still that way with me; Mario 64.

I can dig it. I do that sometimes. I just picked up Freespace 2 from ebay for like, I don't know, way too much money, and Im trying to see why people just loved that game. And I know if I played it when it first came out I would have got it a lot more.

Jonathan: I think that the great advantage of gaming is that players are driven like the characters are driven to succeed.

Ken: It's what I was saying about accessibility ... make sure the player is motivated. Whenever I write a script (when I used to be a screenwriter or now) and the scene was going nowhere, it was usually because I hadn't asked myself "What does the character/player want?"

Jonathan: Let me ask you this: Do you think that the player can exist apart from the character in a first-person game? That is to say, the character is not a blank.

Ken: Well, I think the goal is to try to merge the two. That's what immersion is. I think in a fps, you walk a fine line. In German, it's called an "ego shooter," which means "I shooter."

Jonathan: To me, immersion is situational. For instance J.C. Denton is not me, but I'm high immersed.

Ken: I think it would have been a different game if it were all in 3rd person.

Jonathan: Ye, yes that's the strength of the 1st-person perspective.

Ken: They walked a fine line and they did it well. But J.C. Denton wasn't exactly overflowing with personality. And I don't think that was a mistake.

Jonathan: True, but see you can speak to the past of the character readily and that firmly entrenches the character in the game world.

Ken: Yes, but (Im going to get really meta here, so maybe you'd like to roll a joint and turn on your lava lamp) you have to keep it the level where the past of the character doesn't actively interfere with the choices the gamer wants to make as a character.

At the end of the day, you want to give JUST ENOUGH to the player where he feels the past is set but the future is all him.

Jonathan: As subplots.

Ken: There's lots of ways. But in an FPS, you have to be especially respectful of this. That's why the least successful aspect of Far Cry is the main character.

Jonathan: Thanks Ken, I want to go on, so maybe some time in the future.

Ken: Thanks Jonathan. Appreciate the talk.

Jonathan: Couldn't have done it without you

Ken: Great. Thanks again and talk to you soon.

Jonathan: Good luck with finishing the game.

Relevent Interviews:

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Old 12-02-2006, 04:49 PM   #3
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My most wanted game of 2007 for sure.

Been waiting for this since they uttered they were working on something with "shock" in the title
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Old 12-02-2006, 05:45 PM   #4
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As always Liquidize, thanks alot for getting these interviews.
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Old 12-02-2006, 05:58 PM   #5
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I appreciate it.
Games of Arkane with Raphael Colantonio
BioShock with Ken Levine: 1/2, 2/2
Deus Ex Series With Sheldon Pacotti: 1/2, 2/2
Thief Series With Randy Smith: 1/2, 2/2
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Old 12-02-2006, 06:43 PM   #6
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Great stuff, both parts. Now get him onto the podcast for me.
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Old 12-02-2006, 06:52 PM   #7
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Cool stuff. The behaviors of the little sisters sound awesome.
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Old 12-02-2006, 08:56 PM   #8
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As always, excellent interview. Bioshock will probably be the next PC game I buy. Too bad its so fucking far away.
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Old 12-02-2006, 10:28 PM   #9
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Fantastic. Holy god I want this game.
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Old 12-02-2006, 11:30 PM   #10
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I want this game so much that I can imagine myself buying it twice - on the PC and on the 360.

I still think "PC" when I think Shock, but there's no way I can pass on playing the game on a 42" LCD TV and 5.1 surround sound enveloping my living room.
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Old 12-03-2006, 02:00 PM   #11
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I loved the interview, guys. I'm an idea fiend, and I just read a couple new ones. Now I need to go do some happy camping...
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Old 12-03-2006, 04:35 PM   #12
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Originally Posted by zeonxavier
I loved the interview, guys. I'm an idea fiend, and I just read a couple new ones. Now I need to go do some happy camping...

MEssage tooo shoooooooooort
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Old 12-03-2006, 04:39 PM   #13
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This game is a system seller . just like GoW. I want it badly.
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Old 12-03-2006, 11:47 PM   #14
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Originally Posted by Liquidize105
Ken: You had a lot more choice, I guess in DX2 about which factions you aligned with, etc. early on, but you had LESS choice about where to go, what tactics to use, etc. Their engine choices had a lot of impact on that too.

Listen, Im not criticizing those guys. There's not a lot to go on when you're making a non-linear fps. You're making it up as you go along.

SWAT 4, that was a breeze from a design standpoint.

Jonathan: Well, it's uncharted waters, I think the journos should really take it easy with developers who try.
And it's here where the names get switched

Great interview...it's clear that Ken's great games result from engineering leading to a gaming philosophy. I think it's interesting that Wright seems to get his engineering from his philosophy
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