Things are heating up ahead of the release of BioShock Infinite – a game so long coming, we won’t believe it’s here until we can actually smell the disk box.
We sat down for a chat with the brain behind the BioShock franchise, Ken Levine, to ask him about what went into Infinite - and what gadgets he’s playing with these days.
BioShock has a huge fanbase – and a pretty vocal one. How much feedback did you take on board for Infinite, and how did you balance it against what you yourself wanted?
Ken Levine: People will always tell you what they don’t like. However, you never want to look to the audience to tell you what to do because that’s not their job, and they’re missing a lot of context, so that’s what we use focus testing mostly for. And to some degree we look at previous games and comments on previous games as a sort of focus testing.
But yes, there’s a very vocal group of relatively hardcore people, and they’re our key audience. You have to keep their support, but generally they actually want something they’re familiar with. When they’re shocked with something too unfamiliar they get very turned off, so you have to keep that balance with something that they feel some connection to but is also quite different.
That was certainly some of the thinking behind Infinite. We could have done another Rapture game and we could have done that relatively easily in a year and a half, but we thought we wouldn’t bring the same energy we brought to the first one because we didn’t have a fresher story to tell.
BioShock Infinite is coming out towards the end of the current console cycle. Was there ever a consideration to wait for the next gen and see if you could push the boundaries further?
KL: Well if you’re going to do something next gen, you really want to be able to start and say. ‘What are the capabilities of this platform? Let’s exploit them.’ If you compare the first BioShock to Infinite on a technological basis – the scale of the environments, the lighting models, the moving environments, the number of enemies you fight, the fact you now have Elizabeth with you – all those things are huge demands on the technology, which, in the case of the PS3 and the Xbox, are literally the same pieces of technology. But that shows what knowledge of a platform can do over time for the development team and the benefits it can give them.
[BioShock and Infinite] almost feel like different generations, but that new generation is from knowledge, not from any new hardware involved. So any time you do start a new generation, you almost take a little step back because you have very limited knowledge. Look at games like God of War at the end of the PS2 cycle and then look at some of the early PS3 games. They don’t hold up as well as the likes of God of War because they didn’t know how to push the platforms.
When you spoke at the Bafta Q&A event this week, you mentioned that Elizabeth nearly didn’t happen in Infinite because at first people weren’t on board, much like people were first against the Big Daddies when making BioShock. Could you now imagine the game without her?
KL: No way. You could pull the shark from Jaws, but without a shark you don’t have much of a movie. And so I always felt the same with the Big Daddies in the first game – if you didn’t have those things, there was no game. And when people were saying we should cut them I was ready to say, ‘Then why are we doing this game? There’s no reason’. It would be an incomplete game. There would be a giant hole. Now imagine the first BioShock without the Big Daddy or Little Sister – it just wouldn’t be the same game.
A lot of work has gone into making the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth come alive through the gameplay of Infinite itself instead of relying on cut-scenes. What famous game companions did you look at for inspiration?
KL: I think one of the strongest examples of the in-game companions I’ve seen is Half-Life with Alex. And the guys did a great job making a different kind of companion in Ico, which was sort of more of an iconic companion rather than a person. That was really cool because you really felt a connection. But then you start getting few and far between, certainly with those with any sort of emotional connection. And that’s why we decided that there was a real opportunity to push on this. BioShock had been such a solitary experience, but the place it was most emotionally powerful was where you watched these two characters [Little Sister and Big Daddy] together, and we really wanted to bring that to the centre this time.
Morality played a huge part in the first game, giving the player the chance to make a series choices along the way. But the endings were still quite distinct – you either came out as the good guy or the bad guy. Are the lines a little more blurred this time?
KL: The thing I was least happy with in the first game, and the only thing the publisher really pushed on, was multiple endings. I like ambiguity. I just watched The Master, and the ending is like ‘what the fuck?’. I’d rather somebody shoot for subtlety and ambiguity and miss a little bit than somebody going on the nose. I like directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh who are okay to use ambiguity. The Limey is one of my favourite films because you walk away from it with a very strange feeling. But I don’t like the idea of good endings and bad endings…
The first BioShock also had a killer twist which was a comment on the agency of gaming itself. Did you feel the pressure to pull the rug out again this time?
KL: With anything related to the story, I just need to let people find out. If I had told you anything about the first BioShock story before it came out, it would have taken from the experience (laughs) so I’m going to take the fifth on that one.
Fair enough. With a growing distinction between ‘Blockbuster’ and ‘Indie’ games, the middle space in gaming seems to be falling out, but do you think industry has changed for the better or for worse?
KL: It’s true that the middle space is disappearing. This happened before. We used to be a PC-only developer and we were developing in that middle space and all of a sudden there wasn’t one. And we realised we either had to evolve or become extinct. So we evolved and sold the company and got the resources to make BioShock on different platforms, and that was a good thing for us. You always have to be ready for tomorrow to be different than today.
I’m not a person who thinks I have a really good sense of what’s going to happen tomorrow. I know that certain things tend to be consistent. People generally want quality. They don’t necessarily want to pay for it or have it be delivered in the way they have it delivered today. They may want it wrapped up in a different type of game.
In what way?
KL: They want transportability. The great thing about Netflix is that you have a movie and you can take it anywhere you want. When going to sleep at night I like to put it on my iPhone. That portability is exciting.
Down the road I can see them doing something where you just have a PC that sits in the centre of your house and puts out your games. The problem with the cloud is that you have a latency problem. But if it’s on your PC locally in your house, those latency problems go away and it’s pumping it out to receptors – your TV or your iPad or whatever it is.
And Steam has the advantage that you start out with this huge library. Others have started to realise that. Sony certainly has, servicing its own library. To me, the exciting thing is making sure that gamers are given the convenience of not locking them to one particular couch. That’s the strength of the Vita streaming, and something I also like about the Wii U.
Speaking of the Wii U – was it ever a consideration for Infinite?
KL: We could always get it on. I don’t know if people like to hear this, but before we do any game there’s a financial component where the business people come together and they tell me if there’s a business case. With the game itself, Take 2 generally doesn’t do any analysis of whether BioShock Infinite is going to make money, but they can look at a platform doing a port and have an assessment of that. And I trust them to tell me whether it makes sense. It doesn’t affect me that much because we’d probably outsource it. There really has to be an impetus of ‘hey, this could be good for the company’.
What do you think about where gaming and gaming tech is heading?
KL: I tend to be a bit of an optimist. You had this period where it was like ‘Oh my God, niche games are going away because there are shelf space concerns and no publisher is going to fund them.’
And then all of a sudden you’ve got digital distribution and you’ve got Kickstarter. And who knows if Kickstarter will last forever? But the notion of crowdfunding…I think that’s here to stay. And so I love the fact you now have all these games where you thought ‘I’d never see another game like that again’. All of a sudden there’s a business model for it. I think you’re seeing more variety of games now, not less. But are you buying them at Gamestop for your Xbox 360 or are you playing them on your iPhone or are you downloading them from Steam?
What have been some of your top games from the last couple of years?
KL: XCOM was huge for me. I also really enjoyed Far Cry 3. I really liked playing this game called Unity of Command, a turn-based war game. It’s very elegant. I’ve been playing Borderlands 2. I love the Sim games. Actually, I’ve been playing a lot of Rocksmith. It’s sort of like Guitar Hero but with an actual guitar and actual tablature. It’s awesome. All of a sudden you’re playing lead guitar with Skynyrd on an actual lead guitar. It does that thing where it scales up and down depending on how well you’re doing, but it’s just tablature really. There’s no goofy plastic. That’s really good when you come home and you’ve only got 20 minutes and you can just knock out a couple of songs.
So it’s safe to say your love for gaming hasn’t changed…
KL: I have gaming in every room of my house. In my office I tend to play a lot of PC games and a lot of Xbox 360 and PS3 games. In my bedroom I’ve got my iPad, my iPhone, my Vita and my 3DS. Oh, and my Wii U because I like to play games on the controller in bed. My bedside is really crowded with gaming stuff. I just like being surrounded by games. Even upstairs today I’ve got my iPad, my iPhone, a Wii U, and my Vita. I was thinking of getting a Surface so I have a PC machine.
Wow. Is there a favourite gadget?
KL: The thing I always have with me is my iPhone because it’s your life valet. It handles games, it handles books. I read Kindle on it. I’ve got my email, I’ve got Twitter. And I’m about to try this Zombie Run app…
SimCity has been hitting the headlines this week for its pretty disastrous launch. What are your feelings about it?
KL: There’s a bunch of issues in here. Whether it’s Diablo 3 or some other mass multiplayer game, almost any game is going to have a tough launch because you can’t test for a million simultaneous users. So whenever you do something for the first time in software, generally it’s going to fail.
It’s the same problem with latency – the speed of light is your limitation. In terms of always-on DRM, the key question is, ‘does the audience perceive that they’re getting value?’. No one cares about the publisher’s problems. They care about their own problems. So Steam is a really good example of where people think they’re getting value. Remember when you had to change computers and you had to reinstall your games? Now it’s just like ‘Oh I’m going to buy a Surface and I’m going to put Steam on it and have all my games right away.’
However, there is DRM attached to it and you cant resell those games. There are a lot of perceived negatives. And I know there are people who will disagree with me on forums, but I think in general the perceived positives outweigh the perceived negatives.
So you’re in favour of the idea of DRM?
KL: I’m sure [SimCity] is frustrating for people, and I was on press tour so I didn’t get to experience that. I would have played it first day, I would have been one of those people, and I was one of those people on Diablo 3. I understand the frustration, but I also understand the economics of the business. Diablo 3 sold a lot of copies, so I’m guessing strictly from an accounting standpoint that for Blizzard the pros outweigh the cons. There are other costs. There are reputational costs. There are fan loyalty cost. But then, the consumer is always going to vote with their wallet. And you can’t convince them of something they don’t believe.