August 21, 2007

Unreal Engine 3 Powers Critical and Commercial Success BioShock

By John Gaudiosi

Irrational Games, now 2K Boston and 2K Australia, has been a long-time client of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine technology. The developer, which has studios in Boston, MA and Canberra, Australia, previously worked with Unreal technology on Tribes: Vengeance and SWAT 4. Now the studio has pushed this technology to the next level with BioShock.

“The fact that we had worked with Unreal on previous projects and we were familiar with how to work with the technology, made it an advantage to work with them again,” said Jon Chey, director of product development, 2K Boston. “It was important for us to work with an engine that performed well on a console in addition to PC and Epic made a big push to make this happen. Undoubtedly, we've had a very fruitful working relationship with Epic and their technology.”

Chey said that compared to other development teams, BioShock had a fairly small team with 80-90 dedicated people. He added that much of the team came back to Irrational Games just to be part of the development of the game. That dedication has paid off as BioShock, having accrued numerous awards over the past two E3s, has been a commercial and critical worldwide success.

Ken Levine, Irrational Games’ creative director, said the biggest surprise with the game’s success is that people…lots of people…have been interested in the game.

“It sounds strange, but let's face it, BioShock isn't easy to describe to people,” said Levine. “I don't think we give gamers credit for their wit and intelligence, but the audience is maturing. It's going to be harder and harder for the mainstream media to write off games as ‘just for kids.’”

In addition to the hard work and dedication that the team put into the game, Chey credits Unreal Engine 3 in helping create this original adventure game—a game that has been called a masterpiece by game critics and gamers, alike.

“For BioShock, the advantage of us working with an existing engine allowed us to get started prototyping art and gameplay without waiting to get basic renderer, editor and other functions on the line,” said Chey. “With Unreal's mature technology we benefited a lot from the work Epic did to get the engine running on Xbox 360.”

Ken Levine, the creative director of BioShock, wanted to find some place where the player could be cut off from the rest of the world, so he came up with the notion of an underwater city. The architectural influences from the game came from New York, specifically, Rockefeller Center.

“It was there that the visual concepts of Rapture began to form,” said Chey. “Ken and his wife and spent a day at Rockefeller Center with cheap cameras bought at the gift shop, photographing every lighting fixture, door knob, and Diego Rivera mural they could find. They followed that up by going to the Empire State Building, which hosts the inspiration for the 'wall coins' you find in the lighthouse sequence.”

In addition to the art deco architecture of New York City, the team was influenced by a variety of media when creating the world of Rapture and the story of BioShock. Chey said the largest literary influences were “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand, “The Shining” by Stephen King and “Animal Farm” by George Orwell. The music of Bernard Hermann and movies like “Fight Club” and “Logan’s Run” also helped formulate ideas and themes for the story.

“We wanted the underwater city of Rapture to feel like a world that people really live in, not a series of staged encounters,” said Chey. “The game is more non-linear that many other games, as it lets the player explore, interact and experiment with the world.”

Chey said one of the team’s main goals with BioShock was to make a game where the AIs have interesting and meaningful relationships with one another in ways that really impact the gameplay. Specifically, they wanted the Big Daddys and Little Sisters to be the moral and technological center of the game.

“The Little Sisters have become the center of the moral arc of the game,” said Chey. “The creation of the Little Sisters was entirely driven by giving the player the greatest gameplay and story impact as possible.”

BioShock is among the rare first-person shooter hits that have garnered kudos from both the hardcore and casual gaming audiences. Irrational Games was able to focus its development time and energy into the story and gameplay experience, since Unreal gave them a great platform from which to start. 

“Beneath all of the strategic nuances that appeal to hardcore gamers, you have to have a certain amount of accessibility and fun to attract the casual gamer, as well,” said Chey. “By creating a game that has an array of ways to tackle a level, we have managed to provide that balance. For example, a casual gamer might rely on only a couple techniques to battle the game’s adversaries, whereas a hardcore gamer might attempt more complex combinations of attacks. Another key aspect was creating a world filled with artistic flourishes that resonate with gamers regardless of their background.”

With the new generation of game consoles, the industry is getting closer to its own “Citizen Kane,” a game that not only perfects the many elements of cinema, but evokes emotions through digital characters. Many critics have pointed to BioShock’s atmosphere as one of the most visually stunning and original settings ever created in a game.

“Games tap into emotions much more effectively now than ever before because the stories, characters, graphics and gameplay have an incredible amount of depth that wasn’t achievable on old generation systems,” said Chey. “Can they make people cry yet? It’s hard to say, but I know that emotions such as fear, excitement and even sadness are obtainable.”

The overwhelming success of BioShock has made the long years of development well worth the investment, according to Chey.

“We are really happy with the audience reception of the game, since we went beyond the standard run-and-gun gameplay and made players think about what they are doing and why,” said Chey. “We knew we made something special and we are glad that people think that too.”

Levine said BioShock is an example of the shooter genre maturing.

“After playing BioShock (and busting through Portal last night), I think this is a year where first-person games are starting to evolve beyond glorified carnival rides and death matches,” said Levine. “They're getting more sophisticated in story and theme, and we're seeing an audience that is looking to be more in charge of their own gameplay experience. They don't want to be led by the hand anymore.  They want to be let loose

into a fully-realized world. It's becoming about more than just the shooting (though the shooting is key!), it's about experiencing narratives that you just can't experience in movies and television.”

And BioShock, powered by Unreal, is an experience that stands out from anything else out there.