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Joystiq interviews BioShock's Ken Levine about success and harvesting Little Sisters


Earlier we posted some choice moments from our interview with BioShock's Lead Designer Ken Levine. Below is the full interview. There's more depth on the tech issues Irrational experienced, Levine's ability (or lack of) to harvest Little Sisters, their experience with the Unreal Engine 3 and an awkward moment about BioShock 2.

OK, so what did you want to talk about today in regards to these PC issues on BioShock?

Given the internets and what they are -- with their tubes and all -- I want to sort of talk about the concerns people have. We take the concerns people have very seriously. There's been some concern like, "What happens if it's three years from now, or ten years from now, when I want to play this game. And, you know, Irrational Games has been hit by a meteor?" We will unset the online activation at some point in the future -- we're not talking about when. If people have concern about that they shouldn't be worried about that. This activation is for the early period of the game when it's really hot and there are people really trying to find ways to play the game without buying it. Of course, there are a lot of people who are legitimately trying to play it. We're not trying to be Draconian, we're trying to find a balance.

Now, let's see if we can put this in the simplest terms, this screen thing has taken on a whole life of its own. The game was designed for widescreen. Instead of doing the normal thing and just chopping off the sides for full screen, you actually added more to the top and bottom so full screen people wouldn't lose anything from the sides -- a very nice thing to do actually. Thus, infuriating the PC owners and almost anyone else with widescreen because how dare you not give them more to see like they're used to. So, now this patch will add in the stuff to the side of the full screen. So, in essence, to use a visual term, this patch just zooms the camera out a little bit to appease PC widescreen owners to give the option of increased field of vision?

We started the game widescreen. We primarily designed it for widescreen. Then we had to ask, "How do we make it full screen." Your options are to put black bars at the top and bottom, keep same width perspective. Or you allow to ... add pixels to the top and the bottom if you can afford the frame rate -- we could. So the call was made to show those few more pixels. Now this is one of those things when you're making a game -- like I was making a game -- honestly, if somebody came from the future and told me this was an issue I would have laughed at them. I would have said, "Are you kidding me?" But that's what's interesting about gamers, they're an interesting and diverse group. Now that I know that there's this huge contingent out there that actually really cares about this, I wouldn't have laughed at them because they're stupid, I would have laughed because I couldn't have imagined that people are passionate about this. And now that we know they're passionate, we have a responsibility to respond to those people and give them what they want. It's their game, they paid money for it, they should be able to play in the way they want to play. We may disagree with them aesthetically, but sure, we'll make a patch and make if work for them.

Now the other big issue has been the copy protection, what can you tell us about that?

Basically the copy protection, everything about how it works is exactly what you'll see in other titles like Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Rainbow Six: Vegas, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, Command & Conquer 3, Harry Potter. The only thing we have is online activation now. But that just does a check with a server and validates the installation. Right now we have a set number of installs and, frankly, it's too low. We screwed up. We analyzed where we were and we'll up the number of installs. We've also had a bunch of screw-ups along the way, I won't mince words -- these are real screw-ups. We had the activation server crash and we didn't have a proper procedure to be notified by it to fix it. So we've had meetings all week on how to fix these screw-ups. And we're fixing them. People can't activate their key, I dig that people are pissed off, and I understand it. Here we are day one of the European launch and day four of the American and we're working every single day working on these issues. I believe people deserve to play the game.

Now putting this PC issue to rest. Is there anything you'd like to add that we wouldn't know to ask you or you'd like to add?

There have been some concerns that the copy protection was something nobody had ever seen before, except for the online procedure, there's nothing different. There's nothing wacky going on there, at some point we'll move back from online activation. If people want to play BioShock ten years from now, they'll be able to play it. We have a commitment from 2K that that is going to happen and we'll hold them to that commitment and they're serious about it, we'll make that happen.

Considering it's quite, quite, obvious the Patriot-Ledger reporter never actually played the game... Sometimes you're going to have to respond to people who know nothing about the title, but latch on to the most disturbing part. What's your response to people who will call BioShock a little girl murder simulator.

Um, I think they just need to look at the sequence. Even if you want to take the whole game out of context, I'm happy I can say this, not just for myself, but from the dozens of reviews and thousands of internet posts. This is a game about making your own choices and consequences. It doesn't take things lightly. Somebody should just sit down and observe the sequence of harvesting a Little Sister. It is about the most thoughtful presentation and most carefully executed presentation of the subject. It is strictly about getting the emotional content across without unnecessary violent content. There are people on the flip side who want to chase down a Little Sister with the gun, if they want that, they're playing the wrong game.

Do you harvest the Little Sisters?

Honestly, I -- can't. [Laughs] That's what I liked about it. I had a journalist talk to me yesterday who said his fiancé saw him harvest a Little Sister and now he's sleeping on the couch. I'm glad that people take it seriously. They can immerse themselves in the experience. I'm not one of the people who does, I know there are people who do, but they have to live with that choice.

It must be hard to be humble with all this critical praise, was this success expected, at the level it's hitting?

The one thing I'll say is that we didn't expect the level of commercial success. That's why you've seen the screw-ups we've had over the week. It's because: "Oh my god, our server crashed because all these people are trying to activate. Oh my god, we've got no plan to upgrade the server to allow more activation." Those are the things you see in massively multiplayer games. You know, we weren't expecting the response we got, that's part of the reason we've had these problems. We weren't expecting people to not like the game, but it's kinda surprising, the reason we've had so much reaction to what I perceive are little things is because the game has this high profile.

Now you used the Unreal Engine 3, any issues?

[Laughs] One thing the Unreal Engine is, it's kinda hard to explain to someone who isn't a game developer. Engines aren't monolithic things. Like our version of the Unreal Engine are things we put in with our own work. It's turned into this Frankenstein monster ... people did some amazing things to the render and performance. Of course, it's an engine, engine's are always a bear. Developing games is really hard, I think the mistake that a company like Epic might make is to say, "Oh yeah, it's simple, we give you the engine and you go do it fellas, it'll be a breeze." Development is hard, it gives you a leg up, but if you don't have a great technology team you're going to run into trouble. Even if you have a great technology team you can run into trouble. An engine is a starting point, and you always have trouble, always have trouble, whether it's our engine or someone else's engine. Life is very difficult for a game developer to make games.

Can you please explain what the PS3 mention is in the PC code?

That would require me to know about gaming development code. For all I know that is some random reference some guy typed in a comment line. I promise you, there is no secret plan about the PS3 that we're keeping from people. There's no PS3 development going on that we're hiding. There's lots of stuff that gets into game code, plans change over time and we got an exclusive deal with Microsoft. We were keeping our options open, maybe it comes from back then? I'd have to talk to the [code] guys to see where that came from. That's not a Rosetta Stone discovery.

Direct question, are you, or had you been, working on a PS3 version?

We are not currently.

People were a little here and there at the launch party about Toys R Us selling the game early, what's your take, did it help or hurt?

All things being equal, some people got it before other people and that's frustrating. I know I'm one of those guys that will wait outside a game store waiting for something to come ... so I understand the frustration of waiting for a game. I don't understand how street dates work, why they're there, I'm not saying they are wrong or right. It made some people happy, it pissed some people off. It's a trade-off really.

Do you have any preliminary number on how you've sold so far?

I don't, and even if I did, I'd be shot against the wall if I told.

How many do you expect to sell?

53 Trillion is my expectation, that's my expectation -- and if that doesn't happen, I'll be upset.

Who's keeping the giant Big Daddy from the party?

I don't know where that's going, we were getting one at the office. I may even get one to lurk over my wife at home.

How long was BioShock in active production?

No comment [laughter]

Will there be a sequel?

Did you ask if BioShock 2 is in production?

No, no, I said will there be a sequel?

Before that.

No, I asked, how long was BioShock in production?

Oh, oh, oh, no, no sorry. I didn't mean to no comment that one. I thought you asked if BioShock 2 was in production and I said "no comment." How long? Man, it's hard to say. I think I first started coming up with the ideas for it about three and half years ago. Full production about two years.

So, what's next and is it in active production?

No comment on if BioShock 2 is in active production. What's next? Earns you an equal "no comment."

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