/Dont Miss: A game dev postmortem of the original BioShock

Dont Miss: A game dev postmortem of the original BioShock


3. Input from outside.

The first external BioShock focus test was
meant to be a sanity check: to get a better sense of what was working
well but needed polish and what wasn’t working at all.

At this point we had already done one small round of internal focus
testing with friends of friends, which had turned out mostly positive
feedback. So, just after the first beta, the entire design team plus a
contingent of 2K producers headed off to see how a group that knew
nothing about our company or BioShock would react to the first level.

It was brutal.

The first level, they said, was overly dense, confusing, and not
particularly engaging. Players would acquire new powers but not know
how to use them, so they stuck to using more traditional weapons and
became frustrated. They didn’t interact with the Big Daddies, and they
didn’t understand (or care) how to modify their characters. They were
so overwhelmed by dialogue and backstory that they missed key
information. A few of the players did start to see the possible depth
of the game, but even they were frustrated by the difficulty of
actually using the systems we had created.

Based on this humbling feedback, we came to the realization that our
own instincts were not serving us well. We were making a game that
wasn’t taking the initial user experience into account, and we weren’t
thinking enough about how to make it accessible to a wide variety of

After the focus test, we went back to the drawing board for the
entire learning sequence of the game. We scrapped the gameplay in the
first two levels entirely and re-architected them to be a much slower
paced experience that walked the player through the more complicated
gameplay verbs, such as “one-two punch”-combining weapons and plasmids.
We changed the medical pavilion from having sandbox-style gameplay to
using a series of locks and keys that were set up to ensure that the
player knew how to use at least a few key plasmids. And we made a
development rule that future changes would be data-driven, not based
solely on our own instincts.

After the first round of changes, we had two rounds of internal 2K
play testing to gather more data about the user experience, releasing
builds of the game to several 2K studios and soliciting feedback about
how far people got and which weapons or systems they enjoyed. We
received feedback from 2K game analysts, Microsoft, and a few other

When we brought the demo back to focus testing, which was barely a
month before we were (then) scheduled to complete the game, the
experience was very different. Although players still got stuck and
frustrated at various spots, they understood the game systems and saw
the potential inherent in them. While we still had work to do to make
the game more accessible, at least now the problems were much more
easily solvable.

4. Small empowered teams.

While developing our first internal demo,
we realized just days before completing it that it was on the wrong
track. By that point it was too late to take on all the problems in the
demo, but we decided to try to improve the core interactions. We used a
small, focused strike team approach to target and solve AI problems,
choosing one problem at a time, analyzing and tackling it, then moving
on. Although this approach wasn’t enough to salvage the original demo,
it was recognized in our internal postmortem of the demo as an
effective process that we should do more often.

One of the most visible successes of the strike team system is the
tuning of the weapons of the game. All the weapons had been in and
working for several months, but as the game got closer to content lock,
they still weren’t feeling as good as they should.

To tune each weapon,
a team consisting of one designer, an animator, a modeler, a
programmer, the effects specialist, and an audio designer held a
kickoff meeting where they analyzed and brainstormed about each aspect
of a single weapon. They came up with a task list for each team member,
went off to work for a day or two on their tasks, then came reviewed
all the results. When they were satisfied, they moved on to the next

Over the course of development, we created multidisciplinary strike
teams to work on a wide variety of problems, including AI, animation,
visual effects, and cinematics. The results of those teams were
universally better than the previous non-iterative process.

The 2K Boston BioShock team.

5. Talented people, flexible staffing.

BioShock was initially scoped
to be developed in about two years with a small team of 30 people-25 in
Boston focused on gameplay and five in Australia working on the core
engine. As the team completed successful milestones and demos, and made
strong cases for more development resources it became clear that we
needed to tap into the Australian office.

Initially, Australia was intended to supply a small core technology
team that worked on the renderer, engine, and core tools and processes
for console development. The Australians had a tremendous impact on
development because by taking care of the core engine and pipeline
tasks, the Boston programming team was free to focus on gameplay
systems and production.

One of the fastest and easiest ways to staff up any newly-opened
position on the BioShock project was to pull from the Australian team.
By the time BioShock went gold, almost everyone in the Australian
office had worked on the game in one way or another.

The huge advantage to using the Australian team resources was that
they already knew the engine and the game, and had easy access to the
core technology team. They came up to speed incredibly quickly, and
could be productive almost immediately upon getting project tasks. And
although the time difference made communication a challenge, it also
meant that critical bugs could be worked on literally day and night.