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AusGamers Interview with BioShock Infinite Design Director, Bill Gardner
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 12:31pm 19/02/13 | Comments
Ahead of its release, AusGamers was given a chance to chat with BioShock Infinite's design director, Bill Garnder, to talk about the challenges and triumphs of the game's development. Read on for what he had to say...

AusGamers: So how are you enjoying Australia so far?

Bill Gardner: Oh, it’s fantastic. It’s the first time... it’s funny because I’ve worked with Australia all my time at Irrational, nearly 11 years, and I’ve never had the chance to make it out. So finally, here I am. It’s a beautiful place, and I’m really looking forward to being able to take in some more sights.

AusGamers: It must be awesome for you guys to be out here and finally promoting the game as well, after having a little bit of a hiatus from the launch being pushed back, and now being on the home-stretch. What’s the vibe with most of the team at the moment?

Bill: It’s fantastic, with it having been as long as it has, finally being able to get the reaction, and to get the game into people’s hands. It’s been a really long project, and it’s wonderful to finally be able to see the fruits of that labour.

It’s been very, very difficult -- there were a lot of huge challenges that we took on -- and every time we take the game on the road, it’s always hugely energising to see the reaction. But the biggest thing for us, is to finally be able to get it into people’s hands and see that reaction. I think that’s been huge for us, and to finally be this close to getting it on store shelves, is probably the most exciting time I’ve seen at Irrational, because it’s a very special project to us.

AusGamers: I was actually one of the lucky few who got to go out and get the first hands-on in LA...

Bill: I heard. What did you think?

AusGamers: I loved it. I loved every second of it.

Bill: Thank you, thank you.

AusGamers: It’s hard to quantify, from the small amount of time I played with it, but basically I thought it was one of the most free-flowing narratives that I’ve played, that still led me down a nice constructed path. So it felt like I was making all of the decisions on my own, but that I still had this... I don’t want to use the word hand-holding, but I was definitely being directed in the right direction.

Bill: Sure. Thank you for that. I think that’s very important for us, and definitely one of the goals. I think that you will find that the game does open up quite a bit... the beginning of the game, there’s a tonne of information that we’re throwing at you -- there’s just so much detail; so much history and backstory, and front-story too, that we need to get across -- so it definitely skews much more toward the, as you said hand-holding side [laughs], but you’ll find that it does open up quite a bit more later on.

AusGamers: Was there ever a point in the studio, where you guys realised -- with having been pushed back, and getting it to the point where it’s at now -- that you... let’s put GTA V aside, that you guys are basically the swansong of this console generation?

Bill: [laughs] Wow. Well, we’ll see what the end results are, and what people actually think of the shipping game, but yeah, it was like I was saying, it was an incredibly challenging project. Initially we really set out to challenge ourselves, and to challenge gamers. I think that when you look at Elizabeth in particular, the goal with her is to really push the narrative in games, and I think that gamers will be the ones that ultimately decide whether we’ve succeeded there.

It’s a hugely exciting time for us to see that reception, but it has been very, very difficult, because we took on a whole lot more than I think we realised, and that’s a big part of the reason why we decided to go quiet for so long. We wanted to make sure that we had something special to be able to put in people’s hands.

I think that there’s a tremendous amount of work to make good on all the promises we’ve made along the way, and you guys will ultimately decide, but I think that we have, I think we’ve made good.

AusGamers: In terms of design cadence: there’s been quite a few games come out recently that have these rich and dynamic open-worlds, if you will, but they still kind of adhere to kind of binary systems and elements for gameplay interaction. I’m just wondering from you guys -- and you mention that we’re getting a lot information early on in the game, but then it opens up -- what’s the cadence throughout with that in mind?

I played the first three hours, so I got to a part where the combat began to really open up for me, but in terms of traversing, and exploration, and character development, how does that work for you guys?

Bill: Yeah, this was... we have a reputation in the industry for taking iteration to the extreme, at Irrational, and I think that this is one of the trickiest parts to get right. It was really difficult to know how much information we had to get across to the player. It’s really difficult to know the pacing of the introduction; there’s a tonne... we talked about the backstory and the history, and all of that, and how that stuff was paced out, but just from a gameplay perspective...

BioShock was a pretty complex game, between the plasmids and the tonics, and your weapons, and the environmental interactions, and the way all those met and interacted with one another, that was a difficult thing to get right; to teach people; to train. Then you think, we add in these other elements of Elizabeth, and her backstory, and her gameplay elements, with the way that she can pick locks, and open tears, and the way that she’s tossing you ammo or tools during combat.

So all of these new avenues of gameplay, then you put in the skylines, and the traps with the vigors, and the depth here is considerably more impressive.

And I think that there’s two ways to go about that, when you’re adding more depth. You can either throw it all at the player at once, and say “have fun”; then you’ll lose a lot of people, you’ll frustrate some people. There’s going to be a certain population of the audience who’s going to probably love that, because they just want to run with things. Or you can have a training mission right? Which nobody wants that.. I mean I don’t think so; we’re not a huge fan of the whole “gear up soldier! Here’s how to use a machinegun, here’s how to use a grenade”. So we really wanted to avoid that, and make sure that we introduced things organically, and hopefully narratively in a way that it’s contextualised.

So with that in mind, I think that the goal was, that we decided to really pace things out in a slow way; make sure that things are properly introduced, and not in a training fashion, and not just thrown at you all at once. So what you have there is a slow ramping up. It starts with the narrative, then it gets into basic combat. You’ll notice that we don’t just throw you on a skyline right away, because... well we did do that, the levels originally had skylines really early in the piece, and people rejected that -- people didn’t really understand what they were all about, and we weren’t really selling the merits of why they were cool, and how you could use them in combat.

So we try and ramp you up instead. We start you off with cargo hooks, you start off on those, and then the first skyline you see is mostly a traversal skyline, and the next skyline you run into is a more combat-based one. Then before you know it, you’re firing on all cylinders, and you have all your weapons, you’re jumping on and off skylines, Elizabeth is throwing you new weapons, you’re opening tears, and just all of these different systems are interacting. And before you realise it, if you stop and take a step back, the amount of complexity that you’ve mastered is astounding.

So that’s a long way of saying it’s a very tricky balancing act, and I think it’s really about making sure that people understand everything, and everything is properly introduced.

AusGamers: Continuing that idea of the balancing act: with Elizabeth, was there a point where you felt that maybe she was being too helpful, and the player never really had a chance to have their back up against the wall?

Bill: Yeah, that’s a good question. Yeah, getting her right was a huge challenge. Really, the only way to tackle that is just trial and error. It’s really just getting her in the levels, and having a really clear vision from the beginning. Understanding what her role is in the gameplay, as well as in the narrative, and what particular story you’re trying to tell. And just tuning the hell out of her.

You look at all of the things that she can interact with, between picking locks, and breaking code, and tossing you various items in combat, and even out of combat -- if she’s tossing change, and stuff like that, to go and spend at the vending machines.

So there were definitely times where she was a little too involved in certain parts of the gameplay. You want to limit the opportunities that she has so that they feel right, and you want to make sure that the amount of interesting things that you place in the environment is balanced. Because she can go off on the beach and start skipping stones, or she can go up to a vending machine and pound on it. With all of these different things that she can do, you want to make sure that she’s not bouncing around and rubber-banding between all of these things, because she’s got to be believable.

So, absolutely. You put an amazingly talented and smart team on it, and just pound on it until it feels right.

AusGamers: What was the philosophy during development with things like emergent gameplay -- which, I would argue in BioShock was built around tactical recourse, and what you can do with all of the systems that you have at your fingertips -- and balancing that with a pretty heavily-directed narrative?

Bill: Well that’s definitely the goal. I think, in a lot of ways, BioShock takes that formula and pushes it a lot further. I think that, between all of the different systems that we’ve introduced -- and I haven’t even talked about things like gear, which in a lot of ways are similar to what tonics were, but they do introduce a lot more variety, and a lot more opportunities for the player.

The way that you can make yourself more of a skyline specialist, for example. If you equip gear that’s going to make you more effective on the skylines, again that’s a whole new avenue of complexity and expression for the player, which is very interesting.

We have all of these new tools this time around. If you think about Rapture, and everything had already taken place; the war was already over, the party was already over, and basically all you had was the diaries, and occasionally you’d find somebody behind glass who you’d have an awkward conversation with. It was very crude, they were very crude tools, but obviously it worked for that particular story we were trying to tell.

This time around, the world is vibrant and alive. It’s about as stark a contrast as you could get. So we had invent new ways to exposit -- to get information across, and new ways for the player to interact with the world and to dig for information. There’s so many things like the kinetoscopes for the films, and we still have the voxophones, which are basically the same as the audio diaries in BioShock 1. But the way that you’re overhearing the conversations on the city streets, and the way that you can wander into a shop where you have a conversation about whatever the news of the day is, that obviously changes things a lot.

One of the things that Ken’s really good at is knowing how to sort through all this vast information that’s kicking around in the world and in his head. To be able to pick out what’s important to get across to the player at this point, and how best to get that across.

So it basically comes down to beating on the game as much as you can [laughs]. Putting it down in front of people, and getting feedback about what’s working and what’s not, then completely throwing it away and starting again. And doing that again, and again, and eventually you have something that hopefully resonates.

AusGamers: You mentioned the game being more expressive for players, but I note that you avoided the acronym RPG. It does feel like there’s a heavier RPG component to the game this time, even in the sense that when you’re hitting enemies now, you’re getting hitpoints flying off them, so you know how much damage you’re inflicting.

Can players turn that off for a more personal experience, and what was the decision behind that?

Bill: Well I think that you’ll see that... I mentioned a bunch of these news systems and how they’re interacting in brand new ways, and the amount of complexity. That was an extended debate internally, about how to best get all that information across; how to get all of that depth across to the player. And obviously we have the option to turn off those floating numbers, but I think that as you get further you discover just how deep it goes. You discover that that information becomes really important. When you think about the way you’ve upgraded your weapons and vigors, and the way that “oh, I have this piece of gear, so that’s affecting my attacks in this way”. I think that across the board, you’ll find that we’ve delved into pretty much every part of the BioShock Universe a lot deeper.

The shooter aspect has been enriched quite a bit. Making things like the iron sights more meaningful, and our distances are a lot more varied this time around, and the variety of weapons is a lot more meaningful. Whereas I think in BioShock, they tended to be more similar; all generally effective at the same range, against the same types of enemies.

So you throw in all these new distances of engagement, and these new varieties of enemies, and all of their new powers and tools that they have, then we need to find new ways to get that growth across to the player, and how effective each approach is.

Initially when we were working on BioShock 1, there was a huge internal debate about whether or not to have health bars above the enemies. And at the time, when you go back and look at 2006, 2007, that wasn’t all that common. I think that we’ve started to see more and more RPG coming into more shooters, and more games in general. Like Forza, or you-name-it; there’s more growth and expressivity in games.

So it’s the same sort of debate that we had this time, is that: are we lacking more immersion, or are we lacking more in communicating the complexity of the systems to the player? Are we lacking in feedback? So we made the decision to put that in, to clearly establish how effective you’re being, and how you’re growing.

Ultimately, I think we always want to make it so that players can play the game the way they want -- so that’s why we have the option to shut that off -- but again, it’s a long-winded way of saying that there’s a lot of information that we’re getting across. So that decision was made to make sure that players understood how things were changing.

AusGamers: You mentioned earlier that the game does open up for players after a little while in. And obviously with the world not being as dystopian as Rapture was, can you kind of elaborate on how much it opens up? WIthout giving too much away, because I’m not a fan of spoilers either.

Bill: Sure. Well, I think it’s tough to say, because the levels are so much bigger than they were in Rapture. But I think, in terms of relative choice, and how the path opens up and branches, I would say it’s roughly equivalent to BioShock 1.

If you take BioShock 1’s later levels, how they allow a lot more choice in how you approach your objectives, I think that if you just blow out those areas... with Columbia, because of that scale, you have to have, like you saw earlier, the little side-shops and all the opportunities for exploration. Now again, if you imagine that your path becomes branching later on, and you still have all the sidepaths and all of that, it becomes quite a bit more open.

It’s by no means an open-world game -- we do have a specific narrative to tell, so we have to control that to some degree -- but, it does open up quite a bit.

AusGamers: I’m just curious as well about... it’s a bit of a cliched question for you guys, but in terms of game length, do you have any particular number in mind? I played three hours, and I felt like I hadn’t remotely scratched the surface.

Bill: It’s funny, because it’s really difficult to peg how long your game is going to be in development. We had no idea in BioShock 1, we just say “Oh, I’m going to target however many hours”, and somehow it wound up being about what we wanted it to be.

But I think it’s even more difficult this time around, to tell how long it is. You played the first few levels of Infinite, and I think that we said it should be two, to two and a half hours, but some people get in there and it’s like four, four and a half. I’ve seen some people for like five hours in that beginning part [laughs].

So it’s very difficult to peg, but relatively speaking, I’d say it’s about the same length as 1, maybe a little bit longer gameplay-wise. But again, that’s really difficult to quantify, based on how off I’ve been with some of the estimates of other people before [laughs].

AusGamers: Now in the first game, one of the biggest components was the morality system built around the little sisters, and in the first few levels of Infinite that I played, I came across an option to save someone, or not. Then obviously the shit hit the fan after I did that.

I’m wondering if there’s something similar in place with morality throughout the whole game that is built around a similar idea as BioShock 1, or is it a bit more freeform this time?

Bill: With BioShock 1, so much of the world revolved around that choice. That particular moral choice of the little sisters was the heart and soul of what Rapture is all about. It ties the objective into the nature and the cruel, harsh reality of that world. But I think this time around, we didn’t feel like... I think the problem we had with that, was that it was the same choice over, and over, and over, until honestly, by the second or third time “oh my God, come on”.

Again, I’m very proud of it, but there’s only so many times you can make that choice, and by the end, you’ve done it like twenty-plus times, and it’s a bit silly.

So we want to make sure that we have interesting dilemmas, to put the players in between different extremes, and really difficult choices, and have them each be very different. You see that with the raffle that’s going on, and you’ll see a number of those throughout the game.

As to how those impact: this time around, we made a conscious decision to not have any sort of morality meter, or to have it so that you’re deviating from the story and completely changing the narrative. We’re very careful about that, because the choices that you make can change the world to some degree. For example, if you made a choice one way or the other, you’ll see characters later in the game, and see how that affected them, and that sort of thing. But it’s not going to change the overall thread; it’s not going to change the story, because the story that we have has been very, very particular, and we don’t want to mess with that.

AusGamers: How did you guys find QA, and how people -- not on the development side -- were approaching the game? Obviously the first game was a very solitary experience, you only had Atlas talking to you until that revelation flipped the game on its head. Whereas this time, you’ve got Elizabeth, you’ve got people that you can interact with, you’ve this really bustling world.

Did you find that that actually prompted players to be more explorative, or less on their guard? Can you kind of talk about the feedback from a player perspective?

Bill: Yeah, this time around, it was way more of a curveball that we could have anticipated. You’re always finding new ways to combine powers, and you’re always finding new ways to combine the gear with the skylines and the vigors, and all of these things that you don’t anticipate. So stomping out those bugs and those issues -- those balance issues -- that becomes a huge challenge. And you have to have an amazing QA team to do that. To be able to rely on them and say “Hey, we’re totally changing this piece of gear”, and to watch the fallout that you never anticipated.

And one of the biggest X-factors there is absolutely Elizabeth. Obviously she is the heart and soul of the game, and trying to make sure that she is always going to be believable, and never going to get in the players way, or frustrate them. I think one of the pitfalls that a lot of games fall into when they have a companion character is that they become a burden on your experience with the gameplay.

So I think Elizabeth is really there to enhance your experience, and when you look at her narrative, her story, it’s really unlike anything you’ve ever seen -- anything I’ve seen in another game. So making sure that nothing that she does in the gameplay is going to stamp on that; it’s a very important to test that, and make sure that she’s doing all that she can to not get in your way. That’s why early on, we decided that it’s not an escort mission; you’re absolutely not going to have to worry about her dying, or babysitting her, because she is there to help you along the way, and to enhance your powers with things like tears, and toss you stuff during combat and things like that.

So making sure that -- as the levels are changing, and as you’re introducing new tools, and all those changes are happening -- what Liz is doing during this particular moment becomes a huge question that we’re always asking. The way you combat that complexity is making sure that you have a clear direction from the get-go, and then you have a guide to test again.

So if we have Elizabeth’s goals are X,Y, and Z, then how does that match up with these powers, and these vigors, and you iterate on it from there.

AusGamers: Did you guys do much research, in terms of other games where there’s been an AI-controlled companion for players?

Bill: Absolutely. We do quite a bit of research at the company. I’d say that I hope it shows in the world itself, but in terms of how to make something, we do a lot of competitive analysis of a tonne of other games, and films and stuff like that, and see if we’re doing something believable.

But ultimately, we set out to do something very different with her. We set out to really push narrative in games with her, and the way that she interacts with the world. And the amount of fidelity there is quite different. The amount of time we spent just getting her looking right, and I don’t mean her physical features, but actually having like her eyes move in the right way [laughs]. That was a team of people, for probably more time than it should have been, to get her eyes to move correctly, so she looks at you the right way, and not for too long, and that is a tremendous amount of complexity that you don’t even think about going in.

Then you start to get to how she moves around the space, and how she looks at objects, and how she interacts with them -- picks up the stones and skips them on the beach, and all of that -- you don’t anticipate these things. Everyone says, going in, that companion characters are one of the toughest things you can do in games. Well, to make one with you the whole time, that you actually care about, is a whole different thing.

AusGamers: Is much of the complexity there the reason why -- and this came from Ken himself -- that most of the team is in love with Elizabeth?

Bill: Yeah, absolutely. I think that they’re in love with her because of the challenge; in love with her because of the way that she’s pushing us to try new things, and take on new challenges. But I think also, because of the results. I think that she’s been one of the most rewarding parts of the game, from a development standpoint, and I hope that that shows when you play.

I think that the amount of craft, and the amount of love, is, I think, much more than we’ve experienced in development on any other title. And again, I think the amount of fidelity really shows.

AusGamers: A lot of talk has surrounded Elizabeth, and it’s sort of become a focal point from a media perspective, but there’s also Booker, who ultimately changes the way players interact with this BioShock world. He’s voiced, he has a backstory, he has emotions, he’s no longer an empty vessel...

Can you talk about his development?

Bill: Yeah. I think from the get-go, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t just go with the empty vessel character that we had in BioShock 1, and by extension System Shock 2. It’s funny, because Ken was always saying “Oh, I know how to do the protagonist. I’ve done it in Thief before. I know how to give a character in first-person voice”. But obviously the X-factor there is Elizabeth, and so knowing how they interact; knowing how Booker and Elizabeth... you could not take too more different characters from two different walks of life, and to see them come together for a common goal, of just trying to answer the questions of “what is this place and what is their role in Columbia?”, that wound up being a huge challenge as well.

But yeah, I think Booker, he’s unusually exciting because he’s a good example for designers to be able to get information across; to sell a perspective on the world, and to guide the player, and obviously having someone to bounce off of with Elizabeth. Just being able to approach a BioShock game from a completely different perspective, and not just have it all be exposited through a radio and diaries is a very different experience.

AusGamers: Yeah, I absolutely loved Elizabeth, but I became really attached to Booker in the first little bit that I played, and I thought Troy did such a fantastic job of nuancing him. It’s more about the little things, the sighs here and there, for example. He just nailed it.

Bill: Yeah, with Booker, a lot of those reactions you get are actually from Troy himself. I think he’s an amazingly talented actor. To be able to have him come in, and sit in front of the game, and when you hear his reaction to the skyline for the first time, that’s actually him. We were just like “here, here’s something we wrote, you’re super-surprised you’re on a skyline, and you’re so excited”. That was actually him jumping on the skyline for the first time, and his authentic reaction.

I think that it speaks to the sort of unorthodox approach we have to developing the story and the characters, but it was a lot of fun to write, and certainly a lot of fun to work with Troy.

AusGamers: Excellent. Well, we have to wrap it up there Bill, but thanks so much for your time today, and obviously I’m really excited for the game.

Bill: Thank you so much.

AusGamers: Cheers.
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