2K Australia interview -- fresh insights into BioShock 2

GamePro Australia gets the low-down on BioShock 2
  • Chris Jager (GamePro Australia)
  • 22 January, 2010 15:00

BioShock 2 interview

The sequel to 2K Games' critically acclaimed smash-hit BioShock is bubbling ever-closer to the surface. In just a few short weeks, gamers will be able to fulfil all their Big Daddy fantasies as they take to the watery bowels of Rapture once again. With improved combat mechanics, deeper moral choices and a fresh exploration of the fascinating BioShock mythos, the game is set to be one of the biggest hits of the year.

Last week, we caught up with Alex Vancomerback and Anthony Lawrence of 2K Australia, who are the Level Designer and Studio General Manager, respectively. We quizzed them about working for 2K Games, tips on how to get into the games industry, and the improvements gamers can expect to find in BioShock 2. We also gleaned some fresh insights about the game, including the role of the ocean (there will be no underwater combat) and the enhanced AI (Big Sisters — be very afraid!) So without further ado, let's dive right in...

GamePro: G'day, guys. First up, can you tell us a little about your roles at 2K Australia?

Alex: I'm Level Designer on BioShock 2 — which means I take care of the player experience within a level. I need to think everything a player might think while exploring each level. I look after elements of the gameplay, like what enemies the player is going to encounter and what the main goal of the mission is. I also help with the scripting of the AI, and try to get [the enemies] to do something a little bit different.

Anthony: I essentially run the studio so the guys can do good things. Some of my other day-to-day tasks include making scheduling decisions and outsourcing artwork. I also try to lend my hand as a sound engineer. [Anthony was previously a sound designer at the Sydney Opera House.]

BioShock 2 interview

Anthony Lawrence

GP: How did you first get involved in the games industry?

Alex: I started off with user mods on games like Duke Nukem and Quake back in '96. Pretty much by accident, I found out about someone looking for a level designer for a project in the UK. I applied for it, and, to my shock and surprise, I actually got the job. When I received my first pay cheque it was a great day: I was doing what I loved and getting paid for it! A few years later, I moved to Australia and worked for a few different companies, before joining 2K Games two years ago.

BioShock 2

Alex Vancomerback

Anthony: I have a long background in the creative industry and I guess you could say that's my passion. After 12 years working at the Sydney Opera House, I moved into the business world, but I hated it. When I saw the role for studio general manager at 2K Games, I thought 'perfect!' So now here I am, back doing what I love.

GP: Alex, what kind of skills does your job require? Got any tips for gamers trying to break into the industry?

Alex: Well first of all, you need to be passionate about what you do. You don't need hardcore programming skills or anything like that. A good artistic sense is very important though. This is especially true at companies that don't have level artists. This means that the level designer has to fulfil both roles. You also probably need to know some kind of scripting language. Kismet from Unreal Engine is a good starting point, because it's super popular with games companies. If you want to get into the industry, start off by creating stuff for free using mapping modes and modding tools.

Anthony: Yes, if you want me to employ you, I need to see what you can do. It could be an Apple app; anything. That's a lot more important than a degree or diploma in video games. So the short answer is: build a portfolio!

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BioShock 2

A Big Sister

GamePro: Presumably, BioShock 2 is by far the biggest game you've worked on. Has the experience been any different to previous jobs?

Alex: Yes. Previously, I would have to look after everything in a level: how it looks and how it plays. At 2K Australia, I've been working with level architects, which frees me up to take care of the gameplay experience. So there's a lot more collaboration involved when it comes to level layouts, and so on.

GP: Are you gamers yourselves? What are some of your favourite titles?

Alex: Yes! I've spent way too many hours on Unreal Tournament. I used to be heavily involved in clan matches and competitive gaming. We still have massive sessions of Team Fortress 2 in the office every Tuesday night. I'm mostly an FPS fan, I guess you could say. Apart from Unreal Tournament and Team Fortress, I mainly stick to single-player games.

Anthony: I don't have a lot of free time these days, so I'd probably describe myself as a casual gamer. I enjoy action titles and recently played through Wet, which was a lot of fun. I also have a daughter, and we play Wii together. The Wii is a great console for parents, because it caters to both young kids and adults.

GP: What's the best thing about your job?

Alex: The best thing about the job is working with people who are as passionate as me about creating very interesting games. I didn't work on BioShock 1, but I played it. So I came on board this project as a fan. That's probably the best part of my job: I'm making a game I want to make.

Anthony: Working with really talented people makes my day. It's also great to have a hand in creating something that you can be proud of. Being able to work on BioShock 2 has been absolutely fantastic.

GP: And the worst?

Alex: Hmm, I can't think of anything I hate. We don't even have to work intensive hours, like at some places. I think the most I ever had to work was 16 hours, which was just before the content plug [the deadline after which nothing new can be added to a game].

Anthony: We like to send [our employees] home. We'd prefer it if they can come back to work the next day!

GP: Okay, let's talk about BioShock 2. Can you tell us how the level design will differ from the first game?

Alex: I think the main difference is the height variation in levels. We tried to add more of a vertical component to the level design. Because you can fight the Big Sister pretty much anywhere in a level, we also had to make sure that every area was suitable for combat. This also goes for all the other AI types. We've also tried to make the levels circular in nature in an attempt to avoid dead-ends. There has to be more than one way into every room — otherwise the player might get stuck fighting a Big Daddy in a small room.

Anthony: There are also far more combat choices in the game compared to BioShock 1, which obviously affects the level design.

Alex: Yes, and of course, you don't have to fight a Big Daddy if you don't want to. It's up to the player to choose the best terrain, which they can prepare with traps beforehand.

BioShock 2

GP: In the new game, you play as a Big Daddy, who is presumably a lot bigger than the average video game protagonist. Has this had an effect on the level design?

Alex: Not too much. Scale has always been slightly askew in the BioShock universe. Like, in the first game, the Little Sisters were bigger than they would be in real-life so they could interact with the Big Daddies. BioShock 2 is quite similar in the way it addresses a sense of scale.

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GP: It has been revealed that players can now explore areas outside Rapture's city. Tell us about the role of the ocean in BioShock 2.

Alex: The oceanic sections in BioShock 2 are like a breaking point in the action. It's a place to relax. Well, maybe relax is the wrong word, but there is no combat underwater.

Anthony: It's all about pure exploration, without the intense fighting you'd find on the inside of Rapture.

GP: So just to reiterate, there will be no underwater combat in BioShock 2?

Anthony: No. It's really about having a look at Rapture from a different persective

Alex: ...and enjoying the scenery!

BioShock 2

GP: One of the hallmarks of BioShock is choice — letting the player explore at their own pace. Does this pose any challenges from a level designer's perspective?

Alex: Yes, definitely. As a designer, you never know when a player might challenge a Big Daddy to a fight, for example. So we have to make sure every area of the room presents interesting combat opportunities. In most games, as soon as a boss appears, the battle is on. The AI can also follow you around, of course. So yes, it was a bit of a challenge!

GP: Is there anything in particular that has impressed you about the new game?

Alex: Do you mean BioShock 2, or the game after BioShock 2? [chuckles]

GP: Um, BioShock 2. But if you want to give us a scoop...

Anthony: Let's stick to BioShock 2! [laughs]. Everything that has gone into BioShock 2 was about making a fantastic game even better.

Alex: We spent quite a lot of time in forums and going over tonnes of feedback about what players loved about the first BioShock, and what they didn't like so much. So we've only expanded on what works.

Anthony: I think one of the biggest improvements has been to the combat. The choices at the player's fingertips are far greater than the original BioShock — it's not just about the moral choices in the game.

Alex: There has been a lot of work on the AI, too. They will duck and run for cover, the Big Sister will jump on walls and kick the player, the Brute can physically take objects from within the world and throw them at you. So I think we've made the FPS elements a lot more interesting.

BioShock 2

GP: Finally, some nautical-themed questions. Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: hot or not?

Anthony: [Laughs] Maybe you should talk to Snezana! [2K Games' Australian PR manager.]

Alex: Er, personally, I'd have to go with "not".

GP: Who would win in a fight between a great white shark and a killer whale?

Alex: I'm going to go with giant squid.

GP: That sort of leads into my next question. Do you think giant octopuses exist?

Alex: Well, I'd only be guessing, but sure, why not?

Anthony: Absolutely, I think they exist. I'm actually a diver, and I tell you: the deeper you go down, the bigger things get!

BioShock 2 is due to hit stores globally on Feb 9. 2010.

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