Q&A: Levine surfs BioShock's wake

2K Boston head talks about launch woes of first-person shooter, delicately handling the game's ethical choices, and concerns (or lack thereof) with landing an "M" rating.

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2K Boston's Ken Levine.
2K Boston's Ken Levine.

In 2K Boston's new first-person shooter BioShock, a wealthy industrialist builds an undersea utopia called Rapture, only to see it devolve into a nightmarish world populated with mutated psychopaths. In a fittingly analogous (but far less drastic) turn of events, the game was released last week on a tide of critical acclaim that could be characterized as "rapturous," only to see the commendations give way to a wide array of complaints.

Many gamers who preordered the collector's edition of the game found that the biggest attraction--a pack-in figurine of the game's Big Daddy characters--had been broken in transit. PC users who picked the game up on day one discovered that the single-player game needed to go online upon installation for a one-time verification procedure. This was made impossible for a stretch of time when the servers set up to handle the task crashed, leaving customers unable to play their new game.

That was followed by online gripes over the realization that BioShock's high-definition widescreen display mode actually shows less of the game world than its standard-definition 4:3 aspect ratio mode. While that was being dealt with, rumors that the game would appear on the PlayStation 3 flared up when a reference to Sony's machine was found in the configuration file of the PC BioShock demo. Finally, 2K Boston's hometown paper, The Patriot Ledger, touched off some controversy among gaming sites when it ran an editorial saying BioShock is "testing the limits of the ultraviolent gaming genre with a strategy that enables players to kill characters resembling young girls."

Ordinarily, when a game ships, it's time for the developers to take a vacation. But the days after BioShock's launch saw 2K Boston president Ken Levine pulling double-duty in putting out fires of criticism surrounding his underwater adventure. Levine postponed his vacation plans a little bit longer today to speak with GameSpot about BioShock's birthing pains, and how he dealt with concerns about getting an "M for Mature" rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

GS: What happened with the PC authentication servers?

KL: Everything went perfectly. What are you talking about? It was awesome. No, it was a bit of a cluster****. 2K wasn't prepared for the deluge of interest in the product. I don't think they understood that if you have a new game on the PC and you have these authentication servers, you need to have round-the-clock monitoring on the server. Those things started going down, and there was nobody whose job it was to make sure that when they went down, they'd be fixed. They went down for six or seven hours at one point. We ended up last week scrambling and coming up with a plan to address that. When the server went live in Europe a few days later, the server went down also, but because we had a new plan in place, there were people to call and deal with and ready to go, so we got it back up in an hour and a half. That was really the problem. We just didn't have a plan in place. I just don't think the company was prepared for the deluge of traffic, and it overwhelmed it.

If the Little Sister here is BioShock on the PC, the Big Daddy would be downed authentication servers standing in the way.
If the Little Sister here is BioShock on the PC, the Big Daddy would be downed authentication servers standing in the way.

GS: Steam users also reported having problems on launch day. Were they related?

KL: My understanding is they had a huge influx of traffic, [which] again they weren't prepared for. I don't really have any insight to that or knowledge to that. I just know they had a bunch of slowdown and overwhelming [demand]. The same thing happened when we launched the demo on Xbox Live. We basically took down Xbox Live for the second time in their history. The first time was when they launched their downloadable movie service, and that was because it was a new technology. Here it was just the amount of demand for the demos all at once.

Generally, for better or worse, you don't design systems to handle unprecedented demand. You design them to handle the demand you expect. And everybody got caught a little short. I wish we could say we planned it better, but we didn't.

GS: Some Big Daddy figurines with the collector's edition arrived broken. What happened to them, and what should customers do if they were stuck with one of the banged-up Big Daddy figurines?

KL: You know those giant shipping containers on boats? Some guy had one of those shipping containers with half of the Big Daddy figures for the world in them and it slipped out of a crane loop and fell onto the dock. And cracked a zillion of the Big Daddy figures. If course, they didn't make two times as many figures as they expected to need, so we ended up with a bunch of people getting broken Big Daddies.

So what 2K did was, they said this was a problem and people would be pissed off, understandably. They preordered this collector's edition months ago and the best thing in it besides the game is broken. I'm trying to remember the exact details of how this works, but the [important thing] is we'll get you a new Big Daddy and a printed art book as a way of saying sorry and thanks for your patience.

GS: One nice feature of the game is the "unlock frame rate" option. Why don't more games offer this? Was it terribly difficult to implement?

KL: You can't really throw almost anything on at the end of a game because there are so many unintended consequences coming out of everything. We have people saying, "How come you don't have this or that?" Some of the things we had, but the question is, "Can we implement it and can we test it for long enough to make sure you're not going to have huge problems?"

The notion of unlocking the frame rate came out of a PC-game background. As PC game developers and players, we're used to having a lot of options. I hate going into some of the Japanese console games and your options are a color border outline and stereo or mono music. I like big options screen because--and I'm sure you'll get to the widescreen question--I generally believe that gamers should be able to play the game the way they want to. And if we can support that, we will. So we were looking down the road a bit, and we have this frame rate here and some people don't mind the tearing and some people do--let's give people an option.

GS: So about the widescreen question...

KL: I didn't know that was coming. [Laughs.] This is sort of how it came to be. I understand why people are upset. I will say if you travel from the future and go six months in the past and you found me when we were crunching this thing... When you're making a game, you expect people to not hate the story and the gameplay and hate this or that. I was pretty overwhelmed with surprise when I found out the thing people hated about it is the widescreen support. I think that says something about the game too. The things people are freaking about are the copy protection and the widescreen support, not the gameplay itself, which I'm very gratified by.

We made the game and focused on choosing the right field of view (FOV) for the widescreen user, which is where we started. Then when we went on to make the fullscreen, we looked at our options. You could do black bars on the top or bottom, or you could extend the verticality there.

We said we could cut it off or leave it, and we made in retrospect the fairly unpopular and potentially unwise call to do it the way we did. But the widescreen view is the way it was intended to be. And if the 4:3 view never existed, nobody would even be aware of it, because it's only a relative comparison.

But at the end of the day, they paid $50 or $60 for the game, and if we can hook them up, we'll hook them up. And the plan right now with the PC version--we haven't announced anything for the 360 version--is to hook them up with a patch to give them more control over the FOV.

Little Sisters are made of sugar and spice and everything spliced.
Little Sisters are made of sugar and spice and everything spliced.

GS: In the recently released PC demo of BioShock, there was mention of a PlayStation 3 version of the game in a config file. Is BioShock coming to the PS3?

KL: We are exclusive to the Xbox 360 and the PC.

GS: Is that a timed-exclusive or just plain exclusive?

KL: We're exclusive on the Xbox 360 and the PC. Sorry to be a boring corporate shill.

GS: Your hometown paper wrote an editorial not necessarily criticizing the way you handled the Little Sisters, but referring to it as "testing the limits of the ultraviolent gaming genre." How much flack have you received over this?

KL: Two things. It would have been awesome if the guy had actually played the game or seen the game, since he hadn't. And I think if you see the harvesting sequence, calling it "testing the limits of ultraviolence in video games" is a bit of a stretch from where I'm sitting.

That said, [the amount of flack I've received is] almost none. There's two groups of people. There are the gaming journalists who are understandably--like all of us--worried that some outside force is going to come in and start telling us how to make our games, and then there's one single journalist, this specific guy, the only guy in the mainstream journalism who's asked me about this.

Somebody's going to come along at some point I'm sure who's going to want to make a federal case out of it, because that's what these guys do. This guy didn't play the game and he wanted to write an article and get on the front page of his hometown newspaper. Hey, more power to him, he did it. In terms of it being a piece of journalism, he didn't play the game, he never saw the sequence. Factually, if you know about the game, it's not exactly accurate in a lot of different places. It's a free story for a journalist to write: "Game has violence, film at 11."

Handle with care.
Handle with care.

GS: On the same subject of free stories, one article in the enthusiast press used that single editorial as evidence enough to proclaim that the mainstream press was "having [a] field day" with the issue.

KL: [Laughs.] And they're not! To the mainstream press's credit, we've been reviewed by Entertainment Weekly, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, we got the first print review in the history of Variety, AOL... These are all mainstream things, and not a single one of them has made an issue out of this. I give the mainstream press a little more credit than that; I think the dialogue has evolved. I think we're just so worried that we get a little overly focused on it.

GS: Are gamers and the gaming press a bit too defensive about mainstream criticisms or concerns with the industry?

KL: Absolutely, of course. I've been asked this question by journalists so many times, and I just can't understand why it's a relevant question, no offense to you. I believe our media should not be in a ghetto, that we can take on challenging topics. I put my money where my mouth is, and I think we made a game that takes on challenging topics. I personally feel a responsibility and my company has a responsibility that's tasteful and appropriate to the material we're making.

But beyond that, it's a piece of art. I don't mean "Art" with a capital "A." It's not the real world. I would never imagine anybody involved in this game being involved in any kind of actual violence toward anybody, let alone a child. But it's not real. That little character on the screen doesn't exist.

GS: Obviously, you knew the harvesting or rescuing the Little Sisters and the way it is presented to the player would have to be handled delicately. Did you ever entertain the notion of handling it another way?

KL: [Laughs.] Let me put it this way: My goal was never to sell copies through any kind of prurient content. If you look at the game in general, there's no gibs [an enemy exploding in a cloud of bloody chunks] in the game. The game is really more about a feeling of dread than it is about gore. There is some gore in the game, but I think it's to get across the idea of what happened to Rapture. I think I put a much higher level of sensitivity to how any violence issue was handled in regard to Little Sisters, because whenever you involve something that may or may not be a child, the sensitivity level goes up.

What I wanted to do there was get across a certain story and moral-choice notion, not make something that could repulse people and turn people off from the story question I was putting forward and on to an explicitness question. And I wouldn't want anybody that was not a healthy person to get any remote enjoyment out of a sequence that was never intended to be enjoyable, just illustrative of a moral choice being made.

So I think we were more careful about that sequence than anything else in the game, but we were careful about everything in the game. The whole game was, "Where do we draw the lines here?" And not the lines about if we're going to offend anybody, but what makes the point of the game as effectively as we want to make it. And with a game like BioShock, particularly with its setting, every aesthetic call is challenging. This one is definitely more challenging, but I'm happy where we ended up.

GS: Rescuing Little Sisters gives the player less Adam than harvesting them, which would seem to make them less powerful, and less capable of fending off the deranged residents of Rapture. How strange was it boiling down the ethical dilemma to a gameplay balance issue and slapping a number on it?

KL: [SPOILER ALERT] Let's put a spoiler on this one because that's not entirely true. The net Adam over time, I believe, is equal or a little more because you get reward packages and you also get some plasmids you can't get any other way when you rescue them. So that was one of the factual inaccuracies in the article. But you do have to make a leap of faith. And I like that notion because in life, the moral path is quite often a little less clear on the upside.

Go into a bank. Do you want to be a bank teller or a bank robber? The immediate benefits of being a bank robber are a little clearer. You walk out with a truckload of money. The benefits of being a bank teller are "go to work for eight hours and make $9 an hour." There's more of a leap of faith in life to be good. And I don't like to classify the harvesting and the rescuing as a good and evil choice because it's presented in a much more ambiguous way in the game, at least in the beginning. But I think we want to say that sometimes it's not so easy to see the right path. [END SPOILER ALERT]

GS: Between Grand Theft Auto's Hot Coffee scandal, Oblivion's rerating, and most recently the Manhunt 2 controversy, Take-Two Interactive has had a number of ESRB-related mishaps. Given your obligation to create a game your company could actually sell, how much did you keep the final rating in mind throughout the design and development process?

KL: I don't want to talk about any particular games because I think there have been a lot of publishers that have had issues with the ESRB, but I think the difference is BioShock was never about shocking people with prurient content. It was about creating a feeling of dread and horror throughout an entire storyline. For me, the most horrifying things are hearing the audio diaries and hearing what happened to [various characters].

So it was never important to me that we have any particular piece of blood or gore or violence in the game. It was really about how we were going to get across these other things. Very early on I was hoping that we would make the right calls aesthetically and that would lead us to the rating that obviously we needed to get, which was an M [for Mature]. But it really is a bit of a black box with the ESRB. It can be a fairly subjective process. You can't even bother spending too much time worrying about it because it's fairly arbitrary.

We almost got Freedom Force kicked back with an "M" at one point for what I thought was the most innocent thing. Originally one of our characters--Eve--had hair that would always manage to magically cover her breasts. We didn't actually show her breasts or her nipples or anything, but they said unless you put a top on her, you're getting an M-rating. That surprised us at the time. This time, I just said I was going to make the game that I wanted to make. I was going to make the choices that were right for BioShock, and the first time we went in, the rating came back as an "M."

GS: Given the uncertain nature of what the ESRB finds acceptable or not, is there a chilling effect on developers?

KL: We're not the only industry that deals with this. You have an appeals process, and you can resubmit and they give you feedback. I'm a big believer in disclosure. It was my idea to go out and talk to people about things that happened last week. I'm a big believer that sunshine is the best disinfectant. I hate when I have a problem with a company and they clam up. I hate when the government does that, I hate when companies do that. So I said, "Let's get out there and be honest with people and tell them, 'This is what we screwed up. This is what we're going to try to fix. This is what we can't do anything about, etc.'"

In terms of the chilling effect, I think it's understandable. I think there are business reasons why there are limitations on games. For instance, Microsoft and Sony won't approve AO-rated games. I think that's still because our industry is still somewhat perceived as an industry of youthful game players when in reality, demographically, we know that's not true at all. The vast majority of gamers are over 18.

I think that will change in time. It's weird that you go to Best Buy and you see R-rated films and PG-rated films, and then unrated films and TV shows with plenty of violence, but you can't even imagine an unrated video game. And I think that's because movies are sort of yesterday's news. The mainstream press is drawn to heat; they smell blood in the water and they want a story. And movies just aren't that much of a story anymore.

Remember back in the '50s, what happened to those with the comics code? The whole nature of comics changed. There was a whole list of things you could and couldn't do, and that had an impact on the industry for years and years.

I remember when Mortal Kombat came out, I remember when Death Race 2000 came out, this very old black-and-white arcade game where you'd run over stick figures with your car and they'd turn into crosses. That was the first video game outrage, and I was a kid when that happened. But the graphics blew up, and there's a new thing, and people think it's the end of the world. But you know what--it turns out not to be the end of the world.

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