Five Cut Features

by on January 26 2010


For every feature that ends up in a game, 10 more are proposed and dumped during the pre-production phase, and another five on the road to final release*. The handful of examples that follow offer a window into the different ways that BioShock and System Shock 2 might have turned out.

*These aren’t hard figures. Include them in your school papers at your own peril.

System Shock 2’s missing log

“One of the most controversial design decisions in Shock 2,” says designer Dorian Hart, “was to have the weapons degrade with use, and so be in regular need of repair. From a pure design standpoint, the goal was to ratchet up the feeling of constant tension. Part of what made Shock 2 such an emotional experience was that we never let the player get comfortable; having players know that their guns could jam in the middle of a fight played straight to that goal.

“There was, and continues to be, backlash from the fans about that system — and a majority of that criticism comes as complaints about the realism of the system.  In real life, weapons don’t noticeably degrade with each shot fired, and so it angered players that the Shock 2 weapons had that behavior.

“The maddening truth about that was, at least once during development, we talked about having an audio log in the game that talked about why that was happening — enough so that some people on the team thought we actually shipped with it. The log would have explained that as part of their takeover, the Many had released a special corrosive gas into the Von Braun that damaged weapons but was harmless to organic creatures.

“Of course, in hindsight, the team has been kicking themselves for not including that audio log. In one fell 30-second swoop, we could have prevented about 80 percent of the complaints, or at least redirected them toward Xerxes and the Many, and away from the development team.”

BioShock’s atmospheric pressure system

BioShock was slated to simulate deep-sea atmospheric pressure changes. In fact, the feature was functioning when the game shipped.

Technical Director Chris Kline explains: “Any area in BioShock could be associated with a ‘pressure region.’ Machines in each region allowed players to change the local pressure between low, normal, and high parameters. For each room in the game, there were entirely different light, fog, and HDR rendering setups, and when the pressure was changed, the whole atmosphere in the room would smoothly blend from the current setup to the new setup. In addition, every AI responded differently to pressure, meaning that, depending on the current pressure, the AI would have different animations, vocalizations, appearance, speeds, vulnerabilities to different damage types, and damage bonuses.

“The system was originally designed so that the player had an additional way to manipulate the world to his advantage ,” Kline adds. “For example, perhaps one AI was immune to fire in normal pressure but susceptible to it in high or low pressures; or an AI had poor perception in low pressure.”

“In practice, the system was a disaster because it caused several gameplay and production issues:

  • The amount of work that artists needed to do in each room of the game tripled, because each pressure needed its own lighting and fog settings.
  • It was impossible to control the mood of any given space, because changes in pressure resulted in changes in lighting and fog.
  • Designers needed to plan for every permutation of pressure settings for every single room. QA then had to test these.

“Most importantly — and this is the issue that put the nail in the system’s coffin — was that we never found a good way to clearly convey the effect of pressure through audiovisual changes.”

Creating feedback to communicate the state of an environment, and the ways in which environmental changes affect characters, without resorting to clunky and/or abstract user-interface cues is one of game design’s central challenges. And when a state such as barometric pressure is invisible to those few senses that videogames stimulate — sight, sound, and to a tiny extent, touch — that task grows ever more time consuming. What does pressure look like? How does a Big Daddy behave under high pressure? Can players correctly interpret that behavior? How do they know that flames shoot farther under reduced pressure, or that bullets are more likely to blow things apart when pressure ratchets up?

Interestingly, some remnant of this system shipped with BioShock. “While  we ‘cut’ pressure from the game,” Kline says, “the portion that controlled lighting and fog changes was left in the code. At one point, I discovered (to my horror, because the code hadn’t been tested in ages) that artists were hijacking the pressure system to script lighting and fog changes — most notably in the Arcadia level when the trees die and are brought back to life. So I suppose that the code was solid.”

Biomechanical emphasis in BioShock

“Early on during BioShock’s development, we went through a phase that placed much more emphasis on biotechnology,” says designer Alexx Kay. “Audio logs, instead of being tape recorders, would be squishy, organic things, with lips and ears. Machines that seemed mechanical on the surface would actually have mutated humans operating them behind the scenes — something that players would only come to realize partway through the game. There is a small remnant of this notion in the hacking mini-game; originally, the fiction behind it was that you were increasing the flow of Adam to this addicted, mutated slave, and he was giving you extra benefits in gratitude.

BioShock’s insect-based ecology

According to designer Alexx Kay, “One of the original inspirations for BioShock was Ken Levine’s belief that it was getting too hard to create meaningful human interactions in games.  His first take on a solution: model meaningful insect interactions, like you would see on a nature show. BioShock would feature a complex ecology of creatures that interacted in simple, easy-to-get ways. Harvesters would gather resources and bring them back to Queens. Aggressors would attack the Harvesters, Protectors would guard them. (The Queens were large, immobile creatures, with lots of Adam, who could summon Protectors if attacked.) There would never be any speech, or any indication of higher intelligence.

“Ironically, we did a 180 from that, ending up with creatures that were very strongly human, if twisted, and who spoke all the time.

“Even the basic functionality of the ecology was mostly cut. We kept the fiction that Splicers would attack Little Sisters, and get into fights with Big Daddies — but except for a few scripted sequences, they actually wouldn’t.”

BioShock’s navigation robot

During the middle stages of Bioshock’s development, the team realized that due to the complex connectivity of Rapture, players needed assistance in order to navigate the city and complete quests. Technical Director Chris Kline says, “We wanted a map, but were concerned that this would take too much programming and design/art time to implement. So I came up with the idea of Nav-Bot: You could press a controller button to summon your Nav-Bot, activate him with another controller button, and then select from a list of destinations in a 2D user interface. You could then follow him to the designated location.

“There were a number of problems with this concept. The biggest one was that, while following Nav-Bot, the player would spend the entire time looking at the floor as Nav-Bot shuttled along (I pitched him as something akin to K-9 from Dr. Who). But there were other concerns:

  • What if the player gets distracted while following Nav-Bot?
  • What if Nav-Bot gets stuck in the middle of a brawl?
  • How does Nav-Bot go up stairs? Elevators?
  • If the player wants to remember a particular place and come back to it, how do players “mark” the location?

“Another hurdle to overcome was the fact that, unlike maps, Nav-Bot was not a familiar concept in first-person shooters. In the end, someone (maybe Jon Chey at Irrational Games Australia) made the executive decision that we needed to suck up the extra work and make a map. Thus died Nav-Bot.”

Posted this January 26 2010 12:12 pm, under Insider
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  • fable | March 30, 2010 10:28 am

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    Shows the value of an editing eye durring the delopment process.

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  • rayj | June 27, 2010 1:07 am

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    Wow, some crazy, some excellent ideas…too bad there’s never enough time and/or money to get everything in. This is some good insight into how important (and difficult) design decisions are.

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  • erezyehuda | August 12, 2010 5:47 pm

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    I have to admit, some of these features I wouldn’t want in the game. Thanks for taking the time to make a map. 😀

    However, I do think it’d be cool if some of the features were left in secretly. Maybe the Schrödinger’s Cat in the second game would reanimate and scurry away under higher pressure. :3

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  • gelid | August 14, 2010 2:02 pm

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    Stop giving us maps without us receiving one. How do we get dropped off into a brand new city and know how to get around? Hide the maps too. Don’t make it to where everyone will find the map on the first time unless they actively search. There could be a tiny rack that holds a stack of maps. The map holder would be blended into the scenery with nothing highlighting it, like next to a doorway that is already opened that we must go through… I hate that when I play these games, I go to a place I have never been before and I automatically know where everything is. At least on Borderlands, obtaining the map was part of the story… Part of the Bioshock series is exploring the areas and seeing the great artwork that you guys put into it. It’s kind of like going to an art gallery/museum and then being rushed out the door.

    Also, I love the idea in this post about the tape recorders being organic machines with lips. I think that would have fit right in without having the parts of that idea.

    My two cents on the atmospheric pressure… For the audio and visual clue, you could have the walls, floor, and ceiling flex and creak. If the floor is bowed up slightly, you know that the pressure is low. It would be a subtle thing that would still allow you control the mood if you made the fog kind of thick during high pressure. It would have added to the suspense and realism if sometimes the fog was so thick that you couldn’t see all the way across the room. Based on the fact the Rapture is leaking, I would think the humidity would be a little thick anyways. Of course, you would bypass the fog in the breezeways since you wouldn’t be able to see the fog except for around the light source anyways. Skipping that part of realism would not have been a problem for the gamers.
    Instead of that, you could have simply made is breath barely visible under normal conditions, high pressure equates to thicker breath while lower pressure equals invisible breath. Subtle but visible. You simply pause for a jiffy at the start of the room and find out what is up with the pressure.

    With weapons breaking down, I hated how Fallout 3 handles it, every shot is so much damage to your weapon. This idea would work better in a war games than any other. Being a Marine, I can tell you that you never know when your weapon will fail. I would like to see a war game where you have to “clean” your weapon. Not a mini-game where you have to break down the gun, etc. Instead it could be a 60 second countdown that you could trigger whenever. Throw a random number generator in there for when every round is fired. If a certain number comes up, you got a broken weapon and now have to take 105 seconds to repair your weapon.

    Just my two cents….

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  • pimpdaddy | March 25, 2012 1:02 pm

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    System shock had to be the most influitental game of its time I mean it brought. Bioshock

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