Infinite Wisdom

Infinite Wisdom
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

July 13th 2011 at 10:00AM

With BioShock Infinite, Irrational Games might just exceed the quality bar set by the groundbreaking first title. Develop asks director of product development Timothy Gerritsen how production is going

BioShock Infinite isn’t strictly a sequel or prequel. How did that come about?

We are certainly really fortunate to be in a position to work on this title. After BioShock we felt like we had finished with Rapture. We didn’t want to do another Rapture, but we weren’t done with BioShock.

A typical response to that from most publishers would probably have been ‘lets do BioShock 3 quickly and ship it out’, but we had all these crazy ideas for new things, but early on they hadn’t quite gelled. Still, we had the vision of the Infinite world.

Our publisher said to us we could run with it, and that they totally trusted us, and gave us the creative freedom we needed to do something unique.

That was great for us. Particularly because, as a studio Irrational is super-intense and ideas focused. I’ve never worked at a studio so intense. Irrational is also hard on ideas, and that’s important.

What exactly do you mean by being ‘hard on ideas’?

We have this crucible of ideas. If you bring an idea to the fore, you have to really do your homework. You have to think about it, you have to know how the player is going to relate to the idea and, how they are going to play with it.

We kill bad ideas regularly, and it honestly doesn’t matter who comes up with the idea. We use the phrase ‘killing our babies’ here at Irrational. We don’t have ideas that we get married to, because if it doesn’t work, we kill it and it’s gone.

If someone was to ask ‘who thought of that fucking terrible idea’ and the answer was ‘it was Ken’s [Levine, Irrational creative director] idea’, we don’t care. If it’s a bad idea, we fucking kill it. We are very hard on ideas, and that’s because at the end of the day we’re about making games that people can get behind and enjoy
We also have to really fight hard to make sure everyone on the team understands that you have to look at it as a player. You can’t look at it as a jaded developer. Just look at it as a game.

If Irrational is a studio where you are hard on everybody’s ideas, does that mean that – to an extent – you are a studio without a hierarchy?

Oh, there’s a hierarchy alright.

But it sounds like quite a democratic company culture in that regard.

It’s not at all like that. Well, maybe it is. Everybody in the company has the same support and the same right to bring in ideas, but Ken is the creative visionary and directs the vision. Ultimately, though, we don’t care who you are. If you have a good idea and you’ve thought about it, you can get that idea in the game. But that doesn’t mean anything if you haven’t thought about it and your idea is bullshit.

We’re tough on creativity, and there’s truly a maelstrom of ideas at Irrational. But yes, anybody has the chance.

So there’s that hierarchy you mentioned. How important is that?

It’s the studio that Ken Levine built, so that’s not going to change. And he has such a clear vision. If he has this idea of this city and floating islands we’ve got to make it happen. But he can have an idea and anyone here can argue that it’s wrong.

Ultimately, though, Ken is the creative lead. The guy has this amazing ability to distil concepts down and understand what the player will feel. He knows how the audience will react, and it’s what we always think about. Ken also always sees the game. He sometimes likes to reminds us that an idea might be great for the novelisation, but we have to think about the player playing the game.

I think so many young designers at other companies today look at game design in a very academic fashion, and they forget that if the audience can’t play, they’ve failed as a designer.

Those designers will talk about the order of events, and the position of objects and enemies, but they forget to consider how the player will be made to feel. If you ask them ‘how does the player feel?’, and they don’t have an answer, you might not be the right designer.

We have a lot of guys here at Irrational with a lot of experience who understand that process, but, truly, a lot of the younger designers need reminding that they’re not making a novel.

It can’t just be about creative toughness though – that being hard on ideas can only get you so far. What else about the studio’s culture defines the games you make?

For a start, we’re really thorough when we hire people. It’s kind of amazing really. We’ve had a couple of slots for new hires for a really long time, but we are really picky. And then, at the same time, we’re trying to get this game done. But we won’t just hire anybody.

We don’t have a ‘bums in seats attitude’. We want people who are as captivated by what we do, and the tiny details, as we are. We want people who are prepared to do the research.

And that’s important too. We immerse ourselves. If we’re making a game set in a 1912, we immerse ourselves in that period. We learn the science, we read the literature, we listen to the music; everything about a period, we loose ourselves to.

We don’t just come up with the adverts in the BioShock games; those ads are based on advertising from the age. We learn about the fonts and art and architecture of the era, and all that will come across. BioShock infinite is all about the early ideas of Heisenberg and Einstein and their new understanding of the physical world. We even looked at the medicines of the time, and how they were made.

Is this a different interpretation of the ‘historical accuracy’ approach to game design then?

It’s not historical accuracy, because it’s a made up world, but authenticity is really important to us. Let’s talks about streets in video games.

OK. Tell me about video game streets.

I hate video game streets, where a street will happen to have a reality where all this action is going to take place. I hate that.

If you’re going to make a street it needs to feel real, and have a real market and people living in there living convincing lives. I want to know how they’ll move about, and if there’s a way for them to get to their apartment from the sidewalk, and a reason for an alley to be where it is.

You have to stop with that level of detail somewhere though.

I admit you can get lost in that detail, but we expect that of everyone in our building. That’s our purpose at Irrational. Let’s pick something random. Let’s say you’re making a dockyard. You better know what a dockyard looks like in exactly the time period you’re in, and know who occupied that dock yard and understand the myths and habits of the time.

So we can certainly end up debating quite seriously about a floor tile at Irrational. If you’re getting to that level, you’re doing the right thing. But we’re always also focused on getting the job done, and getting the game out there. It’s a struggle, but that’s what you’ve got to do to hit the quality bar.

I wanted to move onto your approach to technology. You’re working with a heavily modded version of the Unreal Engine 3. Can you tell me about that?

Previously for BioShock we’d previously used a ‘2.5’ of the Unreal Engine, and it was a good engine. You’ve played BioShock, so you know it’s no slouch. For Infinite though, we wanted this floating world, and something so much more open, so we needed very specific, different technology.

For that reason, for the lighting, to be able to do the things we wanted to, we built our own hyper-deferred lighting tech that allows us to do really nice day-lit work.
What we get from Epic is a core technology, and we see it as a great place to build our own extension tools. UE3 is great on it’s own, and it allows you to make great games like Gears of War.

We wanted to give our games their own feel though, so we built our own tools; tools that would allow us to have a giant floating city. I don’t know if you know, but giant floating objects kill framerate, so we had to build own ‘Floating Worlds’ technology.

So you’re hard on technology as well as your ideas?

Absolutely. We have a strong art team, a strong design team and a strong programming team. They are all very strong, but they are also very realistic.

They’re hard on ideas, but they’re also very creative, and sometimes they suggested things that have been developed in our tech. It’s the same creative process. The programming team were the ones who came up with the idea of this floating city. Everybody at Irrational can input good ideas into everything.

What is your response to the Wii U?

It’s early days, and we’re still trying to get our heads around it. We’re always experimenting with new ideas and we’re always interested in new platforms. We’re really excited about the Wii U, but it’s too early to say what we’ll do with it. I think, like any new piece of hardware, it creates new challenges and opportunities.

We see it as an interesting idea, but where we’re at is that we don’t know whether the different elements will work or not. Certainly, we’re looking at it, but as to whether we’re going to do anything with it, I don’t know.
www.irrationalgames.com