SAN FRANCISCO – A creepy, underwater shooter game which refused to sink when publishers balked at its high development costs has turned into a success story, with "BioShock" getting glowing reviews and top sales.
"Honestly, we couldn't get a lot of publishers to sign up to spend millions of dollars to do a game," said Ken Levine, creative director for "BioShock."
It took a well-timed public relations move to give the game a chance.
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"We sold a story to the press essentially that we were having trouble selling the game to a publisher. That story got so much traffic that the next day 'BioShock' was the best idea in the world for everybody," Levine said in an interview.
It worked. Levine's Irrational Games was bought by game publisher Take-Two Interactive Software Inc (TTWO) in 2006, a publisher known for not backing away from controversy.
Take-Two, which makes the hit "Grand Theft Auto" franchise but has fallen on hard times lately amid accounting scandals and a delay in the latest "GTA" installment, has benefited from taking a gamble.
Take-Two stock jumped 10 percent on Tuesday when "BioShock" was released as glowing reviews poured in and the game topped sales charts at retailers like Amazon.com (AMZN).
The game is part first-person shooter, horror flick and morality tale. Players explore a failed underwater utopia torn apart by clashes over a DNA-altering substance that bestows health and superpowers.
Players have to collect the substance in order to gain more abilities and advance through the game.
The catch is that the only source is "Little Sisters," small girls who are guarded by "Big Daddies," lumbering fellows in deep-sea diving suits whose skin-crawling bellows sound like angry whales.
Players can either kill the girl to harvest the substance, or rescue them for a lesser amount and the promise of rewards later, a choice that heightens the game's disturbing atmosphere and affects the story later on.
Levine, a 40-year-old self-described "failed screenwriter," said he formed some of the game's key concepts while watching a nature show years ago.
"I think it was hyenas hunting wildebeest or worker ants or something, and the cool thing was that watching the animals you didn't need a narrator to tell you what was going on," Levine said. "I wanted to create a world with an ecology."
Levine described a "hectic two months" earlier this year where he wrote 40,000 words of dialogue — about four times longer than a typical movie script.
Reviewers and fans have raved about the art deco design that infuses the game, which takes place in 1960 and is shot through with themes of individuality inspired by novelist Ayn Rand, and the cinematic sensibility of Orson Welles.
"The thing that separates me from other game story people is that I don't read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi. I don't dig deeply in that stuff, I tend to look for inspiration in other places," Levine said.