The mid to late 2000s featured a particularly prevalent trend of extending a game’s reach by porting it to as many platforms as possible, regardless of whether or not those platforms were a good fit. Games like Need for Speed: Most Wanted, 007: Quantum of Solace, and Cars 2, alongside so many more, saw releases on consoles and PC, as expected, but also saw downgraded or drastically different versions hit handhelds like the PSP, Nintendo DS, and even mobile phones.
The trend hit a number of major console and PC games of the era. Perhaps, most surprisingly, the acclaimed first-person adventure BioShock saw the release of a mobile port known as BioShock 3D. Though there’s a tendency to wave away the handheld or mobile versions of console games like BioShock, its mobile development is a fascinating example of the work that went into such an adaptation. According to Tridev, the developers of BioShock 3D who spoke to IGN about its creation, such a port included any number of technical, creative, and bureaucratic challenges that demonstrate the difficulties of making a triple-A game run on a phone barely able to play Brick Breaker.
Expectations vs. Reality
The first challenge Vijay Venkatramani, Tridev’s studio manager at the time, told us the team faced was deciding what the actual scope of BioShock 3D should be compared to the original game.
“This was hard considering all the limitations we had to work with back then,” he said. “In the end, we decided to split the game into two parts. That way people wouldn’t be put off by larger download times; the download speeds [at the time] were slow. The second reason was production time. When development [began] we were told that we had 6 months to get something to market; a scary deadline for a project this big. We would be spending a lot of time repurposing tools from [Predator: The Duel 3D, the game that proved the team’s technical expertise and landed them the BioShock 3D project] and adapting them to Bioshock's gameplay. In short, there was no way we could get the whole game out [as one product].”
Tridev had plenty of mobile experience to pull from in attempting such a feat on such a short timeline, but they still had to build BioShock 3D from scratch and deal with weighty expectations coming off of the beloved reception of the original.
“One of the challenges was squeezing the scale of the game to fit the crummy mobile phones back then,” recalled Arjun Nair, BioShock 3D’s producer. “2K Games had assigned an external producer to work with us to ensure that the final game matched their expectations of a BioShock game. Them coming from a console background and our reality of working with mobile phones led to a lot of friction initially. They wanted a literal port of the game, but we knew we had to cut down on not only art, but also some elements of the game if we had any hope of getting the game out on a phone.
“It’s important to note that we didn’t get any code or technical design documents from [2K] - we had to design and write all the tech stuff from scratch. The initial expectation from the management was to do a ‘quick' mobile port in less than 6 months. The actual game took a year to complete and ship. To do all that in a year is, frankly, amazing, and a testament to the skill and motivation of everyone on the team - design, art, code [and] QA.”
Learning How To Kill 2K's Darlings
Designing and rebuilding such a beloved game from scratch for less powerful machines would be no small undertaking itself. But Tridev also continued to butt heads with 2K regarding issues of scope even after deciding on the two part split, according to the Tridev developers we spoke to. One of the biggest points of contention was how the team wanted to cut some levels they deemed non-essential for the mobile version, such as Arcadia and Return to Arcadia.
“From the design side of things, I had actually cut down a few levels that weren’t contributing to the main storyline,” said Poornima Seetharaman, BioShock 3D’s lead designer. “Initially the 2K team wasn’t aligned to it. I insisted on having a chat with them and explaining the reason behind it - that went well and we managed to cut a few levels.”
Mobile phones of the time, some of the most popular being the iPhone 4 and HTC Desire, simply didn’t have the memory or graphical processing power to deliver a direct port of BioShock, so the team employed clever tricks to get it to run at all, let alone smoothly.
“The large level maps were literally rendered as a semi-voxel map,” Venkatramani explained. “If you were seeing a large floor, it was [actually] just one polygonal asset tiled to create the entire floor. Any perceived variations were just clever tiling and UV mapping. We couldn’t use very large assets for the levels because most of that poly/texture budget was taken up by all the characters. We had to constantly fight to push resource budgets for each part of each level.”
“[It took] some mathemagic to make it all happen,” Nair added.
Tridev eventually received the original game design document from 2K, but couldn’t use the high-poly models due to the lack of GPUs on mobile phones.
“We had to intelligently cut down levels just so that they retained their flavor and identity while still being able to fit in memory,” Nair said.
And despite all those technical hurdles, a partial playthrough of BioShock 3D on Youtube showcases not just how different the mobile version looks, but how closely it captures the essence of the original. That clear reverence for BioShock’s world came from a study of the console version so intense Venkatramani said he eventually grew sick of it.
“We bought the Xbox 360, got the game, took over one of the meeting rooms and made that into a gaming roo- ahem, research room,” he said. “Then we played each aspect of the game over and over and over again till we would appreciate every nuance. We also got sick of it. I personally didn't play any of the subsequent BioShock games.”
“I had to play through BioShock so many times to take notes, photos, and videos to get a complete breakdown of it - I don’t think I got the time to sit back and enjoy the game at all,” Seetharaman said.
The Sounds of the Sea
Once the overall scope of BioShock 3D had been decided and the team knew the original BioShock from Arcadia to Point Prometheus and everywhere in between, the challenge of distilling the mechanics and atmosphere of the console game into mobile phones had to be tackled. Critics and players alike hailed BioShock for the deep immersion players experienced while exploring the underwater city of Rapture. The sounds of creaking walls and dripping water were key components of that, but most audio files from the original BioShock were far too big for the limited memory and storage space available on old phones. Tough decisions had to be made in adapting BioShock to its mobile form, as the team worked to convey the kind of information the original’s sound did, without taking up an inordinate amount of precious memory.
“The console game had amazing spatial audio that helps you locate enemies in a level,” Nair said. “Our game, in contrast, had to make do with very little audio. Since we could not use audio to help locate enemies, we decided to use visual indicators to tell players where enemies could be coming from.”
“I really wished we could squeeze in more sounds for the sake of immersion, but we had to make those tough calls,” Venkatramani added.
Further sound-related cuts included converting BioShock’s beloved audio diaries into text-based versions, and the adjustments to important story elements didn’t stop there.
“Some important reveals were converted to 2D cutscenes instead of interactive ones,” Seetharaman said. “We worked extensively with the tech team to get entire levels done based on triggers so that we can spawn enemies [and] open or close doors depending on the player's position - not just for the surprise element, but to help with [performance] as well.”
As well as having to convert cutscenes into slideshows - such as the iconic bathysphere descent into Rapture - many separate elements of the original had to be adapted to meet the limited capabilities of mobile phones of the time. Limiting how much of a level was visible at one time greatly helped the team keep the levels as close to the originals as possible.
“All the doors in the game were opaque unlike the original,” Seetharaman said “We also added doors where [they] didn’t exist originally, so that we didn’t have to render the entire level. The whole level design implementation was an immense effort from art, tech, and design.”
It wasn’t just enough to retrofit the levels so that the phones could handle them, Tridev had to ensure people could comfortably play through them on a wide range of devices.
“The phones we were targeting back then were not fragmented just on screen size, processing power, and memory specifications, [but also] we had to map different control schemes for different devices,” Venkatramani said. “They all had buttons back then and some of those configurations weren’t standard. Also, every device had its own set of issues with memory management and rendering. We had our own in-house engine - ICE 3D - built to handle most of these considerations.”
“We had auto-aim enabled, as it was hard to make accurate movements and aim with the different mobile controls - even things like reducing or removing the kickback on the machine gun [helped],” Seetharaman said.
What 2K wanted for BioShock 3D simply wasn’t possible at the time, and everyone at Tridev knew that. Even though their mobile port could never be an exact replica of the original, the team made smart, necessary cuts to bring the most authentic version of BioShock to mobile phones that they could. In spite of some creative and corporate clashes, Seetharaman, Nair, Venkatramani, and the rest of the Tridev team managed to develop BioShock 3D quickly, from scratch, and they’re proud of the game they brought to life.
“When I do look back at what we had to work with back then, I still find it hard to believe that we pulled it off,” Venkatramani said. “I’m glad it's over, but I do have fond memories of those days. I did some of my best game development work back then and made some very good friends along the way.”
“This is one of my career bests and will always be,” Seetharaman said. “The team worked so hard on this and, while it was hard, it made us all level up in our career much faster! We all feel amazingly proud about it! I wish we had preserved it better and realized the innovations we did. Back then, it was us just doing our job.
“I think we were at our creative best then, coming up with unique solutions to work with those limitations.
Issy van der Velde is a freelance writer for IGN.