Average Gamers Are Going To Hate BioShock Infinite’s 1999 Mode

Average Gamers Are Going To Hate BioShock Infinite’s 1999 Mode

When you first spin up BioShock Infinite later this year don’t expect to see the recently-announced retro-difficult 1999 mode on the main menu. That’s because it’s so tough Ken Levine doesn’t want “the non old-school, hardcore gamer” stumbling into it.

I spoke to Irrational Games creative director Ken Levine recently about 1999 mode, an enhanced difficulty level named for the year the studio released its challenging action role-playing game System Shock 2 (or perhaps the Prince album).

BioShock Infinite‘s standard modes are crafted with today’s more relaxed game in mind. Health and ammo are relatively easy to find, resurrection is a regular occurrence, and selecting one skill over the other won’t necessarily cripple you in other areas.

In 1999 mode the player picks a specialisation and sticks with it, and his or her actions will be ruled by that choice. Ammo will be hard to come by. Every small sliver of health will be precious, and if you die you’d better have the resources needed to revive, or it’s game over.

For the hardcore gamer, 1999 mode could be the best thing that’s ever happened. And for the non-hardcore gamers?

“They’re gonna hate this mode,” said Levine. “That’s OK — it’s not for them.”

Who exactly is 1999 mode for? For one, it’s for the student that approached the creative director and co-founder of Irrational Games after a speaking engagement at Levine’s old college to tell him he had a bone to pick with him. His complaint? That none of the choices in BioShock seemed to have any real permanence.

“There’s a lot of things people can tell you about your game, positive and negative, and you can either agree or disagree,” Levine told me. In this case he agreed. While there were permanent decisions in the game, none of the choices the player could make felt as if they changed the way the game was played irreversibly. “That would have been really cool.”

Levine loved the idea so much he decided to “go down that road” with BioShock Infinite, but not before making sure it was something the fans wanted. The developer held an informal poll to feel out their audience. Would being required to make permanent decisions enhance their gameplay experience? When 57 per cent responded in the affirmative, 1999 mode was born.

“The average gamer stops playing when they fail. The hardcore gamer says ‘That’s it, I’m gonna show this game who’s boss'”

Adding 1999 mode to BioShock Infinite so late in the game was a bit of a challenge. The game wasn’t designed to demand specialisation from the player. The way resources were doled out had to be tweaked. The mode required extensive balancing to ensure the enhanced difficulty didn’t cross the line from tough to cheap. “I really had to get back into the brain I had in the ’90s,” Levine explained. “It’s that old-school feeling of ‘If I fail, I deserved to fail’ instead of ‘the game made me fail'”.

Thirteen years after the release of System Shock 2 failure has become something of a dividing line between the hardcore and non-hardcore gamer. “Failure can be fun,” Levine said. “That’s an old-school notion. The average gamer stops playing when they fail. The hardcore gamer says ‘That’s it, I’m gonna show this game who’s boss'”.

That’s exactly the attitude the hardcore gamer is going to need going into 1999 mode. It’s going to try to break them using their own decisions.

For example, Levine outlined how the game might play out for a player that decided to specialise in pistols. They’ll be an amazing shot with a revolver, but the decision will severely affect their ability to use other weapons. When their back is to the wall and they’ve only got one bullet left, they might regret their decision, but it’s up to them to make it work.

And if they should die, they’d better have the right components to facilitate resurrection. “Players have gotten so used to dying and getting rezzed that they’ll use it as a strategy, running in taking out a few enemies, dying, and coming right back,” Levine said. “In 1999 mode if you keep charging your resources to come back, be prepared to load a save game.”

Levine likened the atmosphere created by these limited resources to a key mechanic in successful survival horror titles. “It’s not just that it’s scary,” he explained. “It’s also that your resources are so limited it creates tension.”

Rather than tipping his hat to Resident Evil, Silent Hill, or other survival horror staples, Levine used to Ubisoft’s tactical shooter Rainbow Six as an example. “In Rainbow Six you died so quickly — just one bullet could kill you. There was an incredible tension to it, making me so nervous about rounding every corner.”

1999 mode creates this same sort of tension, while ensuring that the player is always in the pilot seat. The decisions, good or bad, are the player’s to make. It’s a mode that makes them think differently about how they play the game.

And again, it’s really there for the hardcore.

“We’re going to hide (1999 mode) in the menu, probably with some sort of code. To the non-hardcore gamer we’re not going to even reveal that it exists,” Levine told me. “The mode will be very unfamiliar to the non-core gamer.”

“This mode is not going to feel like BioShock”

To the more hardcore among us, Levine thinks the new mode will be a welcome return, demanding and challenging. “This mode is not going to feel like BioShock”, he warned. There will be rage quits. Controllers will be thrown, even among the hardcore.

So the big question now is which type of gamer is Ken Levine?

“People want to say you’re this kind of gamer or that,” he said. “Core gamers have a much broader range.” He told me of a recent sleepless night where he found himself first playing a few hours of action RPG Deus Ex: Human Revolution before winding down with an hour of casual puzzler Bejeweled.

“As a gamer it all depends on the day, hour, or how I’m feeling. I’ll play both hardcore and casual games. BioShock Infinite‘s 1999 mode is tough and frustrating. You’ll move forward a few feet, die, and load a save game. I love that on some days. Other days I don’t want to deal with it.”

Ultimately the choice to play BioShock Infinite in normal or 1999 mode is up to you, the player. If you try the more difficult setting and can’t get the hang of it, then fall back on the regular game. Or alternate as your mood for a challenge comes and goes.

But if you’re the kind of game that bails at the first sign of failure you may want to keep your distance. As Ken Levine said, “This is not for you. Don’t worry about it.

This is for the hardcore. They’re the only ones that will understand why it’s cool.


  • Sounds fun. I’ll give it a go as long as there is quicksaves. You can’t have a “1999 mode” without a quicksave ability, can you?

  • Wow. Just the other day I was complaining about how easy it was for me to finish games (rage, for example, I blew through on hard and used maybe a total of five bandages for the whole game), then this comes along. Bioshock Infinite just shot way up on my radar

      • The problem with that statement (at least, on the PC end of things) is that people won’t acknowledge that STALKER is hard, they’ll either settle for unbalanced, overpowered, buggy (okay, it IS, but anyone with a vanilla copy of STALKER is either new and naive, or properly hardcore), unfair, boring, not-for-me (and then run off and play Fallout instead), hard to understand (if you can’t read and understand the basic English parts, sure), confusing (an angry Russian bloke pointing his gun in your face and demanding you ‘piss off’ isn’t TOO hard to comprehend, is it?), and outright not worth the price (the low, low price of $10-$15 if bought on Steam).

        Can’t say I’ve heard the same arguments made for Demon’s Souls – granted, I don’t own a next-gen console.

  • Somebody gets it! Games should provide a challenge in order for overcoming obstacles to be satisfying!

    Love the idea of options too.

  • I usually don’t go for Hard mode on games, I’m usually my time feels way too precious to be stuck on a particular part of a game. That said though, I am looking forward to this.

    • I’d have to say I’m the total opposite to you. I went through GoW3 on Insane (after first play through on hardcore to unlock it) and it was HARD.

      as it’s meant to, some boss fights took me 100s of tries to finally get right (IE couple of hours retrying on one boss) but it was awesome to say I finished it on that mode, a few of my friends thought I was a nutter for sticking it out.

      But being a gamer from way back (am 30 now) I love the idea of major consistences for your action/ inaction. As with games like Ghost and Goblins you get 5 lives… that’s it… no saves… no retries… if you die you start the game again 🙂 games like those were hours and hours of entertainment to “get right”

  • Do I get a reward, even a crappy one, for playing on that mode? Not sure if I want to put in the effort if it boils down to “well, it’s harder, so…yeah, there it is”.

    • If they’re hiding it like this, it’s doubtful yoou’ll get an acheivement for 1999 mode specifically.
      The main reward is the satisfaction of beating a came which actually challenges you.

      • Probably pass then, depending on how truly sharp that difficulty curve is. I’d rather get something for something, rather than “it’s good for the soul”. Hell, even just getting the achievement in F:NV was enough to feel justified for playing hardcore — but hardcore in F:NV sounds easier than this.

        • “I’d rather get something for something, rather than ‘it’s good for the soul’”

          So who’s paying you to play the game?

    • No reward, it’s mode intended for people who prefer to play that way. Ie, the reward is that it’s more fun (for them) than the stock mode.

  • The success’ of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls speaks a lot about the thirst for this kind of gaming. Not to mention the long lives of RPGs like Nethack and rogue. I recently downloaded an Ipad port, and died twice in 15 minutes. “You were slain by a kobold” It was awesome.

  • On the Von Braun. Weapons and tools broke. Frequently.
    Clearly, they were poorly suited to the task.

    Even then. People modded the game to reduce weapon breaks, as people thought it was a bit extreme. (Keep in mind bad guys respawned…though that was moddable too)

  • sweet. I wouldn’t normally be excited about this but after playing Dark Souls, I’ve developed a taste for tension.

  • I like that they’re doing this.
    I’ll probably never play it myself, but having the option is nice.
    My usual way of playing single player games is to play on easy or normal first time through, enjoy the scenery, get to know everything, learn what the upgrades and such do, then if I really loved the gameplay mechanics, go back and play it on one of the hard modes.

    I doubt I’d have the time to play it enough to get the most out of it, the fun derived from punishing games is knowing you’ve honed your skills to a point where you can finally beat the challenge.
    Last game I did that to was Cave Story back in 06, that secret sanctuary level was pretty brutal, but after hours of work it was my bitch :p

  • I loved the Survivor mode of Bioshock (granted, probably not as tough as this) – required a different mode of playing, using different techniques rather than just running through guns ablazing.
    1999 should be awesome 🙂

  • Ken Levine is the biggest bull-crap talker. I’m sure he’s a friendly guy but he just talks crap. Just an attempt to get gamers excited. Remember when he said how ambitious his team where and how they where going to ‘redefine the first person shooter’ BS1 hardly redefined FPS.

    • So what about Bioshock being the first FPS in about a decade to actually have a decent story? What about Bioshock having a wonderful graphic style and pushing the gameplay style of not running and gunning?

      If you’re going to bag something at least give examples otherwise you’re nothing more than the usual internet dude who should have be drowned at birth.

  • What they should do is talk to From Software and get tips on making a truly challenging but not cheap experience, as Dark Souls is exactly that.

  • Challenge isn’t necessarily good or bad.

    Were games really harder in the past or are we just better gamers now?

    System Shock 2 is my favorite game ever, so I am tempted to play on 1999 Mode… I admit I’d have liked BioShock to be a bit more pro-specialization.

    That said, specialization can be good and bad. On the good side, it helps give a real sense of identity to your play style and also creates a real feeling of “different ways to play.” On the bad side, specialization can make the game feel confining; forcing you to play its own way rather than letting you have options. Its a question of balance and providing a reasonable amount of flexibility whilst still incentivizing specialization.

  • I’m glad they’re including it for some gamers but I’ll pass on this. Repetition makes a game tedious and that’s the last thing I would like to think of my beloved Bioshock series!

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!