Yesterday, Ken Levine, the head of Irrational Games, announced that following the release of the final DLC for BioShock Infinite he would be massively down-sizing his studio to focus on smaller, replayable, digital-only games.
For those of you interested in Levine's goodbye letter, you can read it over on the Irrational website. For those of you wondering what happened, I'll try to break down the situation. Bear in mind that no one right now knows what went on behind closed doors between Ken Levine and publisher Take-Two Interactive and that some of this analysis will dip into speculative territory.
Here are some of the things we do know: Irrational Games was the studio that created BioShock and BioShock Infinite, two of the most widely acclaimed titles of the previous console cycle. About 90% of Irrational will be out of a job when all is said and done, leaving Ken Levine and about fifteen other people with a place in the studio. Ken Levine wants to be a part of a smaller team with more creative freedom and not just be a BioShock IP machine. Finally, 2K now has the rights to the BioShock series.
What initially struck me about this announcement wasn't excitement regarding Ken Levine's next project or that we can expect to see more games like BioShock 2. I just couldn't stop thinking about how huge Irrational Games was and how over 100 incredibly talented programmers, artists, writers, and scripters will now be looking for work and contemplating relocating their families because... well, we don't really know why.
Taken on a surface level, it could seem like Ken Levine and his creative desire to return to a smaller studio might be the reason so many people are out of work or that Levine saw the writing on the wall and decided to jump ship with his closest development leads. However, I don't think that's the case at all. I don't know Levine, but I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt and think that he genuinely cares about his employees. In his farewell message, Levine mentions that he had been planning on striking out as an independent developer. After meeting with publisher Take-Two Interactive the company convinced Levine to stick with them along with the smaller team he desired. I find it likely that Take-Two Interactive saw this as a way of keeping their high-profile industry auteur while also drastically cutting costs. Maybe BioShock Infinite didn't make back quite as much money as the publisher would have liked, given the AAA budget and massive marketing campaigns. Perhaps the commercial failure of other projects like XCOM: Declassified put pressure on Take-Two to save money elsewhere. Whatever the case, Take-Two probably saw this as a win-win business scenario and gave Levine the go ahead to work on his smaller project.
Ultimately, the reason these talented game makers and world builders will cease to be a part of Irrational isn't, as I'm sure some fanciful journalists might like to believe, the result of one man's creative callousness or hubris, but rather a cold, mundane business decision. Someone somewhere crunched the numbers and they stacked up against the continued existence of Irrational Games as we know it. This is how the video game industry works these days. Take-Two has every right to make this move. At the same time, business decisions like this that lead to the difficult and often harsh working conditions that plague the people who make the games we enjoy. Irrational's situation is just the most visible symptom of a larger problem.
As for Ken Levine and his remaining team, what kind of a game can we expect to see out of them in the next few years? Reading between the lines, Levine wants to make a game that focuses on telling a compelling narrative while also being replayable and digitally distributed. This might seem a bit odd because most games that focus on narrative aren't necessarily the most replayable games. However, if you played BioShock Infinite, you might remember that throughout the game you made a handful of small choices. Admittedly, those choices had little impact on the overall story of Infinite, but what I thought was awesome about those few moments was how well they were woven into the core game. If I were to go out on a limb, I'd say that Levine wants to make a game similar to The Stanley Parable, a game whose narrative changes organically depending on how you play the game and respond to scenarios rather than with onscreen prompts or pauses in the gameplay. To me, that seems to fit with the ideas being highly replayable while also focusing on its narrative. It would also explain why such a long period of design would be required. I would also hazard a guess and say that it might be an FPS, given Levine's history with that genre.
It really sucks whenever a studio loses so many great people, especially when it is one of the most talented game developers in the AAA gaming space. My heart and prayers are with those people and their families. As one of my colleagues put it, "Maybe the next great indie developer will rise out of the ashes of Irrational. Good could come out of this yet."
What do you guys think about Irrational's ending? Also, here is a link to one of my favorite "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" covers.