The news that Irrational Games, creators of the incredibly popular titles BioShock and BioShock Infinite (amongst others) was closing down swept through the industry recently. Some people castigated studio head Ken Levine, saying that he was putting dozens of people out of work solely for his own ego; others said that BioShock Infinite had failed to meet 2K’s sales projections, and so the studio was being shuttered as a result.
Maybe neither of those things are true.
The reality is that, these days, Ken Levine is a person very much in demand. Today he is synonymous with Irrational, and indeed was one of its original co-creators when the studio was formed in 1997, but he’s not exactly being doing nothing until BioShock was released. Under his direction, Irrational made the critically acclaimed System Shock 2 in 1999, the well-received Freedom Force in 2002 (and its sequel, Freedom Force vs. the Third Reich in 2005), as well as other games such as S.W.A.T. 4 and Tribes: Vengeance.
Certainly though, both Irrational and Ken Levine have become most closely associated with BioShock and BioShock Infinite (they had minimal involvement in 2010’s BioShock 2), for good reason. Both were exceptional games, winning numerous “Game of the Year” awards, and weaving together compelling narratives and strategic gameplay in a way that harkened back to the original Half-Life, way back when. And it’s not just in gaming circles that Ken Levine is making waves either. Last year he was hired to write the script for a reboot of Logan’s Run, the 1970s dystopian sci-fi film, and if that goes well you can only imagine his stock rising higher if he decides to quit games completely and concentrate solely on his screenwriting career.
This isn’t something that everyone should panic over, however. Essentially, one of our own is graduating to bigger and better things. This is something we should be happy about, and cheering him on in the process. I regard Ken Levine as one of the best developers in the industry right now, someone that not only pursues his vision with regards to a particular project, but knows how to tinker around, adding or removing features if they work or don’t in order to make the game as enjoyable as it can be whilst still being faithful to the idea. Certainly, there are other notable people and companies who also espouse similar values (Tim Schafer, Gabe Newell, and Naughty Dog are three off the top of my head), but Ken Levine has always been near the top of my personal list, and when he has something to say I always listen. For anyone interested in the development of BioShock Infinite and storytelling in games I would strongly urge you to listen to the episode of Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist podcast that featured Ken Levine; I found it to be a fascinating insight into the whole process.
Ultimately the decision to close down Irrational was not Ken Levine’s but 2K’s. Ken Levine informed them that he was leaving, and at that point 2K (who own Irrational) had the option of keeping the studio going with a bunch of new people, or instead simply closing it down; they chose the latter. I would suggest that this was likely the better move when it came to artistic integrity, even if some of Irrational’s staff may wind up unemployed as a result (hopefully most will find work in other 2K-owned studios). We’ve seen first-hand what can happen in similar situations, and it’s often not pretty. The clearest example I can think of was after EA acquired BioWare in 2007. Around this time there were a lot of staff changes, so the BioWare who made games such as Knights of the Old Republic and the original Mass Effect, for example, was quite different to the BioWare that developed Mass Effect 3, Dragon Age II, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. It seems no coincidence that these events coincided with a perceived slide in quality from BioWare, one from which they are still trying to extricate themselves years later (this year’s Dragon Age: Inquisition will be the first metric of how much this has changed, if any). My point though is that EA made the decision to keep BioWare going, instead of just winding it down and holding its assets, as they could have done. 2K have chosen the opposite; they recognise that Ken Levine has been a big part of Irrational’s success and that it would be extremely difficult to continue without him.
Frankly, I applaud 2K for this attitude. I’m sure they could very easily hire a bunch of people to fill the gaps at Irrational, and likely they could make some very interesting games, but it wouldn’t be the real Irrational making them, and it wouldn’t be Ken Levine making them.
As for some people speculating that BioShock Infinite failed to meet 2K’s expectations with regards to sales, as of July 2013 the game had sold over 4 million copies (a similar number to the original BioShock), and was expected to become the highest-selling game in the franchise. I find it difficult to believe that with numbers like that the game was not profitable, although that’s not direct evidence that it was. Still though, 4 million units is not exactly pocket change.
This isn’t the end for Ken Levine and gaming. He has already stated that he will form a smaller studio (still under the 2K umbrella; loyalty counts for a lot here) to work on “narrative-driven replayable games”. Given his track record, and the compelling stories Irrational created in System Shock 2, BioShock, BioShock Infinite and even Freedom Force, I very much want to see what world, what story, what characters they come up with next.
RIP Irrational Studios. Gone, but never forgotten.