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If Irrational Games can’t make the next BioShock, who will?

After Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games shipped the original BioShock in 2007, everyone was waiting for the next big thing from the studio. BioShock Infinite finally launched last year after a lengthy (and no doubt very costly) development process, garnering accolades and sales of over 4 million. Now, in the wake of that undeniable success, Irrational Games is no more. Levine is transitioning to smaller games after all but 15 of IG’s massive staff were laid off. For outsiders, the scariest part is just how unsurprising this all is in today’s gaming market.

As Ken Levine explained in a wordy post, the “winding down” of his studio seems to be his choice, with no mention of pressure from 2K or fiscal disappointment in Infinite. As Levine tells it, retail games with massive budgets aren’t as appealing to him as “content delivered digitally” from this point forward. His vision of “narrative-driven games... that are highly replayable” needs a staff of just over a dozen, not hundreds--which is bad news for the hundreds of people no longer employed by Irrational.

This move reflects a trend that’s becoming incredibly common these days. Key staff members (or entire teams) exit the increasingly corporate development world to create smaller titles with smaller budgets. Levine’s peers like Warren Spector, Will Wright, David Jaffe, and Cliff Bleszinski are at the forefront of important people leaving major publishers for new, more focused frontiers. It’s a creative drain on AAA gaming, a field that’s pushing away talent as costs keep making publishers more risk averse.

Way back in October 2012, I voiced worries about Infinite’s status--and while my quality concerns were off, my fears for the future of Irrational weren’t. The game was massive, altered numerous times to fit Levine’s artistic vision, and the timeframe between announcement and release was far wider than most marketing efforts can stretch. Infinite--and perhaps BioShock as a series--was an anomaly in an increasingly corporate world of carefully managed intellectual properties and annualized franchises.

The only outlier from the standard creative lead exits company to make smaller games story is 2K’s involvement as publisher. 2K Games' parent company Take-Two Interactive will continue to support and finance Levine’s new effort. From a distance, the message from 2K to Levine is clear: if the choice is working with you on smaller stuff or not working with you at all, we prefer making Ken Levine games. Could this represent an acceptance of a new trend--the seeming inevitability of AAA development driving off talented people? Will more companies do the same to keep creative team leads from going independent in the future?

From an artistic and business model standpoint, Levine’s next game is exciting--but not for anyone who wants a sustainable model for imaginative, risky titles with top-of-the-line production values. In particular, I empathize with the army of developers that work on a big-budget game (even a nominally successful one), then get laid off once the project ships--only to join another massive company to start the cycle all over again. And the implied closure of Irrational Games means one less studio in that continually shrinking job pool.

It all points to an unsustainability of anything other than the most insanely successful franchises in gaming: the GTAs, Call of Dutys, and Need for Speeds. Anything less seems to result in studio closures, whether its by choice like Levine, or (more often) by the publisher themselves. Levine made it clear that the BioShock name will continue on without him, but it makes you wonder if the original would even get made in today’s business world. If visionaries like Levine want no part in the world of AAA, then gamers can look forward to exceptional creativity and expensive visuals becoming wholly separate from one another.

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47 comments

  • nai1210 - February 20, 2014 5:03 p.m.

    so much bitchin about Levine if he wasnt happy then its up to him what he does with his own company,good luck to him and the irrational team on their future endevours where ever they end up working
  • nai1210 - February 20, 2014 4:56 p.m.

    Bioshock/bioshock infanite are 2 of my all time favourite games of all time,i really enjoyed bioshock 2 as well,but not everything needs to be a franchise and run into the ground until its shit then rebooted,I say leave bioshock as it is and create some new ip's instead of killing it's good name with mediocre sequels
  • Vonter - February 20, 2014 2:05 p.m.

    It'll perhaps be a stupid question, but, Is the videogame market still sustainable? I mean there are games like GTA V that made a billion in 3 days and other ambitious games like LA Noire that had to close shortly after release. Is a bit worrying seeing the industry narrowing more than they have in the last generation.
  • neojedi - February 20, 2014 1:08 p.m.

    Ooooooh...uh...I think some folks commenting here may not see the pattern behind the action, so to speak. The reason why this all went down is marketplace (e.g. "us") driven. As a former triple-a marketing suit, I can kind of suss out what led to this post: 1) Infinite sold well, based on the last-reported figure of 4MM units, I'd aggressively estimate they're up to 6MM units, life of product (I'd realistically say more like 5MM, but I want to go aggressive to prove a point) 2) 6MM units at $60 ea = $360MM in revenue - that's a lot of money, right? Well... -about $10/unit goes to retail margin -about $10/unit goes to first party (a much smaller amount goes to PC/Steam, which makes PC more profitable) (as a sidenote, I'm somewhat masking real margins in the above as I'm under NDA until I die and I'm paranoid) :) -This leaves us with $240MM gross profit 3) $240MM is still not a small amount of money, but then the development costs of $80-$100MM and marketing costs of $80-$100MM get added, and you're left with $40MM of (squishy, as in some other overhead costs aren't factored in) net profit. I'm going to go with $160MM in marketing/production costs, although some estimate justifiably higher... http://lowdownblog.com/2013/03/26/the-dollars-and-cents-of-bioshock-infinite/ 4) $80MM of squishy net profit left, right? But then we haven't factored in overhead (Take 2's infrastructure costs) and taxes on the profit -7% of gross sales for OH (conservative - probably more like 10-12%), so -$25MM -20% taxes on net profits, so -$16MM 5) We've got about $39MM in badly-estimated (but probably higher than the real number) net profit. What I'm not factoring in is DLC, which is infinitely (heh) more profitable than disk sales; based on the last known attach rates I'm aware of, I'm guessing that's (aggressively) an additional $25MM to that net profit number, bringing us up to about $64MM net profit, all in. Now we put our business hats on. As Take 2, I spent 5+ years and $160MM to earn $64MM, or 40% ROI. In most industries or investments, that's a great rate of return. The problem is, in triple-a publisher-land, it isn't enough to keep the machine running on multiple projects simultaneously, and the risk inherent in creating a high-end niche title (as defined as a "non-niche" title being an FPS or something annual or semi-annual). Based on their internal benchmarks, Infinite didn't generate enough revenue for the overall expense of bringing the game to market, but Take 2 didn't want a genius (and Levine IS a genius - that game is a work of art) cut loose to make a billion for someone else, Levine was probably burnt out from what likely was a brutal process, and keeping a small team around to noodle around is a rounding error for the company vs the risk of a new "Ken Levine/Activision" (or whatever) partnership, a la Titanfall right now. Why not keep Irrational around to make a sequel without Levine? That's a little tougher to call, but teams that get that big tend to get built around an individual and a project vs a corporate mandate; having all of those people sitting around looking at each other, figuring out what to do next without the frontman providing vision didn't sit well with T2 and they figured it would be cheaper to fire and rehire/transfer vs keeping 70-80 people around while they find spots. Or Ken might have asked them to, out of respect for his vision, not make the brand into a 12-24 month cash cow. Dunno. Will there be a sequel? Maybe. Doubtful. AAA First person games are slowly dying, which saddens me. But we are to blame. The used games cycle, more than anything else, has destroyed the business of the play pattern as, without multiplayer and the accompanying opportunity for DLC sales, there isn't enough revenue generated from the disk to justify the $60-$120MM (depending on IP) price tags that come with them. Xbox One v1.0 would have helped with their new features and potential defense against used games, but after the Sony, Gamestop, and short-sighted fanboys put the kibosh on them and we got X720, which means more of the same: used sales outstripping new within 4-6 weeks of release, new single player games dying on the vine. The future, if the genre is to survive, is the Telltale model: levels released individually digitally, quality/hype driving sales over the long tail, and a disk coming out 6-12 months later with all levels for $60 or whatever. A rant, but from one who's seen the numbers. We've brought this on ourselves as consumers by supporting the used model and vilifying publishers and studios who tried to defend against it. RIP, Irrational - you made some EXCELLENT stuff!
  • NEWGAM3Z5 - February 20, 2014 6:07 a.m.

    IM PLAYING SUPERHIT RESIDENT E.V.I.L. NEWGAM3Z SURVIVAL HORRO GAME WITH 5 CITIES AND 100 OVER ZOMBEIS IN 1 SCENE AND NEWGAM3Z SPECIAL DRIVING GAME 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018/US/ JAPAN//EUROPE/RUSSIA/ASIA WITH SPECIAL DIAMONDS ETC JEWELS COVERED CARS IN CITIES AROUND TOKYO AND NY WITH DRIFTMODE WITH Y0UNG BL0NDE NEW RNB RAP 2013 2014 2015/US/ SOUNDTRACKS WITH NEW GAMEPLAY RELEASED YESTERDAY
  • dangomushi - February 19, 2014 9:42 p.m.

    Now it makes even more sense why they were urged to go with the generic box art. 2K knew how damn expensive the process became, and that existing Bioshock fans alone couldn't pay for it.
  • talleyXIV - February 19, 2014 7 p.m.

    It sucks that Infinite didn't sell as well as it got reviewed. You can't please everyone I guess, but I still have a tough time believing they didn't make a decent profit on it...
  • TheVoid - February 19, 2014 2:54 p.m.

    While I do feel bad for those that lost their jobs, personally I don't mind if we never get another Bioshock. Don't get me wrong, they were all great games, but in my opinion none have reached the lofty bar set by System Shock 2. By comparison the Bioshocks have all felt a bit too "dumbed down" for my liking (understandably to some extent, at least in terms the compromise required for consoles/gamepads). More so I'd rather not see this franchise devolve into yet another annual cash-grab sequel-pumping opportunity for some publisher. I'm not saying it's been that, I just think that without Levine at the helm it has a better chance of becoming that. I know Ken doesn't deserve all the credit but one could say the same about movies, which rely heavily on a director's vision, arguably more so than all the hands that lend support to that vision. That said there is no denying that Bioshock has always been Levine's "baby", and as a creative type myself I can understand why someone wouldn't be so willing to leave his work - let alone such a pillar of achievement - to someone else to potentially squander. Better to quit while you are ahead than let what was once great spoil - but not in this case? Really? In fact I'd go as far as to actually defend Ken Levine for his decision, at least in this regard. If he wants to step away from the AAA big money scene then that's his right. He started on a small scale and has been climbing the ladder ever since - maybe he's not comfortable at the top, maybe he feels creatively stifled. Should he be forced to betray his own dreams/vision because he's been saddled with so many responsibilities, so many employees? It's not like publishers don't lay off development teams all the time, especially if there's not a new project in the pipeline. And it's not like those laid off - especially the truly talented ones - won't find opportunities elsewhere. And if they don't, it's simply another sign that the bubble that is the modern-day gaming industry is set to burst. It's not like a "sea change" within the industry isn't long overdue - in fact the new console gen seems to have just barely renewed the status quo (for the time being, at least). Why paint Levine the bad guy for simply seeing the writing on the wall and placing himself in a more advantageous position? Wouldn't you?
  • gilgamesh310 - February 19, 2014 1:12 p.m.

    Bioshock is pretty shit anyway. I don't care about any sequels.
  • universaltofu - February 19, 2014 12:37 p.m.

    These situations are always bittersweet, as much as you like a series or a character, so much of it stems from the people and teams behind it.
  • Vonter - February 19, 2014 9:33 a.m.

    This generation is already starting with more talent going away? As of now maybe it'll be more wise getting a good PC and having the Wii U on standby for the Nintendo games. Especially because SE is also considering porting KH 3 and FF XV to PC.
  • ziggystarship - February 19, 2014 4:55 a.m.

    Can someone please explain to me why Mr Levine couldn't leave and set up a smaller studio (even with the 15 lucky enough to remain employed), leaving Irrational intact for everyone else? The backing of 2K is great an all, but an auteur of Mr.Levine's stature likely wouldn't have to worry too much about find funding. Starting a smaller project is always good, but at the expense of all those other people? Even if his proposed 'job-fair' gets all of them re-employed (doubtful), then surely by definition they'll be working in places they didn't want to, potentially with all the aggro and cost that job relocation entails. The whole affair seems rather selfish...
  • TokenGamesRadarFurry - February 19, 2014 6:16 a.m.

    This. Its a super-dick move on Levine's part. He's never struck me as an asshole before, but seriously, this was an amazingly egotistical move to make. Whatever games he makes that he felt the need to lay off all those people for, I won't be buying it.
  • Shigeruken - February 19, 2014 9:04 p.m.

    I'm hoping those who lost their jobs will form a new studio and continue to produce content together. Bioshock doesn't really have mechanical problems (besides awful AI, like every other game), with a new director and writer the team would do just as well. But yeah, mega dick move from Levine.
  • Dienrenblanc - February 20, 2014 2:08 a.m.

    I'll tell you why; because he doesn't own Irrational games! They're a studio that's owned by Take-Two Interactive, and was previously known as 2K boston. That's why. If Take-Two doesn't feel like they could sustain a studio without Ken, then so be it. it's their call. Ken Levine is on their payroll, just like the rest of the staff.
  • CitizenWolfie - February 19, 2014 3:02 a.m.

    Apologies for the double post but I forgot to ask - does anyone know what will become of the Burial at Sea DLC now that there's internal trouble with the devs? I've been meaning to get it (now that I've finished the other stuff I've been playing) but if the second episode is going to be canned then I won't bother.
  • Divine Paladin - February 19, 2014 4:05 a.m.

    I read somewhere else that part 2 launches March 25th. So it's probably done/in the polishing stage of things.
  • CitizenWolfie - February 19, 2014 2:57 a.m.

    I get the impression that Ken Levine happily takes A LOT of credit for the Bioshock series but I hope that Bioshock as a series continues without him. However I'm sure for a lot of people it would never be the same - like the idea of Metal Gear Solid without Hideo Kojima or Zelda without Eiji Aonuma. In an ideal world I'd like Valve to take over the series. For some reason in my mind Portal and Bioshock go hand in hand with regards to big ideas, rich stories, deep gameplay and iconic characters and settings.
  • Torack - February 19, 2014 2:13 a.m.

    Very sad news indeed.
  • brickman409 - February 18, 2014 9:33 p.m.

    Bioshock 2 wasn't made by Irrational, and that turned out pretty good. (or at least I thought so)

Showing 1-20 of 47 comments

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