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.