Historically, when a studio is successful, its leadership attempts to capitalize on that success while continuing the trend.
Old-skool thinking, proclaim a new and ballsy generation of game developers. Entirely red ocean. We are pioneers of a new strategy. These days, rather than attempting to build on a successful model, it’s trendy to kill the studio and fire everyone. It worked for GSC Game World, where Sergey Grigorovich shuttered the place and sacked about a hundred people rather than continue development on the promising, money-printing STALKER franchise. Evidently emboldened by this, Ken Levine at Irrational Games has decided to do basically the same thing – he is “winding” Irrational Games down, letting the vast majority of its staff go, and starting something new and smaller under the Take-Two banner.
I first heard about this on NPR this morning, but their usual thumb-tongued lack of understanding when it comes to video games gave the impression that – at most – Levine wouldn’t be working on Bioshock games any more. That would be little surprise, since none of us really expected him to work on the franchise after the first. Instead, in a blog post on the studio’s site, Levine lays out a rather different plan. Irrational’s odd-but-ingenious founder never says his studio is closing its doors – it might be, but he sticks with the oblique phrase “winding down” – leaving everyone in the dark as to whether the name will continue or what. We do know that Levine sees the change as significant, representing a personal move into something else (though, again, whether or not that means he’s leaving Irrational is anyone’s guess), with about fifteen of his favorite colleagues. The other colleagues – between fifty and two hundred – are out of luck. “Select” Take-Two studios will have dibs on them, and Irrational will hold a little job fair and give them time to pack up their desks, but ultimately this is a thanks for your hard work, get the fuck out situation.
Even not knowing much detail on the story, I can’t help but see this as kind of a dick move. Is he shutting Irrational down, or is this just a huge layoff? If he’s shutting Irrational down… why shut Irrational down? If he’s not shutting Irrational down, why the huge layoff? Whether he’s shutting it down or not, if he simply wants to manage and work with a smaller team, why not sell Irrational, or hand it to someone, or become a silent partner, or spin it off, or quit himself and found a new developer, or do something that’s not going to result in the unemployment of over a hundred people? Aside from one man making a sweeping public statement about his own career, what could possibly be the point of doing it this way, a way in which one sweeping career statement ruins dozens of other careers that depend on it?
When you run a business you have burdens no one else has, among them the responsibility to be aware that lives are in your power and you can’t always do exactly what you want without affecting them.
Irrational Games hasn’t always had the brand impact it does today. At its earliest, it was a storage closet inside Looking Glass Studios. System Shock 2 came out of that storage closet, and despite acclaim it was never a hit. From there Irrational did a bunch of quality work that nonetheless barely kept it afloat and never really shivered any timbers – SWAT 4, Tribes Vengeance, Freedom Force. Good games, all. But not blockbusters. It wasn’t until Bioshock in 2007 that Irrational got the reputation it enjoys now, which is ironic because Irrational Games didn’t get the name credit for Bioshock. A company called 2K Boston did. That 2K Boston was Irrational games is an amusing sidenote in history; its publisher had chosen – rather transparently – to rename most of its studios 2K <WHATEVER> just weeks before Bioshock’s release, so 2K Games (a subsidiary of Take-Two) would get brand credit for the Bioshock franchise. Scant months after the game shipped, Irrational was allowed to go back to calling itself Irrational; no one had fallen for the ruse anyway.
But in the wake of Bioshock Infinite, Irrational’s foundation seemed pretty solid. Big money from the first Bioshock, BIG money from Infinite. Plus inside the industry, Irrational has long had a reputation for quietly swooping in and getting other developers out of quagmires. Sure, Bioshock Infinite was a disappointment to many. Ken Levine must know that, unless he’s more insular and self-deceived than Kim Jong Il. But that’s not terribly relevant to the business side of gaming. Despite a six year development, multiple wholesale scrap-and-reworks, and a budget rumored to have exceeded $175 million, Bioshock Infinite made money for its publisher, which is all that really matters.
So Ken Levine is “winding” down his studio because
Seventeen years is a long time to do any job, even the best one…While I’m deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished together, my passion has turned to making a different kind of game…In many ways, it will be a return to how we started: a small team making games for the core gaming audience.
Industry press is reacting with a combination of confusion and hero-worship – and some are jumping to the conclusion that the studio is closing, when Levine doesn’t actually say that, but regardless I haven’t yet seen a lot of ink calling him out for unemploying some dozens or hundreds of people without a good business reason. The reasons he describes are personal – he wants to make a different kind of game. But he’s doing it with what appears to be the nuclear option. I don’t know many people who think Ken Levine is petty, or spiteful, or particularly mean. He’s made some comments about the need to eliminate people who aren’t part of the vision, comments that make me think he’s very adroit at separating his personal feelings from his professional ones. And Levine is widely considered “less than easy” to work with, a quality attributed mostly to his meticulous, obsessive perfectionism and his willingness to scrap everything and start from scratch. To him, this move is probably the same sort of thing: whatever he wants to make next, he can’t do it with the structure in place. So he’s tearing that structure out and starting over, fallout be damned.
More facts will surely be revealed in coming weeks, but for now it seems that excitement over what Ken Levine’s doing next has unfairly eclipsed shock at what Ken Levine just did.
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