What's in a name? It's a question that could be asked of Irrational Games, the high-profile studio behind such acclaimed hits as System Shock 2, Freedom Force, and BioShock. After being acquired by Take-Two in 2006, the studio's US and Australian branches were rebranded 2K Boston and 2K Australia. Outwardly at least, the move stripped Irrational of its defining moniker and gave the impression that the studio was simply one more cog in Take-Two's game-making machine.
However, 2K Boston last week made the arguably rational announcement that it would be reverting back to the name it originally formed under in 1997: Irrational Games. Speaking with GameSpot, cofounder and creative chief Ken Levine said that after seeing 2K Boston repeatedly referred to as Irrational Games, as well as some measure of internal chagrin, a request was made to change the name back.
"I think [Take-Two] was hoping for some consistency across their studio names," Levine said. "And I think when we did that, there were some people in the studio who weren't crazy about the idea. And then you kept seeing it in the press. And it was our fans because they kept calling it Irrational Games." Levine went on to note that the change back to Irrational applies only to the 2K Boston studio, while 2K Australia will continue to operate as its own individual production house.
Levine also said that there's value in the Irrational brand that would be squandered by not continuing to use the name. "It's not so much what you gain," he said. "It's the sense that people had a connection to the studio and the name before, internally and externally, so I think there's value there." That value, of course, also encompasses Irrational's reputation for creating quality products, he said.
"There is a theme; there's a thread between all of our products," he said. "But there are some elements that are very similar, I think. Story elements and the feeling of a well-detailed world and a certain neatness to the products that I think people really attach to the name. And I think that we saw the value there, and we think our audience sees the value there. And we thought it was the right time to go back."
One game that isn't at all attached to the Irrational name is BioShock, a game that fell under the 2K Boston banner when it was released to rapturous critical praise for the Xbox 360 and PC in 2007 and PlayStation 3 in 2008. The game's successor, BioShock 2, is in development at a consortium of studios, including 2K Marin, Digital Extremes, 2K Australia, 2K China, and Arkane Studios. It will be available for the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC on February 9.
"Honestly, the majority of the people who play BioShock don't know anything about the studio," he said. "They just like BioShock. They know BioShock, and so they're just going to buy BioShock because they like BioShock. They'll keep on buying BioShock games as longs as they like BioShock games."
As for reclaiming the franchise for Irrational, Levine would only say that he has had no involvement at all with BioShock 2.
"The way I work…if I'm in for a penny, I'm in for a pound," he said. "If I'm going to be involved with something, I'm going to be involved with it. If I'm not going to be involved, I'm not going to be involved. And that's the way it's been with all of our products. I never want to take credit for anything that's awesome, but I didn't do. And my feeling is that, hopefully, BioShock 2 is going to be awesome. I haven't played it enough.
"But I also have the experience of getting special thanks on a game that is known as one of the worst games of all time," he said. "Somebody knew me on it, and that's on my Moby Games thing forever--I can't get rid of it. So, it's very important to me that I'm only credited, for good and for bad, for things that I actually work on."
Levine also said that with the relaunching of the Irrational name, gamers will this year begin to hear about the studio's next project, one that appears to be a shooter, according to job listings on the company's relaunched, community-oriented Web site. (Initial rumblings indicated that the shooter in question may be Yager's Spec Ops revival. "I honestly don't know anything about that game. I like the trailer," Levine said.)
"This is the year we'll start talking about stuff, and we stop hiding behind the iron curtain of secrecy," Levine said. As for when the reveal is planned, the creative director would only say that it will come sometime after the 2010 Game Developers Conference, which will descend upon San Francisco March 9-13. He wouldn't comment on whether the game was scheduled for an Electronic Entertainment Expo announcement in June.
With a current staff of about 40, Levine said that the studio plans to ramp up hires to accommodate 100 people. He went on to note that Irrational currently only has one project ("but it's a big project") in development, but that he wouldn't be opposed to working on a second, so long as there wouldn't be a quality concession.
"Irrational has got like an 88 or an 89 game ranking average," Levine said. "All we have is our quality. People hired us because they knew we made something good even if it maybe didn't sell 3 million units or 3.5 million units like BioShock did. So, the way we do that is we make sure we don't overstretch ourselves. If we were to go to multiple projects, we'd have to make sure we had the infrastructure to do multiple teams at once."
"And that's the challenge," he continued. "And I'd like to be there. I don't think we're there today, but I'd like to be there because it's important to me that people here have a really good opportunity to grow. We have people who've been with us for 11, 12 years. I'd love for there to be another guy who runs everything soup to nuts…run a project creatively like I do. There are people here that could do that and don't have the opportunity to do that. And we need to grow the infrastructure to do that, so that is important to me, but we're not quite there yet."