Q&A: Irrational's Ken Levine on the Take-Two takeover

Irreverent head of recently purchased developer sounds off on the deal, BioShock, VUG, and the future.

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Ken Levine has been around the proverbial game-development block. After trying his hand as a playwright and screenwriter, he got involved in the game industry in the mid-1990s. He penned the story and created the game design that went into Looking Glass Studios' groundbreaking Thief: The Dark Project, a game that helped pave the way for today's popular stealth action genre.

Shortly before Thief's release, Levine cofounded Irrational Games in Boston. Although one of its highest-profile projects--the PS2 actioner The Lost--was canceled, the indie studio produced a string of innovative projects. In 1999, Electronic Arts published its acclaimed sci-fi actioner System Shock 2 for the PC. Three years later, Crave published Irrational's next title, Freedom Force, for the PC. The game won sparkling reviews for its take on the World War II-era comics and its innovative blend of action and role-playing. However, Crave and Irrational's relationship crumbled, leading the game's sequel, Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich, to be published by VU Games.

VU went on to publish two other Irrational games. After scrapping the internally developed SWAT: Urban Justice, the publisher hired the indie studio for its replacement, the popular and critical hit SWAT 4. (Irrational is currently working on an expansion.) Unfortunately, when Irrational took over another VU franchise, the results were not nearly as successful. Despite widespread acclaim, Tribes: Vengeance sold poorly when it was released in late 2004--so poorly, that VU ceased online support of the online shooter within a few months.

By that time, Irrational had already begun its next project--BioShock, an innovative sci-fi shooter that it billed as a "spiritual sequel" to System Shock 2. When the game's existence was first revealed in late 2004, no publisher was publicly attached to the project. But it didn't take long for one of the industry's big guns, Take-Two Interactive, to get involved, partnering secretly with Irrational to develop BioShock for PCs and next-generation consoles. The cat was finally let out of the bag earlier this week, when Take-Two announced that not only was it publishing BioShock, but it was also buying Irrational outright.

So, after nearly 10 years of independence, how will Irrational cope with being a wholly owned subsidiary of one of gaming's most famous--and infamous--megapublishers? How far along is development of BioShock? And is the game the only project Irrational is working on? GameSpot asked the outspoken Levine for answers--and got responses of both the enlightening and amusing variety.

GameSpot: When did this deal first start to take shape? Did Take-Two approach you guys or vice versa?

Ken Levine: We had been approached by a bunch of people about an acquisition, but we were already working with Take-Two on BioShock, so there was already a high degree of trust there.

GS: Did Irrational's falling out with VU Games over Tribes: Vengeance have any effect on the deal?

KL: This falling out with VUG is some kind of Jedi mind trick, man. We just finished an expansion pack for them, and it went as smooth as cream cheese. With Tribes, we did a patch, and for whatever reason they decided not to release it.

GS: Will the deal cover any of Irrational's back catalog of games, like SWAT 4 and Tribes: Vengeance, as Take-Two's purchase of Civilization publisher Firaxis did?

KL: Take-Two has acquired our intellectual property, which includes Freedom Force and a couple of other things.

GS: Was the deal cash, stock, or both? What was the amount?

KL: I don't, as a rule, kiss and tell.

GS: How will the deal affect Irrational's operations? Will there be any layoffs?

KL: Quite the opposite. Since the acquisition, the team size on BioShock has nearly doubled.

GS: What about Irrational management--will it remain in place?

KL: I hope so, as I'm fond of money and health care. The truth is, the kind of layoffs you're talking about happen when large companies acquire other large companies and they get rid of duplicate marketing, accounting, and other functions. At a small developer, they're hiring the development talent.

GS: Will the Irrational brand remain intact or will it be renamed? Will future games carry the Irrational brand?

KL: I think the brand was one of the things they were interested in. Somebody said it recently: Irrational's games never suck. I like that for a brand identity.

GS: Which next-gen consoles is BioShock in development for?

KL: We haven't revealed platforms at this time other than to say it's coming for next-generation consoles and PC.

GS: How far along is BioShock in development?

KL: I'd say we're somewhere in the middle. There are people far smarter and more detail-oriented than I am who manage the schedule. I just go to meetings, come up with ideas to annoy Paul Hellquist, the lead designer, and write the story.

GS: Was BioShock the primary reason behind the Irrational acquisition?

KL: No, I'd have to go with my awesome pectoral muscles.

GS: Is Irrational working on any other games at the moment? If so, what are they, and which platforms are they for?

KL: We have another title in development at our studio in Australia, but we're not talking about it at this time.

GS: Once all the next-generation consoles are on the market, will Irrational's focus remain on the PC?

KL: Irrational is a game developer, and I'm a game player. I'm pretty platform agnostic myself, and the company shares that point of view.

Discussion

22 comments
arjnav
arjnav

This has to be one of the most humorous interviews I've read of a game developer! Funny chap. Not very detailed though, or perhaps thats intentional.

clcwolf
clcwolf

This is very unlikely to be a positive turn of events. As others have commented, Large Companies tend to stifle 'creative' and 'original' in favor of 'formulaic' and 'mainstream', and end up making 'repetitive' and 'boring'. Right on the heels of this comes the announcement that Disney bought Pixar. It's looking like 2006 is going to be "The Year the Independent Developer Died".

fitzza_1301
fitzza_1301

i cant see much going rong with this deal as take 2 are pretty dependable and irrational are a good developer. I think ur rong about deus ex 2 as i felt it rocked much harder then the original

kaito2
kaito2

Zippy, I understand what you are saying, but I think you have misinterpreted what I was saying. Certainly, I would never state emphatically that a larger company buying up a smaller company always leads to both being better off. EA ultimately paid the price for not giving those developers their autonomy. EA would have been better off simply lending its expertise in marketing and distribution; that is what they do in Japan. With regards to risk; every game, even a sequel, is a risk. Even EA's coveted sports game have a risk associated with them. Of course, EA (or any game company) has to take a number of factors that have an impact on risk into consideration when it makes a sequel to one of its games. For example, how do they get people who have never played Madden Football to try it for the first time? And, how do they do this without alienating the hard-core fans? It has to be a tough thing to try to meet the whims and fancies of every player. And, yes, EA will probably go with things that present the least of amount of risk for their long running franchises--if that is what gamers demand. Besides, it is not true that EA doesn't take big risks. The James Bond game Everything or Nothing was a big risk for a company like EA in my opinion. The almost completely re-did the concept of a James Bond game. Granted their other JB games weren't well received, but the FPS genre was popular (still is) at that time. It would have been far safer to stay in that genre in my opinion. Also, EA recently formed a publishing deal with Valve (Half Life 2). Do you think Valve was stupid enough to enter into an agreement with EA that didn't let them maintain 100% creative control? With the success that Valve has had, EA would be stupid to tamper with Valve's products. Sorry, this has gotten to be longer than I intended. In summary, I was just arguing against the notion that a smaller company being bought by a larger company is ALWAYS bad.

ZippyDSMLee
ZippyDSMLee

kaito2 I disagree with you disagreeing,most of the time larger companies pave over everythign everyone like about a game ,they either kill game lines like EA( Dungeon Keeper and CLive barkers undieing) or make piss poor seaqules like Dues ex 2.....(Quake 4 coems to mind but raven is a middel company) *L* mabye is the misconseption. BTW how many comapnies take calculated risks it seems most US based games are a clone of soemthign and the japanase made ones are so off the wall not that many pll can stand them >

kaito2
kaito2

I disagree with the notion that a larger company buying up a smaller company is always a bad thing. Many times, smaller companies make some really cool games, but don't have the marketing muscle of a larger company. Think of it this way: you can make the greatest game in the world, but if nobody knows it exists your out of luck. Further, putting all your eggs into one basket, so to speak, for a small company could be sucide. Bigger companies generally have bigger budgets, allowing them to take calculated risks on games more often than a smaller company can. Larger companies generally buy up smaller companies because they like what they do, not to change them into something completely different. It doesn't make sense to acquire an even somewhat successful smaller company, replace the staff, and change the types of games they make. The larger company would be better off hiring additional staff instead of purchasing another company. I really see this as a win-win for the companies involved, as well as gamers.

liche_king
liche_king

Generally speaking, it does hurt the innovation of small developers to be bought up by a larger one, but it isn't always bad. Bigger budgets and an increased staff are always a good thing. Oh, Firefly is rad.

Bladex2k
Bladex2k

hoprfully they will continue to make some good games

boo_dat
boo_dat

"I don't, as a rule, kiss and tell" If I recall correctly, that's a quote from the TV series Firefly. Heheh. "Kiss and tell" is a saying that goes WAY back dude!!!

PutU2REM
PutU2REM

It's quite possible that Take-Two recognizes that Irrational's street-cred will tank the instant management mucks about with content and will stick to funding, publishing, and marketing. The fan base is relatively high-brow, as a rule, and isn't going to be patient/ignorant/gullible enough to tolerate generic crap for long. Of course, such a positive outcome assumes Take-Two isn't populated completely by halfwits and fiends, a rarity in the corporate world.

AdrianWerner
AdrianWerner

About Tribes:V. VU just didn'y understand that Tribes take a long time to be sucessful. Sure...Tribes community was very negative agaisnt Tribes:V, but it's nothing compared tu uproar that Tribes2 caused. Compared to it Tribes:V was accepcted with open arms. it took long time and numerous tweaks for Tribes community to embrace the train wreck known as Tribes2. The same would be true for Vengeance, but I guess Vivendi just didn't have the patience to wait. Anyway, I'm worried. I love Irrational games, but let's be honest..SystemShock2, freedomForce, SWAT4, Tribes:V..all those games are very PC-centric. Sure..Bioshock is still in development, but when TakeTwo bought IG this game was already far into development, so it would be pointless to mess with it. But all those IG games could be made only ac primary PC titles, if taketwo shifts those guys into console-centric or even "we're making PC and console versions at the same time" focus...we will never see stuff like SS2, FF or SWAT4 for them again. Shame to see another great dev being bought up. it never improves developer, at most it just leaves them the same, in most cases it causes them to degenerate. But I guess publishers are arming themselves before next-gen and PC gaming is the only place wher there actualy are some good devs to buy(in console market almost all good devs are already owned by publisher). Oh..well in the worst case those guys will just leave Irrational and start a new company

nemes1s3000
nemes1s3000

I hope the first guy gets smacked across the head with a keyboard.

Jhessela
Jhessela

IG_EdgeTurn: “Vengeance was well-reviewed, despite what the fan community thought of it. It was a great game, just not exactly the game that Tribes fans wanted." Exactly, which is why it only sold 47,000 copies in North America. As Morgan Webb said, "...why did they have to mess with the multiplayer?"

BlazeFlare
BlazeFlare

"I don't, as a rule, kiss and tell" If I recall correctly, that's a quote from the TV series Firefly. Heheh.

GyRo567
GyRo567

I sure wish he still wrote his column in Computer Games Magazine... =( He has some great things to say.

LordOfMidnight
LordOfMidnight

Yeah, from what I can remember Tribes was critically acclaimed.

mclazyj
mclazyj

Now that they have a new owner, I hope that they get another Freedom Force in development. It is the only superhero game that I have found a joy to play on the PC.

MadGamer132
MadGamer132

good, maybe at least it won't put the "Rockstar" name....... maybe.

SubSane0
SubSane0

It's certainly a fun game. Worth whatever couple of dollars it'll cost these days. This new direction for Irrational sounds like it may yield good results, but let's hope they do not change to "Rockstar East" or some similar nonsense.

IG_EdgeTurn
IG_EdgeTurn

Vengeance was well-reviewed, despite what the fan community thought of it. It was a great game, just not exactly the game that Tribes fans wanted.

Jhessela
Jhessela

Widespread acclaim for Tribes: Vengeance? It was panned by most fans of the series (and even some reviewers, notably Morgan Webb of X-Play).

stovich
stovich

Funny guy, but could he be a bit more vague?