Q&A: Ken Levine talks BioShock, reminisces about X-Com

2K Boston frontman Ken Levine talks about how BioShock 2 ended up at 2K Marin, his upcoming mystery project, and how his studio literally went underwater.

The development studio known as 2K Boston traces its roots across many years, projects, platforms, and even names. Originally Irrational Games, it is the spiritual successor to the once-mighty, now-shuttered Looking Glass Studios, the shop behind the System Shock franchise and the original Thief. 2K Boston's cofounder, president, and creative director is Ken Levine, an alum of both Looking Glass and Irrational. His credits include critically acclaimed games like System Shock 2, SWAT 4, Freedom Force, and, most recently, the award-winning action game BioShock.

Levine, waiting for a Big Daddy to emerge from the surf.

But things have changed since the release of BioShock. The recently announced sequel, BioShock 2, is being developed at 2K Marin, which was founded by a number of original BioShock vets in late 2007. Meanwhile, Levine and the remaining 2K Boston group are still in Massachusetts, recruiting new talent for an unnamed project that the studio claims will be its most ambitious to date.

GameSpot chatted with Levine to discuss how there ended up being a different studio with BioShock staffers, why he isn't working on BioShock 2, what he is working on, and his thoughts on console games, PC games, and the game industry in general. Also, it turns out that 2K Boston's offices were recently flooded, so there's a funny story about that here, too.

GameSpot: We understand that the dreamlike, underwater city of Rapture from BioShock was recently re-created on the 2K Boston campus. Can you tell us about what happened?

Ken Levine: Right around New Year's, 2K Boston was visited by something approaching Biblical wrath. Biblical wrath mixed in with a healthy dose of literary irony. A water main in our building broke and flooded the place. I'll let our eyewitness--art director and Big Daddy creator Nate Wells--describe what happened.

Nate Wells: I was in the office on a Saturday since I wanted to get down some ideas I was working on. I was wearing headphones, but in the space between songs I heard this bizarre sound. I took my headphones off, and what I heard sounded exactly like someone had left their 360 on with a copy of BioShock running.

This was fairly common, so I went from desk to desk in the art pit to find the source. As I got closer to the door it was clear that the sound was definitely not coming from a TV, but from down the hall. I turned and saw what looked like light rain falling from the ceiling in the hall. I assumed it was the sprinklers.

It was clear, however, that the sound wasn't coming from this single spot. In fact, it sounded like, well, Rapture near Dr. Steinmann's office in medical--wet, echoing rain. What I saw was the team's precious life-size statues of the Big Daddy and Little Sister (who live near the front desk) under an absolute downpour. Perfectly--too perfectly--the ceiling tiles had given way directly over them and rain was coming down, bouncing off the Big Daddy's drill and eye lights--exactly how I had first imagined him.

KL: The bad news was that we were stuck in a temporary space downstairs for a few months. The good news is that we're redoing our entire office. The bad news is we'll have to move three times in six months. The good news is that we've got video of the flood, and it's awesome if you can ignore the thousands and thousands of dollars in damage.

GS: The cat has started peeking out of the bag for BioShock 2. At this point in time, what can you tell us about the game, in your own words?

KL: I'm probably not the guy to ask because the team at 2K Boston and I aren't working on it. We're not involved in any way; never have been. It's entirely in 2K Marin's capable hands. Frankly, I'm trying to keep myself at a distance from it so I, like all the other fans out there, can play it fresh when it's done.

GS: Speaking of which, it seems like a few things have changed since we last spoke. Previously, you were heading up 2K Boston (nee Irrational Games) and the main topic of conversation was BioShock, which had finally been released to numerous accolades and sales. Fast-forwarding to today, you're still in Boston, but a chunk of the team has moved to the West Coast and is now working on BioShock 2...while you aren't. Can you shed some light on what happened?

KL: BioShock 2 wasn't the right thing for 2K Boston; it was the right thing for 2K Marin. After BioShock, 2K wanted to grow the company by starting a new studio in Marin, and they asked if it could be seeded with some 2K Boston and 2K Australia developers. They said, "Dude, are you cool with that?" I understood what they were trying to do, so I said, "Sure." All in all, five smart folks from 2K Boston are now at 2K Marin.

GS: What, if any, is 2K Boston's involvement with 2K Marin at this point? And what's 2K Boston's involvement with 2K Australia (nee Irrational Australia)?

KL: 2K Boston is focused on our next project, which will probably come as a huge surprise to our audience and yet at the same time will make total sense once they see it. I will say that we're clicking on all cylinders.

A Big Daddy waits for Levine to mop up.

Besides delivering on the narrative experience we're known for, it will include a type of gameplay that is completely new to us--something the BioShock team has never really explored in depth before. In all areas (art, design, and programming), we spend half our day being totally psyched, and half our day wondering what we've gotten ourselves into. We're kind of humbled by the challenge.

We've been in a huge recruiting frenzy to staff up for it. We've got a gaggle of Boston folks going to GDC next week to show the colors and press the flesh. In a world where world-class, brilliant developers like Ensemble no longer exist, I'm pleased to say we're hiring. Maybe some of the industry's brilliant refugees will seek out our staffers in their "Be big in Boston" shirts at GDC. You know, "Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled experts in C++."

In the end, our new project is something we're champing at the bit to talk about. But we're not showing it to anybody and won't be for some time. In fact, the only way to get a look at it is to interview for a job with us.

GS: There's this nasty rumor going around that you've been working on the successor to X-Com, the classic sci-fi tactical game from Microprose. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?

KL: I personally own four copies of X-Com. I just bought the whole series again on Steam. I even spent a few hours last month playing (God forgive me) X- Com: Enforcer! Now that's love.

On a completely unprofessional side note, I'm going to name-drop and say I met Sid Meier at E3--one of the perks of working for Take-Two. He had this kind of Zen-master serenity thing going on about him, but I think I creeped him out with my nerdy, 1,000-yard fanboy stare.

Back to X-Com. I will say that I'm probably the world's biggest X-Com [fan]. I won't say I'm working on an X-Com game.

GS: If you can't go into specifics about what you're working on, can you at least go into generalities? Would it be safe to assume that, now that you've gotten BioShock out of your system, you're looking to explore the less time-intensive world of smaller-scale independent or downloadable games? Maybe really scale it back, take it easy, and design a few Web ad banners that let us click here to punch a black-eyed, bucktoothed Ken Levine head with a mouse-cursor-boxing-glove to win a free iPod?

KL: Look, there are times when I'd like to pack it all in and make something supersmall. Something that doesn't take three or four years to complete. Something that, if we totally screwed the pooch, wouldn't be a zillion-dollar disaster. But the truth is, you can't really take the team of the size and scale that made BioShock, System Shock 2, and SWAT 4 and put them on funny banner ads...unless they were really, really funny.

Now a quick warning: I'm about to go into mega-proud papa mode here and talk about my team. So, bear with me. Think of me as the nerd version of the old lady you're sitting next to on the plane who whips out a stack of photos of her grandchildren.

Teams don't get talked about enough. And it's easy to forget that games like BioShock are made by groups of people--large groups of people. Our senior staff in Boston is really second to none. We've got Scott Sinclair, who was the BioShock art director; Nate Wells, who visually designed SWAT 4 and the Big Daddy; and Shawn Robertson, who led the animation on every Irrational/2k Boston game after System Shock 2.

Sorry, sister--that ain't ADAM.

We've got Chris Kline, who was the lead programmer on SWAT 4 and BioShock. John Abercrombie, who did the AI for both those games as well. We've got Robb Waters, who I started working with back on Thief when we were both at Looking Glass--he created the concept art for that game, as well as for System Shock 2, Freedom Force, and BioShock. And designer Dorian Hart, who took me out for lunch on my first day at Looking Glass--the guy goes back to Ultima Underworld 2, was lead designer on Terra Nova, and was my right-hand man on designing System Shock 2. Not to mention Bill Gardner, who oversaw the level creation on BioShock; Stephen Alexander and Jesse Johnson, who created the water effects; Justin Sonnekalb, who managed to keep my script and our endless recording sessions lined up; and everybody else who sweated blood in Boston to make the game happen.

And we've recently been able to sucker guys like [game writer] Shawn Elliott and Tim Gerritsen (cofounder of Human Head) to come work with us. And guys and girls from LucasArts, EA, Turbine, Harmonix, and pretty much every other company out there. I get to come to work every day with these people. I consider myself lucky.

But you know what, we still need more, many more people to come and get involved in our Next Big Thing.

GS: Among the many changes that took place in your career over the course of BioShock's development and release, you went from being primarily a PC game developer working on games like SWAT 4 and Freedom Force to the world of console game development. What are your thoughts on the state of console games? What about PC games?

KL: I don't think of us as a console game developer. We're just trying to carry on in the tradition of giants like Rockstar, Lionhead, Bethesda, and BioWare who tried to make the console a bit more like the PC, the platform that was their first love. Think of what traditional PC developers have done for console games. It took Bungie to make modern shooters really work. It took Bethesda to say RPGs didn't need to compromise. It took Rockstar to show that a console game could be as huge and as deep as any PC experience. And if you pick up the new GTA game on the DS, you'll see they just broke that barrier there as well.

Don't get me wrong: I love my PC. Right now, I'm concurrently playing Empire: Total War, Dawn of War II, BattleStations: Midway, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, Sins of a Solar Empire: Entrenchment, and Company of Heroes...again.

And then there are new forces like Good Old Games (aka GOG.com), which reopens access to games people might have never gotten a chance to play. This weekend my plan is to reinstall Shiny's Sacrifice and go to town.

GS: One of the highlights of 2008's PlayStation 3 game lineup was the port of BioShock, which trailed the PC and Xbox 360 versions. What's your take on the PS3's current status in the market? What would the platform need to pull ahead in the marketplace?

KL: I will say this: Sony has taken some amazing creative risks in the last year. Like all risks, some work out great, some work out less great. But how can you not admire a company putting out games as different as Flower and Killzone 2 in the same month? What I love about this generation of consoles is how each of the machines is really providing something unique. The Wii, the 360, and the PS3 are all completely distinct platforms with product lines that in many ways are more different from each other than they are alike.

But that also says cool stuff about the gaming audience. The world is changing. Somewhere, somebody is playing Halo 3 deathmatch. Somebody else is playing PixelJunk Eden. Somebody else is booting up Wii Fit. Somebody else is downloading a PC wargame from some weird, obscure Web site.

GS: And what are your thoughts on the Wii and the way its low-tech, low-barrier-to-entry approach has carved out new success in a brand-new market? What role does it have to play in the life and times of a game designer whose resume includes story-driven epic after story-driven epic?

KL: Technology is a tool. Some of the best story-based games ever made (Beyond Good and Evil, Planescape: Torment) were released when the Wii was just a glimmer in Miyamoto's eye. Thief, the first game I worked on, could probably run on an iPhone, story and all.

When we had the capacity to express ourselves on a broader canvas, like we did with BioShock, we did it. If our canvas was a little narrower, we'd adapt. Having a canvas as big as BioShock's was something new and, frankly, a bit scary for us. We were used to working with less graphically powerful hardware. Go back and look at System Shock 2 or Freedom Force and you'll see what I mean. I think it's going to be tougher to paint on a huge canvas if you don't have the track record. But frankly, it was tough to get BioShock made.

GS: You got your start in the game industry as an apprentice developer working at a studio that pursued publishing deals. Then you ended up working on System Shock 2, which was published by a massive game publisher, and then you later had your entire studio acquired by a larger game publisher. What are your thoughts on independent development these days? Are things better or worse for independent developers and their games? What lies ahead?

KL: Remember the great indie developers of 1995? Yeah, neither do I. Back then, outside of a few notable exceptions, there really was no serious independent development. The tools (for example, Flash, etc.) didn't exist, and neither did the marketplace (the Internet). I think it's a great time to be an indie [developer]. Go to Newgrounds.com, Xbox Live Marketplace, the PSN Store, or WiiWare, and you'll see gobs and gobs of coolness.

But that's not to say it's easy. It's hard to succeed. It's always hard to succeed. You have to be talented, you have to be lucky, and you have to stick around and take your blows when most sane people have packed it in. But now, at least, there's a shot to make it and sometimes make it big. I'm not sure groups like The Behemoth or Ironclad (two companies that I'm a huge fan of) would have been possible 10 years ago.

GS: Aside from the new project and the new 2K Marin studio, we have to imagine there are at least one or two other big announcements in the pipe. Any hints on other big news you may have to relate soon?

KL: If somebody wanted to know what was going on at 2K Boston right now, there's only one way: apply for a job with us. Like I mentioned earlier, we've even created a Big Daddy "Be big in Boston" recruiting T-shirt for the 2009 Game Developers Conference, which highlights both the company's heritage and our home city. But there may be some cool things we'll be busting out a bit sooner. Something that will bring a small smile to old-school fans of the company. Not a product announcement, but something they'll dig. I don't want to over-promise here, but we're psyched to roll it out.

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Discussion

197 comments
spetz_naz_basic
spetz_naz_basic

nyranasaurus: how about Jagged Alliance? Either a JA or X-Com re-make would blow my mind. Both will probably kill me. Perhaps fortunately for myself, most big publishers have moved on from the turn-based strategy genre.

ty9876ty
ty9876ty

one word amazing nuff said

turb06
turb06

Gee i hope he is working on x-com successor. I built a pretty good gaming PC and all i play on it is x-com games from steam. a new one made properly would be just awesome.

raladin3d
raladin3d

A portal is opened between our world and the game world, the whole place is floating RUN!!!. lol

Catza
Catza

I salute you all! What a wonderful article, can't wait what is the next big thing. I wish good luck to your present and future projects, I will never forget how Bioshock blew my mind when I first played it. I love it...

nyranasaurus
nyranasaurus

A new Xcom (A REAL X.COM Unknown, not just an adaption like X.COM Aftermath or Afterlight but a real Adaption of random maps and random battles across the entire earth) Would be overly awesome. I think that would too good to be true unfortunately. The original X.Com is still a king amongst strategy turn based games. I cant think of another game like it. Id love to see a SWAT 4 game but put into the X.Com world.

buckizard
buckizard

2K puts out some great stuff. CAn't wait for Bioshock 2 and now even more for their mystery project!

thisisreallybor
thisisreallybor

GOOD JOB BIOSHOCK! MULTIPLATFORM BENEFITS THE CUSTOMERS! (drives the system makers to make better rigs at competitive prices)

macker33
macker33

I agree with mordecha below about the multiplayer//

ScionofEntropy
ScionofEntropy

UbdU: I've actually never played either of the System Shock games. I probably should sometime, but being broke kind of gets in the way of that. I keep hearing all these good things about them from fans I do and don't know, but I've never had the chance to get them.

UbdU
UbdU

I'm not ashamed to say I have platonic man-love for Ken Levine. System Shock 2, Freedom Force, and of course Bioshock ruled. Can't wait for his new stuff.

Althax
Althax

I'm a huge Thief fan even though I only played the 2nd one on the PC. (I never owned an original xbox) So I hope another Thief incarnation is forthcoming.That game did so many things right! If Assassin's creed had more thief aspects in it, it would have been 100x better. Bioshock 2 has a huge reputation to live up to, hopefully it will deliver.

stevo_360
stevo_360

Awesome interview. I have nothing but respect for a guy who has been integral to such amazing games. In saying that, I am a little worried about how much respect the Bioshock sequel will treat the original fiction with. I can see it being somewhat contrived.

jagtonix
jagtonix

Would be cool if the "something" mentioned in the last paragraph was a remake or an updated version of the system shock games. Not sure what he means by "not a product announcement" though.

Jedilink109
Jedilink109

For some reason Ken Levine looks a bit like Zack Snyder to me. WOO HOO for mentioning Beyond Good And Evil (which has always been one of my favorites!) and even though they aren't making Bioshock 2, he still said there's people that worked on the first one, working on the second one. And GTA for DS is awesome by the way. :D

Mordechai28
Mordechai28

Frankly I am a bit worried about this game for a number of reasons. The first being that Ken Levin and 2K boston would have nothing to do with this game and the second being that Bioshock 2 would have Multi player. The real reason why Bioshock 2 was handed over to 2K martin is because after Bioshock was done most of the 2K boston team did not want to work with Ken Levin ever again so Take 2 had to split them up while some left the company all together. I can understand why that happened but ken levin may be a hard boss but he gets the job done and Bioshock was a project that was very important to him . Ken Levin is the Steve Jobs of 2K boston, He might be a total dictator but he gets results and he demands very much of his employees but in that he makes them elevate their level of workmanship and he gets results. I don't know what were the exact events that led to that split but in my opinion Take2 buckled way too soon as some of 2K boston employees came crying and moaning about Ken Levin and threatening to leave and Take 2 were in the middle of the whole EA buyout that they could not afford losing any employees for it would have looked very bad for the shareholders that Take 2 management can not control their studios. The fact that not all of 2K boston left means that it was a group within the development team that were bitter about something and could not get over what ever Ken did or said to them. Now the fact that Bishock 2 would have multi player is worrying me because so many game developers and publishers feel the need to include multi player into their game to add longevity to it, and at the end what happens is that the team have to focus on 2 major and very different aspects of the game that they put most of the effort to the multi player section and as a result the single player campaigns suffers from...well..being forgetful. Many games suffer from that fate and its sad to see that happening and I blame us the fans for this. personally i don't think every game needs multi player in it to be good or great, some games just don't need it period. Look at CoD 4 and the Gears series, how many people here actually care about the story of these games or even play the game through for knowing more about the story and not just doing for the achievement points. Just looking at CoD 4 shows that the team were putting most of their creative efforts into the multi player and not the single campaign . There was a very good reason why Bioshock did not have multi player as Ken Levin did design the game for multi player and also he did not want any resources taken form the single player campaign. Bioshock has very deep message in it and its one of the few games that at the end f the day actually has social comments that reflect on our society today. Adam Sessler from x-play has a very good podcast on this issue just go to this link: http://g4tv.com/thepile/videos/36677/Sesslers-Soapbox-Keep-It-Single-Stupid.html 2k martin have a lot of work and a lot to live up too for Bioshock set a very high bar for videos games to come and my hopes are that they will rise to the occasion and deliver another amazing Bioshock experience and that Bioshock 2 would to the series what The Empire Strikes Back was for the Star Wars trilogy.

schnarr
schnarr

KL: Remember the great indie developers of 1995? of course I can - heck, I can name ones from 1991 that is now commercial, Bungie (heck, I'm probably one of the few that has played two of their first 3 games - I missed Desert Storm, but played Gnop! and Minotaur: The Labyrinths of Crete), and one from 1992 that still exists as an indie - Ambrosia Software (I was a Maelstrom addict... and later an Escape Velocity addict). Having only macs available at that time in my life severely limited my choice in games. Another company, Aspyr, started as an indie before becoming a porting house. Cyan (creator of Myst) is technically an indie studio, though they've used major publishers, and that is certainly pre-1995 (1992ish, if I remember correctly, and before that did some kiddie games, but I never saw those, only heard about them). I think Spiderweb Software was also mid-1990s, but I never liked the Exile games, so I'm not much of a fan.

Leria
Leria

Actually, I think that BioShock was screaming for a few sequels. It isn't like the Rapture place was totally leveled in a nuclear explosion or something like that after BioShock 1.... it's still down there.... most likely, so are it's secrets. Imagine if someone from the upper world got ahold of those secrets, say a military person who had no morality in the least. Little Sisters, Part Deux? I think so! Though, they have said that BioShock 2 is going to be a Prequel/Sequel to BioShock.... so I am thinking that maybe they didn't evacuate all the Little Sisters from Rapture, or someone was still alive (and half sane), turned themself into the 'Big Sister' that everyone is talking about (or was made beforehand out of an idea from Ryan, put on ice and 'thawed out' or sent to kidnap children from around the world), and is now bringing Rapture back up to speed.

Aminal_basic
Aminal_basic

I'm looking forward to BioShock 2 and Hopefully whatever the new project is. Just by the way he worded it make the tension and excitement rise to the "I gotta know".

KMJRoche
KMJRoche

I can't wait for this game , though im not sure how there gonna do it Bioshock didnt seem like the sequel type game. What solid stein is saying sounds cool i didnt hear any of that

solidstein
solidstein

it is and isnt the same development team they took most the important people except keith and started a new studio specially to make Bio2. but of course they still ask keith for advice the new Bioshock looks completly awesome its still in rapture and you play as a big daddy and your arch enemy is a big sister who will be able to easily kill you. you can use the drill and plasmids at the same time and they built a special rivet gun for the big daddy to use its looking really interesting go look at the article in gameinformer if you want to learn more im really psyched for bioshock2 and i cant wait to see what 2kboston is gonna pull out new i hope its a NEW ip of the caliber of bioshock and i hope its not a rts

Wildesy
Wildesy

Surely someone else is picking up the Charlie Day (Sunny in Philadelphia) vibe Levine is putting down?!

moocow21
moocow21

A bit off hand here, but why is Ken Levine always looking away from the camera in all of his pictures? lol

FallenAngel
FallenAngel

Great read. I loved how he came across as a regular fan, not any different from any of us. Unlike some other developers out there (Peter Molyneux I'm looking at you square in the eye), whose interviews are more about bombastic proclamations on how smart they are, and how awesome their next game's gonna be.

Wallenstein_155
Wallenstein_155

is it just me or does that side shot make levine look like Seth Green?

Lance_Kalzas
Lance_Kalzas

How does it not bode well? There are members of the previous team on the new team. I think 2k, overall as a company, know better than you do where to take this franchise, especially in what direction.

kvan33
kvan33

Not the same development team? This doesn't bode well for BS2.

insanitycheck3
insanitycheck3

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

dzimm
dzimm

I wish they'd return to the Freedom Force franchise. I'd love a third one.

tidyspidey
tidyspidey

BioShock is still the most interesting new-skool FPS to date - can't wait to see the return of Rapture

Marked_by_chaos
Marked_by_chaos

Good point and true about Rockstar, Lionhead, Bethesda, and BioWare. I like this guy's state of mind.

brain20035
brain20035

these dudes are really cool. wish you luck guys.

ZzZEVOLUTIONZzZ
ZzZEVOLUTIONZzZ

At SIXGEARS2: hey bro if you knew what you were talking about people might actually listen to you. Kevin isnt working on it but most the staff that worked on bioshock 1 are working on the second one as well. Look it up before you try and sound like you know what your saying. As for bioshock 2 i will play it regardless of review or score, Bioshock 1 was great and i will end up playing it again here soon i am sure.

george999819
george999819

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

KhanhAgE
KhanhAgE

Levine sure knows his stuff. I wonder, if Levine had control over the System Shock IP would he make another one?

joelgargan
joelgargan

This guy sounds smart and awesome,. Hears for hoping he does a good job

insanitycheck3
insanitycheck3

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

gamefreak3111
gamefreak3111

I am very glad I chose this career path :) (look at the mountain of soft drinks in the video :P)

Sagacious_Tien
Sagacious_Tien

Seems very smart - seems to know what he's doing. Please be SWAT 5.

maverick_76
maverick_76

Guy seems very smart, great interview!

Itsleaking
Itsleaking

By the sounds of it Kevin is working on a RTS type game. I'm only saying that because all the games he is replaying are RTS types.

games100
games100

its a shame that this guys ant working on bioshock 2, hopefully it will still be as kick ass as the first! x