Feature Article

What the Closure of BioShock Developer Irrational Games Means

No gods or kings.

It's the twist that none of us saw coming. After basking in critical and commercial success for nearly two decades, Irrational Games days are now winding down. Ken Levine, one of the three men who founded the studio, announced that he would be forming a new team with a select number of people from Irrational, and the rights of the BioShock franchise would go to Take-Two Interactive. Not only have many talented creators lost their jobs, but the closure impacts the industry at large, in both good and bad ways.

Bad News: One Less Artistically Minded Developer

Columbia would have been a lousy vacation destination.

Irrational Games was one of the few large development studios whose emphasis was on creating challenging artistic experiences. The conversations about BioShock Infinite were markedly different from how most games are analyzed. We wrestled with the dialogue of Elizabeth, the actions of Booker, and the depiction of this dystopian society as we strove to articulate why we had such a strong emotional reaction to this provocative adventure. That my feelings were more negative than others doesn't change how I felt about Irrational Games. Levine's team incited such passion because it wasn't scared of tackling difficult topics, and such a design philosophy stands out amid a sea of homogenization.

With Irrational Games no longer around, the big-budget space has become a lot less interesting than it was yesterday. There are still studios such as Naughty Dog that make us confront our own beliefs in ways that are often uncomfortable, but such endeavors are few and far between. Thankfully, for those who want emotionally difficult experiences, there are still plenty of independent games that fit that model. But one less AAA team working on subversive games lessens the visibility of this industry's cultural importance to the world at large.

Good News: Vision Without Restraint

You wouldn't want to win a prize at Rapture's carnival.

Ken Levine is an auteur whose expertise is examining the fall of dystopian societies. I cherished having someone with such lofty artistic ambitions in the AAA scene, and can only wonder how demanding expectations could curb one's creative output. It's no secret that the most high-profile games often come with inflated budgets, and those who are opening their pocketbooks certainly want ample return on their investments. Even someone who wants nothing more than to push us to think differently about the world we inhabit still has to find a way to make the average person interested in such a game. And that's why I believe Levine's departure could be good for his upcoming projects.

I have no idea how closely the finished versions of BioShock and Infinite mirror Levine's original vision, and trying to guess their potential metamorphosis is futile. But I do believe Levine will have less pressure to appeal to as many people as possible with whatever he's working on next. And if Levine is freer to realize his dreams, that could only be a good thing for those who want to see what ideas he has stirring in his head.

Bad News: Another Strike Against AAA

AAA games were very different when System Shock 2 came out.

In Ken Levine's official statement, he made no references to financial difficulties facing Irrational Games. And if we look at the sales numbers for Infinite, it would be hard to imagine that he was forced to abandon the studio he founded because it was no longer solvent. By all accounts, Irrational Games was successful, which is one of the reasons the news that hit today was so stunning. After all, no one could have predicted its closure even one week ago. Why would a development studio suddenly close its doors after receiving so much praise and commercial success over the last year?

This is where the bad news comes in. I believe that the AAA space is so stifling, so demanding, and so merciless that even the biggest studios have to reevaluate their immediate plans. Considering how expensive games are to make, and how long development cycles are, one flop could mean the end of a once-proud studio. That's a terrifying business model, and one that I do not think is sustainable for the long-term health of the industry. And that's why you'll see many more studios follow Irrational Games' path as the financial pressures become too great. For those who love big-budget games, this is very sad news indeed, as our options will dwindle with each passing year.

Good News: Publishers Adopt a New Philosophy

Child of Light could set the template that other publishers rush to emulate.

But there are plenty of games that exist outside of the AAA space, and they are only going to grow stronger and more influential. What's so important about Levine's decision is where his future employment lies. Even though Irrational Games is being dissolved, Levine's new studio will still be owned by Take-Two Interactive. The biggest publishers aren't going to fade into irrelevance even if the biggest games lose their stronghold on the industry, and we're seeing that transition in this situation. Take-Two is still funding Levine's projects, which means both the artistic and business sides are being helped by this relationship.

Having smaller, cheaper games pad out a publisher's catalog is a wise business venture. We're seeing Ubisoft do this with Child of Light and Sony with modest projects such as Rain. Diversifying your interests is the key toward long-term success, and the redistribution of money could be great for every person who loves this industry. As players, we'll get a wider variety of games, creators will have more flexibility, and publishers will lessen their risks. I expect more developers to take this route, and more publishers to sign contracts with them that are beneficial to everyone rather than let them be completely independent.

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219 comments
dussan2
dussan2

Oh for god's sake.  "AAA games are too big, it stifles my creativity", whine and bitch.  Just make the game.  Bioshock did not start out as a AAA game.  Nor did it have to evolve that way.  But it did, and the first Bioshock rocked hard.  He OWNED the rights to Bioshock and his direction is where it would go.  So what pressure was he under to deliver something he didn't want? 


This is like Hollywoods love affair with the Sundance, indie crowd back in the early 2000's. And now you see those same indie movie makers are making big budget films, but doing it there way.  


You CAN have your cake and eat it too.  I didn't buy Mass Effect because it was going to be a AAA game, I bought it cause Bioware made it.  I bought Bioshock cause Levine was making it. 

live_experiment
live_experiment

As long as these smaller games can accommodate deep world-building and stories, I don't mind episodic games ... We've already seen from indies that they can accommodate FPS if they want to, so I'm not too worried about losing gameplay or combat. Then again, maybe those engines and physics won't be that advanced, as well as other things we love about AAA. :( I hope those stick around somehow... and hopefully remain available to everyone.

jgarbuz
jgarbuz

I think the industry should be divided into "video games" and "interactive movies" for the following reasons:


(1) To separate out those most interested in the novelty game mechanics or "gaming" part of this industry, from those who are more interested on the overall story-telling aspect wherein game mechanics are just  devices meant to fill the time and move things along; 

and


(2) To begin to appeal to older and more mature prospective audiences who have as yet not even picked up a controller to even try to learn what this whole thing is all about.


So it should be divided into the video "game" industry and the video "interactive movie"  industry.


For example, Doom 3, Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted, Call of Duty, and Last of Us would be labelled as "interactive movies." 

Minecraft, and most "Indies"would fall under the rubric of "video games."

LordCrash88
LordCrash88

There are only two very simple options why Irrational "closed":

1) Ken Levine continues to be an egomaniac and just fired a lot of his underlings because he wanted to make something new and "smaller" but doesn't want to left the company for it. Yeah, it's great to have a secure working place and who really cares about the people actually making the game? Many other creative leads would have just left the company to build a new indie studio....

2) 2K were unsatisfied with the financial results of Bioshock Infinte and thought it would be a better business decision to close the studio or at least reduce the staff massively. They stick to Levine since they still think that he has some creative power left but they'll give him only a much smaller team and budget. In that case Levine's press release is just a sorry excuse and a poor proof of his egomaniac character.


Either way, this has actually NO impact on the whole industry whatsover. It's just a small episode in the sensationalist life of Ken Levine ans "his" studio. For whatever reason he is seen as some kind of "game design messiah" by big parts of gaming press (Gamespot apparently among them) and therefore he must be on the media on a constant basis (someone says Cliffy B here?). But actually he isn't. He's just a designer among many as Irrational is only a dev studio among many. They will still continue to rise and fall, appear and disappear and the world continues to turn...

jk12324
jk12324

It means many employees in other studios will now work in fear that they'll lose their job at any time due to their head feeling the need to be more creative.

Zombrex
Zombrex

It means I won't have to listen to people build up the Bioshock series like it's some holy mecca, then bitch about how much it sucks when it comes out.

It means one less "lead me by the hand" linear game we'll have to ignore.

margevich
margevich

It means that they have to start making games that are fun not spend billions on art.

jimbothef
jimbothef

"And if we look at the sales numbers for Infinite, it would be hard to imagine that he was forced to abandon the studio he founded because it was no longer solvent. By all accounts, Irrational Games was successful, which is one of the reasons the news that hit today was so stunning."

It's not that stunning.  Yeah, BioShock Infinite probably sold 4-5 million copies, which would be fine if the game took around 2 years to develop, but no, it took about 5.  It probably had to sell a lot more copies to break even.  Irrational churned through a lot of employees, probably went way over their expected production budget, and delayed the game numerous times because they were way behind schedule, probably because Ken Levine kept cutting content he didn't like, or changing his mind about features.  I think Irrational's closing might serve as a reminder to AAA devs: use your time and money wisely.  Don't rush your game out, but don't lollygag and spend half a decade working on a game that has no multiplayer and can be beaten in like 10-15 hours.  Even if you're some big-shot lead dev, your studio can get shut down.

lannarchy
lannarchy

Hello Gamespot commenters, I created a Facebook group where you can post all your negativity, without being censored. You will never be banned. As long as it has to do with gaming. I will say this though, if you can't deal with negativity all the time, maybe don't join. Or post casually. Positive posts and/or comments are fine and welcome, but this isn't the main reason for the group.


If you wanna talk about how much so or so company is full of shit, how this or that person needs a dental rearrangement, or how greedy EA/Activision are, that group is going to be the place. 


Here's the link --> https://www.facebook.com/groups/399435366796561/


Help me start this movement. If this gets enough traction, we could become an unstoppable force in showing this industry we have a voice, and we will use it.


I am posting this here on Gamespot first because you guys are my favorite commenters on the Internet.

jimmy_russell
jimmy_russell

Ken Levine doesn't deserve the money you people throw at him. He's a talentless hack.

DefconRave
DefconRave

I think publishers should focus more on mid/low-budget games rather than only pursuing the next blockbuster title.


I bought a relatively unknown tactical rpg Aarklash legacy on steam on sale, its full price was $20, for around 12 hours of gameplay. Had more fun with it than many AAA games I payed $60 for.


With a lower budget there is less pressure to sell millions of copies so devs can take more risks and innovate.


As we have seen, the AAA market is oversaturated and returns are diminishing. The only ones who do well are tried and true franchises and even some of those have flopped bad recently.


And in an attempt to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, AAA games all play the same now and too hand-holdy, find them pretty boring tbh.

Vividnightmare
Vividnightmare

The AAA structure is becoming unstable, the cost of producing such a title is beginning to become too big of a risk. And when indie studios are churning out content as good or better in some cases it becomes a real fustercluck. Studios need to begin to downsize, it sucks for employment but reality is employment is being obsoleted by automation and technology, a job crisis is coming on a massive scale anyway, the expense of some of the CEOs and 'upper' management is blowing the cost out of proportion. Teams need to re-organize and shrink down to a level where it doesn't make sense for anyone to make much more than anyone else. Games like Natural Selection, Rust, DayZ, Rogue Legacy, Minecraft and more are all examples of great quality being pushed out of small teams especially when compared to things like CoD or something. Thankfully at least Valve is looking to decrease one of the major costs of being a game developer with it's Steam OS, that will help lighten the expense load but still it isn't going to be easy even with Steam OS and it will be even worse if we don't go with Steamos (which is very likely we won't).

Guest1001
Guest1001

So who gets Freedom Force? AfterBioshock Infinite, Freedom Force became the only Irrational series I'm still interested in. Will that continue to gather dust with Take-Two interactive too?

Coco_pierrot
Coco_pierrot

Well ... too much money on the graphics and art and maybe on the voice acting cost too much. On top of that I didn't find it that "wow" like so many people.


I feel like this situation happen because of PC games always asking for better graphics and shit like that ... which cost a shit load of money for not that much in the end.


I wouldn't care if everything just back off a little and make games with interesting stuff again instead of shallow story with shiny graphics on another shooter games.

fanirama
fanirama

I am looking forward to SWAT 5.

jecomans
jecomans

Seriously looking forward to the 'vision without restraint' part of the equation. 

PlatinumPaladin
PlatinumPaladin

It's pretty cool that 2K have enough faith in Levine to basically let him do what he wants,  it's just a damn shame it came at the cost of Irrational. I wonder why this couldn't have simply been a side-project.

hadlee73
hadlee73

Love the screenshot from System Shock 2. At the time it was an awesome looking game, but the screenshot really shows how far visuals have come :)

zenstrata
zenstrata

But I like triple A games..  especially the ones which titles like Bioshock represented.  Honestly if I want any triple A to fail, its the Call of Duty stuff.  There is practically no innovation in that franchise and has not been any for years now.  its been trotted out to us so many times, its like playing Guitar Hero 7, as in, I don't want to play guitar hero 7 - because its just Guitar Hero .. . again.

As for more indies, while this will generate more overall creativity, I will miss the big budgets more than I miss the occasional indie gem that manages to shine through all the trash.  I do not look forward to spending countless hours to sift through massive piles of terrible indie titles just to spend a few hours with the ones that are good.  Not at all.

tom_cat_01
tom_cat_01

It's a strange thing. I love Indie Games, I love AAA games - but it would be a shame if the Indie scene was the ONLY place where you could find experimental, interesting, challenging gaming experiences. 

endorbr
endorbr

Well lets just hope the industry doesn't take this idea to heart.  The last thing most gamers these days want to see is an industry that shifts to predominantly Indie style titles.  The AAA space needs some rethinking; better budgeting, less pressure on timetables and creative freedom allowed to studios that avoids the publisher suits meddling to try and appeal to CoD or Angry Birds players.  But the last thing the industry needs if it wants to remain viable and relevant would be for more AAA developers to think the Indie model is the way to go.

senorbusyman
senorbusyman

rip Irrational Games we will miss u & ur great work from genius ken levine

Evanrocknuma
Evanrocknuma

I'm calling it now, Take Two is going to create a rather forced and direct sequel to Bioshock Infinite. 

alphabetguy
alphabetguy

@jgarbuz  I understand where you're coming from, but I think that will just separate the entire market, so that the "Video Game Industry" will get a less following and less support VS franchises like CoD in the "Interactive Movie Industry" and everything will just be crazy and unbalanced.


Also, I don't think CoD can be considered an "Interactive Movie" because most players buy it for the online, and not the story.

maityankit
maityankit

@jimbothef  You finished it in 10-15 hours. Oh, god that's impossible unless in the "Beginner" mode. So, back off! 

jgarbuz
jgarbuz

@DefconRave  

Wouldn't play one of those little indie look-down games if the company paid ME to play them. 

It's time to call AAA franchises "Interactive Movies" and leave the "game" label out.  Perhaps in doing so the industry might attract people in their 40s, '50s and '60s to try their hand at "interactive movies" but are not interested in playing games. Frustrating game mechanics should not get in the way of a good yarn.

jgarbuz
jgarbuz

@Vividnightmare  

You couldn't pay me to waste time with Minecraft and the rest, as I am 67 years old and have no interested in children's games anymore. Sell to them to kids. Some of us are adults.

jgarbuz
jgarbuz

@Vividnightmare  

IF AAA productions were labelled as "Interactive Movies" they might begin to appeal to older, more mature audiences not interested in "games." They should be seen as movies that people can directly participate in rather than as "games."

Zombrex
Zombrex

@Guest1001  It would make for a great Super-hero MMO since City of Heroes is gone and Champions/DCUO are irrelevant.

renerak
renerak

@Coco_pierrot  Dude, you have no idea about PC gaming if you think we all ask for better graphics, so you better not comment on things you don't know. And on the other hand, these SO called AAA games don't use up their funds on making games, they waste a insane amount on marketting and not developing the actual product.

And I bet you didn't even read what the hell was written if you wrote what you wrote.

All that said and done, I like your profile picture because Final Fantasy IX is the best Final Fantasy game made, then 4, then 12(only for gameplay), and 3 was kinda nice. And rest I disliked and haven't played 6 and won't play 6 unless they make a remake like thay did for 4 and 3.

mindroid005
mindroid005

@Coco_pierrot I read the reason why Levine is closing down Irrational games, it from his letter on their website http://irrationalgames.com/new-featured/a-message-from-ken-levine-2/


"While I’m deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished together, my passion has turned to making a different kind of game than we’ve done before. To meet the challenge ahead, I need to refocus my energy on a smaller team with a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers."

He had a intrest in a different type of game than what Irrational games was making, and he decided to persue it.

SaberStrike
SaberStrike

@hadlee73  Still one of my all time favorites.  That game is simply amazing.  Going to go play it again now... SHODAN is calling... 

jgarbuz
jgarbuz

@zenstrata  

Being slightly harsh on CoD. I though Ghosts was a good game. How many different scenarios can you envision for a military shooter? I thought they did well.

hystavito
hystavito

@tom_cat_01  What kind of sucks about a lot of even the best indies is that they are one trick ponies due to the small budgets.  They can pull off one really interesting mechanic, or a neat art style, or a cool story, but they usually can't manage a bunch of them together.


In addition, there are some things that just can't be done with indie-like budgets.  I love seeing advances in things like graphics, complex AI, physics, stuff that generally requires someone to do research and then charge a lot for the results, like expensive game engines.  We used to get such advances, but then it seems like they died out, even in the AAA space.  I feel like AI is especially a victim, it seems like AI in games just stopped several years ago and even went backwards in many cases.


I think mobile is really going to hurt AAA "serious" gaming.  Mobile offers so many business advantages, lower risks per title, massive margins, a massive and growing market, easier to get and larger microtransaction sales for ongoing revenue, and on and on.  I think it is the single largest threat to AAA but isn't being discussed much.  I believe it's going to suck resources away from "serious" gaming, and probably has already.


I think what I really miss are the mid level budget games, there were so many titles for PC in that space in the late 90s and early 2000s.  Indies are great and I've really enjoyed some, but as I said there's just so much they cannot do.  Who knows, maybe AAA diminishing could open up the way for those middle ground games to make a return.  This could come from either traditional studios and publishers, or also via larger funding opportunities (crowdfunding, early access, venture capitalists, support from publishers with less interference) for indies.  We could see the rise of a new class of "rich" indies, actually we've already seen a few like that.


I hadn't considered that until just now, maybe AAA going away will be great, for me anyway :).

Karlinel
Karlinel

@endorbr  They are different niches, there will always be place for CoD/BF/TitanFall/whatever the trending game is and the AAA, but a significant indie scene will hopefully lead to "auteur" games being more appreciated

jgarbuz
jgarbuz

@alphabetguy @jgarbuz 

I understand the possible threat that separating video games from Interactive movies might weaken the overall market, but it might also expand it when older people who are threatened by the word "game" become intrigued by the term "movie." They know what movies are. Motion pictures are things you sit back and watch. "Interactive" movie might be a term that might pique their interest. However, just like learning to drive or to use a computer, you have to LEARN how to interact with video "games."  You have to learn how to "play" in them just as you'd have to learn how to play in a broadway play.  You have to learn how to use a controller (or mouse and keyboard) to control your character.You have to learn how to use a guide or walkthrough to know what you have to do next, just as one has to read as script in a play. So there is a learning curve. 


As for CoD, I've played every story from the start and have never played online, and have no desire to do so. I play only single player "campaigns."  I suspect most older players like myself would have little interest in online competition. That is mostly a young people's thing. Because people under age 35 and people over age 35 are different, if the industry wants to grow it has to start marketing to older people.The kids naturally grow up into video games, but the older people have to be attracted just as many were to use computers back in the 1990s. But if I can do it at age 67 and have fun with it, so can others. It's up to the industry to decide if it wants to be a kids-only medium or expand into newer but harder markets.

BravoOneActual
BravoOneActual

@CagedOkami Not to be a smarty pants, but that really isn't saying a whole lot.  Truly well-told and interesting stories are hard to come by in videogamedom and sometimes I feel we lunge at obvious efforts in order to legitimize this young art form.


Say what you will, but I have yet to see an equal to East of Eden or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas while holding a controller, staring at a screen.



endorbr
endorbr

@Karlinel @endorbrI don't have a problem with Indie games.  I do have a problem with developers drawing the conclusion that the general gaming audience prefers these types of games or that the AAA space is just too overbearing or unforgiving to continue to bother with it.  I would hate to think that only the big couple of publishers are the ones that keep pumping out AAA games.  That's just leading us down a path where every game is either Flappy Bird or CoD/Fifa/Madden/Assassins Creed/etc.

StarsiderSajun
StarsiderSajun

@BravoOneActual @CagedOkami  Yeah... didn't do a great job of proving your point there. I find games such as Infinite and the Last of Us, and many others, to be just as deeply moving as a great film can be, and often they do so over a longer period of time.

endorbr
endorbr

@Karlinel @endorbrMust be absolutely insane.  If they'd stop wasting money marketing to people that us as gamers know don't care and won't care about the game they're selling they could probably save a bundle.  Every time I watch some developer diary and they're talking about what they're doing to make the game more appealing to CoD players or casual gamers I just cry on the inside and lower my expectations for their game.

Karlinel
Karlinel

@endorbr @Karlinel  I simply don't get how bloated a budget they must have to consider revenues of about 160M$ (assuming the revenue for the publisher is roughly 1/2 of the asking price) not profitable.

endorbr
endorbr

@Karlinel The AAA business model definitely needs some rethinking and retooling.  I'm certain we could get a lot of the games we get with smaller budgets, better managed teams, more reasonable delivery schedules, and a better cost structure that is smart enough to understand that not every game can sell at $60 and that 4 million units sold is a reasonable expectation not a failure.  But that means that we need people working for these publishers that understand the industry they work in and the consumers they're trying to market.

Karlinel
Karlinel

@endorbr @Karlinel  I guess most publisher understand that the AAA is a gamble, you risk bankruptcy if luck isn´t with you for the potential MASSIVE profit.

It's a bit like pro sports, if you are good but don't want it to rule your life or to bear the pressure, can always stay amateur/indie, and just get by.