Design by Collin Oguro
General manager Ken Levine looks back on Irrational's first project as it gears up for its next.
You may find it hard to believe that the offices of Irrational Games, which are quietly nestled in a small corner of Boston, Massachusetts, gave rise to such highly acclaimed games as Tribes: Vengeance and Freedom Force. The developer itself isn't really all that small, considering that it has two full studios (one in Boston and one in Canberra, Australia). But things weren't always this way. According to general manager Ken Levine, the studio began its life in his living room in 1997, when he and fellow employees Jonathan Chey and Rob Fermier of now-defunct Looking Glass Entertainment decided to leave their employer to form their own company, which would go on to develop a game called System Shock 2--a game we'll take a retrospective look at in anticipation of Irrational's next project, which we'll reveal to you exclusively tomorrow. (Here's a hint: it will likely please fans of System Shock 2.)
The System Shock 2 we know was the 1999 cult classic; a hybrid role-playing game that let you create a character with varying skills in marksmanship, stealth, computer hacking, and even psionic powers, to investigate a starship stranded in space and loaded with corpses. The game emphasized careful exploration, and it contained very strong horror elements--both of which resulted in great acclaim from the press and from a group of loyal fans. But the System Shock 2 that Irrational started on some seven years ago was a bit different.
Irrational's start was bumpy, to say the least. The studio's first contract was to create a single-player component for Multitude, Inc.'s PC shooter FireTeam, whose multiplayer game was so good that the single-player game got canceled. This meant that Irrational was out of its first job. Ironically, its second job was a contract deal for its former employer, Looking Glass, to make a new game based on the "Dark" engine--the graphics engine that was being used to develop the 1998 game Thief: The Dark Project.
Despite the fact that the three founders of Irrational had basically moved into a back office at their old workplace as contractors (and suffered more than a few dirty looks), the Irrational group decided, without hesitation, to work on a follow-up to the 1994 cult classic, first-person role-playing game System Shock. The team got to work on a spiritual successor, code-named "Shock," which ended up using several of the first game's interface features, including a slotted inventory system and a paper-doll equipment system.
More importantly, "Shock" also featured what the optimistic trio referred to as "the tragic vibe" from the first game. Rather than fighting dragons to rescue princesses, both games would have dramatic elements that suggested ill-fated characters in ruinous circumstances.
After a series of coincidences, good and bad, Irrational wound up with a publisher for the project, which eventually became System Shock 2--the game that Irrational had wanted to work on since the beginning. Some might say that the game's development was a remarkable accomplishment, considering that it was completed within the span of just more than a year and took a single-player-only, hardware-rendered DOS-based engine and converted it into a 3D-accelerated game with working multiplayer. But not all fans enjoyed the multiplayer, and as Levine mentions, the development process itself also offered plenty of strenuous challenges. Some of Levine's most vivid memories include E3 in May of 1999, which took place shortly after the tragic shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. Because of this incident, Irrational was asked to bring a demonstration version of System Shock 2 to E3 that had no guns in it.
Yes. You read that right. No guns in the E3 demo. It was already hard enough to make a compelling presentation of the game to an uninitiated audience, let alone the fact that there were no guns and System Shock 2's primary appeal was in its open-ended gameplay (rather than in any fancy graphics or technology). Levine recalls the irony of trying to give five-minute presentations for a game that can't be explained in five minutes. Mainstream reporters from local Los Angeles TV stations and newspapers roved the show floor, like sharks that had scented blood, in search of "violent video games" to point a camera at and run an alarmist cover story on. "It was a uniquely depressing experience," the general manager says with a pained smile.