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.
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.