What Killed Irrational Games?

Ken Levine

So Irrational Games is being put to bed.  Ken Levine and little over a dozen other developers are starting a new team that will take on “narrative-driven games for the core gamer.”  I personally never cared much for the Bioshock series myself, but I can’t deny it’s presence as one of the great successes of the medium for the last console generation.  So why, so soon after the release and success of Bioshock Infinite would 2K and Levine close up shop?  Prepare to enter wild speculation territory, but I don’t think changes like this should come as a surprise and we should be expecting more of this in the near future.

Ken Levine clearly cares about the content and craft of the games he works on.  He has been ambitious in tackling high ideas in games as part of a AAA game package, and he’s very good at it.  However, something with the status quo leaves something to be desired in his mind.  It’s not unreasonable to think that while the Bioshock titles have been very successful, and shaped directly and indirectly by Levine, they still may not be the games that he wants to create.  This isn’t exactly an unprecedented phenomenon: most notably we’ve been hearing Hideo Kojima openly complain for years about being boxed into the Metal Gear series (no pun intended.)

Perhaps some of the most recent criticism of Bioshock Infinite resonated with him.  While there are many who are perfectly happy with the level of violence interspersed with the high concepts of Columbia, the critics have signaled that there is a market of gamer’s who could do away with it, or find it to be something that detracts from their experience.  Was this part of what Levine had in mind for Infinite?  We definitely have some insight into what has intruded on his vision for the game, and it’s probably not unfair to extend this to other aspects as well.  Take the small controversy surrounding Infinite’s box art which ran counter to many fans’ expectation of what the game represented.  It was reduced to yet another photo of a grizzled man with a gun surrounded by flames.  Levine explained his train of thought regarding the topic as follows:

I tried to step back and say, if I’m just some guy, some frat guy, I love games but don’t pay attention to them… if I saw the cover of that box, what would I think? And I would think, this is a game about a robot and a little girl. That’s what I would think. I was trying to be honest with myself.

So, as a matter of justifying its AAA status, the cover was made to be about a man and his gun.  This isn’t an outlier, it’s the standard procedure.  AAA games need to appeal far beyond the enthusiast community as a matter of survival.  And to move in a direction against that means having to fight tooth and nail for it.  Games are competing with Call of Duty.  The production levels demanded to be competitive in the AAA space mean chasing the demographics that support it, and those demographics want men and guns.  Other great games struggle to break even in this market.  Bioshock Infinite is capable of catering to the demographics that will make it profitable, but it’s not necessarily what Ken Levine was aiming for.  And it may not be the battle he wants to choose going forward.

If you haven’t already, check out Levine’s message on why Irrational Games is going away.

In time we will announce a new endeavor with a new goal: To make narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly replayable. To foster the most direct relationship with our fans possible, we will focus exclusively on content delivered digitally.

We are hearing big name developers using this line of reasoning more and more frequently.  Cliff Bleszinski has disavowed disc based games in favor of building something that allows him to have a closer relationship with the community.  David Jaffe has left Sony, and subsequently from Eat Sleep Play, to pursue development of games that interest him, using the free to play modelKeiji Inafune and Tim Schafer have both taken to Kickstarter and raised a substantial amount of money to make games designed for and funded by the gaming community.  The AAA game development space is losing developers who were instrumental to the success of games for previous generations of game consoles.

Ultimately, is it that far fetched for Levine to read the writing on the wall and seek to pursue similar opportunities?  And wouldn’t 2K have a significant interest in keeping him developing in-house when it’s apparent that these types of developers don’t need a publisher in order to be successful?  There are more incentives than ever to abandon the song and dance of building and marketing AAA titles at enormous cost for audiences that are only considering your product on a surface level.  And unfortunately keeping a large staff means having to compete with the likes of Call of Duty and providing an ample supply of men with guns.  It’s a dramatic turn of events, in part catalyzed by the emergence of crowd-funding and expedited by the growing cost to build games for the latest generation of consoles.  Perhaps the AAA gaming bubble is starting to be deflated.

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