There was much confusion and sadness surrounding the news that Irrational Games, the studio behind BioShock and BioShock Infinite, will be “winding down” leading to layoffs for all but 15 employees. Co-founder and creative director Ken Levine has been somewhat ambiguous for his reasons stating that he’ll be “starting a smaller, more entrepreneurial endeavor” in order to focus on “narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly replayable.” Is the reasoning behind this decision to downsize operations sound or does Mr. Levine have more to answer for ending a beloved games studio?
A popular theory that’s been making the rounds is that despite the critical and commercial success of BioShock Infinite, the cost in making it offsets the net gain. The title was in development for 5-6 years at the cost of $100 million with an additional $100 million in marketing according to the New York Times. While Levine hasn’t blamed parent companies 2K and Take-Two, one must strongly consider that the amount coming out of their pockets played a significant role in Irrational’s fate.
Ken Levine’s desire to downsize isn’t anything new. The rising cost of AAA game development alone has made the move to smaller teams more attractive. Some of the most renowned names in the gaming industry have “gone indie” such as Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune, Naughty Dog programmer Lucas Pope, and Irrational Games alumnus Steve Gaynor. An interesting difference between Levine’s situation and most other developers’ is that he’ll still be working under Take-Two as opposed to being on his own. When speaking on moving forward with his next endeavor, he stated that “they convinced me that there was no better place to pursue this new chapter than within their walls.”
Despite helping out his now former employees in finding new jobs, there’s still a nagging feeling that Levine could have averted the layoffs altogether. Why not break the team up into smaller studios thereby keeping the talent but on lower budget titles? Even the cumulative cost of keeping everyone in this manner isn’t much of an argument since they’ll all be working on projects that likely wouldn’t add up to what BioShock Infinite ended up costing in the end. It’s purely up to how the parent companies allocate their assets.
This leads into a bigger issue with the way many AAA gaming companies have been tempering expectations. Big budget titles can yield a profit if realistic goals are financially implemented. Not every quality game is going to make Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto numbers. Hopefully, Take-Two keeps this in mind so as to avoid “pulling a Square Enix” where selling millions of copies doesn’t equate to success.
We wish nothing but the best for those affected by the layoffs as well as Ken Levine himself as he ventures into what will hopefully be new and exciting games in the future. If this end of an era leads to better quality titles with rich and innovative ideas implemented, then this sad bit of news will be nothing more than an afterthought. If BioShock Infinite’s own Lutece twins has anything to say about it, then anything is possible.