Let’s have a moment of silence for Irrational Games.
No. Not that type of moment of silence. A serious one. Ken Levine, creator of BioShock, announced today that Irrational Games studio was shutting down. He wants to move on and try different things. He founded Irrational Games seventeen years ago and has dedicated a good portion of his life to it. After the release of the last DLC for BioShock Infinite, it seems like a good place for him to bow out. Gotta end on a high note, right? And you can’t end a company on a higher note than BioShock Infinite.
I’ve heard nothing but great things about that game from the moment it was released. People praised the story. They praised the NPCs. And the ending. Sweet Jiminy Christmas, do they praise the hell out of the ending. So why not close up shop with what will probably go down as one of the greatest games of all time?
But if you’re anything like me, the first thing you thought when you heard this was this: what happened? For Ken Levine to leave the company he founded to refocus his career on smaller games, it’s almost natural to look for something that went wrong. Was he burnt out from all the problems surrounding the release of BioShock Infinite? News reports that I read seemed to indicate Irrational Games was losing people left and right while the game was being made. If you add all the difficulties that went into making the game (there are several excellent articles detailing it, so no need to go into details here), it makes me wonder if Levine’s just tired of all the effort it takes to create a big budget AAA game. He invested five years of his life into the game. Would you want to spend the rest of your career spending more and more time on one task with ever-changing problems and stresses?
It’s possible that he’s tired and wants to go back to the beginning. It’s hinted at in his public message:
Seventeen years is a long time to do any job, even the best one. And working with the incredible team at Irrational Games is indeed the best job I’ve ever had. 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. In many ways, it will be a return to how we started: a small team making games for the core gaming audience.
If that’s the case, then Ken Levine is not the first developer to take this path. Keiji Inafune did the same thing when he walked away from Capcom to start his own studio COMCEPT. But if that’s what is actually happening, could this be a developing trend? Will we see more big name talent leave big name companies to go back to where they started?
I hope so. The video game industry feels far more commercialized than ever before. There’s a lot of glitz and glamour surrounding games that it feels so far away from what video games used to be about: the games. Now days, we have Samuel L Jackson trying to put in as many swear words as possible while he hosts video game award shows. We have multi-million dollar ad campaigns that resembles movie releases. We have release parties with red carpets, full of models and stars getting their pictures taken by the paparazzi. It’s freaking nuts.
I’m hoping this is a move away from AAA games. There were a lot of games that were dropped because they weren’t profitable enough to justify making. Large companies want the biggest bang for their buck, so they’ll only back the games that’ll give them as much money as possible. So if there are high quality developers who want to make high quality games that aren’t AAA games, it can only be good for gamers as a whole.