Another day, another much-loved developer gets the chop. In a blog post on the developer’s website, Irrational Games big cheese Ken Levine has announced a ‘winding down’ of the company that will see all but fifteen of the company’s staff laid off. In the post, Levine states a desire to change the methodology by which he makes games:
“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…
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.”
If this all sounds a little muddy, that’s because it is. It’s not surprising to see Levine yearning for a change at the creative level, seeing as Bioshock Infinite was a game that promised Big Things in narrative and gameplay, but came out of a gruelling five-year development process looking like part of a dying breed, with story and mechanics rooted in more traditional and less cohesive methods. It’s hardly the only recent game to display such inconsistency of gameplay and tone (PLUG: Look out for the first part of ‘Storytime With MCP’ where we look at Tomb Raider – Coming Soon!), but it was the biggest and most anticipated, and therefore subject to the harshest scrutiny. Infinite was a fine game, but the hype required it to be revolutionary; a revolution that is still yet to fully arrive.
Scaling down to smaller, downloadable games is probably the smart move. There’s a reason that most of the games seen as pushing the field of videogame narrative forward are coming from smaller or indie studios: because they can afford to experiment. The mainstream demands safety, and the bigger the scope and/or budget of your project, the more it demands the patronage of the mainstream. The AAA landscape is the slowest to shift, ruled by defensive thinking and design by committee and the more ambitious and esoteric the goals of the game, the more heavily it’s often compromised by this process. Smaller games means more room for experimentation, which is where it feels Levine needs to be.
What’s less clear is whether this seachange involves keeping the Irrational name, and why it necessitates the redundancy of so many skilled workers. It’s been speculated that this is just another publisher dropping a studio and using Levine’s situation as a front of sorts, though if so it seems like a rather counterproductive way of going about it. Nobody likes hearing about layoffs and studio shutterings, and the above tactic would be like Take Two throwing one of their star devs under the PR bus – which, judging from the glowing way Levine talks about his continuing relationship with Take Two in the announcement, doesn’t seem to be the case. Either way, when we’ve already had Cliffy B hand over Epic to new management in order to pursue new things a publisher-led attempt at downsizing seems like the only rational reason for layoffs of this scale, especially given the huge cost of Infinite.
All very indistinct, but what seems very clear is that even if Levine keeps the Irrational name the studio as we know it’s last release will be the second part of Bioshock Infinite‘s Burial at Sea DLC, joining a small but impressive body of work that includes the two Bioshocks, System Shock 2 and the Freedom Force games. Hopefully the talented devs let go in this process find new places to ply their wares soon.