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Bioshock Irrational Games/2K Games

While in Berlin a couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure to be able to casually hang out with some of the developers from Yager, the studio responsible for Spec Ops: The Line. In 2012, I wrote a book about Spec Ops: The Line, and it was a revealing experience to be able to hang out with the people who made that game.

As it was just a casual, off-the-record chat over beers, I am not going to regurgitate any of the conversations here. Suffice to say, to me, as someone outside of development, they were absolutely fascinating. It was eye-opening to hear about the utterly mundane reasons parts of the game turned out the way they turned out. Things that myself and other players had projected layers of meaning onto existed, largely, because of technical hiccups or urgent deadlines.

The people I was talking to were, predominately, the grunts of the studio. Not the lead designers or producers or creative directors, but the ones making the game in the most literal sense: creating the models and typing the code and applying the textures. They were, predominately, exactly the kind of people that a game journalist or player such as myself rarely, if ever, is able to communicate with.

If a games journalist is interviewing a developer about a game, they typically only have access to the lead developers, the ones in charge. Usually, the journalist’s access to these developers is through the publisher that is bankrolling the game. The dozens or hundreds of men and women actually making the game are hidden from the public behind the doubly thick wall of their employers and their publishers. We can’t speak to them and, more often than not, their employment contract means they can’t speak to us.

It’s not something I had ever really appreciated before, and hearing these fascinatingly mundane stories about making games in a AAA studio was eye-opening. Nothing scandalous or corrupt or horrendous – just … mundane and everyday events leading to particular creative decision. It got me thinking about how we – players, critics, journalists – really struggle to appreciate that these games are created not just by the one or two people we see in a dozen pre-release interviews and profiles, but by dozens if not hundreds of people, each with some small say in what the final creative work will look like.

We know this is the case; we tweet about how long the credits are, but we don’t really appreciate it. Instead, we talk about how Ken Levine made Bioshock Infinite or Todd Howard made Skyrim and that is that.

It’s not a problem unique to videogames. In any creative form, as we instinctively try to picture the creator behind the artwork, and it’s much easier as an audience to boil the author down to a single person: the director, the lead singer, the conductor. But this obscures the realities of how that work was produced and why it is the way it is.

Often, when we play a game and lament about an obviously terrible design decision in one stage and ask nobody in particular “Urgh, why would they design it like that?” the answer isn’t that the creators were idiots, but something much more mundane such as: two level designers worked on different floors of the studio, or a post-it note fell off a monitor.

That doesn’t excuse a poor design decisions, of course, but I think it is worth understanding and appreciating the very real and often straightforward reasons why something is the way it is: because this thing was made by a large team of dispersed and imperfect humans under actual, boring constraints.

Earlier this morning, this tendency to boil the entire creative output of a large studio down to a single individual was starkly clear in a press release about the closure of Irrational Games. Irrational, responsible for the Bioshock series, is headed by one of mainstream gaming’s better known auteur figures, Ken Levine.

The press release, written by Levine, explains how the studio is closing down so that he can take a much smaller group of 15 employees to work on smaller games. The rest of the studio’s employees will lose their jobs.

It’s a very weird press release. Studio closures and downsizings are not rare in the videogame industry, but the idea that the studio would be shut, with almost everyone losing their job, because the creative lead feels like doing something new, is incredibly strange. Taken at face value, it implies that the many other people who created Irrational’s games are irrelevant to the studio’s creative output: just grunts that can be replaced when Levine gets bored of them, like sacrificing the servants when the master passes away.

Taken at face value, it’s an almost shockingly arrogant megalomania, one that ironically plays into the exact labour and capital conditions the studio’s games attempted to critique.

But it’s a press release, so of course there is more to it than face value. My suspicion would be that publishers 2K are closing down Irrational for far more typical financial reasons; but in an effort to hold onto the valuable source that is Levine’s auteur-ness for future products, allowed him to write this heartfelt letter about what he would like to do next.

The other employees are, again, hidden from sight. A couple of paragraphs are spent benevolently discussing how they will be assisted in finding new jobs (conveniently with no mention of the fact that such new jobs will inevitably require life-altering relocation to studios in other cities for many employees), but the main thrust of the release is “What Will Levine Do Next?”, relying on the crux that its audience has long personified Irrational’s creative output in Levine alone.

By taking advantage of the need to personify the creative output of the studio and promising new and exciting projects from the supposed auteur, the labour conditions that lead to many others losing their jobs is successfully downplayed.

And it is successful. Many games news outlets reporting on the closure are taking the press release at face value, mentioning the job losses briefly as sidenotes before moving on to an exciting anticipation of What Levine Will Do Next.

I don’t think it is necessarily the job of journalists to fight for the industry’s employees. That’s what unions are for – or would be if the games industry wasn’t so embarrassingly lacking in unions. Indeed, there’s a very valid case to be made that games journalists and developers are already too chummy with a lack of critical distance between the two fields.

But there is a responsibility to read between the lines of press releases to find the “actual” story. But it’s not simply a case of lazy journalism, either. Even if we tried to get the story from former employees, they would not be able to speak to us: either because of contracts they’ve signed or, much more simply, because they still want to find a new job in the industry. And so, they remain invisible to us.

The ease with which 2K and Levine are able to spin a studio’s closure and the loss of over a hundred jobs to one of an auteur’s exciting new venture reveals just how poorly we – journalists, players, critics – appreciate the full breadth of people whose labour creates these works.

But theirs are the only voices we will hear on the matter, and so the myth of the great creative auteur continues.

Join the conversation

21 Comments sorted by

  1. Zane Mookhoek

    logged in via Facebook

    "“Urgh, why would they design it like that?” the answer isn’t that the creators were idiots, but something much more mundane such as: two level designers worked on different floors of the studio, or a post-it note fell off a monitor."

    And because they didn't have the time to fix it. Common, too. Happens all the time. Every complaint you have about a game, with the exception of something like animation priority, the developers know exist but couldn't fix it.

    Don't you think they would want to? Of course.

    It is weird how people are putting the blame on Levine and saying "how could he do this?" When, chances are extremely high, this was an executive decision due to the fact they take too long to get their games out there. So they gave him a choice. Make another shooter and get it out faster than last time, or we get rid of everyone and you make something smaller that doesn't cost us a fortune.

    The industry has been a weird place the past few years.

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    1. H.A.L

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Zane Mookhoek

      Wow, love how you entirely miss the point of the piece? You just totally ignored the loss of work for the employees and just focused on Levine and 2K. Not at all focusing on the workers. You do grasp how you pretty much missed the whole point of the piece?
      So disappointing, when I see others that claim to be gamers. Care little to zero about the very cogs that make them.

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    2. Zane Mookhoek

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to H.A.L

      Where did I ever say I don't care about the workers? Where did I ever suggest or imply that?

      Because I say, people are vilifying Levine.... I don't care about the workers? What? That doesn't make any sense. A big jump there.

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  2. David J W Bailey

    logged in via Facebook

    The sooner we realise that games are giant construction projects, and that teams of super talent will assemble, create, hire workers, and disband, then the quicker AAA games will return to health.

    OK, we need to ensure the studios actually pay royalties (they have a woeful history at that), and we needed to listen to Seamus Blackley and the team at CAA when they started to press for talent recognition in games designers, coders and artists.

    If we look at this as a short transition period, it is a good thing.

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    1. Max Friedrich Hartmann

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David J W Bailey

      Guess it's worth noting that the "Gone Home" team met while working on the Bioshock 2 DLC "Minerva's Den".

      Also I support you thoughts and would stress to propose an analogy that's once the technology matures to a not so fast changing standard (a rough indicator being, that you're able to competitively sell games with 5+ year old engines). Game production will transition to become more like movie production is done for almost a century now.

      Creative top talents get to be hired by project by producers/publishers for record sums while everybody else is drawn from a pool of freelancers working at exceptional to sub-par wages, based on the size of that given pool by field, including royalty shares for a lucky few. Of cause there will still be exceptions if you live on the technology driven edge, see Pixar for an analogy.

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  3. Crazy Swedish Guy

    logged in via Twitter

    [Disclosure: I'm a Creative Lead in dev, having made AAA games, more casual games, browser games and what have you. I've worked my way up from the absolute ground floor that is QA, and done much heavy lifting in my time. I've also worked as a games journo.]

    A very well-written article. However, it's horrendously depressing that it's taken this long for someone - anyone - to write it. What you're talking about here has been true for a long, long time.

    "It’s not a problem unique to videogames…

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    1. Brendan Keogh

      PhD Candidate, Game Studies at RMIT University

      In reply to Crazy Swedish Guy

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and linking to your stuff!

      On the claim that journalists could try harder. I think there is certainly some truth to that, but it's pretty complicated. Especially when you know that some of the people you want to get comments from could be fired if they give you comments. Leigh Alexander, someone who writes much much more industry-related journalism than myself, wrote on this topic in relation to Irrational's closure: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/211139/Irrational_Games_journalism_and_airing_dirty_laundry.php

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    2. Crazy Swedish Guy

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Brendan Keogh

      Yes, it's indeed true that getting people to go on the record is tricky. It's important that we all keep trying to broaden the narrative though, even if it may mean cutting a few corners here and there. I realize that nobody wants to just throw a bunch of "anonymous quotes" out there. But I really don't like that because of that we end up with a game dev narrative that is all but completely doctored by the industry. :/

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    3. Laura Bularca

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Crazy Swedish Guy

      I agree with the Crazy Swedish Guy on this: "I really think that journalists (if they were honest in their craft, which most aren't) could try a lot harder. I mean, they don't even know what most of the functions are in the dev team."

      I myself am a game dev with a long background in game journalism. Games are never a one man show, never, and if you are a games critic, you need to know that. And if you buy the books of your favorite author, and if you watch the movies starring your favourite actor, why not following the games of your favorite game dev(s)? What is the role of the press? I never saw the press as a shopping advisor, but I saw it as a core part in shaping, nurturing, helping an industry that creates something we all want to experience. Journalists have a big role to play and a big responsibility.

      Great article!

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    4. Axel Cushing

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Crazy Swedish Guy

      Writing for a small site turns the insanely difficult task of getting people to go on record into a practical impossibility. You have no contacts inside developers or publishers outside of the PR reps, who by the nature of their position are part of the pipeline passing out garbage. Even if you score a non-PR contact, you're dealing with somebody who doesn't necessarily have the whole picture. And God help you if you want to put some serious questions to somebody who is in any sort of executive…

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  4. Jörg Reisig

    Game Designer at YAGER

    It was awesome to had you in Berlin and I am very happy that our Yager get-together sparked such an interesting discussion.

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  5. Jonatan Lara

    logged in via Facebook

    Good to read an opinion coming from someone who actually knows about this. I was terrified to see opinions of those that the only thing that they know about AAA game studios is that they develop games.

    Anyways, I always tought that closing Irrational Games after Bioshock Infinite success it was kind of weird and unfair with those who lose their jobs because of Levine new creative aspirations.

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  6. Gregg Tavares

    geek

    Just as another POV. Maybe that's how it should be?

    Many games, and particularly games like Bioshock are very similar to movies in many ways. In movies everyone's contract is up at the end of the movie. Lots of people have mentioned they think this is the way games should be done. A small team, Director, Producer, Writers, Programmers, Artists do a bunch of pre-production. They either make a prototype on their own or get money to make a prototype. Once that's done, if they can find someone to…

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    1. Brendan Keogh

      PhD Candidate, Game Studies at RMIT University

      In reply to Gregg Tavares

      With the caveat that I'm not actually an industry expert at all beyond what I see from my perspective from the journalistic sidelines, I don't think this would necessarily be a bad model for the games industry, if for no other reason than it would change expectations. The way most studios are set up are not contract-until-the-job-is-done but more you-are-part-of-this-studio-that-is-creating-this-work-and-will-create-more-works. It's more like being part of a large band, right? But then you have the…

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    2. Zane Mookhoek

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Brendan Keogh

      "even if the game they worked on was a blockbuster success."

      Except Inifnite wasn't, really. Depends, to be honest. Take Two wanted that thing to do much, much better than the original. It did about the same.

      Which,for the amount of time that went into it.... doing the same as last time isn't good enough.

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  7. Jose David Moreno

    logged in via Facebook

    Actually, Bioshock is one of the famous cases where people assigned a deep meaning to the game, and truly there is a more mundane explanation.

    At this point we can talk spoilers about Bioshock right? Why the protagonist did what he did? Would you kindly...?
    In reality, the famous plot twist was added in the very late stages of development, because after focus testing, the testers couldn't understand what's was you motivation in the game: because like lots of other fps, your character was kind of a blank slate that killed enemies and went wherever he was called by radio... because that's what you do in FPS right? The testers, being not veteran gamers, pointed out the "naked Emperor".
    So they had to add fast a reason ingame of why the character was doing in game whatever the radio guy was saying. Funny.

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    1. Brendan Keogh

      PhD Candidate, Game Studies at RMIT University

      In reply to Jose David Moreno

      It's worth noting at the same time, though, that these mundane decisions behind creative choices don't make those 'meanings' any less, well, meaningful. Like, none of the essays written about Would You Kindly are less valid if it was a last minute addition. Intentionality isn't the be all and end all.

      But most developers know that. So when I was talking to Yager, we were laughing about how some reflection I spent three pages writing about was a shader glitch or whatever and we'd think it was amusing…

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  8. H.A.L

    logged in via Twitter

    Great piece and very true- but IGN did a good piece focusing on the employees and not Levine. Believe yesterday. It is disappointing, how so many gamers. Just dont bother to think about the medium.

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