Closing IRRATIONAL GAMES: Why It’s the Best and Worst Move

What do you do when your company has produced a series of landmark video games that will go down in history as truly game-changing (ha) creations? You shut that company down, of course.

closed irrational games why its the best and worst move

Or at least that’s what Ken Levine is doing. Now before you go all nerd-rage, be reassured that he’s not leaving the video game industry and taking it all with him. While Irrational Games is closing up shop, Ken Levine is looking forward toward an ambitious adventure. He’ll be heading a small team at Take-Two comprised of fifteen members of Irrational’s current team.

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.

This news is no doubt shocking and a little terrifying, but there is logic behind it. So which side are we on? Do we support Ken’s strange move (to be fair, he’s never led us astray before, has he?), or are we ready to picket the Irrational Games office building with “CLOSING IRRATIONAL GAMES IS IRRATIONAL” signs? The truth is, we’re a little of both. Sure there are some major downsides to this move, but there is a lot to look forward to as well.

We’ll start with a downside because it’s the most obvious. For starters, a lot of people will be losing jobs. Ken Levine is only taking about fifteen people with him to Take-Two. The plus side is that the rest aren’t going to be left out on the street. In a note on Irrational Games’ web site, Ken Levine assured everyone that “our first concern is to make sure that the people who are leaving have as much support as we can give them.” Those not following Levine on his new venture will be given time at the studio to put together a portfolio. In addition, Take-Two will discuss career opportunities within their company, and Irrational Games will have a “recruiting day” where they invite other publishers to interview the remaining staff, a sort of “pre-sale”. These people helped make Irrational Games what it is, and Levine is making sure that they are taken care of.

Another downside can also be found in Levine’s letter. While he wants to focus on games with strong narrative and high replayability, he says that he’ll be focusing on digital content only, not physical. This is truly sad news for collectors who drooled over the collector’s editions of the Bioshock games. Maybe the reasoning behind this is that focusing only on the game itself will make the game better, but video game packaging is an art form, and we hate to see it go.

We also won’t likely see a new game from Ken Levine for quite a while. It takes time to close a company, shift a team’s work from one place to another, and set up a new, kind of experimental, project. Levine seems sure that the games that this core team will produce will be at least as good as Bioshock, but still, we need something other than Burial at Sea Episode 2 to hold us over!

It almost goes without saying, but the risk behind this move is astronomical. A name only goes so far, and discarding a publisher name as well as most of the team behind it makes us a little uneasy. After all, that team was behind the classic games that Irrational Games has released. Ken Levine may have created the story, but they created the game itself. What will happen now that Levine will be working with a smaller group of people trying to accomplish more than his full team did? Not to mention that Levine is essentially giving the Bioshock franchise to Take-Two so that he can focus on this new project. Take-Two has been with Bioshock since day one, but never without Levine behind it.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look on the bright side. For starters, Ken Levine has more freedom now than he’s ever had before. His reputation is allowing him to create pretty much whatever he wants, and publishers will at least be interested. It seems that there are things he’s wanted to try but hasn’t been able to; now he’s taking the opportunity to do so.

Levine is making this move to allow him to focus on the projects that he wants to focus on. This means that Bioshock isn’t even his primary focus right now. How many hit games have you created when you really wanted to be doing something else? This is clearly something that he’s been considering for a while; you don’t just close your company on a whim. We look forward to seeing what Levine’s new team can produce with his full excitement and passion behind the project.

In the music world, when an artist wants to do something they’ve never done before, they often record in exotic locales or use a different producer. What Ken Levine is doing is setting the precedent for the video game version of this. He’s done Bioshock for three (or more if you count System Shock) games, and now he wants to get out from under the weight of that series and do something new. It’s like The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or J.K. Rowling’s pen name, Robert Galbraith. It’s a chance for Levine to take away all of the expectations that have been set and do what HE wants to do.

And with what he’s given us so far, we think this is the best move he could make.

What do you think? Best or worst move for Ken Levine, and why? What do you hope to see from Ken and the team at Take-Two?

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