Irrational Games Shuts Down: Our Assessment

February 19, 2014

Big industry news in the early hours of this morning: Irrational Games, makers BioShock and BioShock Infinite, are shutting down.

The announcement comes from studio head and lead of the aforementioned projects, Ken Levine, who posted the details in a forward letter in the front page of the Irrational Games website. In it Levine states:

[quote]I am winding down Irrational Games as you know it. I’ll be starting a smaller, more entrepreneurial endeavor at Take-Two.  That is going to mean parting ways with all but about fifteen members of the Irrational team.   There’s no great way to lay people off, and our first concern is to make sure that the people who are leaving have as much support as we can give them during this transition. [/quote]

Levine explains that Irrational Games in its current form will be downsized through lay-offs to around fifteen people. These people will then work closely with Levine on smaller, digital games, a direction Levine is happy to go in, a direction he describes as:

[quote]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.[/quote]

As for what will happen to the BioShock franchise, Levine says the following:

[quote]I’m handing the reins of our creation, the BioShock universe, to 2K so our new venture can focus entirely on replayable narrative. If we’re lucky, we’ll build something half as memorable as BioShock.[/quote]

As said, you can read Levine’s entire statement on the official website.

Rocket Chainsaw’s assessment: While it might seem odd that a studio behind critically acclaimed titles from the last generation would suddenly shut up shop, and a little odd that Levine would welcome the loss of many, many talented staff, there’s probably a bit more going on if you read between the lines. In short: Levine is acting somewhat as a fall guy for what has been an ongoing financial mess.

Irrational Games’ early days had them release titles once every two or three years, putting the studio behind classics such as System Shock 2 and Freedom Force. The last few years, however, haven’t been quite as favourable. While the time between SWAT 4 and BioShock seems to be only two years on paper, the game was in development for quite awhile beforehand, going through a scrapped concept before it’s revised announcement in 2004. BioShock Infinite was even more troublesome, the development cycle taking at least six years (more considering pre-production), going through a number of iterations and visions, costing a small fortune in the long run.

While it’s easy to say “But these games reviewed well, and sold well!”, this has not necessarily been the case for Take-Two, a company that has been posting fiscal losses every year that didn’t include the release of a Grand Theft Auto title, or Red Dead Redemption. Success on the small scale for Irrational’s work is damaged by Take-Two’s losses as a whole, as the parent company promised shareholders twice that they’d stop reporting losses in these non-Rockstar years, failing to follow through.

In the long run, it is quite likely Take-Two viewed Irrational’s games for what they are: very expensive projects with very long development cycles. Critically revered, but not good business for a publisher that wants to ensure they’re reporting positive fiscal growth, something very difficult to do when years pass by with money being funnelled off to Irrational to finish a scrapped then rebuilt project that may be years away.

Take-Two probably gave Levine the ultimatum: either everyone goes, or you can stay with us with a small team. The digital boom and Levine’s pedigree ensures that whatever he’s working on will likely be affordable to make and have a high return of investment. Much more profitable and shareholder appeasing than a six year multi-million dollar blockbuster. And that means the rest of Irrational Games, those that aren’t part of Levine’s fifteen person crew, must lay down on the chopping block.

Sad, but also perhaps a warning for how troubled this industry has become, one that may be heard too late. Developers have been dropping like flies over the last generation. It started with the small and insignificant, but over the last few years it has moved up. Once upon a time low tier studios you’ve probably never heard of were the ones taking the bullet. Then it was Silicon Knights and Pandemic Studios, mid-to-high tier studios well established in the industry. Cing, Hudson, and the climax of THQ’s implosion that took with them Blue Tongue and Vigil Games, among others. And now Irrational Games, a studio arguably considered one of the most acclaimed and definitively “AAA” production studios of the last generation.

The safety net of blockbuster studios loved and adored by gamers is a myth, and years old arguments that the AAA production model, wherein tens if not hundreds of millions are funnelled into a single game’s development is simply not sustainable, is perhaps more evident here than anywhere else. The public’s insatiable desire for ‘blockbusters’ and unfair critique of games that do not meet a ludicrous production standard is part of the problem, and though it started at the bottom, we’re now seeing the damage hit the very top. Ultimately the real question is: who’ll be next to fall, and who is trying to salvage the mess?

Rocket Chainsaw would like to wish those let go at Irrational Games the best of luck finding work elsewhere.