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19 February, 2014

Ken Levine Jumped Off A Sinking Ship

If you hadn’t caught the news, legendary developer Irrational Games is moving away from making blockbuster console games. And blockbuster they have been – mainstream console releases don’t get any bigger (or better) than BioShock. The developer isn’t closing completely, but the majority of its staff are being laid-off, and it will be restarting as a smaller 15-person team - potentially under a new name – that will focus on creating bite-sized, downloadable titles. 

This announcement was a surprise to many, myself included, but it shouldn’t have been.

The signs have been coming for a while that the lure of creative and distribution freedom in the indie scene has been pulling at the desires and dreams of developers stuck for years in the console development loop. In Issue 0 of Grab It Magazine (our free sample issue), I conducted a lengthy interview with Ryan Payton, the founder of République developer Camouflaj. Payton had previously worked as a producer on the Metal Gear Solid series, and prior to pulling up stumps and moving into indie development, was creative director of Halo 4. He voiced an issue that many in his position have no doube been feeling. Here is a snippet of what he told me:

Only two years in to [Halo 4] I was burnt out by corporate life and wanted to go somewhere where I could really flex my creative muscle. It wasn’t until 2011, though, that I decided the best place for me would be a brand new studio built from the ground up. Without consulting a dictionary, I formed Camouflaj and left Microsoft in the summer of 2011. I firmly believe that if République had been developed inside a big studio, it would have been cancelled many times over.

(As it turns out, République is awesome. Grab it here, and read our review – alongside 21 others – in Issue 1 of Grab It Magazine.) 

Ken Levine, the creative force at Irrational Games, has always come across as a man driven by his art. A man with those kinds of creative juices – and clearly backed by a team of likeminded souls – must become suffocated by the console game making cycle, with years between releases, millions in investments and intense expectation. (Especially when he can see the depth and quality in the indie scene, just look at our 50 Best iPad Indie Games of 2013 awards.) This regardless of how much breathing space publisher Take-Two’s gave the team.

After what must have been an exhaustive six-year development cycle for BioShock Infinite, followed by a further year of DLC, Levine wanted out. It makes sense to me – wholly rational. Full retail console development for developers that have well and truly proven themselves is a sinking ship. And it’s a sign of the man’s clout that publisher Take-Two played ball and did whatever it had to do to keep him in some way on the boat - Irrational Games, in its new guise, will remain attached to Take-Two.

This is important to note. For me, it shows that publishers like Take-Two are concerned about this trend whereby the likes of Ryan Payton, Robert Bowling, Tim Schafer, Sid Meier, Peter Molyneux, Ken Levine, Cliffy B and others are emancipating themselves from the system. Worried that their most creative talent don’t need them anymore. That there is nothing from stopping these great game makers from doing it all on their own. They’ve got the name, the pedigree and the fanbase - and thanks to download distribution portals, crowdfunding and the huge growth in interest for the indie game scene, people like Levine must be wondering why they’re offering up any slice of the pie or a say in brand direction to a third-party. 

But publishers can't let that happen. They know the financial impact the digital market can have on their bottom line and – unlike the last decade – they know that in the modern digital market quality matters. When a company like EA reveals it makes more from the digital market than traditional retail, you’ve got to get into that space, so you might as well do it with Levine, whatever his demands.

The downsizing of Irrational Games is not only rational, it’s the most notable blip yet on a growing trend whereby established blockbuster talent is jumping off a sinking ship in long-cycle console development and swimming to the greener small-scale pastures enjoyed by the indie scene. And it’s exciting times – we can all benefit from a world in which creators like Levine take the opportunity to engage, build and release more of their ideas, more frequently, to eager thumbs and fingers.

Other Articles of Interest:
    - Ryan Payton's Top 10 Games of 2013
    - Issue 1 of Grab It Indie Games Magazine (22 in-depth reviews, 14 exclusive interviews, 5 big features, videos, soundtracks and plenty more - all indie)

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