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Ken Levine on Studio Culture: From Looking Glass to 2K Boston
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Ken Levine on Studio Culture: From Looking Glass to 2K Boston

July 17, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

What's the key ingredient to make a game as polished, creative, and unusual as BioShock was? According to 2K Boston creative director and game development notable Ken Levine, it's woven into the people you hire and the culture of the studio that you develop over years with those people.

Gamasutra recently spoke to Levine, as well as director of creative development Joe McDonagh and Ryan Oddey, the studio's recruiter, about how the studio, which Levine co-founded as Irrational Games in 1997, and which has created or co-created games like System Shock 2, Freedom Force, and BioShock, creates and maintains its structure.

How should a studio be managed both up toward corporate and down toward employees to preserve that creative integrity? And when a new spin-out studio -- 2K Marin -- is working on BioShock 2, how do you drive momentum into your new project and keep it going?

These are difficult questions, but they're part of this extensive interview, conducted as Levine's studio continues to grow in the production of its as-yet unannounced title, which Levine calls "more ambitious than anything we've ever done... substantially more ambitious than BioShock."

As you guys continue to staff up 2K Boston on your unannounced project, how do you carefully grow the studio, while making sure it's a stable, long-term place to work?

Ken Levine: We've never had a layoff in the history of our company. And I'm very proud of that. When we were a private company, and now we're part of a public company. And, you know, I can't make predictions for the future, but I think culturally we've always felt it was very important to hire the right people -- and not hire too many people so things get out of control -- and think about a plan.

One of the reasons, I think, that you see a lot of layoffs in this industry is that you have these huge products, and you don't have a plan for what you do afterward. So the product ends, and -- you see this day after day, you know -- teams get cut in half or shut down after the product ships, because there's no plan to move on for the future.

We've fortunately planned well. And that was very tricky when we were a private company, but it was very important to me. And, frankly, I think that's one of the reasons we've always been relatively small. It's because if you get a huge staff, that makes you feel good, and you sit out there, and you go, "Oh, look at my domain, here. I've got 200 people working on this product." But that's a tough number to carry at the end of a project.

So I think the way you convince your bosses is, you go and make the case. You say, "Look, here's the game. Here's what it's going to be like. Here's why I think it's going to be successful. Here's what I need you to do. And here's why I think you need to do it." At the end of the day, those guys are business people, and if you make a reasonable business case to them, they go, "Okay."

Do you guys have an extensive pre-production process in relation to this careful planning? I'm going to guess "yes". Could you talk about it?

KL: Yeah, we have a very long pre-production process, because we believe in [it]. If you go back and look at our ads and stuff, we've been recruiting for how many years now? For this product? A couple of years?

Ryan Oddey: It was a couple of years ago.

KL: Almost two years for this product. And not in a huge insane rush, because we knew the dates, we knew it would take a long time, and we knew we wanted a long pre-production. And we weren't like,"Okay, let's get all hands on deck!" Games are like snowballs: they accrete people over time; they grow in size slowly over time.

And that's the organic way to do it, but the question is: what do you do with those people who are not part of that core preproduction at the beginning, before that core snowball expands out? Well, one is you don't hire those people. But two: if they're there, I think the way the economics have developed in the industry -- we did a piece of DLC for BioShock PS3, and we did some tiny bit of DLC for the Xbox 360 stuff, that we did after the game was done.

And that was a passion for me. Finding those opportunities for not-full-scale projects, but these smaller projects, I think, is a really good transitional thing. It's a good way to bring people into experiences they wouldn't have had before, in terms of seniority.

The guys who did the DLC, none of them had done lead roles on previous projects, so they got that experience [being] leads there, while the core creative team was doing the pre-production work on the product that we're working on now.

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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Nick Todd
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This is really encouraging to read. It's good to hear of such a developer who cares so much for their employees, that they're willing to build momentum internally before going full throttle into the development cycle. This article makes me want to work at 2k Boston!

Ary Shirazi
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The only thing that upsets me here is that 2kBoston is in America! We don't really have any purely interactive story tellers here in the UK. It would be selfish to ask for a 2kUK, i'd love to have had the oppertunity to go to GDC last year where Ken discussed Mise En Scene in an interactive space and i could imagine the design meetings at 2kBoston and 2kMarin are some of the most enjoyable days of work possible!

Samuli Ulmanen
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Great article indeed. If possible, the amount of respect I already had for Mr. Levine is now even larger after having read this piece. 2K Boston is definitely up there on my list of "best places to work at", along with developers such as Relic.

Huck Terrister
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Quit trying to "sell" me on consoles. You think you can make more money so you build for the 360, that's unfortunate but fine. Say that. But to try to pretend that these PC devs like Irrational, Bioware, and Bethesda 'crossed over' without compromising their high ideals is just silly, especially coming from someone whose latest game was System Shock 2 with its most interesting features sliced out.

But no, nothing has changed. I'm sure someone will release a game like Planescape: Torment for the Playstation 3 any day now. I'm sure X-Com would work fantastically with joystick control (Hell, let's make it a FPS. No difference, huh?)

I have no problem with console games, I've been playing them since forever. But making a PC game is making a PC game and making a console game is making a console game. Don't try to pretend that nothing's changed, or worse, that cutting out 80% of the complexity is a form of evolution.

Alex Covic
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Throughout this great interview and the talk about the oh so sophisticated 'hiring process' I had ONE name burned in my mind and one question that went with it:


HAHA... - explain this in a rational way. Not enough penis-jokes in your games?

Don't get me wrong, people. I like Shawn - I lived through endless hours listening to his soul-searching "The-Shawn-Elliot-Podcasts-featuring-briefly-other-people-including-Jeff-Green". I know he is very smart, very curious and skilled - yet, has this, how do I put it - irrational - taste for, not 'games' but absurd, mostly sexually metaphors of modern day iconography of the human condition?

I say that to express my fear, that he might corrupt this beloved game studio, that brought us such great games over the years. I see myself 'immersed' in the game and suddenly recognizing a dialog, poster-in-the-game, a character that must have come out of the corrupt fantasy of Shawn-Elliott's head. I will not know if this will put me off to stop playing or makes me burst out laughing - let's wait and see.

@ Wesley, I hear you. But I think the commercial success of Bioshock would not have been possible without

a) the release date, that left them alone for a couple of weeks w/o real competition on the console market and

b) the earlier decision to NOT go the RPG/Strategy - path of SystemShock2 - a game, I need to play, everytime somebody mentions it.

You can dumb down PC-games for the console market and still have enough compelling elements for brainiacs to play, If the design decisions are sophisticated and the publisher let's you waste time, money and resources, and more money...ok, they are probably not.

But people like Ken are able to 'sneak' through a complexity and depth in games even through focus-testing and publisher evaluation processes, to reach 'us' - the target-audience, behind the (commercial) target audience: The Dudes who read Aischylos, Sophocles, etc. b/c they are our cultural base and source for all storytelling, but also and b/c of that even more enjoy pop-culture, like comic books, B-Movies or Derrida;-)

(*with a mocking, I no way angry voice)

Adrian Ashman
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Yes, this was a good article. Makes me want to work at Boston2K, especially because I live near Boston and there are few companies worth looking into. I'd like to ask them more about how does someone just entering or wanting to enter the game industry go about getting in? I think every job posting I see these days is for a lead artist of some sort, does that mean they have people working under them or is that just the title of an artist. I saw Junior something or other once, but it wasn't in my field. How would someone like me get a job at 2K Boston?

Andrew Dobbs
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@Adrian: You don't need to be working at a game development studio to make games. The tools are there. Go make games. Make them fun. Now.

Glen M
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Great article. I feel your pain Wesley, but there are games like Fallout 3 that are more PC than console. I created a complex experimental game called ZenHak on XBox Community games, a lot of console players didn't want to even take the time to try and learn its control scheme because it was different. Perhaps indie games on Steam will bring forth the next System Shock 2 or X-Com.

Still the best console games are being made by the PC Alumni, Ken is right about that!

Huck Terrister
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"there are games like Fallout 3 that are more PC than console"

Oof, that one went right through the heart.

Adrian Ashman
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Ya I can go make games, but as a college graduate I require money, many things to pay for now. Plus I'd need a new computer, I'm using a 6 year old computer that's on it's last leg, takes 20 minutes to try and load the UT3 mods, and rebuilding a level is out of the question. I'd love to just go make games as you stated, but it's not that simple, I want to make games, that's why getting a job at a studio is like my dream. Thanks for the encouragement though, have a nice day.