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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 Previous Page 2 of 6 Next
You had to let some people leave to form 2K Marin to develop BioShock 2. Considering BioShock sprang from you -- how concerned are you that the Marin team has the tools it needs to be successful, and has the staff it needs, to do a thorough accounting of the property, too?

KL: Yeah, but, to some degree, when you're starting a new studio... There are two different goals in the maintenance of a good studio, and even building up of a good studio, versus starting a new studio.

The people who went to form the new studio mostly have been with the company... for just BioShock, except for Carlos [Cuello]. I think that to some degree the reason that worked very well for Marin is they all had an entrepreneurial hunger in them to go start something new, and build something new...

But they had the experience of working with us on BioShock, and then were like, "Okay!" And they weren't so cemented in our culture, and wanted to go form a culture of their own. And that's very important.

Because, look, if I'm not working on a project -- I'm not working on BioShock 2. I make no claim to anything on BioShock 2,and I think it's important that that's their product, and their culture. Because you can't just clone a studio.

And I think that their hunger to do something new will be very important to their success there. And it can't just be a clone of a 2K Boston or Irrational Games; 2K Marin has to be its own thing. And a very separate thing. They're working on BioShock, but it's got to be their project. They've got to put their stamp on it.

Your games have integral story elements. And there's already debate over how stories should be told in games. It's a subject of a lot of debate: how stories should be told, and if they should be told, what methods should be used. So, when you're hiring for that, and creating a game that has a really important story element, how does that affect your process of hiring?

KL: Well, I think one of the challenges is, when we make games, generally we don't make games that rely on the most traditional methodology of storytelling in games, which is cutscenes. That's not our thing, generally. Certainly it wasn't our thing on System Shock and BioShock.

And I'm a big proponent of that, because I'm a big believer that what games do well is immerse people in worlds, and put people in scenarios that feel like there's not a layer between them and the experience. Like in a movie, you're just sitting, watching this activity onscreen; with a cutscene you just sit back in your chair.

What is that moment that we want out of game playing? We want that moment we forget we're in front of the computer, in front of the Xbox 360, in front of the PS3. We want that moment where we're immersed, and we're in that thing. And so, if I can tell a story without that layer, without that, "Okay, now you're participating in entertainment" -- where you forget that you're participating in entertainment, where you just think you're having an experience. That's the golden ideal, right?

So, the challenge is that it's really, really, really hard to do, because it's so easy. Cutscenes are such shorthand [for telling] a story. It's so easy to tell a story because you control everything.

So when you bring people in, what you want to find out from them is: Are you really interested in making all this effort? Because it's so much effort to tell a story that way. Like, BioShock's story? Told in cutscenes? My, it would've been so much easier.

I'm working on the BioShock novel being done, with a writer named John Shirley, and I'm going to just sort of peek my nose in and write the prologue and the epilogue of that. And I'm sitting down to write it, and it's like, "Oh! I can just write about Tenenbaum! I can just say what she's saying! And she can talk! And the audience may not go off and, like, shoot her in the head while she's saying it!"

So to do that, to want to take that pain on for the audience? To do that work for the audience, and have that experience of being immersed? You say to the person you're thinking of hiring: "Are you ready to not take the easy way out?" And I think that's always the challenge with us, is how we develop software; how we develop games is, we want to take the work on so the audience doesn't have to. And sometimes that's painful.

And BioShock... It was a development cycle of lots of revision, and lots of thought and rethought, and going back and throwing stuff out. I threw out huge drafts of scripts and things like that; artists threw out whole sequences. And that's because we all, at the end of the day, said, "What is the audience going to think of this? How is the audience going to react to it?"

And I think if you just want to come in, and do your work, and just have it be sacrosanct, and have nobody touch it, then this probably isn't the right place for this. If you want to do something where you go home and you go, "I think that's absolutely the best way that itcould have possibly been done, and I'm satisfied with knowing that, I don't doubt that anymore," then this is the right place for you, because I think you'll walk away feeling that.

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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.