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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 6 of 6

You talked about how you guys had similar but varied backgrounds. When it comes to getting people into the studio, how much of it is a question of temperament, and how much of it is a question of similar taste, or inspiration?

KL: We look at people who are going to come in and understand what kind of games we're making -- love the kind of games we're making. We really like to hire gamers. We really like to hire people who have a love for the thing they're making.

Honestly, if it's just a job, and you could go be doing programming databases for Morgan Stanley? This is really not the right place for you. There has to be a love. There has to be a passion, like, "I've got to make games; I've got to be doing this thing that I'm doing", or it's probably not going to be a very good job for you.

We have a pretty stringent hiring process. We do extensive phone screens, followed by flying people out to do day-long interviews with people, and then follow-ups after that, because we have to. We've had a culture for, I don't know... well, we're 13 years old now, and maintaining the culture is done two ways.

One is by -- a lot of the people have been here the whole time. I mean, many people working on System Shock 2 with me are still here with me. Pretty much everybody that worked on BioShock is here. And so, you maintain the culture by having that consistency of people; that's the most important thing.

But you also maintain the culture by making sure the people you hire have the -- as you said -- the temperament. Do they view the work as something that's important to their lives, central to their lives? Do they want to do something different? Do they want to do something important in the game space? Do they want to come to a place where there's going to be people around them they can learn from and teach things to?

Because that's how you get the most value out of adding an employee. It's not just the work they do, but they're going to improve other employees around them by being able to tech them stuff, and they're going to learn from the other employees around them.

RO: One of the things that we've done here at the studio, to help acclimate new people, is we've actually developed a form of mentor program. So anyone that we hire gets paired up with someone who's been here at least a year, and this person serves as your private wingman.

They take you around, introduce you to the team, or bring you out to lunch, and that's just one way we've made strides toward making sure that people get acclimated sooner rather than later.

KL: Our hiring procedure used to be a little more ad-hoc before, where we'd just bring people in. And we had a really good sense for hiring the right people. But I think in the last year, Ryan and Stephanie have done a great job of an actual formal process to acclimate people here. Because we're trying to keep a culture of, "Hey, we're a bunch of guys making cool games. Are you one of those guys? Come along!"

But not have it like -- I remember my first day in the games industry. I showed up, there was no desk for me, there was no computer for me, at the first company I worked at, and I ended up just going to a movie.


KL: I left, and just went to a movie. Because after two days, there's nobody that'd talk to me, or anything like that. And we were never like that, but I think what we really try to do is get to the state of the art for bringing people in, and not just having a desk but having somebody there with you that can answer your questions.

When you're moving into production on a project -- and maybe it's not that big of an issue because you say you have a high retention rate, but -- if you're expanding your studio, you have to hire quickly, but hiring the right people quickly has got to be a major challenge. So, how do you approach that?

KL: I think there's no magic formula there. I think that when we think about a project now... When we thought about this project, we accounted for the fact that hiring the staff that we needed to hire would take some time.

And when we thought about the shipping date of the project... We needed a certain kind of length for the title, because we had a scope and ambition in mind which is more ambitious than anything we've ever done. Even more, substantially more ambitious than BioShock. And we knew that was not going to happen overnight.

You see that as a catastrophe that happens to a lot of companies. You do one of two things now. Either you have companies that hire a bunch of people, and you hire the wrong people, and you try to do it quickly, or you say, "Well, we're just going to do a ton of outsourcing." And you can do some outsourcing, but it's not an organic process, really, to just find studios in China that you've never worked with before, and you don't have a corporate connection to.

You can do something, let's say certain art -- art resources that you can do stuff like that with, in terms of, if you have a good piece of concept art. But really, the best way to make great games is to have a large group of people, many of whom have worked together for many years, who can then incorporate new people at a reasonable pace, so they can come into the company and be properly...

JM: Infused.

KL: Infused. Yeah, I was going to say "ingested," but that was a little... a little more...


JM: It takes time for great people to embed in. To coalesce.

KL: Not ingest. I'll say "coalesce" instead of "ingest". Because that sounds creepily disgusting.


KL: But it takes time. And we work that into the schedule. And we certainly had to make the case to powers that be that, "Hey, one of the reasons that this product is going to take this long is because we need to build a team at the right pace."

Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

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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.