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Irrational Games, journalism, and airing dirty laundry Exclusive
Irrational Games, journalism, and airing dirty laundry
February 19, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

February 19, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Programming, Art, Design, Production, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander looks back a few years to put the impending closure of Irrational Games into better context.

I really loved BioShock. It was so atmospheric, so beautiful and so sad. It's set in this ruined, sunken city, where autocracy and excess had just driven happy people mad, and where you as the main character grapple with questions about your own agency. Surrounded by lonesome, low whale sighs and sweet, lurid little-girl patter, you as the player character make choices and study whether you think they mattered.

No matter what you do along the way, the way it ends is basically determined by one question: Did you want a lot of power or not? I think for some people that wasn't really as much agency as they were promised. But I thought it was just perfect. People usually have a lot of power, or none. No matter how interested we are in the spaces in between, in the nuances of power structures, you usually end up at an extreme.

I think that is probably something Ken Levine believes, as the games he's helmed are essays on the consequences of power disparity. The BioShock series in particular seems fascinated with contrasting the way the giddy aristocracy lives with the hidden human cost "below." If you wanted, you could make a thematic argument about why BioShock Infinite has cakes in every garbage can and glittering coins, baubles and sparkles begging to be strip-mined even in the urgent heat of battle. But I think you'd be giving it too much credit. Infinite is awful.

Dirty laundry

I mean, I hated it. But I might not be a very good journalist. The news that Irrational would effectively close, laying off its staff, leaving Levine to start a new endeavor with just 15 former Irrational members and a flat hierarchy, came as a surprise to me -- and that's even though someone told me it could happen, a year ago.

I didn't report it. I don't report a lot of things people tell me in confidence about what goes on at their jobs. Digging around in dirty laundry and in open wounds is complicated. The value of the story to those who will read it has to be worth the net risk. There's the risk you're dead wrong: you can't just write an article based on what you heard from one friend or one colleague and present it as fact, just because you believe it. People have to be willing to corroborate, and they have to be willing to do it on the record. Otherwise it's not reporting, it's rumor-mongering. It's irresponsible.

No one talks to the games press officially. I wish they did, but I get it. They want to keep their jobs. Let's just say multiple people within a studio were willing to risk their careers to confirm to me that yes, in fact, if their game didn't sell extremely well, like exponentially more than its predecessor or "well" according to a matrix of time and cost investment and desired profit, that their studio would be closed in a year.

Many game developers think they're the only ones feeling trapped at a studio that just isn't working well together.

What good does it do anyone, the story about the conditional but likely imminent closure? Who does it help and serve? What good does it do to risk my friends' jobs and their confidence to patch together the plausible but potentially biased story about all the extra unfinished or un-implemented content from the wildly over-budget and over-scope game? The story about the high stress, the high turnover, the difficult-to-work-with creative lead?

The people whom it affects most -- the employees of that studio -- already know. Why drag their business out into the open, lathe the already-raw patches of their morale, risk their future investments, risk the health of their already-troubled project with a big, ugly news story so that We The Fans, We The Gamers, can get their hungrily-desired "full story"?

I dunno. That never seemed worth it to me. This is a volatile entertainment business, not fucking Watergate.

But someone I know who works in the industry -- yes, I'm sorry, all of my quotes come from "someone I know who works in the industry" today, since the industry is shocked into trepidation about its future by the failure of a successful publisher's boutique franchise -- says that airing the dirty laundry helps comfort the people stuck inside this place or that.

Many game developers, he says, think they're the only ones feeling trapped at a studio that just isn't working well together, or that they're the only ones who "have to" crunch, even though they were promised they wouldn't "have to" crunch, because of some creative-guy type's pie-in-the-sky last-minute ideas. They think they're the only ones who've just been handed a time window from the corporate guys in which to sell or die.

"Even the most seemingly well-run studios are actually just a collection of frustrated, dicked-around-with people," said someone I know, encouraging me not to give up on the dirty laundry. "A little blood in the water [puts] pressure on the management."

The culture of silence that enshrouds game development allows poor quality of life at best, professional abuses at worst to continue. The good headlines are all some board member guy who checks in once a month ever sees. Silence is what preserves the dichotomy between the guys from the floating paradises Ken Levine imagines and the underclass he often depicted as both dangerously-furious and pitiful.

Meeting a bookish, thoughtful Levine in 2011

I was allowed to go inside Irrational once. I was in the area doing a profile of neighboring studio Harmonix for OXM, and I thought it'd be worth a shot to ask the PR if I could come and interview Ken about Infinite, which was being made at the time. It was 2011 and I hadn't gotten an interview about the game since it was announced the year before with a lot of pomp and glamour at an event in Manhattan's iconic, luminous Plaza Hotel (I was nervous, drank a lot and ate mini-hamburgers, I think).

To my surprise, they told me I could come, and set up a roundtable for me not only with Ken, but also with three of the project leads: director of product development Tim Gerritsen, lead artist Shawn Robertson and art director Nate Wells. It was a very generous thing for Irrational to do with its time, especially considering Gamasutra is an industry publication mainly, and doesn't publish the kinds of hot previews that help publishers sell games. At the time we weren't even embedding pictures in our posts.

It was refreshing to go talk to a game developer who really understood literature, history, theater, who was so obviously fascinated by culture.

Before I sat down with them, the PR gave me a brisk but not too revealing walk around where all the team worked in their blocs and rows. She was much warmer to me than the especially media-shy nature of Take-Two and its studios would lead me to expect (Irrational's doorplate is blacked out; unless you knew what you were looking for, you'd never know there was a game studio there at all). I asked to be shown the desks of a couple of friends of mine who had recently gotten jobs working on Infinite, so that I could say hi to them. When I saw them we both negotiated the greeting a little bit uncomfortably, the same hesitance you show a one-night stand you run into on the street. You aren't supposed to show that you know each other that well. It's not good for anyone.

I thanked her a lot for setting the appointments up for me, unplanned, unchoreographed and on short notice. "Of course!" she said. "Ken loves to talk."

Ken did love to talk. He talked for long stretches of time, about Hitler and Goebbels, exceptionalism, art nouveau, theatre, fine arts, juxtaposition, and I had far more material than I could use. In my memory he was the only one who sat across the conference room table from me; I recall Gerritsen to my left and Wells and Robertson to my right, and him facing us all down, steeple-fingered like the father from Evangelion. The tanned, sculpted tight-t-shirt Levine we'd be seeing in the media by 2013, the "Hollywood" Levine as described in this lavish Polygon profile, wasn't quite present yet. This Levine seemed tousled, bookish, thoughtful.

I was still intimidated by him, I admired his work so much. I felt it was refreshing to go talk to a game developer who really understood literature, history, theater, who was so obviously fascinated by culture. In my work I talk to man after man who loves to say "badass" or whose scope of references doesn't extend beyond the Aliens trilogy. It was -- it is -- easy to see him as someone who can make games that are better. And I was pretty certain at the time that I was going to love BioShock Infinite and was excited to have the opportunity to show other developers the philosophy of its making.

That's another difficult thing about games journalism -- like, real capital-J journalism -- even when we do get unplanned access to people, we're in the position of having to ask tough questions of people who have a short fuse for media prying, who work in offices with blacked-out nameplates, who we admire.

At the time, I had no tough questions to ask, besides, maybe, "are you difficult to work for, my friend who works here isn't allowed to talk to me about you, but he said you were difficult to work for." I didn't ask that one.

Wells has the sort of feverish brightness that very good artists have, one minute restlessly eyeing the ceiling, the other talking evenly about studying historical engravings, and the influence of Irrational's historical Massachusetts location on Infinite's style and feel. At the time Gerritsen emphatically supported Levine's pleasantly rebellious-sounding attitude to traditionally-rigid internal process: that process itself "serves development -- it doesn't drive development."

"This isn't a studio that says, 'we're going to make a design doc on day one and build that'," Gerritsen told me.

It does sound pretty liberating. They talked about finding the shape of the game by failing, by making everything, polishing things, and then throwing them away later if something changed, if those elements no longer worked. One of the earliest Infinite teaser trailers showed Elizabeth trying to revive a dead horse by opening one of her "tears" to another period in time and accidentally pulling open a window to a neon-80s future. Everyone thought it was awesome. The image helped sell excitement for the game, but it never made it in. The emotional challenge Elizabeth would have controlling her "tears" that Levine talked about was never in the final story, either. Elizabeth got a whole new face and body partway through the marketing campaign. I've never seen that happen before.

The game was also supposed to have a Vita version, if you remember. Where did that go? Someone Else Who Works In The Industry told me that a lot of the Infinite content that was polished and then never implemented became the Burial at Sea DLC*. Someone Who Works In The Industry told me that thanks to Ken Levine's breadth of endless ideas and philosophy of fearlessness and un-planning, Infinite grew far, far over its budget and far, far beyond its scope.

What I remember about meeting Wells and Gerritsen is that they liked to talk far less than Ken did. They looked to me very much like they wanted to be getting back to work. It's not that they weren't nice to me, they just seemed restless. I felt self-conscious, like I was imposing on their time. A year after I met them, Gerritsen and Wells left Irrational. Right after that, Epic heavyweight production director Rod Fergusson joined the studio, ostensibly to replace Gerritsen. People In The Industry said someone like Fergusson had to come in and pull the many-headed Irrational ouroboros into line, else Infinite would never ship.


The following spring, Levine was telling the media that his disinterest in traditional process meant his team just had to crunch. Around the same time, Nate Wells, who had become Naughty Dog's art director, marveled to the press about the ego-free process he enjoyed with The Last of Us' team.

That was when I started to hear a lot from People In The Industry about how people at the studio were unhappy at work. I heard from People in the Industry that turnover at Irrational was very high. More than one Person in the Industry told me that almost no-one who made original BioShock stayed on to make Infinite. At the time, a year out from shipping, Someone Who Worked There told me they believed the studio would close if Infinite didn't sell very, very well.

Someone Else Close To The Situation told me the same thing yesterday. That everyone in the studio probably knew.

I don't know any of these things "for a fact." It's just things I was told. It's just things I could readily believe, based on what else was being reported at the time. It wasn't anything I had the aptitude to do capital-J Journalism about. I don't know how to factually present, for example, the churn rate over the studio's lifetime beyond "we heard it was high." We got a no comment even just for asking how many people were employed at Irrational at the time of its closing.

But I often saw budget numbers like $200 million in the press. I think, logically, $200 million is probably not enough anymore for a full-size studio to work on a cutting-edge triple-A game for five years. I saw that BioShock Infinite sold around 4 million units as of mid-2013. I think that's about the same sales figures as original BioShock did several years prior against a much smaller console install base. I think probably investors wouldn't think that was good enough. This is just a hypothesis. Take it with a grain of BioShock Infinite Salt, please.

I think it's fair to speculate a smaller team would suit Ken's style the best.

At the end of 2013 Ken Levine told Giant Bomb about his top 10 games of 2013. None of them were the kinds of games he makes. His top three favorites were Wind Waker HD, Lego Marvel Super Heroes and the PC turn-based strategy game Unity of Command.

Yesterday when Ken announced that Irrational would close, and he himself would work on narrative-driven games while preserving only 15 of his colleagues, there was a lot of speculation. How could Ken "do such a thing," people wondered. Why didn't he just leave and start his own studio? Surely his team would staff up again to triple-A size? None of it really makes a lot of sense, so we have to assume the decision wasn't entirely his. There are probably contracts and legal issues involved.

It was probably the best bargain he could have struck with the publicly-traded company that has ownership over the work he's done for it thus far, and whose investors probably, rationally or otherwise, expected better numbers from Infinite after all the delays and the presumably-high budget. I mean, narrative-led games aren't being made in triple-A anymore, really. They're being made by small teams with nontraditional hierarchies. I think it's fair to speculate a smaller team would suit Ken's style the best.

A scary bellwether

Speculating is really all I can do. I'm not trying to kid anyone that I'm capable of any more than that. I thought a lot about whether I could have done better, as a journalist. What was my role, our role? Based on all the headlines I chronologically assembled here, and the things People In The Industry told me in private, when exhausted, when frustrated, when worried about their future, should I have seen this coming? Probably. What should I have done? Dug around in the wound? Would it have helped?

I hope the people of Irrational will quickly move on to good positions. Yeah. I hated Infinite, so publicly and so virulently that I felt a twinge of guilt yesterday. I think all us game writers feel guilty, when bad things come to a team that made a game we pilloried. Of course my little blog posts and Tweets had nothing to do with their fortunes; I'm not even on Metacritic.

The spirit of the team and everything they wanted to say, and everything Ken wanted to say, is written all over the game.

But I wanted them to know I felt for them. That's not very journalistic of me, and sometimes I find the courage to say how I really feel about games and studios by reminding myself that they don't care what I think, nor should they. I think we've well established I'm not much of a capital-J Journalist.

But their talent was obvious, and that based on what I believe they were up against, it's a miracle they shipped a game that was even abstractly cohesive. Even when I wrote about the game, I tried to express I think it's no coincidence that it's too extreme in its treatment of power structures, that it caricaturizes both the people with no power and those with all of it. That it's full of "tears," literally, in the fabric of its world, where you can see the ghosts of things that wanted to enter and instead flickered just beyond the curtain of the attainable. The spirit of the team and everything they wanted to say, and everything Ken wanted to say, is written all over the game.

It's a scary bellwether for triple-A that not even a team like Irrational, not even someone like Ken Levine, could aim for creative breadth and narrative depth, be well-reviewed, sell millions and still be sustainable. BioShock as a series was always about showing the inevitable dark side of imagined paradises. This is another such story. That's really all I know.

Update: After this article was published, level designer Shawn Elliott told people other than me that the sources' assertions about Burial at Sea were "categorically false." That is now officially the only official quote this article contains, so please remember that.

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Nicholas Lovell
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A few years ago, I wrote a blog post on GAMESbrief about 10 games businesses that I thought were doomed (
omed/). I got it in the neck for that one. How dare I be negative about a game that hasn't released yet? How dare I judge on the process, not the finished product? Who was I, to determine what was going to succeed or fail? (See Alec Meer from Rock Paper Shotgun in particular:

Well of course I can't determine that. I can only say what I see, based on experience in the world of finance, small companies, game design and the difficult transition to new business models. Some of my predictions were right. Some were wrong. (

But I believe that standing up and saying what you think the issues are IS the best thing for all involved. If you are a journalist, you need sources. If you are an analyst, you don't, but you need to reasons and a coherent argument to hang your opinions on. Reports by journalists and opinions by analysts add up to something useful: something that investors and managers and employees (both current and prospective) can consider when looking at the prospects for a game, or a business.

Or, as I was urged, we can just stay quiet. Keep our mouths shut. See businesses that we think are heading for the abyss fall into the darkness and shrug and say "I saw that coming". And no one will believe you. And you didn't give anyone the chance to avoid that fate.

Dane MacMahon
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I've disagreed with many of your articles in the past but this one was very well written and right on point, Ms. Alexander. Well done.

I can't even imagine how different and eclectic this industry will be in 10 years.

Rob Wright
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Wow, there's a lot going on this column (mostly in a good way), so i guess I'll just start with writing that I'm glad someone is finally looking at this closure as the scary bellweather that is.

Whoever runs Take Two's PR/marketing should get a raise, because they've done a pretty masterful job of spinning this news. It feels like the bulk of comments (here and elsewhere on the web) about this news are eithering blaming Levine for this move or wishing him well for his brave new endeavor to elevate narratives in games. It seems like very little conversation is being ahd about what this really is -- a renowned developer with a critically acclaimed GOTY title less than a year old had to shut down because 4-plus million copies and tons of great reviews can't sustain a business in today's economic model.

G Irish
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I don't think that 4 million sold can't support a game like Bioshock Infinite. It's that 4 million sold can't support a AAA game that took 5 years and $200 million to produce because of poor management.

Time and again we're seeing with AAA games that the poor project management practices of the gaming industry do not scale. A studio head like Kazunori Yamauchi's outsized appetites resulted in Gran Turismo 5 taking 6 years to ship. In the PS2 generation he was probably constrained by the technology to an extent, but given a bigger leash his approach led to a much larger delay. It sounds like this was exactly the case with Levine.

With the much larger budgets these days the prolonged crunch, changing requirements, and high turnover that are more common than they should be, are going to cause a lot more pain and lost money for AAA games. The upside might be that maybe the powers that be in the gaming industry will actually try to start fixing those problems.

I also think that's why it's important for articles like this to see the light of day. The repeated failures in the industry need to be held up to scrutiny so maybe more people can avoid the same fate. If the dirty laundry never comes out, no one can point to the cautionary tale when they're trying to prevent the train from going off the cliff.

Rob Wright
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Agreed, both on the development economics and especially the dirty laundry part. There are too many bad practices and broken systems in game development; while I respect the author's feelings about digging around in people's dirty laundry and not wanting to drag folks who just lost their jobs into this mess, this sort of news isn't just so We the Gamers can get our daily gossip fix. This news is important because it lets developers, aspiring or established, know what kind for problems are plaguing this industry right now, and that these issues may be happening in their own workplace.

Wes Jurica
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The closure of a studio after releasing a game that sells well isn't anything new in the games industry. Team Bondi closed after L.A.Noire's release (another Take 2 success story!) for example. Even in other industries this is a common occurrence. You know that great VFX studio that worked on Life of Pi? Closed. You know that great restaurant you always went to? Closed. This sort of thing happens a lot but, like natural disasters, these events are quickly forgotten and this allows us to be very shocked the next time it occurs.

G Irish
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Funny that you mentioned Team Bondi. That is another studio that had an ambitious creative vision that spent way too long (7 years!) in a cycle of changes, high turnover, and crunch. No surprise then that it ended up folding.

Alan Barton
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@"closure of a studio after releasing a game that sells well isn't anything new"

No its not new, but every time it happens, its bad. Its not that we forget, bad is simply bad.

I have no idea what happened in this case, so I can't talk about this case, but as a general rule, that behaviour is most definitely very bad.

I have a lot of sympathy for a failed company forced to make staff redundant because it has no more money, but you will find an entirely different reaction from most people when a profit filled company closes down with the boss running off with the profits whilst throwing most staff out of work! That does happen. Also don't forget how much some bosses can earn before they run their company into the ground with bad management, at which point they claim it has no money (after bleeding millions from it!).

So as I say, I have no idea what happened in this case, but as a general rule, these underhanded boss tactics do occur and the staff are very often the one's who loose out.

So "Forgotten" has nothing to do with it. Bad callous narcissistic behaviour from a boss is bad ... Well its bad for everyone other than the boss, and yet so often these bad bosses show they think that is perfectly normal behaviour, even to the point at times, that they expect sympathy for the closure of their studio, but show they don't really give a fuck about the welfare of their staff who earned them millions!

Empathy isn't optional. Lack of empathy is bad. We need to call out bad behaviour when it happens.

So as I say, I don't know what happened in this case, but I would like to know more. Maybe the staff were ok after they were thrown out of work? But what I have seen over the years (and decades) is that most of the time, the usual story is the staff suffer considerable hardship whilst trying to get another job whilst the bosses run off with millions.

The more we all learn to spot bad bosses, the less we can all be exploited by this way of treating staff badly and so the less bad people will even get the chance to hold the title of a boss! If people don't trust them, the boss earns nothing.

Marbles Blergman
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the peanut gallery reaction has been unreal - i can't believe how many people assume that levine, an employee of take two, is making massive financial decisions like this on behalf of the company. countless comments + articles either implicitly or explicitly cast him as someone with executive power. his new role within the company is obviously the best deal he could eke out under the circumstances - which is to say, as the public face and creative director of an over-budget, under-sold game.

Billy Bissette
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Something went wrong somewhere, or as likely the whole process itself is damaged and/or broken, to lead to this closure. Maybe it was Levine, not controlling a seemingly out of control game development. Maybe it was Take Two. Maybe it was a host of contributing factors.

The issue is as much that it isn't even news anymore. It happens so often, has become so expected, that there aren't even really complaints this time. People can make a too long list of studios that closed under similar circumstances. It is just another blip when a publisher expresses public disappointment that their game sold only 5 million copies. People aren't surprised at stories of financial trouble, because the companies in question tend to have been showing warning signs for years. (Irrational apparently showed signs as well. It is just that the key bits weren't reported.)

George Menhal III
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I have maintained that Bioshock Infinite was a big disappointment for me, as Bioshock was my favorite game of the last generation and Bioshock Infinite was easily my most anticipated game in all of my life (besides the original Metroid Prime). When I finished Bioshock Infinite for the first time, I was extremely disappointed. In the year following its release, I have come to terms with Infinite and put my disappointment into a more appropriate context. Infinite was simply too ambitious for its time. It largely succeeded in its ambitions (ESPECIALLY with the sheer brilliance and technical wizardry of Elizabeth), but fell so short of its predecessor in the process that it felt like a mere footnote to that game--some kind of reactionary statement to the success of the original Bioshock. That felt completely inappropriate for a game with such incredible ambitions. Infinite was just a mess, and I don't think that the Infinite we got in the end is the game that Irrational truly proposed to deliver with its incredible showing at E3 2011.

I've been saying for a while now that whatever Irrational does next, they need to put Bioshock away for a while. Keep it in their back pocket, but leave it alone for now. Do something different. Become bold again. Blow us away with ingenious design and narrative mechanics the gaming community has never seen executed so convincingly. Whether or not Infinite didn't sell well enough for the company to stay afloat is entirely irrelevant to me. I think this is the right move for Levine and for Irrational Games. They will probably come up with something incredible in the next generation.

I'm very excited and inspired by this downsizing of Irrational, and I can't wait to see what Ken Levine has to say during his GDC presentation next month. I guess I'm one of the only ones who feels more excitement and less shock at this announcement. It's a new generation of game development. I fully expect things to change. That's just the way of things.

What would be sad and unbearable? I suppose the saddest thing I can imagine would be for a great mind like Levine to quit games entirely and focus his creative energies on something else. That would be sad. The game industry needs this guy and his ideas. Irrational is pushing the industry forward with its ambitions, no matter how flawed the execution. I have nothing but respect and admiration for these people.

Jack Nilssen
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Looking forward to when folks get to sit down with Levine & his team, both present & future, to talk about this turn of events. Until then, much speculation.

David Serrano
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I agree with the comment about rumor-mongering and irresponsibility. However, if the roles were reversed and your goal to spread a rumor... would you contact Leigh Alexander? Or would you contact someone you know would publish it without giving it a second thought?

So when industry friends, casual acquaintances or strangers share information you know is not public knowledge, the conversations should probably begin or end with a very straight forward question: why are you telling "me" this?

Jacek Wesolowski
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As someone who has worked with "difficult to work with" project leads on multiple occasions, I would totally contact Leigh Alexander, if given this kind of choice. The reason is that someone who doesn't know how to handle rumours might commit a number of mistakes, such as bad timing, attributing someone else's rumour to me, or representing speculation and opinion as fact. Also, people who publicize gossip willingly tend to be more easily manipulated. Last thing I need is some idiot repeating my words, with attribution, to a "difficult to work with" project lead, because they "just wanted to help resolve this situation".

Hasan Almaci
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Why do you assume that the people who told her these things wanted it out?

They tell us things not because they want us to write about but to get it of their chests, they confide in outsiders to cope with the situation they are in.

David Serrano
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I was implying they choose to share information with a respected journalist for reasons which have nothing to do with spreading rumors.

Tomasz Mazurek
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If anything, this industry needs more dirty laundry airing not less. Because there is way too much of that dirty laundry. I don't know your friends, but at times the reason you say secret stuff to a journalist is because you can't say it aloud yourself. That's what journalists are for and why you have this nice thing called "reporter's privilege". You are the vox populi and it is good if you sometimes give voice to the working people of the industry, not only to directors, leads, CEOs and PR representatives.

Hasan Almaci
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Which ensures you get blacklisted by devs and PR.

Jacek Wesolowski
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That's what my first employer told me. They said I would never have a gamedev job again.

That was five gamedev jobs ago.

Besides, whistleblowers and abused "grunts" have no reason to blacklist each other, and guess what, there are already studios composed entirely by former whistleblowers and abused "grunts".

Hasan Almaci
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You are a developer, I used to be press and over the years I have been blacklisted by companies like Sony, Microsoft, Sega, Ubisoft, Activision etcetera since my coverage was not to their liking.

In 2007 I wrote this for a Belgian games forum

Since then things have gotten a lot worse.

Jacek Wesolowski
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I sort of know what you're talking about, because my first games-related job wasn't in development at all: I wrote reviews and columns, both for websites and for printed magazines. Part of why I switched to development was that I didn't want to have anything to do with games press anymore. I'm pretty sure my former employers are never going to hire me again, but I'm also never going to apply.

(heck, I wonder if they even exist; it was ten years ago)

I think two important questions to ask here are whether it's matters if you get blacklisted by a corrupted news outlet, and whether it matters that you lose access to certain kinds of sources. If you make a name for yourself as an investigative journalist, then you don't need to lay your hands on the newest AAA game preview in order to have an interesting story to cover.

Dana Laratta
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"Digging around in dirty laundry and in open wounds is complicated. The value of the story to those who will read it has to be worth the net risk. There's the risk you're dead wrong: you can't just write an article based on what you heard from one friend or one colleague and present it as fact, just because you believe it. People have to be willing to corroborate, and they have to be willing to do it on the record. Otherwise it's not reporting, it's rumor-mongering. It's irresponsible."

Shades of Kotaku and Denis Dyack. Interesting to see both Ken Levine and Cliff Bleszinski advocating the development model Mr. Dyack attempted to launch last year...

Wes Jurica
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Is that the development model where he steals code from a third party and then tries to cover it up? Just askin'... :p

Dana Laratta
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Very glib. Worthy of GAF. Would mock again.

James Margaris
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That Kotaku piece on Dyack is interesting. A lot of people held it up as good games "journalism", when it's actually just a hit-piece that takes extremely common issues in game development ("my boss told me to redo some work I had already done!!") and makes it sound extraordinary - basically preying on the ignorance of people who don't understand game development.

When people are laid off or quit there is almost always going to be a certain percentage with negative things to say about their former employer. That by itself is not in any way newsworthy. I'm sure if someone wanted to they could tell stories about me that made me sound like an idiot.

Dana Laratta
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Same here. And Ms. Alexander bring up a great question of "what good would it do" running the article about the impending rumored doom of Irrational.

Conversely the Kotaku article answers the question of "What harm can it do?" That Kotaku hit-piece later came to the fore and was at least one of the factors contributing to the failure of Precursor Games' kickstarter.

So, essentially eight guys who wanted to complain about a previous boss anonymously were able to help torpedo the company of eight people who were willing to step up and represent themselves with the same previous boss for the chance to work with him again.

Julian Cram
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But why should these irresponsible bosses be allowed to work again without any criticism? If someone fails that's fine, failure is a learning process after all. But they've failed, failed, and failed again.

They work people into the ground and take all the glory if there is any, or deflect the shit onto those workers when the shit comes, and worst of all, THEY NEVER LEARN.

Meanwhile, the staff affected by the bosses failure have to eat into their savings (if their meagre wages have allowed them any), move cities or countries, or re-skill and quit the industry.

It's clear the radical change in development processes that agile methodology and a switch to mobile platforms ushered in needs to be more radical.

James Margaris
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Most businesses fail eventually. (And often pretty quickly)

Silicon Knights was relatively successful for a decent period, during which it employed a reasonable number of people. Irrational was successful for a long time, and created a lot of jobs for a lot of people. These jobs that were lost only existed in the first place because Levine started Irrational.

Criticism is fine, but most of this criticism is coming from a place of ignorance. Either pure conjecture or based on what some disgruntled employee said, often anonymously.

I have absolutely zero problem criticizing people (most of my Gama comments are criticisms), but I don't see how it's valuable to take to twitter and say "Look, I don't know Ken Levine, but all the evidence points to him being an incompetent asshole with no respect for his peers."

Is that "criticism" of any merit? Or is that just someone being ridiculous because in certain circles you can be as rude and ill-informed as you want as long as you dress it up as a self-righteous us-against-them crusade?

If there's a bunch of evidence that Levine was a terrible boss, completely irresponsible, a horrible person, etc, fine, but right now I see conjecture and a single ex-employee doing some passive-aggressive sniping on Twitter.

Even if Levine did mismanage things - well managing a company is hard. I'm not sure how that makes him a horrible person.

Justin Leeper
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Don't forget: The guys at Kotaku have never made a game. They don't know what goes into it. They are talking as if they know. Thus, they are (probably unintentionally) misleading readers who assume they are more knowledgeable.

You know what's worse than not knowing something? Thinking you do when you don't. Worse still? Spreading your disinformation to people who take it as fact.

G Irish
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@James Margaris
I agree that a premature rush to judgement isn't particularly helpful. I think in cases like these 'Journalism' can help shed light on what really went long so that all can learn from high profile closures/failures.

As for Ken Levine, just because he was the head of the studio through several successes doesn't mean he can't run the ship aground at any point. Some people can be successful leaders under certain conditions but are unable to repeat that success when given much bigger budgets and headcounts. Not to mention that even people who have had a string of successes can make gross miscalculations. If anything, a string of successes can blind someone to their shortcomings.

There's more than a little evidence that Ken Levine may have been a big part of the problem. I do think however we have to separate someone's character from someone's actions in a work context. Not doing a good enough job during the development of a game does not make someone a bad person, no more than failing to win a sports championship makes someone a bad person.

Now, if it turns out that Levine showed a wanton disregard for the welfare of his team and was disrespectful of people, then you can say something about his character.

Benjamin Quintero
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"you can't just write an article based on what you heard from one friend or one colleague and present it as fact" - said no one at Kotaku. I'm glad to see restraint and integrity still glows faintly on the internet.

Dean Boytor
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Its hard to pretend to know exactly whats going on with Irrational, 2K and Ken Levine.

A lot of these issues you bring up are not exclusive to game companies but to software development in general. If you have an over imaginative designer/project lead/Business Analyst in a project you will have what is called scope creep.

Like I said, I'm not going to pretend I understand what going on with Irrational, but overall it seems Ken wants to peruse other avenues of game development. We will just have to see once the dust settles.

Marbles Blergman
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"At the end of 2013 Ken Levine told Giant Bomb about his top 10 games of 2013. None of them were the kinds of games he makes. "

...except he actually did list two high concept AAA games like the ones he makes: assassin's creed and dishonored.

Are Bee
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Surprised that "infinite didn't sell well enough and so irrational was shut down" is an angle you went with here, I think the more surprising story seems to be that irrational is being shut down despite how well infinite sold which opens up a lot more difficult questions.

Sources saying "if this game doesn't sell well the studio will be shut down" are stating the obvious, it's the spectre that looms over any big project and isn't necessarily indicative of any particular problem as far as I'm concerned.

According to Polygon's profile of Ken Levine prior to Infinite's release Irrational went down to a similar skeleton crew after the release of the original Bioshock obviously burning plenty of people in the process, though in that case 2K kept some on to form 2K Marin for Bioshock 2. Irrational also worked on another project between Bioshock and Infinite that was cancelled, they didn't spent 5 years at full staff making Bioshock Infinite.

Hire and fire burns bridges and is a horrible way to treat people, pure and simple, but it unfortunately seems just a natural repercussion of 2K's approach not to follow the rest of the industry to go with yearly franchises with multiple studios (though they attempted it), to have multi-project studios, or some of the many other ways the business has gone in the past few years.

It simply doesn't add up, if infinite hadn't sold enough, why bother keeping Ken Levine on to work an even more risky proposition with a skeleton crew of seniors that he admits may take an even longer amount of time? Why would Ken be talking about doing something else during his press tour's even before infinite's release if he was simply reacting to the shuttering of his studio?

Regardless, important focus needs to be on all the people that lost their jobs, because in my opinion it's the real story. Whether or not infinite sold well enough doesn't seem to matter to 2K in the slightest, it would need to sell so insanely well to justify the cost of keeping everyone on instead of going through another cycle of hire and fire that it's unsustainable.

I feel like no one would benefit more from a move over to a contractor based industry then 2K would, keeping people on staff while simultaneously attempting to give a small group of people the time they need to produce something interesting seems difficult if not entirely incompatible and maintaining the illusion of job security in such an environment by funding named studios seems disingenuous at best and dangerous at worst. People need to know more clearly what they're getting into when they work on a projects like Infinite and Bioshock, egomania included.

Bret Robbins
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I usually never post, but this was one of the more honest articles I've read on this or any other site. Kudos to Alexander. I'm sure there is real pain being felt by the former rank and file at Irrational, although it sounds like there may have been some advanced warning. Still, never a position anyone wants to be in (he said from experience.)

I don't agree with everything stated in the article; having been in the industy 18 years and having worked at the bottom and the (near) top, I can't say that "Even the most seemingly well-run studios are actually just a collection of frustrated, dicked-around-with people..." But I've often wished that captial-J journalism would dig a little deeper, and push a little harder. Not to dig up dirt. There are amazing and profound personal stories happening all the time in our industry, and the stories behind a game's creation can be as compelling as the creation of any movie or rock band.

Hopefully the bravery on display in this article will be a catalyst for other journalists in the future.

Andrew Allen
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God help me, this is one of the best articles on the gaming industry and its relationship to the press I have ever read. The questions it raises are THE questions, it's probing and in-depth yet fast-paced and entertaining. Couldn't agree with every word of it more.

Brett Norton
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Irrational shutdown results from a few things:

1. Ken Levine doesn't want to make AAA games anymore.
2. Irrational had inefficient production practices and was an expensive / troubled studio.

Ken Levine's leaving AAA; he's burned himself out on AAA (via his own actions). And whenever he would have left, he would take 10-20 of Irrational's senior staff with him.

2K knows they can't stop Ken from leaving, and probably taking his inner circle along with him, so 2K gets to save face by retaining Ken in a much less risky position with a much cheaper, smaller, team.

But looking at Irrational, bereft of it's centralized leadership (that Ken himself ran), 2K deduced it would not be able to survive on it's own. There are still plenty of AAA developers that can survive the exodus of directors / senior staff, but Irrational (as a company) centralized too much of the authority/power and would not survive such a changing of the guard. Added to the fact that Irrational is years away from another product being released, it made it an easy business reality for 2K to simply cut losses and close down Irrational.

It's hard, incredibly hard, to setup a routinely successful AAA development company. I don't blame 2K and Ken for failing with Irrational.

But let's not over blow this. Hollywood's had plenty of studio / team / project failures of massive proportions, and they still churn out AAA summer blockbusters each year.

So to will game publishers. The question is, who will be there to replace Ken for the next generation of consoles? Who will create the 'BioShock' for the next generation of gamers on which to grow up?

Michael Joseph
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"Hollywood realised that making a few big-budget films a year that appealed to the masses was more lucrative than making dozens of smaller ones, and a business model was born. Since then budgets have soared and artistic merit has taken a back seat."

"Recent research by British film academics John Sedgwick and Mike Pokorny has found that not only have blockbuster films become more profitable over the past 20 years, they have become more reliably profitable: in the late 80s just 50% of major studio films turned a profit. In 2009 it was 90%. Flops have become rare."

The silver screen is still a virtual monopoly compared to games distribution and marketing these days. News coverage of indie games has jumped by leaps and bounds further leveling the playing field. Hollywood doesn't have an "indie problem" the way AAA gamedev does. And this indie problem with all of it's red pills causing some players to turn away from the Wonderland message that "bigger is better" is more complicated for AAA then it appears.

Brett Norton
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Indie games aren't a threat to AAA games when it comes to the mass market. Major publishers like EA, Activision, etc. still control the majority of distribution and marketing. There's two major areas they own:

Advertising - Indie games don't get television adds or banners plastered on buses running through major cities.
Shelf Space - Indie games rarely get shelf space at Walmart, Target, and Gamestop.

Digital distribution is reducing the value of Shelf Space, but for now, it's still a valuable commodity that the big players own.

But digital distribution is not affecting the power of Advertising. AAA franchises run by major publishers still dominate advertising.

Games like Minecraft can go viral and still sell millions, but that's the exception, not the norm. But most indie games never get enough presence, something that advertising and shelf space help foster, to capture the mass market and sell millions.

AAA is about releasing games that routinely sell millions, not just have a chance to sell millions.

Justin Leeper
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Wow. Talk about burying the lede - at least for me.
From the moment I heard about the shutdown, my question was, "Why dissolve the company?" Just leave, and let this respected studio keep making great games! John Carmack, Jason Rubin, and Cliff B's studios didn't close up shop when their respective figurehead left.
It took 33 paragraphs for this article to touch on this. After a couple more, it went nowhere. I guess this wasn't the article I was looking for.

And incidentally, I was too frustrated by Bioshock to finish it, but I played through and loved Infinite.

Finally, a sad truth: Game journalists have as much to do with games as sportcasters do with the NBA championships. Don't overthink it. Journalists are simply spectators, observers. I say this as someone who spent 8 years as a full-time game journalist, then shipped 3 big-budget console games. If you want to change the tide of battle, you have to be on the battlefield.

Kevin Cardoza
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"John Carmack, Jason Rubin, and Cliff B's studios didn't close up shop when their respective figurehead left."

No, but they also didn't take 15 key senior staff members with them when they did. To have a studio already with a bit of an issue delivering games on time lose most of it's management and the key creative head - maybe Take 2 decided it wasn't worth it.

Ordani Briton
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Wasn't Ken the one who will supposedly pen for the movie Logan's Run. I would think that will
take up some of his time.

Doru Apreotesei
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"Now, there are several ways one could interpret this, and I dont know for a fact what actually transpired. But from the information I do have, and my own experience with the industry, Im going to allow myself to speculate a little:

1.) Ken approached Take-Two about making a new, risky, untried endeavor, still under the name of, and with the staff of, Irrational Games.

2.) Take-Two, looking at the development process behind their past projects with Ken, were skeptical.

3.) Ken threatened to leave and make the game himself. Possibly (probably, hed be stupid not to) by securing funding from Kickstarter or some other crowdfunding avenue.

4.) Take-Two offered the compromise: Well pay for the project, but seeing how you usually work and the development hell of Bioshock Infinite, we cant afford to pay for anything other than a skeleton crew while the game is in R&D mode. Later, when the concept is proven, we can staff up again. Meanwhile, we cant imagine this thoroughly broken team at Irrational making anything else, whether with or without you, so pick the ones you want from that team and then we shut the studio down.

5.) Ken accepted."

Taken from here:

Blackjack Goren
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That article should be the one written in Gamasutra, despite the subject being an issue on its own. Warren Spector got up in front of a room full of game journalists at GDC 12 and told them that games are designed and developed by teams of people, that it's frankly silly to just give one person the Lifetime Achievement award. Dan Houser from Rockstar games said the same thing recently, and has gone on record saying part of the reason he's not a public persona is because people will attribute the quality of a game to one or a few men (examples are overflowing on the internet of this phenomenon being true).

But no matter how often this is shoved down the public by the very people they put on a pedestal, they're impervious to their insight. It is much more interesting to believe in the illusion of the auteur in videogames, because it's easier to digest and makes for much better articles like, "What was Levine thinking when he envisioned everything that is in the game by himself?" This is a belief also shared by many small independent developers that have never worked with a large team (there's a somewhat recent example i recall from an insert credit podcast where Tim Rogers wonders if Spector was a bad designer because he constantly gave credit to his team for the quality of the games he has worked on... I laughed so hard, because it was funny whether he was joking, or because he was that uninformed to the development process and people making AAA games).

For all the people's desires to want videogames to stand on their own, they still judge their creation the same way they would a book or film: The director's vision, the author's intent, instead of the complex relationship of a team from which the end result, the concrete vision players actually get to play, comes from.

Ernest Adams
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"News is what someone does not want you to print. Everything else is public relations." - Origin uncertain, often wrongly attributed to George Orwell.

Matt Cratty
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Wonderful article.

And as an aside - yes, there are a minority of us that despise the direction core gaming is taking. We deserve an occasional voice also. Axes indeed.

sean lindskog
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Hi Leigh -
Both the article, and the resulting discussion are a fascinating read.

I welcome your thoughts on a code of conduct for journalists, and the game industry in general. It is important to ask these questions of ourselves.


Chris Morrison
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There is a good reason to talk publicly about studio shutdowns.

When I started my career in magazine journalism, Time Inc decided to shut down my publication. Some reporters caught on to the story and proceeded to report Time's plans to lock us out of the office without letting us know. The resulting embarrassment at the corporate office led them to delay the plan for 6 months, which gave everyone time to make other plans.

Public exposure of secret corporate plans can and does lead people to think about what the right thing to do is, rather than just the expedient one. And in many cases, not all employees at the the subsidiary or studio are in the loop.

David Paris
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I'd like to see a lot more transparency actually, though I can absolutely understand Ms. Alexander's hesitance when it comes to what to print and how. There is a large difference between repeating someone's disgruntled concerns and an in-depth analysis of what is going on. The first is unprofessional and can be randomly harmful, but the second takes a lot of time and effort, which we all have in limited supply and have to budget accordingly.

That said, the more we can get the inner workings on the game industry out in the open, the better the odds are that it can be improved. I'd like to see more "what's going on at..." type research in general, and let the chips fall as they may.

Bradley OHearne
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That was a really good article, we'll worth the read. I will admit that to some degree I cringe a bit at having to read the same story (not this article, but the closing of a company) over and over and over again, as this isn't a game industry thing, or a triple-A thing, or anything having to do with the creative process. The problem here is no different than with a company that manufactures cardboard boxes, or toothpicks, and fails: poor management. There are just powerful few good managers out there anywhere. In a 20+ year career I've known probably only two good managers. The rest were pretty much clueless, and compromised the very things which were crucial to success as soon as there was any pressure on a project, which is exactly when those success factors matter. They flitted from one management trend and software dev methodology to another, thinking that was management -- it wasn't, never was. And now our society is has glorified style over substance in nearly every facet of life, and this is on open display in the lets-find-ourselves-journey-of-worshipping-our-inner-creative and throw away project planning and deadlines way of software development rather than getting back to basics and getting the job done and product shipped on time.

I am reading the same story over and over with business everywhere. Companies who make the news with their ultra-hip trendy offices and approaches to business, and 3-5 years later when they've blown through several million dollars of investment, everyone looks at each other and wonders what went wrong. This is no different than setting sail on the ocean, and the captain announcing that he's sawing off the mast and rudder "because we are different" and in this new, free environment, they'll somehow end up at their destination, moved by a sea of good feelings. Then the storms and big waves come, and the boat ends up at the bottom of the ocean, and everyone wonders why.

It's bad management, likely coupled with very weak or speculative business plans. And the formula just keeps playing out to its natural conclusion.

John Neuhaus
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As alternatively a programmer and a "man with a vision," there is a give and take that's not being discussed here that I think is quite relevant.

The visionaries are brilliant people with many ideas. Seeing them come to light is what fulfills and drives them, but they have visions constantly. They are inspired people, but successful completion of a product requires that inspiration at some point be cut-off and redirected so things can get finished. As a writing analogy, literary skill alone is not enough to separate eloquence from rambling.

On the other side, programming is hard work. It requires a lot of logical brain power to implement ideas that sound simple, and small unnoticed mistakes can cause catastrophic problems that are almost impossible to track down. You can rework a character model from the same base mesh (sometimes, and I'm sure it's equally frustrating) when artistic visions change, but new gameplay mechanics can require architecture that may not exist yet. Rushed art can hurt a game, but a game is more than just audio/visual media. Rushed programming will almost certainly destroy it.

This a recipe for disaster. A visionary can sink his ship simply by giving his ideas too much thought, leading to long delays and cost overruns as things need to be redone or new things added that weren't part of the budget. And the programmers and artists can feel betrayed when their dedication to the vision is hand-waved away on what seems like a whim. Ask an artist-for-a-living about how hard they are on themselves and how often things are reworked until they're perfect. Separating the idea from the work just turns this conflict into a two-party problem.

This is now a team creative effort on both sides. The bottom needs the inspiration to come through while being shielded from capriciousness. The top needs to understand when they're weighing the ship down and need to save it for the next one. Good management goes in the middle, because it's about helping different people work together efficiently. The biggest problem is most of these two groups are not natural managers, but bringing in outside managers comes with its own set of problems.

Good players simply don't make a good team without good coaches.