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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 3 of 6 Next

You talked about being influenced by a lot of old games, like Ultima Underworld, that were immersive, and you have what I'd consider a traditional PC gaming background. Can you talk about the culture of people who come from that background, who embrace those kinds of games?

KL: I think there's a great creative tension. We have a lot of guys here -- a lot of oldschool Looking Glass guys here. And when I came to Looking Glass, there was definitely a tension, even a transition, going on. I remember the arguments we had on Thief. When I was working on Thief, it was, "Well, should we have mouselook in the game?"

Because there were a lot of people that thought, "No, you don't have mouselook, and there should be inventory screens..." and Thief almost didn't have weapons equippable by the number keys, and almost didn't have mouselook, because there was certainly an oldschool/newschool thing going on.

And I was certainly involved in that creative tension there, of figuring that out. How do you keep that -- for all the things that made those games great? While making it something that an audience that's used to the standards of modern games is going to enjoy?

But I think if you don't read the classics, it's hard to write new classics. And, so, we read the classics here. There's no doubt that we read the classics. And I think, sometimes, the challenge, more, with some of the oldschool guys, is, "Hey, look at the new stuff as well!" But I think it's good, though, because we have a mix.

And we have a lot of younger guys coming in, newer guys coming in, who don't know the classics -- and the challenge for them is saying, "Go read the classics! Go play System Shock 1 or 2, or go play Deus Ex. Go play these classics." But then let's take the lessons we learn from those things, and bring them into the modern day.

And I think it's not an accident. You look at the great developers now? Of console games? Bungie, and Lionhead. You look at BioWare; you look at Bethesda; and where do they all come from? They come from the PC side. Valve? They come from the PC side.

Because, I think the PC developers, working in the space they worked in, they were probably in a lot of ways -- not all ofthem, I mean, Shigeru Miyamoto, clearly, I think, is probably the most innovative person who ever lived, in the gaming space -- but, more innovative, pound for pound, than their console counterparts.

And then when they came over to the console side, they brought a lot of, I think, what made PC games great, in terms of, "Hey! This is your game, not our game! This is the user's game! This is the game for you! You want music on or off? You want to skip cutscenes? You want to play different difficulty levels? You want to have different modes that let you replay the game differently?" All of those things that came from the PC side are very much in the DIY part of playing a PC game, we brought over to the console side.

Also, I think, the maturity of some of the experiences. You know, you had things like Thief; you had things like Planescape: Torment; you had things like Half-Life on the PC side, which I think were more sophisticated narrative scene-wise, than on console counterparts at the time. All of that maturity came over, was brought over from the PC side. Now it's the console side, and most of my favorite console developers came from the PC world.

Ithink one of the things that made BioShock really successful was that it had a lot of hooks into it at different angles for different people. I'm not an FPS gamer, but I really enjoyed it on an aesthetic level, and on a narrative level -- whereas some people, obviously, really like to just shoot, and really get into the gameplay of it. How do you ensure that you have people with different perspectives to offer on these issues? How deliberate is that?

KL: I think it mostly came out of, originally, not so much a thought-out process -- just things that interest us here. You know, like I'll sit around with Nate, or Shawn, or Bill, or Joe, and we'll talk about -- you know, the stuff we talk about. Whether it's religion, or politics, or movies, or books.

We also just sit around and watch stupid YouTube videos, too, so I'm not trying to present us as more intellectual than we actually are -- but I think that a lot of people have a lot of interests here. And that naturally works its way [in]. The people we hire tend to have a fairly broad range of interests.

And then, there are things that I've been wanting to demonstrate to my parents, over the years, that they didn't waste their money on my liberal arts college education. So I prove to them that the degree was worth it. Making BioShock was one of those things that allowed us to bring all those things together.

I think our surprise came not from the fact that we did this game called BioShock, but it's more from the fact that the audience was as accepting of it as they were. I think it says something about the gaming audience. I think it says something -- that people underestimate the gaming audience.

I think you're seeing a change in tone -- and I'm not attributing that to BioShock-- but I think you see a change in tone over the past few years, of whenever they used to put out an article about video games in the New York Times, th eheadline would be like, "Pew Pew! Pow Pow! Video Games Make a Hit!" and they'd have an article about stupid kids playing video games.

But now, I think, if you look at the topics-- there were articles about BioShock, certainly, in the New York Times, and Washington Post; and articles about Mass Effect, and the moral choices there. And games in general have started to take on a wider range of respect.

And I care less about that respect than I do about the fact that I think our audience is able to vote with their wallets, to some degree, about what they're interested in. The kind of themes that they want -- whether it's underwater Objectivist utopias in BioShock, or the history of the Crusades with Assassin's Creed. Or whatever they're playing.

There's a broader range of issues that they're interested in, and they're interested in engaging in those topics in a medium they enjoy, which is video games. Which is in a medium that isn't yet fully approved by politicians, or fully approved by parents, or fully approved by anybody. It's our medium. It's the medium of the generation that we came from, and we're telling stories, and we're dealing with topics that we want to deal with, in the way we want to deal with them. Without any guidance from anybody.

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